Robert Garnham @ Satellite of Love, Bristol, January 2023 – Full Set

Had a wonderful time headlining at Satellite of Love, a poetry night in Bristol which takes place in a theatre inside a decommissioned light ship in the harbour at Bristol.

You can hear the full set here:

Photos by Marius Grose http://photography.mariusgrose.co.uk

https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

Toothpaste Adverts Dental Expert Argues with God

Toothpaste Adverts Dental Expert Argues with God

If she’s a real dentist then I’m a ring-tailed lemur.
The artifice lies shrouded over her like London smog,
Lab-coat shod and glasses from the props box.
So earnest in her opinions, delivered
Slightly to the left of the camera to a non-existent interviewer
About how various experts recommend
A certain leading brand,
But you can see it in her eyes,
There’s no passion, she doesn’t live for teeth,
She doesn’t dream of cavities,
Gum disease does not excite her.

And God says, ‘Lighten up.’
And she says, ‘Go pro’.
And God says, ‘Lighten up’.
And she says,
‘You can feel the difference’.

She’s persistent, I’ll give her that.
But he’s omniscient.
Her lab coat is sparkling
Unbelievably white
Subconsciously saying to the viewer,
‘Our toothpaste must be good.
It must be.
It really must be’.
Not a mark on it.

God hasn’t got time for this.
He’s got an earthquake to set off
In twenty minutes
In order to punish a small town in Italy
Because parliament has been
Debating gay marriage.
God’s a bastard like that.

‘Ninety nine percent of dentists
Recommend this brand’,
She says,
And God rolls his eyes because
Thirty eight percent of statistics are just
Someone speaking out of their arse.

Without the lab coat, she could be anyone.
A soap opera background lurker, a corpse in a
Detective morgue, (Not a flinch as the grizzled flatfoot
Leans forward and finds a strand of hair on her chin,
Breaks the case wide open, ‘We got him!’),
Didn’t I once see you extolling the virtues
Of equity release during the advert break on Countdown?
Those silken tones and that winning smile last week
Ever eager
To flog J. Arthur Bowyer’s Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
And now apparently you’re a dentist too!
God smells a rat, and he should know,
He invented them.

Dazzle with brilliant whiteness thy lab coat sublime,
Thou shalt not question the ways of
Thy lord and master,
Removes ninety percent of most plaque,
Thou shalt not
Covet thy neighbour’s WiFi.
Oh dear god,
It’s all one meaningless slogan
After another.

Do you need those glasses?
Or is it cultural appropriation of the near-sighted?
Frames bolder than a Brian Blessed bellow,
And that clipboard.
Just keeping tabs on everything, eh?
These are the questions I’d
Ask of God, along with,
Why should we worship you?
Are you really so starved of attention,
Affection, love,
That every now and then you’ll afflict some
Poor kid from the back of beyond to a horrible disease
Just to receive a bounty of prayers?
Are you really so sensitive?
There’s a leading brand for that.

And I?
I have an easily-triggered gag reflex.
Just when the dentist is in up to their elbows,
I start making a noise
Like a clunky gear change on a Ford Escort,
And you know what’s coming,
That lab coat ain’t gonna stay pristine, baby.
The moment I find a dentist where I don’t
Start calling for Huey,
They’ll probably put up a plaque.

I said to the dentist,
Why do you always look
So down in the mouth?
At least you get to the
Root of the problem.
A golfer came in and said,
‘Most of my teeth are fine,
But I’ve got a hole in one’.
As I say,
I’ve got an early-triggered gag reflex.

Coffee Shop – Poem in the style of Dame Edith Sitwell

Coffee shop

Breakfast bap in a non-stop coffee shop
Mocker mocha joker taking calculated pop shots
Nutty roast flapjacks fluffy most backpack
Flat pack sad sack I bet he drives a hatchback
Souped up car drives it far have a pain au chocolat
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Costa roaster boaster toasting toast in Costa’s toaster
Toasting roasted roasting roasts on the table use a coaster
Barista sister kissed her gets a blister from the steamer
Throw a plaster to my sister better duck oh good it missed her
Get a cup o’ cappuccino fill it up with roasted beano
From the coffee roast costa boaster toasted coffee cuppa hoster
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Steam spewing steamer spewing stream stewing cleaner
With a skinny latte somewhat leaner steaming customer less keener
Cream topped coffee toffee syrup frothy coffee
With a hot milk steamer up his nose let’s out a cough, he
Raises up his china mug he sips his coffee from his lip
Though his coffee drips from his lips think I’m gonna be sick
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Drip fed filter throws barista off a kilter
Puts a filter on the filter done without a sense of guilt, her
Shaky hand means Some’s a-spilt speaks so softly with a lilt, her
Filter coffee has gone off she leaves a sediment of silt, her
Queue grows longer like a conga and its winding and its snaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
In for caffeine every day they go all jittering and shaking
It’s a coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee coffee coffee shop.

Yay! Recorded live in the stock room of a shop

The thing was, I was fed up with lugging props around the various fringes and festivals. That was the crux of the issue. Each year I would devise a new solo show and each year I’d promise myself that it would be a simple affair, and within weeks I had incorporated so many props, costumes and technical details into the show that it couldn’t possibly be performed without a big box of paraphernalia. Which is not what you need when you have to run for trains or make your way from Devon to the Edinburgh fringe.

          2019 was when things got just too much. That year, I had a show all about tea. The show was called ‘Spout’. ‘Spout’ could only be performed with: a tea pot, a cup, a saucer, a tea caddy, a box of drawstring teabags, a tea cosy, an iPad which had all the various sounds, music and cues stored on it, a Bluetooth speaker, some juggling balls, a large pad of paper with a word search written on it in sharpie, and a tray on to which I had glued another teapot, another cup, another saucer, a milk jug and a sugar bowl, so that I could dance around the stage without them falling off. So once you add luggage for a week in Scotland, merchandise to hopefully sell, and everything else which I normally travel with, you can see that performing the show was more like moving house.

          And then on the way back from Edinburgh, someone stole my luggage. Sure, I had my box of props, but the tea cosy was in the suitcase which got stolen. The tea cosy was actually a proper hat knitted and created by the artist Hazel Hammond, and I think I was more upset about this than the fact I’d lost all my clothing. And that’s when I decided, the next show will have no props!

          No music, either. No complicated cues. No background beats. It would just be me and the audience with no embellishment whatsoever. Something about this felt pure. It felt real. It felt grown up.

          In 2020 I started work on the new show. I decided that it would tie in with my new book, published by Burning Eye. I decided that the show would feature only poems from the new collection. Which I knew would make the writing somewhat limited, but I was determined to get it done. 

          Each one of my shows was inspired by something or someone during the planning process. My first show, Static,  (2014), was heavily influenced by the work of performance artist Laurie Anderson. In the Glare of the Neon Yak (2017) was influenced by storytellers such as Dandy Darkly. And when it came to the Yay show, I was busy looking at the work of singer David Byrne, and storyteller Spalding Gray. Spalding’s only prop was often just a table which he sat behind. And Byrne’s American Utopia stage show concentrated on choreography and movement. These were the two things I was watching or reading about during the creative process.

          I also read a book about creating solo work, and it suggested keeping a diary. Aha, I thought. Now that’s something I can definitely do. I thought I’d forget about the diary, but it actually helped with the creative process because it pushed me to do something which I could then write in the diary as proof that I was making some kind of progress.

Naturally, at the time I had no idea that this period of creativity and rehearsal would coincide with various lockdowns, pandemic mandates, and the whole paranoia and psychological malaise which these brought to the art industry. At some moments I wondered if I would ever get the chance to perform the show. As it is, with a bit of luck and some nifty admin, I managed to perform Yay twice in 2021, as well as perform it to a completely empty theatre for the benefit of a filmmaker, so that people could view the show online during lockdown.

Zazzo Declares the Death of the Short Story

Between the late nineties and the mid 2000s, I wrote hundreds of short stories. This was a very hectic time in my life, and probably needlessly so. In 2000, I moved into a gothic flat near the seafront in Paignton, almost directly over the road from the shop where I worked. I was studying Open University every morning, getting up at 5, studying 6-9, going over the road and working 9-5, then home, and spending every single evening writing short stories.

On my day off I’d attend a Writers’ Circle and it soon became apparent that the other attendees seemed drawn to my funnier stories. In one story, I invented a character, a professor of literature by the name of Zazzo, and soon the other members of the writers’ circle started saying things like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see what Zazzo gets up to next week!’

My Open University degree was in Literature, so I’d have to watch a lot of videos (it was still videos back then), and listen to lots of cassettes presented by these eccentric academic types who were a million miles away from the milieu in which I moved. I saw Zazzo as belonging to this community, perhaps barely tolerated by his contemporaries, and often shooting off at a tangent, seeing patterns where there were no patterns, narratives where there were no narratives.

Zazzo was a literary investigator. Whenever there was a mystery with a literary element, Zazzo would be there. Skateboarders quoting Shakespeare for no reason? Send in Zazzo! A crab routinely predicting the winner of the Booker Prize every year? Another case for Zazzo! The discovery of yet another Brontë sister? Who do we call? Professor Zazzo!

The Zazzo stories were saved on various floppy discs, and then promptly forgotten about for twenty years. I had no way of accessing them for quite some time, but now, thanks to various technological developments (and some paper versions I recently found), Professor Zazzo has been saved from obscurity!

My life has moved on since those days. I’ve been working as a comedy performance poet since around 2008, and worked on various other projects, so it was a delight to rediscover this strange world. And I really hope you might enjoy reading some of the stories which I shall be publishing on this blog.

ZAZZO DECLARES THE DEATH OF THE SHORT STORY (A SHORT STORY)

As the train pulled into the station, Professor Zazzo Thim felt a twinge within him, deep down where he knew his heart should have been. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t even know why he had come back to this place where, years before he had given an infamous speech in which he had proclaimed the death, as an art form, of the short story.

There had almost been a riot.
But the Professor was a sentimental man, and when he had received, in the depths of the University in which he taught literary experimentalism, a letter from a middle-aged lady who had witnessed him that day, fleeing for his life amid the baggage trollies and the tourists pursued by an angry mob, he knew he had to go back there, just for old times sake.

          And now he was on a train, pulling into that very station, with its vast glass roof and endless platforms.

          How lucky that he had given them the slip all of those years ago, he thought to himself as the train slowly began to slow. Would anybody recognise him now, all these years later?
          The grand old station was the same as it ever was. The glass roof was a dirty grey, matching the overcast skies outside, while the rusted superstructure was plastered with pigeon droppings. Zazzo pulled his coat collar around him as he stepped out of the carriage onto the worn tarmac of the platform. He felt a coldness in the air,  though, an eternal coldness, as if all the emotion from the thousands, the millions of journeys begun and ended here, the lives separated, the people who would never see each other again, had somehow become crystallised and
manifested just in him. The Professor began to shiver.
          She was waiting for him at the exit of the platform, next the aerodynamic train engine which throbbed and sizzled as it recovered from its journey. She recognised the white-haired professor from the photographs on the jackets of his various, little-read volumes on the literature of Greenland and the cultural significance of the Haiku in Guatemala. (Verdict: virtually none at all). She stepped forwards, extended her hand, then helped him with the big bag slung over his which contained the manuscript of his latest novel. They went to the station cafe.
          “We talk about it even now”, she said, over a cup of coffee which steamed gently in the slant of morning light.
          “I didn’t realise it was such a big event “.
          “Big event?” she asked. “It was the only event”.
          The cafe was filled with travellers, youths with backpacks, old ladies with small trollies, all of them static for this one moment in time before they each went their separate ways to the furthest corners of the continent. Behind the counter, the coffee machine let off a cloud of steam which moistened the ceiling, while a small radio played jazz in the kitchen. The saxophone made Professor Thiim feel sad, though he didn’t quite know why. Something about the passing of the years, perhaps.
          “You certainly caused quite a stir”, the woman said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mathilda, and the day I saw you leaping over the tracks while being pursued by that mob, I was employed in the cigarette kiosque. I remember it now, your scarf trailing in the wind, the papers of your speech flying away behind you, the angry mob piling over baggage racks and the ticket barriers, like ants coming back to their colony. Nothing stood in their path! You started a change in me . . .”,  she said, contemplatively.
          “What do you mean?” the Professor asked.

She smiled and looked down at her coffee cup.
“While was working that morning l was listening to your speech. When l saw you set up on the main concourse with a soap box and a sheaf of papers l thought you were just another religious zealot, or maybe one of those hopeless politicians with their fake promises. But when you started speaking about the short story, and speaking so eloquently, l might add, l became entranced. I remember it to this day the way you said that short stories no longer mattered, that we were all philistines
because we preferred trashy novels or the television, that all writers of short stories are, in some ways, the chroniclers of the modern world, capturing moments and emotions in subtle ways which other means can never attain yet entirely forgotten by everyone, and therefore, superfluous, misguided, and entirely fake. l remember the way you used to adjust the scarf around your neck as you talked, your face wrinkled in concentration. I was so captured by this that I completely forgot about my job, and when these people started crowding around you and heckling, I thought, a-ha! He has struck a nerve!”
“It’s nice that you remember”, the Professor said, fingering his collar where the scarf would have been. He remembered the scarf, he still had it at home somewhere.
“So I went home and I started to read short stories. Nothing major at first – romance, a bit of light comedy. Then l professed to Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Checkhov. After a few years I wanted more, so l started on James Joyce, Italo Calvino, old Franz Kafka. Borges came next, of course, the master of them all. And now . . “.
“Yes?” the old man asked, fearfully.
“Now I’m reading Samuel Beckett’
“My word”, he whispered
“And it’s all thanks to you. My life has been enriched by that moment, by the passion and the fury of that one episode. I resigned from the cigarette kiosque, enrolled in university, and I began to acquire literary ideas of my own. Do you know what it means for a character to appear in a short story, for example? The characters believe themselves, for just one moment, to be so important as to be forever captured in the reader’s mind, and lodged there forever. Yet they do not have the longevity, the life-span of characters from, say, a novel. Such animosity exists between them! The moment in which they exist is so precious, so pure and concentrated that they could never last a whole novel with the same intensity. Just look at ourselves – if we two were to last a whole novel, we would be exhausted by the end of chapter three”.
The Professor nodded, solemnly
“I have so many ideas inside of me” Mathilda continued. “And it’s all thanks to you. So when I read a textbook on the use of penguins in the shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf – (in which it was concluded that penguins hardly featured in any of her work) – and I saw that the author was a certain Professor Zazzo Thim, who, years before, had almost been attacked right here at this very station, I thought: ‘l have to find him, I have to thank him personally for the life he has given me”.
The Professor fingered the clasp of his briefcase. He felt so many different emotions.
“I’m glad”, he whispered, above the soft saxophone solo from the kitchen. “That I have made an impact on someone’s life”. He opened the briefcase and took out a manuscript. “In fact, he continued, “I would like you to have this”.
“What is it?” Mathilda asked, laying an expectant hand on her chest.
“My latest academic work, explaining the death of surprise endings in short works of fiction. It is my belief that all surprises have been eliminated, that nothing more can ever be said at the end of a short story which may shock or confound the reader. I have called it, ‘No More The Lonely Badger”.
“I’m touched”, Mathilda said. Zazzo passed the manuscript across the table towards her and she took it in her quivering hands. “No more surprises”, she whispered, reading the sub-heading. “An investigation by Professor Zazzo Thiim”.
“Just one more thing”, he asked. “Why did the crowd react so badly to my speech? Why did they set about me in such a hostile manner? Surely, the people of this city don’t care that much for the short story as to attack me personally, just because of my hypothesis? I thought about it for the last twenty years, l’ve thought about the effect l had and the passion they displayed, see, and it, too, changed my life, it changed my ideas, and I started to devote my life to demonstrating that short stories do make a difference, and l have used the episode as an illustration in lectures, academic works and after-dinner speeches. Indeed, it could be said that my whole career has been based on this one incident! So tell me, why were the crowd so unaccountably incensed?”
“Didn’t you know?”, Mathilda asked. “It was the cup final day. They saw your scarf. They thought you were a United supporter”.

On performing new material

If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.

          It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.

          I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.

          However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.

          In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral.  For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.

          At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.

          Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.

          My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . .  I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.

          I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.

          I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . .  Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.

          Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.

          I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.

          There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.

          So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.

So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!

Woodview

You can now order my new collection, Woodview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Rodney Wood)

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

(Greg Freeman)

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

(Becky Nuttall)

Everything

Everything 

The tiny single-engine aircraft was just a dot at first, hovering on the horizon above the fir trees.
‘You got everything?’, Justin asked.
‘Everything’, I replied.
I meant it, too. Condensed into a silver canister which shone in the low sunset.
We watched the aircraft land, kicking up dust from the unmade runway surrounded by deep forest. It came to a rest in front of us.
The pilot hopped down.
‘You boys ready?’, she asked.
‘Yup’.
‘You got everything?’
I held up the silver canister.
‘Ah’, she said. ‘You’re one of those modern sorts . . .’.
We climbed up, Justin and I. There wasn’t much room inside, just as well I had the silver canister. If you didn’t know any better you’d have thought that I was carrying someone’s ashes. Our pilot walked a long way from the aircraft and had a cigarette next to the periphery of the makeshift airfield.
‘I hope she doesn’t set the forest alight with her cigarette butt’, Justin pointed out. ‘The undergrowth is tinder dry . .’.
I’d let him sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I was strapped in, the silver canister on the seat next to me, with our bags and backpacks. Of course, we could have easily left our equipment indoors, in the living room just next to the front door, before condensing them. But there were certain things that we might need on the four hour flight.
Our pilot walked around the aircraft and checked all of the flaps and the rudder and the wings, and then she hopped on board and started the engine. The old craft shook and throbbed.
‘You got everything?’ she asked.
‘Canister!’, I yelled.
She turned us around and we took off with a kick of acceleration, up over the tops of the trees and into the low setting sun. She put on a pair of sunglasses.
‘Dark matter compression?’ she asked.
‘Yes!’ I yelled.
I’d forgotten how noisy aircraft can be.
‘So what do you do with it, just plug it in?’
‘I know it sounds silly’, I yelled, ‘but you add cold water’.
‘It’s amazing what they can do these days’.
‘What?’
‘I said, it’s amazing what they can do these days!’
‘Certainly beats camping’, I shouted, as we banked over a winding blue river. ‘It’s great, too, you know? Sleeping in your own bed every night, even if you’re thousands of miles from home’.
‘Sure’, she said.
She was silent for a bit.
‘The canister . . .’, she said, ‘its watertight, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it to . . You know . . pop open up here’.
Justin changed the subject.
‘Do you know if there’s a florist near the airport?’ he asked. ‘I have to get a bunch of flowers for my mother. It’s something I always do. I promised her, as soon as we landed I would get her some flowers’.
‘Birthday?’
‘No, just a regular gift’.
‘What a thoughtful son you are’.
‘Got to keep her happy’.
The little aircraft’s engine let out a reassuring constant tone. I reached down and rummaged in my rucksack for a plastic bottle of water. Some of it leaked the moment that I took the cap off.
‘For goodness sake!’, our pilot yelled, ‘be careful back there!’

Exeter Poems, written by the Bard of Exeter

Last year I became the Bard of Exeter. During this time I’ve been working on various poems about Exeter, written often during visits to the city. You can read them below, they’re not in any kind of order. I really do like the city of Exeter and I’ve enjoyed my time as the Bard.

Robert Garnham, writer and humorist
Poem

The River Exe
Reminded me
Of my ex.
One has a sinewy
Snaking nature
And a big marsh
Where wild things live,
The other
Is the River Exe.
(You must have seen
That one coming,
Dear reader).
One would turn
Several times a day
And often
Not realise it.
The other
Is the River Exe.
(Tidal, you see).


Poem

Oh, Exeter Airport.
From the front
You look
Like a primary school.
Your departure gates
Are numbered
Gate One and Gate Two.
Your duty free shop
Is more of a shelf.
‘You don’t hear many planes’,
A friend observed
As we sat there in the
Living room of your
Departure lounge.
‘That’s because’, I quipped,
‘There aren’t any’.

Poem

She said,
‘Take me to your favourite place,
Restaurant, bar, tavern,
Eatery, joint, cafe,
Bistro, bistro, bistro,
Any place we can get food,
It doesn’t matter where,
So long as we’re together.
We can look into each other’s eyes
Amid the ambience,
And fill our souls with sustenance
Of two different kinds’.

Next to the vending machine
On platform three at Exeter St Davids,
She said,
‘I think we should
See other people’.

Poem

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my friend replied.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my cousin replied.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
What’s that?, my friend Bill replied.
It’s an honorary position, I explained.
No, he said, I meant what’s Exeter?

I’m Bard of Exeter, I said.
More like, barred from Exeter, my neighbour said.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
Yeah, funny.

This is why I don’t
Tell many of my friends
What I’m up to.

Poem

There’s a view of the Cathedral,
The B and B owner said,
From your window.
And she was right.
She had blue tacked it
To the wall of the shed.

Poem

Let’s picnic in the grass, he said.
In front of the medieval cathedral
Whose precious beauty has tempted
Many a passing tourist to drop to their knees
And feint at its buttresses.
The rain
Made my pork pie soggy.

Poem

Is there a ram
In the RAMM?
A ramp
To put the ram
In the RAMM?
A van to carry
The ram to the ramp
To put it in the RAMM?
A man to drive the van
To carry the ram to the ramp
To put in the RAMM?
No,
But there’s a giraffe.

Poem

I contacted my sister,
I texted her
To say we’d arrived
In Exeter.
She didn’t know we were going,
It perplexed her.

Poem

From Telegraph Hill
The lights of Exeter
Twinkle in the distance
Like private stars in a constellation
Of one.
I’m lost in that timeless beauty
Once again.

And then we drive
Round and round
The multi storey car park.
The poetry
Has long since evaporated.

Poem

As Splatford Split approached
I still didn’t know
Which way you would go.
I watched your hands on the wheel.
Lazily, you turned the car to the
Left hand lane
And I did a little air fist pump,
Then held on,
Ready for the rocket boost
Of Telegraph Hill.
Quicker this way, you said.
Mmmm, I replied,
And I wanted to kiss you.

Poem

The next stop is Exeter St. Thomas.
To the uninitiated, they panic,
Bloody hell, we’re here much sooner
Than we thought.
It’s OK, I think to myself, relaxing, you’ve still got
Another five minutes until Exeter St. David’s.
But it must be disconcerting
Nonetheless.
Similar names, you see.

That night, before I went to sleep, I thought,
Oh,
Perhaps some people
Actually do want to get off at Exeter St. Thomas.
The universe
Is a cosmic joke.

Poem

I went for a walk
Down to the quay
By the river
In the sun.
I’d bought a chocolate milk
From M and S Food Hall,
Sat on a planter on the cobbles,
Necked its fine rich nectar.
Such fun.
Although I was the only one there
When I get up to put the bottle in the bin,
I took my bag with me,
Because, you know,
You can never be too sure.
My friend James is in his 70s and recently
Had his very first pickled egg,
So you never know what’s coming.
Anyway.
The quay.
It was nice.

Poem

I was in the men’s section
At Exeter Primark
When the tannoy announcer said,
‘Could security
Please be aware
That Mister Strange
Is in the men’s section.
That’s Mister Strange
In the men’s section.’
I looked around
But I couldn’t see him.

Poem

I always look
Too deeply
Into things.
Where others
See objects
I see
Atoms.

Poem

I like the sunshine
Too much
To be an
Overnight success.

Poem

While he was in the queue
Getting their coffee
She found a table and
Pushed two chairs in,
Pulled out one for herself,
And one for the one
She wanted him to sit in.

Poem

(In an Exeter coffee shop I overheard someone complaining about their neighbour who apparently spent most of the day sieving his gravel).

The gravel siever has a cluttered attic.
He’s out there now,
He’s out there every day
Sieving his gravel,
And by all accounts he’s got a cluttered attic,
Cluttered with boxes,
The boxes he had when he moved into the bungalow
Whose gravel needed sieving.

Does he ponder on those boxes as he
Sieves his gravel?
Does he ponder on sieving his gravel as he
Pokes his head in the loft
Like a Jack in the Box
Regards the clutter and lets out a mutter?
There’s no single performing.
There’s no shingle uniformity.
There’s so much going on in the world
But only two things going on in his.

Poem

I went to the ticket office.
The man behind the counter asked,
‘Single?’
Is it really so obvious?
I sat in my seat on the train.
The notice above me said,
Available.
Is it really so damn obvious?

The A303 isn't as long as it used to be
(It shrunk)

In prehistoric times,
Apparently,
The A303
Didn't stop at Exeter,
But kept on going.

Continental drift played a part,
Of course.
Dinosaurs, and then
The Romans
Used it to go to
Present day Nova Scotia.
There were tea rooms, so peaceful,
Very pleasant.
Mind you, no
Motorways in those days.

Genghis Khan
Got stuck behind a tractor.
Emperor Napoleon
Got stuck behind a tractor.
The Earl of Effingham
Got stuck behind two tractors.
And I bet he was
Effingham.

The Moon was slightly closer back then.
Stone Age man
Worshipping cats eyes gleaming
Brighter on account of the Moon glow
Not quite so far
For Armstrong and co to go.

Cowboys in the layby,
And the hunter gatherer clans of Wiltshire
Refused to welcome outsiders.
Mostly we just
Left them to their own Devizes.

Poem

There once was a man from the A303
Who wanted to go to Honiton via the B353
He took the A3033
And then the B453
And then the B353 itself but he ended up in Chard.

Poem

I'm a trainspotterspotter.
There were two fine examples
In Exeter St David’s last night.
I spotted both of them
Lurking amid the passengers
With their notebooks and their cameras
And their anoraks.
But then I noticed that I had been
Spotted by a trainspotterspotterspotter
And that he was being spotted
By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotter
And that he was being spotted
By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotterspotter
And so on
Until the time it would take to
Explain all of this would be more time
Than there is in the whole of existence
More than all of the grains of sand on earth
Or stars in the universe
So it's just as well that
They kept the buffet open late.

Poem

My cousin Phil
Slipped at the top of Telegraph Hill
Bounded end over end
In a never ending cartwheel
Right from the very top,
Then straight through the middle
Of a loving couple's picnic,
Damaging a sausage roll
And two scotch eggs
Virtually beyond repair
Falling at such a velocity
His shoes flew off
And one of them clouted a nun
Who shook her fist at him.
Phil
Still managed
To blend into the left hand lane
Of the motorway.

About 25 years ago
I used to work in a shop
In Sidwell Street
And at lunchtimes in the summer
Sunbathe on the flat roof,
From where
You’d be able to see
The cars snaking up
Telegraph Hill.
Probably wouldn’t have been able
To see Phil, though,
Because he would have been too small
And he didn’t exist, really.





Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Selling loads of books!

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

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