Autobiography of a performance poet

How the dickens did I get to become a performance poet? This is a question that many people have asked me. So I’ve written an essay in two parts which answers that exact question. And for you, gentle listener, I have managed to probe exactly what it means to be me, Robert Garnham.

A two part piece of autobiographical writing about my life and what led me to becoming a spoken word artist and performance poet.

This essay takes me from childhood in Surrey and my first attempts at writing, through school, college and my first jobs, and finally to discovering performance poetry in 2009.

I hope you enjoy it!

Part One

Part Two

A gig in New York

It’s a Friday night in October, 2016. The venue is a cabaret bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. For days the weather has been unseasonably hot, the sun a constant presence as it bounces back from the warm sidewalks. A Friday night, then, and I’ve never felt gayer. Well, obviously I have. I mean, the times I’ve been doing gay things, you know, the really gay things, but this was more symbolic. Because the gig was at the Duplex in Christopher Street, the gayest road in the world, quite possibly, next door to the Stonewall Inn itself and the gay rights memorial. And right outside the venue, with all of this gayness, was a poster with my face on it. And it’s been there for weeks!

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the sitcom Will and Grace, but it’s the venue where Jack performed his one man show. That’s how gay the place is.

But it also has a rich heritage as a comedy venue and most of the major names in US comedy have at one time performed at the Duplex.

I arrived and met up with Mark Wallis and his partner Bart Greenberg. I’d known Mark for a few years when he still lived in Cornwall, and even then he was performing as I Am Cereal Killer, a kind of camp punk spoken word artist with bright red hair and white and red face make up. His partner Bart is a playwright and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New York cabaret and theatre scene. It’s a huge honour to be here headlining at their event, and I’m still not sure how it happened except that Mark is a fan of my work and I have always been a fan of his.

Also there are a couple of actors who Bart has hired to do a rehearsed reading of his new play, and then two very familiar and wonderfully flamboyant characters arrive. First is Margoh Channing, drag queen and cabaret artist with her giant hair, make-up and dress, her new show, Hung, about to be performed in New York, and then Dandy Darkly, the drag clown spoken word storyteller, with his pointed shoulder pads and sequinned one piece cat suit. I feel very plain in comparison.

We are shown upstairs to the green room, which is a fully functioning flat over the venue, and I fantasise about living here, and make small talk, and feel very nervous because I have no idea if there are any audience members yet. I go downstairs and do a mic test on stage with the actors, it all feels so professional and very real. And as always happens in these situations, a camaraderie emerges between the performers as we prepare ourselves in the apartment upstairs with its views down on to the small park where the gay rights statues attract tourists.

Everyone knows Margoh, she’s greeted warmly by the theatre staff. Dandy Darkly has other concerns, because the media has been full of stories about people dressing as clowns and scaring kids, he wonders if this might affect his act or the way that he is perceived. And I’m incredibly nervous, more so than I have been for a long time. I’d spent the days before in my hotel room on the Bowery, making subtle changes to my poems to take out references to English culture that then New Yorkers might not understand. Peter Andre, Top Gear, Richard Madeley.

We are ushered downstairs and given a table at the back of the room. I sit with Dandy and Margoh. The walls of the Duplex are filled with pictures of the famous people who have performed there, such as Bette Midler and Woody Allen. The audience is enthusiastic and warm and I start to relax. In fact, I couldn’t have asked for a better audience for my New York debut, and it felt a real privilege to headline with these acts. I’d seen Dandy before in Edinburgh and I have always been a huge fan, and I’d seen I Am Cereal Killer, but Margoh Channing was a revelation, hilarious and touching, tender, human and very funny. Nancy Stearns sang a fantastic song about being in love with a young gay man, and Bart’s wonderful play was about a gay relationship.

And then it was my turn. It all felt so normal, and once I started it just felt like a normal gig, the kind I’ve done countless times in the past. I think I purposefully downplayed my performance because there was no way I could compete with all of the others, but people were very kind and they laughed in all the right places, so much so that I had to change the set order on stage as I’d meant to do a couple of more serious poems. The audience was enthusiastic and seemed genuinely appreciative. They were up for laughter and a momentum had built up. The gig just flew past and then the show itself was finished.

I chatted afterwards with the audience. They were kind and generous and I sold out of the books that I’d brought with me. Some of them seemed genuinely surprised that my voice off stage also had an English accent, as if it had all been an act. ‘So you really are English’, a lovely lady said to me.

We went back to the green room apartment, where I felt guilty at just sitting on the sofa as the others showered and changed into their civilian clothes. But as I sat there I pondered on how amazing the gig had been. I chatted with Dandy, Mark, Bart and Margoh, feeling most relieved that my humour had translated well to an American audience, and that the crowd were very definitely on my side and intent on enjoying themselves.

But most of all it was the cabaret scene that affected me the most. It demonstrated that spoken word isn’t necessarily bound up with poetry, or that there are any barriers between a poetry gig, a comedy gig, a cabaret gig. Surrounded by actors, drag queens, cabaret acts, drag clowns and singers, I felt, for the first time, as the straight man in my shirt, tie and jacket, yet equally valid and comparable with the others. We were all doing our own thing.

And soon it was all over. We said our good byes and drifted off into the night. I walked with Mark and Bart to the subway and we went off on different lines, they went back to Queens, and myself the short distance to the Bowery, to the hotel where I was unable to sleep in the slightest.

It was only much later afterwards that I realised how amazing the night had been. It was spoken word that had got me there, and for a few brief minutes I’d been right at the epicentre of the international LGBT scene. My next gig after this night was a couple of weeks later, in Torquay, thousands of miles away and with a very different dynamic but equally exciting and with another great audience. Thanks to the marvel of social media, I’ve become friends with a lot of people that night, and personally inspired by them. The world may be getting smaller, but that’s no bad thing, we are all so very similar.

A lockdown Skype conversation

(This was written right at the very start of the lockdown, so in some senses it’s an interesting historical document. It’s an imagined conversation over Skype. Because back in the old days of march 2020 I didn’t know about the existence of Zoom.)

A and B are speaking to each other over Skype.

A
So he says, he says, he can’t understand why there are so many cars parked outside people’s houses when they’re all meant to be at home. So I say, well, people are at home, aren’t they? That’s where there’s all these cars parked outside. But he still doesn’t get it. They’ve got to be visiting people, haven’t they?, he says, I’ve never seen so many cars parked in the road. So I says, where else are these cars gonna go? They belong to the people in the houses and usually they’re at work and stuff, and he says, yeah, but they all had to go out and get the cars from somewhere.

B
What a nob.

A
And he’s still going on about it. Cars, he keeps saying, look at them all parked out there! He’s standing at the window. And all these people are meant to be at home. And I lost it, I said to him, we’ve just been through this!

B
Heh-heh.

A
And then he’s in the supermarket, right? This is before it all kicked off, he’s in the supermarket and he phones me and he says, all the bread’s gone! The vultures have bought up all the bread and now there’s none! And I need bread! I’m desperate for it! And I says to him, I says, go to the bakery, I was in there just now and they had loads, and he says, what? The bakery? I’m not paying their prices!

B
Your brother is such an idiot.

A
So what have you been up to?

B
Not a lot. I went to the bins, earlier. And then I thought afterwards, oh, does that count as my one exercise for the day?

A
Ha ha.

B
Am I not allowed out now for a walk because I’ve gone to the bins? Mind you, it was further than I went yesterday.

A
I tell you what I don’t get.

B
This isn’t that thing again is it? The helicopter thing? I told you that was fake news.

A
Debs sent it to me.

B
Oh so it must be true! Helicopters coming over at night to disinfect everything. Don’t leave your windows open. Never heard such nonsense! What about all the wildlife? And farm animals, and crops, and every other living thing on the planet?

A
All right, all right, so it wasn’t true.

B
And where are we suddenly going to get all these helicopters from? And how are they going to carry all that disinfectant? And why would the government announce it over Instagram?

A
Yeah, yeah.

B
How many people did you send it to?

A
Everyone. Anyway, I tell you what I don’t get.

B
Hang on a minute.

A
What?

B
Bogey.

A
What?

B
You’ve got a bogey.

A wipes his nose several times on his sleeve.

B

So what don’t you get?

A
I tell you.

B
Go on.

A
They say you’re not meant to touch hands, right? And someone suggested doing that elbow bump thing. Well that’s ok, isn’t it. But aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be closing toilet doors with? Aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be sneezing into? Can’t be hygienic, can it?

B
You’ve got a point.

A
It’s true though, isn’t it?

B
You think we’re all spreading elbow germs, now?

A
We’ll survive the flu and we’ll all die to some new elbow disease.

B
There’ll be some government advice, we will all have to wash our elbows. Boil our elbows. And it will be just like a night club, the hottest joint in town.

A
What’s that? I don’t get it.

B
Never mind. Hey, do you know Justin?

A
Justin who?

B
Berwell. Justin Berwell. Actually you might not know him because we went to different schools. Berwell. Emigrated to Australia, they got the same rules over there about staying at home as we have. Anyway, he’s got this company selling these miracle diet pills. It’s all a scam. These shoddy airbrushed before and after pictures. He’s flogging these dodgy diet pills. And he has the cheek to change his profile picture to the words I deserve respect, I’m a health worker!

A
I suppose he is, in a way.

B
Diet pills, though?

A
It’s healthy.

B
It can’t be, I’ve seen the adverts.

A
Makes people feel good about themselves, though.

B
It can’t be good if he’s involved. I remember him at school. He was so obnoxious. The geography teacher once asked us if we knew where the Great Plains were and he said the airport.

A
Admittedly, that’s quite funny.

B
Diet pills, though. It’s not the sort of thing you hear about, though, is it? On a train or something, the conductor comes over the intercom and says, ladies and gentlemen, this is an emergency, is there a miracle weight loss pill salesman on board?

A
Is this a bit?

B
A what?

A
A bit for one or your shows?

B
No, it’s real.

A
Haven’t they all been cancelled?

B
Most of them.

A
Even the fringe?

B
I don’t know, yet. Mind you, if gatherings of more than two people are banned, then at least my fringe show can still go ahead.

Silence for a bit.

A
I don’t get it.

B
Things have, er, they’ve kind of . .

A
Yeah.

B
It’s all about . . Carrying on, isn’t if? Because otherwise . .

A
The way I see it, as long as we keep this up.

Silence for a short white.

B
Listen, I’m going to need some hair clippers.

A
What for?

B
For making a meringue. For my hair! What else?

A
You gonna shave it all off?

B
No! I’m just going to trim it a bit.

A
Cut your own hair?

B
I watched a YouTube video showing how it’s done, I’ll be fine.

A
Funny you should say that. I was in the hairdressers the other day.

B
You’re bald!

A
I was waiting for my brother! Anyway, this yoot comes in, big hair, huge chin. I mean it. Never seen such a big chin. I thought, now there’s someone who could do with a chin-ectomy. Anyway, the yoot comes in.

B
Get to the point.

A
Says to the hairdresser, here, can you cut my hair so that it’s curly? And she says, I can’t do that! It’s impossible! And he said no, I saw this YouTube video showing how you can cut someone’s hair and it ends up curly, so can you do it with mine.

B
Heh heh.

A
And he wasn’t having it, he kept arguing about this video, and the hairdresser was saying that it can’t be done, and then my brother had a hair cut, she did a good job.

B
Well that just kind of fizzled out there, didn’t it?

A
Massive chin.

B
So what are you up to today?

A sneezes violently into the webcam camera and the screen becomes obscured with mucus leaving just a vague outline.

B
Oh for heaven’s sake!

A tries to wipe the camera to no avail and just makes it worse.

B
Try to use some kitchen towel.

A
I haven’t got any!

B
You haven’t got any kitchen towel?

A
I used it all as toilet paper!

B
Didn’t that . . Chafe a bit?

A
Like hell!

B
For goodness sake, what are you using?

A
Pants!

B
Pants?

A
Boxers.

B
Gross!

A
Boxer briefs, to be precise.

B
Yewww!

A
It’s not like you’re actually here.

B
Why have you got boxer briefs just lying round in your living room?

A
It’s hot in here, I just took them off.

B
I’m logging off, now.

A
Log off! Log off!

B logs off. The screen goes blank.

B whispers wistfully
Bye.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak

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.

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

https://youtu.be/30LUNd6ihDQ

I think I’m going to burst into flames. It’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, except that one time. I was on a train, and the train manager came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Take care as you alight’. Oh, I thought, I didn’t know that was a possibility. But right now, right at this moment, I think I’m going to burst into flames.

I was reading this story the other day about some man who burst into flames. There he was, just minding his own business, when, woof! A dog came in. And then he burst into flames. Ironically, his name was Ash.

He’d called his next door neighbour for help but his next door neighbour had said, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’

‘And the rest of me, too!’, Ash had replied.

And after that, he was quite dead indeed.

It’s quite disconcerting knowing that you might go up at any minute. I phoned my ex and I said, ‘I’m worried that I’m about to go up!’

‘First time for everything, he sighed.

So much for rekindling old flames.

The thing about spontaneous human combustion is that I expect it’s the sort of thing you can only do once. I’d spent most of the afternoon in the shower. My friend Beth has always said that I have a warm personality. You don’t know the half of it, I thought of replying. ‘Let’s go to the funfair’, I suggested, ‘and pretend that it’s not about to happen. And by the way, I think I’ve got heart burn’.
‘OK’, Beth said.
‘OK what?’, I asked.
‘OK, let’s go to the funfair’.

I don’t think Beth believed me when I said that I was going to burst into flames. She said it was like one of those stories you read where the lead character is also the narrator, and it’s obvious that whatever troubles they faced they had survived, because it was a first hand account. She then told me that she didn’t entirely believe in spontaneous human combustion, but that her uncle had once seen spontaneous goat combustion, and for the rest of the day he had had a strange hankering for a lamb roast.

But she didn’t believe me, I’m sure of it. On the other hand I’d hate it if my last words were to be, ‘see! I told you!’

A friend of mine is a fireman and I phoned him up and I asked him for some advice.
‘Well’, he said, ‘you can always fight fire with fire’.
‘But that’s no bleeding good!’, I said. ‘In fact, I reckon it would be counter productive.’
‘If you want me to rush round with my big hose’, he said, ‘then you’ve got another thing coming’.
We met at a house warming party. As I say, he’s a fireman.
Ironically, his name is Bern.

Beth and I arrived at the funfair on a glorious evening. The funfair was on the village green next to the pub and the main road. The setting sun had made the sky all red and the neon and fluorescent lights of the fair contrasted and complemented the glory of the clouds. The world seemed lit with promise as if in competition with the mystique and the firmament of space in its eternal and ethereal wonder, lighting the angular facade of Wetherspoons.
‘You haven’t dried your hair after your shower’, Beth said.
‘It’s true, I am somewhat moist, but it’s all on account of the spontaneous human combustion’.
‘Just plan to do it at nine o clock’, she said. ‘Say to yourself, nine o clock is when I’ll go up in flames’.
‘Why?’, I asked.
‘Because then it won’t be very spontaneous, will it?”
‘It doesn’t work like that’, I pointed out.
‘How would you know, if you’ve never done it?’, she replied.
The funfair had all of the usual accoutrements such as stalls and a dodgems and a couple of rides, but in the middle was a circus tent with a barker standing out the front. And by this I don’t mean a dog, but a man dressed as a circus ringmaster. He seemed very excited about the tent behind him, which was decorated in large fluorescent lettering and the word, FUNHOUSE.
Beth and I stood in front of him for a little bit.
‘Roll up!, he said, through his loudspeaker. ‘Roll up! Gaze in wonder at our Funhouse! Never before in human history has more fun been crammed into one small space! See the amazing Bearded Man! Marvel at the badger who thinks he’s on EastEnders! We have relics from the sinking of the titanic, including some of the original ice! We have a horse! And a very large rug which needs putting away! Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up!’
‘This might take my mind off the spontaneous human combustion’, I pointed out, ‘and if it doesn’t, they might at least have fire extinguishers’.
‘Don’t be so blase’, Beth replied.
We went inside. Beth didn’t seem very impressed. The first place we went was the Hall of Mirrors. The skinny mirror made me look thin, the wavy mirror made me look wavy, the fat mirror made me look more or less the same. The ghost train was inoperative and instead there was a rail replacement bus. The tunnel of love was just boring.
Beth seemed to be wavering in her appreciation of the Funhouse, yet I, with my lurking inevitable internal combustion, saw the fortune teller sitting on a pouffe in the corner, puffing away on a crafty fag, and thought, hmm, she might know what my future has in store. As I approached she stubbed out her ciggie in the foil casing of a half consumed Bakewell tart, and I was glad that she didn’t immediately reach for a fire extinguisher. She had an expression on her face like a ferret with gout. Her chin looked like it was about to leave her and go and join a much more successful face.
By way of greeting she said, as is customary, ‘Hello’.
Her voice was gruff, like that if a trawlerman called Pete. She waved her hands at the lingering smoke.
‘Got told off yesterday, didn’t I?’, she said, ‘I was having a gasper. Didn’t realise it was against company rules’.
‘You didn’t see that one coming?’, I asked.
‘I’m a fortune teller, love. For other people. Don’t work on meself, does it? I deal in the mystical workings of the universe, not company health and safety regulations. Now, tell me, love. Have you been to a soothsayer before?’
‘Yes, I have’.
‘And what did they say?”
‘Sooth’, I replied.
She didn’t laugh.
‘Now, listen’, she said. ‘Some bastard has nicked me tarot cards. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to use a pack of HeMan Top Trumps’.
She opened the lack and laid them on the table between us. Skeletor, was the first card, then came Castle Greyskull. The next card was Skeletor again, followed by another Skeletor. Then Groundskeeper Willie.
‘Sorry, love, don’t know how that got in there’.
Then came another Skeletor. She looked up at me.
‘Let me guess’, I said. ‘The Skeletor card isn’t necessarily an omen of death?’
‘Let’s put it this way’, she replied. ‘You’ll be saving on winter heating bills’.
Beth and I went and had another mooch around the Funhouse and we both decided to leave. The petting zoo in the corner only had chickens and I’d never wanted to pet a chicken. There were also a couple of cocks, but that’s a different matter. I had a go on the Test Your Strength machine but I couldn’t even lift the hammer. We were just about to leave when there was a sudden blinding flash of fire and warmth.
‘Oh my god!’, Beth screamed, ‘He’s gone up!’
As luck would have it, it was only a fire eater, which I was glad about because I’d been wearing my best shirt. With great panache he spewed tongues of fire, momentarily lighting up the Funhouse and scaring the chickens. Ever the snowman, he pranced and danced, his flaming torch raised to his lips followed by a blinding flash, a sharded explosion whose warmth and brilliance seared into the night throwing shadows as if making us cavemen once more, solitary beasts in search of warmth, or an inhabitant of Milton Keynes.
I’d seen fire eaters before. On holiday at the coast one year, I’d been mesmerised by Marvello and his mastery of flame. The next year, The Great Splendido was similar exuberant, scorcher to the stars. And now here at the Funhouse, this, apparently, was Ben.
He was an interesting character. His face was angular and defined, almost cubist, like a tescos carrier bag full of chisels.
Beth and I stood and watched, entranced by Bens mastery of putting fire in his gob, and when he finished we both clapped.
‘Ah, thanks for that’, he said, in a strange high and squeaky voice. ‘Just doing my job’.
‘You were so good at it!’, I said, ‘you were literally on fire!’
‘Thanks, mister!’
‘What I’m really interested in is how you protect your insides from burning up’, I said.
‘To be honest’, he said, ‘you do get a bit of blowback, that’s how I lost my eyebrows. But as for my insides, yes, there have been one or two occasions where my lunch has been reheated. And I once belched at my Aunt’s flat and accidentally roasted her budgie. You know what, though? The best advice I could give is just to relax and not even thinks about it. So that’s what I do. I just get on and live my life. Oh, and when I’m practising at home, I’m always careful to turn off the smoke alarm’.
The whole time we were chatting I noticed that his bow tie was smouldering.
‘How did you get in to this?’, I asked.
‘Curry’, he replied.
He was quite cute, was Ben. I might even say, hot. I could imagine living with him, and how handy it would be. He’d have a steak and kidney pie cooked in no time. But I knew that it wouldn’t last, the two of us. I’d just had the ceiling of my flat repainted. I licked my fingertips and squeezed his bow tie, putting out the tiny flames with a slight hiss.
‘I’d better go’, he said. ‘And get my indigestion tablets’.
‘Bye’, I whispered.
‘Bye’.
At that moment the fortune teller ran over, and said rather breathlessly, ‘You will fall in love with a mysterious . . .’.
‘You’re too late’, I said.
‘Damn!’
Beth and I went outside. The sun was starting to set and the funfair was coming alive. On one side, the rides and the stalls, the lights, the neon, the music and the noise. On the other, a demonstration of dogs herding up some geese. The world seemed perfectly normal.
‘That’s the best advice’, Beth said. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t panic, don’t prevaricate. Be free to live your life without pondering on something that might not happen. If we let fate dictate our actions, then a fear of the unknown will take over, and we will never be free to enjoy ourselves. Now matter how far fetched our private fears, we mustn’t let them ruin the good times.’. She took hold of my hands. ‘Let’s go home’, she said, ‘It’s starting to get a bit chilly’.
I smiled at her and gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Yes’, I whispered.
And then, all of a sudden, woof!

The Queer Express

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!

welcome aboard!

Robert Garnham and Shadow Factory present : In the Glare of the Neon Yak

Jazz rock band Shadow Factory have joined forces with performance poet Robert Garnham to create an unforgettable show which marries music to spoken word. Based on Robert’s Edinburgh show from 2018, In the Glare of the Neon Yak will be debuted at the Barrel House in Totnes on October 12th.

‘I first heard a jazz band in Totnes called Shadow Factory a couple of years ago’, Robert Garnham explains, ‘and I was immediately hooked by their style, their experimentation, their reinterpretation of classic songs and by their wonderful original material. They sound absolutely amazing and they are lovely people.

‘So I was completely blown away when they asked if their could write some original music for my show from last year, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, with a view to a live performance’.

The band has been rehearsing over the last couple of months and creating original music for the show, which they describe as ‘a fantastic journey of poetry and music with a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, reaching a magical destination’.

According to Robert Garnham, ‘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? Come along to the Barrel House and find out!’

Tickets are £6 and can be purchased at https://www.totnespulse.co.uk/product/in-the-glare-of-the-neon-yak/

Tickets can also be purchased on the night. Doors open 7pm.

You can find out more about Shadow Factory at http://www.shadowfactory.co.uk/

You can find out more about Robert Garnham at https://robertdgarnham.wordpress.com/

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In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

Introduction: The setting of the beginning of Neon Yak is obviously based on London Paddington, particularly the sleeper service, though for some reason this one is going north, to Edinburgh and further. I once caught the sleeper service to Paddington, but found that it was named erroneously. Because sleep is the one thing that didn’t happen. Ten years ago I took the train from one side of Canada to the other and the magic has always stayed with me. But Canadian trains are different, your bed travels in the direction of the train, not oblong to it, and you don’t fall off your bed as it goes around a corner.

The idea of Neon Yak came on a crowded train from Edinburgh to Devon. I was standing in the vestibule with lots of other people for part of the journey and I thought, hmm, I should write a show about the different people here, and call it Vestibule Dreams. The show started to mutate when I saw that I could create connections between all the different characters.

Tony the Train Manager : Tony is based on a real person. A van driver who I knew. He had the same gruff voice and West Country accent. He would make up such amazing stories about the things he’d seen that day. ‘Hailstones the size of yer fist’, was one frequent story. He was a bizarre gentleman who had a weird phobia of Cornishware bowls, you know the kind, with the blue and white stripes.

The Circus of Mediocrity: When I was a teenager I wrote a novel. It wasn’t very good, but it was set at a circus. At the time I wanted to be regarded as a serious writer, so I wrote this psychological novel about a circus where weird things were happening. The idea stayed with me and sprang into mind when I decided that the characters in the train should be members of a circus. Only it would be a hopeless, raggedy, run down Circus. The ring master is clearly drunk and very fed up.

Jacques : Jacques was the main love interest in the novel mentioned above. The narrator ran away to the circus and slept in the wardrobe caravan with Jacques as his room mate, among all the sequin costumes and the smell of damp. Jacques was a bit of a prima Donna. This is the character that I had in mind when I was writing Jacques’ lines in the show. Young, excellent, flawed, slightly self indulgent.

So Jacques gets turned on by clowns. I expect this is a real thing. Weirdly I’ve had people ask me, having watched the show, whether I get turned on my clowns. No, I don’t. And they always look a bit startled. As if they wished they hadn’t asked. Mind you, if you look at a list of the people I’ve dated, you’ll see plenty of clowns. Sometimes, these things only become obvious in retrospect.

Molly : Ah, Molly. Molly is based on a real person. She’s in her late eighties and she’s still obsessed with sex. She’s a wonderful person. And yes, she actually did stand in her back garden at night and see the bombs falling on Bristol during the Second World War. I have told her that she is a character in my show and she has no interest in it whatsoever, bless her. Nothing fazes her. Amazingly, she still goes swimming in the sea when it’s warm enough.

Jennifer : Jennifer is also based on a real person. During the train ride across Canada I became friends with a lady called Jennifer, who was travelling for work but took the train because she was afraid of flying. Being the middle of winter, we decided one night that we would try and see the northern lights as the train passed across the prairies of central Canada. Jennifer and I lay on the floor of one of the carriages and looked out through the windows, up at the stars and the satellites and the aircraft, and the lights of a distant city burned on the horizon, and it could well have been the most romantic night of my life had there been any physical attraction. We didn’t see the northern lights, but she did point out the W of Cassiopeia, which has forever reminded me of her. This is alluded too later on in the section with Adam. The next day she got off the train at Edmonton and I said bye to her in the station, and wrote down my email address. I never did hear from her.

Is this all a dream? : The bit in the middle is just music and me faffing around with a toy train. It felt weird going to a shop and buying a toy train. This section was put in to give me a rest as by now I’d been talking for forty minutes, and I thought it would also give the audience a rest from listening to me talking.

Adam : There are aspects of Jennifer in Adam, too. But he’s a physical kind of person, in my imagination, an alpha male tough guy who gets what he wants and acts as a bit of a bully, but also happens to be a clown. I don’t know why Jacques should love him so. The episode in the toilet cubicle is clearly going to be just a one night stand, a momentary diversion from life, a transaction which will soon be forgotten, yet the narrator clearly thinks that this is the start of a beautiful relationship. It’s doomed, he’s doomed, we are all doomed!

I gave my phone to a young lady called Jennifer : This very short line draws together all of the story, and it only came to me after I’d written the first few drafts. In a moment which I can still remember, I scrawled it down and then a big smile came to me as I realised how clever I’d been.

The Neon Yak: So what’s the Neon Yak? I based it on the idea of Herne the Hunter. Herne, part man part deer, is a mythical figure from the forests around Windsor and north west Surrey, where I grew up. A glimpse of Herne was meant to herald a time of uncertainly. When I was a kid I would go on cub camps into the woods and I remember one of the cubs was particularly spooked and certain that we would all be haunted by Herne the Hunter. It didn’t help matters that, for some reason, the legend was also crow barred into the TV adaptation of Robin Hood, at the time riding high in the ratings in the early 1980s.

Coming from Surrey, woodland landscapes have always been important to me, particularly those around Woking, which are deep and dense and downright spooky. The idea of a Herne-like phantom, but kind of an opposite to Herne, came to me during the writing process, a glimpse of whom signals that things will be better. It’s a very visual imagining.

The narrator : Is the narrator me? I’ve certainly travelled a lot these last few years, and caught lots of trains. And yes, I’ve often felt like a Poundland Michael Palin. Looking at my writing, it’s amazing how much of it takes place on trains, planes, and other forms of transport, even cargo ships and space capsules. Perhaps the whole show is a psychological cry for help, an admission that there’s something indefineable that I’m looking for, that I just need to escape . . .

Performing this show has been a wonderful experience, and every time I do, it feels like the characters have become friends, people in whose company I feel totally at ease. Which has never really happened before. It seems to draw together so much from my life. I just wonder what I will think of this show in future years.

Shadow Factory and Robert Garnham : In the Glare of the Neon Yak

I first heard a jazz band in Totnes called Shadow Factory a couple of years ago and I was immediately hooked by their style, their experimentation, their reinterpretation of classic songs and by their wonderful original material. They sound absolutely amazing and they are lovely people.

So I was completely blown away when they asked if their could write some original music for my show from last year, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, with a view to a live performance!

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me a huge honour and thrill to announce that I will be teaming up with Shadow Factory for a special performance of my show in Totnes! This will be a really special evening and I hope you can come along!

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.

Tickets can be purchased below.

https://www.totnespulse.co.uk/product/in-the-glare-of-the-neon-yak/

Edinburgh Fringe Diary Day One – Getting here

Edinburgh Fringe Diary Day One

I usually fly to the Edinburgh fringe. I usually fly for two reasons. The first is that it’s cheaper than the train if you can book it ahead in time. The second is that it only takes an hour to fly from Exeter to Edinburgh. However, as you may know, I absolutely love flying. I love everything about it, the sheer impossibility of an object heavier than air floating through it, the raw power of the engines, the speed of take off and landing, the weird noises the flaps make on landing, and, with the Dash 8, the disconcertingly bumpy landing. But I didn’t fly this year. Feeling an environmental conscience telling me that this was not good for the planet, I decided to get a train.

And maybe, perhaps, for all those times in the past, the planet bit back.

I started out at six in the morning, walking to the station in Paignton with all of my luggage and then catching the local service to Newton Abbot. Things were going great so far and I even had an idea for a poem, which I wrote as a draft as the train chugged its merry way through the South Devon countryside. At Newton Abbot I transferred to the long distance service to Birmingham. Now, the slightly interested and ironic fact of this is that the train was going to Edinburgh, but the booking office and the website assured me that if I got off at Birmingham, I’d be able to catch a faster train that took the west coast line, whatever that is, getting me in to Edinburgh at two in the afternoon. Sure, why not!

The journey was marked by my decision to listen to as many Laurie Anderson LPs as possible. I managed two. My attention was taken by the machinations of an old lady two seats ahead of me. Travelling alone, she became insanely jealous of the seats that other people were in, and would come and stand over them. ‘Will you be sitting there long?’, she would ask. ‘Yes’. ‘Oh’.

She then decided that she wanted a table seat. A young man was sitting at a table working on a laptop. ‘I’d like your seat’, she said. ‘When are you getting off’. ‘Glasgow’. ‘Oh’. And every time the train started to slow for a station, she would be up again hovering over this young man with his laptop. ‘Just checking to see if you’d decided to get off here’. ‘No, I’m going to Glasgow’. ‘Oh. Oh, never mind’.

The train started to get packed so she then came over to me and asked me to get her luggage. Sure. I did so. She then plonked it on the seat next to her at the window side, and employed the tactic of sitting on the outside seat, so that nobody could sit next to her. It was all most amusing.

At Birmingham I transferred to the train to Edinburgh, the west coast line special. Feeling pretty smug, I found a great seat and even contemplated opening the small bottle of red I’d bought the night before, wondering if it was socially acceptable to swig from the bottle, having nothing to pour it in to. By now it was getting on, it was almost eleven o clock in the morning. I’m not sure of the etiquette for swigging red wine for a bottle on a west coast line train at eleven in the morning, but decided not to. Perhaps, I pondered, this is better than flying after all.

And then the planet bit back. At Preston station the train managed announced that the service was terminating and that we would have to ‘de-train’. Apparently the line was flooded further north, and we would not be able to get to Scotland on the west coast line. We all spilled out on to the platform and I had no idea what was going on or where I was meant to go, and I even wondered if I might try to get to Manchester Airport and fly the rest of the way. A rather harassed gentleman in a high vis jacket pointed me towards platform six, where I’d be able to get a train to Manchester, from where I might get a train, as he put it, ‘north’. I thought I was already in the north, but there you go.

The only trouble here was that trains kept arriving which had to terminate, and passengers were ‘de-training’ all over the place, and the trains to Manchester kept shifting from platform six, to five, to four, then back to six, so I spent the next hour hauling my luggage from platform to platform and just missing trains to Manchester, because they were hidden by the bigger trains that were terminating.

The train to Manchester was standing room only, and I stood in the vestibule with a young family from Manchester who had three young daughters in push chairs, and a sullen teenage son called Ed, who they didn’t seem to care much about at all. Ed just stood in the corner looking sullen while the parents entertained the young kids. I felt for Ed. A friend of mine has just had her lips made bigger so that she can pout better in her Instagram pictures. I told her that she could pout for free. Ed would have given her a good lesson in pouting.

At Manchester I took the first train I could find to Newcastle. Amazingly I managed to get a seat. And the atmosphere was most jovial indeed. I sat with a party of pensioners who were going to the fringe but had got split from the rest of their group, who were taking an alternative train to York instead of Newcastle, and they were racing one another, keeping in touch by mobile phone having all had to de-train at Preston, too. They got off at York, and then three young ladies got on who were had been out on the town in York celebrating their friends wedding, and they were absolutely plastered and yet good fun, chatting up the young man sitting next to me, and the young man in front of me, and the young man across the aisle from me, and the young man at the end of the carriage, and the young man who was the train manager. They didn’t speak to me, though.

At Newcastle, I had half an hour to spare to get a cup of tea and was served by an incredibly cheerful young man. I’ve only been to Newcastle once before but was quite taken with how cheerful everyone there seems. This young man in the station cafe kind of reminded me that maybe, when I retire, it’s Newcastle that I’d like to live.

The train to Edinburgh was quite crowded and the train manager kept coming over the speakers to say that people could get off at Berwick upon Tweed if they liked, and catch the train behind ours, which probably might not be as crowded as this one. Amusingly, at Berwick upon Tweed, nobody moved. By now I was very tired.

Eventually arrived at Edinburgh at seven in the evening, thirteen hours after setting out. I hopped into a taxi and we drove through the city. We passed a young man walking along the pavement dressed as a clown. ‘My god, did you see that?’, my taxi driver said. ‘He was dressed as a clown! I mean, what the hells all that about, eh?’ I would have thought that a taxi driver from Edinburgh would be used to such things during the fringe, but there you go.

So I arrived at my accommodation around half seven. My room looks out at Arthur’s Seat, and just as I looked out the window, the most amazing thunderstorm commenced. It seemed a fitting welcome. I’ve had a good nights sleep and I am getting ready for a day of flyering and meeting friends and perhaps seeing a show or two. Due to administration errors, my show is not listed anywhere so it feels like a secret show, a show that doesn’t exist, which will make it incredibly hard to get anyone to come and see it, but it at least takes some of the pressure off.

So yes, I’m here, now, and come on Edinburgh, it’s time to work your magic!