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).

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.

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.





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.

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.

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’

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.

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.

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/