Brand new video! And a poem from my collection Yay!, published by Burning Eye
You can buy the book here https://professorofwhimsy.com/shop/
Brand new video! And a poem from my collection Yay!, published by Burning Eye
You can buy the book here https://professorofwhimsy.com/shop/
She was walking up the stone steps of the ruined castle. A low mist was rolling in. Well, there had to be a low mist, didn’t there? Everything else was utterly unique, why not throw some mist into the mix? The steps were steep and she wondered if the people who’d lived and worked there all those centuries ago had ever complained about how steep the steps were, the castle itself built on the side of a vast, rocky granite crag of a hill. She knew there had to be an element of function and fortification, but she wondered why they hadn’t made at least a few concessions. It would be all so different if the place had been built these days.
Martin was ahead of her. She couldn’t see him. The mist was starting to make everything damp. She didn’t want to hurry, lest she slip, and that would really be the icing on the cake.
A voice came back from ahead.
Her name wasn’t Misty. It was Vanessa. She wasn’t laughing, either.
‘Can you just stop for a moment and let me catch up?’
The steps looked treacherous in the wet. But she’d heard rumours of a tea shack at the top and it didn’t look like it would be very busy today, what with the weather and the mist and the fact that the car park had been almost empty. She had already decided that the tea shack would be the ideal place to decide, at least for herself, if Martin were the man for her. But he’d already gone scampering off into the gloom leaving her at it. The signs weren’t good.
‘Martin? Where are you?’
‘There’s lots of lichen, up here’, came a voice from the swirling fog.
‘Seen any wizards?’
She was alluding to a joke they’d made in the car on the way here. The joke had been about wizards. They’d both laughed.
‘Wizards? Why would I see any wizards?’
‘Remember? What we were saying? In the car?’
‘Honestly, you’ve got a memory like a sieve!’
She stood aside to let a couple of hikers pass who were coming down from the castle. Both of them had two Alpine walking sticks each, as well as boots, waterproof jackets, backpacks. She smiled as they passed and fought the temptation to jokingly tell them that they’d lost their skis. They smiled and nodded, and then disappeared into the gloom. Damn, she thought. She should have asked them about the tea shop.
‘You were saying about wizards, remember? And how they’d had to carry around these wands, you know, tools of the trade, and how phallic the wand actually is when you think about it, when you look an ancient folklore . . ‘.
‘Phallic. You know, substituting a long wand for the fact that they’ve probably got very small penises. Good morning’.
Another hiker with two Alpine walking sticks passed her, going down. Jeez, that was embarrassing.
The bastard’s gone on without me, she thought. And she continued climbing the steep, damp steps, feeling a pull on the back of her thighs.
The mist was getting denser.
This validates everything, she told herself. They weren’t compatible. Sure, it’s good not to spend so much time in each other’s company, but to leave her completely alone on the treacherous steps on the side of a ruined medieval castle, which loomed like a giant tree stump in the mist, showed that he didn’t even consider their relationship to be anything other than two individuals whose paths became occasionally diverged.
At last, she came to the top of the steps and an area where slabs of granite poked out between the tall grass, the world beyond the immediate vicinity a formless void of mist and damp, the castle walls looming.
Martin was nowhere to be seen. And she could see no tea shop.
A hiker with a pair of Alpine walking sticks emerged from the fog and passed her.
‘Misty, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s Vanessa’.
This week I took part in an online poetry slam, and as ever, I was blown away by the quality of the performances and the sheer poetic talent of those taking part. By the wonders of Zoom, participants in many parts of the country, and further afield, poured their heart out and took the audience to the darkest places of the human psyche, taking in every part of lived experience along the way, from death, to rape, to misogyny, genocide and personal angst. They did so using language and imagery which stayed with me long afterwards, painting pictures using words which imprinted on my imagination the emotions of what it means to be human. The slam was won, rightly, by the performer who’d performed the best, written the best, and absolutely nailed the format.
I was lucky enough to get out of the first round with a poem using humour to tackle the weighty subject of homophobia. My strategy, however, had been then to revert to a couple of comedy poems. However I knew that the mood of the night was to embrace the deeply serious, and that comedy poems certainly wouldn’t cut the mustard, so I did a semi-comedic poem about death in the second round, my hand kind of forced by the dynamics of the evening. In the event, I was incredibly happy with my performances, and happier still that the strategy I’d picked would probably work well at another event.
But then I got thinking: Just when did poetry slams in the UK become so serious? My performance career now spans three decades, (okay, so I only performed in two years of the 2000s, and we’re only one year into the 2020s, but who’s counting?). And when I started slamming all those years ago, the one certainty was that audiences, judges and fellow competitors alike were up for a laugh. If you could write well and with humour, and perform it well and with humour, then the chances were that your chances were good. And this is something I’d always admired about the UK slam scene. People like AF Harrold and Jonny Fluffypunk were winning slams all over the place when I first started, and it felt wonderful being a part of such a very welcoming scene in which comedy was rewarded and regarded well in an art form, (poetry), which I’d always seen as snooty and stuck-up. The fact that comedy poets won slams also felt like the whole scene was somehow ironic. Sure, I’d been on the internet and watched American poetry slams, which were all about identity and big themes, where the serious poet, or, god help us, the poet who turned on the waterworks, was acclaimed as the winner. While over in the UK, AF Harrold was winning slams with poems about cats being better than dogs.
Sure, there were serious poets. Of course there were. At my very first slam, in Bristol, I made it to the final with my poem about beards and was (rightly) beaten by Steven Duncan, who did a wonderful poem about the black experience from Windrush to the present day, taking in racism and police brutality. But it was still a fifty fifty shot that a comedy poem would do the biz, and probably around fifty percent of the poets at the slam were comic poets.
And yes, I managed here and there to win the occasional poetry slam. It always felt ironic doing so. Because I’ve never seen what I do as poetry, and a poetry slam seemed the ultimate American and trendy thing to take part in. The fact that I could do so with poems about jellyfish and badgers and, of course, beards, seemed to drive a truck straight through such pretensions.
Naturally, over the last year and a half, most events have moved online, and one could argue that in so doing, they have made them more accessible and democratic. Online events have opened slams up to people who might never have been able to get out to events in far flung corners of the UK. (And to think, once a month I used to go to Bang Said the Gun in London just to take part in their weekly slam). With this increased online community, it seems that the American idea of what a poetry slam in has, stealthily, increased and encroached on the more traditional UK version. Obviously, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just the nature of these events, and the world has definitely become a more serious and, one would argue, less equal place over the last few years. Various movements have rightfully given voices to those who before might not have had a voice, or encouraged them to do so with bravery and gusto, and the poetry slam is the ideal place where this can occur. From Black Lives Matter to the #metoo movement, people are finding the courage, the depth, or the anger to draw attention to issues, and this is a wonderful thing.
So what is the point of this essay? Well, here’s my big idea. Understanding that the poetry slam genre has evolved, yet also feeling nostalgic for the days when comedy was almost an expectation of the poetry slam, I would like to propose a brand new type of poetry slam: a comedy poetry slam. While the rules and format would be roughly the same, there would be one or two tweaks. Such as: Yes, you are allowed props. Yes, you are allowed costumes. And yes, you can sing, or dance, or incorporate music. Judging criteria would be the same – performance, audience reaction and writing – but there would be scope for laughter and this could be taken into account. (This is another reason why, I believe, comedy performance poetry doesn’t work in the Zoom age in which everyone has their mic muted). In such a way, this will help poetry slams become entertainment again and reward those who experiment with the three minutes that they’re given. It’s time to draw attention to the performance aspect of spoken word, (after all, it was still called performance poetry back when I started, with the emphasis on the performance), and marvel in the inventiveness of so many fertile minds.
I am the captain of this good ship.
Seafaring is in my soul.
I spend my time in that bit at the front,
You know, at the top,
With the big windows,
What’s it called?
Where I steer it from.
I’m a very merry mariner
A merry mariner me.
I’m a very merry mariner
On a millpond mirror sea.
I’m the captain don’t you see
You can pipe me aboard any time.
Weeee-weeee, captain on bridge!
(Oh, that’s what it’s called,
My crew noticed my tattoo,
They always point it out.
Whenever I pass near them,
‘Anchor’, is what they shout.
‘Such an anchor’.
‘Here comes the anchor’.
‘Oh my god it’s the anchor’.
Is of an anchor.
Seventy five percent of my office
Have been taken over by cargo.
I suppose that’s why they call them
Next door is a room where I planted
Gorse, heather and wild grass
And let some sheep graze.
‘Why did you do that?’, my deputy asked.
I said, ‘It’s the staff common room’.
But I like being the captain
It’s the job I’ve always wanted to do.
They sent me to navel college.
I think it was the wrong one.
I know nothing about driving a ship
But I have an encyclopedic knowledge
Of belly buttons.
I run my fingers on the hull
And listen to the soft whispering of the ship.
‘Capital cities’, she says,
‘London, Paris, Rome,
Canberra, Delhi, Beijing’.
‘Oh my god’, my deputy said,
‘I think the ship is listing’.
I found a subordinate the other day
Piling plastic bottles on the deck,
Plastic bottles of French, Dijon, English,
Colmans and other brands
Of hot yellow sauce.
‘No, you idiot!’, I yelled,
‘I told you to make a
But I’m the captain,
Whatever happens, I’m the captain,
I’m the tip top nautical fella on this
rusty ship with its big brass propeller,
I’m the order barker,
I’m the port-side parker,
I’m the first mate berater
I’m the seaman inspiration
I’m the radar operator
If we sink I’ll see ya later
I’m the ship steering quip-sneering
Anchor-dropping boat flip fearing
Keep myself in uniform so
Never wear an earring
I’m the poop deck slipper
I’m the mid storm kipper
I’m the radar flashing blipper
I’m in charge cos I’m the skipper
I’m the captain
I’m the captain
I’m the captain
Don’t you knowwwwwwwww.
The other day we found
Water in the cargo hold.
‘Do you think we’ll sink?’
‘Maybe not’, I replied.
‘Capsize?’, they asked.
‘Extra large’, I replied.
The Queer Express
A tinsel littered terminus on the greyest grey of days.
A gleaming marble concourse and a smoke machine haze.
Excitement builds in tight T-shirts, dressing to impress.
A train’s due in at platform six, it is the Queer Express.
The chuffing puffing mother huffing pumping disco train,
This gently swaying high heel sashaying, otherwise quite tame
Lip sync boa something of a goer power ballad queens
Leather clad sexy dad, this transport of my dreams.
Everyone is welcome as it thunders down the track
A destiny that’s shining bright, the rhythm of the clickerty clack.
Clones and drones feel so at home and big butch bears too.
Take a seat on the Queer Express, carriages L G B T and Q.
Our history is one of Pride and those who dared to stand
And fight the law and rise above let’s shake them by the hand.
And now there is sweet freedom sung amid the pumping beat
The rainbow flag flies proud for you, hop aboard and take your seat.
This sequinned rocket this tinsel train there is no quiet zone.
The ultimate community where no one feels alone.
I climbed aboard twenty years ago, never again felt like a loner.
A sexy hunk in the opposite bunk is giving me a
Reason to be here.
This all embracing heart racing Diesel engined chuffer.
This laser choo choo homo loco never will hit the buffer.
It’s thundering and building speed and passing through the night,
For souls in need who feel indeed that now the time is right.
There’ll be moaners haters zealous types and those who don’t agree.
The train is there for everyone and that’s what makes us free.
The point of life is that we live up to our history,
And if you can’t be what THEY want, you might as well just BE.
The Queer Express is said by some to be an urban myth.
Stand by the tracks on a foggy night and see its glow in the mist.
The train exists in every soul who’s felt the world’s askance.
Hop aboard the Queer Express and join this blissful dance!
This Sunday afternoon I did a radio interview with Jeff Sleeman. During the interview we talked about the fact that this was my ten year anniversary as a performer and indeed, Jeff had been at the very first gig I’d been to. It seems inconceivable that ten years have passed, for I remember the night in question in precise detail. I remember that three of the performers had been bald and that I mistook one from another, and congratulating them on a poem that they hadn’t performed. And I remember seeing Bryce Dumont a couple of days later doing his shopping and becoming very nervous, having seen a local celebrity out of his stage environment. It all seemed so new and fresh.
Ten years, though.
I asked the host, Chris Brooks, whether I could have a slot at the next event and he said yes. Great! But now a serious problem arose, in that I didn’t have any poems. Not one. I had no material whatsoever. I’d only come along to the night the previous month because I was bored. So I hurriedly wrote two poems, one called My Family, the other called I Don’t Want To Be A Performance Poet. Both of them relied heavily on rhyme. And the latter was somewhat prophetic. So I stood there, hands shaking holding sheets of A4 paper, and amazingly people laughed in all the places where I thought I was saying something funny. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe it. For years I’d written short stories alone and nobody laughed. In one moment I had doubled, tripled, quadrupled the normal audience for my output.
It’s probably fair to say that performance poetry has changed my life. When I look back at everything that I’ve done over the last ten years, I can hardly believe it myself. Ten years ago I was a shy individual who would do anything rather than speak to strangers or hold a conversation. And now I leap on to stages in far flung places and Spout the most meaningless whimsy, and people laugh. I came from a background in which such exuberance was seen as the sort of thing reserved for those from different upbringings, that those who, like me, were raised on the mean streets of Englefield Green’s notorious Forest estate, could not possibly aspire to a life in the performing arts. Culture was out of touch. I didn’t have the right to perform.
Yet I did have one thing going for me, and that’s my homosexuality. Growing up and feeling different to everyone around me, during a time of Section 28 and the AIDS crisis, a time in which homophobia was the natural response and the default setting of organisations and even those in authority around me, I kind of knew that the world wasn’t quite as settled as people assumed. My childhood love of comedy and writing could be more than just a hopeless dream. My voice could be just as legitimate as those who I looked up to, even if I felt that I was not entitled due to my upbringing, my education, my background.
It’s just a shame that it took twenty years for this entitlement to become apparent. We now live in a culture in which we are told that we are all entitled to a voice, and that’s great. By the time I started performing, I was thirty five. The spoken word scene is now filled with young people who leap on the stage from an early age with an imbued sense of entitlement and freedom. It was never this easy!
Regular Robheads will have noticed that I try not to be too autobiographical. Attendance at a poetry night these days, particularly in cities such as London and Bristol, is to be immersed in autobiographies and the dance of the self, explorations of emotion, lessons learned from life and hopes for the future. And yes, I have one or two poems of my own in which I explore my own life and things that have happened, but in the most part, I prefer to keep these away from public exposure. For a start, my own problems and misfortunes are very minor indeed and I have been very fortunate to live a life of contentedness. Secondly, I’m very aware that the persona of Robert Garnham, Professor of Whimsy, who appears on stage, is a complete fabrication. Anything that I say on stage will never have a ring of truth about it. The truth is seldom so convenient as to fit in with a rhyme scheme, and just because something rhymes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.
So what I’m saying in this blog is that I am very happy with the person that I am now, and the progress that I’ve made during the last ten years. Each day as a performance poet is a learning process. I see those around me, those I look up to and admire who are way above me in the spoken word pecking order, and I try to see what they do and the way they achieve it. Jonny Fluffypunk, Rachel Pantechnicon, Byron Vincent, Melanie Branton, Liv Torc, people whose success and acclaim I one day hope to emulate, and that’s what drives me on as an artist and as a human being.
And that’s the last thing I thought I’d mention, here. In honour of my ten years, I’ve started calling myself a performance poet again. The biggest change in the scene that I’ve noticed, and one that has been pointed out by people such as Pete Bearder in his excellent book, is that the community has moved away from the performance poetry of the late 2000s, in which variety was the keyword, and comedy, and props, and general silliness and the willingness to shock, to become a kind of homogenised slam-influenced autobiographical entity known as spoken word. And while I’ve been pleased to acknowledge the ‘art’ part of the phrase ‘spoken word artist’, it’s taken about eight years to realise that this is not who I am. I am a performance poet, and more specifically, a comedy performance poet. And just by carrying on with what I was doing in 2009, (and what other people were doing too), I’ve somehow become a bit unique. And you know what? I’m really comfortable with that!
So, then, ten years! I’ve had the most amazing time. To celebrate, I’ve undertaken a little mini tour and the lovely interview with Jeff can be found below. My part of the show starts just after the hour mark.
In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a riproaring 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 tight rope 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 the sparkling new show from spoken word artist, Robert Garnham.
Mr. Juicy is the twenty minute poem which concluded my 2017 show Juicy, which I took to Edinburgh and all over the UK. I am incredibly proud of this piece and listening to it again brings back all kinds of memories. I hope you enjoy it!
Elvis Impersonator, Newton Abbot Station
Have you ever gone through life thinking, wow, there are a lot of incredibly eccentric people out there? And then had that weird thing happen when you get all philosophical and start to wonder whether the weird people are actually the normal ones? What sort of person goes through life only caring what other people think about them?
I love eccentricity. In fact, were it not for the glaringly obvious, I’d love to be eccentric, too. I keep looking forward to being an old man, and having found my niche in the world of eccentricity, some kind of little quirk that I might expand and make all my own. And I don’t mean sitting on a park bench and barking at people, or being that man who used to walk around Paignton while wearing rabbit ears. I want to cultivate something epic, a kind of intellectual eccentricity, like Ivor Cutler, or Gilbert and George.
I haven’t seen Rabbit Ears for a few years, now. There was something almost graceful about him, the way he’d walk upright and with aristocratic bearing, and yet with a pair of rabbit ears perched right on top of his head. I remember one day my dad made a very rare excursion by bus into the town where I live, and sure enough, on the way home again, Rabbit Ears came and sat in the seat next to him. Dad spent the whole journey kind of looking at him out of the corner of his eye, while everything else pretended that he wasn’t there. And it was only when a kid came on that the silence was broken.
‘Mum, why is that man wearing rabbit ears?’
‘Just be quiet!’
I wouldn’t say that I’d particularly have the bravery to walk around with a pair of rabbit ears, but there’s something distinctly charming and almost comforting about eccentricity.
One of the more interesting aspects of being a spoken word artist is that it involves a lot of late night travel. Gigs usually end around eleven at night and then I have to find my way either home or to the town where I’m staying. It’s usually considered polite to wait until the end of a gig, though I have snuck off early every now and then over the years. If I’m performing in London, for example, I usually stay in Woking, so that means a late night commute out to the suburbs. Which actually isn’t too bad. The trains are frequent and fast and I’ve never once been mugged, or at least, not knowingly. It’s possible during this time that someone has tried to mug me, but due to the fact that I often wear earphones at such times, I might possibly have mistaken it for a genial yellow or an enquiry as to the time. And there are plenty of people around, even on those late night trains. In fact there’s a weird kind of bleary eyed camaraderie, that we are all just winding down now, intent on getting home before midnight. In ten years of gigging, nothing bad has ever happened. I’ve also caught late night trains from Gloucester to Cheltenham, or Bath to Bristol, or Cambridge to London, or Oxford to Reading, and every single time I’ve felt safe and surrounded by people, even on the platforms.
Devon, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. Things are different in Devon. For a start, the trains are much smaller, shabbier, and seem to rock from side to side more than they go forwards. The trains are diesel powered, too. Which means that they seem to make a straining over exerted sound before they’ve even moved away from the station platform, shuddering and rocking and juddering until with a mighty effort they start creeping forward. And the stations they arrive at are dark, deserted, downright creepy and miles from anywhere.
And the other passengers. Wow, the other passengers are scary. There’s something about the train service in Devon, mainly because it’s the only public transport to some of these deserted rural communities, that seems to attract, if one must put it politely, prolific drinkers. Not only prolific, but vocal, too. Even if they’re travelling along and they’ve never met anyone else on the train, they have to kind of shout above the roar of the engines, which admittedly, are very loud. Even the most normal conversation sounds like a punch up and it’s not a good place to be for those of a nervous disposition. Cider is often the main beverage of choice, and I’ve begun to see those brown two little bottles as a symbol of potential trouble. The earphones come in handy. I’ve often listened to Radio Four over a background of what sounds like a full blown riot.
Mind you, I’ve always felt relaxed about public transport in Devon. I once managed to catch a bus from Newton Abbot to Paignton with my eyes shut, and nothing bad happened to me at all. The reason for this is that I had an eye examination at the hospital and a friend, Mark, had come along to make sure that everything went ok. The hospital asked me to bring someone, and it soon became apparent that this was because they were going to give me eye drops which would blur my vision and make me blind. This they duly did, and once my appointment was over, they let me go. But that was ok, I reasoned, because I had Mark with me. Mark would protect me, wouldn’t he?
Bless him, he made sure that I got to the bus stop okay. And then he said, ‘Right, good luck with getting home, I’m off’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m going shopping. Do you really think I’d come out all this way and not go round the shops? Anyway, let me know when you’re home. Send me a text’.
‘But I won’t be able to see my phone!’
‘It’s in your pocket. Right then, see you later’.
And off he went.
I’ll never know how I managed to get home. There was a lot of fumbling involved and as luck would have it at the time, I happened to live near the bus station.
But Devon’s stations are a whole different matter.
A couple of weeks ago I was at Newton Abbot doing a bit of train-surfing. Train-surfing, I hear you ask. What’s he going on about? Train-surfing is a method I use so that I don’t have to get the local service all the way from Exeter to Paignton. It’s usually full of drunks and ne’erdowells and it clatters along like a bouncy castle and it’s really most uncomfortable in every way you can think of. If you don’t get rattled to bits, you run the risk of a cider bottle over he head if you look at someone funny, or else some drunk is challenging everyone to an impromptu game of Buckaroo. So if I get in it at Exeter Central, then I get off it one stop later at Exeter St David’s and catch the fast service as far as Newton Abbot. The fast service is more comfortable and doesn’t stop at all the stations, and the scrotes tend to stay on the little local train.
The only downside with this is that you then have to spend twenty minutes or so at Newton Abbot station, waiting for the little local service to catch up. And you know what they say about the place. At Newton Abbot station, nobody can hear you scream. However, even this is preferable to the late night local service. Or the Rat Pee Special, as Mark calls it. On account of the odours emanating from the on board toilets.
So there I am at Newton Abbot the having train surfed from Exeter. The stars are out and it’s pretty cold. My only company on the platform is the Neon coming from the Coca cola drinks machine. I’ve got my iPad for company and I’ve been listening to a comedy album, but now the local service to Paignton was just about to arrive. I’m looking, expectantly, into the gloom, waiting for the headlights of the train and it’s familiar strained diesel whine. And I, just pondering on an idea I’ve just had for a stage play called Dr Jeckyll And Mr Humprhreys, when an Elvis impersonator shambles along the platform.
Yes, an elvis Impersonator.
And he was drunk.
‘Excuse me’, quoth he, ‘Do you like Elvis?’
Now I know this is sort of like seeing a vicar or a priest and the first thing them saying is ‘Do you like Jesus?’ But it actually happened. This was the very first thing that he asked. And he was dressed like Elvis.
‘He’s okay’, I replied.
‘Them people’, he said, pointing in a kind of drunk way to the town of Newton Abbot in general, ‘keep laughing at me’.
The man is dressed as Elvis.
‘They only care that Elvis died on the toilet. I keep telling them that there’s more than that. He made great music. But all they care about was that he died on the toilet’.
‘He died on the toilet?’
I didn’t know this for a fact, and I’d assumed that it was an urban legend.
‘Yeah. And they’re laughing at me because of it’.
I’ve never really liked Elvis, but I didn’t want to tell him this. I appreciate that he had a good voice and some good songs, and a certain rapport with his audience, but I’ve never really rated him as one of my favourite singers.
‘Do you like Elvis?’ he asked.
Well, here we go, I thought. But in my defence I was tired, and it had been a long day, and the fact that I had just performed to tens of people in Exeter kind of made me feel a little invincible.
‘He was ok. But for me, the best singer of that period was Roy Orbison’.
Now, I’ve told this story to a friend of mine and she said that this is the moment when the whole encounter could have gone tits up. He could have reacted badly. He could have lunged for me, for example, and beckme ever so violent and I could have finished my days dead, on Newton Abbot station platform, hacked to death by an Elvis Impersonator. But instead he seemed to take it very calmly and he said,
‘I love Roy Orbison! He was the best! Well, apart from Elvis, that is’.
‘That voice’, I ventured.
‘Yes! Oh man, he had such an amazing voice. Almost like an opera singer! That high note he hits in that song, what is it now . . .’.
‘Only the Lonely?’, I suggested.
‘Yes! It sends shivers down my spine. Oh wow, Roy Orbison was amazing.’
‘But not as amazing as Elvis, eh?’
‘Well’, he said, kind of standing back from me a little bit and doing something of an Elvis pose which involved a strange spasm of the leg, ‘That goes without saying’.
By now the train was coming in and I decided that I didn’t want to be stuck with a drunk Elvis impersonator for the rest of the journey, so I decided on a cunning plan. I would let him get on and then run down to the next carriage., seeing as though it was obvious that we were both waiting for the same train. I would pretend, in a very sneaky manner, that I was waiting for a train after his. Even though there was no train. This was the last service of the night.
‘Here’s your train’ I said to him.
‘You are’, he said, ‘a good bloke’.
And then he started that drunk persons thing that drunk men do when they decide that they have to shake your hand and kind of sum up everything they know about you.
‘You’re a good bloke. And I’ve really enjoyed talking. Such a good bloke. If I ever see you in the pub I will buy you a pint. Such a good bloke you are. Roy Orbison! Ha ha ha. You’re such a good bloke. You’re a really good bloke. Now come here and shake my hand. Roy Orbison! So good to meet you. Yeah. Roy Orbison. Elvis, man! And Roy Orbison. So good to meet a good person’. He said all this while shaking my hand.
At this point I realised that if I didn’t get on the train I’d miss it altogether. ‘You’d better get on’, I said, looking at the guard.
And as I watched him stumble on board, I managed to time it to perfection, running down to the next carriage and jumping on just as the guard blew his whistle.
I spent the rest of the journey hiding in the next carriage, squeezed up against the wall hoping that the Elvis impersonator didn’t see me.
As my friend Anne says, I seem to attract these sorts of people.
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 tv 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 tv, 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, butmy 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 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, 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, 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.
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 excitedly Id 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.
When I was a teenager
There were only two things I desperately wanted.
To come out,
And for formula one driver Jean Alesi to win a Grand Prix.
Both of them took a long time
And relied less on skill and more
On the bad fortune of others.
The circumstances had to be just right,
And once this landmark had been reached,
The floodgates would open
And there’d be no stopping us,
Me and Jean Alesi.
There were lots of accidents in the way,
Near misses and heart stopping moments,
And in 1995, in the city of Montreal,
Jean Alesi finally took the chequered flag first,
To floods of tears and immense relief.
Just as he crossed the finish line,
I, who was still to achieve my end,
Felt a sudden anger towards him.