Robert Garnham, Yay!

Hello, here’s a recording I made of my show Yay!, at the back room of a charity shop.

This is the version of the show which went to the Edinburgh fringe in 2022.

I hope you like it.

You can support the work I’m doing right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Looking back on my Edinburgh Fringe this year, I’m astounded at how little went wrong this time. It’s weird, but every one of my visits to Edinburgh can be recalled through what went disastrously wrong. For example, in 2015, I lost my passport during the flight up to Edinburgh, and I would need it again a month later for a trip to New York. In 2016, I arrived in Edinburgh but my luggage went to Honolulu, so I had to do the first two days with the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, and none of my props. In 2017, things actually went quite well but I’d accidentally booked not enough days at my accommodation and had to find two more nights to stay somewhere in the city. In 2019, my train only got as far as Preston and had to turn back because the line was flooded, and then when I arrived in Auld Reekie I discovered that my show wasn’t listed in the PBH brochure. (My fault, I should have checked). And then on the train home, someone stole my luggage!

So I suppose all of these were damn good learning experiences, and this year I had flights sorted, accommodation booked, I’d double checked the PBH brochures, I had my favourite venue, (Banshee Labyrinth), and I had a show without any props, so if something happened to my luggage, then the show could still go on.

There were other things I did differently this year which seemed to work. For a start, I listed the show in the main Fringe brochure under comedy rather than spoken word. This was the first time I’d done this, (mainly because I knew I had a show which had a fair amount of comedy in it, unlike 2015’s Static, or 2017’s In the Glare of the Neon Yak). And I think this did lead to a slightly higher number of audience members. The idea of this came from a little research I did where it transcribed that a lot of people who get the Fringe brochure only ever look at the sections which interest them. Theatre, for example, or comedy. My own interest is comedy, for example.

The other thing I did was to include my name in the show title. For a long time the show was called ‘Yay! The Search for Happiness’, but I decided that this sounded too much like a motivational speech, and the title itself hinted that it ought to come with some kind of trigger warning. I decided on ‘Robert Garnham, Yay!’, which I think really worked.

Another thing which was different this year was my whole attitude. In years past I’d take a show to Edinburgh and feel as if all of my eggs were in one basket. If this failed, then I was a failure too by extension. And also, it has to be admitted, I was never as sure as my shows in the past, never one hundred percent convinced that I was writing or performing to the maximum of my (possibly limited) abilities. This year, with a show which had no props or music to hide behind, I had made sure that I knew the show inside out. I’d been rehearsing the thing since early 2020 and I felt that I knew every nuance of it. As a result, I felt much more relaxed while talking to people about my show. If an audience came, well, then it came. If it didn’t, then at least I knew I’d done my maximum.

And also, I had my writing, now. I wasn’t just a comedy performance poet. By the time I got back to Edinburgh in 2022, several things had changed in my career. I was now a published writer, humorist, newspaper columnist as well as a comedy performance poet. This helped me to see what I was doing the context of someone who wasn’t putting all of his hopes and dreams into one show. If the show was a flop, (a show I;d given everything to), then at least I had short stories in magazines, and people reading my newspaper columns. All would not be lost!

This all helped me be incredibly more relaxed in Edinburgh. It’s only taken about ten years, but I felt I was negotiating the fringe with some degree of knowledge which I could fall back on. I even started to enjoy flyering.

Yes, you read that right. Traditionally, I hate flyering. Dyslexia manifests itself with me with an inability to speak to strangers or say things on the spur of the moment. I cannot improvise to save my life and a witty comeback is a three hour process. I find engaging with other human beings to be absolutely exhausting, yet this year, I had something I could describe very easily. ‘A search for happiness on the high seas. Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!’ My eye-catching flyers helped tremendously, too.

And finally, I decided that this would all be an adventure. If it all went tits up, then it would be something to write about. After the last two years where nothing much happened, it really did feel like the most daring thing in the world to go to another city, another country, and bring a show with me. I knew that in the dark days of winter, I’d sit back and ponder on the people I met, the places I went, the lovely audiences I had.

Will I be back next year? In all likelihood, yes. And here are my highlights:

1. The young Scottish couple who came to my show and chatted afterwards about seaside towns. I’d pulled them in to the show at the last minute and worried that they wouldn’t like it. They did, and they bought a book. They told me the name of the Scottish town where they lived. I had to ask three times because I didn’t understand the answer. Abercernichnie? Aberlakichnee?

2. The lady who came to my show and flung her arms around me at the end, and then, much to my surprise, so did her husband!

3. The man who said that my show should be on Radio Four. But it was noisy in the bar and I thought he’d said he was from Radio Four and I got unnecessarily excited!

4. Gecko came to my first show and seemed to really like it, he laughed at all the funny bits and this helped the rest of the audience laugh too.

5. Ditto Alexander Woody Woodward, who it was a thrill to meet in the flesh.

6. The fight which took place during my penultimate show in the audience. Yes, you read that correctly. An audience member took exception to the noise coming from the bar of the Banshee. She went and told them to be quiet, in a very feisty manner. Next thing I know, she was laying into them! I had a great audience that night and it seemed to bind us all together as a shared adventure.

7. The wonderful audience I had at the last show, which included my good friend Elizabeth McGeown and also my regular ‘Robheads’ from Leith, who brought me a lovely present to open on the way home.

8. The tourist who took a selfie with me, and then another tourist who asked for my autograph, I suppose, just assuming that I was famous because I had a show!

9. The taster session I did at St Andrew’s Square during which I had a very big audience, a lot of whom were filming me on their mobile phones.

10. Selling loads of books!

11. Getting home that night and thinking, oh my god, was there really a fight tonight?!

You can read the blog I wrote in Edinburgh this year right here:https://professorofwhimsy.com/2022/08/21/thoughts-from-the-edinburgh-fringe-2022-2/

Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square

Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square

Woodview

You can now pre-order my new collection, Woodview.

The link is right here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/woodview

And below you can see a couple of videos of poems from the book.

These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon. 

But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.

This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.

‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’

(Rodney Wood)

‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’

(Greg Freeman)

‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’. 

(Becky Nuttall)

Woodview

These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon. 

But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.

This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.

‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’

(Rodney Wood)

‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’

(Greg Freeman)

‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’. 

(Becky Nuttall)

Terence Donovan (Doug Willis from Neighbours) was born in Staines – A Poem

Poem

I’m not easily shocked.
I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the years.
But this poem isn’t about me,
Much as I’d like it to be.
For I only discovered this very morning,
(And hold onto your hats, dear listener),
That Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born,
Are you ready for this?
Was born in Staines.

Yes, that’s right, Staines.
Staines in the former Middlesex.
Staines not far from Slough.
Staines now pretentiously calling itself
Staines Upon Thames
To make it sound less like the sort of place
You’ll get a slapping,
Staines,
Home to the Elmsleigh Centre and what’s was once
A really cracking branch of Our Price,
Staines,
Where I went to school and worked
In the local Sainsbury’s
(But as I just said, this poem
Is not about me),
Was where Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born.

It’s got a High Street, has Staines.
It’s got a Costa, has Staines.
It’s got a statue of two men
Carrying a roll of lino,
(Google it, I kid you not),
It’s got a Sainsbury’s, has Staines,
Where I worked 1992-1994
And fell in love with a till operative called Simon,
But what it hasn’t got is a blue plaque
Commemorating the birth of Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours.
Heads should roll.

We all know that Staines is the place where
Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street came from,
And you can shove that factoid up your arse,
And don’t get me started on Ali G,
But how many of you know that Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born in bloody Staines?

Staines, for where the gods decreed
A confusing one way system and a cracking
Example of a brutalist multi storey car park
Where my sister once got a puncture,
Staines, whose library
Seems almost apologetic,
Staines, whose bus station is sympathetically clad
In coloured bricks which are all coated in oil stains,
Staines,
Staines Upon Thames,
Stains on the Thames,
Staines, whose beauty and architecture have caused
Many a lost tourist to drop to their knees and cry tears of
Bitter jealousy,
Staines,
Where I once saw Russ Abbott in Woolworths doing his shopping
Followed by a gang of kids who kept badgering him and
Shouting, hey Russ, do your angry Scottish bloke for us,
Until he told them to go away,
Staines, where my mate Justin
Found a pig’s eyeball on the seat of the photo booth,
Staines, where I asked Justin,
How did you know it was from a pig?
And what were you doing in the photo booth?
Staines, sparkling jewel of Spelthorne,
Was where
Terence Donovan,
Father of Jason Donovan,
Terence Donovan,
Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours,
Was born.

Life’s funny like that.
And I’ve got a Pop Tart on in the toaster
So I’d better be off.


What Jean Alesi Meant to Me

Jean Alesi

In 1989 my mother bought me a second hand black and white television for my bedroom. I was fifteen years old and until that time, had not had my own TV. In those days, of course, there were only four channels so the likelihood of there being anything on to watch was very small. My sister had had her own colour TV for a couple of years, which wasn’t fair because she was younger, and not only that, but hers had a remote control. Remote controls were new technology. Our old big television downstairs had a remote control and if you lost it, you could change channels by rattling a bunch of keys. How nonchalantly, my sister would sit on her bed and be able to change channels without even having to move or grab a bunch of keys. And now I, too, had my own television set.
          It was a cranky old thing, (the second hand TV, not my sister), short, squat and smelling ever so faintly of burning dust and electricity. And if it was switched on for too long it would get very hot and it would turn itself off at inopportune moments, a strange little button at the back popping out with a fierce click. Once it had cooled down one was able to press the button and turn it on again. If it was still hot, the button would just stay out and you’d have to sit and wait for ages, which was no good if you were watching something really important, like Columbo.  And during a heat wave you’d have to wait for hours. The damn thing would just not cool down.
          In the defence of my television set, though, there occasionally wasn’t anything on at all. The announcer would come on and say, well, we’ve got no programs for the rest of the afternoon, so here’s the test card. Oooooooooooooo!
          One day – and it must have been a Sunday – I caught the start and opening laps of the San Marino formula one Grand Prix. It was pretty hard to decipher what was happening, what with the fact that all the cars were shown in black and white, and there was always a lot of static interference every time my sister used her hair dryer. The television set had a dial, and you had to dial in to the television channel the same way that you had to with a radio finding a station. And very shortly after the start of the race there was a very bad accident involving Gerhard Berger.
          Motor racing was a part of my life from an early age, but I’d never taken much interest in it before. My childhood bedroom wallpaper was of John Watson’s Marlboro sponsored McLaren. It’s great to think that it was such an unenlightened age that cigarette sponsorship was allowed into the bedrooms of small boys. I didn’t know much about John Watson, or motor racing for that matter, or McLaren, or smoking, but my dad was proficient in all of these, and I picked up bits along the way, enough to know that the McLarens were still sponsored by Marlboro, and that the leading drivers of the day were Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, and my own favourite, Gerhard Berger. And the only reason I liked Gerhard Berger was because his second name was Berger. I liked burgers. I had no interest in taking up smoking, but eating burgers was definitely helped along because of the wonders of Gerhard.
          The race on my little black and white television was stopped because of Berger’s accident, and as I waited for it to restart, the inevitable occurred and my television turned itself off. I put my hand on the back of it and, sure enough, it was giving off a pretty intense heat. The strain of being turned on for almost forty five minutes  was obviously too much. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it for a couple of hours, by which time the race would probably be finished.
          So I went downstairs to the living room, and as luck would have it my parents were out gardening or something else interesting that parents do on a sunny spring morning in suburban Surrey, and I was able to watch the rest of the race on the big television in the living room. Now this television was colour, and having sat through forty five minutes of black and white, the contrast – no pun intended – was amazing. The colours were vibrant, the green grass around the track, the multicoloured cars and drivers and the McLarens looking just like they did on my bedroom wallpaper, their Marlboro branding vibrant and luxurious.  I’d never seen a spectacle like this, the excitement and the intensity of motor racing revealed in all its technicolor brilliance, the primary colours, the advertising hoardings, the flags and banners in the crowd, the vibrant orange of the flames licking around Berger’s crashed Ferrari. It was probably at this moment that I fell in love with formula one Grand Prix racing.
          Now it must be said that I was a weird teenager. At fifteen years old I’d already sussed that I was gay. It was obvious to myself, though not particularly so to other people. I wasn’t entirely camp and I wore the sorts of clothing that all my friends wore, so I’m sure that nobody knew, and that it would remain this devastating big secret which I would carry with me to the grave. I told myself that I was very good at hiding it. I also thought that I was one of the handful of gay people in the entire world, that it was basically just me and Julian Clary. There didn’t seem to be any other gay role models. It was also the nineteen eighties. Homophobia was very popular in mainstream society and most people seemed to be very fond of it, particularly in Surrey where I lived on a council estate within earshot of the main runways at Heathrow Airport.

Indeed, homophobia seemed to be institutionalised. This was a time of Section 28, and the AIDS crisis was still very much being felt. And I was this strange little thing, closeted to the world and fearful of the future because I knew that, if things didn’t change, I’d never be who I wanted to be. And this was probably true of a whole generation. My only outlet was writing, and the stories I wrote were also explorations of the same closet. Characters were good friends, but nothing sexual was ever hinted at. Their only goal seemed to be to find a nice girlfriend and get married. None of these characters existed anywhere else but in an incredibly straight universe.
So I was kind of glad that I’d got in to formula one motor racing, because this was the sort of thing that the average straight man really liked, all those machines and engines and drivers and strategies and ladies in bikinis carrying large lollipops with the names of the drivers, and adverts for cigarettes and beer and after shave and spanners and motor oil, and brash egos and the roar of the engines. It was a straight person’s paradise. And the more I got in to the sport, the more I saw that this gave me an escape route should I be talking to my friends and the hypothetical question comes up, ‘Are you gay?’, to which I might reply, ‘No, and did you see the race at the weekend?’
The summer progressed. Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Berger. These titans, these gods of the sport who towered above not only formula one, but life itself. How excited I’d tune in to catch their exploits, with their distinct personalities and their almost superhuman powers to pick me up and fly me away from gaydom into that sparkling iridescent rainbow glitter world of perpetual absolute straightness! And then, one day, along came Jean Alesi.
Imagine if you had to invent the perfect racing driver. Imagine if you were writing a novel and you realised that you needed a stereotypical barely believable cartoon character of a racing driver. What characteristics would you give them, if you were a little lazy when it came to inventing such characters? A firm jaw, dazzling blue eyes, a small stature, handsome youthfulness, sultry eyes with a faraway stare. And what kind of nationality would you give your invented racing driver? French? Italian? Well, why not a mixture of both? And what kind of name would you give your hypothetical stereotypical racing driver? Something distinctly European, yet a name which sounds fast even in its spelling and economy of letters. Jean Alesi. Four syllables, not very many letters. Oh my god, he was everything I wanted him to be!
Jean Alesi burst on the scene halfway through 1989. And all of a sudden these old towering idols of motor racing didn’t seem quite so special. Jean was in a much slower car, yet he was driving much better than them and spent most of his first race in second place before finishing fourth. He didn’t seem to care very much that there were people out there who needed these titans of motor racing to just keep going and going. Jean Alesi was like a fresh thought introduced into a tired way of looking at the world. Jean Alesi was the embodiment of excitement. Jean Alesi was the equivalent of saying, hey, you know what? There are other ways of living your life. Jean Alesi was also very good looking.
Oh my god, I liked him a lot.
And soon the exploits of Jean Alesi became the only reason that I watched formula one. Well, that and the need to appear to be the same as all the other blokes, what with formula one being so blokey. Because within this blokey structure, Jean Alesi demonstrated that there was room for something new and exciting. He held his steering wheel right at the top. He leaned his head over at crazy, exaggerated angles around the corners, it was like he was pretending to be a racing driver. It was almost, dare one say it, camp. He had no technical skill whatsoever. My nickname for him was Crazy Alesi. One of his former team mates used to call him Jean Asleazy. He seemed to run on pure enthusiasm.
I wanted to come out. I was desperate for the world to know who I was. But the world was a different place back then and the framework of support that most LGBT people in the Uk mostly have now was missing back in 1989. There were hardly any gay people on television, unless it were the basis of a joke or a cheap stereotype, and section 28 was prevalent in schools preventing teachers having serious conversations about homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was at the forefront of everyone’s mind whenever the subject of gay men was discussed. Homophobia was everywhere, in throwaway comments and the laughter of school fiends, jokes told openly, and in government policies. Being gay was a personal source of shame, a hideous joke played by nature and something which I thought I might even grow out of, or at least train myself to disregard. I just hadn’t met the right woman yet, a woman with short hair, blue eyes, no female bits and only male bits, possibly French Italian, probably called Jean. I wanted the world to change.
And Jean Alesi wanted to win a Grand Prix.
Over the next six years, Alesi found himself in another race. I was getting older, a teenager now, late teens, the early twenties beckoning, and I gave myself the target of coming out to the world as gay in a glorious burst of music and love, before Jean Alesi won his first Grand Prix. As luck would have it, Alesi soon signed to Ferrari, a team which at the time was in one of is periodic performance troughs, so the idea that Alesi might actually win a race was now almost impossible. This gave me some breathing space. I felt like a swimmer about to plunge into icy water, steeling himself, just standing there, year after year, unable to make that final move. And knowing that if I did, I’d get more than a cold shoulder. Every other week I’d sit and watch as Alesi found a new and exciting way not to win a race, and this seemed emblematic of my own struggle. Moments of promise and potential victory falling apart, and assured win undone by some minor trifle. For six long years Jean and I struggled together to get what we wanted, to make our name on history before it was too late.
And then, in 1995, when I was 21 years old, the bastard did it.
It was the Canadian Grand Prix. It was one of those races in which all the other drivers fell by the wayside. And this left Alesi out in front, victory assured. I remember those final laps, I was almost crying with delight, and yet while I felt pleased that he was actually about to do it, I also felt a sense of loathing that he should get what he always wanted, and I would be left there, alone. And as he crossed the finish line in an emotional moment of tears and celebration, I thought, well, my life hasn’t changed in the slightest.
If it’s any consolation, that would also be his last win in formula one. I did think about waiting until his second win to come out, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because there would be no second win. In fact it would be another four years until I came out to friends and family, by which time I already had had a partner. But that’s another story.
Every now and then Jean Alesi turns up on television. He’s much older now but he’s still good looking and my mother fancies him. To me he was the epitome of what a racing driver should be, but he’s always stood for more than that. He was my personal talisman, my guardian angel, he was there showing the way without him even realising that he was doing it. He showed me that you could change the order of things just by the force of sheer enthusiasm and, of course, a lot of hard work. My own coming out felt less like a fantastic victory and more like a plane crash. And perhaps Alesi had already had his coming out moment, the time he had told his parents that yes, he was a racing driver.
There are kids out there now looking for the same escape. The world is ever so slightly easier for them now. And that’s such a good thing, people seem far more open minded and people can be who they want to be. They don’t need racing drivers to show them the way. Or perhaps, they do. Perhaps we are all racing drivers now. We are all Jean Alesi.

Whimsy in the Woods Episode 13

Robert records his podcast live from the platform at Birmingham New Street Station and recounts an episode from the train he has just caught, then performs a poem about a bedside lamp.

Ballad of a Sad Bouncer

Our eyes met across the literary festival tent, at the exact moment Professor Zazzo Thiim erupted into a coughing fit shortly after he’d tried to pronounce the names of the Welsh rural communities in Memflak’s Operetta Lampeter. It was cruel of the organisers not to cut his mic, but I looked up again and I saw you were still looking over at me, and both embarrassed, we smiled. Even to this day the sound of a phlegmy cough is enough to fill my heart with romance.

Ballad of a sad bouncer

          We met outside the canvas marquee, the strong sun throwing red and white stripes across us.

          ‘So . . You like Memflak?’

          ‘Not really’.

          ‘Me neither’.

          And then we stood there for a while until a security guard asked us to move. Professor Zazzo was making his way to the book signing table, and we were in the way.

          ‘Do you need anything?’, someone asked him.

          ‘A glass of water, please’.

          ‘He wasn’t the most engaging of speakers’, you said, as we were bundled sideways. ‘Have you ever read any of his works?’

          ‘Only his pamphlet on the poetry of TV darts commentaries’.

          ‘Oh really? And what was his conclusion?’

          ‘That there wasn’t any’.

          ‘A wise man’, you said, and we both turned and watched as he took a seat behind a wallpapering table piled high with copies of his Memflak biography. There wasn’t a queue and a bird had defecated on his Panama hat.

          ‘So if you don’t like Memflak, then why did you come along?’, you asked.

          I’d just assumed that most of the people who were there would have been single, naturally.

          ‘Just . . . Chilling’.

We chatted about so much that sunny afternoon. You told me your biggest fear was 3D printing machines suddenly gaining consciousness and 3D printing only other 3D printing machines and then the whole world becoming drowned in 3D printing machines. And I told you about a friend who had a 3D printing machine, but the first thing that the 3D printing machine had to print as soon as you got it was the instruction manual on how to print on a 3D printing machine, but the only way you could print the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine was to have the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine. We both laughed and agreed that the world was an unusual place, and I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, oh, how I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, but there was something lazy and wonderful about our sudden new friendship, and anyway, you weren’t allowed back in the B and B until 3pm. Instead, we went to the crowded cafe tent and shared a vegan sausage roll.

          When you told me that you were a published poet, I almost fell off my seat.

          ‘But you’re so passably handsome!’

          ‘I know. It’s a shock, isn’t it?’

          ‘Are you . . . Rich?’

          You couldn’t stop laughing.

          ‘I’m a poet. In fact, it’s the perfect career choice for me, thanks to my crippling fear of success’.

          You told me that your first collection, Do Sheep Find Us Boring?, had won the Fortescue Prize for the best poetry collection to feature a mangle. Your second collection, The Non-existent Coffee Table, had fared less well, especially the scratch’n’sniff sonnet about sewage. And your third book, A Machine Which Exists Only to Destroy Itself, was what those in the publishing industry call a faulty fluorescent tube.

          ‘Why is it called that?’

          ‘Because it barely makes a flicker’.

          I knew that it was because you were too handsome to be a poet. Your teeth were mostly the same colour and you had hardly any dandruff. When you sipped your tea, only a few drops went on your trousers.

          I looked deep into your eyes. You looked deep into mine. The world around us seemed to fade from existence until its only components were you and me. And surely, in that stuffy tent over an over-priced sausage roll, we would surely have begun to kiss, had not there been a sudden clatter and thud from the next table and a cry of, ‘Buggering ‘ell!’, as Professor Zazzo Thiim’s chair collapsed.

          We helped the old fella up from the grass.

We queued for a while to buy tickets to see the famous performance artist Bonjour Twain, for it was rumoured that she would be debuting a new piece called The Measurement of Intense Disappointment, only it turned out that queuing for the piece was the actual piece itself, and that Bonjour Twain was a thousand miles away at her home in the Alps. We then went in to a lively debate between a surrealist poet and another surrealist poet, which had been especially choreographed by the festival organisers who had told both surrealist poets that their opponent was an adherent to ultra-realism and would only be pretending to be a surrealist poet. Our next port of call was to see a book reading by Will Self, but Will Self was stuck in a traffic jam, so the audience passed the time by playing a good-natured game of battleships. Our final stop of the afternoon was a speech on Bouncy Castle Development and Design : From Mock-Medieval to the Integration of New Technologies’, which Doctor Margaret McParson actually delivered while bouncing on a bouncy castle, which went very well until she had to sip a glass of water.

          It was a full afternoon.

          ‘Well’, you said, ‘I’d better be going’.

          And now the world did that thing it does every now and then where it reveals its true colours and kind of stamps on the hopes and dreams that only reveal themselves in retrospect.

          ‘Righty-o, then’.

          ‘It’s been fun’.

          ‘Sure has. When will I . . . Where will I . .  See you again?’

          ‘You can have one of my collections, if you like, then I’ll always be with you’.

          ‘I don’t really like poetry’.

          ‘My picture is on the cover. I’d like you to have it’.

          You rummaged around in your shoulder bag and showed me the cover of Do Sheep Find Us Boring?. You looked about fifteen years younger.

          ‘OK. Thanks’.

          ‘That’s nine ninety-nine’.

          I slipped you ten pounds. You didn’t have any change. Which is a shame, because I would have cherished that penny forever, perhaps drilled a hole in it and worn it around my neck. The book was OK, though.

          You walked away after we parted with a jovial wave, and I watched you disappear into the middle-class utopia of the literary festival. I was distracted, momentarily, by Professor Zazzo Thiim tripping over a guy rope, and when I looked up again, you were gone.

I went over to the bouncy castle, and took off my shoes, and I clambered on. I bounced once. Twice. Possibly as many as five times. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was worried that someone would steal my shoes. This happened once at a funfair in Bournemouth. I’d had to walk home in my socks.