Buying a fake beard

For reasons which are too tiresome to go into, I decided to purchase a fake beard. I’d done a bit of research online and I’d noted the differences between those that use elastic around the back of the head, and those which clip around the ears. On various websites, the convention seemed to be that those which clip were the most durable, as the elastic ones are prone to perishing with repeated use. I don’t know why someone would want to use a fake beard repeatedly, it probably being more prudent in the long run actually to grow a beard, but in any case, and pondering on the pros and cons of all the various permutations of fake beard construction and design, I set off into town, intent on making a purchase.
One of the fun parts of online research had been the reviews of fake beards left by previous customers on the various websites. ‘A tendency to itch . .’, for example, or ‘Amazing! Looked just like the real thing!’, on another. ‘It fitted right over the top of my normal beard with no problem at all! Nobody suspected a thing’, read another, or, ‘Terrile! The elastic snapped on only its second usage and almost had the eye out of the ambassadors wife’. The funniest customer review for a fake beard came from a young lady called Samantha who wrote, ‘I originally got this for a costume for myself, but didn’t use it. My son ended up wearing it to dress up as an old man in his first grade class. It worked well and stayed on for most of the day. But beware: this does not look real in the slightest’. Well, it wouldn’t, would it?’.
The fake beard can trace its heritage back to the days of the Yukon gold rush of 1896. In this rugged environment up in the frozen north, the vast majority of potential prospectors arrived clean shaven before making the perilous journey into the wilds, armed with little more than hope and a good shovel. As the winter set in the more rugged among them sprouted impressive beards, and as the famous rhyme points out, the bigger the beard, the more they were feared. In this environment of deep cold and lawlessness, a man was judged solely on the volume, mass and bushyness of his facial hair, and only those who made the grade were unmolested by rival prospectors, bandits, thieves, ne’er do wells, robbers and the perennially shifty. And those without beards didn’t stand a chance.
Gordon McKirk saw a niche in the market and, with his patented glue made from fir tree sap, and a healthy supply of skunk pelts, began to sell fake beards to the prospectors. His Klondike tin shack set up between brothels became one of the most visited businesses of the gold rush, new arrivals making a beeline straight from the steamers and through the mountains to his shop in order to cultivate the manly frontier look. Gordon himself would offer a bespoke fitting service, matching the skunk pelts perfectly with the various chins presented to him, applying the sap glue with a small brush and applying the fake beard before revealing to the customer their new look by means of a mirror hidden behind the curtain. Alas, this was a trick, as the mirror actually was a portrait of one of a number of existing rugged gold prospectors, such as Dangerous Dan McHiggins, Dangerous Dan McKinley, Dangerous Dan McNish, Dangerous Dan McFortescue, or Toby Simpson, who wasn’t particularly dangerous, but he did have a big beard. In actual fact, all of the gold prospectors who left Gordon McKirks shop looked more or less the same, smelling of fir tree sap and skunk pelt, and would promptly get robbed the moment they set foot outside the shop.
Alas, Gordon himself was to succumb in 1898, when, blinded by the various pungent aromas of his skunk pelts, and deafened by the constant honky tonk music coming from the brothels on either side of his Emporium, he tried to fit one of his fake beards to a full grown adult male grizzly bear.
When I was a kid my next door neighbour was a kindly old lady called Celia. She lived alone and kept herself to herself for the most part, though she did volunteer for a couple of days a week listening to children read at the local primary school. She also was quite deaf, and her voice would get higher and higher the longer the sentence that she was speaking. So for example she might say, ‘I was walking through the town the other day and I Thought I Might But Some Daffodils SO I DID AND I MUST SAY THEY’VE STARTED TO COME UP AND THEY LOOK SPLENDID!! But the most unusual thing about Celia was that she always had fake beards hanging on her washing line.
There were always at least seven of them. And you would never see her wearing any of them, which was the weirdest thing. In all other regards she was quite normal and genial, and she was a churchgoing lady who was admired by the local community for the most part.
Of course, there were rumours about why she would have fake beards hanging from her washing line, the suspicion was that she was helping out with the local amateur dramatics society, but she had never shown any inclination towards the arts or any interest in theatre whatsoever.
At about this same time there was a series of cars being held up late at night by an armed individual, a lone figure who for one reason or another became known as the Masked Monk of Maidenhead. It was always something of a mystery why he should be known as the Masked Monk of Maidenhead, as there was nothing particularly Monk like about his reported appearance, and nor did the miscreant operate anywhere near Maidenhead. Rumours then began to persist that Celia, my own next door neighbour, was actually the Masked Monk of Maidenhead, what with all the fake beards hanging on her washing line. It didn’t matter that not one report of the Masked Monk of Maidenhead mentioned any facial hair, fake or otherwise. Nevertheless, rumours persisted and Celia started to become a suspect.
‘It’s just my fluffy BUNTING’, she would say. ‘Every day is a celebration so WHY NOT PUT OUT BUNTING? AND WHY NOT MAKE IT FLUFFY?’ Let’s face it, we’ve all heard of Normal Bunting and the WORLD NEEDS CHEERING UP AND I’M THE ONE TO DO IT!’
As is usual in these situations, the truth was even stranger than fiction and there was a clearer story at the heart of Celia and her fluffy bunting. And bizarrely, it did involve the Masked Monk of Maidenhead.
As I say, she was a church going, god fearing lady, who also did charitable work every now and then for the local monastery. Of the ten monks who lived there, three were bearded. Living by rules which stipulated anonymity, every time the monks appeared in public, they had to look the same so that they were compelled not to form emotional attachments to ordinary people and be swayed from the path of their teachings. Celia would, therefore, provide them with a beard washing service so that they could go about their religious piety freed from the constraints of picking bits of fake beard from the filters of their tumble dryers. When one of their number rebelled against this doctrine and formed an unhealthy obsession with an optician named Brenda, he was ostracised from the religious order and would spend the rest of his time flagging down passing motorists, demanding from them use of their laundry facilities.
Of course, this might all be rumour and inneundo, and to be honest, Celia is probably long dead now.
Alexander the Great, allegedly, was a prolific wearer of fake beards. In the days when he was seen out and about while wearing one of them, he was apparently known just as Alexander the Average. A ruler of the known world by the time he was thirty, Alexander appears in statues, artwork and on coins clean shaven and looking pretty damn hot, yet contemporary accounts always mention him stroking his beard. It is not pointed out whether he was wearing the beard at the time that he was stroking it, or if this was just a mistranslation. What is clear is that many historians suggest he would take time away from the rigours of his court and duties, his lovers and soldiers and necessary admin, don a fake beard, and slip into the busy city streets of Babylon in search of open mic comedy nights.
It is not known whether or not Alexander graces the stages of such institutions himself, or whether he preferred just to sit at the back and heckle. But there are accounts of a comedian from this time, known as Alexander the Great Ninny, who was more of an observational comedian and whose act was much mimicked by such later comedians as Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. One of Alexander the Great Ninny’s Jokes runs as follows:
‘What’s the big deal with conquering Persia? What’s that all about? If you really want to set yourself a challenge, try sorting out the Babylonian annual theatre festival. On the one hand, you’ve got bloodshed, screaming, decapitation, impaling, horror and massive human suffering, and on the other, you’ve got the conquering of Persia’.
Now naturally, this is kind of joke that nowadays has been done to death, with a punchline that you can see a mile off, but at the time it was all new and, contemporary accounts attest, Alexander the Great Ninny would then end each set by tugging his fake beard down, revealing a glimpse of his actual face, and saying, ‘Guess who, folks!’, before scampering off stage to thunderous applause.
So as I say, I decided to go out and buy a fake beard. To be honest, as I left my house the other day I felt excited by the prospect of buying a fake beard and this put something of a spring in my step. I walked with a bit of a smile on my face, the sort of smile which told the world that I was off out to buy a fake beard. I’ve often seen this smile on the faces of other people, and I can always tell what it is that they’re up to, and now it was my turn to have this smile. And those with beards, fake or otherwise, often have the same smile but it’s hidden away from the world. Hidden behind their beards. The smiles might even be fake, as fake as the beards that they hide behind. A philosopher might say, we’r all hiding behind fake beards.
There’s a joke shop in the town where I live. Mister Happy’s Jocular Palace. It has costumes and party accessories as well as Jokes, and for a joke shop, it’s run by the most miserable man I’ve ever met. How tough life must be for him, a man with no sense of humour, spending his entire life running a joke shop. Unless, this itself is the joke. Perhaps he has found the best way to live his life, like a miserable comedian, a man who draws out laughter from the world but hides behind his own ennui,
So I go in to his shop and he looks up from his newspaper. He probably doesn’t get many customers on a Wednesday morning. I walk past the whoopie cushions and the fake noses, the plastic dog turds and the squirty lapel flowers, to a display of fake beards hanging in packets on the wall. And there were so ,at different types of fake beard. Stick on fake beards, hook behind the ear fake beards, elastic strap fake beards, short fake beards, long fake beards, fake goatees, grey fake beards, brown fake beards, white fake beards, and all kinds of different length, from just a couple of inches to ones that came down halfway down your chest, there was every conceivable kind of fake beard you can think of.
Mister Happy puts down his newspaper and ambles over.
‘I’m looking for a fake beard’, I told him.
‘How long do you want it?’, he asked,
‘Just for the night’, I replied.

On how I learned to love writing short stories again

On how I learned to love writing short stories again

The only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer. When I was a kid, I’d write all the time. For me, the most wonderful thing in the world was a new notebook with all of its blank pages and the limitless possibilities of the words that would fill it up. If there was one thing I really enjoyed, it was making people laugh because of what they were reading, knowing that it was my own words that had caused such merriment. I remember my English teacher, Mr. Smith, encouraging me to write, and I’d show him my stories and he’d sit and read them to himself and every now and then he would laugh. And I’d always ask him what it was that had made him laugh.

During my teenage years I discovered existentialism and I forgot all about wanting to make people laugh. I just wanted to be seen as a deep thinker, a modern Camus or Kafka astounding people with my weighty philosophic intellect. The only things missing were a beret, and a weighty philosophic intellect. This ‘phase’ took a few years to get over.

In my twenties, I moved to Devon and joined a writers’ circle, and for the first time I would be reading out my words to other people. And when they laughed, it was the most magical feeling in the world. I spent all my spare moments writing, in my first flat, which was on the third floor of a spooky gothic mansion, and I’d sit there all evening and write and write and write, endless short stories which I’d then immediately file away, and sometimes not even print off.

Education came late to me, and I spent seven years doing an undergraduate course, and then two years doing postgraduate, all by distance learning, so writing took a back seat but I’d still have a crack at it if I had a spare few moments, though I’d never look at what I’d written once it was done. And as soon as my education was over, I discovered comedy performance poetry and the deep joy of being on stage and making people laugh.

Of course, this was a pivotal moment, because now I was getting paid and travelling all over the UK, spreading comedy and joy and meeting wonderful people. Indeed, the last thirteen years have been a magical experience and I never thought that I’d be in such a position. The fact that I make strangers laugh and enjoy life, if only for a few minutes, makes me feel incredibly privileged.

A couple of years ago, I went back to writing short stories. The only difference now was that, thanks to this thing called the ‘internet’, which wasn’t around when I was younger, I could now submit the end results. And wow, the response has been amazing. I’ve had short stories published all over the place, from magazines such as Stand and Defenestration, to Ink, Sweat and Tears, Riggwelter and Jersey Devil. Indeed, I have even been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in the USA, which is where most of my work is published.

But the most amazing thing of all is that some of the stories I’ve had published were ones I’d written twenty five or thirty years ago. Stand, one of the most respected magazines in the UK, have agreed to publish a story of mine next year which I wrote one evening at that old gothic flat. Black Moon magazine have just published one which I remember reading to the writers’ circle all those years ago. I’m absolutely astounded that these old stories are finding a new lease of life, while at the same time a little sad that I wasn’t brave enough to send them off at the time, as a nerdy twenty something.

So what’s my point with this essay? I suppose it’s ‘never give up on your dreams’, or something trite like that. Or at the very least, ‘give it a go, because you never know’. I was deeply unsure of myself for most of my young adult life and this has continued to some extent. I certainly don’t feel like I have a sense of entitlement but I’m at least glad that I am now a little braver when it matters.

And writing? I still love it, as much as I did when I was a kid!

The WhatsApp Group

Are you coming?
Yes I’m coming
Are you going?
Only if you’re going
I’m going if you’re going
Are you coming?
I’m going.
I don’t know if I’m going.
I don’t know if I’m coming or going.
Are you going to
Only if you’re going to too.
Who’ll be there?
I’ll be there
Will you be there
If you’ll be there
We’ll be there
Even if he’s there
Who’s he
You know who he is
I don’t know who he is
Will he be there
I don’t know if he’ll be there if I
Don’t know who he is.
Will he be there?
Yeah.
Ok, lol.
Sorry about that lol
No probs lol
Tried my best lol
Can’t be helped lol
These things happen lol
Smiley face lol.
Lol.
Taxi or bus?
Bus or taxi?
Taxi taxi taxi
Bus bus bus
Let’s walk
Let’s not
Lol
Uber
What?
Uber
What’s that?
Uber is Uber
Never heard if Uber
Shall we take an Uber
How do you take an Uber?
Do you take an Uber with food or water?
Yeah, what’s an Uber
I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Uber
I once took an Uber and my Uber was a Ford puma
Oh it was a puma Uber
I once took an Uber and my Uber was a Subaru.
Do they have Ubers in Cuba?
Try underneath the ironing board it was there last time I looked
Sorry that was for someone else, lol.
Lol.
Lol.
Lol.
Smiley face. Lol.
What do you mean puma Uber?
I don’t think I’ll go if he’ll be there
He won’t be there
You said he’d be there
I didn’t say he’d be there
Someone said he’d be there
Yes I’ve heard of Uber
I said he might be there
Might he be there
He might not be there
I’m not going there if he might be there
My cousin uses Uber
Try underneath the sideboard then
He probably won’t be there
Who won’t be there?
He won’t be there
But he might be there
He might indeed be there
It’s a chance you’ve got to take
I might not go
Well I’m not going if you’re not going
And I’m not going if both of you aren’t going
So who’s going?
I’m not going
Nor am I
Me neither
Not if he’ll be there
And you won’t be there
Who’ll be there?
You know who
I don’t know who, do you?
So whose actually going?
Not me
Not me
Nor me
Or me
Still, it’s nice to spend time at home, isn’t it?
Lol
Lol
Lol
Lol
Hey everyone I’ve booked an Uber for seven.
Everyone?
Everyone?
Hello?

Chorley Lodge and the 1984 Olympics

The other day I was in a second hand bookshop when I came across a Ladybird book of the 1984 Olympics, and all of a sudden I was transported back to a time when I was ten years old and a long, hot summer seemed to stretch ahead. My mother had bought me a copy of the same book, in which there was space to write in the winners of the various competitions. Now, you know me. I’m not exactly in to sports, and the idea of sitting there and watching the whole thing was not exciting, but I loved the idea of filling in these pages. But then with dread I realised that I would be away at Cub Camp for the first week of the Olympics and I would miss all the action. The joy of filling in all the blank pages would be denied and the book would never be complete.
I was not looking forward to Cub Camp. It would be the first time in my life that I would be away from home without my parents and I was sure that I’d be missing out on something, or that my family would be having loads of fun without me. Sure, I’d be with my friends, but I didn’t really know most of them, not really. They were just kids, and I tolerated them at the best of times. Indeed, being the 1980s, we all had the same bowl cut hairstyles and probably looked indistinguishable to the outside observer. But I much preferred being at home.
Now I say ‘Cub camp’, but we would actually be staying at a place called Chorley Lodge, which was a converted outbuilding on a former RAF World War Two airfield, on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. I hadn’t thought about this place for years, but the other night I watched a documentary about the natural history of the New Forest and I got to thinking about Chorley Lodge. I did a quick Google search and there it was, in all its glory. A plain concrete hut painted green with basic 1940s functional windows and probably enough asbestos to wipe out half the planet.
I remember hating it from the moment I arrived. We were looked after by a scout leader from a different troop to our own, who had this very weird idea that we should all go for a jog every morning before breakfast, but do so without our shirts, which in retrospect seems borderline dodgy. So we’d wake at sunrise from our austere bunks inside this palace of concrete blocks, and run through the adjacent pine trees which bordered what had once been the airfield, home to a hearty breakfast of puke inducing porridge.
The rest of the day would then be spent doing all sorts of wholesome blokey things. We would be split into groups of about four and assigned to some expert in their field who would do their best to teach us survival techniques or handy blokey pursuits. Orienteering was one of these, how to read a compass, how to pack a backpack, how to light a bonfire. But it always seemed that some other group would be doing an activity which was much more exciting. For example, a friend of mine had a brilliant young instructor who ran a half day practical workshop in building rockets, because apparently this is something that comes in handy if you’re ever caught in the wild. While my group had a half day workshop in Morse code. We’d be sat in a clearing dot dot dot and dash dash dashing while I could hear my friends out on the former runway launching rockets and whooping with excitement. ‘Robert, you really must concentrate. Now, what was the message I just sent you?’. Whoosh! Whoosh! Ha ha ha! ‘Erm . . Elephant knickerbocker dustbin Aunt?’ Whoosh! Kapowwww!
I think the whole week instilled in me several things which have lasted till this day. First, my hatred of communal sleeping arrangements probably stems from all thirty of us in one dorm and not feeling able to be myself. Secondly, my absolute revulsion at porridge. But thirdly, my love of forests, airfields and old buildings, even this weird cranky old concrete shack, which apparently has now been demolished, probably due to all that asbestos.
On the last day we all made wooden blocks with the name of the lodge and the date, and mine has been on the wall of my bedroom at my parents house for the last forty years. So that week at Chorley Lodge has remained in my memory, along with nighttime camp fire sing songs, outdoor eating and the vaguely kinky excitement of running semi naked through a forest.
But I never did get to complete that Ladybird Olympics 1984 book.

Music of the moment

‘Weren’t you here before?’, the waitress asks.
‘A while ago’.
He’s conscious that his English accent makes him stick out. Outside the diner windows, tall firs capture the early evening darkness, while trucks thunder past on the old highway. Bright neon reflects on the wet tarmac.
‘There’s really nothing special about me’, he insists, as he sits at a table near the plate glass window. He picks up the laminated menu. ‘It must have been over ten years ago. . .’.
Probably longer.
‘But I sure as hell remember you’, she says.
And he feels a strange connection inside. Sadness mixed with nostalgia. A hint of shame. Some jubilation.
‘I was a different man back then’.
‘You were on some tour, right? You and your . . Your uncle, right? Driving around the country. And you’d just come down from Canada’.
‘Yes’.
‘Oh, I sure remember you!’
So much had changed in the previous ten years. He looks around at the other customers in the diner. Truck drivers, a family in one corner, some lone drivers, a young couple. The rain intensifies and it starts to roll down the plate glass window.
‘You were young’, she says. ‘Mind you, so was I. The world was a different place back then, wasn’t it? Weren’t you drunk?’
‘I probably was’.
‘And we’d never had a Brit in here. Do you remember? We danced . . .’.
Oh, no.
‘Oh, I remember you, honey’.
She stands next to him and taps her long, painted nails on his shoulder.
‘You swept me off my feet. We glided across this very floor, the music was just the same but it was the music of the moment. You treated me like a proper lady for the first time in years. The bums at the counter, oh sure, they were laughing like hyenas. I said to the guys, this here is a real gentleman . Remember that? This here is a real gentleman ‘.
‘As I say, I was . . Different back then’.
‘Oh, I can’t forget someone like you. I really can’t, sugar. So, what brings you back? What brings you back here, to this crummy diner in the middle of nowhere?’
He wants to tell her that he’s retracing his steps, finding himself, doing something in memory of his late uncle, doing something in memory of his self, but it all sounds so trite.
‘I just felt like something to eat’, he lies.
And everywhere he’d been so far, nobody had remembered him at all. And it looked so different, everything looked like it had changed. It was quite dispiriting. Nobody had remembered him.
‘You staying here? For the night? In our little town? There’s a motel next door. Yes sir, you really did treat me like a proper lady’.
He and his uncle had adjoining rooms, and whisky. It was probably one of the very first times he’d even had whisky.
‘I don’t think it was me’, he says.
He gets up from his table by the window.
‘Oh, hon. I always remember a face’.
‘It wasn’t me’, he says.
And he walks away, back to the car, runs across the parking lot in the rain, through the puddles and the neon.

Yay!

‘Yay’ is the title of my new book, to be published by Burning Eye, and my new solo show, both of which are due to come out in the Spring of 2021. I’ve been working on both of these projects for a couple of years and I thought I would explain what I’ve been up to.

‘Yay’ will be a collection of upbeat poems, most of which tell a story or deal with a very specific place. Some of them are a little bit silly, some of them are somewhat life affirming, some of them are downright weird! And all of them are comedic in tone. The whole collection has been designed to make you laugh or smile.

The collection was devised a couple of years ago when it seemed that the world couldn’t get any more depressing. Naturally, after I started working on the project, it then suddenly did! The book contains poems from In the Glare of the Neon Yak, and Spout, my two solo shows, as well as material from my new upcoming show which will accompany the book.

The show will be called ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’. It was written in the first few months of this year and I have begun the process of trying to learn the thing. Indeed, I have been working with a director, the wonderful Dr Maggie Irving, with some funding from Torbay Culture, and she has been instructing me in the art of mime, movement and body expression. Unlike my previous shows, ‘Yay! : The Search for Happiness’ will have no props at all, just myself and a microphone. So in other words, I need all the help I can get! The reason for this is simply that I wont have to lug bags and boxes of props all over the country.

I’m still working on the collection. At the moment I’m in the process of deciding which poems will definitely be included. And of course, new ones keep arriving. It’s a very exciting time at the moment!

I’m looking forward to getting the book and the show out there into the world. Fingers crossed, of course, that there will be a fringe circuit next year. But if not, I’ll find a way to bring Yay! to your town.

On missing the Edinburgh Fringe

For the last couple of nights I have dreamed about the Edinburgh Fringe. I can’t remember what the dreams entailed, but there was definitely cobbles and drizzle and small theatre stages crammed into implausible locations. The cancellation of everything this year, including Edinburgh, has been pretty hard to take as a performer who relies in the most part in an audience. But most of all, it’s the communal madness and annual pilgrimage to Auld Reekie that I’ve found myself, oddly, missing muck more than I thought.

I say ‘oddly’ because last year, absolutely everything went wrong. Last year was my sixth year as a performer and my eighth fringe in all. The adventure started when the railway lines got flooded on the way there and I arrived nine hours late after various detours taking in Birmingham, Preston, Manchester and Newcastle instead of my original train which should have taken me straight there. I arrived to find that my show had not been included in the Wee Blue Book or on any of the signage at the venue, and then the venue itself had the toilets overflow because the sewage pipes had been inundated. One day I arrived at my venue to find a comedian setting up, they had assumed that the room would be empty because they had taken the wrong day off by mistake. And then on the way home, someone stole all my luggage. In spite of all this . . . I decided I wanted to go back the next year.

Edinburgh means a lot to the structure that I give to my year. I start writing a new show in November or December the year before, and then rehearse it up till April, when I unleash it on the world. I then do the same fringes every year : Barnstaple, Guildford, Reading, GlasDenbury, culminating in a trip up north. The whole year is structured around this timetable.

But Edinburgh means a lot more, too. It really is like a convention of spoken word artists and performance poets. People who you only usually see on social media are there, and a community exists of likeminded people sharing tales of flyering and accommodation. Some of these people have become very good friends over the years and it’s always somewhat emotional seeing them for the first time in a year. It’s also a great training ground, where you can hone your show and watch as many other different types of show as you can fit in. The inspiration I get from going every year lasts me a very long time and helps me experiment and push the boundaries. My last two shows wouldn’t have existed without seeing other shows.

And yes, Edinburgh is hard, physically and emotionally. I don’t know who decided to build a city right on the top of an extinct volcano where it rains most of the time and all the streets are cobbled. And you’re competing against thousands of other shows. And flyering itself is soul-destroying. I’m really no good at it. Yet the highs are extraordinary – slam wins, big audiences, great feedback, and of course, that miracle year in 2017 when I ended up on the radio and in all the papers, certainly outweighs the bad days where you get an audience of one, or you get absolutely drenched for eight hours a day.

I was looking forward to this year. I was going to do a ‘Greatest hits’ package which required minimum props and I’d found some great accommodation, and I was hoping to do everything right. Well. maybe next year, now.

And that’s if next year happens at all. The economic landscape may look very different by then, but I’m hoping there will still be a chance to go back up. With the exception of the town where I live and the town where I grew up, Edinburgh is the place I know the best having stayed and performed all over it for most of the last decade. I can’t envisage not going there for two years.

Thoughts from a Cambridge hotel

Cambridge.

I was sitting in the hotel reception area this morning waiting for the man behind the desk to stop pretending to be busy. I knew that he was pretending to be busy because he was tapping away on a computer keyboard and huffing. And this is exactly what I do whenever I don’t want to be interrupted, or if I’m on a train and I don’t want anyone to sit next to me. He had very prominent eyebrows, in fact you might even call them purposeful. The left one looked like it knew what it was doing, the right one looked like it was doing its own thing, but the cumulative effect was that they were making a statement. His eyebrows were saying, we go to places you can never imagine.

From where I was sitting I had a good view into the adjacent breakfast room. It was a buffet style breakfast and I could see other guests loading their plates and bowls and filling cups from a coffee machine. They’d tried to sell me a breakfast when I’d booked in, even though the room had already been paid for. They were quite insistent that I bought a breakfast but at nine pounds I thought it somewhat exorbitant.

My parents always used to stay in places where you had a buffet breakfast. My dad would always eat too much but he would be too embarrassed to be seen getting so much food, so he used to get my mother to pile extra food on her plate, too.

A very middle class looking white couple come in with their son. They’re all smiley and looking well to do, all pastel clothing and beige chinos, while their son is an emo goth, looking very sullen, with his trendy long hair and glum expression. He lurks behind them, scowling, fed up with the world and he injustice of it all. Or maybe he was still seething over the price of the buffet breakfast. And I think, what have you possibly got to be miserable about? Your parents look nice and they’re wearing nice clothes. And the sun is shining. And you’re young and you’ve got the whole of the rest of your life in front of you. He stands behind them at the self service buffet, then gets to the front, fills up a bowl of cornflakes, goes to put milk on, and the canister has run out. And I thought, there, that’s given you something to be miserable about.

So I go to the desk to book out once Eyebrows has looked up from his keyboard and let out a sigh.
‘Room 111. It’s all paid for, I believe’.
‘Yes, it was prepaid’.
He takes my room card.
‘You haven’t paid for your breakfast’, he says.
‘But I haven’t had a breakfast’.
‘Yes, but you haven’t paid for it’.
‘I didn’t want a breakfast’.
‘My colleague has put you down for a breakfast’.
‘I said I would think about having a breakfast. And now I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want one’.
‘But you haven’t paid for if’.
‘Just as well, then’.
‘So you need to pay for the breakfast’.
‘But I haven’t had one, and I’m not having one’.
‘Anyway, you need to pay for it’.
‘Why should I pay for it when I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t want it?’
‘Because my colleague says that you wanted one’.
‘But I didn’t want one then, and I don’t want one now’.
‘So how are you going to pay for it?’
‘I’m not going to.’
He lets out a huff and slams the printed receipt on the desk.
‘Good bye’, he says.
I take the receipt and I leave. And as he door closes behind me I do begin to feel a little bit peckish.

Looking back at my first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Edinburgh Fringe and what a big part of my life the festival has become. This summer was due to have been my ninth visit, and my fifth with a solo show.

The current situation means that everything at the moment is up in the air, and several reports have mentioned the precarious position the Edinburgh Fringe might be in. I can’t now imagine a year without the fringe, and if it were to no longer be a part of our lives, then this would be a very big shame indeed.

Each year at the fringe, I keep a blog and this year I looked back to 2016, the year I took my show Static to Edinburgh. This was my first year with a show on my own, having been there in 2014 with Poetry Ping Pong, and 2015 doing guest slots at other shows and performing at the Burning Eye showcase with Monkey Poet.

What I didn’t mention in the blog, (maybe I was too embarrassed!), was that I left my passport on the plane flying up and it was lost. And I knew I was going to New York a few weeks later to perform, and at the back of my mind I was thinking, uh-oh, I won’t be able to do that now. So this was eating at me all the time during the fringe.

But there were good moments, too. Breakfast with a world famous performer who told me how to go snout the whole process properly. Killing it as a guest at a comedy night and then being recognised in the street by someone who’d seen me at that gig. It was a rollercoaster of emotions!

The other thing was that my show had moments of silence and prop work, performance art and movement, and my venue was the corner of a bar. So it was impossible to perform the show the way that I wanted it. By the end of the week, I really was thinking of giving up spoken word. I remember my last show was as a guest at Boomerang Club, and I genuinely went into that gig thinking, wow, this is my last ever performance!

Things turned out well in the end. Static at Edinburgh in 2016 was a turning point because it showed me that I had to work harder at performance poetry, and make it a career, and that I needed to be way more professional. The meeting with the famous fringe performer, which you’ll read about below, certainly changed my whole way of working and mindset towards the whole process. Indeed, maybe that was the turning point of my career. I still use his methods now, every single day!

So anyway, here we go. Time for a crazy adventure!

Day One

Well here I am then, on a train heading to the Edinburgh Fringe. Well, almost. First of all I’m going to Woking to spend the night in a room over a pub, and then tomorrow morning I will be flying up. It was either that, or fifteen hours on a coach. In fact it’s cheaper this way than getting the train. How ludicrous is that?

So how am I feeling about all this right now? There are several emotions. I’m nervous, naturally, that everything is going to go tits up. Nobody will show up for any of the gigs, and when they do, I fall into that age old trap of being crap. I’m excited, because this is the Edinburgh fringe and a lot of my friends will be there. I’m also grateful that I am able to spend an entire week immersed in art and culture.

I’m also nervous that the logistical arrangements I’ve made will fall apart. The accommodation, the travel, the train, the plane.

So here so am, then, on the train, and I’ve managed to get a high profile seat in first class. It was a whole three quid extra to get in here, and I feel privileged, because they don’t just let anyone in. That three quid means a lot.

And I’m the only one in here as the train leaves Exeter, which makes me feel kind of poncey. But then a lusciously blonde muscular lad sneaks in and plugs his mobile phone into the charger. A minute or two back he’s later to look at his phone. Then he slides in, commandeers the seat for himself. Good move!

And oh mamma, what a good looking chap he is. Amazingly he offerere me a Fruit Pastel, and then we get talking. Where are you going? Woking? Me too! Where do you live? Paignton? Know it well! What do you do? Spoken word artist? I’m a property developer. And we chat for ages, about books he’s read, his love of To Kill a Mockingbird, his skills as a weekend surfer, and then it starts to get embarrassing. Whenever I try to relax he asks something else, and all the time I’m looking at those luscious legs.

At Honiton he gets off and meets a man on the platform who gives him a suit in a bag. He gets back in and looks at the suit, the tie, spreading them out on the table. Very smart! We chat some more, and then the man comes to check the tickets.
You’re in the wrong section, he says. Please move back to the standard class.
I’ve still got two hours of this train ride to go, but I’m already thinking, ah, yes. The adventure has begun!

And will I still be thinking of this blond lad in seven days time?

Day Two

Heathrow

So here I am now at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five. I stayed last night in Woking, which is one of my favourite towns and a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. When I booked into the hotel I asked if it was okay to pay with a debit card. We accept anything, the receptionist said, apart from goats.

It seems kind of unreal at the moment that I shall be performing this afternoon in another country. Okay, that country is Scotland, but when you’re used to Torbay, anything north of Newton Abbot is dodgy ground. The coach driver from Woking to the airport was incredibly jolly and rather envious of my old suitcase, which forms part of the show. You don’t see many of those, he said.

I expect the baggage handling crew are saying that too, right at this moment.

Edinburgh

It was a weird day. I mean, they talk about the madness and the insecurity which hit some more than others. Has it already hit me?
The flight was fantastic. The stewardess who found me an empty overseat locker advised me to use it quickly as those who bring suitcases on board will nab it. She was one of the jolliest people I’ve met in a long while with an evident love of life and a loud booming laugh which echoed from the galley all round the plane.

The flight was 45 minutes. It took 30 to get my case at the baggage reclaim. I caught the bus to the city centre straight to my venue, arriving ten minutes before my show. The audience seemed to enjoy it, (both of them), but I treated it as a rehearsal and afterwards pondered on a raft of changes I might make for the rest of the run. I also need to be louder. Tomorrow will be an entirely different matter.

I walked the mile out to my student accommodation, then realised that I’d left my jacket at the venue!

It was great to see Dominic Berry and Chris White, and later on I bumped into Rose Condo, Dan Simpson and Rob Auton.
It’s going to be a mega week!

Day Three

I am deep into the Fringe, now. Yes, I know that sounds weird. But I’m into the rhythm of the Edinburgh Fringe and what it means to be here, which is to say, the usual routines of flyering, exit flyering, chatting to people, finding out when other people’s shows are, and that big contentious issue, the Bucket Speech.

What is the Bucket Speech? Well, this is the free fringe, so we don’t get paid to perform, but we don’t have to pay the venue either. Because of this, we are not allowed to charge visitors entry, but we are allowed to pass round a bucket at the end. Now I was having serious philosophical thoughts about this and I decided not to do a Bucket Speech, (the bit at the end of each show where you ask for donations), and instead make the whole thing free. Yes, really. Absolutely free.

I’m not yet sure if this is a good strategy. For me the joy is sharing the words and meeting people. There’s no way that I’d recover the costs of coming here. Now it must be said that I might change this philosophy, depending on how things go.
I have been flyering. But I haven’t really done that much. Yesterday I did lots of flyering in the Royal Mile, but then got bored, so I went to the museum and I had an excellent time.

I’ve met so many friends up here, people who I know from so many different parts of the country, like Rose Condo, who I met in Manchester, Dan from Bristol, and Sam Webber, who I know from Barnstaple. Today a friend is coming up from London. It’s like the annual meeting place of performance poetry.

The plan for today? More flyering, and I’ll be performing on the Royal Mile with some other poets. I haven’t even thought about open mic nights yet, or anything like that.
And the Fringe Flu? I haven’t caught it yet.

Day Four

My student accommodation is down the hill past the Scottish Parliament, turn left, then walk halfway to Glasgow. It’s a brand new building with one or two snags, the first snag being that it’s bloody hot even with the windows open, the second snag being that the sensor light in the bathroom stays on as well as the extractor fan for about an hour after use, the third snag being that it’s so far from the centre of Edinburgh. But that didn’t stop me being waken at seven this morning by what I thought was thunder, turned out it was a bloody cannon being fired. Is that normal, or are we at war? It sounded like they fired it right next to the building.

I’ve reached an odd point in the fringe, now. I don’t care if I don’t get anyone to come and see the show, now, because I’ve done it a few times and I’ve had an amazing time doing so. If nobody turns up, then I get an hour off! I mean, the way I look at it is that I’m offering to do a show at three o o’clock every day, and if no ones up for that then, OK, I’m all right with that.

I went to a few shows last night. Gary from Leeds, funny and as human as ever. Dominic Berry,enthusiastic and genuinely inspirational. I wore a tshirt advertising my show, and I thought, that’s a good move. The moment I stepped out the building someone yelled, in a. American accent, ‘Hey buddy, like the tshirt. Naaaahhht’. He’s probably a Trump supporter.

The agenda for today is a few more shows but first I’m off out in search of some modern art. Modern art is my passion and I want to see something inspirational.
Another early night tonight. I’m such a lightweight. The other night I went out with Dominic and Chris White, feeling like an old man. We didn’t even get to where we were going before I apologised and said that I really had to go home to bed, it was almost ten o’ clock. In fact, compared to all the other spoken word artists, I feel like a very old man. Even Gary from Leeds, baldies that he is, is ten years younger than me. I don’t drink, and I really can’t take these late nights. There’s an open mic at eleven pm every night by which time I’m usually in bed. Maybe that’s what’s keeping me sane?
I’m using the wifi in McDonalds to write this. I’m trying to see as much local culture as I can.

Outside my venue

Day Five

Well that’s another day done and dusted. I’m really into the rhythm now. The rhythm of expectations being cruelly dashed. Yesterday’s audience was a very minimal two. I asked them beforehand if they were there to see my show and they said, no. But do carry on. Don’t mind us, we’re just here for a drink and a chat. I did a couple of poems without any microphone and then took a couple of selfies. Can’t let an opportunity like this go to waste!

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the modern art gallery instead of flyering. I mean, I’m on holiday. There was an exhibition of Joseph Beuys, one of my favourite artists. I couldn’t spend a whole week here and not see it! The only trouble with Edinburgh’s modern art gallery is that it’s such a long walk from the centre of the city. So the whole trip took about two and a half hours.

Then an offer of a gig came through, representing Team Poetry at Stand Up And Slam, which is a poetry verses comedian slam. Everybody there was so young and whoopy, and the music was so incredibly loud, and the MC shouted and wailed and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but I went up and performed and the place went mad, I won my round and helped the poets win the whole contest. At the end we had to come out with slick jokes or short poems on a given theme and the theme was drinking, so I did the following haiku:

The man with no arms

Fighting in the local pub.

He was kicking off.

Which also brought the house down, and it was only afterwards, like, seven hours afterwards, that I thought about the Fringe joke competition and how it might have stood a chance in that. Had they not already done the competition at the beginning of the week.

So here I am, about to go out flyering and stuff. My legs are aching and it feels like I’ve lost two stone. It doesn’t look it, but it feels it.

Just a quick word about the show I saw last night, Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth. It was flipping fantastic! Storytelling and humour, camp wonderfulness and a celebration of the joy of living. Go and watch it!

My view while flyering

Day Six

Some of my performance colleagues here have been in Edinburgh for the whole three weeks and the fatigue is starting to show. There’s a certain numbness to them, as if they are kind of ever so dissociated from the world around them, a weariness, and most amusing of all, a slight loathing of anyone who’s just arrived. Last night I went to see AF Harrold at Hammer and Tomgue. AF is one of my favourite performers and a jolly decent chap too. He’d just arrived in Edinburgh and he was sharp, articulate, funny, alert. You could sense the love in the room.

I’ve only been here a week, of course, but a fatigue of sorts is finally starting to manifest itself. Having said that, I’ve finally got the art of flyering down to a tee. I spent the first few days oblivious to the fact that you have to make an impression and sell your show in about 2 and a half seconds. I’d spend the first two seconds of that time by saying hello. By which time they’d walked on. But now I just blurt out, ‘Free poetry show? Free poetry show? Free poetry show?’ And then act very relieved when someone takes a flier.

My legs ache like anything, I’ve been up and down that sodding hill so many times. I found a short cut the other day, it cuts a minute off the journey, and it was like the best thing that has ever happened. I’m starting to feel like a local. I see people making fundamental navigation errors and I’m thinking, Pffft, tourists! I’ve also built up this witty repartee with the man in the newsagents near my accommodation where each morning he pretends not to recognise me from the day before. Oh, how we laugh.
So there are two more Statics to go. But already I’m thinking of new projects, ambitious ideas gleaned from watching so many wonderful shows. I haven’t seen much poetry: the spoken word shows are storytelling in the main part, and very funny at that. However, I’ve found poetry in the best of places, such as Dandy Darkly’s fantastic Myth Mouth, which I really, really recommend. It’s perhaps been the most inspirational show I’ve seen while in Edinburgh, and the one that has really spoken to me.

It was misty and cool yesterday and I felt right at home. Today it is hot and sunny and I’m not looking forward to it.

I still haven’t seen any of my flat mates and the same packet of pasta has been in the fridge now for five days.

Day Seven

So the good thing about the fringe is that you see all kinds of different acts and the potential for being inspired is heightened. I’ve seen so much while here that I’ve got a very clear idea of where I need to be and how the show can be massively improved with just a few small tweaks. Yesterday I was very privileged to have breakfast and a long chat with one of my favourite performers, (who wishes to remain anonymous because of the trade secrets that he divulged thereat). We met at a coffee shop in the new town area and he took me through every aspect of putting on a show, from the logistical detail of publicity and accommodation, to the more fundamental aspects of rehearsal, writing, learning the damn thing. It was the most enlightening couple of hours I’ve spent in a long time, as he imparted information which an artist might ordinarily have to cough up a lot of money for. I bought him toast and coffee to say thank you. In fact, I was so inspired that I went away and did a little bit of writing right then and there.

Now, obviously I should have been flyering. And I did a lot of flyering yesterday, both in the Royal Mile and Cowgate. I flyered like you wouldn’t believe. And while I was flyering I was thinking, I shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s a necessary evil. Spoken word show? Hello madam, I’ve got a show today at three. Spoken word show? Spoken word show?

It’s a lonely business, flyering, even though you’re surrounded by people. You’re surrounded by all the other flyerers. And they’ve all got various degrees of annoyance, like the pushy ones, or the cheeky ones, or the ones who are just plain rude, and even those who insult anyone who doesn’t take a flyer. What’s that all about?

So I did all this flyering, and what do you think happened? No audience. I could only be philosophical about it, of course. I’m at the fringe, yes, but really I’m not that well known in the slightest. My show is on directly after Harry Baker, and he’s a world slam champion. And I’m also a slam winner. Well, second at the Swindon slam, anyway. Later on in the day I watched Gecko’s excellent show and he did a song about the painting that shares the room with the Mona Lisa and I thought, hmm, I know exactly how it feels!

But it’s all a great experience and a valuable learning opportunity. I’ve seen so much that has inspired me that I know exactly the manner and tone that I shall be adopting in my writing. And yes, I’m probably the oldest performer on the spoken word scene up here by quite some margin, but I feel all new and eager to get on with it.

My venue

Day Eight

So that’s it, then. I’ve done the fringe at Edinburgh with my first solo show. And I managed to combine it with a holiday, my first for a year or so. I think it was only in the last day when I thought, OK, better work at this. And wowzers, I spent four hours flyering. I flyerered in the Royal Mile. I flyerered in Cowgate. I went to other people’s shows and flyerered on the way out. I flyerered by mistake when I went in a shop to get some water and left my flyers on the counter. I flyerered like a machine which has been built just to flyer. And if all paid off, seven people came to the last show and they gave me money even when I did my ‘don’t worry, there won’t be a bucket speech’ speech.

Last night I had a feature slot at Boomerang Club. I’d been feeling a bit weird all day before that, what with all the flyering, and I even thought, hmmm, what if this is my last ever performance? I mean, last ever. What if I called it a day after this, after the Boomerang Club? It was only a fleeting thought, and it kind of mixed up with the knowledge that I would be going home, to make me feel unusually emotional. Plus if you’ve read my blog you’ll know that I’ve been having vision problems, which makes life difficult at times and has affected my ability to perform and read at the same time. So I did a set of all my favourite poems and finished off with my most favourite of all, ‘Plop’, which seems a good summing up of my performance career. But I also started the set with a brand new piece, which I call ‘Introduction’, a piece I wrote after my meeting the other day with a top fringe performer who really inspired me. And I thought, ‘If this is to be my last ever performance, ever, then why a, I writing new material?’ As I say, it was only a fleeting thought!

So here I am at Edinburgh Waverley station. I’m in Starbucks. And I’m feeling chipper about the future. Static is done and dusted but I’ve started rewriting it and I have a very clear idea of how it will evolve. It might still be Static, or it might be something entirely different, but it will be a different beast, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge of rewriting it, rehearsing it, learning it.

This has been the most incredible week and a huge learning experience. I’ve had so many adventures along the way and seen so much good stuff, and I’ve felt younger than I have in years, and also older than I’ve ever felt. I’ve got one or two projects on the horizon that I can’t wait to work on, performance art pieces and a multi-disciplinary piece which I’ve written and is very funny indeed, the music project, the novel, there’s so much on the go at the moment! It all makes me wonder what the next year will bring till I’m back here again.

And I remembered. Yes, I remembered. Do you recall my first blog, the one I wrote on the way to Edinburgh? I remembered the lad who came and sat with me, all those days ago, who charged his phone and we chatted. I thought I’d forget all about him, but I remember. I hope he’s had a good week, too.

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