The Approach

The approach

I could feel the engines throbbing through the joystick, the plane itself skimming the tops of the clouds throwing down a shadow of our outline, the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus hiding within their fluffy exterior hail, thunderstorms, bad weather. It’s a position I’ve been in more times than I can remember, the pulsating turbofans of my craft a comfort, the juddering engines, the pulsating jets, the oscillating power units, all of them at my control.
Bing bong.
I speak into the cabin intercom using that practised drawl.
‘Aaaaaaaaand ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, Captain O. Captain. Yes, I know my surname is Captain, you could say I was destined for this job. We’re about seventy miles from Westbury International. If you look out the port side windows, you’ll see a lovely view of the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus. So we should begin our descent any time soon. Until then, please feel free to be lulled by the pulsating, oscillating, throbbing, juddering of the engines as they soothe us through the sky . . . You know . . . I might even sing to you’.
‘Don’t’, the First Officer suggested.
‘Cabin crew, prepare for . . .’.
‘Landing?’
‘Yes . . Yes . . .’.
Instinctively, I reached out a hand and stroked the topside of the cockpit controls.
‘Bring us home safely, old girl . .’, I whispered.
‘Captain O. Captain’, the First Officer, Ben, said. ‘You really are somewhat eccentric ‘.
I could feel the engines quaking and gibbering through the controls.
‘Ben . . .if that is your name . . . Flying is instinctive. It’s a relationship between not only the captain and their machine, but also solid metal and the laws of physics. It’s like an affirmation of . . I say, are you okay?’
The sweat was rolling down Ben’s face. His upper lip was glistening. He stared straight ahead as if not even noticing the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus,
‘You see . . . The quivering engines . . .’.
All of a sudden Ben yelled, ‘Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand? You’re my father!’
I was silent for a couple of seconds.
‘But . . .’.
‘Don’t try to deny it. You know it’s true. I’ve been waiting years for us to be scheduled on the same flight, just so I could tell you this!’
‘But Brad, we have our pre-landing checklist . . ‘.
‘It’s Ben. Sod the pre-landing checklist! I rose up through the ranks just for this one day, and then the moment . . . The moment I’m with you . . I . . .’. Ben let out a sign, his head silhouetted against the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus clouds. ‘I realise that I can never come between the love you have for aircraft’.
I could feel the vibrations and the trundling of the engines through the controls.
‘So your mother must be Sophie’, I whisper, ‘that winsome mechanic whose coquettish charms lit up the engineering hangar all those years ago, resulting in our tryst in the starboard fan cowling assembly . . .’.
‘That was twenty four years ago’.
‘Jeez, they’re letting you fly planes at twenty three years old, now?!’
‘Captain O. Captain. I mean . . Dad’.
The sun shines brightly on the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus.
‘No time to talk, we’ve got to concentrate. Let’s get this baby on the ground ‘.
‘That’s what she said’.
‘Brad!’
‘Ben’.
We began our descent. The white fluffy clouds of the cumulonimbus gave way to a deep grey and the cockpit window was spotted with rain. A slight turbulence flexed our wings as the engines grinded and rattled through the controls. After a while we were out of the base of the clouds and the runway lights were in view.
‘Every landing’, I whisper, as we levelled and lined up, ‘is a controlled calamity’.
And the runway itself seemed to beckon us in. In much the same way that Sophie had beckoned me up into the starboard fan cowling assembly to show me an interesting leak. And then before we know it we’re down on the ground, wheels touching the runway, reverse thrust applied throwing us ever so gently into our harnesses.
‘You really only ever get one shot at this’, I tell him.
We taxi to the terminal building.
‘You really do . . ‘, I continue, my mind wandering.

An interview with Mary Dickins

When I first started performing I would travel up to London every month or so and perform at open mics. This was a great way to meet new people and see other poets. One of the biggest and noisiest nights was Bang Said the Gun, which took place at the Roebuck pub near Borough, and I would go often, sometimes just to sit and watch, and sometimes to perform.

It was at one such evening that I first saw Mary Dickins. I fell in love with her poetry immediately. Joyous, funny, an delivered in a deadpan that added to the comedy. We would later work together making TV adverts for a certain building society, and at one or two corporate events. Mary’s poetry has a joyful playfulness which masks a serious subtext. Well observed descriptions of every day life combine with a true poetic sense of wonder.

Mary’s book, Happiness FM, has just been published by Burning Eye, and I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to interview her.

How did you get into writing poetry?

I have a distinct memory of writing my first poem when I was four. It was a nonsense poem called “The man wrapped up in a Pin” and it rhymed. I was much more excited about it than the rest of my family. Throughout my life I’ve used poetry and creative writing as a therapeutic outlet but I saw it as more of a hobby and I never thought my work was ‘good’ enough for performance or publication until much later.

I’ve seen you loads of times performing on the London spoken word scene. How did you start performing live?
I have always been interested in the performance aspect of poetry and in my professional life was a conference speaker and lecturer but it wasn’t until I was 60 and attended an Arvon course run by Matt Harvey and Kate Fox that I got the confidence and self-belief to give my poetry a try. This led me to do open mic at the brilliant Bang Said the Gun and for the first time I experienced a really noisy and enthusiastic response. I thought that was wonderful and I wanted more.

Who are your influences as a poet and artist?
My influences are many and varied. I was very taken by the Liverpool poets and the irreverent breath of air that they brought to the poetry establishment in the 60s..  I was an early and devoted fan of John Cooper Clark and John Hegley and also poets such as Maya Angelou and Grace Nicholls. I am now an avid reader of all kinds of poetry and I think I probably take a little bit from everyone I like.

Your collection Happiness FM has a bright, upbeat feel. Was this a conscious decision at the start of the project?
I do feel that the best poetry is usually uplifting in some way so I suppose I do aim for that. I guess this evolved as I thought Happiness FM made a good title poem. My daughter Hannah designed the cover around that and together we aimed for an eye catching joyful feel. I was worried about the irony bringing out  a book with this title at a time when the vast majority of people were feeling singularly unhappy then I thought maybe it could bring a little joy into my readers lives.

You have a wonderful knack at finding the eccentric and the odd beneath everyday reality. How did you develop this quirky worldview?
Is it me that’s quirky? I always think it’s everybody else. I think that feeling excluded while growing up (long story) made me into an acute observer and gave me the ability to step back and view reality objectively. Let’s face it there is plenty about the world that is eccentric and odd so there is no shortage of ideas.

Your poetry can also be deeply serious. Do you think it is a poet’s duty to look at the bigger issues in society and life?
I’m not sure about the word ‘duty’ as this rather saps the enjoyment out of it. Poets describe and interpret the world around them and also chronicle the times they live in so the bigger issues are pretty hard for any of us to avoid. Exploring identity, for example, inevitably leads to us to examine and challenge existing values and systems. Poetry can be a powerful tool for change and personally I do like my poems to contain some kind of social comment however oblique. I think anyone with a public platform has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place and that includes poets. I want the poets I admire to have integrity and be truthful. But they should be allowed to express themselves as they choose.

What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time and place for writing?
I’ve never been very good at keeping to a self-imposed writing schedule although I can be disciplined and dogged if the situation calls for it. A lot of my writing takes place in my head and I find that 2am in the morning is the time when random ideas and solutions suddenly emerge. This means that the kitchen table is often littered with strange and obscure post it notes to self in the morning.  I find poetry courses and writing groups very useful as they give you homework deadlines and a reason to persevere.

What was your best ever gig as a performer?
It has to be when I won the Golden Gun at Bang Said the Gun a few years ago. I performed a somewhat blasphemous poem called “The Richard Dawkins Delusion by God” and Andrew Motion who was Poet Laureate at the time and also performing said how much he liked it. I floated home on the tube that night.

What are you working on at the moment or what will your next project be?
Well this is the rub. At the moment my biggest challenge as someone in a vulnerable category for Coronavirus is how to maintain a poetry presence and promote the book. Luckily there are online opportunities at the moment and I hope these continue as there are a few of us who might be stranded if they don’t. I have a number of new poems up my sleeve so I am looking towards the next collection.

What advice would you give someone who would like to follow on your footsteps and be a poet and a performer?
Don’t wait as long as I did but at the same time it’s never too late to start.

What made a performance poet?

There’s not much to do in Virginia Water once the lights are off. In fact there’s not much to do when the lights are on, either, unless you are one of the millionaires whose villas dot the woods and thickets of this strange commuter-belt town, the summer air thick with pungent earthy aromas, honeysuckle, fleshy rhododendrons, a sudden shower sounding like polite theatre applause as it falls on jungle vegetation. Nothing to do at all. Even less if you happened to live in one of the small cottages, one of the two-up two-down workman’s cottages which still survived into the 1990s before they were all bulldozed to make way for mansions bought by supermarket magnates and glam rock superstars. And even less yet again if you lived in one of these cottages and it was the mid seventies, and it was a period of rolling black-outs and you and your young wife lived in the top bedroom, and the other three rooms of the house were owned and occupied by the in-laws. There’s absolutely nothing to do under these circumstances.
I was born the following January.
There are things that I can still remember from a very early age. I can remember the hideous flowery purple and pink bedspread on my parents bed. I can remember the hideous flowery yellow and brown curtains over their window. I can remember the woods, the ominous, black, dense woods that would pull in the darkness amid their gnarled trunks like a lonely miser gathering in the eternal emptiness and oblivion which awaits us all. And I can remember the hideous flowery blue and white polyester dress that my grandmother used to wear.
I can remember my Grandad, too. My Grandad had brown buttons on his cardigan and I would play with them whenever he held me. He wore big, thick rimmed glasses, the kind I’d see on television Comedians. With just a word or two, my grandfather could reduce a room into peals of laughter. I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that I kind of take after him a little bit, that’s the inference. I even wear the same type of glasses.
My Grandad had a large shed at the bottom of the garden, a corrugated hut which looked like something from the Alaskan gold rush. Inside the shed were lathes and drills and all kinds of incredibly intricate machines which he would work over late into the night inventing tools and other equipment, tobacco tins full of nuts and bolts, rolled up blueprints and official patent letters tucked away amid the paint tins on the shelves. It was no place for a toddler, but I would stand in the doorway and watch as he operated his machinery, transfixed by the way he’d dance from one machine to the other. Years later I’d do the same, escaping to a shed or an outbuilding to work on manuscripts and poems, books, short stories, enmeshed in my own little world away from everyone else. So there I go, comparing myself to him again.
At this stage of my life, I didn’t have a sister yet, nor was I a spoken word artist. Nothing in my demeanour hinted that I would be a spoken word artist, and to be honest I didn’t really have the vocabulary. I did used to like putting buckets on my head, though, and there are plenty of photos of me with a bucket on my head. The fact that I’ve made a career out of very silly hats possibly stems from this. I can’t even remember how this came about. I’ve just got other people’s word to go on and, as I say, photographs. Perhaps I just liked making people laugh. As I say, it was Virginia Water and it was the 1970s, so there wasn’t much else going on. A toddler with a bucket on his head obviously passed for light entertainment back then.
The sporadic power cuts continued and two years later my sister was born.
The thing is, I can’t remember seeing my sister for the first time, yet I remember the day itself vividly. The reason for this is that I was with my Dad and my Uncle in Staines High Street, and they had just bought me a red pedal car, and the fact that it came in a big box and was obviously for me, made me feel very special indeed. It didn’t even occur to me at that stage that the red pedal car was a consolation prize for no longer having everyone’s undivided attention. In fact, the next time I would ever have everyone’s undivided attention would be on the stage as a spoken word artist. It’s something I would never experience again for quite some time, and even during sex, people would just close their eyes and think about someone else. Anyway, I had a red pedal car, which my mother, for some reason, christened Bertie, and a sister who, because we were a family of atheists, wasn’t christened at all, but was named Angela.
And oh, what a vicious thing she was. Aunts and Uncles would cower in fright. If anyone were foolish enough to pick her up, she’d bite a chunk out of their shoulder. From a very early age she’d boss me around, and in these crucial years of my own development as a human being, she taught me the valuable lesson that it’s sometimes not worth the effort because other people will always kick up a bigger fuss than you. Whenever we’d play games, my mother would whisper to me, ‘for goodness sake, let her win’. Which was another lesson I learned at a very early age. It’s not the winning or the losing that counts, it’s making sure that your opponent doesn’t throw a tantrum. At least I got a pedal car out of it.
I can’t remember the age at which i would begin to mythologise my past and my upbringing. I think it was probably just after my fourth birthday. We moved out of my grandparents and away from Virginia Water to a council house in the Surrey suburbs on an estate on a hill a couple of miles from the end of Heathrow’s runway. There are those who believe that homosexuality is a result of home conditions and human relations, the psychological environment of our formative years, and while I do not agree with some parts of this hypothesis, I understand that such people would probably point to the fact that I had spent most of my time up to this point with three generations of strong-willed women in my grandmother, mother and baby sister, as definitive proof. My grandfather was usually in his shed inventing things, and my dad was invariably at work in his job as a civil servant. On top of that, the Queen was a woman and so was the prime minister, and every single one of my teachers would be a woman until I was ten years old. I would dream of a time when men were allowed to make decisions and be in charge of things, perhaps then there would be no warfare or violence.
As I say, I do not agree with the environmental thesis of homosexual development, but I remember thinking from a very early age that something was amiss. (Not that I knew it was necessarily amiss. I thought my behaviour was perfectly normal. I couldn’t understand why people would get so uppity when I showed no interest in football, soldiers or motorbikes). I wanted a handbag, just like Mum’s. My two teddy bears, Fred and Jumbo, were both male and yet in my imagination they were also a couple. And most weirdly of all, the engraved pattern of my grandmother’s sideboard looked, to my young eyes, like a man’s bare legs and boots, a pattern repeated on both doors of the sideboard so that it looked for all the world like two men flat on their backs with their trousers off and their boots in the air. I found it weird that nobody else had ever noticed this or even commented on it, and also the fact that whatever they were doing, they’d decided to keep their boots on. To this day, I’ve always had a thing about legs.
I can’t remember much from the age of three. Perhaps times were hard and I was affected by the certain malaise or ennui easily associated with those who feel their lives are going nowhere. At the age of four I started school and I discovered that other people existed outside of my own family group. I found it inconceivable that people could have birthdays on a day that wasn’t the second of January. In a bizarre quirk of fate, I shared my birthday with my dad, my uncle, my great uncle and my grandfather, and it didn’t help matters that one of the first friends I met in school also had his birthday on the same day. In a deep and philosophical moment I might even be tempted to say that this deconstructed the obvious and laid the foundations for a variance in all things, souls dancing in the overbearing consciousness of the mind of a four year old who would later revel in difference and the position of the outcast, but what it actually meant was that it was always someone’s birthday other than my own. And when my own did come around, I had to share the cake.

The other major thing that I discovered at school was writing. From the age of six I became somewhat precious, at all times aware that I was a tortured genius and that I had literature pulsing through my veins. Or at least, I thought it was literature. I started writing because I wanted to have a book published like the books that my mother had in the case on the landing at the top of the stairs. I wanted to see my name next to those who’d written the books which she cherished and held forever in semi-reverence behind the sliding glass door of the MFI cabinet which dad had swore profusely while putting together one weekend. The volumes within seemed to have their own aura and mystique, and I knew that truth and reality were kept behind their slightly crumpled spines. I wanted to be treasured as much as these titans, these philosophers, that my mother would, ever so proudly, hold me in as much esteem as she held Jilly Cooper. I could feel the literature within me, or at least, I thought it was literature. In actual fact there was probably hardly anything of any literary worth until I was around ten. Each day my mother would drag me off to school and I would only ever be truly happy if it was raining, because rain meant that we could stay indoors during break time and not run around the school playground. We were given paper on which to draw, but I found that I filled up the paper much more effectively if I wrote instead. I’d use turquoise felt tip pen. And as the rain beat against the plate glass window of our county first school, my head would be transported to all kinds of places, my imagination fascinated with the possibility that the characters I’d invented could do absolutely anything. It rained a lot that year, and before long I had a novel.
My school was very religious and we had Bible readings every day and double Bible readings on a Thursday. In my mind the adventures of the characters in the Bible were easily comparable to the adventures of the characters in my novel, and if the Bible was an example of storytelling, believability, authenticity and gritty reality, then I knew that I’d got it spot on. For this reason I decided to call my first novel ‘Bible 2: Revenge of the Bible’, but my deeply religious teachers seemed to be dead against this idea.
‘You can’t call it that!
‘Why not? It’s just as good as the first one’.
‘The Bible is the word of God! It’s a sacred text! A lot of people could become very offended’.
‘Well, Bible 2 is the word of me!’
‘How dare you!’
‘And it’s got dogs in it!’
Because all of the characters were dogs, for some reason.
‘It’s the word of dog!
A comment which did not go down too well In the event I settled on a far less provocative, though oddly postmodernistic and even minimalist title, calling the novel ‘R’, because ‘R’ was the first letter of my name and, therefore, quite important indeed.
It is true to say that my career stagnated for the next four years or so and it wasn’t until middle school that my writing started to flourish in any meaningful way. In the meantime I’d continued writing and I would spend almost all of my spare time concocting stories and short works and there was a brief flurry of excitement when I was eight and, possibly to shut me up, my mother sent a manuscript to Penguin Books. I couldn’t see how they could possibly reject the works I’d sent, but alas the editors didn’t quite see how my manuscript could fit in with their publishing strategy and the novel never came about. It is true to say that I saw a niche in the market for novels about dogs flying through space and solving crimes, it’s only a shame that Penguin Books failed to share my excitement.
One person who did share my excitement was my teacher, Mister Shaw. There were two things amazing and astounding about Mister Shaw. The first was that he was a man. This was the first time I’d ever seen a man in a position of power and there was something liberating about this. It didn’t matter that he was as camp as Christmas, (as my Dad described him), or that he walked as if he had a roll of lino under his arm (as my Dad described him), what mattered was that he was a symbol for equality and made me believe that anything was possible. I’d imagine him each night going home to his wife and telling her about his day, and she being ever so supportive of his achievements. The second amazing thing about Mister Shaw was that he was the first person who took my writing seriously
Yes, I know that my mother wrote to Penguin Books. (Come to think of it, I’ve never seen any actual proof that she ever did). But Mister Shaw saw in me a talent which would one day envelope the world and make me synonymous with deep, powerful and engaging literature. He also saw that my career had been stagnating and was the first person to suggest that perhaps I might like to have human beings as the protagonists of my work rather than dogs. This was one of the most shocking things that had ever been said to me, but that night I went home and wrote a novel about a man called Bill, who was an Olympic skier who solved crimes in his spare time. The next day I took it back in to school and Mister Shaw asked me to read it out to the class
‘Really?’
‘Yes, Go for it. What’s the point in writing if you’re never going to have an audience?’
A performer was bom that day, dear reader With the rapt attention of Class 4, in the cosy confines of our prefabricated classroom hut on the edge of the school playing field, I read the stories of Bill the crime solving Olympic skier, and his comedy sidekick Ed, and Ed’s incredibly fierce wife Lenda. And I put everything into my performance, using different voices for the characters and the narrator, and the class watched on both aghast and unable to disguise their mirth that a comedy
performance genius studied each day among them. It was a reading worthy of note, as engaging as it was shocking and the whole hut resounded to my sonorous tones as each one of my classmates sat on the edges of their chairs, barely able to contain the excitement. And when my two minutes was up, Mister Shaw announced that this would be a daily occurrence.
And so it continued until the novel was done, until the end of the term by which time, to cater for the class and its insatiable appetite for more Bill and Ed stories,(which certainly did not lead me to getting beaten to a pulp each break time), I’ d written several more volumes. Bill and Ed became mini celebrities, and I longed for each day when I could, for just a short period, have everyone’s full attention. Even my closest friends would show their support and remark on my achievement with phrases such as, ‘Wow, you’ve certainly written quite a lot of these’, and, Please, tell me how the novel ends’, and, ‘How many more of these are you going to write?’

Little did I know that these would be the glory years, as far as my writing was concerned. Never again would I feel the undiluted support of my peers or the critical acclaim of my own literary output. By the time I left middle school I felt, what with having fifty two novels under my belt, that I would now to be regarded as something of a veteran of the literary scene. ‘Prolific’ does not even come close to describing the work that I churned out during this period, working on novels scratched in exercise books at every spare moment I could find. I can remember a family holiday in Hastings, walking back to the caravan park with my parents down a narrow country lane, feeling a new exercise book in my hand and the excitement of all the adventures that my characters would have. I must have been insufferably boring.

Xxxx

Going to secondary school could very well have ended my writing career. There was far too much going on now: homework, studying, the giddying swirl of hormones that suddenly necessitated appearing as ‘cool’ as the most pressing matter of every single moment, the bruises and psychological torture of getting beaten to a pulp every break time for not appearing ‘cool’, and a growing fascination with the same sex. My secondary school was huge, a factory for learning placed in a dank suburb of west London fed by the smaller middle schools of the surrounding area, a sprawling network of buildings and tower blocks, sports halls and annexes home to well over two thousand pupils, most of whom are currently now in prison. This sudden influx of new faces meant that I was surrounded by hundreds of young men of my own sex who were, overwhelmingly, much better looking than any of the losers I’d been to middle school with. Yet throughout the mental strain of trying to be cool while at the same time being beaten up for not being cool and concurrently trying to act cool about being beaten up for not being cool, I still wrote. I thought, misguidedly as it would seem, that it would make me cool.
The whole of my first year there was a dizzying splurdge of self-realisation and deep loathing. How wonderfully would this have been as inspiration for my writing, had I not still been ploughing ahead with the Bill and Ed stories and their adventures as crime-fighting Olympic skiers. Perhaps this constant writing might even have taken my mind off the sudden throbbing lust I felt for certain classmates, the agony of spending so much time with them and yet incapable of letting anyone know lest I should be revealed to be that most despised individual, a homosexual. For this was the nineteen eighties, and the only representative media depictions of my own self were as comedy high camp with humorous punchlines, or dangerous subversives threatening the very moral stability of society itself.
The regular break time beatings began to subside after the first year. The boys who beat me up could see that there really was no sense to it, no enjoyment in these daily pummellings, because something had changed in me. I’d discovered comedy. It’s all very well demonstrating your prowess to various friends and onlookers by repeatedly punching a first year student in the face, but this seems less attractive when that first year student says something so incredibly funny, truthful and personally hurtful that your various friends and onlookers burst out laughing at your expense.
In a bizarre twist of fate, I’d discovered New York Jewish stand up comedy and I would memorise routines and one-liners, quips and put downs that seemed to play very well to the breaktime bully crowd. ‘Don’t stop’, I’d yell, ‘I’m almost at an orgasm!’, even though I didn’t yet know what an orgasm was. ‘I’d say pick on someone your own size, but the nearest gorillas are in the zoo’. ‘I knew you were coming, I could hear your knuckles dragging’. That would take another thirty years. I had nothing to lose, it’s impossible to get beaten up while already being in the process of getting beaten up. And the reason I’d discovered New York Jewish stand-up was because I’d been given a long distance radio by my uncle and I could tune in to radio stations from anywhere in the world. I’d found a comedy station by accident and would listen to it to try and help me sleep.
Armed with a sudden love of comedy writing and emboldened by my first ever successful application of this for pure personal gain, buoyed also by the feeling of playing to an audience and getting laughs, and then adding homosexuality to the mix, I would write. And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

If you thought I couldn’t possibly get any more annoying at this stage with my writing, then you’d be wrong, as fortune decreed that I would be able to do just that. My grandparents gave me an old 1950s Olivetti typewriter, a chunky, clunky old metal box of a thing on which you’d have to press down each key really, really hard to get any sort of mark on the page. The silent pursuit of writing in pen in an exercise book now became an activity which all of the family could enjoy, as the act of composition was now such a cacophonous affair, a byproduct of this metal behemoth of a machine being that the whole house shook, creaked and rumbled every time I did any amount of typing. Within a few weeks I’d taught myself to type with two fingers and become seriously addicted to the smell of correction fluid. The letter E was the worst, it would stick every time I used it, so much so that I would set some of my novels in Wales just because the place names didn’t use so many vowels. Even now, thirty years later while typing on an iPad or a computer keyboard, I still press down harder on the letter E than any of the others. The adventures of Bill and Ed continued, though Ed had now been replaced with Justin.
I’d spend hours with that typewriter. The thing was built to last. Indeed, it still works today and I use it often in residencies and as part of art projects. Even at the end of the nineteen eighties it was outdated and finding ribbons for it was a tricky business, a simple writing session would leave me covered in black ink and absolutely physically exhausted. The typewriter was so loud that people would complain. Pedestrians walking past would wonder if there was someone in the house with a machine gun. Pictures would swing back and forth on the wall. My solution to this was that I’d go out and type at a wallpaper pasting table in the garage, but first the wallpaper pasting table broke, and then the neighbours would complain. How was I to know that they were running an illegal minicar business from the adjacent garage?
By the time I left secondary school and went to sixth form, Bill had retired as an Olympic skier and was now a detective. (Why not?). I had a collections of GCSEs good enough to scrape in to doing my A-Levels, though it was probably obvious to everyone but myself that I’d never be good enough for university. The lads I’d fancied from school were far from bright and I’d never see most of them again, only hearing about their exploits through mutual friends or the prosecution court reports in the local paper. By now they were boozy, car obsessed and mostly had girlfriends, though even some of the school bullies would greet me with a cheerful wave, the ones who weren’t now in politics or retail management.

Sixth form college seemed to pass very quickly. To the outside observer it must have looked like I was very industrious indeed. In fact I was so industrious that I didn’t once have time to fall in love, nor did I have time to concentrate on my writing career. I concentrated fully and exclusively on my studies with the idea of escaping from the suburban blandness of my upbringing to some far flung university, where I would get a qualification and then have lots of sex. As it was, I failed miserably in most of my subjects, left college, and got a job cleaning toilets at the local supermarket.
This at least gave me time to concentrate on my writing. How evocative, the sultry night neon, working the late shift and spending twenty minutes in the staff room working on yet another Bill and Justin adventure. The supermarket was huge, a purpose built facility with twenty aisles and a basement car park. At least I didn’t bring my typewriter with me. I kept a notebook with me at all times on my cleaners trolley, just next to the chlorine tabs and the bleach, this being a period well before health and safety. My refuge away from the world, just like my grandfathers shed, turned out to be the mop cupboard under the stairs next to the chiller cabinets, a bolt hole away from the busyness of the supermarket where I could write unhindered before the fumes took over and I became lightheaded.
It was around this time that two things happened which would send me off in a completely new literary path. The first was that I discovered the writings of Frank Kafka. This was, on the whole, a bad thing, because it opened my mind to several miserable possibilities and taught me that it’s all very well and good being funny, but a damn good mope will get you all the attention you need. How enamoured I became at the writings of this modernist insurance clerk with the manic stare and the preoccupation with never quite getting in to things. I became obsessed with the very image of him more than I did his actual work. How I wanted to be him! How I wanted to be that the lonely, pale, existentialist icon beavering away on his manuscripts in an almost mystical trance, sat at his desk looking out over the slate tile rooftops of Prague. I wanted to be the new Kafka, coming home after a hard day scrubbing urinals and mopping up god knows what from wazza floor, to create the most amazingly miserable short stories in which all hope has been long obliterated. In such a manner I took down my bedroom net curtains and turned my desk around so that I might similarly work while gazing upon the urban sprawl of my own imaginary ghetto. Yet the view from my window was not of cobbled lanes or the close packed tenements of the Prague old town, but of back gardens, barbecues, trampolines, conservatories, compost heaps and garden sheds.
How assiduously did I mimic Kafka’s style, discarding all trace of comedy for sense paragraphs, non-standard punctuation and visionary allegorical hints verging on mystical. ‘The Bus’ was an early classic, a short novel set on a bus ticking over at a bus stop but never actually going anywhere. Then I wrote ‘The Train’, about a train which pulls into the station but never leaves. I then wrote a novel called ‘The Ticket’, about a man who, without actually having done anything wrong, gets a parking ticket. Then I wrote ‘Metaphorisis’, a novel about a fly who wakes up one morning to find that he is a travelling salesman. In a further rash development, I decided that I didn’t even need capital letters, (which were always problematic with my old typewriter), and once a novel was finished I’d send it to a literary magazine, and they’d wrote back very quickly to ask if I was aware that it didn’t have any capital letters.
The other thing that happened was that my grandfather died. He’d had a series of strokes and had been recovering in a nursing home, and was seemingly on the way to a brilliant recovery. Indeed, he seemed to be enjoying the nursing home, and he was in remarkable spirits whenever I’d visit. One day he was told that he was now well enough to go back home and live with my grandmother again the next day, and he died that very night.
Some times, the coroner told us, people just give up all hope.
My father and I cleared away his shed. It was a sacred place for me, and to see it torn down felt more symbolic, as if there were one less place to hide in the world. Yet even at this moment me head was full of Kafka, almost as if I should embrace the sadness and the hopelessness of life. As a day out and a pleasant change from cleaning toilets, my parents took me to the coroners office to sign the official death certificate, which was done by a very eccentric official wearing a multicoloured bow tie and with a moustache that I can only describe as exuberant. He signed the paperwork with a fountain pen, his handwriting as artistic and as lurid as his facial hair, and that very afternoon I bought a fountain pen for myself. I have used it to write every single creative piece ever since.
By the time I was twenty, then, I was a completely different writer and success seemed just round the corner. I had a pen and a typewriter and a head full of dreams and a view of the world that was entirely unique, (except that some Czech writer from the beginning of the century had had one or two similar ideas). Success and literary greatness seemed just round the next corner. I was going to be a famous writer!

Not much happened for the next twenty years.
It seemed inconceivable that none of the great publishing houses wanted any of my experimental Kafkaesque pieces. After all, weren’t these the same publishing houses that were falling over each other for such material in the 1930s? Couldn’t they see that I was just as innovative as these existentialist titans, and that really, no progress had been made in literature at all in the following eighty years? The people that ran these publishing companies couldn’t possibly be as well read as me. I’d read all of Kafka’s stories and I understood well over half of them, and I’d not even spotted a single spelling error in any of them. And my novels came with the added bonus of invented punctuation, no capitalisations and, in the one novel which I knocked up over a frenzied weekend while the snooker was on, not one single letter M. Nevertheless the enthusiasm stayed with me, and when my parents decided, supposedly on a whim, to move out of the suburbs and off to the provinces. I decided, like many a displaced writer before me, to come along with them.
By now I was no longer a sullen youth. No more the emotional despondency of early adulthood, for I had brightened considerably, adopting all the nuance of the urban moper. Transposed to the provinces and a small city in the middle of nowhere, I became a Londoner, a mysterious metropolitan outsider to whose drab outer garments the fog of the capital still lingered, even if I actually came from the suburbs west of the airport and had probably only been on a tube train six times. The way of life in the sticks was much slower, and the attitudes of the locals tended towards the more conservative. I felt that I had made a mistake. I also felt, or at least, had a nagging doubt, that I would ever make anything from my writing. One particularly anonymous morning I put my pen to paper to begin a new novel about a man who would never make it in to the local cinema where he was queuing, and would simultaneously metamorphose into a badger, when I suddenly thought, well, really, what’s the point?
And I put the pen down.
I found a job in retail management in the selling of pencils. I went through several fashions and styles. Surfer dude, skater boy, sports jock, gentleman, hipster, chap, chav, businessman, loafer. My hair varied from mullet to curtains, side parting, centre parting, down at the front and spiked at the back, spiked at the back and down at the front, dyed blonde, dyed gray, dyed red. It was a busy six months. I cannot keep track of all these personalised metamorphoses.
By now I lived in my own rented flat over a shop in a seaside town. It suited me just fine, and I felt very content being there, apart from the boredom and the loneliness and the meaningless of my existence and the lack of opportunity and the lack of any kind of companionship and the inherent lingering suspicion that life was running away from me. I decided that maybe I needed some culture, something beyond the strange fungus that grew on the walls of the adjacent bus station. I needed something intellectually stimulating.
I went to a performance poetry night in a small arts cafe in the next town. I found my intellectual fulfilment. A variety of poets, primarily men, spewed comedy verse about baked beans or cricket or the pitfalls of putting together flat pack furniture, and while it didn’t rhyme or seem particularly poetic, the audience loved it and applauded enthusiastically. The thing is, none of it seemed very good. None of it seemed as funny as the stories I’d written all those years before at middle school. There were some amazing lines and some good rhythms, but on the whole I was distinctly underwhelmed, and yet the audience were amazed. A poem about sending a naughty text message to the vicar by mistake was written with such a lack of artistic clout and existentialist depth that I’d have been embarrassed to read it out, yet the audience went wild and clamoured for more. A lifetime of writing and a thousand rejection slips melted from my mind to be replaced by a new thought, I could do this! How long would it take to write something like this? Ten minutes? And look at the audience, bent over double in tears of laughter just because someone used the word ‘nob’. I could do this!
‘Yeah, sure’, the MC said, at the end of the night when I asked him for a slot at the next month’s event. ‘I’m always willing to give a slot to a newcomer’.
‘Actually, I’ve been writing for . . .’, I replied, then cut my answer short. ‘I mean, thanks, Thanks so much!’

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

Strung from lamp post to lamp post, the multicoloured fairy lights wiggled, jiggled and jumped in the wind. An angry sea scratched at the pebble beach. Flecks of sand stung cold raw cheeks. It was dusk.
The world seemed obsolete, nullified by the obviousness of the season. Decay, frost-shredded painted gaiety and cartoon characters diminished by the elements, painted on shuttered ice cream shacks.
‘It’s heaving down here in the summer’, I tell him.
‘How far is it to your flat?’
‘Just a road away. I thought we’d make a detour, so you could see, the, erm . . .’.
We walk huddled hands in coat pockets.
‘You look like your profile picture’.
‘So do you’.
I like the way that the wind ruffles his hair. His cheekbones are much more pronounced than I thought they would be.
‘Wild’, I whisper, meaning the weather.
‘Sorry?’
And he’s slightly taller than me.
There are lights on the horizon out at sea, ships sheltering in the bay, and they twinkle and pulse just like stars, and if it weren’t so cold then maybe I could create my own constellations.
‘I’m cold’, he points out.
And the multicoloured fairy lights throw down a glow which gives us several overlapping shadows, our two forms merged and combined like a pack of cards being shuffled. The iron legs of the old pier stride in to the angry sea like a Victorian lady holding up her petticoats,
‘Really cold’, he says.
‘When we get to my flat’, I tell him, ‘you’ll be warm enough’.

‘What’s that?’, he said, pointing at the pouffe.
‘It’s a pouffe’, I replied.
He walks around the living room, warily, looking at it from several angles.
‘What does it do?’
‘You put your legs on it when you’re sitting on the sofa’.
‘It’s green’.
‘Yes’.
‘Yewwww . . .’.
‘Shall we just sit down and, er, warm up and . .’.
‘With that thing, there?’
I sit down. He lingers for a bit, and then he sits down, too. We look at each other and we smile.
‘I really liked your profile’, I tell him. ‘We’ve got a lot in common, haven’t we? It was great to chat online, but I’m so glad we’ve met’.
‘Seriously’, he says, ‘it’s called a pouffe?’
‘Yes . .’.
He looks at it for several seconds.
‘I can put it out on the landing if you like, if you’ve got a . . . Phobia’.
‘It’s still been in here, though’.
‘Put it out if your mind’.
He smiles.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to’.
And then neither of us says anything for a while. I can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
‘A green pouffe . . .’.
‘Yes’.
He sighs, leans back in his chair.
‘I was in the jungle’, he whispers. ‘They said I was green. Green meant new, apparently. But I was more likely green because I just felt so unwell. The food, you see . . . And everything in the jungle was green, too. Have you ever really looked at the colour green? There are so many varieties. Green leaves, moss, bark, more leaves, green everywhere. And I felt so bad, I really did feel ill.’
‘That’s a shame. Let’s snuggle . . .’.
‘They reckon I had some sort of disease, brought about by flies. Mosquitoes, probably. They do things to the mind, and affect the way that we see the world. You can never tell how it’s going to go. But with me, it was the effect of everything. The greenery. The predominance of the colour green, just kind of crowded in on me. Made me lose my senses, in a way’.
‘Jeez. So, let’s fool around a bit, you and me. .’
‘And the greenery, it did things to me. I became obsessed. We were there to film a documentary, you see. About slugs, and I was the only newbie there, the only green member of the team. And as I say, I was throwing up the whole time . . ‘.
‘You never mentioned the throwing up.’
I try to put my arm around his shoulders, but he stands up and looks out the window.
‘Sure! A never ending spume of it. I was having visions, it was like some kind of hideous trance that the jungle had put my under. So they flew me home. And the film company, they paid to send me out and recuperate in the countryside. But the countryside, oh, have you ever been to the countryside?’
‘Every now and then. Say, aren’t you hot wearing that big jumper? And those . . Jeans?’
‘There was greenery everywhere. Greenery and scenery. And the scenery was mostly green. There were fields and trees and the fields and trees were green. Especially the evergreens. The greenest evergreens I had ever seen. And there was moss and dappled sun and rhododendrons. And there were villages and villages greens. And the village greens were green. And everyone out there eats their greens. And also some of the tractors were green.’
‘Fascinating. Say, has anyone ever said what nice lips you have? Very kissable . .’.
‘So then I came back to the city . .’.
(‘Here we go . .’).
‘ . . And there was lots of green here, too. The Starbucks logo is mostly green. And so is the fungus in the bus station. And my friend Pete’s car is green. And so is the tie I was wearing yesterday. And the traffic lights are occasionally green. Red, mostly, and amber, and red and amber, but occasionally green. And salt and vinegar crisp packets. Again, green. And the District Line is green. And it passes through Turnham Green. And even though the neon signs are multicoloured, you could probably turn ’em green. Green. Everything is green.’
‘Yes, it is somewhat ubiquitous’.
‘And it does things to me. All this green. It really does affect me very badly. I can’t stand it. I get flashbacks. Green flashbacks. You’ve got to understand’.
I laid my hand on his leg and made a mental note not to include broccoli with dinner.
‘I’ll move the pouffe’, I whisper. ‘Take it away from here, if that makes you feel any better. And then I’ll start on the dinner’.
He smiles.
‘Thank you ‘, he replies. ‘I’m sorry. But it really is giving me the willies’.
I get up and I move the pouffe outside where he can’t see if, and then I come and rejoin him on the sofa.
‘Oh my god’, he says. ‘Is that footstool over there beige? Oh no! I was in the desert, you see, surrounded by miles and miles of beige sand, when I started to feel very ill . . .’.
I let out a deep sigh, lean back on the sofa, and I start peeling an orange.

Branching out

(Here’s a short story I wrote almost twenty years ago.)

Branching Out

There has been much said and written about the following subject in the academic community, it seems almost superfluous to add my own comment to the wealth of material already published on this topic. And yet the story itself seems somewhat compelling, like all good mysteries, and more so because it is, quite defiantly, true. The fact that a senior practitioner in literary matters has attested to the honesty of all involved adds a touch of authenticity to the whole situation, and who are we to argue with the judgement of a colleague so esteemed as Professor Zazzo Thiim?
‘They were branching out, pure and simple’, he told me, one charged evening at the local pub. He leaned back in his chair and seemed, just for a second, incredibly tired, as it the events of the previous week had drained him of energy. ‘I first heard it reported to me by one of my younger students, a naive fellow whose panicked account seemed ill-judged and unworthy of comment. But then other students and colleagues began attesting to the fact. They, too, had heard and seen with their own eyes, that the local skateboarders were quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson. I knew immediately that I would have to probe deeper’.
The old man leans forward across the table and interlaces his fingers. ‘I started that very evening. With a flask of cocoa and a pair of opera glasses, I went down to the local skate ramp and watched them from the bushes. I felt like a television botanist watching the mighty gorillas of some dank, faraway jungle. How incredibly amusing their mannerisms, how obvious the social gradations and rank within their clique, that they might defer to the most able of their group, and lend advice to the weakest. I would surely have watched longer had not I felt a sudden hand on my collar and a policeman inquire as to what I was playing at. ‘We have a name for people like you’, he told me. I can tell you it wasn’t a comforting situation, but when I told him the reasons behind my being there, his face relaxed. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The poetry thing. We’ve been racking our brains over that one, I can tell you. Come down to the station’.
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Am I under arrest’.
‘Not at all’, he replied. ‘We’ve just found one of them trying to break into the library. Perhaps you might like to have a quiet word with him’.
The lad in question was a poor specimen, I can tell you, a pathetic, individual whose half-hearted attempt at perfecting the skater-boy look was almost laughable. On being asked exactly why he was breaking into the library he denied all knowledge that it had been such a building, that he was under the impression more that it was the off licence. When the constable slid a copy of Tennyson’s poetry across the table towards him he made a frantic attempt to grab it from his hands, only for the book to be snatched away from him. ‘Not so fast, sonny’, the constable said, in his laconic, laid-back voice. ‘First we need to talk terms. We can help you get your fix, but first you must help us. We need your skateboard’, he continued. ‘You see, there’s a little mystery here, and we need it cleared up’.
The Professor lets out a laugh. ‘I cut quite a figure on the skateboard ramp, I can tell you. Sure, I fell off a few times, but I soon won respect from the posse not only for my aerial acrobatics but also for my detailed knowledge of Romantic-era poetry. Indeed, things were going along quite fine. How glad I was to see that the stories were true – a particularly athletic turn at the board would be greeted with the words, ‘At Arthur’s ordinance, tipt with lessening peak!’, or a bad fall decorated with the expression, ‘lay low and slay him not!’ I must say, I quite enjoyed my spell with the lads, and at no time did they twig that I was a seventy-four year old academic professor, except when I passed around a packet of sanatogan in the mistaken belief that it was a bottle of alco-pops. ‘A fine pinnacle!’, I yelled, heading up the ramp at great speed. ‘And made as a spire to heaven!’ Brad was especially vocal and conversant in Tennyson’s later works and at times he would exclaim, ‘Sluggards and fools, why do you stand and stare? You are no king’s men!’, or even the ultimate insult, ‘Let this be thy last trespass, thou uncomely knave!’ As the sun started to set, the dusk spread out her silken fingers and seemed to caress the shapely ramps, and in the encroaching dark came a camaraderie I have not yet ever felt, not even in the throes of really good group discussion on Hemingway. Joining in with their masculine bravado, I put up the hood of my jacket and, feeling somewhat exuberant, shouted, ‘While Jove’s planet rises yonder, were now to rage and torture the desert!’ Oh, how absolutely wonderful I felt!
The effect, though, was immediate. The skaters stopped in their tracks. One skateboard, bereft of its rider, swung to and fro on the ramps before it, too, fell silent. ‘What was that?’ Brad asked. Flustered, I repeated my quotation. ‘You’, he said, breathing harshly through quivering nostrils, ‘Are an imposter!’
The rest of the group crowded in on me. I stumbled, and tried to make some kind of retraction to my earlier statement, but the damage was done.
‘That was Robert Browning’, Brad pointed out. ‘What are you, some kind of freak? Who quotes from Browning at a skate ramp?’
‘Yeah’, someone else piped up. ‘What kind of a sicko are you?’
I don’t mind telling you that I was scared. I escaped with my life, and for this I am monumentally thankful.
Naturally, the trouble vexed me for ages. Back at the department I toiled at my desk and tried to read into the whole episode some kind of reason, some kind of explanation behind the adoption of Tennyson. I looked at his rhythms, I looked at his metre, I looked at his rhyme scheme, but none of them matched with the rhythms I had heard on the skate park ramps. The content of his poems were also barren in their significance. I could see in his metrical skill and his lyrical genius no link to the satisfactory clatter of skateboard on concrete, no link between his romantic inclinations and narrative expression to the wearing of a hoodie. Late one night, though, thoroughly tired and dejected, I found the skateboard that I had borrowed that night, and the more I looked at it the more I could see that there was, however slight, a connection of sorts. Four wheels, I told myself, and one standing platform, just like the four isolated tenets of romanticism, the stylistically gothicism inherent, the reaction against enlightenment, imagination, vision and idealism, mixed with the surface and sureness of Tennyson’s reign as poet laureate – surely, this was what the skaters were alluding to in their adherence to his work? How relieved I was to get to bed that night’.
The Professor frowns and he lowers his voice. ‘I wrote up my report the next morning and submitted it to the head of my department. That lunchtime I felt free. In the Spring air I could hear the clatter of a distant skateboard and I nodded, knowingly, to myself. The world seemed right, somehow. The world seemed a better place. But that afternoon I received an anonymous letter.
How horrendous the news that it contained! It came from an ex-skater, whose adherance to the poetry of Tennyson had been questioned by some members of the group. He said that the skaters were not quoting from Tennyson – oh no – they were reading. There was a book stuck in the overhanging tree, he explained. And to prove their dexterity on the skateboard, the skaters in question would attempt to read a line at random as they were suspended in mid-air. If it had been a crisp packet, the anonymous writer concluded, then they would have read out the ingredients. There was no mystery.’
The Professor drained the last of his wine and made to stand. ‘The department has been embarrassed by this whole episode,’ he said, ‘As you can probably imagine. I would be grateful if you could not mention some of the more lurid details of this story’, and with that, the old man was off.
I followed a few minutes later. It was a dark night and there were a few stars hung in the sky. As I walked back to my car I was overtaken by a child on a unicycle, and he was quoting Oscar Wilde. But then, it could have been the drink.

Chuckles in the Flophouse

Chuckles in the Flophouse

The boutique hotel used to be a flophouse. And now it was a boutique hotel. The transformation from flophouse to boutique hotel was not a gradual process. One moment it was a flophouse, the next it was a boutique hotel. For the same amount of money that could buy you a night in a perfectly ordinary hotel, you could have the experience of staying in a former flophouse. Roland Garnier liked the idea of this. Or at least, he liked the idea of staying in a boutique hotel. Only so that he could say to people, ‘I stayed in a boutique hotel’. He didn’t really like the idea of staying in a flophouse.
There’s something about the word ‘flophouse’. It’s the ‘flop’ part of the word. One could imagine a weary soul trudging the streets of manhattan in search of work and ‘flopping’ into his tiny cabin for the night, tired, aching and hungry. But there were other connotations, too. For too long, the word ‘flop’ had been predominant in the career of Roland Garnier and it just see,es plain insulting that he should now be staying in a house for those who flop. His last solo show had been a flop and so had his collection of poetry. The only thing he didn’t flop at was flopping. This is why he preferred the term ’boutique hotel ‘. It implied a certain distinction.
At regular intervals, the man in the boutique hotel cabin next to his kept chuckling to himself. Roland hopes that the man wasn’t doing what he thought he might be doing. The walls of the boutique hotel cabins were as thin as cardboard and Roland could hear every noise that his neighbour was making. It must have been like this, too, for the original inhabitants of yen boutique hotel, back in the days when it was a flophouse. Or actually, maybe not. There wasn’t much to chuckle about in those days, in spite of Laurel and Hardy. The whole place could probably have done with a bit of a laugh.
Maybe he wasn’t wanking at all. Maybe Chuckles just liked comedy. In which case, Roland thought about knocking on his door and telling him that he was performing that very weekend, headlining at the famous Duplex Cabaret right in the heart of New York’s gay village, bringing his own brand of whimsical comedic nonsense to the Big Apple. But Roland tended to shy away from this kind of impulsive human interaction, and in any case, at the back of his mind was the thought that Chuckles probably was just a prolific masturbator.
That morning, as he had the previous mornings, Roland had gone for a walk two blocks to a branch of Starbucks for a morning coffee and a breakfast roll. Roland had had no idea that they also had Starbucks in the USA and it had been something of a fortunate surprise to discover something so homely in this scary metropolitan city. The man at the reception desk of the boutique hotel had wished him not a pleasant day, but merely, ‘Be careful’. And this is what he’d also said the morning before. Roland really didn’t care for the implications of the young man’s tone, hinting, as he understood it, that he saw Roland as being too naive or trusting to understand the dangers of walking alone in the former skid row district, a district yet to be fully gentrified even with the transformation of the former flophouse into a boutique hotel. Roland lived in Devon, and there were certain areas of Newton Abbot that one simply wouldn’t walk alone, so he was not immune to the dangers of the lower east side, or any built up urban environment. Maybe the receptionist was worried that the death of one of his guests would reflect badly on the next Trip Adviser review.
The thing with the USA is that it’s like a whole different country. As Roland walked along the pavement, which in the USA is called the sidewalk, but still maintains the function and appearance of a pavement, he felt a kind of weird displacement within him that the culture and infrastructure around him was easily recognisable and navigable and yet by turns completely wacko. The number plates of the cars were all different and so were the buses. And the trucks. Goodness knows what was going on with the trucks. They were big and brutal and they looked like they meant business and it all felt rather unnecessary. The inside of the Starbucks, however, seemed like the inside of any Starbucks. It was almost as if they had modelled it on an English one, because it had a counter and a till and a coffee machine and tables just like the good old fashioned English Starbucksies. And the process was just the same. You bought a coffee, sat down and drank it. It’s just like these things are the same all over the world. Travel is likely to make philosophers of us all.
Roland sipped his coffee and looked out at the traffic. He was a little sad that the young lady at the counter had not even flinched, let alone make a comment, when she had heard his accent. And he’d gone to great lengths to emphasise his Englishness when he’d ordered his coffee. ‘Hello there! And a most pleasant morning to You! I would very much like to purchase a cup of your finest coffee, if I might be so bold! I do hope you might accommodate me in this matter!’, he had said, to which he had replied,
‘Sure’.
And then he had slipped back within himself, sitting at the table in the very corner and looking out at a busy intersection, the trucks and the buses and the hubbub of a major city as it wakes and busies itself for another day.
‘Hi. Excuse me?’
Roland looks up. A young man is standing next to him, a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate with a Danish pastry on it in the other. He’s wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a bum bag.
‘Is anyone sitting there?’
The chair next to him was empty. As were most of the chairs in the place. Roland wondered why he would want to sit there when there were so many other empty chairs in the place. He thought that coming to the USA, he might be immune to the various eccentrics and weirdos who populate Devon, but apparently not.
‘No’, Roland says.
‘Hey, you’re . . Let me guess . . Scottish?’
‘English’.
‘Damn, so close. I’m usually good with accents. I met an Estonian once and guessed his accent immediately.’
‘Remarkable’.
‘You here on business?’
‘Kind of. I’m here for . . Work’.
‘Oh? What’s that?”
‘I work in the . . Entertainment industry’.
‘Cool’.
Bum Bag Man sits down and starts drinking his coffee. He then picks at the Danish pastry and feeds bits of it into his mouth, wiping his fingertips on a paper napkin. He doesn’t say anything for a long time and Roland hopes that this is the end of it. But then he says,
‘I’m from Idaho’.
‘Oh’.
‘So I’m not used to this, you know, we have cities in Idaho, but it’s mostly rural, I’m from a rural community, we got lots of cows where I’m from, dairy you see, that’s why I have milk in my coffee because, you know, you got to support the farmers.’
‘I don’t know much about Idaho’.
‘Not much to tell’.
‘And what do you do?”
‘Me? Well sir, I’m a punch hole salesman’.
‘Punch hole?’
‘Sure. For office supplies’.
‘Oh, you mean holepunch?’
Bum Bag Man kind of makes a grimace.
‘That’s a brand name. There’s an actual company called Hole Punch. Hole Punch Inc. I work for Stevenson’s. We actually invented the punch hole back in the 1800s. Our founder says that the idea came to him as if from god, he just prayed one night, and woke the next morning with the Punch Hole clearly defined in his brain. You know, sir, he fell out with his brother, and it was he who started up the Hole Punch Company. But I’m proud to admit, I have a passion for Stevenson’s products that you can only guess at.’
‘And what happened before the hole Punch . . I mean, the Punch Hole was invented’.
‘I guess people just didn’t have holes in their paper’.
‘Fascinating’.
‘Each year we have a ceremony at the factory, to mark the occasion that our founder, Ichabod J. Stevenson, had that vision from god. And they bring out the first Punch hole. It’s kept in a museum, you see, because it’s the size of a small car, this thing, steam powered, and it has to be kept under tight security ever since it killed that chap a few years back. Since then, of course, we’ve all been told not to wear ties or scarves around it’.
‘And this is in Idaho?’
‘Yes, sir’.
Bum Bag Man goes to put a piece of Danish pastry in his mouth but misses and it goes on the floor.
‘So, are you on holiday, here in New York?’
‘Well, sure, kind of. You see, I just broke up with my girlfriend’.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that’.
‘We were in the mall. There’s this mall near our town, it’s only a two hour drive away, I’d gone to buy a new phone but when I got there, they only had it in pink. And she laughed, can you believe that? She didn’t feel sorry for me or anything. She just laughed. So there we are in this mall in a suburb of Boise, and she’s just laughing because the phone I wanted was only available in pink. So I ended it. That’s a kind of toxic relationship right there, isn’t it? And I’m any case, she never cared for punch holes. She was a receptionist at a dental surgery’.
‘And you’re here to get over it?’
‘No sir, I’m here to find a new girlfriend. It’s a city of sin, that’s what my pastor says. So if I can find someone, turn them away from sin and towards the wholeness and goodness and purity of Ichabod J. Stevenson, then maybe I’ll be a happier man’.
‘Good luck ‘.
‘I’ll need it. At the moment I’m in my hotel room every night, sobbing.’
‘You’re sobbing?’
‘Oh, yes sir. But I know my time will come. It has to. There’s someone out there for everyone’.
‘Indeed’.
Roland imagined this strange lone figure, miles from his Idaho rural community in a busy city, beaten down by life and lonely, and he started to feel sorry for him. Indeed, if it weren’t for a few subtle differences here and there, they could almost be the same person. Roland had long ago given up hope of finding love himself, and the love that he sought was really no different to that of Bum Bag Man. The only real difference, as far as he could make out, was that Bum Bag Man was wearing a Bum Bag, or fanny pack, as the Americans tended to call them. How could anyone truly be respected if they’re walking around wearing a fanny pack?
Roland looked down at his black coffee. It was starting to go cold. The street outside was as busy as ever. The ability of some people to overshare always made him somewhat uncomfortable and he decided that it was time to move the conversation on to himself.
‘Well, I suppose I had better be going. I’ve got a show tomorrow night and I need to rehearse. Because when you’re headlining at the Duplex, you’ve got to be on top of your game’.
Thus leaving the door open for an inquiry from Bum Bag Man. How could anyone resist such an invitation?
It doesn’t work.
‘Nice to meet you’.
Bum Bag Man hops down off his stool and goes over to the corner where a young lady is working on her laptop.
‘Hey’, Roland hears him say, ‘Is anyone sitting here?’

Two lone souls in a city of infinite busyness, instant forgetting, a machine bigger than any one person, millions of lives, millions of stories, aspirations and dreams. The present moment is but fleeting because the city never stays still, it’s streets smoothed by centuries of souls vibrant one moment and vanished the next. How many others will come and go, how many others will visit this pounding metropolis only to disappear to their own lives once more? Chewed up, spat out, forgotten?
Roland walks back to the boutique hotel and he thinks of Bum Bag Man, and then he thinks of the ex soldiers and sailors who populated the flophouses of skid row, their lives in tatters, destitute and miserable. He gives the receptionist a weary smile as he passes by, climbs the stairs and feels the undercurrent of misery on which the city has been built, the bones of those who did not succeed the foundations on which every other layer has been placed, individuals blinked out never again to be remembered.
He sits on the bed in his cabin and lets out a deep, deep sigh. It all seems so pointless. Not just the present moment and his reasons for being in manhattan, but everything. History is created the second that a moment has passed. He has anticipated the gig at the Duplex for so, so long, but now it was finally close and the anticipation had mutated, changed to a realisation that everything will be forgotten. The generations pass and they never look back. History is an inexorable dance. How else might he approach each day, but with the sense that he will vanish one day, and nobody will ever notice.
The world is a place of misery and hopelessness.
And then Chuckles starts laughing quietly, to himself. And this makes Roland laugh. And then he thinks about hole punchers and he laughs some more. And soon the two of them are laughing, and then the man in the cubicle next to his starts laughing too. And the lady across the corridor. And another lady. And soon, oh yes, within seconds, everyone is laughing.

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/

Ken Beevers’ new book

Ken Beevers’ book, Aquamarine, is a beautiful concoction of autobiography, humour, timeless emotion and a real sense of physical place. Beautifully put together by Poetry Island Press, it’s a constantly surprising source of that kind of momentary excitement one gets when reading real poetry, the kind that speaks truth and universal experience but with humour and a deftness of touch. A fish and chip shop described as a ‘utopian supper palace’ will forever remain one of my favourite lines in any poetry. Aquamarine is filled with such momentary gems, inviting the reader to read just one more page, oh, go on then, maybe one more. And, unlike a lot of poetry books, it’s got pictures.

In honour of Ken and his book, I have put pen to paper myself. And this is my very own ode to Ken Beevers.

Ken Beevers

A shaft of early morning sun through a crack of curtains.
Another day dawns bright and new.
I jump out of bed energised by the journey this planet has taken
Once more round the sun
And I run
To the bathroom.
Excitedly, I glance in the mirror, then let out a groan.
I’m still not Ken Beevers.

And I don’t think I ever will be.
There’s no mechanism for this,
One cannot simply pull some levers
And become Ken Beevers.
One must look inward if there’s ever a chance
Now and then
To be Ken.

If poetry was like a car
Then mine has just been towed
Like my grandads driving
I’m too middle of the road
Whenever I scribble a note
It hardly comes out as an ode.
But Ken is the real thing
He can shoulder the load
Words are his playthings

He’s the bad boy of south Devon poetry
He’s a trouble maker
An instigator,
Like trying to make a toasted sandwich
With a coffee percolator.
He’s never died on stage so he
Needs no undertaker
His rhymes are so hot
They put him in the refrigerator
He’s so damn cool
It’s because he just came out of the refrigerator
His name is Ken Beevers
But they call him The Beevinator

His poems are exquisite gems,
He needs a guard.
He’s so well hard
He’s the fish bar Bard
Yet he doesn’t expect acclaim
Like some of the other divas
He’s Ken Beevers.
Some of his rhymes are so potent
They often give me fevers
He’s Ken Beevers.
He once dropped his baseball cap
And a friend said,
Is that Justin Bieber’s?
And I said no,
It’s Ken beevers’.
Someone asked once,
Is he rowdy or serious?
And I said, neithers,
He’s Ken beevers.

He stands on the stage
Filled with just the right attitude
He’s so cool he’s got rapitude
He knows his place in the world
Both longitude and latitude
He looked after his neighbours puppy
But he made them pay for the mat it chewed.
Oh I feel such gratitude
In knowing Ken beevers.

So raise a glass and drink to Ken
This super poet
This titan of men
A man more genial is seldom seen
And his book is called Aquamarine
Some poems are risqué
But seldom obscene
He’s the hottest thing
On the Torbay scene
Don’t doubt yourself for a minute,
You’ll become believers
And it’s all thanks to the magic
Of Mighty Kenneth Beevers!

And Jacqui is lovely, too.