In today’s podcast, Robert is still walking in the woods. He ponders on a scummy pond, a glimpse of London through the trees, and reads a poem about Icarus.
When I first started performing I would travel up to London every month or so and perform at open mics. This was a great way to meet new people and see other poets. One of the biggest and noisiest nights was Bang Said the Gun, which took place at the Roebuck pub near Borough, and I would go often, sometimes just to sit and watch, and sometimes to perform.
It was at one such evening that I first saw Mary Dickins. I fell in love with her poetry immediately. Joyous, funny, an delivered in a deadpan that added to the comedy. We would later work together making TV adverts for a certain building society, and at one or two corporate events. Mary’s poetry has a joyful playfulness which masks a serious subtext. Well observed descriptions of every day life combine with a true poetic sense of wonder.
Mary’s book, Happiness FM, has just been published by Burning Eye, and I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to interview her.
How did you get into writing poetry?
I have a distinct memory of writing my first poem when I was four. It was a nonsense poem called “The man wrapped up in a Pin” and it rhymed. I was much more excited about it than the rest of my family. Throughout my life I’ve used poetry and creative writing as a therapeutic outlet but I saw it as more of a hobby and I never thought my work was ‘good’ enough for performance or publication until much later.
I’ve seen you loads of times performing on the London spoken word scene. How did you start performing live?
I have always been interested in the performance aspect of poetry and in my professional life was a conference speaker and lecturer but it wasn’t until I was 60 and attended an Arvon course run by Matt Harvey and Kate Fox that I got the confidence and self-belief to give my poetry a try. This led me to do open mic at the brilliant Bang Said the Gun and for the first time I experienced a really noisy and enthusiastic response. I thought that was wonderful and I wanted more.
Who are your influences as a poet and artist?
My influences are many and varied. I was very taken by the Liverpool poets and the irreverent breath of air that they brought to the poetry establishment in the 60s.. I was an early and devoted fan of John Cooper Clark and John Hegley and also poets such as Maya Angelou and Grace Nicholls. I am now an avid reader of all kinds of poetry and I think I probably take a little bit from everyone I like.
Your collection Happiness FM has a bright, upbeat feel. Was this a conscious decision at the start of the project?
I do feel that the best poetry is usually uplifting in some way so I suppose I do aim for that. I guess this evolved as I thought Happiness FM made a good title poem. My daughter Hannah designed the cover around that and together we aimed for an eye catching joyful feel. I was worried about the irony bringing out a book with this title at a time when the vast majority of people were feeling singularly unhappy then I thought maybe it could bring a little joy into my readers lives.
You have a wonderful knack at finding the eccentric and the odd beneath everyday reality. How did you develop this quirky worldview?
Is it me that’s quirky? I always think it’s everybody else. I think that feeling excluded while growing up (long story) made me into an acute observer and gave me the ability to step back and view reality objectively. Let’s face it there is plenty about the world that is eccentric and odd so there is no shortage of ideas.
Your poetry can also be deeply serious. Do you think it is a poet’s duty to look at the bigger issues in society and life?
I’m not sure about the word ‘duty’ as this rather saps the enjoyment out of it. Poets describe and interpret the world around them and also chronicle the times they live in so the bigger issues are pretty hard for any of us to avoid. Exploring identity, for example, inevitably leads to us to examine and challenge existing values and systems. Poetry can be a powerful tool for change and personally I do like my poems to contain some kind of social comment however oblique. I think anyone with a public platform has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place and that includes poets. I want the poets I admire to have integrity and be truthful. But they should be allowed to express themselves as they choose.
What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time and place for writing?
I’ve never been very good at keeping to a self-imposed writing schedule although I can be disciplined and dogged if the situation calls for it. A lot of my writing takes place in my head and I find that 2am in the morning is the time when random ideas and solutions suddenly emerge. This means that the kitchen table is often littered with strange and obscure post it notes to self in the morning. I find poetry courses and writing groups very useful as they give you homework deadlines and a reason to persevere.
What was your best ever gig as a performer?
It has to be when I won the Golden Gun at Bang Said the Gun a few years ago. I performed a somewhat blasphemous poem called “The Richard Dawkins Delusion by God” and Andrew Motion who was Poet Laureate at the time and also performing said how much he liked it. I floated home on the tube that night.
What are you working on at the moment or what will your next project be?
Well this is the rub. At the moment my biggest challenge as someone in a vulnerable category for Coronavirus is how to maintain a poetry presence and promote the book. Luckily there are online opportunities at the moment and I hope these continue as there are a few of us who might be stranded if they don’t. I have a number of new poems up my sleeve so I am looking towards the next collection.
What advice would you give someone who would like to follow on your footsteps and be a poet and a performer?
Don’t wait as long as I did but at the same time it’s never too late to start.
Today I interview Laurie Eaves. Laurie is one of my favourite poems and he was due to be one of our headliners this year at the night I run, Big Poetry. Alas, the lockdown worked against that.
I’ve seen Laurie perform plenty of times on my trips to London and I was always struck by his mix of life, emotion, humour and the sensitivity and power of his words. His collection Biceps was recently published by Burning Eye and it’s an absolutely absorbing poetic description of a romance from start to end, a stunning piece of autobiographical poetry whose light touch belies the deep emotion behind its subject matter. It is a beautiful work.
I’m hoping still to have Laurie visit Torquay at some point, but for now, here’s an interview with him.
How did you get in to writing and performing poetry?
I started writing poetry way back in secondary school. My first one was called ‘Elephants Can’t Do Press-Ups’ and it was pretty awful – most of my poems at the time were just silly novelty rhymes that I mumbled too fast. In 2009 I moved to Norwich and found a very warm spoken word community. That’s where I first started performing proper gigs. At the time I did a lot of heavily rhythmic rap-style poems but over time I’ve moved further and further away from that – the new book, Biceps, couldn’t really be a lot further from that starting point. It’s very still, non-rhyming and more “pagey”.
Who were or are your major influences in poetry and performance poetry / spoken word?
I think my influences have shifted a lot over time. When I started out, I was mostly doing a semi-decent John Cooper Clarke impression. I was also thinking a lot more about the rhythms of my poetry than the meaning then and drew a lot on music for that. I was listening to a lot of hip-hop like Dream Warriors, Public Enemy and Kate Tempest back then but also nicking rhythms from prog bands like Tool, Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree and trying to emulate them with my mouth.
Music still hugely informs my writing, but in a very different way. Around the time I started writing Biceps, I got into a lot of US hardcore punk – bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag and the Minutemen whose songs each barely last a minute. You wouldn’t necessarily get that from reading the book, because tonally it’s not exactly raging punk… but the idea of trying to get an idea across efficiently and quickly is definitely there – very few of the poems go over one page.
Tonally, I’d say the book is closer to writers like John Osborne, Laurie Bolger or even Jarvis Cocker. The story is very intimate, soft and pretty kitchen sink. Caroline Teague described the book as “heartwarming and heartbreaking” which pretty much nails what I was going for.
How do you write? Do you have a specific method for writing? Do you write at specific times and places?
I do have a specific way of writing these days but it took me a very long time to discover it. I used to “make time” for my writing. I’d tell myself “ok, on Sunday you’ve got a couple of hours – let’s put that aside for writing.” Then Sunday would come and I wouldn’t do it. Something else would come up or I wouldn’t be in the mood or I’d just not do it. I didn’t have a lot of discipline around it. And after a while I realised I needed to snap myself out of that…
So in August 2017 I bought a tiny pocket notebook from Flying Tiger and started writing in it as a diary. I’d carry the book with me at all times and just write down what I was up to, anything unusual I saw, what I was eating – just anything. I burnt through the notebook in about a month and bought another. I’ve now got a big shelf full of those notebooks and I’ve written in them every day for nearly three years (except for three days when I was ill).
I know that 99% of what I write in the notebooks is rubbish. But there’s 1% in there that’s good and which I would have lost if I hadn’t written it down. So now when I do “sit down to write” or go to a workshop, I flip back over the latest notebook, see what I’ve written in there and use it as a jumping off point. The pen feels lighter because I’ve been writing anyway and I already have an idea to write about.
When did you decide to make a themed collection?
2018 was a year with a lot of change for me. On New Year’s Day, my partner and I broke up after seven years together. And my reaction to that was to write about it. A lot. It was a lot cheaper than therapy.
By April, I was still writing a lot. Not poetry really, just a lot of long free-writes, trying to process this new change in my life and starting to work out who I wanted to be in the world now. Then one Sunday, I went and had a pub lunch with my friend Laurie Bolger. I told her about all this writing I was doing. At the time I had no idea what this writing was – whether it was a play, a novel, a spoken word show, I just didn’t know.
Laurie said it sounded like it might be a poetry book and that I should go home, print out all these bits of writing and lay them out on my bedroom floor. So I did. Over the next few weeks I started to see the connections between all the pieces and that they basically fell into three categories: poems about making a relationship, poems about the relationship breaking up and poems about starting to rebuild as a new individual person. I started sorting them into those three piles “Make”, “Break” and “Build” and that structure stuck through to the final book. It’s your classic beginning-middle-end structure. Once I realised that, it became clear that I was writing a narrative poetry collection. It was very organic – I never sat down at the start and decided that’s what I was doing, I just stumbled into it.
Were the poems in Biceps written at around the same time, or over a number of months and years?
Of the 44 poems in the book, there are maybe four or five that existed in some form before 2018. By the time I consciously sat down to write the collection, the first poem “The Story’s Better When You Tell It” was a few years old. I knew I wanted that one in there because it fit the narrative and was also the first “page poem” where I felt I’d really nailed it. That’s why the collection starts there.
But the vast majority of the book was written in the first six months of 2018. It’s a very weird way to write a first collection. I think a lot of poets use their debut as a sort of “Greatest Hits”, which Biceps definitely isn’t. It felt risky – I know a lot of people who’ve seen me perform might expect a book of novelty rhyming poems – but I think the book is better because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and focused on writing new material in a very different style.
Do you do a lot of rewriting?
Definitely. Honestly, I feel more like an editor than a writer at heart – I love pulling apart writing, seeing how it works, diagnosing problems and sticking it all back together. I love to edit for other writers and think it gives you a better understanding of how to improve your own work.
For me, the best writing communicates the thoughts in the author’s head into the reader’s head as clearly and concisely as possible. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the Biceps poems started as rambling free-writes, so they needed a lot of work to cut down. The poem “Hull” started out as a three or four A4 page piece. That worked fine for a three minute slam, but made for a pretty boring read.
So the first big challenge for me was boiling the pieces down – making them more condensed and getting the language to be more efficient. We touched on it earlier, but I was listening to a lot of hardcore punk around that time. I was really fascinated by the way those bands would create songs that communicated a lot, often in less than a minute, and wanted to apply that same philosophy to my writing. “Why waste words?” was definitely a motto.
About three months after the infamous pub lunch, I had a draft that I was happy for other people to look at. I sent it to four poets I love and used their feedback to start redrafting. I worked on the manuscript pretty consistently until November 2018, working on it most days, before submitting it to Burning Eye. By the time I sent the manuscript I’d been through 10 full redrafts and about 30 “mini-redrafts”. I’m definitely not the most talented poet I know, but I like to think I make up for that through hard work.
Burning Eye took the book on in early 2019. That year I worked on it a lot less: I wrote 6 new poems to go in, but mostly focused on touching up the way it looked on the page. Form and layout definitely aren’t my strong suits, but I had some amazing advice from Roger Robinson and Amy Acre that helped pull it up a few notches.
All of which to say: yes, I do a lot of rewriting.
Did any poems on the same theme not make it in to the collection?
Yes, there are a few poems that didn’t make it in. At one point I was toying with the idea of doing a pamphlet called “More Poems About Break-Ups and Tidying” with some of the off-cuts… but the poems I cut were all for good reason. Either the idea wasn’t quite there yet or they were too similar to poems that did make the cut.
I originally had a run of three poems near the end of the book that just didn’t quite fit the story. When I first started the book, I thought those three were the best examples of page poems I had, but because of that I didn’t push them as hard on the rewrites. So by the time I really had to make decisions about the book’s direction they were suddenly the weakest poems and didn’t really fit at all. They had to go to make the book stronger overall.
There’s a prose poem in the book called “Check”, which almost didn’t make the cut. It took me a long time to write that piece – I couldn’t quite work out how to make it work, but knew it was an important beat in the story. It went through a lot of variations – at one point it was a sonnet, then a pantoum… it went everywhere. Eventually I realised: I was writing about quite a dark part of the relationship. I was writing about behaviour that was ugly and that I wasn’t proud of. Trying to force an ugly theme into a lovely poetic form wouldn’t work, so it needed to be prose. I’m really glad I managed to eventually make that one work – it pushed me and I think the book is better for it.
How did you feel once the collection was complete? Was it a therapeutic experience to talk about the relationship?
Was it therapeutic? Yes. I definitely feel like writing the book gave me a sense of closure and thankfulness about the relationship. But also I think it’s very easy to write badly about a relationship after it’s broken up – it was really important to me that the book felt like it was coming from a loving place and not feel spiteful or nasty about the other person.
The very first line of the book is “the story’s better when you tell it”, acknowledging that this is only one side of the narrative. There’s another, better version of the story waiting to be told. And the final poem in the book ends on a sense of thankfulness for the relationship, which was very important to me.
As for how I feel about the collection being complete… I don’t know. The book released a week before the UK lockdown, so I’ve not been able to tour it and hear what people think of the poems live yet. In a way it’s still not complete and I’m not sure it ever will be…
What has the reaction been to the collection?
So far people have been really positive about it. I’m really glad that it seems to be connecting with people – I’ve even had a few people who don’t really read poetry tell me that they enjoy it which is a real compliment to the work.
It’s funny to see which bits of the book people enjoy most – poems that aren’t necessarily my favourite seem to speak a lot to other people and that’s beautiful to see.
What are you currently working on, and what is your next project?
I have a few projects going on right now outside of trying to re-schedule the Biceps tour.
I’ve just recorded all the poems from Biceps as audio and have put them out on a shiny red cassette tape over on my Big Cartel page https://laurieeaves.bigcartel.com That’s been really fun to put together – I set up a record label for it called Buried Vinyl and I’m starting to think about a second release. I’m planning on doing a vinyl compilation album of poets I love for the next release, so I’m starting to put that together right now.
I’ve also started some “pre-production” work on a second collection which for now I’m calling “Get Human!” I have a few ideas I’m playing with for that at the moment, but I doubt it’ll be quite the “poetry concept album” that Biceps is.
The other big ongoing project I’m always working on is Dead Darlings Podcast which I co-host with Rebecca Cooney and Hannah Chutzpah. It’s a monthly poetry podcast with interviews, writing tips, book reviews and event shout-outs, which you can get wherever you get your podcasts. We’re coming up on our first anniversary and our latest episode has an interview with RikTheMost, who’s an incredible poetry tour de force.
I’m also starting to take on more editing work again at the moment – both for individual poems and manuscripts. If anyone’s reading this and is looking for an editor they can drop me a line on https://www.laurieeaves.com for a chat.
Today’s poem can be found in this Soundcloud link:
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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!
I’d just like to wish everyone I know a wonderful festive period and new year.
2019 has been mega for me and there are several things I’m proud of, such as my show about tea, (Spout), the little web series I made, (Unbearable Lightness), a little book I made of previous show scripts, (Gazebo), and other projects too, such as In the Glare of the Neon Yak performed with the jazz band Shadow Factory, and my one-off show The Moon Wrapped in String, which I performed with violinist Sharon Hubbocks. On top of this, I undertook my first tour of the UK, which was hard work but flipping amazing!
And there’s so much to look forward to for 2020. I’m putting another collection together with Burning Eye for 2021, and I’m working on a new show to accompany the book.
The other things I’ve been up to is that I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I got in to performance poetry more or less by accident and chance, and before this I’d always written comedy short stories and scripts. Lately I’ve been returning to these and finding my voice again as a writer. That’s the reason why I’ve been a bit quiet lately on the performance front, I’ve fallen in love with narrative and stories again and I’ve been busy working on short stories.
Naturally this is a time when you look back. The sad passing of Melanie Crump was a shock to the Torbay spoken word scene. We had a few lovely events including one at the Blue Walnut Cafe in honour of her and her work. I do believe that Torbay has the most diverse spoken word community in the country with the emphasis very much on comedy and humour, and long may this continue. It’s also incredibly supportive and friendly.
I’ve read a lot this year, as ever. I recommend books by the wonderful Melanie Branton and Becky Nuttall, Tom Sastry and the forthcoming collection from Tom Austin. Jason Disley’s CD is amazing, a mix of jazz and voice, and the DVD from Jamie Harry Scrutton showcasing his amazing animation. In fact, there’s so much good stuff out there that I’m sure I’ve missed something.
As a lowfi Christmas special, I’ve made a recording of my show, Spout, and you can find a link to it right here: https://youtu.be/EtBTc7ANM6M
I hope everyone has a great year next year, and thanks for everything. See you out on the road very soon!
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.