Some golden rules to start enjoying life, for Pete’s sake.
By Robert Garnham
Being a cheerful, optimistic sort of person, but also a poet, people often ask me for advice to get through the day. So here are my top golden rules which, hopefully, will benefit many of you.
1. No one is ever worth writing a poem for, though every now and then you’ll meet someone who’s worth a limerick, particularly if they come from Chard.
2. It’s easy to get a personalised number plate, according to my friend PUV 621R.
3. A two-day old baguette will stop your car rolling down the street.
4. Hold on to your nostalgia, otherwise you’ll have nothing to be nostalgic about, except possibly for the time you used to be nostalgic about things, so maybe you can be nostalgic about that.
5. Every fear can be overcome. Do it with a smile! (Unless your fear is crushing loneliness).
6. It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too early to forget.
7. Only concentrate on that which requires no thought.
8. You might not mention the elephant in the room, but you can certainly wonder how it got up the stairs and through the door.
9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, ‘I am loved, I am loved’. At least this way you’re prepared for any other claptrap that comes along.
10. Everyone you see or meet or talk to has been born. Even Avril Lavigne. And if you think being born was difficult, try getting a dentist during the weekend.
11. Go on, help yourself to the last cake in life. Living is all about grabbing the last cake. Go on, have it. Enjoy it. The dog licked it.
12. Get up early one morning, when the dew is still on the grass, and go for a walk barefoot in the park. Let me know when you’re doing this so that I can come round and borrow your vacuum cleaner.
13.Do something that excites you every day. Subvert the rules. Turn things on their head. (Naturally it’s best not to attempt this if you’re an airline pilot.)
14. How do we know that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? Who was the first person to discover this? How many similar things do we do which are good or bad luck without us knowing? Brandishing a vase on a Thursday? Sitting on a pouffe just after lunch? The mind boggles, Mrs Trubshaw, the mind boggles.
15. Give as much joy to the small things in life as you do to the large. Which is why me and my ex split up.
16. If at first you don’t succeed, then maybe catching bullets between your teeth isn’t the job for you.
17. If you don’t think you can get it out, don’t stick it in there in the first place.
So this poem, amazingly, is based kn a true story. I’ve changed his name. Because he might read this!
Land of the free.
Stars ‘n’ stripes,
And it’s so amazing,
They’ve even got McDonalds there.
But I tell you
What they haven’t got.
Cheese and pickle sandwiches.
And forever there shall remain
A chasm as deep as the Grand Canyon.
My friend Brody,
All American boy raised on
Baseball and NASCAR,
Country music and out of town malls,
And fishing down at the old creek
With Emmy Lou,
Weirdly infatuated with
Texted me one day
The question that was burning within.
What’s a cheese and pickle sandwich?
One moonlit night in small town America,
In the midst of apple pie baking,
Pick up trucks and 7-11s,
Did his postman deliver a jar of
Imported English pickle, and Brody,
Ever keen to sample exotic foodstuffs
In the glare of diner neon and freeway streetlights,
The roar of pick ups and duck hunts,
Concoct a delicacy so rare as to make
The Angels whimper.
I asked him afterwards
What he had thought.
And he replied
That he melted inside,
His taste buds had come alive,
He almost cried
For the years he’d existed without
Cheese and pickle sandwiches.
The air seemed more pure,
Colours more vivid,
Senses heightened and he was overtaken
With an inner peace
So utterly consuming,
He said he felt a strange compulsion
To grin at a squirrel.
Imbued with hope he skimmed above
America made sense.
The love of Kermit for Miss Piggy.
The intricate rules of the rodeo
And most of the Twilight saga.
A lump of processed cheese.
A spread of pickle sublime.
Two slabs of supermarket granary
Lifted him above the humdrum.
Oh! It was like a gastronomic slap in the face.
Oh! It was like a religious awakening.
Oh! It was a cruise control on a turnpike
(Because I definitely know what both of those mean),
Because they Lord of the Snack had sung
And the words which oozed forth
Into the ears of this small town boy were,
‘Go on, make yourself another cheese and pickle sandwich’.
And he opened the screen door.
And he sat on the stoop,
Filled with righteous fervour,
That he should lift up
This cheese and pickle sandwich
As an offering to God on high,
All hail the cheese and pickle sandwich!
All hail its mighty goodness!
And he howled at the night
Like a cowboy,
So you liked it?, I asked.
Sure, he replied, it was swell.
What do you think I should
And I suggested
She was walking up the stone steps of the ruined castle. A low mist was rolling in. Well, there had to be a low mist, didn’t there? Everything else was utterly unique, why not throw some mist into the mix? The steps were steep and she wondered if the people who’d lived and worked there all those centuries ago had ever complained about how steep the steps were, the castle itself built on the side of a vast, rocky granite crag of a hill. She knew there had to be an element of function and fortification, but she wondered why they hadn’t made at least a few concessions. It would be all so different if the place had been built these days.
Martin was ahead of her. She couldn’t see him. The mist was starting to make everything damp. She didn’t want to hurry, lest she slip, and that would really be the icing on the cake.
A voice came back from ahead.
Her name wasn’t Misty. It was Vanessa. She wasn’t laughing, either.
‘Can you just stop for a moment and let me catch up?’
The steps looked treacherous in the wet. But she’d heard rumours of a tea shack at the top and it didn’t look like it would be very busy today, what with the weather and the mist and the fact that the car park had been almost empty. She had already decided that the tea shack would be the ideal place to decide, at least for herself, if Martin were the man for her. But he’d already gone scampering off into the gloom leaving her at it. The signs weren’t good.
‘Martin? Where are you?’
‘There’s lots of lichen, up here’, came a voice from the swirling fog.
‘Seen any wizards?’
She was alluding to a joke they’d made in the car on the way here. The joke had been about wizards. They’d both laughed.
‘Wizards? Why would I see any wizards?’
‘Remember? What we were saying? In the car?’
‘Honestly, you’ve got a memory like a sieve!’
She stood aside to let a couple of hikers pass who were coming down from the castle. Both of them had two Alpine walking sticks each, as well as boots, waterproof jackets, backpacks. She smiled as they passed and fought the temptation to jokingly tell them that they’d lost their skis. They smiled and nodded, and then disappeared into the gloom. Damn, she thought. She should have asked them about the tea shop.
‘You were saying about wizards, remember? And how they’d had to carry around these wands, you know, tools of the trade, and how phallic the wand actually is when you think about it, when you look an ancient folklore . . ‘.
‘Phallic. You know, substituting a long wand for the fact that they’ve probably got very small penises. Good morning’.
Another hiker with two Alpine walking sticks passed her, going down. Jeez, that was embarrassing.
The bastard’s gone on without me, she thought. And she continued climbing the steep, damp steps, feeling a pull on the back of her thighs.
The mist was getting denser.
This validates everything, she told herself. They weren’t compatible. Sure, it’s good not to spend so much time in each other’s company, but to leave her completely alone on the treacherous steps on the side of a ruined medieval castle, which loomed like a giant tree stump in the mist, showed that he didn’t even consider their relationship to be anything other than two individuals whose paths became occasionally diverged.
At last, she came to the top of the steps and an area where slabs of granite poked out between the tall grass, the world beyond the immediate vicinity a formless void of mist and damp, the castle walls looming.
Martin was nowhere to be seen. And she could see no tea shop.
A hiker with a pair of Alpine walking sticks emerged from the fog and passed her.
‘Misty, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s Vanessa’.
Around 2011 and 2012 I used to travel up to London every month or so and go to either Bang Said the Gun or Jawdance, two of the biggest spoken word nights around at the time. (Indeed, Jawdance is still going). Not only would I get on the open mic and perform, but also I’d see what was happening at the cutting edge of spoken word.
At the time I’d been working on a new poem about the moon, which had lots of different verses which independently made sense, but when you put them together, there was no logic to it. I was really worried about this. One month I went to London and I was booked in for a slot at Bang Said the Gun, but also decided on a whim to go to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe. While I was there I saw a performer called Christopher Lawrence, who was fairly new, and for some reason he was introduced as ‘Christopher Lyons’. We’d been sitting together and I suggested to him that Christopher Lyons might make a very good stage name. Anyway, he did a poem – which I must admit I can’t remember much about, but the structure of it was very similar to my moon poem, plus it had a lot of word play and playing around with sound.
Something sparkled within me and I realised that I needn’t be worried that my poem made no sense. I came back to Devon and worked on the poem, and Moon Simon was born.
I next decided that it needed a prop. At the time I was heavily into props, so I gathered together a big pot of yellow paint, a very large piece of cardboard, and I wrote ‘MOON’ on one side and ‘SIMON’ on the other, and at various points during the poem I would twirl this around so that the audience saw either the word ‘MOON’ or the word ‘SIMON’. I then rehearsed a few times and found myself getting muddled and displaying the wrong side of the sign at wrong moments of the poem. This was most annoying.
I got to a stage where I was happy with the rehearsals. In those days I didn’t think I could memorise poems, and the poem itself was printed in a big notebook, so I knew I’d be holding this big cardboard sign with one hand and the notebook with the other.
My next gig was due to be in Ashburton, and it was the launch event of Lucy Lepchani’s new collection, Ladygardens. I didn’t know much about her publisher, but I went along into the Devon countryside with my giant cardboard moon, feeling incredibly nervous and wondering what these Proper Poetry People would think about me turning up with this weird prop. As it happened, it went far better than I could ever imagine. Not only did my set go well, but the laughter during Moon Simon – especially when I started getting mixed up with which side of the cardboard moon I should be showing at any point during the poem – was most hearty indeed. And when I finished my set the weirdest thing happened – I was asked to get back up and do another poem!
This wasn’t the only amazing thing about that night. It turned out that Lucy’s publisher was in the audience, a chap called Clive Birnie, and he came over and told me how much he liked what I’d done with the cardboard moon, and why didn’t I think about sending him some poems? Needless to say, without me realising it at the time, this was one of those moments in my spoken word career took a very definite path. It led to my first book with Burning Eye, ‘Nice’, and all sorts of opportunities thereafter.
I must admit I haven’t performed Moon Simon for a while, and maybe I should. It’s incredibly silly. The reason is very silly, too – I’ve stopped using the notebook it’s printed in. Part of the fun of performing it was that I’d be fumbling with the notebook and getting mixed up with the giant moon prop. And once I was conscious that this is what people were laughing at, then my confidence that I could do these on purpose and make it funny took a bit of a dive. Because now people were expecting me to get muddled!
I’ve been taking clowning lessons lately, so maybe I might be able to ‘fake’ this, and I’ll start lugging that giant cardboard moon around with me again!
As a side note, a couple of years ago Burning Eye brought out an anthology featuring their published poets, and guess which poem was chosen as my entry? That’s right. Moon Simon!
For the last few weeks I’ve been working on a podcast and it’s now ready to be unleashed on the world. Each episode is a purpose written piece featuring all kinds of whimsy. I’m hoping to release one a week but to get things going, here are two episodes.
I hope you enjoy them!
I was asked to be part of a
Ménage a trois.
I had to look it up.
I thought it was a type of meringue,
No wonder they looked at me weird
When I asked to bring my egg whisk.
It was all very exciting.
It certainly beats me normal love life
Of a ménage a one.
And it’s not even a ménage,
It’s a maisonette.
Oh, Steve, said Andy.
Oh, Andy, said Steve.
I’m here too, I said.
I’m your lion, said Andy,
Hear me roar.
I’m your tiger, said Steve,
He’s me roar.
And I’m a chicken, I said,
Nobody said anything.
The most exciting thing about
Being in a ménage a trois
Was that I could tell people
I was in a ménage a trois.
The worst thing about
Being in a ménage a trois
Was that when I put it on Facebook
Autocorrect changed it to
This is so fun.
This is so hip.
Let me know
If you need a whip.
To be honest right now
I could do with a kip.
It’s all about experimentation.
I’ll put my hand to anything.
The slimy sweetness of sensual skin
In the gap between their bodies
My fingers exploring the depths
Of that fleshy canyon
Trying to find the Malteaser I dropped.
Sing to me, Steve, says Andy.
Sing to me, Andy, says Steve,
And I replied,
I can sing too!
In New Orleans.
The riiiiising son!. .’.
That’s not what you meant, was it?
There was something amiss about the night.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
I felt left out.
It was less a ménage a trois
And more a ménage a
Whatever the French for two and a half is.
Why did they even invite me?
What do I get out of this?
Why did they make me wear a
Giant panda onesie?
It’s just not fair, chaps,
It’s just not fair.
Steve, you look like a potato.
Andy, sex with you would be just like
Folding up an ironing board .
I’d been performing for a few years as a spoken word artist, oblivious to those who had come before. And I must admit, wilfully obvious. The only big names I knew, with the exception of Pam Ayres, were those who I’d seen at gigs where I was also performing. The reason that I was oblivious was because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else. I knew that once I saw poets I liked, I would start to emulate them, look at what they were doing and try it for myself, like seeing someone in a fashionable hat and thinking hmmm, I wonder if that would suit me? And sure enough, this happened. I would see poets and spoken word artists reduce a room to fits of laughter, or stunned, awed silence, and I would then look at what they’d done and try to analyse it. I became a spoken word nerd. A spoken nerd,
But this knowledge was only good for those who were active at the present time. And one day, after a gig, someone asked me if I’d heard of Ivor Cutler. They said that they’d seen parallels between my own oeuvre and that of Mr Cutler. No, I hadn’t heard of him, but that night, unable to sleep due to the pumping adrenaline of having just performed at an open mic in Brixham, I went on YouTube and iTunes and knocked myself out on anything I could find of his work. Needless to say, it immediately appealed, but much more, and in a very strange sort of way, Ivor reminded me of my grandad. Not only was there a physical resemblance, but the humour, which almost sways into surrealism yet always stays grounded in truth and the human experience. I was immediately hooked.
This all happened close to ten years ago, now. My other poetry hero at the time, and major influence, was Frank O’Hara. But now it seemed I had two poets whose works I could memorise much easier than my own, two outlooks on life which I could also adopt, two poets who I can ask, as I sit down to write or stand up to perform, what would they do?
Ivor Cutler’s eccentricity seems to be something lacking these days. I go to plenty of spoken word events where the performer wants to be cool, to be liked, to get a message across, to make people laugh while still retaining the veneer of ironic and knowing cool, yet nobody seems to be genuinely eccentric. Or if they are eccentric, then this is not something which then carries over into their everyday life. Sure, I might aim for eccentricity myself, but I don’t wear the pink feather boa while going about my daily chores, and the eccentricity stops the moment I’m in a supermarket queue or on a bus. But with Mr Cutler, his whole life seemed a performance, wearing his distinctive hats while cycling, or handing out stickers with mottos on them. His genuine mission seemed to be to spread joy all the time, while basking in his own personality of glum duty. The best YouTube videos, incidentally, are those in which his mask slips and he gets an attack of the giggles during a poem.
Ivor was influenced by many factors. His Scottish upbringing, while exaggerated for comic effect, and his Jewish roots assured him the status of an outsider. The communal songs of his childhood and his appreciation of folk music formed a love of music and singing. His job as a teacher gave him the ability to talk to people, and children, at their level without pontificating. Ad as a result all of these influences combined to create a very distinctive act.
The world is a scary place. Life is meaningless. There are people who spend their time adding to the stresses and inconveniences of others. And there are people, just a few here and there, who aim to add a little colour along the way. Artists and singers, poets and writers, comedians, all of which Ivor was certainly was. Yet there was a certain underlying tenderness and love of life to many of his works which certainly stands as an example to those who are struggling to make sense of the modern world. Mr Cutler certainly remains, and increases, as a personal inspiration, and I would recommend his work to anyone.
1. An uneasy sleep.
Up until recently I’d been
Immune to the sublimity
Of shire horses.
But last night I woke,
In a hot sweat,
Images of these stately beasts
Imprinted on my brain.
2. Just calm down.
Olde worlde hurly burly
Heft load luggers
Proud in tandem harness
Across deep ploughed furrows,
Somber yet somehow humble,
Nothing stirs the heart more
Than the sight of a shire horse
In full flow.
I bent over and I whispered
Look at their rippling flanks!
Their mesmerising rumps!
And she said,
If you don’t mind I shall
Go and eat my luncheon
3. Make a living, the shire horse way.
They work, shire horses.
They work for a living.
They work work work work work.
Trudging and pulling heavy loads
And tugging and pulling and trudging
And pulling and tugging and trudging
And doing paperwork and things
Only with more trudging.
Jeff trained one to make
Sandwiches, rolls, cobs,
Baps, wraps, paninis
Only with more trudging involved
Than the average person whose job it is
To make sandwiches, rolls, cobs,
Baps, wraps, paninis.
4. But what are they really thinking, daddy?
As if permanently disgusted,
But they get on with it anyway,
Stoic beasts, the shire horse.
5. Memories of a suburban upbringing.
When I was a kid
Every year the school trip
Used to be to the bloody bleeding
God-arse awful boring
Shire Horse Heritage Centre.
And then I joined the scouts
And we had a trip to the
Shire Horse Heritage Centre.
And then my aunt came over from
And we went on a day out to the
Shire Horse Heritage Centre
And then a friend had a birthday
And as a treat we went to the
Shire Horse Heritage Centre
And yet when I informed my parents
That if should be called the
Shite Horse Heritage Centre,
It was me who was reprimanded.
6. The competition.
Every year the Shire Horse Heritage Centre
Took on the
Cart Horse Heritage Centre
In an impromptu game of curling.
And as the stone granite boulders
Slid along the ice,
They’d say, shire horses are better,
And the opposition would say,
Cart horses are better,
And it was all good natured and fun until
Aaron from accounts
Let off a fire extinguisher yelling
Cart horse Fart Horse!
And Debs from advertising would
Smash a window and yell,
Shire Horse Shite Horse!
And it all descended
Into ugly violence.
7. I’m not immune to failure.
I went to a poetry slam and the poets were brilliant and did poems about family, relations, drug addition, sexual abuse, the history of black culture from slavery to the present day, social issues, homelessness, countering the rise of the political right, immigration, and the trials and tribulations of being a youth in the twenty first century, and then I went up and did a poem about shire horses and I didn’t even get out of the first round.
8. Looming in the office.
My chiropodist had a shire Horse.
At the bottom of each left it had a tuft.
Now it’s dead but you can see it in her office
Because she’s had it stuffed.
9. General dimensions.
Than regular horse.
10. A Parisian misadventure.
The French avant gard,
Jean Jacques Coat,
Trained a shire Horse
In the art of mime.
It used to stand still
And not move a muscle
And not say a word.
And Jean Jacques would explain,
Now it’s impersonating a donkey,
Now it’s impersonating a zebra,
Now it’s impersonating a mule,
Now it’s impersonating a regular horse.
11. A general appreciation of shire horses.
You’re not a car
So you don’t get a flat tire,
You don’t speak,
So you’d never be called a liar,
You’re not in a circus
Performing on a tight wire,
You’re not an actor,
So you’ve never worked with
Danny Dyer, horse.
You don’t do laundry,
So you’re not a tumble dryer
You’re not near a naked flame
So you’re not on fire,
You’re a shire horse.
12. Breeds of heavy working horse.
And where might I purchase any of the above?
Any reputable dealer of cart, shire and working horse.
According to the website
The average shire horse
Is seventeen hands high.
Now I need to find out
The size of the average hand.
The lady in Morrisons said
They mostly sell Large size marigold
Washing up gloves.
But I didn’t have my tape measure.
Backpack Sam’s the flapjack man
He likes to eat them where he can
He eats them on the bus and gloats,
‘This is how I get my oats’,
Which is also what shire horses eat.
15. Icelandic interlude.
Shape shifting shire horse
Tireless worker beserker.
16. Advertisement poem with a very funny last line which will appeal deeply to those in the shire Horse community.
Have you seen those shire horses?
Those shy shire horses?
Those sly shy shire horses?
Those sly shy give it a try
Come and see them before you die
Why oh why not drop on by
And try a shire horse?
Come down to the
Shire Horse Heritage Centre
And you’ll see loads!
17. Repetition of the word ‘shire horses’
(To be performed while pouring custard over ones head)
18. The time of the shire horse is gone.
And in the time of the shire horse there
Would be shire horses aplenty,
And they would work and trudge
And trudge and work
And all that was holy
Could be found in the shire horse
And all that was sacred
Could be found in the shire horse
And all that was good for the garden
Could be found in the shire horse.
And the rustic sun would set
Over rustic rainbows rustic barns and
And the rustic shire horse
Would keep on working
And wheelbarrows left out in the rain
Would go rustic
And there wasn’t a
Youtuber in sight.
And the annual final of Strictly Come Dancing
Would invariably we won by a shire horse
Because they were so fucking talented
And farmers would lean on gates
And suck on straw and opine
That shire horses were totes amazeballs.
And people just got on with things
Even when their arms dropped off
Or their cowsheds fell down
And the ploughman was king
And nobody ever wondered what
Barn owls were called
Before there were barns.
And there would be
Shire horses in the barns
And shire horses in the cottages
And shire horses in the dairies
And shire horses in the kitchen
And shire horses in the municipal swimming baths
And shire horses
In the shire horse Heritage Centre.
And then some bastard
Invented the tractor
And people said how wonderful tractors were
Because they didn’t
Poo everywhere like shire horses did
And you could see the really sad look
In the shire horses eyes
Because he knew that it was the end.
Such a long face.
And the sun began to set
And everything went pear shaped
And they built the M25
And shire horses weren’t even allowed
In the slow lane
And I took the hand of the man I loved
And I whispered,
Be a shire horse
Just for me
And he went downstairs and just
Stood in the back garden
Looking really sad.
And I slept
You’ve got a cuckoo in the kitchen
Got a cuckoo at the cooker
You’ve got a cuckoo cooking cookies
Kindly keep some cookies for me
You’ve got a cuckoo cooking cookies
Out of coco going cuckoo
You’ve got a cockney cuckoo cooking
With a cock eyed cookie cutter
You’ve got a cuckoo cookie cooking cuckoo
My god it’s such a coup
That the cockney cuckoo cookie cooker
Is not a cockatoo
I know what people are thinking when they see me. I know what theyre thinking, they’re thinking, now then a man with a smug demeanour. There’s a man who’s not in it for the money.
There’s a man who forsakes the capitalist system and does not perform poetry for personal monetary gain.
Well let me tell you, I got books for sale.
I tried to write a poem about an old photocopier last night. It just wouldn’t scan.
I don’t need contraception. Poetry is my contraception. My poetry has helped me not sleep with more people than you can imagine.
People tend to know instinctively that I am a poet. How so they know this? Is it the jacket? Is it the book of poetry? Or is it that I arrive at gigs alone?
Yet I don’t feel like a poet. My rhyming couplets have all split up. My found poems were hidden for a reason. Nobody has hung around long enough to tell me what my rhyme scheme is.
So, what is poetry? Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I suppose the ‘acknowledged legislators ‘ would be governments and town councils.
To be honest, I don’t think it would work. Have you ever seen a group of poets trying to solve a planning dispute?
I suppose it depends if they work in rhyme or blank verse.
Well, I think we’ll put the school next to the pool. And perhaps also the church hall.
The shopping centre. Hmmm, can’t think of where to put the shopping centre. I know! Let’s call it a mall, and then it can go with the school and the pool and the church hall!
The library. Hmm, has this town got an aviary?
The food waste refuse anaerobic digestion chamber . . . What the hell?
Mind you, judging by the high street in Swindon, it looks like the surrealists have already been at work.
So I’m a poet, and I get all kinds of weird commissions. Sometimes I think that my career is going nowhere. Sometimes I don’t.
I’ve recently been working as a Poet in Residence at a paper clip factory. It really is stationery.
I was supposed to do a workshop for a fear of commitment support group, but nobody put their name down.
The other night I was double booked, I was also meant to be at a gig for a group of amnesiacs. So what I’ll do is I’ll go along next week and remind them how good I was.
I’m actually looking for ways out into other lines of work and I think I’ve come up with a winner. I’ve decided to start up assertiveness training courses.
Because if it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to ask for a refund. They won’t be brave enough.
And if anyone does ask for a refund . . .
I can just say, well. There you go.
But poetry for me is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good and you wish it would never stop.
And when it’s bad, it’s just plain embarrassing. Although I do get roughly the same number of laughs.
The thing I like best about poetry is that it’s not all about profit and personal gain, it’s not a hugely capitalist enterprise, people aren’t in it to make a quick buck. And by the way, I’ve got books for sale.