The Office of Insignificant Events

I’ve started going through some of the hundreds of short stories I wrote over the years. I stopped writing them around ten years ago when I began performing poetry instead. I’m still really proud of them and I hope you’ll find them entertaining!

Here’s one.

https://soundcloud.com/robertdgarnham/the-office-of-insignificant

Branching out

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

Branching Out

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

Robert Garnham and Shadow Factory present : In the Glare of the Neon Yak

Jazz rock band Shadow Factory have joined forces with performance poet Robert Garnham to create an unforgettable show which marries music to spoken word. Based on Robert’s Edinburgh show from 2018, In the Glare of the Neon Yak will be debuted at the Barrel House in Totnes on October 12th.

‘I first heard a jazz band in Totnes called Shadow Factory a couple of years ago’, Robert Garnham explains, ‘and I was immediately hooked by their style, their experimentation, their reinterpretation of classic songs and by their wonderful original material. They sound absolutely amazing and they are lovely people.

‘So I was completely blown away when they asked if their could write some original music for my show from last year, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, with a view to a live performance’.

The band has been rehearsing over the last couple of months and creating original music for the show, which they describe as ‘a fantastic journey of poetry and music with a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, reaching a magical destination’.

According to Robert Garnham, ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a riproaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tight rope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F? Come along to the Barrel House and find out!’

Tickets are £6 and can be purchased at https://www.totnespulse.co.uk/product/in-the-glare-of-the-neon-yak/

Tickets can also be purchased on the night. Doors open 7pm.

You can find out more about Shadow Factory at http://www.shadowfactory.co.uk/

You can find out more about Robert Garnham at https://robertdgarnham.wordpress.com/

o

In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

Introduction: The setting of the beginning of Neon Yak is obviously based on London Paddington, particularly the sleeper service, though for some reason this one is going north, to Edinburgh and further. I once caught the sleeper service to Paddington, but found that it was named erroneously. Because sleep is the one thing that didn’t happen. Ten years ago I took the train from one side of Canada to the other and the magic has always stayed with me. But Canadian trains are different, your bed travels in the direction of the train, not oblong to it, and you don’t fall off your bed as it goes around a corner.

The idea of Neon Yak came on a crowded train from Edinburgh to Devon. I was standing in the vestibule with lots of other people for part of the journey and I thought, hmm, I should write a show about the different people here, and call it Vestibule Dreams. The show started to mutate when I saw that I could create connections between all the different characters.

Tony the Train Manager : Tony is based on a real person. A van driver who I knew. He had the same gruff voice and West Country accent. He would make up such amazing stories about the things he’d seen that day. ‘Hailstones the size of yer fist’, was one frequent story. He was a bizarre gentleman who had a weird phobia of Cornishware bowls, you know the kind, with the blue and white stripes.

The Circus of Mediocrity: When I was a teenager I wrote a novel. It wasn’t very good, but it was set at a circus. At the time I wanted to be regarded as a serious writer, so I wrote this psychological novel about a circus where weird things were happening. The idea stayed with me and sprang into mind when I decided that the characters in the train should be members of a circus. Only it would be a hopeless, raggedy, run down Circus. The ring master is clearly drunk and very fed up.

Jacques : Jacques was the main love interest in the novel mentioned above. The narrator ran away to the circus and slept in the wardrobe caravan with Jacques as his room mate, among all the sequin costumes and the smell of damp. Jacques was a bit of a prima Donna. This is the character that I had in mind when I was writing Jacques’ lines in the show. Young, excellent, flawed, slightly self indulgent.

So Jacques gets turned on by clowns. I expect this is a real thing. Weirdly I’ve had people ask me, having watched the show, whether I get turned on my clowns. No, I don’t. And they always look a bit startled. As if they wished they hadn’t asked. Mind you, if you look at a list of the people I’ve dated, you’ll see plenty of clowns. Sometimes, these things only become obvious in retrospect.

Molly : Ah, Molly. Molly is based on a real person. She’s in her late eighties and she’s still obsessed with sex. She’s a wonderful person. And yes, she actually did stand in her back garden at night and see the bombs falling on Bristol during the Second World War. I have told her that she is a character in my show and she has no interest in it whatsoever, bless her. Nothing fazes her. Amazingly, she still goes swimming in the sea when it’s warm enough.

Jennifer : Jennifer is also based on a real person. During the train ride across Canada I became friends with a lady called Jennifer, who was travelling for work but took the train because she was afraid of flying. Being the middle of winter, we decided one night that we would try and see the northern lights as the train passed across the prairies of central Canada. Jennifer and I lay on the floor of one of the carriages and looked out through the windows, up at the stars and the satellites and the aircraft, and the lights of a distant city burned on the horizon, and it could well have been the most romantic night of my life had there been any physical attraction. We didn’t see the northern lights, but she did point out the W of Cassiopeia, which has forever reminded me of her. This is alluded too later on in the section with Adam. The next day she got off the train at Edmonton and I said bye to her in the station, and wrote down my email address. I never did hear from her.

Is this all a dream? : The bit in the middle is just music and me faffing around with a toy train. It felt weird going to a shop and buying a toy train. This section was put in to give me a rest as by now I’d been talking for forty minutes, and I thought it would also give the audience a rest from listening to me talking.

Adam : There are aspects of Jennifer in Adam, too. But he’s a physical kind of person, in my imagination, an alpha male tough guy who gets what he wants and acts as a bit of a bully, but also happens to be a clown. I don’t know why Jacques should love him so. The episode in the toilet cubicle is clearly going to be just a one night stand, a momentary diversion from life, a transaction which will soon be forgotten, yet the narrator clearly thinks that this is the start of a beautiful relationship. It’s doomed, he’s doomed, we are all doomed!

I gave my phone to a young lady called Jennifer : This very short line draws together all of the story, and it only came to me after I’d written the first few drafts. In a moment which I can still remember, I scrawled it down and then a big smile came to me as I realised how clever I’d been.

The Neon Yak: So what’s the Neon Yak? I based it on the idea of Herne the Hunter. Herne, part man part deer, is a mythical figure from the forests around Windsor and north west Surrey, where I grew up. A glimpse of Herne was meant to herald a time of uncertainly. When I was a kid I would go on cub camps into the woods and I remember one of the cubs was particularly spooked and certain that we would all be haunted by Herne the Hunter. It didn’t help matters that, for some reason, the legend was also crow barred into the TV adaptation of Robin Hood, at the time riding high in the ratings in the early 1980s.

Coming from Surrey, woodland landscapes have always been important to me, particularly those around Woking, which are deep and dense and downright spooky. The idea of a Herne-like phantom, but kind of an opposite to Herne, came to me during the writing process, a glimpse of whom signals that things will be better. It’s a very visual imagining.

The narrator : Is the narrator me? I’ve certainly travelled a lot these last few years, and caught lots of trains. And yes, I’ve often felt like a Poundland Michael Palin. Looking at my writing, it’s amazing how much of it takes place on trains, planes, and other forms of transport, even cargo ships and space capsules. Perhaps the whole show is a psychological cry for help, an admission that there’s something indefineable that I’m looking for, that I just need to escape . . .

Performing this show has been a wonderful experience, and every time I do, it feels like the characters have become friends, people in whose company I feel totally at ease. Which has never really happened before. It seems to draw together so much from my life. I just wonder what I will think of this show in future years.

On being busy and loving it! (London and Milton Keynes)

Well, haven’t I been busy lately? A couple of years ago I really couldn’t take any more travelling and I kind of curtailed travelling around to gigs and things, mostly because of the day job and the logistics involved in trying to get to places far and wide. It all became something of a trial, until I found myself in a position where I was having to cancel gigs at the last moment due to work and the sheer impossibility of getting to them.

This year has brought a new philosophy to what I do, the idea that I am only doing gigs where everything is planned out in advance and that I might enjoy them and really not have to worry about anything. My thinking now is that I don’t really have anything to prove. I’ve hit all of the targets I had when I first started spoken word, and anything which happens now is a bonus. Plus there’s the added excitement of being very comfortable now with my performances and my material. Of course, it could all go fits up at any moment.

The last two months have been very busy for me. I’ve been zipping around the country like a mad thing, guesting at various events and taking my tea based poetry show to various fringes and festivals. Not only Edinburgh, but then immediately afterwards a gig in Hampshire, then. Devon, then up to London for some filming, back to Devon, then up to Milton Keynes for a gig. Next week I’m in Newcastle and then I’ve got a gig in Cornwall. If I had an agent they would probably have been fired by now!

Sunday was huge fun. I went up on Saturday night and stayed at the cheapest hotel I could find in Woking. It’s a place I’ve stayed in before, and amazingly I had the exact same room I’d had the night I performed in Hampshire. The streets of Woking were busy and it kind of reminded me of the Edinburgh fringe, except nobody wanted to go and see a show and I didn’t have to flier. My room had all the equipment necessary for making a late night cup of tea, except for a kettle. The lady in reception apologised profusely. They were out of kettles, and someone must have purloined it and nobody had noticed. It didn’t matter, it was late and I was very tired.

The next day I went up to London and met up with Peter Hayhoe of the Muddy Feet poetry YouTube channel. I am a big admirer of their output and I have had a couple of poems videod by them in the past. We met at Canada Water and he drove me out to Barking, where the filming studio was on an industrial estate. The whole process was made somewhat harder by the fact that a rap video was being filmed in the studio next door, so there was significant sound bleed, in fact it reminded me again of the Edinburgh fringe. Nevertheless, we did some filming and the whole experience was very enjoyable.

From the industrial estate, I caught the bus to Barking, the overground to Liverpool Street, the underground to Paddington, the train to Newton Abbot, and then the bus to Brixham where I spent the night at my mothers. It took seven hours to get home.

Two days later and I caught a train back to London, and then up to Milton Keynes. Scribal Gathering is a gig I’ve wanted to do again for some time, having performed there five or six years ago. I was picked up from the hotel by a man holding a large sign which read, ‘Robert Garnham, Professor of Whimsy’, which I found most amusing, and we drove out to the venue in Stony Stratford. And wow, what an amazing gig it was, a variety of music, comedy, storytelling and poetry, and the audience really did seem to like what I did. A performer would do anything for such a response, and to be honest it made me feel invincible, if only for a few minutes. I met some lonely people, too, and they let me keep one of the posters from the wall advertising the gig.

At such times I really do get a case of imposter syndrome. Before a gig, I tell myself that I’m really not worthy of headlining, reasoning that I really have no right to come along and profess to be so good at spoken word as to deserve such a slot. And afterwards, I always think that I’ve been somewhat mistaken and that it didn’t go as well as I’d thought. But at the time of performing, I felt absolutely amazing, and perhaps that’s why I travelled there in the first place.

So the gigs seem to fizzle out mid October and I’m looking forward to a bit of a rest. I’ve got a very special performance coming up of my show from last year, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, with the Totnes jazz rock band Shadow Factory, and that’s taking all of my energies at the moment. As I caught the train back from London to Devon today, I listened to various recordings and tried to run through the lines in my head.

I know that eventually these gigs and opportunities and excuses for zipping around the country will finish and I’ll be left with just the memories, and I’m okay with that. It’s the accumulation of memories which makes life worthwhile and I’m glad I’ve sorted out my mind to a point in which this is the foremost consideration. Each day is an adventure at the moment. And the next stop is Newcastle!

On the mutation of performance poetry into spoken word, and the resulting slow death of whimsy.

Reading Pete Bearder’s wonderful book on the history of spoken word, and listening to the Poet Waffle podcast in which Daniel Cockrill interviewed Jonny Fluffypunk, both spent time lamented that the age of the experimental cabaret performance poet seemed to have passed. A movement in which the term performance poetry seems to encompass everything from naked juggling to indoor fireworks, a time in which the performance of poetry was tied in with either physical prowess and spectacle, or the creation of a separate persona, a poetry character. I’m sure there are performers out there who are still up to these sorts of shenanigans, but they don’t seem as prevent as they used to be. And that’s a bit of a shame, in a way.

When I first started performing over ten years ago, these sorts of performers were the only ones that I knew about. Rachel Pantechnicon, Chloe Poems and others seemed to mix the cabaret style which I craved with poetry in a way that was almost offhanded, they could have been doing anything but it just happened to be poetry. They could have been reading the bus timetable, and it felt like these were just the tips of the iceberg, that a whole world out there existed of quirky characters mixing poetry and all manner of performance art.

It must be said that the Torbay scene, to which I belong, seems to have clung on the longest to this mindset and a healthy local scene exists of poets of spectacular variety and, dare I say if, oddness. Ten years ago, Chris Brooks at Poetry Island and Bryce Dumont at Word Command would invite down the finest performers whose prime purpose was spectacle and comedy. And when I started performing, they encouraged me to be as wacky as possible. I lament the fact that I did not choose an alternative name for myself, but over those first few years I pushed the boundaries of what I thought performance poetry might be. I created a robot to perform on my behalf, Robot Garnham, and I would often perform from the middle of the street, or by phone from the toilets. I performed while eating crisps, or while playing darts. I performed while covered in a blanket because I said I was scared of the audience. I performed from inside a box. I performed while accompanied by a salad spinner, which does a great impersonation of the Paris metro. I performed while on a circular disc which would spin me around. And it all seemed perfectly normal.

And now, I’m achingly mainstream. I discovered slam poetry and won a few slams here and there, and then decided that everything should fit in to three minutes.

When I look at the spoken word community these days there are still plenty of poets who inspire me and make me excited, but the fact remains that over the last ten years, the scene has shifted. Performance poetry is now spoken word, which implies a lack of performance. Poems are earnest and introspective, autobiographical and issue led, which is a good thing, but often you go to a spoken word night and they’re all the same. It’s wonderful, but it gets you down after a while. There are lots of people, but not many characters. Everyone seemed heavily influenced by the culture of slam poetry and by those American poets who shout a lot and hardly pause for breath and get millions of YouTube views. It’s like a sub genre of performance poetry has taken over the scene completely.

And if I can pinpoint the one thing that seems to have killed off the scene in the most part, it would be the slam poetry culture of no props, no costumes. It’s like the slam poetry genre was invented to mitigate against actual performance or spectacle. Maybe there should be a new sub genre of slam itself, weird slam, where anything goes, the bigger the spectacle, the bigger the mark.

And me? I’ve been trying to fit in with both distinct styles. I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, I do slam poems, but I try not to be too autobiographical, (my life is far too boring), and I try to have an issue or two beneath the surface. But lately, artistically, I’ve been thinking that the excitement of those early years has been replaced by the need to fit in with the current style.

Bryce Dumont was nice enough, ten years ago, to record every performance I did, and I have all these audio files. They’re a remarkable source of inspiration and I have been going through them, remembering what it was I was doing. I can’t wait to start rehearsing and just going wherever the muse might take me.

This is not to say that the character driven cabaret style of performance poetry is dead. Miserable Malcolm is a superb and hilarious invention, Jonny Fluffypunk is still out there doing his thing, and Rachel Pantechnicon has made one or two appearances of late. It seems, maybe just to me, that the spoken word scene and the performance poetry scene are two different scenes, one rhythm led and rightly obsessed with delivery and writing and heartfelt honesty, the other led more by spectacle and downright weirdness.

So that’s why I say here today, let’s bring back the weirdness! And Torbay seems the only place in the country where that weirdness is still inherent. Tom Austin, Steve O, Shelley Szender and, dare I say if, myself, turning up week after week being as odd and as silly and as funny as we possibly can. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to bring back the whimsy!

See also https://robertdgarnham.wordpress.com/2018/09/14/spoken-word-as-fun-the-peculiar-torbay-spoken-word-micro-climate/

Chuckles in the Flophouse

Chuckles in the Flophouse

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

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

Shadow Factory and Robert Garnham : In the Glare of the Neon Yak

I first heard a jazz band in Totnes called Shadow Factory a couple of years ago and I was immediately hooked by their style, their experimentation, their reinterpretation of classic songs and by their wonderful original material. They sound absolutely amazing and they are lovely people.

So I was completely blown away when they asked if their could write some original music for my show from last year, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, with a view to a live performance!

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me a huge honour and thrill to announce that I will be teaming up with Shadow Factory for a special performance of my show in Totnes! This will be a really special evening and I hope you can come along!

In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a riproaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tight rope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F? An hour show combining poetry, storytelling and music, In the Glare of the Neon Yak is the sparkling new show from spoken word artist, Robert Garnham.

Tickets can be purchased below.

https://www.totnespulse.co.uk/product/in-the-glare-of-the-neon-yak/

Spout, the bonus material

During the writing of Spout, I wrote far more than I needed to for the actual hour show. In fact I had several poems about tea left over which didn’t make the final show. I used one or two of these at various performances, but the definitive version of Spout did not contain any of the following poems.

So here, for your delectation, are the poems that didn’t quite make it in to the show for reasons of tone and narrative. Hope you like them!

Typical

I went for a date with a real fun guy
We got on well, didn’t have to try
But what he did just made me cry
He dunked a biscuit in his cuppa.

Typical.
Typical.
Just when I thought I’d
Found the perfect man,
He dunks a biscuit
In his cuppa.

I know you are a sexy hunk
But I was almost sick when I saw you dunk.
Your biscuit is now a sodden lump
When you dunked it in your cuppa.

Typical.
Typical.
Just when I thought I’d
Found the perfect man,
He dunks a biscuit
In his cuppa.

You might say I am very picky
But what you did just made me sicky
That’s the last time I’ll offer you a bickie
If you’ll dunk it in your cuppa.

Typical.
Typical.
Just when I thought I’d
Found the perfect man,
He dunks a biscuit
In his cuppa.

Oh my god
Oh my god
He just dunked a biscuit in his tea.
I drink mine out of the saucer.

A cup of tea with Darth Vader

A cup of tea with Darth Vader
Would have saved us all from
Three trilogies and especially
Those prequels.
A bright and breezy bed and breakfast, perhaps,
Our small table cluttered with cups,
Wobbling slightly but that’s ok,
He uses the Force, and points to the
Tea pot and says, doesn’t if
Look like R2D2?
Ha ha ha ha ha. (Breath intake).

We’d lean back in creaky wicker chairs.
And eat cookies.
Wookiee made cookies in creaky wicker chairs.
I’d check my reflection in his
Shiny plastic helmet.
Do you think the emperor really likes me?,
He’d ask,
And I’d say, don’t be daft, Darth.
More tea?
Is that too much milk?
I know you like it on the dark side.

There’s a crocus in a vase on the windowsill.
It’s so peaceful here.
It’s usually noisy where he works,
No wonder they call it the Deaf Star.
Have you ever actually met Yoda?, he asks.
He sounds just like Miss Piggy.
And then he laughs again.
Ha ha ha ha ha. (Breath intake).
And the couple at the next table look over
And smile,
Non judgementally.

Poem

I took each cherished friendship,
Chopped and diced,
Immersed in boiling liquid.

A fool might see such behaviour
As destructive,
Willingly subverting
Delicacy,
Ungrateful in the afternoon.

But when I drink,
Oh,
It perks me up.

Shall I reuse the tea leaves?

Shall I reuse the tea leaves
That is what he asked.
I know I should use some new ones,
I just can’t be arsed.
Shall I reuse the tea leaves
And pour on boiling water?
Shall I reuse the tea leaves
Or do you think I oughta
Clean the pot swill the pot
Start all over anew?
Or shall I reuse the tea leaves,
What am I to do?

To which I replied,
Reuse them, reuse them,
Oh, you dirty boy,
Oh yes!

The eternal workmans lament. Thirsty work this, love. Thirsty work this. Working on the plumbing in the Wild West saloon. Tut tut tut. You’ve had some cowboys in here.

It’s a tea drinker for me

I prefer a tea drinker.
Always have and always will.
Their steady nerve means
They won’t spill
That blessed drink on the
Windowsill
Or wherever else they’re drinking.
It’s always gets me thinking,
It’s a tea drinker for me.

I always like it hot
That they know their way
Around a pot.
Go ahead and drink the lot!
But you’ll probably need a wee.
It’s a tea drinker for me .

If you have the patience to wait
For a brew
Then I’d willingly spend my time
With you
I can read it in your lips
And in between the sips
My heart it leaps and skips
There’s a tingling in my hips
That I have found the perfect man
Who’s no stranger to PG Tips.
They’re buy one get one free.
It’s a tea drinker for me.

They bring me so much joy
The paraphernalia they employ
For a tea which we both enjoy
And when we’re done you deploy
A tone which is almost coy
As you ask, shall I reuse the same tea leaves?
And I say, you dirty boy!
Oh yes!
It’s a tea drinker for me .

I want a man who drinks a cuppa.
They always make a splendid lover!
In bed at night under the cover
Laying there after a late night supper
Lie back says he, and settle on
I’ll go and put the kettle on
A special brew for you and me
It’s a tea drinker for me

I get no kicks from champagne
But again and again
The same refrain
A man for me
Who knows how to strain
Do I really have to explain?
A beautiful brew inbiber,
A handsome consumer of cha,
No Rosie Lee poseur for me
No crafty kettle cacophony
But what I want I think you’ll see
Is a tea drinker for me

Thirsty work, this.

A monastery of monks in the middle of march,
A sandy haired handyman sanding the landing
A tickle a cough and his mouth somewhat parched.
My throat is so dry, oh, it really is.

The abbot in his habit fails to grab at the hint
Profers a prayer, pats his pocket for a mint
From the depths of his habit, a lozenge or Locket.
My throat is so dry, oh, it really is.

A service is rendered and the monks sing so splendid
And pray away the ailment of the day
And in sunbeams a-slant they grant him a chant
While he calls to the hall like a bad pagan fool,
My throat is so dry, oh, it really is.(a-heh)

In silence and solitude to show their deep gratitude
The veteran bretheren search for comprehension.
In calligraphy, an epiphany amid the handyman’s cacophony,
That a caretaker may care but who cares for the caretaker?
My throat is so dry, oh, it really is.(ah-heh, ah-heh)

Perhaps they could mention divine intervention
So proficient and omniscient and somewhat efficient
A miracle empirical from on high so invisible
A potion a lotion no need for emotion.
My throat is so dry, oh, it really is.

The monastery monks slip from their bunks
And say unto he, would you like a tea?
To which he doth smile, and gently reply,
Yeah, go on then, you twisted my arm.

Dolly tea time.

A porcelain play tea set
And a suburban patio,
My friend’s daughter
Plays dolly tea time,
Pours from a quartet size pot
Into tiny cups on tiny saucers,
Pretends to gossip.

Would you like a cup?

Do you know, I would!

She pours with practised care
And passes me a tiny cup which I hold
In one hand,
Pinky extended,
Saucer in the other.
Mmmm!
Though it’s only water,
This whole scenario is pretend.

Would you like a refill?, she asks.
Dolly is already on her second cup.
Go on, then. You twisted my arm.

Another dainty cup, how like her mother
Does she pour with absolute concentration,
And I sip like a good neighbour.

Because it’s only human to pretend,
Let go of the normality in us all,
Disengage with grown up concerns and find
Genuine pleasure in pretend tea time,
And so you know what?
It makes her feel good,
It make some feel great!

Mmmm!

And by the way, where did you
Get the water?, I ask.
And she replies,
From the toilet.

Not many things went wrong for me at Edinburgh this year, except for . . .

The fact remains that this year I had an incredibly enjoyable time at the Edinburgh fringe. And this is in spite of many things going spectacularly wrong. But the good news is that I had a show I was proud of, and which seemed to get people chatting. There were many times during the week after a gig in which people were eager to share stories about tea and their families, and they wanted to pose for selfies, and one even gave me a packet of biscuits, which I had with my cuppa the next day. But wow, other things certainly went wrong!

Now let’s just put this in to context. Two years ago I flew to Edinburgh and arrived to find that I had lost my passport. That was a bummer. And then the next year, I again flew to Edinburgh, and while I arrived, my luggage didn’t. So I had to spend the first two days of the fringe wearing and performing in the t shirt and the shorts that I had been wearing on the plane. So this year I thought, to hell with flying! I’ll catch the train.

There was also a bit of guilt involved in this decision, for believe it or not, it’s cheaper to fly from Devon to Edinburgh than it is to get the train. My guilt stemmed from the environmental damage that flying can do and the idea that I was saving myself a few hours made me feel bad, particularly as I was only going to perform a show about tea. Ironically, the planet bit back. On the day that I travelled from Devon, the rain was so intense that the line flooded north of Carlisle. So I had to get off at Preston, catch a train to Manchester, a train to Newcastle, and then finally a train to Edinburgh, arriving five hours late during a massive thunderstorm. Oh well, I thought, that’s my bit of bad luck for this year.

Ha. The next thing that happened was to discover that due to a massive mix up, the details of my show did not appear in the PBH Free Fringe brochure. They had the right picture, but the wrong name and description of the show. So I’d arrived at Edinburgh to perform a show that nobody knew about. A secret show! The upshot of this is that I had to do far more flyering and promotion than I have ever done, and that’s the part of the fringe that I hate the most. Flyering and promotion. I’m hopeless at chatting to people, and making small talk. I’m hopeless about talking about my own work and bogging it up. It’s an embarrassing thing to do, and I’m very English in that respect. Yes, I know that it’s good, but it’s not the done thing to tell other people this. I come from a background where I was always told not to boast, and always to put others first. I must have talked so many people out of coming to the show!

So the week went fairly well, all things considered. People would turn up for the non existent show that was meant to have been at the same time as mine. Some of them stayed. None of the other spoken word artists at the fringe knew that I was there beyond my immediate friends, but I had an audience every day, small though it often was. And the show was received well.

I caught the train home early on Sunday morning thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it had been going up. The weather was much better, and I only had to change at Manchester coming back. Oh, the luxury! And just as I was sitting back enjoying the feeling of accomplishment on having survived the fringe for another year, I began to congratulate myself on using the train and doing my bit to save the planet.

And then when I arrived back at Paignton, I discovered that some bastard had nicked my luggage!