As a performance poet I believe it is exciting and perhaps even necessary to look at what has come before. In such a way you might be inspired in ways you’d never imagine. I can’t remember how I got into the sound poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, but this poem is a response to that.
Performed live at Satellite of Love, January 2023, Bristol. Photos by Marius Grose.
In 2018 I toured the fringes and festivals of the UK with my show ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. It was something of a gamble at the time to write and rehearse an hour long poem which took me away from the comedy and whimsy and into a strange territory of myth, folk-lore, atmosphere and storytelling. The show had taken a few years to write, from around 2015, and almost a whole year to learn. I was hugely pleased with the outcome and I got the chance to perform it everywhere from Edinburgh to London, the GlasDenbury Festival to Surrey, and then with a live jazz band in Totnes. It is the piece of work which I’m proudest.
Performing the show was a weird experience. Over the Edinburgh fringe, I suddenly became aware that the characters were almost friends, and that I would look forward to performing them again when their part of the show arrived. Indeed, it was something of a shame when the run ended and I felt genuinely sad not to perform these characters for a while. Almost immediately I began to think of a possible sequel to the show, yet I knew that it would not be the same because I didn’t want to spoil the mythology that I had built up around the show. ‘
‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’ took place on a sleeper train heading north, filled with circus performers, and stalked by the mythological entity the Neon Yak, loosely based on the folklore tales of Herne the Hunter. I decided that a follow up show would have a similar structure, (characters telling their tales), but I wanted to go deeper and move the focus of the show to the actual situations in which these characters found themselves. I wrote three new pieces and also ‘borrowed’ the long poem ‘Bulk Carrier’ from my 2018 book Zebra, and then wrote a kind of framing narrative to bind all of these together. I envisaged an LGBT astronaut, flying to Venus, being consoled throughout his long journey by stories which would remind him of the importance of his community, until the final story details his own adventure when he finally gets to the planet.
The individual sections which make up the show could easily stand alone as performance pieces: ‘Bar Code Blues’ takes place in a supermarket in the 1990s with a character who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. ‘Bulk Carrier’ takes place on a container vessel in the middle of the ocean which is haunted, (Why not?), by the ghost of Marcel Proust. ‘Much Ado About Muffins’ is a modern retelling of the Shoemaker and the Elves, taking place in a bakery which refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding. And the final piece, ‘Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus’, takes the astronaut to a planet where every desire and hope are granted.
And as a special link to its predecessor, the voice of Ground Control is none other than Tony, previously the Train Manager from ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. A change of career, perhaps, but he’s lost none of his humour.
I’d hoped to perform the show all over the UK during 2020, but world events put paid to that. With a show already written for 2021 and the publication of my new book to tie in with it, I knew that Electric Dragons would probably have to be mothballed for quite some time. So this autumn I set about making it into an audio play, a monologue delivered with musical interludes and sound effects, which I might unleash on the world this Christmas.
It’s been an amazing journey working on this show. Obviously, it’s a shame that it didn’t get to see the light of day in 2020. But without the constraints of having to fit the show into an hour slot, I was able to stretch my legs a little with the audio version. I do hope you will like it, and let me know what you think of it.
00.00: Lift Off! Voyage of the Starship Poopscoop 06.23: Bar Code Blues 22.00: Bulk Carrier 33.26: Much Ado About Muffins 49.30: Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus
If she’s a real dentist then I’m a ring-tailed lemur. The artifice lies shrouded over her like London smog, Lab-coat shod and glasses from the props box. So earnest in her opinions, delivered Slightly to the left of the camera to a non-existent interviewer About how various experts recommend A certain leading brand, But you can see it in her eyes, There’s no passion, she doesn’t live for teeth, She doesn’t dream of cavities, Gum disease does not excite her.
And God says, ‘Lighten up.’ And she says, ‘Go pro’. And God says, ‘Lighten up’. And she says, ‘You can feel the difference’.
She’s persistent, I’ll give her that. But he’s omniscient. Her lab coat is sparkling Unbelievably white Subconsciously saying to the viewer, ‘Our toothpaste must be good. It must be. It really must be’. Not a mark on it.
God hasn’t got time for this. He’s got an earthquake to set off In twenty minutes In order to punish a small town in Italy Because parliament has been Debating gay marriage. God’s a bastard like that.
‘Ninety nine percent of dentists Recommend this brand’, She says, And God rolls his eyes because Thirty eight percent of statistics are just Someone speaking out of their arse.
Without the lab coat, she could be anyone. A soap opera background lurker, a corpse in a Detective morgue, (Not a flinch as the grizzled flatfoot Leans forward and finds a strand of hair on her chin, Breaks the case wide open, ‘We got him!’), Didn’t I once see you extolling the virtues Of equity release during the advert break on Countdown? Those silken tones and that winning smile last week Ever eager To flog J. Arthur Bowyer’s Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost, And now apparently you’re a dentist too! God smells a rat, and he should know, He invented them.
Dazzle with brilliant whiteness thy lab coat sublime, Thou shalt not question the ways of Thy lord and master, Removes ninety percent of most plaque, Thou shalt not Covet thy neighbour’s WiFi. Oh dear god, It’s all one meaningless slogan After another.
Do you need those glasses? Or is it cultural appropriation of the near-sighted? Frames bolder than a Brian Blessed bellow, And that clipboard. Just keeping tabs on everything, eh? These are the questions I’d Ask of God, along with, Why should we worship you? Are you really so starved of attention, Affection, love, That every now and then you’ll afflict some Poor kid from the back of beyond to a horrible disease Just to receive a bounty of prayers? Are you really so sensitive? There’s a leading brand for that.
And I? I have an easily-triggered gag reflex. Just when the dentist is in up to their elbows, I start making a noise Like a clunky gear change on a Ford Escort, And you know what’s coming, That lab coat ain’t gonna stay pristine, baby. The moment I find a dentist where I don’t Start calling for Huey, They’ll probably put up a plaque.
I said to the dentist, Why do you always look So down in the mouth? At least you get to the Root of the problem. A golfer came in and said, ‘Most of my teeth are fine, But I’ve got a hole in one’. As I say, I’ve got an early-triggered gag reflex.