In 2018 I toured the fringes and festivals of the UK with my show ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. It was something of a gamble at the time to write and rehearse an hour long poem which took me away from the comedy and whimsy and into a strange territory of myth, folk-lore, atmosphere and storytelling. The show had taken a few years to write, from around 2015, and almost a whole year to learn. I was hugely pleased with the outcome and I got the chance to perform it everywhere from Edinburgh to London, the GlasDenbury Festival to Surrey, and then with a live jazz band in Totnes. It is the piece of work which I’m proudest.
Performing the show was a weird experience. Over the Edinburgh fringe, I suddenly became aware that the characters were almost friends, and that I would look forward to performing them again when their part of the show arrived. Indeed, it was something of a shame when the run ended and I felt genuinely sad not to perform these characters for a while. Almost immediately I began to think of a possible sequel to the show, yet I knew that it would not be the same because I didn’t want to spoil the mythology that I had built up around the show. ‘
‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’ took place on a sleeper train heading north, filled with circus performers, and stalked by the mythological entity the Neon Yak, loosely based on the folklore tales of Herne the Hunter. I decided that a follow up show would have a similar structure, (characters telling their tales), but I wanted to go deeper and move the focus of the show to the actual situations in which these characters found themselves. I wrote three new pieces and also ‘borrowed’ the long poem ‘Bulk Carrier’ from my 2018 book Zebra, and then wrote a kind of framing narrative to bind all of these together. I envisaged an LGBT astronaut, flying to Venus, being consoled throughout his long journey by stories which would remind him of the importance of his community, until the final story details his own adventure when he finally gets to the planet.
The individual sections which make up the show could easily stand alone as performance pieces: ‘Bar Code Blues’ takes place in a supermarket in the 1990s with a character who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. ‘Bulk Carrier’ takes place on a container vessel in the middle of the ocean which is haunted, (Why not?), by the ghost of Marcel Proust. ‘Much Ado About Muffins’ is a modern retelling of the Shoemaker and the Elves, taking place in a bakery which refuses to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding. And the final piece, ‘Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus’, takes the astronaut to a planet where every desire and hope are granted.
And as a special link to its predecessor, the voice of Ground Control is none other than Tony, previously the Train Manager from ‘In the Glare of the Neon Yak’. A change of career, perhaps, but he’s lost none of his humour.
I’d hoped to perform the show all over the UK during 2020, but world events put paid to that. With a show already written for 2021 and the publication of my new book to tie in with it, I knew that Electric Dragons would probably have to be mothballed for quite some time. So this autumn I set about making it into an audio play, a monologue delivered with musical interludes and sound effects, which I might unleash on the world this Christmas.
It’s been an amazing journey working on this show. Obviously, it’s a shame that it didn’t get to see the light of day in 2020. But without the constraints of having to fit the show into an hour slot, I was able to stretch my legs a little with the audio version. I do hope you will like it, and let me know what you think of it.
00.00: Lift Off! Voyage of the Starship Poopscoop
06.23: Bar Code Blues
22.00: Bulk Carrier
33.26: Much Ado About Muffins
49.30: Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus
New video ‘UFO’ by Robert Garnham
I’ve been busy writing a lot during the last twelve months and the upshot of this is that I have a lot of material which doesn’t fit in with the any of the projects I’ve been working on. The idea came after a conversation with film maker John Tomkins to make a short mini web series.
The hardest part was coming up with a title, and after exhausting Plop, Whimsy, or just Series, and every other one word idea, I came up with the Unbearable Lightness of Brian. Humorous as this was, the main problem was that my name is not Brian. So I settled on the rather less colourful, but rather more meaningful, The Unbearable Lightness of Robert Garnham.
It was a joy to make the series and we’ve optimistically called it Season One.
And here’s the first one! There’ll be one a week now for the next seven weeks.
I’ve been writing poetry now for the best part of ten years. Yet my foray into the world of ‘comic’ verse did not come completely by accident.
There is one man who came before who showed me that performance poetry was a real art form and worthy of investigation. Indeed, when people ask who my influences are, (which, come to think of it, has only ever happened once), I often reply ‘Frank O’Hara, but to a greater extent, Professor Zazzo Thiim’.
Who is Professor Zazzo Thiim? Notwithstanding several attempts by many in the Californian poetry community to attribute the invention of performance poetry to their particular clique, or the claims of those within the British poetic movement to assign invention of this genre to those from various diverse backgrounds both cultural and symbolic, there remains a theory within the English departments of some major university establishments that the invention of ‘performance’ poetry can be traved to the moment in June 1953 when Professor Zazzo Thiim accidentally sat on a harpsichord while reciting the works of Tennyson. Indeed, it was seen as the most whimsical and amusing moment of the Basingstoke literary season, mainly on account of the audience reaction – (sheer disbelief mixed with a fair amount of loathing) – and the apparent embarrassment not only of Thiim himself, but also the Mayor, and Arthur Miller, to whom the harpsichored belonged.
There were immediate appeals for a repetition of Thiim’s groundbreaking (and harpsichord-breaking) work. Indeed, he was asked to perform it on the radio (to general acclaim), and before the Ambassador to the United States, (who turned out to be just a man in a hat who was passing by). Performance poetry was born. Thiim was astounded by the fact that he had invented an entire new genre. He began writing his own verse, which he would perform either sitting on a harpsichord, astride a harpsichord, while playing a harpsichord, while lying on a harpsichord, and finally, while lying underneath a harpsichord. This lasted for six years, until a colleague is said to have inquired of him, ‘What is it with you and all these bleeding harpsichords, anyway?’ He turned up at the next poetry event with a mouth organ.
Throughout this time, not only did Thiim write poems to fit in with his harpsichord smashing regime, but he also began to dissemble and play around with the poetic form. Working in unison with the University of Staines, he looked at poems in more detail than any other literary practitioner until he acquired a reputation as a literary and poetic experimenter. Poems were shot from cannons. Poems were jumped up and down on. One poem was whispered to the Queen, who was asked to ‘pass it on’. (She didn’t). One poem, entitled ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence)’ was performed as twenty three and a half seconds of silence. And another, ‘Frank (23 ½ Seconds of Silence with a Brief Interlude)’, was an extended version of the first but with a slight clearing of the throat in the middle. ‘Frank’ was a poem performed with a tambourine with the eminent professor repeating the word ‘scones’ over and over, finally ending the consuming of a whole scone live on stage, while ‘Frank’ consisted of the Professor shouting out the words ‘I do not believe in Aberystwith’ while pouring yoghurt over his head. One of his most famous poems, ‘Frank’, received some notoriety when it was discovered that it had been the last work read by Tony Blackburn before his debut on Radio One. And of course, who can forget the stirring moment when one of his better known poems, ‘Frank’, was included in the first space probe sent out by the Belgians?
There has been of course some question as to why the Professor should have entitled all of his poems ‘Frank’. But as the good professor has pointed out on numerous occasions, all titles are essentially meaningless and spoil the anticipation of a poem or a work of art. Just look at ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. ‘Frank seemed as good a name as any. Do we enoy the Professor’s poems today? Naturally. As the performance poetry scene goes from strength to strength, the work of Professor Zazzo Thiim has been cited by many, including myself, as their main inspiration for taking to the stage. In areas where performance poetry is popular, there has also been a marked increase in sales of harpsichords, and there can be no other reason why this is so than the enduring legacy of Professor Zazzo Thiim.