An Introvert’s History of Performing
So a colleague from work was chatting to me the other day.
‘I’ve seen your act’, she said. ‘You become a completely different person when you’re on stage. In fact, you seem to be much more awake’.
I didn’t know if this was a compliment or not.
And I remember back in 1996, when I first moved down to Devon with my parents from Surrey, and then surprising them with the announcement that I’d decided to take acting lessons at a night school run in a local theatre.
‘I suppose this means that you’ll want to grow your hair long’, my Dad replied.
(Mind you, hair length was always a touchy subject with my father. He would complain about the students at the local college with their long hair and he would declare that everyone should have the same hairstyle. Dad had gone bald in his mid twenties).
So it really does come as a surprise when people discover that I am a comedy performance poet. It’s like having a secret double life. It’s not like I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but I probably would preface the boo with ‘I hope you don’t mind, but . .’, before I said it. If anything, my parents had always taught me to be polite.
‘Hang on a minute. Exactly why are you going to Milton Keynes next week?’, someone might ask.
‘I perform comedy poetry. That’s what I do’.
‘You? Really? But you’ve never said anything funny’.
To which I might have responded with, yes I do, and sometimes it rhymes, but he was quite right, I never say anything funny, and by the time I’ve thought of such a witty comeback, they’ve long gone.
I’m not the most outgoing person. I don’t go out much and I probably have around two or three friends. I’m not a big drinker and I hardly ever go to pubs. And yet in spite of all this, I’ve managed to make something of a career as a comedy poet who stands on stage and does outlandish things and makes people laugh. How on earth did this happen, and how did it come about?
Quite by accident around twelve years ago, I started performing comedy poetry. I went along to a gig and I really liked the atmosphere and the people, and I asked the host whether it would be possible to come along and read some poems. Id always written comedy poems, only I’d never really shown any of them to other people. I still don’t know why I decided to do this, and I remember being incredibly nervous in the days before, but the night itself went well and people seemed to laugh at the right moments. After a while, people started inviting me to other gigs in other parts of the country and before long, I was zipping about all over the place to strange and erotic places like Lancaster and Swindon.
I was just as surprised as anyone else. Looking back, I didn’t think it would ever be possible that I’d have the ‘guts’ to stand up in front of a group of people.
For a start, I’ve always been what you might call an introvert and it’s probably still the same now. Part of working in the arts is having the confidence to put yourself forward for opportunities, and this is still an area where I struggle. I’ve never applied for funding or any other kind of sponsorship because, well, that’s not the sort of thing you do, is it? I hardly ever apply for big gigs or showcases, either. If someone asks, that’s great, and it makes me really happy for the rest of the day. But the idea of asking them gives me the willies.
Another reason is my dyslexia. I just can’t handle all the forms and the paperwork and the incredibly complicated questions using big long words like community stakeholder engagement or financial budgetary management. My mind just fizzes and pops and nothing makes sense. I’ve tried to get funding on numerous occasions, like the week or so I spent filling out an Arts Council form to apply for a development grant, only for them to immediately reject it because the form I’d used was for project grants.
I’m also really bad at self-promotion. I think the default setting of a comedy poet is to downplay one’s achievements. It doesn’t seem natural to talk about one’s successes, particularly if you’re having difficulty thinking of any to begin with. A friend of mine, who works in the arts in the theatre side of things, said, ‘Just make it up. They won't check’, but that would make me feel very nervous.
And it’s not just me. When I put on a poetry night in Torquay and asked a comedy performance poet to headline, I was overjoyed when they said yes. I asked them to send me some publicity material and a blurb, and the blurb they sent was so self-deprecating that I don’t think anyone would have bothered coming along if I’d used it.
‘X performs poems, badly. A lot of his friends have told him to pack it all in. None of them have any literary worth. He’s won slams in places like London and Edinburgh, but only because no-one else turned up’.
The version of me who appears on stage is nothing like the version of me who exists 99% of the time. The persona I’ve created is just that. I don’t even wear the same sort of clothes on a day to day basis. And this is interesting, because for the 99% of the time that I’m not performing, the very idea of it also gives me the willies. It’s not my natural environment. Again the thought comes to mind that this is not the sort of thing that should be happening to someone like me!
Yet one or two people have said that there are parallels between the stage ‘Robert Garnham’, and Robert Garnham the human being. Someone once said that they kind of liked my ‘vulnerability’, and my sense of being ‘ever so slightly nervous’. Yet typically, them saying this made me even more nervous! Nevertheless, it’s rather comforting to me to know that there aren’t too many differences between the two different sides of my personality.
Social media creates avatars, versions of ourselves that we want the world to see. I see poets and comedians in the real world acting more or less the same as the version of themselves that appears on stage, and to this day it makes me wonder where they find the energy. My other little rule is that I never mention my comedic poetic adventures in ‘real life ‘. I’ve never shown any of my friends any of my books or videos, and frankly, if I did, I’d feel very embarrassed indeed, and as for my family, well, I've never even mentioned it to them at all. For a start, nobody is interested. It’s like living a bizarre double life, like some kind of poetic super hero.
But that’s what makes it so amazing. Right at this moment, reading this, I wonder how on earth I can possibly stand in front of strangers and not completely clam up. I go through a comprehensive sequence of preparation methods before I perform, including putting on a costume, doing my hair, changing my glasses, lying on the floor, doing breathing exercises, and then listening to very loud music. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a natural performer! I still get very nervous indeed.
Indeed, people ask me about the nerves, and I reply that perhaps it’s good that I’m so nervous. It means that I’m concentrating on what I do, and that kind of allows me to step away from the introverted version of myself. Nerves are a sign, perhaps, that I care about what I do. It still comes as a surprise, though.
Often, I’ll be on a bus, or doing my laundry, or walking home from work, and I’ll think of what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved, and it really makes me smile. Sure, it feels like it’s been done by someone else, but it’s a person I know really very well. This last year I’ve worked very hard on my performance and next I need to start working on being a bit more forthcoming and what my dad would describe as ‘pushy’. I’m like the kid in the corner who wants to join in but is too scared of the big kids.
I was chatting about this to another friend, who’s a poet, and she reckons it might be a class thing. I don’t have that middle class sense of entitlement that some of the bigger names might have, nor do I have the confidence that I have a voice that should be heard. I take great comfort in those who are naturally quiet, who seem to have made a successful career, and have done so through a mix of intelligence and luck, and I think, oh, I think, wow, I, too, have been really lucky!
Tag Archives: Devon
Torquay 2, The Other Team 2
Torquay 2 Woking 2
Three hundred or so low guttural individual voices
Combine into a cohesive whole, a chorus of
Feral anticipation as custard coloured titans
Skip on to the pitch, the first among them kind of
Punches limply through a paper hoop
Emblazoned with their team sponsor's logo,
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
Three half-hearted palm slaps and then the paper gives way,
These athletic specimens of masculinity and matching socks,
Shiny blue polyester shorts a-gleam under the spotlights,
Back slaps and star jumps, half-hearted jogging,
While the opposing team, who must have had an
Awfully long bus ride, kind of slouch on to the field,
Mooching along the sides of the pitch like slugs around lettuce.
I'd brought a book to read assuming there would be seats.
Instead I was pressed up against the lanky frame of an
Ever so friendly thought unusually potty-mouthed
A rote of a lad who replica custard coloured shirt
Had last year's sponsor, McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd.,
And who suggested at top column that the home team
Might like to consider breaking the fucking legs of the opposition.
Someone then tried to start a chant going,
'Oh we do like to beat them beside the seaside!
We're gonna beat you by two or three!'
But it kind of got drowned out
To a chant of 'Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Captain Ollie's got great hair!'
I have come with a friend who's there for the football
But also to show me the football and he
Made a kind of grimace when I said I'd brought a book.
The home team did some warm up exercises.
'They're dancing!' I said, 'it's all a bit camp, isn't it?'
Number 32 is just my type, bleach blond hair, stubble,
Long legs and snake hips.
'Coooo-eeeee! Over here! Yoooo-hooooo!'
My pal said, 'He's on loan from Bournemouth'.
I said, 'That's okay, I'd give him back in one piece'.
The stadium announcer extols the virtues of both teams
And attests to the veracity of
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
And the game begins, number 32s elegant fingers splayed
As he dribbles the ball, like he's a ballet dancer,
Or a gymnast balancing on a beam, though even
The home team audience yells that he's a useless
Time wasting tossbag who gets the ball and does fuck all,
Go back to Bournemouth you useless waste of space.
He's got lovely eyes.
The ground rumbles and thuds as they race from one end
To the other, kicking up clods of grass and winning
The applause of the audience who shout encouragement,
These lads in custard who aim at the goal at the other end,
Someone misses a sitter, someone else scuffs it,
And then the ball goes in the corner and two opposing players
Prance and dance around it like Torville and Dean.
My eyes kind of wander off to the other side
Where twenty or so or the away team supporters chirrup
And you can just make out the faded lettering of
Last years sponsor showing through under a new coat of paint,
McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd. is better than any competition.
Only the word 'tit' is still showing.
My pal has already told me in advance
The skill of number 10, whose speciality is
Less the sublime and precocious nature of his craft,
More his knack for falling over at just the right moment,
Now he goes down like a sack of spuds and the
Audience erupts, apparently this is a good thing,
He's allowed to aim a ball at the keeper and boom,
In it goes, I almost spill my cup of tea
As I'm jostled and the lad next to me flings
His arms around my neck, jumps up and down, the
Tea oscillates as I breathe in his Lynx Africa antiperspirant,
I must say I enjoy it a lot.
And now I want number 10 to fall over again.
Wouldn't you know it, he does, never fails to disappoint,
Fortune smiles twice in the low setting sun,
Achilles in his death throes, Icarus mid melt,
Our hero is downfallen and rolling in the mud like a hippo,
The ref's cheek bones prominent as his blows his whistle.
Boom, scores! The audience is enraptured once again,
Another clingy embrace of Lynx Africa,
I'm a cuppa carrying eucalyptus and he's my own personal koala,
Number 32 looks down wistfully as if jealous, I hope,
Oh, I hope, of me and my new found tame delinquent
Who sips a surreptitious beer from a paper bag and
Chinks against my half spilled Darjeeling, cheers!
Caught up in the joy of the moment I attempt to start a chant
Based on the third movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony
But it doesn't take hold.
Really, I'm only here for my pal who's brought me along.
This is his culture and I'm an interloper.
But I want to show that I understand life
Beyond the cliche, broaden my mind and experience
Every nuance of our shared cultural history.
'We're winning ', he says during the interval
As we queue for pies sold from a shed
Next to the unoccupied press box.
'Well, they are', I point out, 'We're just watching'.
I'm taking him to a drag show next weekend.
And then the announcer wants us all to sing happy birthday
For Little Liam, whose favourite player is number ten.
And Little Jimmy, whose favourite player is number ten,
And Little Jack, whose favourite player is number ten,
And he reminds us that we can all vote for the
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost
Man of the Match, which is usually won by number ten.
'I'd like to vote for number 32', I say, perhaps too loudly,
And everyone around me laughs and says how funny,
They love my sense of humour.
Two more goals soon after the interval.
Perhaps the audience has tired itself out,
I'm the only one who seems excited, and my new friend
In the McClintock shirt hardly seems inclined at all
To repeat his usual celebratory hijinx, no doubt
Enervated by his previous exertions and the two litre bottle of cider
Stuffed down the front of his trackie bottoms,
And when the ref calls a halt to the show I pat
My pal on the back and ask whether four nil in some kind
Of club record.
It was two all, he says, they switched ends.
Why didn't the announcer explain this
Before I got excited over nothing?
Oh, this communal kickabout, this colossal crowd clapping
This unified oneness this matey definitely not homoerotic bonding,
This celebration of the hunter's skill this
All-encompassing rough and tumble this slippery sport a spurt
With spurious curiosities this worship of the physical
This proof of prayer this spectacle this weird excuse
To suddenly bellow 'Nice tackle!' and no one bats an eyelid
This playing out of certain urges but would they ever let me
Join in? No, probably not, and number ten has got mud all over him.
What did you think?, my pal asks
As we file like clocked off factory workers
Into the adjacent streets, not that he's interested really,
Immediately he then adds, shall we get some chips?
I think of number 32
In the dressing room.
Squidbox @ Palace Theatre, Paignton: Poems and an Essay about the Project working with Brixham Fishermen
- Homecoming (p63)
You know, things were jogging along just fine and the future looked incredibly exciting. I’d spent most of 2019 on the road, not only with the Hammer and Tongue tour to Hackney, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Southampton, but I’d taken my show Spout to Barnstaple, Reading, Guildford, Edinburgh and Petersfield, and I’d also performed headline sets in Newcastle, Milton Keynes, London, Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and even the Eden Project, where I’d actually performed in the main dome itself surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, before spending the night in a shipping container which had been transformed into a hotel room. Added to this the corporate work I’d been doing for a certain building society, and my December I was absolutely burned out. I decided to take three months off from performing.
And you’ll never guess what happened next.
I’d been looking forward to 2020. I had gigs booked in faraway places and I was planning a new show, Yay!: The Search for Happiness, which would be something of a departure and I was excited about the whole process of putting it together. If 2019 had been amazing, I was sure that 2020 would be even better, the momentum having built up, but the international pandemic stopped everything in its tracks and all of a sudden, the whole world narrowed down to just my small flat in an out of season seaside town.
I wasn’t alone in this, of course. I mean, obviously I was alone in my small flat, but I wasn’t the only performer for whom the future had suddenly turned to mush. Up and down the country, and throughout the world, singers, artists, performers of all types suddenly found themselves without a livelihood and a very bleak future. In a way I felt lucky that I only had myself to look after, and no mortgage, but on the other hand, things would be tough.
I tried to make the best of it. I launched into online gigs. I made videos. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I started rehearsing and learning the new show. But the one thing that didn’t happen was that I was making any money.
So, things weren’t entirely ideal. But then something wonderful did happen. Torbay Council were looking for artists to pay to do create local works in order to help them recover from the financial hardship of the pandemic situation, and add colour to the local artistic landscape. I applied, with the vague idea of writing about a subject of which I knew very little, yet was a big part of the local culture. I went through several ideas, from hotel workers to those involved in the holiday industry, until it struck me that, in spite of having a wonderful relationship with the town of Brixham, I’d never actually learned much about its fishing industry.
- The Trawler Basin (p10)
I sent an email to the Torbay Culture organisation, which was allocating funds, detailing an idea I had to write poetry about the Brixham fishing industry. It would be a strange departure for an LGBT comedy performance poet, but I was looking forward to embarking on a new project, and more than anything else, I was looking forward to earning some money.
Amazingly, they said yes. They gave me a timetable of when things should be accomplished, and then assigned me a producer, who would put me in touch with various people within the fishing industry. And for the first time in a very long while, I felt like a proper artist.
All I had to do was get started.
I didn’t know the first thing about the fishing industry. I knew that the fishing port in Brixham was one of the largest in the UK and that it had been there since god know’s when. My producer was a wonderful person called Clare with whom I had a couple of Zoom meetings and she gave me a few pointers of where to start. The harbour master? The fish market? Perhaps I should write to one of the trawler companies and see if I could interview one of their skippers. I was also interested in the ecological side of the business and how it affects the local ecosystem. But most of all I was glad to be involved in a project which took me way out of my comfort zone and my usual oeuvre of poems about badgers and dentists.
By the marvels of social media I managed to get in contact with the skipper of a trawler. Indeed, he was the only person who worked on the trawler. Officially, it was the smallest trawler in the Brixham fleet, yet Tristan managed to go out every single day and get his catch and then sell it straight from his boat on the harbour side. As a result he had made quite a good living over the last couple of years and slowly built up a reputation for the quality of his fish.
We exchanged a couple of messages and he invited me to come down to the harbour and interview him aboard his boat, the Adela.
This was my official first foray into the world of reportage and I must admit I did not exactly cut a very athletic figure as I clambered from the quay on to his vessel. I’m sure there have been less graceful entrances into the trawling business, but the damn boat kept going up and down on a swell and I kind of managed it by kneeling on the edge of the vessel and kind of falling sideways.
Tristan gave me a quick tour of his boat and then invited me into the cabin where we had a chat about what he did.
‘I started out on the bigger trawlers’, he explained. ‘Several of us going out for days at a time.’
‘Did you get seasick?’
I’d once caught a catamaran from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and I’d spent the whole journey honking up.
‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Really badly, for the first six months, every single day I was so ill you wouldn’t believe it. But you know what? I hid it from the rest of the crew. I tried to be all tough and manly about it, but I would find a space where they couldn’t see me and up it would all come’.
The cabin of the boat was decorated with photographs of his family and he explained that the boat was named after his daughter. I then turned the chat to what it was that he caught in his nets.
‘Anything with eyes and an arsehole’, he replied.
We both had a good laugh about that and he said I was welcome to use it in one of my poems.
‘Seriously, though, the impact of climate change is affecting the types of fish that I can catch. Ordinarily, you’d be assured of catching certain species at certain times of the year. But now, it’s all over the place. Fish which rely on warmer waters are spending more and more time further north. And this affects what I can sell on the quay when I return. Most of my customers are restaurants and hotels and what they put in their menus depends on what I can catch while I’m out’.
I asked him where he fishes.
‘That’s a secret’, he replied. ‘I can’t tell you, because I want to keep these places to myself. But let’s just say, some mornings the entire Brixham fleet leaves together, and they all go one way, and I go the other. I have my methods’.
We had a great time chatting and I think I was more tense than he was about it. Indeed, he seemed very media savvy, which was a relief, and the one thing I was worried about was that I would write all these notes and then not be able to understand my own handwriting.
Once we’d done, I clambered off the craft with all the grace of a hippopotamus, then went to the bus stop and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could before I forgot anything.
But I was on a high, because this was my first ever bit of serious community engagement. Perhaps, I thought, people might start to see me as a proper poet after all!
- Solo Skipper (p18)
- Storm (p21)
One of the things I looked into, with the help of Clare, my producer, was the history of Brixham.
Clare arranged for me to spend a day at Brixham Museum, poking through their archives and chatting to the curator. I was assigned a desk in the stores and the curator brought me files, folders and newspaper cuttings about the fishing industry, and we chatted about the Fishawkers.
The Fishawkers were a band of fishermen’s wives who ran the town while their husbands were out at sea in the 1880s. They would congregate on the quayside and bid on the fish that the fishing boats brought back. As this was conducted in the form of a traditional auction, the winning bidders were usually the ones who had the loudest voices and the Fishawkers had perfected the technique. They weren’t at all averse to using a bit of physical intimidation to make sure that they bought the best fish, which they would then ‘hawk’ from door to door in barrels. The museum provided me with plenty of newspaper accounts of Fishawkers brawling in the alleyways and streets of Brixham, and one in particular who was hauled up before the local judge for a breach of the peace and was then fined extra for her cheekiness in court. The judge had asked her if she had anything to say, and she’d replied, ‘I’ve got a bit of extra money here, guv, if you’d like to put it towards my next misdemeanour’, or words to that effect.
The thing about the Fishawkers was that they were officially breaking the law. They weren’t allowed to bid on fish and then sell them around the town. As a group, they appealed this law and won and as a result struck something of a minor triumph in the advance of women’s rights at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.
I also read about the role that the Brixham trawlers played in the First World War, when the fleet was attacked by a German U-boat, the captain of whom demanded he board each vessel and rob their kitchens of food and cooking utensils. I guess such things were hard to come by when working as a submariner. But the most stirring story was that of the work the town did to accommodate refugees from the Second World War. Belgians from the fishing towns on the North Sea ferried across the Channel to Brixham, having forged friendships during peaceful times with visiting Brixham fishermen. And as a the Nazis moved in, they piled all of their belongings, family members, furniture and hopes and dreams aboard their fishing boats and made the journey. In such a way, welcomed by the local townspeople, Brixham became known as ‘Little Ostend’, and the Belgians became a part of the town’s culture and community, getting jobs in shops and on farms, marrying locals and helping with the war effort. When the war ended, quite a few stayed behind. The rest left in a fleet of buses in order to make the return journey, the whole town coming out to wave them off.
And now here I was, at a time of Lockdown and pandemic restrictions, reading about their exploits in the confines of the museum store room, feeling the swirl of history around me and the odd idea that really, no matter what we all go through, we are just the continuation of something much bigger. Which was a pretty profound thought for a comedy performance poet.
- Fishawkers (p45)
- Little Ostend (p47)
Clare suggested I look at the environmental aspect of the fishing industry. Bizarrely, a couple of months earlier I’d done a couple of online education courses, once it became obvious that lockdown was happening and that I’d be indoors for pretty much the foreseeable future. The two courses I did were both about as distinct from each other as I could manage. The first was a study of the Icelandic Sagas, delivered by the University of Reykjavik, and sure, it gave me one or two ideas for poems and short stories, but I took the course more out of interest. The second was delivered by the University of Queensland in Australia, and it was all about the coastal ecosystem, with special emphasis on coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that an area of Brixham just off the coast was home to a very important patch of seagrass. This was now something I could speak about with a small degree of prior knowledge, of how seagrass is a vital piece of the marine ecosystem in that it acts as a nursery for younger fish and the next generation of fish stocks. Not only that, but seahorses were a feature of the seagrass environment, and I’d always felt a strange kinship with seahorses. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the flippers.
- Seagrasses (p50)
During the time I was working on the Brixham project, I was also planning my new Edinburgh fringe show for this year. And as you can tell from the following extract, the project certainly had an influence!
- Poet In Residence
The crew soon grew tired of my constant questions . .
- Shakka Lakka Boom
At night, the captain regailed us with tall tales from a life spent on the ocean.
- Captain and the Sea Monster
Wouldn’t you know, the weather was awful. I’d never seen such rain. I wore my usual ‘performance’ costume, but due to the intense and very persistent deluge, I wore a large raincoat over the top of them, and then a plastic mac over that, too. I was more worried about the camera and the microphone that I was wearing, but John and Clare kept themselves very dry while I stood on the quay with the rain rolling down my neck, performing to the camera. Worse still, the persistent rain flattened my traditional gelled, spiked hairstyle flat to my face, and the gel began to drip into my eyes. The book became a sodden mulch in my hands. In fact, it all reminded me of flyering in Edinburgh.
And thus, the Squidbox project finished with something of a damp squib. But it had brought me closer to the town, and for the first time I felt truly a part of the local community. The poems made their way out into the world and I was asked to perform some of them at Brixham’s Museum during their inaugural poetry festival in the spring. And sadly, when a Brixham trawler sank off the coast of Sussex that winter, the poem We are Brixham featured on the Devon News website. Indeed, the whole tragedy affected me not only that I’d spent the summer with the trawler crews, and we’d chatted about the potential for danger, but also because one of those who died had been a friend of a friend and I’d hoped to interview him at some point, though never got around to it.
Looking back now, the project seems a very interesting diversion. Once Squidbox was done, I was able to concentrate on the next solo show, and I incorporated a couple of the poems into the narrative, the storyline of which poked gentle fun at the whole process. By the time I’d finished the project, I understood that I certainly had the creative abilities to engage myself in something different, and this made me kind of fearless when it came to choosing a new project. But most of all, it demonstrated that no matter where we are and who we are, we are tied to the history, community and environment in which we are placed, and this kind of made me feel a little better about the world itself.
- We are Brixham (p62)
You can watch a video of some of these poems, recording in the pouring rain in Brixham, right here:
You can buy the book Squidbox here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox
Whimsy in the Woods Episode Six
In this weeks mini podcast, Robert is waiting for a bus, and he performs a poem about a house having both an upstairs and a downstairs loo.
Whimsy in the Woods Podcast Episode Three
In today’s episode Robert goes along the beach in Paignton for a walk next to the sea and performs two poems. One of them is about a chap called Bill, who just wants to make some noise. The other is about a man who sees a ghost, ooooo!
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.
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,
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
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)
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
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?
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.
Here’s a new poem from my forthcoming collection Yay!, due to be published by Burning Eye in May 2021.
I had so much fun making this video! I hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think.