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How I’ve changed as a performer

I had a lovely gig in Bristol the other week. The venue was a theatre on an old lightship in the harbour. It was moored to the quay almost totally static but even so I kept lurching sideways. The boat wasn’t even rocking, it was probably just something psychological going on deep within me. Boat = movement. What a nob, I expect people thought.

I’d fretted a lot over my set for the gig. I often get Set Fret but this was something else. I wanted to do some of my old bangers, of course, but I also know that I can’t keep hold of them forever, and that the new stuff has to be unleashed on the world at some point.

But there’s also another thing going on. Over the last couple of years I’ve begun to assess what it is that I like in a performance and I’ve been trying to translate that to what I do on stage. Humour and timing, of course, are things I’ve always had an eye on, and hopefully been got at, but lately there are one or two thinks that I’ve been tinkering with because, well people change over the years, don’t they?

One of these things is volume. I’ve begun to appreciate volume. Or rather, I’ve begun to appreciate it less.

Maybe I’ve been watching too many Ivor Cutler videos. Or Bob Newhart. Or, come to think of it, almost all the people I watch for enjoyment. Laurie Anderson. Edith Sitwell. Alan Bennett. They’re all quiet, somewhat reserved, and seldom loud. Yet they’re funny and they’re clever and I want to be both of those things. I’ve been to plenty of poetry gigs where the poet - and it’s usually a young man, though I don’t want to develop stereotypes- suddenly starts bellowing into the mic halfway through a poem. That sort of thing’s not for me. I’d feel I was bullying. If you’re going to shout, then at least stand back from the mic. I feel it also changes the dynamic of a performance from enjoyment to hostility. I know that some people may enjoy this, and may appreciate this in a performance, because a performance is what it is and what we’re all there for, but we’re all different, and hooray for that. For me, though as soon as a performer starts shouting, I feel that I want to Get Out Of There. So I come away from these performances hoping that I don’t annoy people in the same way.

So this means that I’ve been trying to adopt a more relaxed, conversational tone when delivering my linking material. And I’ve been working hard at this, because it’s hard, after a lifetime adopting something of a more performative tone. But I’ve been having a bash at it. Here’s my little secret as to how I’ve been conditioning myself to be slightly more conversational and less forced: I start my set with the words, ‘Hello, there’. It’s impossible to be loud or forced when the first thing you have said is, ‘Hello, there’. And if I feel myself getting more forced or desperate or less conversational, then I say to myself, ‘Hello, there’.

One of the other things I’ve been concentrating on is sex. No, not in that way. I mean, the sexual content of a set and the effect that this, too, has on an audience.

In the early years of my comedy poetry career, I relied quite a bit on content of a sexual nature. Naturally, this was a comedic version of sex, performed (the poem, I mean), by someone who you’d think was probably not very good at it, and therein lay the humour. Indeed, my first collection with Burning Eye, ‘Nice’, was about relationships and more specifically, sex, in the most part. I remember someone writing in a copy of it that had found its way into a poetry library in Manchester, ‘Not nearly enough mention of sex’.

The thing is, I was in my thirties when I wrote some of those poems, and possibly just about passable enough to seem naive and comfortable with such relationships. But now I’m very nearly fifty and the idea of me being on stage talking about sex seems, well, creepy. I’m aware that many in the audience will be thinking the same thing.

I’m not alone with this idea. I was chatting with an LGBT performance poet who’s much higher up the spoken word ladder than me, and he was saying that he is going through a similar process of removing the sexual content from his sets because, as he gets older, he feels it less and less appropriate. I felt that this vindicated the unease I also feel these days of standing at the mic and talking about orgasms and the such. It also maximises the humour when I might mention something vaguely sexual during a set.

So it feels that I’m becoming much more mature as a comedy poet, and gosh, that’s taken it’s damn time. I’m more aware of the audience and more aware of what it is which makes me feel, after a performance, that I’ve done something I can be proud of. This has come about through several years of studying what it is that people laugh along with (as well as laugh at). It also means, hopefully, that I’ll not be stereotyped, just like the words written in that copy of Nice.

We all change. In fact, that was the subject of my very first solo show, ‘Static’. But right now, I’ve never felt so relaxed as a performer, and so at one with my material. Another friend of mine, the American fringe performer Dandy Darkly, once said to me that you can be as silly and as weird as you want to be, so long as you do it with conviction, and that’s definitely what I’ve been aiming for of late.
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Gom – A sound poem performed by Robert Garnham Live in Bristol

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.

Gom, Bristol 2023
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Robert Garnham @ Satellite of Love, Bristol, January 2023 – Full Set

Had a wonderful time headlining at Satellite of Love, a poetry night in Bristol which takes place in a theatre inside a decommissioned light ship in the harbour at Bristol.

You can hear the full set here:

Photos by Marius Grose http://photography.mariusgrose.co.uk

https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

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Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus – An Audio Solo Show about LGBT history.

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

https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

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Toothpaste Adverts Dental Expert Argues with God

Toothpaste Adverts Dental Expert Argues with God

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.

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Coffee Shop – Poem in the style of Dame Edith Sitwell

Coffee shop

Breakfast bap in a non-stop coffee shop
Mocker mocha joker taking calculated pop shots
Nutty roast flapjacks fluffy most backpack
Flat pack sad sack I bet he drives a hatchback
Souped up car drives it far have a pain au chocolat
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Costa roaster boaster toasting toast in Costa’s toaster
Toasting roasted roasting roasts on the table use a coaster
Barista sister kissed her gets a blister from the steamer
Throw a plaster to my sister better duck oh good it missed her
Get a cup o’ cappuccino fill it up with roasted beano
From the coffee roast costa boaster toasted coffee cuppa hoster
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Steam spewing steamer spewing stream stewing cleaner
With a skinny latte somewhat leaner steaming customer less keener
Cream topped coffee toffee syrup frothy coffee
With a hot milk steamer up his nose let’s out a cough, he
Raises up his china mug he sips his coffee from his lip
Though his coffee drips from his lips think I’m gonna be sick
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Drip fed filter throws barista off a kilter
Puts a filter on the filter done without a sense of guilt, her
Shaky hand means Some’s a-spilt speaks so softly with a lilt, her
Filter coffee has gone off she leaves a sediment of silt, her
Queue grows longer like a conga and its winding and its snaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.
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Flurgen

Poem

Flurgen the Viking lay on the floor of the house
A spear sticking from the middle of his back.
Bloody hell, who did this?

My friend Mark has bet me ten quid that
I couldn’t incorporate the number 12 bus timetable
Into this poem.

Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.
Flurgen the Viking dead on the floor.
Whoever pulls the spear from his back
By Icelandic law
Has to avenge his death.

0723 Brixham Town Square
0724 Brixham New Road
And every twelve minutes thereafter.

Will it be Erik Jansen?
Will it be Jan Ericsson?
Will it be Ethel Shufflebottom?
She’s not from round these parts.
0726 Brixham Monksbridge Drive

I don’t know what happened
To the man who was meant to
Come and fix my door.
I don’t even care what happened.
I just want some closure.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.

Ethel yanks the spear.
That’ll do to train my runner beans, she says.
But now you have to avenge the death of Flurgen,
Points out Jan Ericsson.
Can’t be arsed with that, she replies.
0729 Churston Village.

I work in a shop
Which sells ornamental horses
This morning I sold three on the trot.
I said to the bloke,
You wanna box for that?
He knocked me out in Round Two.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.

0730 Churston Village School

Ethel that’s a fine spear you’ve got there.
Shame about Flurgen.
0731 Churston Village.
The bus is going backwards!
My brother’s got a police record.
It’s Every Breath You Take.
He played it on a old gramophone.
Wow, I said, that’s an old gramophone.
Is it a wind-up?
No, he said, it’s real.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.
I work in a shop
Which sells ornamental horses.
He knocked me out in Round Two.
0733 Windy Corner.
Get up, Flurgen, for goodness sake.
The bus is going backwards!
I just want some closure.

In a misty glen Ethel
Came across the miscreant.
Did you kill Flurgen Flurgenssen?, she asked.
Yes, he said.
She gave him a damn good frowning andf said,
0734 Broadsands Library
Except for Bank Holidays
She said
How come the Three Musketeers
Are called the Three Musketeers
When there’s four of them
And they don’t use muskets?
She said
0735 Cherrybrook Drive
She said
Hey Mark that’s ten quid you owe me
She said
ABBA were being stalked
By Hank Marvin and his band.
Won't somebody help me chase the shadows away?


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Christmas Eve with my Grandparents

There was always something special about the house where my Grandparents lived. On a wooded hill to the west of London, in winter the back bedroom window looked out over the whole of the city right the way from Heathrow to Canary Wharf and if you looked close enough you could see the fins of the aircraft winding their way between the hangars, the motorway signs of the M25, and maybe I’m just imagining it, but the lights of Piccadilly Circus. Actually, I’m probably just imagining that last one.

          The front windows looked out over dense woodland. Dense, creepy woodland which in my imagination went on and on and housed bears, wolves, ghosts, and extended all the way to the Arctic. I was a pretty imaginative kid. The woods actually ended after a couple of miles with a golf course. But it’s always fun to paint such vivid pictures.

          The thing about my Grandparent’s house was that bits had been added on the back over the years, so that what once had been a two up, two down cottage was now a two up, six down jumble of rooms one built on the back of another, so that it was always an adventure as a kid making your way from the front living room to the toilet, passing through five different doors and feeling as if one were getting further and further away from planet earth.

          But it was a house where I always felt happy and comfortable, because it seemed like the sort of place where nothing bad could ever happen. There was a jumble of outbuildings at the bottom of the garden, one of which was Grandad’s magical workshop which had lathes and drills and drawers and a workbench and blueprints and I imagined him pottering away like the mad inventor that he probably was, and how I would later become a similar mad inventor, except with words. Perhaps.

          The best day of the year was Christmas Eve. We would go to visit my Grandparents and the dark woods would kind of hold a romance within them, and the lights of London would twinkle like stars, and halfway through the evening, Gran would go to the kitchen and come back with sausage rolls baked in the oven, severed on her famous ‘silver salver’, and to be, this felt the most festive time of the year. And we’d chat, and Grandad would get merry on his whiskey, and my sister and I would sit on the floor and have cola, and it seemed such the most perfect night of the year.

          It’s probably my Grandad that I most resemble. We both wear the same kinds of glasses and I found a photo of him the other day where he was wearing clothing remarkably similar to that which I wear on stage. Grandad was a mild, quietly-spoken man who would make a room crack up with just a soft-spoken phrase or one-liner. He was kind of a mix of Ronnie Barker and George Burns, and I miss him every day even though he passed away in 1995.

          ‘Have you been waiting long?’, I remember my gran once asking.

          ‘No, not at all’, he’d replied. ‘I watched the sun go down, and I watched the Moon come up’.

          Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I’ll be off to my mother’s in Brixham. And tomorrow night, she will bake some sausage rolls and we’ll be using that same silver salver. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up with every year.

          The following poem is taken from my book Woodview, the first third of which is about life growing up in that house on the hill in the woods.

Christmas Eve on Knowle Hill

In this room sing the memories of moments,
of spiced pies and flames a flicker,
frost sipped from removed overcoats which
smell of cross city trains, junctions,
winding B roads to this wooded hill
and a cottage barricaded against forest intensity.

Glimmer stars glimpsed between bare branches,
curtains drawn. The city lights undulating
on waves of cold, curtains drawn.
Ramshackle architecture, bits added on, the
kitchen with the oven through labyrinths of dark
passageways, rooms locked against the winter,
curtains drawn.

A spindly tree with multicoloured lights
and baubles on the picture tail, tinsel
twisting as heat rises from the gas fire.
A draught under the living room door.
Can you smell the sweetness of the city?

Come in.
I hum this festive murmur of jovial
whisky warmth, sausage rolls, a silver salver,
seasonal serviettes and a quiet magic in the
woodland mysterious, this love we have
for moments and memories past.
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Yay! Recorded live in the stock room of a shop

The thing was, I was fed up with lugging props around the various fringes and festivals. That was the crux of the issue. Each year I would devise a new solo show and each year I’d promise myself that it would be a simple affair, and within weeks I had incorporated so many props, costumes and technical details into the show that it couldn’t possibly be performed without a big box of paraphernalia. Which is not what you need when you have to run for trains or make your way from Devon to the Edinburgh fringe.

          2019 was when things got just too much. That year, I had a show all about tea. The show was called ‘Spout’. ‘Spout’ could only be performed with: a tea pot, a cup, a saucer, a tea caddy, a box of drawstring teabags, a tea cosy, an iPad which had all the various sounds, music and cues stored on it, a Bluetooth speaker, some juggling balls, a large pad of paper with a word search written on it in sharpie, and a tray on to which I had glued another teapot, another cup, another saucer, a milk jug and a sugar bowl, so that I could dance around the stage without them falling off. So once you add luggage for a week in Scotland, merchandise to hopefully sell, and everything else which I normally travel with, you can see that performing the show was more like moving house.

          And then on the way back from Edinburgh, someone stole my luggage. Sure, I had my box of props, but the tea cosy was in the suitcase which got stolen. The tea cosy was actually a proper hat knitted and created by the artist Hazel Hammond, and I think I was more upset about this than the fact I’d lost all my clothing. And that’s when I decided, the next show will have no props!

          No music, either. No complicated cues. No background beats. It would just be me and the audience with no embellishment whatsoever. Something about this felt pure. It felt real. It felt grown up.

          In 2020 I started work on the new show. I decided that it would tie in with my new book, published by Burning Eye. I decided that the show would feature only poems from the new collection. Which I knew would make the writing somewhat limited, but I was determined to get it done. 

          Each one of my shows was inspired by something or someone during the planning process. My first show, Static,  (2014), was heavily influenced by the work of performance artist Laurie Anderson. In the Glare of the Neon Yak (2017) was influenced by storytellers such as Dandy Darkly. And when it came to the Yay show, I was busy looking at the work of singer David Byrne, and storyteller Spalding Gray. Spalding’s only prop was often just a table which he sat behind. And Byrne’s American Utopia stage show concentrated on choreography and movement. These were the two things I was watching or reading about during the creative process.

          I also read a book about creating solo work, and it suggested keeping a diary. Aha, I thought. Now that’s something I can definitely do. I thought I’d forget about the diary, but it actually helped with the creative process because it pushed me to do something which I could then write in the diary as proof that I was making some kind of progress.

Naturally, at the time I had no idea that this period of creativity and rehearsal would coincide with various lockdowns, pandemic mandates, and the whole paranoia and psychological malaise which these brought to the art industry. At some moments I wondered if I would ever get the chance to perform the show. As it is, with a bit of luck and some nifty admin, I managed to perform Yay twice in 2021, as well as perform it to a completely empty theatre for the benefit of a filmmaker, so that people could view the show online during lockdown.

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Bad Pint

Bad pint 

‘To be honest’, he says, ‘I really can’t remember getting home last night ‘.

         And there he is, standing in the doorway of my flat, and he’s saying this with what almost amounts to a hint of jubilation in his voice. It’s New Year’s Day. And he obviously did get home last night.

          ‘Didn’t your brother give you a lift?’

          ‘He might have done, yeah, but . . . You know, I’m never drinking again. Well, not for a bit. Time for a dry January’.

          It’s four in the afternoon and he’s obviously just got up.

          ‘I must have had a bad pint or something’.

          ‘There’s no such thing as a bad pint. It’s just an urban myth’.

          ‘Mum used to say all the time, whenever I got like this, that it’s a bad pint. That’s what does it. Ask anyone’.

          ‘It’s a euphemism’.

          ‘A new what?’

           ‘Euphemism’.

           ‘They should get Health and Safety to look into these breweries. All these bad pints. Oh, my head!’

          He comes in and sits down in my armchair.

          ‘Ohhh, I think I’m going to be . .’.

          I hold the waste paper bin under his nose.

          ‘It’s ok’, he says. ‘I’ve swallowed it’.

          ‘Dear god!’

          I look at him, sitting there. He’s wearing his t-shirt and shorts, the clothes that he wears when he’s in bed. At least he had time to change out of the clothes that he had been wearing. I look at him, with his features that look like the face of a teenager has been grafted on to the frame of a sixty year old.

          ‘Can you remember midnight?’ I ask.

          ‘No’.

          ‘The fireworks woke me up’.

          ‘You were asleep?’

          ‘Yes’.

          ‘Jeez. You’re such a party animal’.

          ‘But you had a good time, though?’

          ‘I can’t remember’.

          I look out of the window. It was a mild, overcast afternoon. I can see people walking past to the park at the end of the street. I live in the ground floor flat directly beneath his. I knew that he was asleep because I couldn’t hear him moving around. I couldn’t hear his television, either.

          ‘Do you want something to eat?’

          ‘Urghhhhh’.

          He puts his hand right over his eyes.

          ‘Never drinking again. Too many bad pints’.

          His brother also lives in the same building. When the fireworks had started at midnight, his brother had gone outside and started up his car, and then he had just sat there for a bit, watching the fireworks from behind his windscreen. His rear brake lights had lit up my flat an otherworldly red as the new year came in. I must have gone back to sleep just after he had driven away.

          ‘I think maybe it might be a good idea for you to go off the booze for a little while’, I say to him.

          ‘I told you! It was a bad pint! And anyway, I’m doing the dry January thing. Not that I need it. Don’t you listen?’

          ‘I know, but you’re never serious about these things’.

          ‘Bucket’, he says.

          I reach for the waste paper bin again.

          ‘Swallowed’.

          His mother had thought we were lovers. I’ve never told him this, because I knew he’d go off on one. And when I’d told her that we weren’t, at the time that she was seriously ill and only a few days away from dying, she had told me that I should look after him. Make sure that he was okay. And I’d said, yes, I will. And that’s why I’d had been relieved, the night before at midnight, when I’d heard his brother get in the car at midnight.

          ‘I was thinking of going for a walk’, I say.

          ‘Urghhhhh’.

          He clamps his hand right over his eyes, tightly.

          ‘Work, tomorrow’, I whisper.

          ‘I know’, he says. ‘Bad pint . . .’.

          He gets up and shuffles towards the door.

          ‘Let me know if you need any food’, I tell him.

          ‘Yeah’, he says.

          ‘Yeah, you do, or yeah, you don’t?’

And then he’s gone, and it’s a happy new year, and the kids are going past on their bicycles and skateboards to the park at the end of the road, and the sun is already beginning to set, and his brothers car is still there where he’s parked if the night before, after he had brought him home.

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On the Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose – The Best Example of Antarctica Literature ever written.

ON THE SILKEN BREATH OF A PENGUIN IN REPOSE

When I heard that the great literary extremist Professor Zazzo Thiim was holding a symposium on the use of alliteration in Antarctic literature, I knew I just had to attend.

      I knew that getting to the venue in the first place was in itself was a hard enough job; the convention was to be held in a remote hotel in the mountains which, in the middle of winter, would be cut off from the world by snow drifts, and sure enough, when the week of the convention came, the only way to get to the hotel was by walking the last two miles. As the darkness gathered around me, and large

fiakes of snow began to fll from the black, black sky, I gripped the handle of my suitcase and made my way up the track into the wilderness.

          It must have taken a couple of hours to make the journey, and when I arrived at the hotel I was feeling irritable and uncharitable to say the least. My eyes were blinded by the motion of the snow as it had flown across my vision, and my fingers numbed from gripping the case for so long. The first thing I did was to dump my bags next to the reception desk and sit next to the roaring fire, in order that I may thaw my aching bones and curse my stupidity at having set out on such a journey in the first place. Yet only the one thought, of any substance, kept coming to me as I sat there in the orange glow: after all this effort, this had better be worth it.

          I soon became aware that an old man was sitting next to me and, after a while, he asked if I was there to see Zazzo Thim.

          “Yes”, I replied, “Though I am now beginning to wonder if I have made a mistake.”

          The old man wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck and gave a chuckle. “I can assure you that the convention will be well-managed and adequately attended for my needs, for I, myself, happen to be Zazzo Thiim”.

          “What makes you so sure that it will be so well-attended?” l asked. It was snowing heavily outside now, and the hotel did not seem to be bursting with guests.

          “The subject in itself”, the old man said, smiling gleefully. “Who could fail but be enchanted by such a subject? Antarctic literature, let me remind you, is an expanding genre. I expect there shall be quite a rush tomorrow morning for seats”. 

          At this, he looked first left, and then right, and then whispered to me in a severe, confidential tone: 

          “It’s quite possible that some people might not be allowed in’.

          At once l felt bad. How close l had been in deciding not to come, yet others might not have been so foolhardy. I knew that there would probably be a limited attendance as it was, yet Thiim was sure that there would be more. I felt a sinking sensation inside of me, the dejection he might feel on walking into the conference centre that next morning only to see myself sitting there.

          “I can assure you”, I told the old man, “That we shall all be thoroughly enlightened”

          I went to my room and changed for dinner. I decided that I would enjoy myself, and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, yet the restaurant was virtually empty, with the exception of a table on the far side of the room where Professor Zazzo Thiim slurped, quite noisily, his soup. Every now and then I would look over at him and feel a well of pity deep in my stomach, and I soon decided that something would have to be done. But what could I do? As the waiters kept moving past, as if gauging whether or not we had finished, a plan began to formulate in my mind that I could, somehow, interest other people in the subject of Antarctic literature and perhaps even bribe them into attending. But the plan seemed hopeless, even fanciful.

          After dinner I went for a walk outside in the snow. The mountains loomed, black shapes and shadows in the night sky, while gentle flakes fell from above, illuminated by the lights from the hotel. A frost was setting in, and the ground crunched with each footstep. At last l came to one of the chalets, and I was just about to turn around and head back to the main building when the door opened and Zazzo Thiim himself emerged.

          “Ah!”, he said. “It’s you! Come in, come in, we shall discuss literature!” Feeling awkward at this sudden invitation, I tried to formulate some reason why I might go back, when all the time I advanced towards his cabin. “What a brave, hardy soul”, he said, “To be out on a night like this!” He held the door open for me and I entered the chalet.

          It was warm inside and a fire blazed in the hearth. He motioned that I sit down, and before long he was telling me about his interest in Antarctic literature.

          “I have always been interested in a young writer of Norwegian descent, Petter Jansen, a writer of such talent and deftness of touch. He would describe the harsh winters of his homeland and the very essence of being in the snow, a subject I would find most glamorous in comparison to my lowly upbringing. As soon as I could I decided I would seek out Jansen and learn from him the craft of story-telling, of descriptive language and other literary ideals. Only, according to those who worked in the book industry, Jansen was working in the Antarctic, at a research station near the South Pole”.

          “Armed only with protective clothing and a set of his works, I joined an expedition by ski-mobile in the middle of the Antarctic summer. The nights were cold and the days long, the sun never seemed to leave the sky, and all the time I was filled with so many questions, so much I wanted to ask. His characters, you see, were fragile beings, brittle, like flowers left too long in the frost, and I wanted to find out why he spent more time describing the weather than he did the emotions and sensibilities of his characters. There were other questions, too: why he

should have spent all his life in cold places, when surely he could have lived anywhere on the royalties from his volumes, and why he had given up writing fiction only to work as a research scientist in the South Pole.

          “On the tenth day we reached the Norwegian research station and I was privileged enough to meet Jansen. He was not what l had expected; of course, in the years since he had been published he had become an old man, and he sported the most wondrous beard, which almost reached down to the middle of his chest. He had a gruff accent, a dismissive way of sharing information, and a healthy dislike of anyone, including myself. I followed him as he worked, and watched as he drilled holes in the ice, sank instruments down into packed snow, took readings on electronic devices. He was monosyllabic, non-committal, and despite

everything, I started to wonder if I should have been there at all.

          But that night we went to his tent and he shared a bottle of vodka with me. ‘And now’, he said, ‘The real work begins’. Imagine my surprise when he produced from a wooden chest a large manuscript, several thousand pages long, and a pen, whose ink kept freezing and he had to warm by candle-light. ‘What is this?, I asked. He turned to me, wearily, his face lit by oi lamps and the candles, and he said: “This is the finest Antarctic novel ever written. Indeed’, he continued, This is the only Antarctic novel ever written’.

          I watched, silently, as he wrote. And with what devotion! He forsook everything in the outside worid, every distraction, and bent his head over the manuscript, writing with a bare hand, the fingers gripped tightly around the nib. For two hours he wrote, diligently, painstakingly, until his alarm clock buzzed and, of a sudden, he put the pen down, gathered the pages, and placed them back in a wooden chest.

          The next day followed the same routine: scientific work in the daytime, an evening of vodka, then writing by table light. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was there with him – indeed. he almost welcomed my company and the interest I showed in his writing. Finally it came time for me to leave, for my colleagues were due to start the hazardous journey back to the coast, and I decided I would revel in his company for the last time.

          “When he began writing I tried to watch the words as they were formed, but he kept shying away from me, positioning his body in such a way that I could not read what he was writing, and when the alarm clock rang to signal the end of his writing shift, he placed the pen down, the manuscript in the box, and he said to me: “That’s it now. Scram. The experiment is over!’

          ‘How crestfallen I was! It was as if I had been stabbed in the back. I returned to my tent that night feeling hurt, abused, and with a general dissatisfaction not only with Petter Jansen, but with all writers everywhere. That night I could not sleep, and a fierce wind blew up, which rattle the tent and moaned across the barren lands. In the midst of this delirium one thought came and it would not go – that possibly I might sneak into Jansen’s tent and read the manuscript for myself.

          ‘Two hours later the idea still lived with a bizarre logic. I could take the strain no more, and, as the first rays of the sun began to peek over the continental mountains, I left my lodgings, walked across the snow, and let myself into Jansen’s tent. He slept well, and I had managed to let myself in without him hearing. With the wooden box right below me, I had no choice but to open it up and read the manuscript right then and there.

          ‘Oh, the power! “The Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose’ is a work the likes of which I shall never forget! The intense truth, the humanity on display, the concern for a world forever spoiled by man’s eternal folly! The language seemed to ooze like honey poured on from a spoon, and yet the prose was sparse, the words as economical as ice. The book was set in the future, or very slightly in the future, and Jansen himself was a character, a fortune teller who was never wrong. And the final scene, where the mad explorer wipes away a frozen tear to think of the harm his fellow man has done, almost reduced me to an insensitive and indiscriminate howl

of anguish. When I glanced up, I noticed that Jansen was staring right at me.

‘What treachery is this?’, he asked. ‘My private words, spoiled for all time! What is this but an invasion of the lowest order! How dare you spoil these most sacred pages!’

          ‘I had no choice’, I replied. ‘And in any case, such a wondrous work needs an audience. There is much here that might change the world. How selfish can you be if you keep this from those who need it the most? What I have just read is the most intelligent, the most poetic work ever created’.

          ‘You have ruined my work!’, Jansen continued. ‘You have ruined me! We had a trust, you and me, a friendship . . .’.  .. And then he looked at me for a while. ‘Did you really think it was that good?’

          “So we came to an arrangement, right then and there, that I would tell the world about his work, but only if I choose locations and places that would guarantee the audience would be small. And that’s why l’m here now, in the mountains, in the middle of winter, about to host a conference on alliteration in Antarctica Literature. I mean, what kind of sad person would possibly venture all the way out here for such a thing?’

          I looked at the old man and smiled. Professor Zazzo Thiim then cleared his throat. 

          “Apart from you, that is”.

Alas, the conference did not work out exactly as he had planned. I had left messages and notes to most of the staff and the guests of the hotel that the old man needed support, that he would be crestfallen if the conference was overly attended, and that they should do everything within their powers to put off potential attendees, and yet, that next morning, when Professor Zazzo Thiim took to the stage, he was confronted by a hall completely filled with people.

          “Well …”, he said, laughing feebly into the microphone, then wincing as the feedback screeched round the hall. He activated the overhead projector to show a picture of a penguin, which then hung on the wall behind him, solemn, ethereal.

          “There is . .”, he stuttered, “There is, in the power and beauty of.  .  .Huh-huh”.          

          Pleadingly, he looked at me, as if asking that I should remember the reasons why he had decided to hold the conference at this particular hotel. So what else could I do?

While no-one else was looking, I leaned behind me and activated the fire alarms. Everyone got up from their seats and the hall was evacuated in seconds.

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In Search of Lost Thiim

IN SEARCH OF LOST THIIM

The fact is that for some time now Professor Zazzo Thim has been lost, and it is my duty to find him. The manner of his disappearance is, beyond question, one of the most unusual cases I have ever come across. Yet the evidence I have before me, and the testimony of various witnesses, all point to the one conclusion: that Professor Zazzo Thiim is trapped, helpless, somewhere in Marcel Proust’s grand novel, ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’.

          It did not take me long to deduce the basics of this case. Various students and colleagues of the Professor attested that he was busy constructing some sort of grand device in the basement of the institute in which he was employed. Various noises had been heard from the cellar towards the end of each academic day, and strange lights were seen by those leaving the building, orange in hue and regulating a slow rhythm. Those closest to the Professor could not find out from him exactly what it was he was building, though one colleague, Doctor Hermann Spatt, was most helpful in his assertion that the Professor was constructing a device which would, atom by atom, replicate his body as a series of words, and distribute them throughout a chosen text.

          ‘How do you know this?’ I asked.

          Spatt grinned at me from across his desk.

           ‘l asked my dear old colleague. I came right out and asked him. Of course, he was pretty drunk at the time. But he told me what the machine entailed and what would happen to him as a result’. 

          At this, Spatt’s smile faded, and he leaned back in his chair.

           ‘Such a sad waste’, he whispered.

          ‘You must obviously have been close to your colleague’, I said, gently.

          ‘Thiim? Oh no, I couldn’t stand the chap. What I’m sorry about is that a book so wondrous as ‘a la recherche . .’ should be sullied by his ugly mug’.

          The key to the basement in question remained locked and, on account of the strong, fortified doors to the cellar. I quickly deduced that it would take months, possibly years to enter that sacred room. Yet I remembered what Doctor Hermann Spatt had told me, and I set about reading Proust’s epic tome, that I may find some mention within its pages of the eminent Professor Zazzo Thiim.

          The institute was good enough to provide me with accommodation during my stay. It was late autumn, and the trees were almost without their leaves. The paths around the parkland in which the institute is set were slippery, and it seemed the sky was hardly ever anything but a deep grey. 

          Proust’s volumes accompanied me everywhere. I would take walks in the

gardens, or through the woods, with one volume open under my nose and the next thrust under my arm. I would go to the dining hall and sit with the other students, hardly noticing their banter, so engrossed was I in the societal gossip as recorded by the redoubtable Marcel. Even my rare journeys outside of the campus were spent in the company of the Guermantes family, the many minor characters and the overriding sense of times past as recorded in those weighty books. It seemed my whole life had started to revolve around the novel, and I would make lísts of the endless family members, associates and contemporaries of the narrator, but each evening I would sit down and study these lists, safe in the knowledge that none of those mentioned bore the slightest resemblance to Professor Zazzo Thiim.

          At around this time, Doctor Hermann Spatt, with the help of two science students and a Professor in electronics, began to build a machine using the blueprints found in Thim’s empty office which might, when up and running, be able to rescue the Professor from the depths of the accursed novel. The machine started to take shape in a far corner of the institute’s gymnasium, roped off from the rest of the hall by an arrangement of badminton nets, and each lunch time I would call in to see what progress was being achieved. 

          ‘None at all, Spatt said, despairingly. ‘The machine just wont function. It needs more electricity than we are supplied’.

          ‘Then how did Thiim’s machine run so effectively?’ I asked.

          Spatt pushed back the hair from his forehead and let out a deep sigh. “The energy needed to suck a character from a book is ten times more powerful than that needed to throw a character into the narrative. You see, Thiim had the advantage of gravity, but we have nothing, nothing at all’.

          I walked around the machine and looked at it from many angles.

          “It’s looking quite hopeless’, Spatt said, and l swear I saw a tear well in the corner of his eye as he contemplated his missing colleague.

          That night I retired to my room. By now the bed was covered with the six volumes of Proust’s masterpiece. My reading of it was haphazard at best, covering the first three sections of each novel simultaneously, so that my understanding of the plot and the order in which Marcel’s life was playing out was tenuous at best. At worst,I didn’t know what was going on.

          So many dukes, matriarchs, minor members of the aristocracy, childhood memories, subtle, beautiful women with strangely masculine names. That night I fell asleep and found myself in a nightmare, a dark, dismal Paris street where Proustian characters advanced upon me with their arms outstretched, their eyes displaying a frightening malice, humming, intoning some strange, ritualistic prayer which sounded for all the world like Kylie Minogue’s first hit single, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. I woke with a start, frightened into reality yet not trusting the world around me, the darkness of the night, the wind which, ever so gently, was roaring in the trees and stripping them of the last of the leaves.

          I got up and walked to the window. I was dizzy, I was sweating, yet the room was cold. It was as if the natural laws which surrounded and informed us all had ceased, that the earth itself no longer recognised whatever constitutions had kept it going for so many years. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the trees, and the leaves falling, one by one, across the sodium light of a campus street-lamp.

          ‘My God’, I whispered.

          Excitedly, I telephoned Doctor Hermann Spatt immediately. He answered on the third ring, and asked, blearily, what it was I wanted.

          ‘The machine!'”, I said. ‘You remember what you were saying? That Thiim had the benefit of gravity?’

          ‘Hmm?’

          ‘And that we needed more energy because we were sucking a character out of a book, not throwing one in?’

          ‘Yes?

          ‘Then why don’t we just turn the whole machine upside down? Put the machine on the floor and the book suspended above!’

          There was silence on the other end of the line, and then Spatt’s voice cane back. ‘My word!’, he said, ‘You’re a genius!’

          The next morning Spatt, accompanied by his assistants, set to work making the modifications I had suggested, while I, now with the help of three assistants of my own, continued my reading of Proust’s novel. We each took a volume and, starting at the very beginning, ploughed our way through the dense script, using different translations and even the French language original, so that we were working on three separate texts at once. Halfway through the afternoon Spatt rang to tell me that the machine was working perfectly, and all it needed was for me to find Thiim in the novel so that we might rescue him. This news gave us a welcome feeling of progress and we intensified our efforts until, by six in the evening, we were all very tired and our eyes and heads ached.

          ‘Thank you, lads’, I whispered, as they headed towards the door.

          ‘Erm, we were wondering’, said one of them, an amiable young man by the name of Adam. ‘Would you like to come out for a drink tonight?’

          I smiled at their offer, for it was proof that we had gelled as a team. “Thank you, but I would rather maintain my faculties’, I told them.

          Their shoulders slumped.

          ‘And I suggest you do the same, for we need our full concentration if we are ever to find the Professor’.

          Adam smiled. ‘Very well’, he said. ‘We wouldn’t have gone overboard, anyway. Just a couple of drinks and then back home’.

          ‘Thanks once again’, I whispered.

The days were getting shorter, and once I had eaten my dinner, (accompanied, once

again, by the ever-present Monsieur Proust), I went back to my room and prepared for sleep. To be honest, I was beginning to doubt that we would ever find Thiim in this mammoth book, and a part of me was content just to sit back and enjoy the experience of being a small part in such a large, well-funded experiment. Though the more l thought about it, the more desperate l started to become, as I realised that the whole project now depended on me and my abilities  wade through the novel for just the smallest clue. Worse still, I was afraid to sleep, for I knewthat I would be haunted by Kylie once again, that inane, stupid song, 1 Should Be So Lucky!’

Timidly, I retired to my bed.

          At two in the morning I was woken by a fierce pounding on my door. Hardly able to concentrate, I opened the door and blinked in amazement to see Robert de Saint-Loup.

          ‘Do forgive my intrusion’, said he, ‘But I was wondering if you had had word of the Duc de Guermantes?”

          ‘I beg your pardon?’, said I, hardly believing my eyes.

          At that moment M. de Charlus bounded down the corridor and patted Saint-Loup on the shoulder. 

          ‘There you are!”, said he. His eyes then focused on myself, standing in the doorway in a pair of boxer shorts and nothing else.

           ‘Hello!’, he said, twirling his moustache.

          ‘I say!’, said a voice from the end of the corridor. 

          They both looked up and bowed, courteously, as Albertine approached. “Are you not on the way to the Verdurin ball? I proclaim it to be the most whimsical event of the decade!’

          Hurriedly, I shut my door, then went over to the window. Oh, what a scene met my eyes!

          The quiet park was awash with people, elegantly dressed, bowing, nodding, dancing, chatting in the glare of the street-lamp as if they were in a ball or a turn of the century function. And they were all, I was horrified to note, characters from Marcel Proust’s mighty tome.

         I telephoned Spatt and he confirmed my worst suspicions. Some students, drunk of course, had broken into the gymnasium and fiddled with the machine.   

          Instead of pulling the hapless Thiim from the depths of the novel, they had, wantonly and without thought to the effects of their crime, pulled out every other character instead.

          ‘But this is horrendous!’, I whispered.

          ‘There’s no choice’, said Spatt. ‘We must round them all up and post them back into that hideous novel. Do you know what they’re doing now? They’re in the canteen, holding a mass madeleine tasting. This has got to stop!’

          ‘There’s only one way we can get them back into the novel’, I told the Doctor. ‘We must break into the basement and use Thiim’s machine’

          It took the best part of the night to round up all of the characters. Because we had been using three different translations, there were three of each of them, and the three Marcels had met some time after half four and, indignant that their individualities had been compromised, had challenged each other to a duel, (from which, naturally, each one backed out.) Charlus was the worst, and three of his characters had to be retrieved from the public lavatories and from various male student’s bedrooms before they were all accounted for. At last we had rounded them

all up and we were engaged in the act of congregating them around the door to the basement, a tricky act which was achieved only by the entertainment of a piano playing Chopin and the liberal refreshment of champagne. Spatt and I, meanwhile, busied ourselves at the door. The thick oak would not budge to our shoulders, neither to a rudimentary battering ram fashioned out of an old roll-top desk. However, when one of the Robert de Saint-Loups saw what we were trying to achieve, he supplied us with some dynamite which, he assured us, was fresh from the Great War battlefields.

          The following explosion was deafening. Two of the Mme de Verdurins went flying through the air, their stiff petticoats flaying in all directions. At last we entered that hallowed room and saw Thiim’s machine which, somewhat comfortingly, looked not unlike the reverse example we had fashioned in the gymnasium. Yet only now did Spatt and I see the almost fatal mistake that Thiim had made.

          Indeed, the machine functioned well, and had been put together expertly. However, the absent-minded Professor had, one can only assume, accidentally, mistakenly placed within its confines not Proust’s magnificent novel, but a CD of Kylie’s first UK Number One hit, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’

          It didn’t take long for the machine to be put to use. How affectionately we said good-bye to all the characters, who each invited us to various balls and society functions for the following Paris season. When they were all quite delivered, Spatt and I took Thiim’s CD upstairs to the gymnasium, where we placed it on top of the machine and pulled the necessary levers.

          Seconds later, Professor Zazzo Thiim materialised.

          ‘Oh, my word’, he said, feeling his nervous forehead. ‘I was having the time of my life! l’ve never danced so much!”‘

          ‘You realise what you did?’ Spatt asked.

          ‘Oh, the CD? Entirely intentional, my dear friend.

          ‘But that’s preposterous!’

          ‘So many hours I’d spent on that machine, a copy of Proust under my arm. So many years I’d dreamed of meeting those wondrous characters. Yet when it came time to leave I thought long and hard about it . . ‘.

          ‘And?’

          ‘And I realised that I would rather be with Kylie, instead’.

          ‘Good gracious!’

          ‘Well, my dear Spatt. They’re so stuffy, aren’t they? And Kylie’s much more . . . Vivacious’.

          At this, Thiim looked left, then right, then left again.

          ‘And another thing’, he added, confidentially, ‘She’s a much better dancer’.

Alas, the story does not end here. The following week, Kylie’s management refused to confirm that a new version of her original hit single had been mixed, with some quite bizarre vocals by various French dignitaries, mostly concerning the petty discriminations and social faux pas of early 20th Century Paris.

          ‘My god!’, Spatt whispered to me, down the telephone line. ‘We must have sent them to the wrong place!’

Yet not one scholar, student or academic genius happened to notice that Proust’s six-volume masterpiece now seemed not to have a single character left in it at all.

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Zazzo Declares the Death of the Short Story

Between the late nineties and the mid 2000s, I wrote hundreds of short stories. This was a very hectic time in my life, and probably needlessly so. In 2000, I moved into a gothic flat near the seafront in Paignton, almost directly over the road from the shop where I worked. I was studying Open University every morning, getting up at 5, studying 6-9, going over the road and working 9-5, then home, and spending every single evening writing short stories.

On my day off I’d attend a Writers’ Circle and it soon became apparent that the other attendees seemed drawn to my funnier stories. In one story, I invented a character, a professor of literature by the name of Zazzo, and soon the other members of the writers’ circle started saying things like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see what Zazzo gets up to next week!’

My Open University degree was in Literature, so I’d have to watch a lot of videos (it was still videos back then), and listen to lots of cassettes presented by these eccentric academic types who were a million miles away from the milieu in which I moved. I saw Zazzo as belonging to this community, perhaps barely tolerated by his contemporaries, and often shooting off at a tangent, seeing patterns where there were no patterns, narratives where there were no narratives.

Zazzo was a literary investigator. Whenever there was a mystery with a literary element, Zazzo would be there. Skateboarders quoting Shakespeare for no reason? Send in Zazzo! A crab routinely predicting the winner of the Booker Prize every year? Another case for Zazzo! The discovery of yet another Brontë sister? Who do we call? Professor Zazzo!

The Zazzo stories were saved on various floppy discs, and then promptly forgotten about for twenty years. I had no way of accessing them for quite some time, but now, thanks to various technological developments (and some paper versions I recently found), Professor Zazzo has been saved from obscurity!

My life has moved on since those days. I’ve been working as a comedy performance poet since around 2008, and worked on various other projects, so it was a delight to rediscover this strange world. And I really hope you might enjoy reading some of the stories which I shall be publishing on this blog.

ZAZZO DECLARES THE DEATH OF THE SHORT STORY (A SHORT STORY)

As the train pulled into the station, Professor Zazzo Thim felt a twinge within him, deep down where he knew his heart should have been. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t even know why he had come back to this place where, years before he had given an infamous speech in which he had proclaimed the death, as an art form, of the short story.

There had almost been a riot.
But the Professor was a sentimental man, and when he had received, in the depths of the University in which he taught literary experimentalism, a letter from a middle-aged lady who had witnessed him that day, fleeing for his life amid the baggage trollies and the tourists pursued by an angry mob, he knew he had to go back there, just for old times sake.

          And now he was on a train, pulling into that very station, with its vast glass roof and endless platforms.

          How lucky that he had given them the slip all of those years ago, he thought to himself as the train slowly began to slow. Would anybody recognise him now, all these years later?
          The grand old station was the same as it ever was. The glass roof was a dirty grey, matching the overcast skies outside, while the rusted superstructure was plastered with pigeon droppings. Zazzo pulled his coat collar around him as he stepped out of the carriage onto the worn tarmac of the platform. He felt a coldness in the air,  though, an eternal coldness, as if all the emotion from the thousands, the millions of journeys begun and ended here, the lives separated, the people who would never see each other again, had somehow become crystallised and
manifested just in him. The Professor began to shiver.
          She was waiting for him at the exit of the platform, next the aerodynamic train engine which throbbed and sizzled as it recovered from its journey. She recognised the white-haired professor from the photographs on the jackets of his various, little-read volumes on the literature of Greenland and the cultural significance of the Haiku in Guatemala. (Verdict: virtually none at all). She stepped forwards, extended her hand, then helped him with the big bag slung over his which contained the manuscript of his latest novel. They went to the station cafe.
          “We talk about it even now”, she said, over a cup of coffee which steamed gently in the slant of morning light.
          “I didn’t realise it was such a big event “.
          “Big event?” she asked. “It was the only event”.
          The cafe was filled with travellers, youths with backpacks, old ladies with small trollies, all of them static for this one moment in time before they each went their separate ways to the furthest corners of the continent. Behind the counter, the coffee machine let off a cloud of steam which moistened the ceiling, while a small radio played jazz in the kitchen. The saxophone made Professor Thiim feel sad, though he didn’t quite know why. Something about the passing of the years, perhaps.
          “You certainly caused quite a stir”, the woman said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mathilda, and the day I saw you leaping over the tracks while being pursued by that mob, I was employed in the cigarette kiosque. I remember it now, your scarf trailing in the wind, the papers of your speech flying away behind you, the angry mob piling over baggage racks and the ticket barriers, like ants coming back to their colony. Nothing stood in their path! You started a change in me . . .”,  she said, contemplatively.
          “What do you mean?” the Professor asked.

She smiled and looked down at her coffee cup.
“While was working that morning l was listening to your speech. When l saw you set up on the main concourse with a soap box and a sheaf of papers l thought you were just another religious zealot, or maybe one of those hopeless politicians with their fake promises. But when you started speaking about the short story, and speaking so eloquently, l might add, l became entranced. I remember it to this day the way you said that short stories no longer mattered, that we were all philistines
because we preferred trashy novels or the television, that all writers of short stories are, in some ways, the chroniclers of the modern world, capturing moments and emotions in subtle ways which other means can never attain yet entirely forgotten by everyone, and therefore, superfluous, misguided, and entirely fake. l remember the way you used to adjust the scarf around your neck as you talked, your face wrinkled in concentration. I was so captured by this that I completely forgot about my job, and when these people started crowding around you and heckling, I thought, a-ha! He has struck a nerve!”
“It’s nice that you remember”, the Professor said, fingering his collar where the scarf would have been. He remembered the scarf, he still had it at home somewhere.
“So I went home and I started to read short stories. Nothing major at first – romance, a bit of light comedy. Then l professed to Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Checkhov. After a few years I wanted more, so l started on James Joyce, Italo Calvino, old Franz Kafka. Borges came next, of course, the master of them all. And now . . “.
“Yes?” the old man asked, fearfully.
“Now I’m reading Samuel Beckett’
“My word”, he whispered
“And it’s all thanks to you. My life has been enriched by that moment, by the passion and the fury of that one episode. I resigned from the cigarette kiosque, enrolled in university, and I began to acquire literary ideas of my own. Do you know what it means for a character to appear in a short story, for example? The characters believe themselves, for just one moment, to be so important as to be forever captured in the reader’s mind, and lodged there forever. Yet they do not have the longevity, the life-span of characters from, say, a novel. Such animosity exists between them! The moment in which they exist is so precious, so pure and concentrated that they could never last a whole novel with the same intensity. Just look at ourselves – if we two were to last a whole novel, we would be exhausted by the end of chapter three”.
The Professor nodded, solemnly
“I have so many ideas inside of me” Mathilda continued. “And it’s all thanks to you. So when I read a textbook on the use of penguins in the shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf – (in which it was concluded that penguins hardly featured in any of her work) – and I saw that the author was a certain Professor Zazzo Thim, who, years before, had almost been attacked right here at this very station, I thought: ‘l have to find him, I have to thank him personally for the life he has given me”.
The Professor fingered the clasp of his briefcase. He felt so many different emotions.
“I’m glad”, he whispered, above the soft saxophone solo from the kitchen. “That I have made an impact on someone’s life”. He opened the briefcase and took out a manuscript. “In fact, he continued, “I would like you to have this”.
“What is it?” Mathilda asked, laying an expectant hand on her chest.
“My latest academic work, explaining the death of surprise endings in short works of fiction. It is my belief that all surprises have been eliminated, that nothing more can ever be said at the end of a short story which may shock or confound the reader. I have called it, ‘No More The Lonely Badger”.
“I’m touched”, Mathilda said. Zazzo passed the manuscript across the table towards her and she took it in her quivering hands. “No more surprises”, she whispered, reading the sub-heading. “An investigation by Professor Zazzo Thiim”.
“Just one more thing”, he asked. “Why did the crowd react so badly to my speech? Why did they set about me in such a hostile manner? Surely, the people of this city don’t care that much for the short story as to attack me personally, just because of my hypothesis? I thought about it for the last twenty years, l’ve thought about the effect l had and the passion they displayed, see, and it, too, changed my life, it changed my ideas, and I started to devote my life to demonstrating that short stories do make a difference, and l have used the episode as an illustration in lectures, academic works and after-dinner speeches. Indeed, it could be said that my whole career has been based on this one incident! So tell me, why were the crowd so unaccountably incensed?”
“Didn’t you know?”, Mathilda asked. “It was the cup final day. They saw your scarf. They thought you were a United supporter”.

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On performing new material

If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.

          It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.

          I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.

          However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.

          In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral.  For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.

          At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.

          Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.

          My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . .  I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.

          I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.

          I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . .  Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.

          Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.

          I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.

          There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.

          So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.

So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!

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Woodview

You can now order my new collection, Woodview.

The link is right here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/woodview

And below you can see a couple of videos of poems from the book.

These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon. 

But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.

This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.

‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’

(Rodney Wood)

‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’

(Greg Freeman)

‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’. 

(Becky Nuttall)

Featured

Torquay 2, The Other Team 2

Torquay 2 Woking 2

Three hundred or so low guttural individual voices
Combine into a cohesive whole, a chorus of
Feral anticipation as custard coloured titans
Skip on to the pitch, the first among them kind of
Punches limply through a paper hoop
Emblazoned with their team sponsor's logo,
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
Three half-hearted palm slaps and then the paper gives way,
These athletic specimens of masculinity and matching socks,
Shiny blue polyester shorts a-gleam under the spotlights,
Back slaps and star jumps, half-hearted jogging,
While the opposing team, who must have had an
Awfully long bus ride, kind of slouch on to the field,
Mooching along the sides of the pitch like slugs around lettuce.

I'd brought a book to read assuming there would be seats.
Instead I was pressed up against the lanky frame of an
Ever so friendly thought unusually potty-mouthed
A rote of a lad who replica custard coloured shirt
Had last year's sponsor, McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd.,
And who suggested at top column that the home team
Might like to consider breaking the fucking legs of the opposition.
Someone then tried to start a chant going,
'Oh we do like to beat them beside the seaside!
We're gonna beat you by two or three!'
But it kind of got drowned out
To a chant of 'Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Captain Ollie's got great hair!'

I have come with a friend who's there for the football
But also to show me the football and he
Made a kind of grimace when I said I'd brought a book.
The home team did some warm up exercises.
'They're dancing!' I said, 'it's all a bit camp, isn't it?'
Number 32 is just my type, bleach blond hair, stubble,
Long legs and snake hips.
'Coooo-eeeee! Over here! Yoooo-hooooo!'
My pal said, 'He's on loan from Bournemouth'.
I said, 'That's okay, I'd give him back in one piece'.

The stadium announcer extols the virtues of both teams
And attests to the veracity of
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
And the game begins, number 32s elegant fingers splayed
As he dribbles the ball, like he's a ballet dancer,
Or a gymnast balancing on a beam, though even
The home team audience yells that he's a useless
Time wasting tossbag who gets the ball and does fuck all,
Go back to Bournemouth you useless waste of space.
He's got lovely eyes.

The ground rumbles and thuds as they race from one end
To the other, kicking up clods of grass and winning
The applause of the audience who shout encouragement,
These lads in custard who aim at the goal at the other end,
Someone misses a sitter, someone else scuffs it,
And then the ball goes in the corner and two opposing players
Prance and dance around it like Torville and Dean.
My eyes kind of wander off to the other side
Where twenty or so or the away team supporters chirrup
And you can just make out the faded lettering of
Last years sponsor showing through under a new coat of paint,
McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd. is better than any competition.
Only the word 'tit' is still showing.

My pal has already told me in advance
The skill of number 10, whose speciality is
Less the sublime and precocious nature of his craft,
More his knack for falling over at just the right moment,
Now he goes down like a sack of spuds and the
Audience erupts, apparently this is a good thing,
He's allowed to aim a ball at the keeper and boom,
In it goes, I almost spill my cup of tea
As I'm jostled and the lad next to me flings
His arms around my neck, jumps up and down, the
Tea oscillates as I breathe in his Lynx Africa antiperspirant,
I must say I enjoy it a lot.
And now I want number 10 to fall over again.

Wouldn't you know it, he does, never fails to disappoint,
Fortune smiles twice in the low setting sun,
Achilles in his death throes, Icarus mid melt,
Our hero is downfallen and rolling in the mud like a hippo,
The ref's cheek bones prominent as his blows his whistle.
Boom, scores! The audience is enraptured once again,
Another clingy embrace of Lynx Africa,
I'm a cuppa carrying eucalyptus and he's my own personal koala,
Number 32 looks down wistfully as if jealous, I hope,
Oh, I hope, of me and my new found tame delinquent
Who sips a surreptitious beer from a paper bag and
Chinks against my half spilled Darjeeling, cheers!
Caught up in the joy of the moment I attempt to start a chant
Based on the third movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony
But it doesn't take hold.

Really, I'm only here for my pal who's brought me along.
This is his culture and I'm an interloper.
But I want to show that I understand life
Beyond the cliche, broaden my mind and experience
Every nuance of our shared cultural history.
'We're winning ', he says during the interval
As we queue for pies sold from a shed
Next to the unoccupied press box.
'Well, they are', I point out, 'We're just watching'.
I'm taking him to a drag show next weekend.

And then the announcer wants us all to sing happy birthday
For Little Liam, whose favourite player is number ten.
And Little Jimmy, whose favourite player is number ten,
And Little Jack, whose favourite player is number ten,
And he reminds us that we can all vote for the
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost
Man of the Match, which is usually won by number ten.
'I'd like to vote for number 32', I say, perhaps too loudly,
And everyone around me laughs and says how funny,
They love my sense of humour.

Two more goals soon after the interval.
Perhaps the audience has tired itself out,
I'm the only one who seems excited, and my new friend
In the McClintock shirt hardly seems inclined at all
To repeat his usual celebratory hijinx, no doubt
Enervated by his previous exertions and the two litre bottle of cider
Stuffed down the front of his trackie bottoms,
And when the ref calls a halt to the show I pat
My pal on the back and ask whether four nil in some kind
Of club record.
It was two all, he says, they switched ends.
They what?
Why didn't the announcer explain this
Before I got excited over nothing?

Oh, this communal kickabout, this colossal crowd clapping
This unified oneness this matey definitely not homoerotic bonding,
This celebration of the hunter's skill this
All-encompassing rough and tumble this slippery sport a spurt
With spurious curiosities this worship of the physical
This proof of prayer this spectacle this weird excuse
To suddenly bellow 'Nice tackle!' and no one bats an eyelid
This playing out of certain urges but would they ever let me
Join in? No, probably not, and number ten has got mud all over him.

What did you think?, my pal asks
As we file like clocked off factory workers
Into the adjacent streets, not that he's interested really,
Immediately he then adds, shall we get some chips?

I think of number 32
Isolated
In the dressing room.



Featured

Everything

Everything 

The tiny single-engine aircraft was just a dot at first, hovering on the horizon above the fir trees.
‘You got everything?’, Justin asked.
‘Everything’, I replied.
I meant it, too. Condensed into a silver canister which shone in the low sunset.
We watched the aircraft land, kicking up dust from the unmade runway surrounded by deep forest. It came to a rest in front of us.
The pilot hopped down.
‘You boys ready?’, she asked.
‘Yup’.
‘You got everything?’
I held up the silver canister.
‘Ah’, she said. ‘You’re one of those modern sorts . . .’.
We climbed up, Justin and I. There wasn’t much room inside, just as well I had the silver canister. If you didn’t know any better you’d have thought that I was carrying someone’s ashes. Our pilot walked a long way from the aircraft and had a cigarette next to the periphery of the makeshift airfield.
‘I hope she doesn’t set the forest alight with her cigarette butt’, Justin pointed out. ‘The undergrowth is tinder dry . .’.
I’d let him sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I was strapped in, the silver canister on the seat next to me, with our bags and backpacks. Of course, we could have easily left our equipment indoors, in the living room just next to the front door, before condensing them. But there were certain things that we might need on the four hour flight.
Our pilot walked around the aircraft and checked all of the flaps and the rudder and the wings, and then she hopped on board and started the engine. The old craft shook and throbbed.
‘You got everything?’ she asked.
‘Canister!’, I yelled.
She turned us around and we took off with a kick of acceleration, up over the tops of the trees and into the low setting sun. She put on a pair of sunglasses.
‘Dark matter compression?’ she asked.
‘Yes!’ I yelled.
I’d forgotten how noisy aircraft can be.
‘So what do you do with it, just plug it in?’
‘I know it sounds silly’, I yelled, ‘but you add cold water’.
‘It’s amazing what they can do these days’.
‘What?’
‘I said, it’s amazing what they can do these days!’
‘Certainly beats camping’, I shouted, as we banked over a winding blue river. ‘It’s great, too, you know? Sleeping in your own bed every night, even if you’re thousands of miles from home’.
‘Sure’, she said.
She was silent for a bit.
‘The canister . . .’, she said, ‘its watertight, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it to . . You know . . pop open up here’.
Justin changed the subject.
‘Do you know if there’s a florist near the airport?’ he asked. ‘I have to get a bunch of flowers for my mother. It’s something I always do. I promised her, as soon as we landed I would get her some flowers’.
‘Birthday?’
‘No, just a regular gift’.
‘What a thoughtful son you are’.
‘Got to keep her happy’.
The little aircraft’s engine let out a reassuring constant tone. I reached down and rummaged in my rucksack for a plastic bottle of water. Some of it leaked the moment that I took the cap off.
‘For goodness sake!’, our pilot yelled, ‘be careful back there!’

Featured

I can feel a draught in here

Can I feel a draught in here?

All I said was,
Why is it so draughty in here?
And you gave me one of those looks
Like the tosser that you are,
Sprawled akimbo half on the sofa,
Half on the pouffe,
You sports vest attired shag bunny
You king of pungency masked in Lynx Africa
You gymnasium dumbbell botherer whose limbs
Look like the spare parts left over when
Mother Nature has tried to make its first gibbon,
You text speak Netflix modern day lothario
Looks more like Onslow
Whose only cultural refinement is the ability to
Belch the theme tune to Countdown
You harbinger of sloppy sex whose bedroom technique
Feels more like conducting an oil change on a Ford Transit van,
Said,
I can't feel a draught.

And I was apt to point at the curtains
The net curtains the fine lace net curtains
Which were lifting ever so gently away
From the window frame gently swaying net curtains
And I said
What's causing this, what's causing this, eh?
Is it the ghost of Liberace trying to make a grand entrance?
And you didn't get my cultural reference
And thinking back
I didn't know what it meant either.

And furthermore I insisted persisted that
Should I stand there with feather next to the
Obviously ill fitting window frames
A feather whether the feather should
Demonstrate by means of its bristles undulating
Sensuously
Like a naked James Bond opening titles dancer
See them undulating these bristles
Like a naked James Bond opening titles dancer
Who ironically
Would almost certainly feel a draught.

And did I not impinge the possibility
That the curtains should billow so
Undulating billowing curtains ballooning curtains
Swishing whistling billowing curtains
Right in front of the TV screen
That we might
Billowing curtains billowing curtains
Fluttering across the TV screen
Lose sight of the bigger picture?

And thence did I not utter a silent prayer
A private invocation a spell a trance
Hands clasped flat palm on palm
Eyes screwed tight shut palm on palm
Prayer pious prayer eyes shut prayer
While you
Scooped up and consumed
Honey roasted nuts?

And did I not expostulate
And did you not lie there
Half slouched with your bronzed muscles
That put me in mind of the cheap handbags in Primark
With your shorty shorty shorty shorty denim shorts
Which when you take them off just kind of
Maintain the same shale put a book across the top
Use them as a makeshift coffee table
With your bleached blond blond blond blondie blond
Sandy beach bleached hair short spiked
Like the stubbly pasture grass around the steaming cowpat
Of your bald patch
With your face that looks like the top half was incredibly surprised
That the bottom half had grown a beard
And now it was off to go and join
A much more successful face
With your tattoo of Marilyn Monroe that had got so wrinkled
She now looked like Sid James
Did you not lie slumped there and suggest
I sit at the other side of the room
Sit at the other side of the room?
No I replied,
I ain't no draught dodger.

(That poem was just a draft).
Featured

An Ode to Simon Reeve

Poem

I stepped into a tropical bar.
Simon Reeve was there in a slow dance,
And I lost myself to his floppy fringe
Whose sweat-soaked flappy fronds would
Tickle my blushing cheeks,
Whose stubble scraped at the twilit skies
Like a cat’s claws on anaglypta,
Whose come-to-bed eyes betrayed none
Of the entitlement of his classical features
But a yearning for a sweetness so virile
That he could have been a treacle tart
And I ached, how I ached,
To be the custard.

Backpack merely decorative,
Naive tone a faux Theroux,
Poor man’s Palin,
Cargo-trousered doyen of sand dunes
And jungle trains,
No armchair droner he,
Riven with Reevisms, river crossings,
Barrier reef rovings,
Now gyrating for my pleasure in the aptly named
Club Flamingo.

Simon Reeve whose dimpled smile
Hauls in the night like a Titicatan net-lobber,
Whose unblemished skin betrays the
Goodness of various restorative unguents,
Whose manly chin is jutted like the
Bulbous bow of a speeding Shinkansen
And probably twice as purposeful,
Whose sensitive eyebrows are seldom parabolic,
Yet neither do they quiver intense for
Reevsie is an empathic soul,
Whose backpack is admittedly superfluous,
Whose torso is Michaelangeloian in its
Sculpted accommodation of his lean yet
Muscular frame on whose bounty I would
Willingly consume a quadruple-decker cheeseburger
Dipping a chip in a reservoir of mayonnaise
Stored for convenience sake in his belly button.

Action man for aunties.
Secret poet banging sand out his boots.
Earnest and eager though neither over with either.
Mortal enemy of Professor Brian Cox.
No world-weary Whicker he, but a clamorous compassion
And the kind of face
That would make even Vladimir Putin
Contemplate a five minute fumble
In the broom cupboard.

Simon Reeve, whose tousled locks hold
Within their definitely un-dyed verdantness
A vitality that would put Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to shame,
Whose rich deep Colombian coffee coloured eyes
Might penetrate x-ray-like beneath layers so effectively
As to pass right through the earth’s core every time
He bends down to pat a puppy.
Whose nostrils hardly flare.
Whose afterthought goatee clings on like
A countryside hilltop copse stunted
By the choking emissions from a nearby pig farm
Yet in whose branches barn owls berate the night
With their haunted warbling,
Whose luscious lips have tempted many a plastic surgeon
To bemoan the artifice of their own creations
And now before is delicate tongue-moistened plumpness,
Whose sturdy shoulders in their perfect powerful paralleogramatic
Precision
Would easily raise a live rhinoceros clear out
Of the Serengeti mud hole
Into which it had stumbled probably distracted
By the beauty of Simon Reeve’s face in the first place.

And I,
Simon Reeve,
I am that rhinoceros
And this ain’t no mud hole,
It’s the Club Flamingo
And our song has now ended
And our dance has now ended
And you’ve picked up your backpack
Which definitely doesn’t contain
Just a couple of pillows to make it look full for the cameras,
And off you go.
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Robert Garnham, Yay!

Hello, here’s a recording I made of my show Yay!, at the back room of a charity shop.

This is the version of the show which went to the Edinburgh fringe in 2022.

I hope you like it.

You can support the work I’m doing right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

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Exeter Poems, written by the Bard of Exeter

Last year I became the Bard of Exeter. During this time I’ve been working on various poems about Exeter, written often during visits to the city. You can read them below, they’re not in any kind of order. I really do like the city of Exeter and I’ve enjoyed my time as the Bard.

Robert Garnham, writer and humorist
Poem

The River Exe
Reminded me
Of my ex.
One has a sinewy
Snaking nature
And a big marsh
Where wild things live,
The other
Is the River Exe.
(You must have seen
That one coming,
Dear reader).
One would turn
Several times a day
And often
Not realise it.
The other
Is the River Exe.
(Tidal, you see).


Poem

Oh, Exeter Airport.
From the front
You look
Like a primary school.
Your departure gates
Are numbered
Gate One and Gate Two.
Your duty free shop
Is more of a shelf.
‘You don’t hear many planes’,
A friend observed
As we sat there in the
Living room of your
Departure lounge.
‘That’s because’, I quipped,
‘There aren’t any’.

Poem

She said,
‘Take me to your favourite place,
Restaurant, bar, tavern,
Eatery, joint, cafe,
Bistro, bistro, bistro,
Any place we can get food,
It doesn’t matter where,
So long as we’re together.
We can look into each other’s eyes
Amid the ambience,
And fill our souls with sustenance
Of two different kinds’.

Next to the vending machine
On platform three at Exeter St Davids,
She said,
‘I think we should
See other people’.

Poem

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my friend replied.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my cousin replied.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
What’s that?, my friend Bill replied.
It’s an honorary position, I explained.
No, he said, I meant what’s Exeter?

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my neighbour said.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

This is why I don’t
Tell many of my friends
What I’m up to.

Poem

There’s a view of the Cathedral,
The B and B owner said,
From your window.
And she was right.
She had blue tacked it
To the wall of the shed.

Poem

Let’s picnic in the grass, he said.
In front of the medieval cathedral
Whose precious beauty has tempted
Many a passing tourist to drop to their knees
And feint at its buttresses.
The rain
Made my pork pie soggy.

Poem

Is there a ram
In the RAMM?
A ramp
To put the ram
In the RAMM?
A van to carry
The ram to the ramp
To put it in the RAMM?
A man to drive the van
To carry the ram to the ramp
To put in the RAMM?
No,
But there’s a giraffe.

Poem

I contacted my sister,
I texted her
To say we’d arrived
In Exeter.
She didn’t know we were going,
It perplexed her.

Poem

From Telegraph Hill
The lights of Exeter
Twinkle in the distance
Like private stars in a constellation
Of one.
I’m lost in that timeless beauty
Once again.

And then we drive
Round and round
The multi storey car park.
The poetry
Has long since evaporated.

Poem

As Splatford Split approached
I still didn’t know
Which way you would go.
I watched your hands on the wheel.
Lazily, you turned the car to the
Left hand lane
And I did a little air fist pump,
Then held on,
Ready for the rocket boost
Of Telegraph Hill.
Quicker this way, you said.
Mmmm, I replied,
And I wanted to kiss you.

Poem

The next stop is Exeter St. Thomas.
To the uninitiated, they panic,
Bloody hell, we’re here much sooner
Than we thought.
It’s OK, I think to myself, relaxing, you’ve still got
Another five minutes until Exeter St. David’s.
But it must be disconcerting
Nonetheless.
Similar names, you see.

That night, before I went to sleep, I thought,
Oh,
Perhaps some people
Actually do want to get off at Exeter St. Thomas.
The universe
Is a cosmic joke.

Poem

I went for a walk
Down to the quay
By the river
In the sun.
I’d bought a chocolate milk
From M and S Food Hall,
Sat on a planter on the cobbles,
Necked its fine rich nectar.
Such fun.
Although I was the only one there
When I get up to put the bottle in the bin,
I took my bag with me,
Because, you know,
You can never be too sure.
My friend James is in his 70s and recently
Had his very first pickled egg,
So you never know what’s coming.
Anyway.
The quay.
It was nice.

Poem

I was in the men’s section
At Exeter Primark
When the tannoy announcer said,
‘Could security
Please be aware
That Mister Strange
Is in the men’s section.
That’s Mister Strange
In the men’s section.’
I looked around
But I couldn’t see him.

Poem

I always look
Too deeply
Into things.
Where others
See objects
I see
Atoms.

Poem

I like the sunshine
Too much
To be an
Overnight success.

Poem

While he was in the queue
Getting their coffee
She found a table and
Pushed two chairs in,
Pulled out one for herself,
And one for the one
She wanted him to sit in.

Poem

(In an Exeter coffee shop I overheard someone complaining about their neighbour who apparently spent most of the day sieving his gravel).

The gravel siever has a cluttered attic.
He’s out there now,
He’s out there every day
Sieving his gravel,
And by all accounts he’s got a cluttered attic,
Cluttered with boxes,
The boxes he had when he moved into the bungalow
Whose gravel needed sieving.

Does he ponder on those boxes as he
Sieves his gravel?
Does he ponder on sieving his gravel as he
Pokes his head in the loft
Like a Jack in the Box
Regards the clutter and lets out a mutter?
There’s no single performing.
There’s no shingle uniformity.
There’s so much going on in the world
But only two things going on in his.

Poem

I went to the ticket office.
The man behind the counter asked,
‘Single?’
Is it really so obvious?
I sat in my seat on the train.
The notice above me said,
Available.
Is it really so damn obvious?

The A303 isn't as long as it used to be
(It shrunk)

In prehistoric times,
Apparently,
The A303
Didn't stop at Exeter,
But kept on going.

Continental drift played a part,
Of course.
Dinosaurs, and then
The Romans
Used it to go to
Present day Nova Scotia.
There were tea rooms, so peaceful,
Very pleasant.
Mind you, no
Motorways in those days.

Genghis Khan
Got stuck behind a tractor.
Emperor Napoleon
Got stuck behind a tractor.
The Earl of Effingham
Got stuck behind two tractors.
And I bet he was
Effingham.

The Moon was slightly closer back then.
Stone Age man
Worshipping cats eyes gleaming
Brighter on account of the Moon glow
Not quite so far
For Armstrong and co to go.

Cowboys in the layby,
And the hunter gatherer clans of Wiltshire
Refused to welcome outsiders.
Mostly we just
Left them to their own Devizes.

Poem

There once was a man from the A303
Who wanted to go to Honiton via the B353
He took the A3033
And then the B453
And then the B353 itself but he ended up in Chard.

Poem

I'm a trainspotterspotter.
There were two fine examples
In Exeter St David’s last night.
I spotted both of them
Lurking amid the passengers
With their notebooks and their cameras
And their anoraks.
But then I noticed that I had been
Spotted by a trainspotterspotterspotter
And that he was being spotted
By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotter
And that he was being spotted
By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotterspotter
And so on
Until the time it would take to
Explain all of this would be more time
Than there is in the whole of existence
More than all of the grains of sand on earth
Or stars in the universe
So it's just as well that
They kept the buffet open late.

Poem

My cousin Phil
Slipped at the top of Telegraph Hill
Bounded end over end
In a never ending cartwheel
Right from the very top,
Then straight through the middle
Of a loving couple's picnic,
Damaging a sausage roll
And two scotch eggs
Virtually beyond repair
Falling at such a velocity
His shoes flew off
And one of them clouted a nun
Who shook her fist at him.
Phil
Still managed
To blend into the left hand lane
Of the motorway.

About 25 years ago
I used to work in a shop
In Sidwell Street
And at lunchtimes in the summer
Sunbathe on the flat roof,
From where
You’d be able to see
The cars snaking up
Telegraph Hill.
Probably wouldn’t have been able
To see Phil, though,
Because he would have been too small
And he didn’t exist, really.





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Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Looking back on my Edinburgh Fringe this year, I’m astounded at how little went wrong this time. It’s weird, but every one of my visits to Edinburgh can be recalled through what went disastrously wrong. For example, in 2015, I lost my passport during the flight up to Edinburgh, and I would need it again a month later for a trip to New York. In 2016, I arrived in Edinburgh but my luggage went to Honolulu, so I had to do the first two days with the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, and none of my props. In 2017, things actually went quite well but I’d accidentally booked not enough days at my accommodation and had to find two more nights to stay somewhere in the city. In 2019, my train only got as far as Preston and had to turn back because the line was flooded, and then when I arrived in Auld Reekie I discovered that my show wasn’t listed in the PBH brochure. (My fault, I should have checked). And then on the train home, someone stole my luggage!

So I suppose all of these were damn good learning experiences, and this year I had flights sorted, accommodation booked, I’d double checked the PBH brochures, I had my favourite venue, (Banshee Labyrinth), and I had a show without any props, so if something happened to my luggage, then the show could still go on.

There were other things I did differently this year which seemed to work. For a start, I listed the show in the main Fringe brochure under comedy rather than spoken word. This was the first time I’d done this, (mainly because I knew I had a show which had a fair amount of comedy in it, unlike 2015’s Static, or 2017’s In the Glare of the Neon Yak). And I think this did lead to a slightly higher number of audience members. The idea of this came from a little research I did where it transcribed that a lot of people who get the Fringe brochure only ever look at the sections which interest them. Theatre, for example, or comedy. My own interest is comedy, for example.

The other thing I did was to include my name in the show title. For a long time the show was called ‘Yay! The Search for Happiness’, but I decided that this sounded too much like a motivational speech, and the title itself hinted that it ought to come with some kind of trigger warning. I decided on ‘Robert Garnham, Yay!’, which I think really worked.

Another thing which was different this year was my whole attitude. In years past I’d take a show to Edinburgh and feel as if all of my eggs were in one basket. If this failed, then I was a failure too by extension. And also, it has to be admitted, I was never as sure as my shows in the past, never one hundred percent convinced that I was writing or performing to the maximum of my (possibly limited) abilities. This year, with a show which had no props or music to hide behind, I had made sure that I knew the show inside out. I’d been rehearsing the thing since early 2020 and I felt that I knew every nuance of it. As a result, I felt much more relaxed while talking to people about my show. If an audience came, well, then it came. If it didn’t, then at least I knew I’d done my maximum.

And also, I had my writing, now. I wasn’t just a comedy performance poet. By the time I got back to Edinburgh in 2022, several things had changed in my career. I was now a published writer, humorist, newspaper columnist as well as a comedy performance poet. This helped me to see what I was doing the context of someone who wasn’t putting all of his hopes and dreams into one show. If the show was a flop, (a show I;d given everything to), then at least I had short stories in magazines, and people reading my newspaper columns. All would not be lost!

This all helped me be incredibly more relaxed in Edinburgh. It’s only taken about ten years, but I felt I was negotiating the fringe with some degree of knowledge which I could fall back on. I even started to enjoy flyering.

Yes, you read that right. Traditionally, I hate flyering. Dyslexia manifests itself with me with an inability to speak to strangers or say things on the spur of the moment. I cannot improvise to save my life and a witty comeback is a three hour process. I find engaging with other human beings to be absolutely exhausting, yet this year, I had something I could describe very easily. ‘A search for happiness on the high seas. Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!’ My eye-catching flyers helped tremendously, too.

And finally, I decided that this would all be an adventure. If it all went tits up, then it would be something to write about. After the last two years where nothing much happened, it really did feel like the most daring thing in the world to go to another city, another country, and bring a show with me. I knew that in the dark days of winter, I’d sit back and ponder on the people I met, the places I went, the lovely audiences I had.

Will I be back next year? In all likelihood, yes. And here are my highlights:

1. The young Scottish couple who came to my show and chatted afterwards about seaside towns. I’d pulled them in to the show at the last minute and worried that they wouldn’t like it. They did, and they bought a book. They told me the name of the Scottish town where they lived. I had to ask three times because I didn’t understand the answer. Abercernichnie? Aberlakichnee?

2. The lady who came to my show and flung her arms around me at the end, and then, much to my surprise, so did her husband!

3. The man who said that my show should be on Radio Four. But it was noisy in the bar and I thought he’d said he was from Radio Four and I got unnecessarily excited!

4. Gecko came to my first show and seemed to really like it, he laughed at all the funny bits and this helped the rest of the audience laugh too.

5. Ditto Alexander Woody Woodward, who it was a thrill to meet in the flesh.

6. The fight which took place during my penultimate show in the audience. Yes, you read that correctly. An audience member took exception to the noise coming from the bar of the Banshee. She went and told them to be quiet, in a very feisty manner. Next thing I know, she was laying into them! I had a great audience that night and it seemed to bind us all together as a shared adventure.

7. The wonderful audience I had at the last show, which included my good friend Elizabeth McGeown and also my regular ‘Robheads’ from Leith, who brought me a lovely present to open on the way home.

8. The tourist who took a selfie with me, and then another tourist who asked for my autograph, I suppose, just assuming that I was famous because I had a show!

9. The taster session I did at St Andrew’s Square during which I had a very big audience, a lot of whom were filming me on their mobile phones.

10. Selling loads of books!

11. Getting home that night and thinking, oh my god, was there really a fight tonight?!

You can read the blog I wrote in Edinburgh this year right here:https://professorofwhimsy.com/2022/08/21/thoughts-from-the-edinburgh-fringe-2022-2/

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Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square
Featured

Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square
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On how I became a clown

On how I became a clown.

1.

I suppose I've always been a little bit clumsy. Affecting a demeanour each day of professional detachment, a manner almost sullen were it not for those moments in which human discourse were necessary, affecting an amiability, an openness, an expression of eager understanding and a willingness to compromise, only to have my belt suffer a sudden and catastrophic malfunction and my trousers fall around my ankles. A hand outstretched for a businesslike greeting, a shoe accidentally scraped against the skirting board, a sudden lurch sideways into a pot plant. Oh, I do apologise! And then later on, noticing the skirting boards around my office marked and scuffed by the numerous other times that I have stumbled.
Hey, hey, your flies are undone. Again.
And due to my body shape, I concede that my trousers have always been a little bit baggy.

2.

The trill of the alarm clock had interrupted a dream in which I was trying to get a giraffe to go up the stairs of a double decker bus. The giraffe had been stubborn and no amount of tugging or enticing could tempt it up to the first floor, and once underway, it got wedged firmly, its fat buttocks blocking the stairwell, much to the consternation of my fellow passengers. It's the usual recurring anxiety dream. The long neck of the giraffe allowed it to peer up to the top deck, grinning like a bastard, while I pushed and shoved and swore from behind. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! I got up, showered, shaved, made some toast and pondered in the coming day, only to glance at my watch and discover that it was four in the morning. And then I recalled that the trill of the alarm clock had been a part of the dream. For the giraffe and I had been returning from a trip to the shops where we had purchased an alarm clock.
I set to work at my desk, organising various work-related files on my laptop and trying not to think about my giraffe dream. I watched as the sun came up and lit the neighbouring houses a brilliant red, secretly resplendent as it rewarding me and others like me for getting up so early. I stopped for a few moments to look out at the sky, feeling if only for a short while the majesty of the planet in its eternal rotation, this celestial dance of time and fate, when the alarm clock sounded, this time for real. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! Had anyone been with me, no doubt, I would have at least given a smirk or acknowledgement of the humour in this, but as I was on my own, the only emotion I felt was one of deep annoyance. I got up from my desk and I switched the alarm clock off. The only comfort came from the fact that the new trousers I was wearing were significantly roomier than had been my previous pair.

3.

I was never
The class clown.
When I think of this
It gets me down.
The popular kids
Would mess around.
But me?
I wouldn't
Make a sound.

4.

I had a meeting with my boss today. I've written down everything that was said and I've made it into a short theatrical piece, which I call 'Bulbous'.

SANDRA stares at ROBERT from behind her desk.

SANDRA - I suppose you know why I've asked you here.
ROBERT - To be honest, no, I don't.
SANDRA - I've had an official complaint from one of your colleagues.
ROBERT - Oh?
SANDRA - It's about the meeting you chaired yesterday, on Effective Time Management.
ROBERT - Yes, yes, I'm so sorry that it overran.
SANDRA - No, it's not that.
ROBERT - What . . what is it?
SANDRA - (Sighs). Robert, is everything okay at home?
ROBERT - Yes, absolutely.
SANDRA - And you're not drinking heavily, or anything?
ROBERT - No. In fact, I hardly drink at all.
SANDRA - The complaint was actually about your appearance. Did you realise that your flies were undone the whole time?
ROBERT - No, I didn't.
SANDRA - So the message of the meeting, in which you were meant to instil in your colleagues a certain business-oriented professionalism, would probably have been received unquestioningly had you not got your foot stuck in the waste paper bin.
ROBERT - Yes, that was rather unfortunate.
SANDRA - And when you tried to pull it off, you sat on a desk, and the desk . . . Collapsed.
ROBERT - Again, I apologise.
SANDRA - And your nose. You see, Robert, it's becoming awfully red, and bulbous. That's why I asked about the drinking.
ROBERT - As I say, I can only apologise. And I shall make an effort to act from now on in a more businesslike manner.
SANDRA - Thank you, Robert. Please, for me, see that you do.

ROBERT gets up from his chair, shakes SANDRA's hand, then stumbles sideways through a glass partition wall.

5.

Walking home through the silence of the park, I could hear a soft squeak, squeak, squeak with each footstep.

6.

‘I've just had it with clowns’, Josh said. ‘I need a man I can respect’.
We'd met online and he suggested we have a date at that new cream flan and custard pie restaurant that had just opened in the middle of the town. It seemed the sort of place where nothing could go wrong. The seating was comfortable and so was the decor, warm and inviting. We sat at a table for two at the rear of the premises.
‘That is very important to me’, Josh continued. ‘Love, yes. Love is up there. And physicality, of course, but respect. Respect is the most important of them all. It seems to me these days that everyone is a comedian, so you get that sense, too? Where's the depth? It's all artifice, isn't it? It's like we've become avatars, covered in layers of glitz and showy nothingness’.
‘You can depend on me’, I told him. ‘I treat each moment with absolute and utter seriousness’.
‘I just don't know why people feel the need to fool around’, he said, ‘in every sense of the word’.
‘I think people just want to be noticed ’, I reply. ‘That's what's happening in this modern age. We all seem to want to get a kick out of making other people uneasy. The nuance of yesteryear is gone. Subtlety is missing from all of our lives. I blame the internet and social media. People can't even be bothered to wait for the punch line, any more. They want immediate gratification, whether it be sexual or comedic’.
‘I can tell’, Josh said, ‘That you are a thinker’.
‘I try to be’.
I looked at him, and he looked at me. I could see the small candle on the table between us reflected in his eyes.
‘Do you ever feel tempted’, he asked. ‘To become like all the other men? I mean, brash, and obvious, and only in it just for a laugh?’
‘No’, I replied. ‘I try to play the long game. Strip away the surface and this world that we live in is a very serious place. And how else might one approach the act of living itself, but through the contemplation of philosophical and existentialist inquiry? In such a way, I forsake the easy option and the expediency of a cheap laugh in order to probe the searing heaviness of our own manifestation’.
‘You know what?’, Josh said, ‘I think I've finally met a man who I can respect’.
At that moment the cream flan and custard pie conveyor belt around the serving desk suffered a sudden malfunction, sped up, and propelled its load, one after another, at such an angle and velocity across the room as to connect squarely with my own face, one after another in a perfect rhythm to the accompanying laughter from all the other customers. By the time the eleventh and last cream pie had been delivered with a forceful splat, and I was scooping the filling out from my eyes, Josh had long since gone.

7.

I never realised before how small my bicycle was until I glanced sideways at my reflection in a shop window, my knees out at a crazy angle, dwarfed by the buses, the cars, the lorries.

b. I never realised quite how tatty my old jacket had become, so tatty that I tried to draw attention away from its tastiness by putting a plastic yellow flower in the lapel.

c. And I shouldn't have gone swimming and then dyed my hair. The hair dye had a chemical reaction with the chlorine from the pool and turned my hair bright green. Still, what can you do?

d. And as I filled in the official documentation online to tell my work colleagues my preferred name and pronouns, my computer’s predictive spelling changed my name from Robert to Parsnip.

e. Sandra, my boss, has for some reason pulled me from delivering a seminar on Modern Business Etiquette.

8.

With the power of his intellect and his encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary stand-up comedy, my school friend Hasan could reduce the entire class into fits of laughter. And the laughter would drive him on, and he'd say something else that was funny, and the class would laugh some more. But Hasan was canny, he'd leave his best material for the end of the sequence, leading us up blind alleyways of silliness before delivering his punchline. Boom. As a result, this rather nerdy individual became one of the most popular people in school and I must admit to feeling rather jealous of his command of a room.
My teachers would always tell my parents at parents evening that I was always serious, unsmiling, intense. They said that I wouldn't join in with the other kids, and would bury myself in my work. Perhaps they were worried that something would give, that I'd snap one day and have some sort of life-changing episode, go beserk and tell the other kids exactly what I thought of them. Humourless, is the exact word that was used on more than one occasion. But I carried on in much the same manner and took my exams.
I left school with average marks.
Hasan became a marketing executive for a company that manufactures airline meals.

9.

To be mocked, and come out fighting with humour, is never a position in which I have ever found myself. Steady as she goes has always been my motto. I have rarely left myself open to ridicule by using the simple tactic of blending in to the background. And during those moments in which I have found myself in the limelight, I have adopted the simple strategy of being as intense and as dry as I possibly could.
‘You're too intense’, Steven had said to me, on what was to be the last night we'd spent together.
‘Just because I don't go down the street, laughing hysterically . . .’.
‘It's not that. It's more your tendency to over analyse everything. We can't even watch television comedies because you point out that certain things would never actually happen’.
‘All I was pointing out was that in real life, Tom would simply catch and eat Jerry . . ‘.
‘You see! You're too much of a realist. In all the time that we have been together, I never once heard you laugh. It's all buttoned up inside of you, isn't it? That's where you keep it. It has to be somewhere’.
‘Life itself is the ultimate ridicule’, I pointed out.
‘What does that even mean?’
The two of us are silent for a while.
‘I'd just like to find’, I tell him, ‘A well adjusted and content tarot card reader’.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘A happy medium’.
Steven thinks about it for a few seconds.
‘OK. So admittedly, that was quite amusing. But it's too late, Robert. I'm sorry, but it's too late’.
Steven bent down and picked up his suitcase, walked through the door, and slammed it shut behind him.
The oil painting of a clown on the wall above the sofa wobbled for a bit, then fell off and landed right on top of me, my head tearing through the canvas, the frame of the picture now hanging around my neck.

10.


Emerging from the supermarket on the corner, the busy street glistening with a damp drizzle which fell from the overcast sky, smudged neon into the road surface. I stood there in my jacket, my loose fitting trousers, my green hair, my Parsnip name badge, my squeaky shoes, my lapel flower. I decided that I would give up on trying to understand the world, and how good it felt! I didn't need Steven or Josh or even Sandra, I didn't need any of them. Life is filled with organisms and mechanisms too complex ever to make sense of,
A small, battered car screeched to a halt right next to me and a gentleman in baggy, multicoloured clothing jumped out. Then another, then one more, then two more, then six of them, seven, twelve in all, until I was surrounded, and without saying anything I understood that there was a home for me. It didn't even need analysing. Life just becomes obvious, sometimes.
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Woodview

These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon. 

But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.

This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.

‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’

(Rodney Wood)

‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’

(Greg Freeman)

‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’. 

(Becky Nuttall)

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Terence Donovan (Doug Willis from Neighbours) was born in Staines – A Poem

Poem

I’m not easily shocked.
I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the years.
But this poem isn’t about me,
Much as I’d like it to be.
For I only discovered this very morning,
(And hold onto your hats, dear listener),
That Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born,
Are you ready for this?
Was born in Staines.

Yes, that’s right, Staines.
Staines in the former Middlesex.
Staines not far from Slough.
Staines now pretentiously calling itself
Staines Upon Thames
To make it sound less like the sort of place
You’ll get a slapping,
Staines,
Home to the Elmsleigh Centre and what’s was once
A really cracking branch of Our Price,
Staines,
Where I went to school and worked
In the local Sainsbury’s
(But as I just said, this poem
Is not about me),
Was where Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born.

It’s got a High Street, has Staines.
It’s got a Costa, has Staines.
It’s got a statue of two men
Carrying a roll of lino,
(Google it, I kid you not),
It’s got a Sainsbury’s, has Staines,
Where I worked 1992-1994
And fell in love with a till operative called Simon,
But what it hasn’t got is a blue plaque
Commemorating the birth of Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours.
Heads should roll.

We all know that Staines is the place where
Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street came from,
And you can shove that factoid up your arse,
And don’t get me started on Ali G,
But how many of you know that Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born in bloody Staines?

Staines, for where the gods decreed
A confusing one way system and a cracking
Example of a brutalist multi storey car park
Where my sister once got a puncture,
Staines, whose library
Seems almost apologetic,
Staines, whose bus station is sympathetically clad
In coloured bricks which are all coated in oil stains,
Staines,
Staines Upon Thames,
Stains on the Thames,
Staines, whose beauty and architecture have caused
Many a lost tourist to drop to their knees and cry tears of
Bitter jealousy,
Staines,
Where I once saw Russ Abbott in Woolworths doing his shopping
Followed by a gang of kids who kept badgering him and
Shouting, hey Russ, do your angry Scottish bloke for us,
Until he told them to go away,
Staines, where my mate Justin
Found a pig’s eyeball on the seat of the photo booth,
Staines, where I asked Justin,
How did you know it was from a pig?
And what were you doing in the photo booth?
Staines, sparkling jewel of Spelthorne,
Was where
Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born.

Life’s funny like that.
And I’ve got a Pop Tart on in the toaster
So I’d better be off.


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What Jean Alesi Meant to Me

Jean Alesi

In 1989 my mother bought me a second hand black and white television for my bedroom. I was fifteen years old and until that time, had not had my own TV. In those days, of course, there were only four channels so the likelihood of there being anything on to watch was very small. My sister had had her own colour TV for a couple of years, which wasn’t fair because she was younger, and not only that, but hers had a remote control. Remote controls were new technology. Our old big television downstairs had a remote control and if you lost it, you could change channels by rattling a bunch of keys. How nonchalantly, my sister would sit on her bed and be able to change channels without even having to move or grab a bunch of keys. And now I, too, had my own television set.
          It was a cranky old thing, (the second hand TV, not my sister), short, squat and smelling ever so faintly of burning dust and electricity. And if it was switched on for too long it would get very hot and it would turn itself off at inopportune moments, a strange little button at the back popping out with a fierce click. Once it had cooled down one was able to press the button and turn it on again. If it was still hot, the button would just stay out and you’d have to sit and wait for ages, which was no good if you were watching something really important, like Columbo.  And during a heat wave you’d have to wait for hours. The damn thing would just not cool down.
          In the defence of my television set, though, there occasionally wasn’t anything on at all. The announcer would come on and say, well, we’ve got no programs for the rest of the afternoon, so here’s the test card. Oooooooooooooo!
          One day – and it must have been a Sunday – I caught the start and opening laps of the San Marino formula one Grand Prix. It was pretty hard to decipher what was happening, what with the fact that all the cars were shown in black and white, and there was always a lot of static interference every time my sister used her hair dryer. The television set had a dial, and you had to dial in to the television channel the same way that you had to with a radio finding a station. And very shortly after the start of the race there was a very bad accident involving Gerhard Berger.
          Motor racing was a part of my life from an early age, but I’d never taken much interest in it before. My childhood bedroom wallpaper was of John Watson’s Marlboro sponsored McLaren. It’s great to think that it was such an unenlightened age that cigarette sponsorship was allowed into the bedrooms of small boys. I didn’t know much about John Watson, or motor racing for that matter, or McLaren, or smoking, but my dad was proficient in all of these, and I picked up bits along the way, enough to know that the McLarens were still sponsored by Marlboro, and that the leading drivers of the day were Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, and my own favourite, Gerhard Berger. And the only reason I liked Gerhard Berger was because his second name was Berger. I liked burgers. I had no interest in taking up smoking, but eating burgers was definitely helped along because of the wonders of Gerhard.
          The race on my little black and white television was stopped because of Berger’s accident, and as I waited for it to restart, the inevitable occurred and my television turned itself off. I put my hand on the back of it and, sure enough, it was giving off a pretty intense heat. The strain of being turned on for almost forty five minutes  was obviously too much. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it for a couple of hours, by which time the race would probably be finished.
          So I went downstairs to the living room, and as luck would have it my parents were out gardening or something else interesting that parents do on a sunny spring morning in suburban Surrey, and I was able to watch the rest of the race on the big television in the living room. Now this television was colour, and having sat through forty five minutes of black and white, the contrast – no pun intended – was amazing. The colours were vibrant, the green grass around the track, the multicoloured cars and drivers and the McLarens looking just like they did on my bedroom wallpaper, their Marlboro branding vibrant and luxurious.  I’d never seen a spectacle like this, the excitement and the intensity of motor racing revealed in all its technicolor brilliance, the primary colours, the advertising hoardings, the flags and banners in the crowd, the vibrant orange of the flames licking around Berger’s crashed Ferrari. It was probably at this moment that I fell in love with formula one Grand Prix racing.
          Now it must be said that I was a weird teenager. At fifteen years old I’d already sussed that I was gay. It was obvious to myself, though not particularly so to other people. I wasn’t entirely camp and I wore the sorts of clothing that all my friends wore, so I’m sure that nobody knew, and that it would remain this devastating big secret which I would carry with me to the grave. I told myself that I was very good at hiding it. I also thought that I was one of the handful of gay people in the entire world, that it was basically just me and Julian Clary. There didn’t seem to be any other gay role models. It was also the nineteen eighties. Homophobia was very popular in mainstream society and most people seemed to be very fond of it, particularly in Surrey where I lived on a council estate within earshot of the main runways at Heathrow Airport.

Indeed, homophobia seemed to be institutionalised. This was a time of Section 28, and the AIDS crisis was still very much being felt. And I was this strange little thing, closeted to the world and fearful of the future because I knew that, if things didn’t change, I’d never be who I wanted to be. And this was probably true of a whole generation. My only outlet was writing, and the stories I wrote were also explorations of the same closet. Characters were good friends, but nothing sexual was ever hinted at. Their only goal seemed to be to find a nice girlfriend and get married. None of these characters existed anywhere else but in an incredibly straight universe.
So I was kind of glad that I’d got in to formula one motor racing, because this was the sort of thing that the average straight man really liked, all those machines and engines and drivers and strategies and ladies in bikinis carrying large lollipops with the names of the drivers, and adverts for cigarettes and beer and after shave and spanners and motor oil, and brash egos and the roar of the engines. It was a straight person’s paradise. And the more I got in to the sport, the more I saw that this gave me an escape route should I be talking to my friends and the hypothetical question comes up, ‘Are you gay?’, to which I might reply, ‘No, and did you see the race at the weekend?’
The summer progressed. Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Berger. These titans, these gods of the sport who towered above not only formula one, but life itself. How excited I’d tune in to catch their exploits, with their distinct personalities and their almost superhuman powers to pick me up and fly me away from gaydom into that sparkling iridescent rainbow glitter world of perpetual absolute straightness! And then, one day, along came Jean Alesi.
Imagine if you had to invent the perfect racing driver. Imagine if you were writing a novel and you realised that you needed a stereotypical barely believable cartoon character of a racing driver. What characteristics would you give them, if you were a little lazy when it came to inventing such characters? A firm jaw, dazzling blue eyes, a small stature, handsome youthfulness, sultry eyes with a faraway stare. And what kind of nationality would you give your invented racing driver? French? Italian? Well, why not a mixture of both? And what kind of name would you give your hypothetical stereotypical racing driver? Something distinctly European, yet a name which sounds fast even in its spelling and economy of letters. Jean Alesi. Four syllables, not very many letters. Oh my god, he was everything I wanted him to be!
Jean Alesi burst on the scene halfway through 1989. And all of a sudden these old towering idols of motor racing didn’t seem quite so special. Jean was in a much slower car, yet he was driving much better than them and spent most of his first race in second place before finishing fourth. He didn’t seem to care very much that there were people out there who needed these titans of motor racing to just keep going and going. Jean Alesi was like a fresh thought introduced into a tired way of looking at the world. Jean Alesi was the embodiment of excitement. Jean Alesi was the equivalent of saying, hey, you know what? There are other ways of living your life. Jean Alesi was also very good looking.
Oh my god, I liked him a lot.
And soon the exploits of Jean Alesi became the only reason that I watched formula one. Well, that and the need to appear to be the same as all the other blokes, what with formula one being so blokey. Because within this blokey structure, Jean Alesi demonstrated that there was room for something new and exciting. He held his steering wheel right at the top. He leaned his head over at crazy, exaggerated angles around the corners, it was like he was pretending to be a racing driver. It was almost, dare one say it, camp. He had no technical skill whatsoever. My nickname for him was Crazy Alesi. One of his former team mates used to call him Jean Asleazy. He seemed to run on pure enthusiasm.
I wanted to come out. I was desperate for the world to know who I was. But the world was a different place back then and the framework of support that most LGBT people in the Uk mostly have now was missing back in 1989. There were hardly any gay people on television, unless it were the basis of a joke or a cheap stereotype, and section 28 was prevalent in schools preventing teachers having serious conversations about homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was at the forefront of everyone’s mind whenever the subject of gay men was discussed. Homophobia was everywhere, in throwaway comments and the laughter of school fiends, jokes told openly, and in government policies. Being gay was a personal source of shame, a hideous joke played by nature and something which I thought I might even grow out of, or at least train myself to disregard. I just hadn’t met the right woman yet, a woman with short hair, blue eyes, no female bits and only male bits, possibly French Italian, probably called Jean. I wanted the world to change.
And Jean Alesi wanted to win a Grand Prix.
Over the next six years, Alesi found himself in another race. I was getting older, a teenager now, late teens, the early twenties beckoning, and I gave myself the target of coming out to the world as gay in a glorious burst of music and love, before Jean Alesi won his first Grand Prix. As luck would have it, Alesi soon signed to Ferrari, a team which at the time was in one of is periodic performance troughs, so the idea that Alesi might actually win a race was now almost impossible. This gave me some breathing space. I felt like a swimmer about to plunge into icy water, steeling himself, just standing there, year after year, unable to make that final move. And knowing that if I did, I’d get more than a cold shoulder. Every other week I’d sit and watch as Alesi found a new and exciting way not to win a race, and this seemed emblematic of my own struggle. Moments of promise and potential victory falling apart, and assured win undone by some minor trifle. For six long years Jean and I struggled together to get what we wanted, to make our name on history before it was too late.
And then, in 1995, when I was 21 years old, the bastard did it.
It was the Canadian Grand Prix. It was one of those races in which all the other drivers fell by the wayside. And this left Alesi out in front, victory assured. I remember those final laps, I was almost crying with delight, and yet while I felt pleased that he was actually about to do it, I also felt a sense of loathing that he should get what he always wanted, and I would be left there, alone. And as he crossed the finish line in an emotional moment of tears and celebration, I thought, well, my life hasn’t changed in the slightest.
If it’s any consolation, that would also be his last win in formula one. I did think about waiting until his second win to come out, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because there would be no second win. In fact it would be another four years until I came out to friends and family, by which time I already had had a partner. But that’s another story.
Every now and then Jean Alesi turns up on television. He’s much older now but he’s still good looking and my mother fancies him. To me he was the epitome of what a racing driver should be, but he’s always stood for more than that. He was my personal talisman, my guardian angel, he was there showing the way without him even realising that he was doing it. He showed me that you could change the order of things just by the force of sheer enthusiasm and, of course, a lot of hard work. My own coming out felt less like a fantastic victory and more like a plane crash. And perhaps Alesi had already had his coming out moment, the time he had told his parents that yes, he was a racing driver.
There are kids out there now looking for the same escape. The world is ever so slightly easier for them now. And that’s such a good thing, people seem far more open minded and people can be who they want to be. They don’t need racing drivers to show them the way. Or perhaps, they do. Perhaps we are all racing drivers now. We are all Jean Alesi.

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Some thoughts on the 2022 Barnstaple Theatrefest

It’s been a couple of years since the last Barnstaple Theatrefest Fringe, due to obvious reasons. It must have been so worrying for the organisers, with the world changing so rapidly over the last few months and the uncertainty which has clouded almost everything in the artistic community. It’s a brave decision these days to try and plan anything much too far ahead, whether it be a wedding or a party or, in the case of Barnstaple Theatrefest, one of the leading fringe events in the country.

So it was a huge joy that this year’s event went ahead, and the organisers must be applauded for making it happen. Yet even on the weekend itself, there were more challenges: an increase in Covid numbers, the train strike, the hot weather. It seemed that circumstance was conspiring to remind everyone involved that it’s really not too wise at the moment to get one’s hopes up.

But it went ahead, and it was a remarkable event. The one thing that has always struck me about Barnstaple Theatrefest has been the wonderful sense of camaraderie. Barnstaple is not the biggest town in the world, and there aren’t hundreds of events which make up the schedule, so anyone who participates in the fringe soon becomes acquainted with all of the other performers and technicians. On top of this there are several events where people can meet up and talk about their shows, whether these be the taster sessions, or the cabaret, or more social events in bars, pubs and cafes.

This is why I love being a part of it. There’s a genuine enthusiasm from everyone involved for theatre and performance, and I have several friends who I know only from the Theatrefest. This year there was the added bonus of the Soundwave Radio van parked in the square outside the museum, where one could just turn up and be interviewed live on the air about their show. I went along with my friend Melanie Branton, and we ended up chatting for over an hour about our shows and our art, and it was great to be there and have someone take what we do so seriously.

Naturally, any fringe event is hard work. My own strategy for getting in audiences involved flyering, exit flyering, taster sessions and chatting to other performers and fringe-goers. I’m not a religious man, but I also considered a damn good pray, too. As it happens I had a lovely audience every day for my show and made a few people smile and be happy, which is what my show was all about.

The world needs events such as this, and I can’t praise the organisers of Barnstaple Theatrefest highly enough. They are professional, enthusiastic, and I could sense the worry whenever I spoke to them, particularly on the first day with the train strike and the performers calling in unable to attend due to positive Covid tests and the such. And it’s true that perhaps audiences aren’t yet fully behind the idea of going out and seeing a show, particularly at the moment, but several performers had massive audiences nonetheless.

It’s always sad leaving Barnstaple. As the train left the station I felt just a slight pang of regret that life cannot always be like this. Maybe more towns should have fringe events, I told myself, or perhaps, maybe not, because this is what makes Barnstaple Theatrefest so unique.

I’m hoping that next year will be more stress free for the organisers, and that the world will be finally starting to look a bit normal. But for now, there’s a big smile on my face, because, wow, it was an excellent weekend!

My stage shortly before the first performance of ‘Yay’
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Whimsy in the Woods Episode 13

Robert records his podcast live from the platform at Birmingham New Street Station and recounts an episode from the train he has just caught, then performs a poem about a bedside lamp.

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Ballad of a Sad Bouncer

Our eyes met across the literary festival tent, at the exact moment Professor Zazzo Thiim erupted into a coughing fit shortly after he’d tried to pronounce the names of the Welsh rural communities in Memflak’s Operetta Lampeter. It was cruel of the organisers not to cut his mic, but I looked up again and I saw you were still looking over at me, and both embarrassed, we smiled. Even to this day the sound of a phlegmy cough is enough to fill my heart with romance.

Ballad of a sad bouncer

          We met outside the canvas marquee, the strong sun throwing red and white stripes across us.

          ‘So . . You like Memflak?’

          ‘Not really’.

          ‘Me neither’.

          And then we stood there for a while until a security guard asked us to move. Professor Zazzo was making his way to the book signing table, and we were in the way.

          ‘Do you need anything?’, someone asked him.

          ‘A glass of water, please’.

          ‘He wasn’t the most engaging of speakers’, you said, as we were bundled sideways. ‘Have you ever read any of his works?’

          ‘Only his pamphlet on the poetry of TV darts commentaries’.

          ‘Oh really? And what was his conclusion?’

          ‘That there wasn’t any’.

          ‘A wise man’, you said, and we both turned and watched as he took a seat behind a wallpapering table piled high with copies of his Memflak biography. There wasn’t a queue and a bird had defecated on his Panama hat.

          ‘So if you don’t like Memflak, then why did you come along?’, you asked.

          I’d just assumed that most of the people who were there would have been single, naturally.

          ‘Just . . . Chilling’.

We chatted about so much that sunny afternoon. You told me your biggest fear was 3D printing machines suddenly gaining consciousness and 3D printing only other 3D printing machines and then the whole world becoming drowned in 3D printing machines. And I told you about a friend who had a 3D printing machine, but the first thing that the 3D printing machine had to print as soon as you got it was the instruction manual on how to print on a 3D printing machine, but the only way you could print the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine was to have the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine. We both laughed and agreed that the world was an unusual place, and I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, oh, how I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, but there was something lazy and wonderful about our sudden new friendship, and anyway, you weren’t allowed back in the B and B until 3pm. Instead, we went to the crowded cafe tent and shared a vegan sausage roll.

          When you told me that you were a published poet, I almost fell off my seat.

          ‘But you’re so passably handsome!’

          ‘I know. It’s a shock, isn’t it?’

          ‘Are you . . . Rich?’

          You couldn’t stop laughing.

          ‘I’m a poet. In fact, it’s the perfect career choice for me, thanks to my crippling fear of success’.

          You told me that your first collection, Do Sheep Find Us Boring?, had won the Fortescue Prize for the best poetry collection to feature a mangle. Your second collection, The Non-existent Coffee Table, had fared less well, especially the scratch’n’sniff sonnet about sewage. And your third book, A Machine Which Exists Only to Destroy Itself, was what those in the publishing industry call a faulty fluorescent tube.

          ‘Why is it called that?’

          ‘Because it barely makes a flicker’.

          I knew that it was because you were too handsome to be a poet. Your teeth were mostly the same colour and you had hardly any dandruff. When you sipped your tea, only a few drops went on your trousers.

          I looked deep into your eyes. You looked deep into mine. The world around us seemed to fade from existence until its only components were you and me. And surely, in that stuffy tent over an over-priced sausage roll, we would surely have begun to kiss, had not there been a sudden clatter and thud from the next table and a cry of, ‘Buggering ‘ell!’, as Professor Zazzo Thiim’s chair collapsed.

          We helped the old fella up from the grass.

We queued for a while to buy tickets to see the famous performance artist Bonjour Twain, for it was rumoured that she would be debuting a new piece called The Measurement of Intense Disappointment, only it turned out that queuing for the piece was the actual piece itself, and that Bonjour Twain was a thousand miles away at her home in the Alps. We then went in to a lively debate between a surrealist poet and another surrealist poet, which had been especially choreographed by the festival organisers who had told both surrealist poets that their opponent was an adherent to ultra-realism and would only be pretending to be a surrealist poet. Our next port of call was to see a book reading by Will Self, but Will Self was stuck in a traffic jam, so the audience passed the time by playing a good-natured game of battleships. Our final stop of the afternoon was a speech on Bouncy Castle Development and Design : From Mock-Medieval to the Integration of New Technologies’, which Doctor Margaret McParson actually delivered while bouncing on a bouncy castle, which went very well until she had to sip a glass of water.

          It was a full afternoon.

          ‘Well’, you said, ‘I’d better be going’.

          And now the world did that thing it does every now and then where it reveals its true colours and kind of stamps on the hopes and dreams that only reveal themselves in retrospect.

          ‘Righty-o, then’.

          ‘It’s been fun’.

          ‘Sure has. When will I . . . Where will I . .  See you again?’

          ‘You can have one of my collections, if you like, then I’ll always be with you’.

          ‘I don’t really like poetry’.

          ‘My picture is on the cover. I’d like you to have it’.

          You rummaged around in your shoulder bag and showed me the cover of Do Sheep Find Us Boring?. You looked about fifteen years younger.

          ‘OK. Thanks’.

          ‘That’s nine ninety-nine’.

          I slipped you ten pounds. You didn’t have any change. Which is a shame, because I would have cherished that penny forever, perhaps drilled a hole in it and worn it around my neck. The book was OK, though.

          You walked away after we parted with a jovial wave, and I watched you disappear into the middle-class utopia of the literary festival. I was distracted, momentarily, by Professor Zazzo Thiim tripping over a guy rope, and when I looked up again, you were gone.

I went over to the bouncy castle, and took off my shoes, and I clambered on. I bounced once. Twice. Possibly as many as five times. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was worried that someone would steal my shoes. This happened once at a funfair in Bournemouth. I’d had to walk home in my socks.

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The Pyromaniac as a Time Traveller, (A poem from Woodview set to music by Croydon Tourist Office)

Here’s a poem from my forthcoming collection Woodview. I hope you like it.

Woodview is a bit of a departure for me, filled with semi autobiographical poems, memories of people and places. It will be published shortly by Beatnpress.

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Whimsy in the Woods Episode 12

Episode Twelve – Robert recites a poem about jigsaws, while waiting at Newton Abbot station for a train

Listen to the other podcasts here https://professorofwhimsy.com/podcast/

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Squidbox @ Palace Theatre, Paignton: Poems and an Essay about the Project working with Brixham Fishermen

You can listen to the 45 minute performance / reading right here: poems and an essay 12/5/22
  1. Homecoming (p63)

You know, things were jogging along just fine and the future looked incredibly exciting. I’d spent most of 2019 on the road, not only with the Hammer and Tongue  tour to Hackney, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Southampton, but I’d taken my show Spout to Barnstaple, Reading, Guildford, Edinburgh and Petersfield, and I’d also performed headline sets in Newcastle, Milton Keynes, London, Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and even the Eden Project, where I’d actually performed in the main dome itself surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, before spending the night in a shipping container which had been transformed into a hotel room. Added to this the corporate work I’d been doing for a certain building society, and my December I was absolutely burned out. I decided to take three months off from performing.

          And you’ll never guess what happened next. 

          I’d been looking forward to 2020. I had gigs booked in faraway places and I was planning a new show, Yay!: The Search for Happiness, which would be something of a departure and I was excited about the whole process of putting it together. If 2019 had been amazing, I was sure that 2020 would be even better, the momentum having built up, but the international pandemic stopped everything in its tracks and all of a sudden, the whole world narrowed down to just my small flat in an out of season seaside town.

          I wasn’t alone in this, of course. I mean, obviously I was alone in my small flat, but I wasn’t the only performer for whom the future had suddenly turned to mush. Up and down the country, and throughout the world, singers, artists, performers of all types suddenly found themselves without a livelihood and a very bleak future. In a way I felt lucky that I only had myself to look after, and no mortgage, but on the other hand, things would be tough.

          I tried to make the best of it. I launched into online gigs. I made videos. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I started rehearsing and learning the new show. But the one thing that didn’t happen was that I was making any money.

          So, things weren’t entirely ideal. But then something wonderful did happen. Torbay Council were looking for artists to pay to do create local works in order to help them recover from the financial hardship of the pandemic situation, and add colour to the local artistic landscape. I applied, with the vague idea of writing about a subject of which I knew very little, yet was a big part of the local culture. I went through several ideas, from hotel workers to those involved in the holiday industry, until it struck me that, in spite of having a wonderful relationship with the town of Brixham, I’d never actually learned much about its fishing industry.

  1. The Trawler Basin (p10)

I sent an email to the Torbay Culture organisation, which was allocating funds, detailing an idea I had to write poetry about the Brixham fishing industry. It would be a strange departure for an LGBT comedy performance poet, but I was looking forward to embarking on a new project, and more than anything else, I was looking forward to earning some money.

          Amazingly, they said yes. They gave me a timetable of when things should be accomplished, and then assigned me a producer, who would put me in touch with various people within the fishing industry. And for the first time in a very long while, I felt like a proper artist.

          All I had to do was get started.

I didn’t know the first thing about the fishing industry. I knew that the fishing port in Brixham was one of the largest in the UK and that it had been there since god know’s when. My producer was a wonderful person called Clare with whom I had a couple of Zoom meetings and she gave me a few pointers of where to start. The harbour master? The fish market? Perhaps I should write to one of the trawler companies and see if I could interview one of their skippers. I was also interested in the ecological side of the business and how it affects the local ecosystem. But most of all I was glad to be involved in a project which took me way out of my comfort zone and my usual oeuvre of poems about badgers and dentists.

          By the marvels of social media I managed to get in contact with the skipper of a trawler. Indeed, he was the only person who worked on the trawler. Officially, it was the smallest trawler in the Brixham fleet, yet Tristan managed to go out every single day and get his catch and then sell it straight from his boat on the harbour side. As a result he had made quite a good living over the last couple of years and slowly built up a reputation for the quality of his fish.

          We exchanged a couple of messages and he invited me to come down to the harbour and interview him aboard his boat, the Adela.

          This was my official first foray into the world of reportage and I must admit I did not exactly cut a very athletic figure as I clambered from the quay on to his vessel. I’m sure there have been less graceful entrances into the trawling business, but the damn boat kept going up and down on a swell and I kind of managed it by kneeling on the edge of the vessel and kind of falling sideways. 

          Tristan gave me a quick tour of his boat and then invited me into the cabin where we had a chat about what he did.

          ‘I started out on the bigger trawlers’, he explained. ‘Several of us going out for days at a time.’

          ‘Did you get seasick?’

          I’d once caught a catamaran from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and I’d spent the whole journey honking up.

          ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Really badly, for the first six months, every single day I was so ill you wouldn’t believe it. But you know what? I hid it from the rest of the crew. I tried to be all tough and manly about it, but I would find a space where they couldn’t see me and up it would all come’.

          The cabin of the boat was decorated with photographs of his family and he explained that the boat was named after his daughter. I then turned the chat to what it was that he caught in his nets.

          ‘Anything with eyes and an arsehole’, he replied.

          We both had a good laugh about that and he said I was welcome to use it in one of my poems.

          ‘Seriously, though, the impact of climate change is affecting the types of fish that I can catch. Ordinarily, you’d be assured of catching certain species at certain times of the year. But now, it’s all over the place. Fish which rely on warmer waters are spending more and more time further north. And this affects what I can sell on the quay when I return. Most of my customers are restaurants and hotels and what they put in their menus depends on what I can catch while I’m out’.

          I asked him where he fishes.

          ‘That’s a secret’, he replied. ‘I can’t tell you, because I want to keep these places to myself. But let’s just say, some mornings the entire Brixham fleet leaves together, and they all go one way, and I go the other. I have my methods’.

          We had a great time chatting and I think I was more tense than he was about it. Indeed, he seemed very media savvy, which was a relief, and the one thing I was worried about was that I would write all these notes and then not be able to understand my own handwriting.

          Once we’d done, I clambered off the craft with all the grace of a hippopotamus, then went to the bus stop and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could before I forgot anything.

          But I was on a high, because this was my first ever bit of serious community engagement. Perhaps, I thought, people might start to see me as a proper poet after all!

  1. Solo Skipper (p18)
  2. Storm (p21)

One of the things I looked into, with the help of Clare, my producer, was the history of Brixham. 

          Clare arranged for me to spend a day at Brixham Museum, poking through their archives and chatting to the curator. I was assigned a desk in the stores and the curator brought me files, folders and newspaper cuttings about the fishing industry, and we chatted about the Fishawkers.

          The Fishawkers were a band of fishermen’s wives who ran the town while their husbands were out at sea in the 1880s. They would congregate on the quayside and bid on the fish that the fishing boats brought back. As this was conducted in the form of a traditional auction, the winning bidders were usually the ones who had the loudest voices and the Fishawkers had perfected the technique. They weren’t at all averse to using a bit of physical intimidation to make sure that they bought the best fish, which they would then ‘hawk’ from door to door in barrels. The museum provided me with plenty of newspaper accounts of Fishawkers brawling in the alleyways and streets of Brixham, and one in particular who was hauled up before the local judge for a breach of the peace and was then fined extra for her cheekiness in court. The judge had asked her if she had anything to say, and she’d replied, ‘I’ve got a bit of extra money here, guv, if you’d like to put it towards my next misdemeanour’, or words to that effect.

          The thing about the Fishawkers was that they were officially breaking the law. They weren’t allowed to bid on fish and then sell them around the town. As a group, they appealed this law and won and as a result struck something of a minor triumph in the advance of women’s rights at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

          I also read about the role that the Brixham trawlers played in the First World War, when the fleet was attacked by a German U-boat, the captain of whom demanded he board each vessel and rob their kitchens of food and cooking utensils. I guess such things were hard to come by when working as a submariner. But the most stirring story was that of the work the town did to accommodate refugees from the Second World War. Belgians from the fishing towns on the North Sea ferried across the Channel to Brixham, having forged friendships during peaceful times with visiting Brixham fishermen. And as a the Nazis moved in, they piled all of their belongings, family members, furniture and hopes and dreams aboard their fishing boats and made the journey.  In such a way, welcomed by the local townspeople, Brixham became known as ‘Little Ostend’, and the Belgians became a part of the town’s culture and community, getting jobs in shops and on farms, marrying locals and helping with the war effort. When the war ended, quite a few stayed behind. The rest left in a fleet of buses in order to make the return journey, the whole town coming out to wave them off.

          And now here I was, at a time of Lockdown and pandemic restrictions, reading about their exploits in the confines of the museum store room, feeling the swirl of history around me and the odd idea that really, no matter what we all go through, we are just the continuation of something much bigger. Which was a pretty profound thought for a comedy performance poet.

  1. Fishawkers (p45)
  2. Little Ostend (p47)

Clare suggested I look at the environmental aspect of the fishing industry. Bizarrely, a couple of months earlier I’d done a couple of online education courses, once it became obvious that lockdown was happening and that I’d be indoors for pretty much the foreseeable future. The two courses I did were both about as distinct from each other as I could manage. The first was a study of the Icelandic Sagas, delivered by the University of Reykjavik, and sure, it gave me one or two ideas for poems and short stories, but I took the course more out of interest. The second was delivered by the University of Queensland in Australia, and it was all about the coastal ecosystem, with special emphasis on coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses.

          So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that an area of Brixham just off the coast was home to a very important patch of seagrass. This was now something I could speak about with a small degree of prior knowledge, of how   seagrass is a vital piece of the marine ecosystem in that it acts as a nursery for younger fish and the next generation of fish stocks. Not only that, but seahorses were a feature of the seagrass environment, and I’d always felt a strange kinship with seahorses. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the flippers.

  1. Seagrasses (p50)

During the time I was working on the Brixham project, I was also planning my new Edinburgh fringe show for this year. And as you can tell from the following extract, the project certainly had an influence!

  1. Poet In Residence

The crew soon grew tired of my constant questions . . 

  1. Shakka Lakka Boom

At night, the captain regailed us with tall tales from a life spent on the ocean.

  1. Captain and the Sea Monster

 Wouldn’t you know, the weather was awful. I’d never seen such rain. I wore my usual ‘performance’ costume, but due to the intense and very persistent deluge, I wore a large raincoat over the top of them, and then a plastic mac over that, too. I was more worried about the camera and the microphone that I was wearing, but John and Clare kept themselves very dry while I stood on the quay with the rain rolling down my neck, performing to the camera. Worse still, the persistent rain flattened my traditional gelled, spiked hairstyle flat to my face, and the gel began to drip into my eyes. The book became a sodden mulch in my hands. In fact, it all reminded me of flyering in Edinburgh.

          And thus, the Squidbox project finished with something of a damp squib. But it had brought me closer to the town, and for the first time I felt truly a part of the local community. The poems made their way out into the world and I was asked to perform some of them at Brixham’s Museum during their inaugural poetry festival in the spring. And sadly, when a Brixham trawler sank off the coast of Sussex that winter, the poem We are Brixham featured on the Devon News website. Indeed, the whole tragedy affected me not only that I’d spent the summer with the trawler crews, and we’d chatted about the potential for danger, but also because one of those who died had been a friend of a friend and I’d hoped to interview him at some point, though never got around to it.

          Looking back now, the project seems a very interesting diversion. Once Squidbox was done, I was able to concentrate on the next solo show, and I incorporated a couple of the poems into the narrative, the storyline of which poked gentle fun at the whole process. By the time I’d finished the project, I understood that I certainly had the creative abilities to engage myself in something different, and this made me kind of fearless when it came to choosing a new project. But most of all, it demonstrated that no matter where we are and who we are, we are tied to the history, community and environment in which we are placed, and this kind of made me feel a little better about the world itself.

  1. We are Brixham (p62)

You can watch a video of some of these poems, recording in the pouring rain in Brixham, right here:

You can buy the book Squidbox here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox

Featured

A message from the chairman of the scone society

Dear fellow scone enthusiasts.
It pains me to write this letter, but circumstance has forced my hand. For many years, the Brixham Town Scone Society website has been a valuable tool for members to connect, ask advice, share cooking tips, and buy and sell both equipment and ingredients. There have been no complaints and many of us have both enjoyed, and taken advantage of, this wealth of scone-cooking know-how just a click of the mouse away.
However, lately it has come to the attention of this committee that the Classified section of the website has been coming under some abuse from certain members whose interests lay beyond mixing methods and how to create a really cracking milk glaze.
The problem first came to light when it was pointed out to me that a lot of our newer subscribers to the website, who filled in the online form, listed the classified section as their main motivation for doing so, yet almost all of them answered the question ‘How many hours a week do you spend cooking scones?’ with the response, ‘None’, and in a lot of cases, ‘I do not like scones’. This was somewhat perplexing and an investigation was launched in case there were some confusion in the title of our website, (Scones A-Plenty.com), or indeed if there were some new boy band or comic perhaps titled ‘Scone Man’, that was leading to this sudden influx in new members.
However, after a terrible mix-up (no pun intended) the other day in which one of our senior committee members, Maureen Hepplethwaite, found herself not at a scone cookery demonstration as she had been expecting, but at a swinger’s sex party, it was decided that action was needed.
The first thing we noticed was the number of young men offering a variety of different shaped spatulas for sale in the classifieds. While these are great implements in the mixing process, it is probably more common in the scone community to use wooden spoons, so I think it’s fair to say that this raised a few eyebrows among the committee. Most of these spatulas were advertised as being new, ‘or in new condition’, while some were being offered in a slightly battered state.
At this stage, alarm-bells didn’t actually start ringing. The admin behind running a pro-scone website means that some matters don’t actually get attended to until there’s some kind of emergency. The Great Flour Shortage of 2005 was one such calamity, and equally fraught was the resignation of our chairman in 2009 when he announced that frankly, he preferred muffins.
We then noticed the alarming number of society members offering scones of varying states of completion, some of which were ‘ready to pick up now’, others were, ‘come and collect’, while many were ‘lacking one final ingredient’. ‘Already in the mixing bowl’, apparently, (and according to Reginald, who does not proclaim to be an expert on such matters), means that the ‘seller’ is willing to conduct the process in their own home. ‘On the baking tray’, apparently means that they are willing to travel. And it’s anyone’s guess what ‘ready to be consumed with fresh fresh salad’, means. Suspicions were raised further when Phil Burton (member since 1988), advertised that he had a home-made ready mix featuring fresh sultana pieces and fruity chunks only to receive an email which read, ‘You’re a dirty boy, oh my, you’re a dirty boy!’, followed by someone’s phone number.
Dear society members, this will just not do. To get to the root of the problem, we have employed a code-breaker whose previous area of expertise was the Egyptian hieroglyphs and also the mating call of the common sparrow. And it was no surprise to learn that the codes adopted by many of the users of our classified pages were also a base form of mating call in themselves . Once she had explained what many of the codes and terminologies

were, I, as your brave Chairman, decided to pose online as one of these lovelorn scone-bakers with an advertisement composed specifically to entrap the guilty.
Spatula for sale (or rent). Slightly rusty yet ergonomically designed to offer maximum stirring. Mixture in bowl yet also functions on the tray. Fellow mixer must have GSOH. No salad please. Jam and cream to spread as desired. Satisfaction guaranteed. Stirs in an anti-clockwise or circular motion.
Alas, the only reply to my classified ad was from another society member who offered me a ‘lasagne’. ‘I don’t get it’, I said to the code-breaker.
‘Nor do I’, she replied.
And just to be safe, I haven’t eaten a lasagne since.
Dear society member, it is time to put an end to this, and the decision was recently
taken at a committee level to put an end to the classified section of our website. We understand that this may very well reduce the number of people who have joined our society, (over twenty thousand new members in the last six weeks, a figure which still manages to perplex us), but we believe that this is the safest method to rid our wholesome community of undesirable attention.
Like many of you, I started out as a young man with a head full of ideas and dreams intent on devoting my life to the construction and consumption of the humble scone. Starstruck by such scone-bakers as Ethel P. Anderson and Audrey ‘Iron Knuckles’ McGinty, I saw the society as a means to connect with like minded souls whose purpose and heart were in a similar vein to my own. It has been nothing short of tragic to see our fine institution highjacked by those whose thoughts remain as base as their own animalistic instincts. I see this as an opportunity to root out these wrongdoers and make our society safe again!
The moment I’ve finished writing this email, I shall be visiting the committee where no doubt we shall be indulging in the wholesome pursuit of the perfect scone. And yes, fellow committee members, thanks for asking, I shall definitely be bringing my own spatula.
Yours
The chairman.

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Slam Poem to Raise Awareness of Unregulated Backflow Systems in the Plumbing Industry

So I often get asked to write poems about issues and an issue was recently brought to my attention. I usually write about human rights and political matters but in this case I was asked by the Plumbing Standards and Water Supply Appliance Regulatory Commission to promote a campaign raising awareness of the contamination and pressure issues which come with unregulated backflow systems. The trouble was, before contacting me, they’d been watching videos of American slam poets, you know, those really big-voiced shouty ones.  So they asked if I could grow a beard and wear a check shirt and come up with a poem for them.

He said,
It’s there all the time,
That drip drip drip,
That rhythm which colours my life,
This drip drip drip
Like my life is a hip hop,
It’s a drip hop
It’s a drip drip drip
It’s a clogged drain in a chip shop
Like a clock tick tock counting down
The seconds to the next time
I have to do the washing up.
And he’s tired.
And he’s got a strange stain on his trousers,
A kind of waxy residue.

He said, no pressure.
I said,
How dare you tell me there’s no pressure!
You have no right to tell me that there’s no pressure!
I’ve known pressure since before you were born.
I’ve walked under stormy skies.
I’ve asked such questions, the where’s and why’s,
Life can be a disappointment but it’s seldom a surprise
You can see it in my eyes
You have no right to tell me that there’s no pressure!
And he said,
I meant water pressure.

He said,
The pipes, they rattle,
Like the plumbing in France.
You never get a chance.
It’s like a Broadway musical,
You should see the tap dance.
It’s a hotspot, it’s like hopscotch,
I’ll show you where you can find the stop cock,
Start a stopwatch
I’ll time you
It’s insanity
It’s you and me,
I said,
It’s a violation of regulation six
Slash four seven dash three,
You see.

Because
Because
Because
The two of us
Brothers in arms
Brothers with arms
We can fix this leak together
And be ever so clever
Don’t tell me whatever
The world is improving
This really is moving
But I tell you what isn’t moving -
The water in these pipes.
Don’t tell me you haven’t used an isolation valve.
Don’t tell me you haven’t used a tap back nut spanner.
Don’t tell me you don’t know your way around a pipe vice
That’s not nice
Like cooking a chicken tikka
And then running out of rice
Don’t you understand
This stanza is so long
I might possibly pass out!

Huhhhhh! (Pant!)
The way I passed out from plumbing school.
I ain’t no fool.
Pass me that pipe deburring tool.
But you,
You’re a tap squirty bloke,
You’re a basin filling jerk
You’re a water meter cheater
You’re a low flow joke
And me?
I ain’t going sixty foot down a well
To fix a pipe,
I ain’t plumbing the depths!

It’s heart skipping
It’s reality tripping
And all because the pipes are dripping
I’ll leave a gap now
For some audience finger clicking.

And now the emotions
Are getting to me.
Because no one understands that
I need
To

Tighten

A




Nut.

Let’s not succumb to the backflow.
It’s a blowback.
Like a distant memory, a throwback.
Everything has been inverted,
Like getting hot water from the cold tap.
Like that time I managed to persuade my life coach
On a change of career.
He’s now a chiropodist.
And me?
I’m an optimist.
And you?
You’re a Sagittarius,
And this?
This?
Needs no wonder
Nor hearts to plunder
This is going to take more
Than a sink plunger

And it’s why
We need
Industry regulation in the plumbing and water supply
Appliance sector.

That’s it for me now
It’s the end of the poem
Because just like the pipes
I’m drained.
Featured

In the Glare of the Neon Yak

In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a rip roaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tightrope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F? 

An hour show combining poetry, storytelling and music, In the Glare of the Neon Yak is by turns delightful, magical, disturbing. It’s a veritable modern fairy tale!

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Finding the Funny (and what to do with it when you’ve found it)

I don’t get asked to do workshops very much. But every now and then someone will say, oh, hey, erm, someone cancelled, is there any way you can lead a workshop on humour in poetry? Below you will find the notes that I use when I’m doing one of these.

Due to dyslexia, workshops aren’t something that I feel comfortable providing, because I can never successfully answer any questions which might come up. So I have these notes with me which I read from. I hope you find them useful!

Finding the Funny (and what to do with it when you’ve found it)

This workshop gives us a snapshot on how to formulate ideas to use in poetry (or comedy) and how to expand on a theme. The second part of the workshop covers the attitudes we apply to those themes.

The purpose is not to create deep philosophical page poetry. That can take months and possibly years, though it may be a start along that route.

By its nature comedy has the ability to say more than can be said through serious poems, or at least, gives the poet a platform in which they might easily bring to the surface serious themes. These themes can then be explored in a comedic manner, for example, homophobic bullying, gender expectation, heteronormativity.

However comedy is only funny when you’re punching up. If you’re in a minority or an under-represented part of the community, comedy poetry can be a way of connecting with a wider audience, because everyone enjoys a laugh no matter what your background.

Punching down, though, is not funny. It’s downright mean and it enforces stereotypes.

While this workshop might not necessarily result in a fully-formed completed poem, it will hopefully give you the tools and the impetus to get working on something funny and compelling.

So what is performance poetry? What do you understand by that phrase? (There are no wrong answers).

Discussion five to ten minutes, possible discussion points:

  • A juxtaposition of ‘high’ art of poetry and it’s usual ‘serious’ tone with the mundane, therefore elevating the mundane to high status.
  • The surprise which comes with elevating the mundane to high status.
  • Saying what nobody has ever noticed, but through a poem.
  • Saying what everybody has always noticed, again, through a poem.
  • The communal fun of a shared experience, including content, rhymes, rhythm and the atmosphere in the room which comes from these.
  • Breaking up the tone of a poetry recital or gig which isn’t necessarily comedy-focussed.
  • Hiding serious messages and social concerns behind the veneer of comedy.
  • The surprise which comes with the juxtaposition of rhythms and expectations of poetry and the conversational tone of words and phrases. (Lidls, muffins).
  • Punchlines and jokes to make the audience laugh.
  • Exaggeration and attitude.
  • Creating tension and then relieving it with humour, punchline, tag, afterthought.
  • Using language, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, metaphor, simile, repetition, vocabulary and sounds for easy aural consumption.
  • Non-verbal communication.
  1. Ideas and material generation

Pick a subject to write about. Tricky, huh? It can be something mundane like turnips or teapots, or something abstract, like ennui or clumsiness. Or a place, or a memory, or a year. Or just an interesting word that you might have heard. Write the subject in the middle of a sheet of paper.  (Two minutes)

Add around the subject some free associations, once again ignoring the social editor, and the links can be as tenuous as you like. Just write the first thought that pops into your head.  (Five minutes)

Go around the word again and add a second layer of free associations to the first ones. Again, write the first ideas that come to mind. However more than just words, these will be more like statements or ideas. (Five minutes)

Choose one or two of these ‘branches’ and add three, four, or as many new associations as you like. Each one could follow the logic of the last one or it could be an ‘afterthought’ – like a comedy punchline. (‘I like my nephews. But I could never eat a whole one – unless they were served with roast potatoes – however I’m trying to cut down on my carbs’. (Five minutes)

If you’re really lucky, the last association might be a punchline or some kind of method of drawing all of these together neatly. If so, then you’ve probably got the basis of a joke. In any case, you’ve now got the structure of a pretty weird poem.

Just concentrating on one of these ‘branches’, free write a poem, ignoring the social editor.

The social editor is the part of the brain that tells you that you can’t say or write something because it isn’t proper. Part of writing comedy is learning to ignore the little voice that says, ‘Hey, that’s not logical, you wouldn’t find a duck driving a bus’, or, ‘In real life, people would certainly not try and have a conversation with an elephant about prunes mistaking them for a supermarket manager’.

Often when you ignore the social editor, several disconnected themes suddenly connect. Writers have been trying to think of methods to achieve this over the years. Some take to drinking, some take to drugs. My own method is to kind of take my brain out of gear, relax, free-write and see what emerges.  (Fifteen minutes)

(Read examples people have come up with, ten minutes).

  1. Attitude

This is the ‘what to do with it once you’ve found it’ part of the workshop. 

There are many attitudes that you can take while writing or performing. You can write in praise of a subject, or you can rant against it. You can be angry, venting, quizzical, perplexed, speak from a certain authority, you can be in awe, laughing at it, laughing with it, having fun, or you can be surreal or just plain weird. There are many different attitudes.

Others include : fun, surreal, plain / neutral, angry, ranting, in character, monotone. A lot of these depend on your tone of voice, facial expressions, movements and gestures.

Think about what kind of attitude you might like to apply to what you have written. (Five minutes).

(Let people demonstrate some of their attitudes, five to ten minutes).

Now look at these attitudes again and choose what you would consider to be the complete opposite. For example, ranting might become fawning, fun might become scared, angry could be enthusiastic. Or just pick a completely different attitude at random just to play around. (Five minutes).

(Let people demonstrate some of these attitudes, five to ten minutes).

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What Jack Kerouac said to Frank O’Hara

What Jack Kerouac said to Frank O’Hara

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been re-reading Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Kerouac and kind of fell in love with the idea of freedom and movement, jazz and friendship that his books described. Consequently I grew up with the idea of the Beat Generation being this mighty art form of expression and culture which has gone on to inform the literary movements of the present day.

          Naturally, this idea was just the romantic side of me attaching importance to something I really liked. Because when I was a teenager, I wasn’t into sports or football or anything like that. The big names of literature were the equivalent of major league football teams. I didn’t care about Liverpool FC, or Real Madrid, or Bjorn Borg. For me, the big names were Kafka, Camus, Dorothy Parker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And of course, Jack Kerouac.

          As I grew older I had to get a job, and real life kind of intervened, and this meant that I didn’t read, or dream, quite so much. Around the year 2000 I decided to study with the Open University, and this led me to the poetry of Frank O’Hara.

          I hated poetry. I always enjoyed English Literature at school, but I hated poetry. It left me cold every single time, from what’s his name with his bog bodies, to Byron going on and on about how much he liked Napoleon. Wordsworth was just a pain in the arse. Poetry never spoke to me the way that prose did, and most poems seemed to be a puzzle that had to be solved, but never would be solved, or at least, never by me. Some of the words were pretty, but really, who had the time? 

          I was very excited when I learned that one week, we’d be studying Allen Ginsberg. A-ha! Wasn’t Ginsberg a friend of Kerouac and William Burroughs? Sure, he was just a boring poet, but wouldn’t he be saying something as exciting as the saintly Jack?

          And sure, the beginning of Howl was great, but then it just became words again. And my mind started to drift. And I’d re-read lines. And the text would say, ‘Look how exciting this next verse is!’, and I’d read it and think, ‘What?’ The whole week was very disappointing.

          The next week we were due to study Frank O’Hara, and I thought, oh jeez, not another bloody poet. But perhaps this defeatist frame of mind was just the ring thing at the time, and it has probably changed the entire course of my life. Expected to be bored arseless, I was instead completely captivated by this slightly camp fresh new voice writing poems about drinking cola, eating hamburgers, calling up friends of the phone and watching B-movies. And of course, sexual acts in train station toilets. Frank O’Hara, I said, where have you been all my life?!

          If you’re reading this, then you’ll probably know all about Frank, and how he was a member of the New York school of poetry in the 1950s, allied to the abstract expressionists and employed by the Museum of Modern Art. I liked New York, and I liked abstract expressionism, and I’d been to MoMA several times. More than that, Frank seemed to be talking just to me. Sure, everyone who reads his poems probably thinks the same thing, but I sensed in his voice the sort of personality that I could easily become friends with. Who needs those Beat Poets with their beards and their sandals and their grimy treks across the continent when this urbane, funny, whimsical precursor to Warhol, who hung around cafeterias and galleries and burger bars, (and station toilets), existed and elicited more or less the same artistic response from the reader?

          It’s been 22 years since I discovered O’Hara and I’ve read almost every textbook, biography and anthology you can think of. Because O’Hara showed me that poetry can be about anything which you want it to be about. There doesn’t have to be something metaphysical or metaphorical about it. Sometimes a poem about eating a sandwich at lunchtime can just be about eating a sandwich at lunchtime. And it can be funny! Who else could end a poem with the words, ‘Lana Turner we love you, get up!’, the poem in question being ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’.

          When I first started performing and writing performance poetry fourteen years ago, O’Hara was my reference point. He helped me find my own poetry voice. This would be before I was introduced to the work of people like Ivor Cutler or Salena Godden. It’s probably fair to say that if I hadn’t read O’Hara, then I’d never have taken up spoken word.

There are literary stories which I love. These are usually about writers meeting, and some of these may be so mythological as to not actually have happened at all. One of my favourite stories involves a cab ride shared after a Parisian party by those two giants of the literary scene, James Joyce and Marcel Proust. And apparently, they sat side by side in the cab, completely silent the entire journey, and when they arrived at the first dropping off place, Joyce said, ‘Evening’, and that was it.

          But there’s another literary meeting of world which I enjoy, and this involves Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara. Representatives of the two different schools of poetry, the Beat Generation and the New York School, they apparently did not get along.

          Now this was a shame. It’s like discovering that two of your uncles don’t like each other. I tried to stay neutral in this battle from seventy years ago, but while I liked Kerouac, and while Kerouac was a big part of my formative years, I decided very much to put everything behind Team O’Hara.

          It’s not quite clear how this enmity existed. There have been some who have accused Kerouac of homophobia, though a lot of his friends, and a lot of the content of his work have been concerned with homosexuality and very non-judgementally so for a time that was significantly more conservative in these matters. There have even been some who suggest that Kerouac was simply jealous that Frank could be so open about his sexuality. Others suggest that Kerouac’s antagonism towards O’Hara was because his friend, Gregory Corso, was a big fan of O’Hara’s oeuvre, which made Jack jealous, and Ginsberg was also an admirer.

          Whatever the cause, word has it that at a poetry reading in New York, while O’Hara was reading some of his poems, Kerouac is supposed to have shouted, ‘You’re ruining American poetry!’ To which O’Hara is said to have responded, to much laughter, ‘That’s more than you’ve ever done!’

          I’d love this story to be true. Especially as Kerouac is later meant to have apologised a few months later, by visiting O’Hara’s flat, saying nothing, but typing out an apology on his typewriter. Something along the lines of, ‘Sorry for what I said that time’.

How I would love to have been there. I can imagine Frank afterwards, probably at a party, bitching about Kerouac. He would probably have found it hilarious.

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Blimp – Live in Bristol

You can now download a recording of my gig in Bristol last month. This was an amazing evening at the Wardrobe Theatre in front of a lovely audience.

I did a few old poems, a few new ones, a cover version and a really old poem from when I was about 4!

You can stream the album for free, or download it for a fiver. I hope you enjoy it!

https://robertgarnham.bandcamp.com/album/blimp-live-in-bristol-2022

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Seven Golden Rules to Enjoy Life, for Pete’s sake.

Some golden rules to start enjoying life, for Pete’s sake.
By Robert Garnham

Being a cheerful, optimistic sort of person, but also a poet, people often ask me for advice to get through the day. So here are my top golden rules which, hopefully, will benefit many of you.

1. No one is ever worth writing a poem for, though every now and then you’ll meet someone who’s worth a limerick, particularly if they come from Chard.

2. It’s easy to get a personalised number plate, according to my friend PUV 621R.

3. A two-day old baguette will stop your car rolling down the street.

4. Hold on to your nostalgia, otherwise you’ll have nothing to be nostalgic about, except possibly for the time you used to be nostalgic about things, so maybe you can be nostalgic about that.

5. Every fear can be overcome. Do it with a smile! (Unless your fear is crushing loneliness).

6. It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too early to forget.

7. Only concentrate on that which requires no thought.

8. You might not mention the elephant in the room, but you can certainly wonder how it got up the stairs and through the door.

9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, ‘I am loved, I am loved’. At least this way you’re prepared for any other claptrap that comes along.

10. Everyone you see or meet or talk to has been born. Even Avril Lavigne. And if you think being born was difficult, try getting a dentist during the weekend.

11. Go on, help yourself to the last cake in life. Living is all about grabbing the last cake. Go on, have it. Enjoy it. The dog licked it.

12. Get up early one morning, when the dew is still on the grass, and go for a walk barefoot in the park. Let me know when you’re doing this so that I can come round and borrow your vacuum cleaner.

13.Do something that excites you every day. Subvert the rules. Turn things on their head. (Naturally it’s best not to attempt this if you’re an airline pilot.)

14. How do we know that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? Who was the first person to discover this? How many similar things do we do which are good or bad luck without us knowing? Brandishing a vase on a Thursday? Sitting on a pouffe just after lunch? The mind boggles, Mrs Trubshaw, the mind boggles.

15. Give as much joy to the small things in life as you do to the large. Which is why me and my ex split up.

16. If at first you don’t succeed, then maybe catching bullets between your teeth isn’t the job for you.

17. If you don’t think you can get it out, don’t stick it in there in the first place.
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Whimsy in the Woods Episode Nine

Today’s episode comes from the centre of London next to the Science Musuem. Robert reminisces about working in a social history museum and the philosophical questions he would ask about looking at old photos of Victorian rural workers, then performs a poem about someone called Justin Trubshaw.

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Shakka Lakka Boom Live in Bristol

Here’s a track from my forthcoming live album Blimp. Recorded at the Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol earlier this month.

You can stream or download Shakka Lakka Boom!

https://robertgarnham.bandcamp.com/track/shakka-lakka-boom-2