On how I learned to love writing short stories again

On how I learned to love writing short stories again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seaside Serenade (Poem from my new solo show, filmed at Paignton’s Palace Theatre

Last month I was filmed by director John Tomkins, performing my new solo show Yay! : The Search For Happiness, at Paignton’s Palace Theatre.

Here’s an exclusive extract from the show! The poem is taken from my new book, Yay!, published by Burning Eye Books. You can order the book here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/yay-book

A sultry seaside serenade

It must be hot,
My mars bar’s turned to mush,
The smell of melting tarmac
In the late night hush.
Bread in the packet has already turned to toast,
My neighbours pet chicken is now a Sunday roast.
Now I don’t like to boast,
Because I’ve got Brandon, oooo, Brandon
Basking on my bed in his boxers,
Both of us pining for something fresh
Other than the obvious
Like the steering freeze of truth,
The cool, cool wash of contentment,
Or a vanilla ice cream.

We’re making our way through this
Seaside town now, me and Brandon,
He’s promised something hot and long and sticky
The moment we get back.
It’s been years since I had a kebab.
Past shop clad shutters and graffiti denouncing
Tracey as a slag,
To the neon buzz moth hub
Of the prom prom prom
Tiddly om Pom Pom
Last night in bed he said
It isn’t very long
Tiddly om Pom Pom
And it’s very limp.

And I said,
It’s seen a lot of tourists over the years
And it’s prone to erosion
And longshore drift.
Half of it was swept away
By a giant squid.

The rash on the side of my neck
Is caused by Brandon’s stubble as if scrapes
Sandpaper scrapey sprapey scrape
When he gets distracted by
The cricket results.

And now we’re walking next to the beach and his face is
Lit up like that of a cartoon ferret on a box of cheap own brand
Rice Krispie knock offs
The spoon filled with ricey goodness
Hovering inches from his cavernous gob

And the salt air late night sea breeze
Caresses our manly frames
Imbuing in us all kinds of nautical hi jinx
Naval seriousness, merry little frigates,
Dolphin blowholes, bottom feeding mullets,
Whales both humpback and sperm,
First mate officers, salty sea dogs,
Able bodied seamen, bow thrusters,
Butt blocks in the rigging, man the head,
Bump head gurnards and bottle nosed lumpsuckers.
And chub.

Do you see the ice cream van?
Do you see the ice cream van?
An oblong of light spilled out on the
Sand flecked concrete,
It’s refrigeration generator
Throbbing the sir with a sudden intensity,
Chugga chugga chugga
Do you feel it throbbing away there?
Chugga chugga chugga
Window stickers advertising all kinds
Of things to lick and nibble and crunch down on
Cool and ever so creamy.

The moon beams on high like someone from Dorset.
In the glow of it’s madness we dance.
Oh, Brandon, I want to do things
To certain bits of you
For most of the night,
Though I’m conscious you’ve got an early shift
At the Lady Remington Smooth N Silky
Cordless Rechargeable Hair Removal Facility factory
And the ice cream man,
Oh,
The ice cream man,
Did I mention he’s also a magician?
A sparkle in his eye,
He starts waving his magic wand at us, and

Poof!

All is gone.
The ice cream man is gone.
The ice cream van is gone.
The neon and the stats are gone.
And Brandon is gone.
None of them ever existed.
It’s just me, and the prom
On a sultry night in a sleepy coastal town,
And the kebab shop is closed,
And the rash on my neck
Is just a fungal infection
And Tracey is still a slag, apparently,
And I walk sadly home,
I walk sadly home.

Hamlet (Poem written for Exeter Pride)

Hamlet

Jack came from a long line of straight men.
He seemed prone to big thoughts in a small town,
How much else was wrong?
If this is what he shouldn’t be,
Then how did he become what’s not allowed
Without any conscious effort?
Did a fairy wave its magic wand?
Did he drink from a well that was cursed by witches?
Was there something odd in the sheep dip?

In the cattle barn, the ill-fitting roof tiles
Shot down solid beams of summer sun
In whose resplendent dust-flecked iridescence he’d dance
And imagine the laser flash and the subtle smile of a similar soul,
Lithe bodies contorting through the big city beats,
A glance of possibility, a look, the promise
Of love fulfilled.

Two years before they’d seen a male goat
Trying to have it off with another male goat
And the men had all laughed and said such things
And he wondered if the goat had been at the sheep dip,
The cursed well, the fairy with her wand,
Or perhaps he’d somehow passed it on, he, Jack,
The same way Janine got a splinter from the flaking paint
Of the combine harvester, the one they had to scrap,
And she had to get a tetanus.

One day, giddy perhaps on the silage,
He’d seen Jason on the neighbouring farm, shirtless,
Herding pigs in the summer sun, he couldn’t look away,
Jason, slapping each pig’s bum, lucky pigs,
He wanted to be with Jason, he wanted Jason’s palm
On his rump, Jason, on whom the gods had bestowed
Floppy blond hair and rippling biceps, ohh, Jason,
It made him feel dizzy, though not as dizzy as he felt
When rotating the crops, his knuckles whitened
As he gripped his binoculars,

Last summer his uncle’s prize ram, Kenneth,
Won first prize in the category Lincolnshire longhorn,
But six months before you wouldn’t have believed it,
Kenneth was a miserable specimen, a shag of a sheep,
Yet nature intervened and he transformed into
The finest woolliest puffiest fluffiest virile and thrusting ram
To ever set hoof in the ring,
Nature intervened and put things right,
And maybe this was just a phrase that he, Jack was going through,
Perhaps there might be a flash of light so blinding as to make
The cocks cock-a-doodle doo and the chickens bakurrrrrp,
And he’ll metamorphose and fall for some winsome lass
Whose coquettish charms will make him forget all about
Jason and his rippling biceps.

And settle down.
And have loads of kids.
And live a life in perpetuity
Hetereonomatively.

The rolling green fields and the warm summer breeze
Cannot calm at all Jack’s perpetual unease,
For places exist where communities thrive
In whose clamorous clasp he’d feel more than alive.
The isolation, the loneliness, the sense of forbidding,
The yearning, the heartache, the perpetual kidding
That the emotions he feels are oddly counterfeit,
A life so subdued will never feel complete.
Real lives are lived in rural parts,
Emotions are felt, the breaking of hearts.
He came from a long line of very straight men
Each generation, again and again,
And all the time came that one nagging thought:
Is he real as a person if his desires are worth nought?

Squidbox

I spent the summer of 2020 getting to know the town of Brixham and its fishing industry, and what that industry meant to the people of this evocative Devon port. Meeting people whose lives and livelihoods depended on the catching of fish, and learning about historic events, wartime exploits, the role of women and the emotional and family effects of such a perilous industry, I wrote a series of poems which were published by Torbay Culture as ‘Squidbox’.

It was a particularly evocative project and one which is close to my heart. As a comedy performance poet, I don’t often get the chance to concentrate on serious matters, and it was a privilege to become part of a community. As a bit of background history, I moved to Devon in 1996 with my parents initially to the fishing port of Brixham, a place which, at the time, I knew very little about.

During the course of the project I met with trawler operators, fishing folk and other people who work in the industry, as well as the curator of Brixham Museum, where I spent time in the archives looking at the role of women, and the Belgian refugees who were welcomed into the town during the Second World War. I also spent time researching events from the First World War and the role that the trawlers played including skirmishes on the high seas with German U-boats. It was fascinating.

One of the more fun days was spending some time aboard the Adele, a small one person trawler operated by Tristan, who told me all about his job, the difficulties and risks, and also the biodiversity and environmental effects of global warming.

On a drizzly, wet and windy day at the start of the winter, I went down to Brixham harbour with film-maker John Tomkins and my producer Clare Parker, and we filmed general scenes of the harbour and myself reading some of the poems from my Squidbox collection. This really was a case of suffering for my art! Wearing two coats, and soaking wet, and with the rain rolling down my neck, I was filmed in a variety of locations around the harbour. The film can be seen here:

Soon after the project finished, Brixham was hit by the tragedy of the sinking of one of its trawlers with the loss of two crew members. I revisited the poems and wrote two new works, which reference the sinking, as well as a third new poem about the natural sea grass environment of Fishcombe Cove.

If you would like to order a copy of Squidbox, you can do so here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox

It’s been a wonderful summer being paid to write poems, which is not something that normally happens. I’d like to thank Torbay Culture for the opportunity, and the Arts Council who provided the funding. It was fascinating learning all about the history and culture of Brixham and the importance that the fishing industry has on the town and the people who live and work there.

Sometimes they don’t come back

Sometimes they don’t come back

And the community
Close knit at best
Comes together.

A friend of a friend
Went to sea
And he never returned
And nor did his mate
And it felt
Like everything
Was closing in.

There’s a statue on the quay,
Man and Boy.
It became a focus
And everyone left tributes.
This town
Has no secrets.

Flames flickered
In the autumn breeze
Under overcast skies.
Floral offerings
Heartfelt outpourings
The town
A shoulder.

And the grief
Never seems to go.
It’s unimaginable.
You can’t even begin.

Souls entrust in each other
That every boat which sales
Carries an extra presence
Acknowledged but never seen.

Because
Sometimes
They don’t come back.

Seaside Soul : A Poem for Paignton

New poem! I performed this a couple of weeks ago at Paignton Palace Theatre and people have been asking to see it online. It’s a love letter to my home town of Paignton. It’s also featured in my new show Yay! The Search for Happiness, and my forthcoming book Yay!, to be published by Burning Eye.

Seaside soul.

This town is not torrid, nor tainted nor brazen,
This tornado of flavours,
Chip shops and chopsticks and packets of Quavers,
Savour its layers and nautical sailors.

Barbers and harbours and car parks and mars bars
A beer at the Pier Inn while peering at the pier thing
A stride and a stroll
But hide from the gulls your hot sausage rolls
It’s the way that we roll
With our seaside soul.

High tide drip dry nick nack paddywhack
Picnic and a packamac
Promenade flapjack
Sand in your rucksack
Sand in your flapjack
Sand in your arsecrack
Let’s go to the pub.

Cinema chick flicks
Candy floss, pick n mix
Fish n chips, kiss me quick
Think I feel sick!

Ring road surf shack seaweed stink
Caravan holiday
It’s worse than you think
Dodgy dodgy plumbing and a blocked up sink.
Big bands and jazz hands, gleaming sands and
One night stands
You probably will not understand
It’s ain’t no hole
With your seaside soul.

Amusements, bemusement,
Soup of the day
The all day breakfast
Only served till midday
Have you paid and displayed?
Grab your bucket and spade!
You’ll never be dismayed
Memories fade
But your heart will always stay.

This frisky town this sea breezy town
This cream tea scene of green seas and freezing dips
Donkey rides and cheesy chips
Ice cream by the bowl
We’ve got seaside soul.

Dancing like lovers on the prom in the rain
The hot pulse of life adding fire to my brain
The legs of the pier stride deep in the brine
Let’s dance once more time, say you’ll be mine
We laugh and we grin and we howl at the ships
The night is afire and it smells just like chips
You bend for a kiss like a child with a doll
You asked what’s for dinner, I said, seaside soul.

To the ghost ships

An ode to the ghost ships

Through the mists of a calamity
In a year we never asked for,
The long arm of our shoreline bay
Offered you anchorage at first only
For commercial reasons.

Yet your streamlined sleek and tower block decks
Formed a fleet of imaginary towns,
Dark horizon Christmas trees with an
Imaginary population, new neighbours.

In a world of sudden restrictions you became
A local secret, an impossibility of the soul,
A solace as onerous as the mournful horns
Adding an extra solemnity for remembrance,

Seeing out this accursed year, or those
Poor fishermen who would never return.
We can sing sweet lullabies, dainty and plaintive
Though none can compare to your industrial symphony,

A blast of the horn as unsubtle as anything!
On foggy mornings you layer the imagination,
Ethereal in the gloom your hulking gross tonnage
A link to a world beyond immediate geography,
Ghost ships, haunting the present with voyages past.

Image Ian Williams

Squidbox – The Video

On a drizzly, wet and windy day the week before last, I went down to Brixham harbour with film-maker John Tomkins and my producer Clare Parker, and we filmed general scenes of the harbour and myself reading some of the poems from my Squidbox collection. This really was a case of suffering for my art! Wearing two coats, and soaking wet, and with the rain rolling down my neck, I was filmed in a variety of locations around the harbour. Just another crazy poetry adventure!

It’s been a wonderful summer being paid to write poems, which is not something that normally happens. I’d like to thank Torbay Culture for the opportunity, and the Arts Council who provided the funding. It was fascinating learning all about the history and culture of Brixham and the importance that the fishing industry has on the town and the people who live and work there.

Here’s the video! I hope you enjoy it.

You can order a copy of the book here https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox

Squidbox

Comedy performance poet Robert Garnham spent the summer of 2020 getting to know the town of Brixham and its fishing industry, and what that industry meant to the people of this evocative Devon port. Meeting people whose lives and livelihoods depended on the catching of fish, and learning about historic events, Robert used his trademark humour to draw out the unique character of an iconic town.