Edinburgh Fringe Diary Day One

I’m currently on a train heading north towards Edinburgh for the fringe. This is my sixth year as a performer, and my eighth in all, so I’m starting to feel like an Edinburgh veteran. Yet for some reason it seems in inconceivable that I’m going at all this year. I suppose the main reason for this is that I feel more prepared than I have done for years, with a show that I have rehearsed and polished and written specifically for the fringe, rather than a collection of greatest hits. I have also done more promotion work behind the scenes, and worked with a director. My whole year, in fact, the last two years, have been leading up to this, and yet, now I’m on the way, I can hardly believe it.

I stayed in London last night, in a hotel that I’ve been staying in on and off for twenty years. There’s something labyrinthine about the place, with rooms and corridors decorated as if from 1970s Czechoslovakia. There’s a complicated system of dials and knobs next to the bed to work the radio. The bed is surrounded by tongue and groove pine panelling. Every morning for the last twenty years, a man who looks like Leonard Cohen rules the breakfast restaurant with an iron fist, but he wasn’t there this morning. I felt cheated. I hoped that he was okay. It just didn’t seem the same without him.

The madness starts tomorrow, with my first show, and appearances at other events. I also want to see as much as possible when I get there, particularly cabaret and comedy as well as spoken word. And this is the first year that everything has gone ok. I haven’t lost my passport like I did the year before last. My luggage hasn’t got lost, like it did last year. And I won’t be staying in a tent or a flat with no roof, like I have done in years past, but in the same university flats that I’ve used for the last couple of years. Auld Reekie awaits, and I can’t wait!

A Brief History of the Thing on my Ear

About a month ago I noticed a lump on my earlobe which shouldn’t have been there. It wasn’t there before but it was there now. I knew that it was something dodgy so I went to the Doctor and she agreed. She explained that it was caused by exposure to UV light and this was a direct result of the hole in the ozone layer. I don’t want you to worry, she said, but we need to treat this seriously.

So of course, I did worry, but I decided also not to tell anyone because that would just spread the worry. I became aware of the lump at all times and regular Robheads will have noticed a slight reduction in selfies at this time. I continued with preparations for Edinburgh and zipped about all over the UK performing my new solo show. Barnstaple, Bristol, Guildford, Denbury, Torquay, Newcastle. Yet at the same time there was this nagging doubt in my head, that I couldn’t really enjoy any of these experiences because of the Thing On My Ear.

The ironic thing is that generally, I do not go out into the sun. I work indoors and the only time I go outside is to queue for a train or to walk to the rubbish bins. Nevertheless, I undoubtedly had a Thing On My Ear and it must have come from somewhere. Every time I shaved, I saw the Thing On My Ear. Every time I made plans for anything beyond Edinburgh, I thought of the Thing On My Ear. And every time I heard that someone had died, I thought of the Thing On My Ear.

The other weird thing that happened was that I worked really, really hard. I rehearsed every spare minute, and wrote the best I’ve ever written, and I put everything into every performance, particularly Totnes and all of my Yak shows. It was like I was trying to say something to the Thing On My Ear.

Today I got my emergency hospital appointment. I arrived early and a nurse asked me to go in a room and take off all my clothes. ‘But it’s on my ear ‘, I pointed out. ‘Yes, but we will need to see all of you’.

I duly undressed and seconds later, the door opened, and in came prominent Bristol poet and artist Hazel Hammond. Well, I thought, what kind of a sick joke is this? But she wasn’t Hazel, of course. She was the doctor, a wonderfully eccentric German lady who told me to lie on the bed. She then went over every inch of me, humming every now and then, flicking at various bits like one of the judges on British Bake Off looking at a meringue. She then looked at my ear. ‘Ah yes’, she said. ‘That is skin cancer. Now put your clothes back on’.

I did so, and I felt pretty down. The last time I dressed like this while feeling down was after that night of passion I spent with my ex just before I was dumped. She came back in the room.

‘You know, it is a very common form. It has a technical name, but it’s better known as a rat lesion. It’s not nasty though we will have to remove it at some point. This won’t be for a long time, in fact, you might think we’ve forgotten all about you. But rest assured, Mr Garnham, we haven’t forgotten.’

‘So it’s not . . A really bad one?’

‘No, it’s not. It’s a rat lesion. You have fair skin, Mr Garnham. You have the same sort of skin that ginger haired people have. Keep away from the sun. Go out, Mr Garnham, and do some shopping. And enjoy your afternoon. But keep away from the sun. Here are some leaflets. And on the day of your operation, bring a book to read. There will be lots of waiting around ‘.

So I’m back home, now. And the future suddenly looks much brighter, at least, with one less thing to worry about. Edinburgh now beckons, and so do many other exciting projects, and I’ve got a sudden urge to do two things. The first is to become more active in looking an environmental issues, which means, alas, I might have to start doing poems about recycling and sustainable energy. And the second is to reread some of my Hazel Hammond poetry books.

The moral of all this is, of course, that we should all cover up more in the sun. One of the leaflets says that it’s best to wear hats and use sunscreen. The bus home took me past Torquay sea front where semi naked people were frolicking in the sun, and I felt bad for them. Other people won’t be so lucky and we should perhaps do all that we can to make sure that we lessen the risks.

Was that the best I’ve ever performed? Is it all downhill from here?!

I’ve been very fortunate in having some amazing gigs this year with great audience reactions, but last night in a pub in Totnes really was rather special. It was a night of poetry and music set up by the amazing Julie Mullen and I was so pleased to be asked to headline, yet at the same time, fairly nervous. The problem with headlining is that there is nowhere to hide, and if you are slightly below par or not performing on all cylinders, then you can appear weak and unprepared. And it was an eclectic night of fantastic performances : Japanese style drummers, acapella singers, a jazz band, and comedy performance poets such as Brenda Hutchings, Shelley Szender and Samantha Boarer, all of whom are very accomplished and comedy oriented.

On top of that, a last minute venue change meant that the gig took place in a very crowded pub on a Friday night, the stage area set up right next to where people go outside to the pub garden and the toilets, so there was a constant footfall of customers and their dogs, walking from the bar to the garden or the bogs. So all of this conspired to make me feel even more nervous than normal before the gig and worried that audience fatigue would set in, for it was also incredibly hot.

But I needn’t have worried, as my set went down incredibly well and the audience were incredibly responsive. The sheer lunacy of the Beard Envy poem served well to accustom the audience to my style, and then the rest of the set, with its short, sharp, funny poems, was received rather well indeed. Indeed, such was the unusual location of the stage area that i was able to interact with the people walking past. During the Beard poem, a man with the most amazing rampant beard came in through the door behind me, and the place just fell about. And then during the Little House poem, just as I’m talking about the sexy handyman, a rather good looking young man appeared from nowhere right at a critical moment as if he were an extra in a play, and again, the place fell about, as I walked after him with my hand out as if he were a lover, leaving me.

I couldn’t have asked for a better response. And it was hot in there, and I was wearing my jacket, feather boa, sequinned hat, and the sweat was rolling down my face, yet it didn’t matter because a strange force had taken hold, something ethereal, I felt like Ayrton Senna on a pole position lap at Monaco, I really felt I couldn’t do any better or that things had never been better. I was dancing along to my poems, walking around, jumping up and down at one point, everything combined in a way that it never normally does, and then it seemed over too soon. I even did the one thing I’ve learned from others, always to do slightly less than the time you’ve been allocated, and leave them wanting more.

Not all gigs are like this. Not all audiences are like this. An audience is a fluid thing, only good for one small brief moment in history, and this was a good audience. A drunk Liverpudlian later told me that he thought I was hilarious, and that made my night. It’s these small connections that help.

This is the last time for a while that I’ll be performing that particular set. It’s next scheduled appearance is in New York, and I have no idea how it will go. But I got home last night and I thought, hmmm, was that the best I’ve ever performed? I’m still smiling about it now!

Robert Garnham’s Rules for Living an Harmonious Life

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. If someone tells you that they love you, it’s not always a test, it’s an affectation of the status quo, a joy delivered in the beauty of a relationship which actually works, so it’s best not to answer with, oh, that’s good.

3. Shrimp will always give you raging guts ache.

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. Look at your life. Isolate your fears, your demons, and anything else that gives you the willies. Engage with them and dance, and banish them with a smile and a wave and a cheer. Unless, of course, the thing that scares you the most is crushing loneliness.

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

7. Only concentrate in that which requires no thought.

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

9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, I am loved, I am loved, I am loved. At least this way you’re prepared for any other bullshit 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 mortgage.

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 this does not apply 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 Henderson, 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 with your teeth isn’t the job for you.

17. If you don’t think you can get it out, don’t put it in there in the first place

My avant gard poetry past

When I first started performing back in the late 2000s, the local scene was heavily influenced by comedy and surrealism in south Devon, and I soon joined in with a bizarre mix of my own, of prop-based avant gard and whimsical verse which, at the same time, mocked the whole idea of poetry performance. And for a while, this was my Unique Selling Point. Lately I’ve been thinking of going back to this style of performance, working, as I do, on the outskirts of the spoken word community. Winning slams kind of focussed my mind into performance and comedy without any prop embellishment, but now I have moved on from entering slams, I feel I am able to reconnect with my avant gard past.

So here are a few things that I got up to over the years, before I became mainstream sometime during 2014. And thanks to Bryce Dumont, who faithfully recorded almost all of my performance between 2008 and 2014.

1. Used a mobile phone to deliver my set from a cubicle in the toilets.

2. Built a cardboard robot called Robot Garnham on stage and let him do my performance.

3. Phoned a friend halfway through a set to ask him what my next line was.

4. Performed a set of Pam Ayres poems through the window from the street.

5. Pretended to drink Pam Ayres urine after pretending to choke on a cream cracker.

6. Performed a whole set with a tea bag sellotaped to my forehead.

7. Performed the same poem twice in a row with no explanation.

8. Tried to get inanimate objects to race each other.

9. Built a large hadron collider on stage.

10. Got a poet to dress as a spaceman and pretend to interrupt my set as visitors from the future intent on making sure my rise from obscurity did not occur,

11. Got an eminent and well respected page poet to perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as a poem.

12. Stood behind another poet as he performed and ate crisps, noisily, while staring straight ahead.

13. Performed while standing on a hip exercise swivel disc.

14. Performed through an iPad which I held up to my face while wearing a large box on my head.

15. Dressed as a crocodile, which had nothing to do with my set.

16. Wore a fake moustache which slowly moved around my face.

17. Performed the Pet Shop Boys song Two Divided By Zero on a talking calculator.

18. Used an Elefun toy game to blow small pieces of crepe paper with poems written on them into the air.

19. Hired out my five minute set to another poet who wasn’t on the bill.

20. Read a poem from an incredibly large piece of paper.

I’m sure there were other things and I shall add them as I remember them. But needless to say, I calmed down a bit as I began to travel around the UK.

Poem written at the Lit and Phil., Newcastle

Amidst the balconies, galleries and catacombs,

Ornate and functional with a weight

Other than history,

Worn wood seats and tables battered

With a century’s elbows,

I came to escape the thrum and sit

Surrounded by philosophical insight,

Such that a building should exist partly

For my own inclusion,

Partly for my imagination,

Partly so as I can say I’ve now been here.

Let its spirit and geniality,

It’s learning and it’s beauty,

Infuse into me a certain earnestness.

The first thing that happens is

I can’t fit my fat arse into the wooden armchair seat.

And then I get a crick in my neck

Trying to read what the man next to me

Is writing

And then I bang my knee on the underside of the table

And the resulting jog

Spills the coffee of the man across from me,

Who sighs,

Mops it up with a handkerchief,

Doesn’t say anything at all,

How northern.

I skim above the surface of potential intelligence.

I have the glasses, the pens, and even the haircut

Of a man who aims to probe the mysteries

Of the human condition,

But I just googled the fastest route to the

Nearest Tesco’s Metro.

Tick, goes the old Victorian clock.

Tick, and indeed, tock.

How many times has it ticked and it tocked

It’s inevitable onerous tick tock

As amateur learners write margin notes,

And fuss over spilled coffee?

Often e Crave the journey more

Than the destination.

They serve tea here in borrowed mugs.

The intricate coving and architectural embellishments

Gaze down on Sunday supplements.

I dribbled bottled water on my shorts

And it looks like I’ve wet myself.

The old man next to me chuckles

At a passage in his book on ethical Christianity.

If I stay still long enough

I will discover myself,

That I, a loose conglomerate of

Atoms, molecules and thought processes,

Should stand for more than

The repetition of my name.

Closure in the anonymity,

Physical presence, location, time.

If I stay still long enough . . .

These things may come.

And if I can’t get my arse out

From this seat wherein it is wedged,

This may happen

Sooner rather than later.

Why identity is powerful and necessary in spoken word.

Whenever I do any sort of work promoting myself in the spoken word community, invariably, I plough through photos and pictures that I’ve had taken specifically for the purposes of giving the audience a flavour of who I am. In such a way I hope to create a definite identity. Yet the more I do this, the more the created stage character who stands as an avatar for the real me moves further away from who I actually am.

For years now I have worn the same types of clothing and glasses when performing. These are not the sort of clothes I wear on a daily basis. They create an image, a kind of slightly less fussy Alan Bennett, except with thick frame glasses and perhaps a sequinned hat. And perhaps even, if you’re lucky, a feather boa.

Identity is a very important aspect of the spoken word community. Through words and images, poets assert themselves, their beliefs, their backgrounds and characters. Their promotional photos tell potential audiences the kind of thing they might expect from their work. Performance poetry and spoken word are the vessels many poets use in telling their stories, or asserting their right to be individual, different to whatever the norm might be.

This was something that I’d never encountered before I got into writing and performing. As a young gay man living first in suburban Surrey, and now the south of Devon, I was always aware that I was not an average person and did not fit into the heteronormative definition. Yet a part of me wanted to quell whatever difference there might be, hide it behind layers of what I assumed were respectability. Just because I was a gay man, I did not necessarily want the world to know this, an odd hang up from a childhood lived in the 1980s, before a time of gay pride, when Section 28 was legislation, and homophobia was both normal and expressed often.

The world has changed since then, or at least, British society has changed. Things are still not perfect, but it’s much easier now to assert a certain divergence from the norm. Or perhaps the norm itself has been exposed as a lie.

The last few months I’ve been having several conversations with myself about gay content in my poetry, and gay imagery in my presentation of it. Every now and then I have a tendency to write a poem in which I purposefully hide my sexuality, and I have no idea why this is. Naturally, there are a lot of poems I’ve written and performed in which LGBT issues are not the main focus, or even touched on. But then I tell myself off, and remind myself that it is my duty as an LGBT poet to help normalise a marginalised community, and that I owe it not only to my LGBT heroes who came before and did so much to help us get in to this situation, but also to the many other poets, performers and writers who assert their identity and do so with pride.

So there’s this social editor at the back of my mind which intrudes often, and the best material invariably comes when he is banished or ignored. So yes, I’ve been censoring myself, but from who? I tell myself off, and remind myself that the fight is not over, and that there are places in the world where the freedoms I enjoy are not taken for granted, or even permissible. In spite of everything, I, and many of my spoken word colleagues, am still an outsider. Identity is a powerful thing.

Thoughts from the Barnstaple Fringe

The last few days I have been in Barnstaple for the Theatrefest Fringe. And like any fringe there have been the usual highs and lows, intense hard work, leafleting, pounding the streets with heavy luggage and enduring incredibly long train rides. This year there were two other factors: the football and he intense heat. Yet ultimately it has been a positive experience. I’ve seen a lot of great shows and met some amazing people.

I decided to commute, the first day, from Paignton. What a mistake that was! I spent six hours on a train that day and didn’t get home till eleven, then had to come back again the next morning at six AM to get to Barnstaple in time for my tech rehearsal.

I’ve been involved in two shows this year, The Two Robbies and In the Glare of the Neon Yak. The Two Robbies has had amazing audiences, enthusiastic and responsive, and people have been quoting my own poems to me at odd moments, or shouting, Jellyfish! As ever it was a huge honour to be performing with someone like Rob Barratt, whose poetry relies on humour and wordplay, and we have been making plans to perform again together in other places. There have been some very good reviews placed on the Theatrefest website of our show.

The scariest show has been my new solo effort, In the Glare of the Neon Yak. It’s a brand new show, with a new theme and the whole show is a complete change for me, as it relies on dramatic techniques and a certain undercurrent of seriousness which is not usually a feature of my oeuvre. Audience numbers have been somewhat muted, but I have enjoyed the two shows that I’ve done so far.

As ever, the staff, volunteers and technical staff of this fringe are incredibly hard working, professional and supportive, and without them the whole event would be different.

Yesterday morning I had the honour of performing in a yurt at the Diversity Festival after the LGBT march, which I also live streamed on Facebook. I met some lovely people there.

So I have one more show this afternoon and then a three hour train ride home. It always feels weird to be going back to normality after the Barnstaple Fringe. The long train ride from Barnstaple to Exeter feels like a cleansing action, slowly returning the normal world, until the whole weekend feels more like a weird dream.

On the third runway

So yesterday Boris Johnson took a day trip to Afghanistan rather than vote against the third runway at Heathrow Airport. It seems a little extreme, to be honest, to travel halfway round the world to a country rebuilding itself from period of deep strife and horror. Or was that what he was thinking, on the way back? Was his plane delayed as it flew back to Heathrow?

He might have been in Nando’s, of course.

I’ve never understood how they will use the third runway. Heathrow already has two. One for landing, and one for taking off. What will the other one be for? And as soon as they build it, will the pressure begin for a fourth runway? This one, they will tell us, is for the planes taking off. We’ve got more planes landing now because of the third runway and we are running out of places to put them. It’s either that, or a multi storey aircraft park.

I must admit, I’ve always been a fan of civil aviation. I grew up near Heathrow airport and I used to go there when I was a kid and watch the planes taking off and landing. It’s powerful and it’s beautiful and there can be no more stirring sound than an Airbus A310 in reverse thrust. Whining it’s head off. Flaps up. Braking hard, then taxiing off the runway. Oh my. But even as an aircraft enthusiast, this has always had to mix in with my environmental beliefs. Aircraft are not good for the environment. They are high maintenance and they guzzle up a lot of fuel. A hell of a lot of fuel. And this gets pumped back into the atmosphere as carbon molecules. Oh, the guilt. How can something so beautiful be so very bad for you? Which is also what I think whenever I eat a hamburger.

Another part of me is always in awe of massive engineering projects. The logistics of building a third runway will be enormous. There will, of course, be a human side to it, too. Growing up near the airport, there are places I know that will, inevitably, be flattened by bulldozers to accommodate taxiways, aprons, terminal buildings, Starbucks. This sacred land where Dick Turpin terrorised stagecoaches, Herne the Hunter haunted monarchs, and Jeremy from Airport amused us all back in the glory days of reality tv, will be changed forever. Are we really so selfish as a generation?

The third runway is not the problem, it’s Heathrow and it’s infrastructure. In an age of mass communication and technology, we need less aircraft, not more. The more I think about it, the more I feel like hiding in Afghanistan to get away from it all. Which is also what I thought the last time I had to do some washing up.