On how I learned to love writing short stories again

On how I learned to love writing short stories again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sultry seaside serenade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poof!

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

New Croydon Tourist Office Album!

The wait is over!

Those rockin’ cool cats have done it again! That funky groove sound is back with Croydon Tourist Office’s new offering, Take It Easy With Croydon Tourist Office! While other bands may rest on their laurels, Croydon Tourist Office have been hard at work for eight years putting together a collection of tunes which perfectly sums up the zeitgeist. Can there by any more perfect accompaniment to the world it is at the moment than these happening tracks?

These eclectic offerings may have a fairly fluffy initial outlook, but there’s menace lurking beneath the surface. By turns life affirming and post apocalyptic, those crazy groovers have been hard at work, like scientists, perfecting each sonic nuance, and by turns, probing the human condition.

It’s a huge honour for me to work with Croydon Tourist Office. As a non-musician, music is something that has a mystique and a magic to me, and to hear what my fellow band mates seemingly pull out of thin air seems somehow miraculous. The songs on this album date back to around 2012, though some were new compositions taking advantage of the lockdown situation, music and sound files emailed back and forth from one musician to another. The core of the group remains Bryce Dumont, John Samuel, Max Coulson and myself, but we have had an array of other talented people join us.

You can listen to the album and download it from our Bandcamp page here:

https://croydontouristoffice.bandcamp.com/album/take-it-easy-with-croydon-tourist-office

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

Strung from lamp post to lamp post, the multicoloured fairy lights wiggled, jiggled and jumped in the wind. An angry sea scratched at the pebble beach. Flecks of sand stung cold raw cheeks. It was dusk.
The world seemed obsolete, nullified by the obviousness of the season. Decay, frost-shredded painted gaiety and cartoon characters diminished by the elements, painted on shuttered ice cream shacks.
‘It’s heaving down here in the summer’, I tell him.
‘How far is it to your flat?’
‘Just a road away. I thought we’d make a detour, so you could see, the, erm . . .’.
We walk huddled hands in coat pockets.
‘You look like your profile picture’.
‘So do you’.
I like the way that the wind ruffles his hair. His cheekbones are much more pronounced than I thought they would be.
‘Wild’, I whisper, meaning the weather.
‘Sorry?’
And he’s slightly taller than me.
There are lights on the horizon out at sea, ships sheltering in the bay, and they twinkle and pulse just like stars, and if it weren’t so cold then maybe I could create my own constellations.
‘I’m cold’, he points out.
And the multicoloured fairy lights throw down a glow which gives us several overlapping shadows, our two forms merged and combined like a pack of cards being shuffled. The iron legs of the old pier stride in to the angry sea like a Victorian lady holding up her petticoats,
‘Really cold’, he says.
‘When we get to my flat’, I tell him, ‘you’ll be warm enough’.

‘What’s that?’, he said, pointing at the pouffe.
‘It’s a pouffe’, I replied.
He walks around the living room, warily, looking at it from several angles.
‘What does it do?’
‘You put your legs on it when you’re sitting on the sofa’.
‘It’s green’.
‘Yes’.
‘Yewwww . . .’.
‘Shall we just sit down and, er, warm up and . .’.
‘With that thing, there?’
I sit down. He lingers for a bit, and then he sits down, too. We look at each other and we smile.
‘I really liked your profile’, I tell him. ‘We’ve got a lot in common, haven’t we? It was great to chat online, but I’m so glad we’ve met’.
‘Seriously’, he says, ‘it’s called a pouffe?’
‘Yes . .’.
He looks at it for several seconds.
‘I can put it out on the landing if you like, if you’ve got a . . . Phobia’.
‘It’s still been in here, though’.
‘Put it out if your mind’.
He smiles.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to’.
And then neither of us says anything for a while. I can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
‘A green pouffe . . .’.
‘Yes’.
He sighs, leans back in his chair.
‘I was in the jungle’, he whispers. ‘They said I was green. Green meant new, apparently. But I was more likely green because I just felt so unwell. The food, you see . . . And everything in the jungle was green, too. Have you ever really looked at the colour green? There are so many varieties. Green leaves, moss, bark, more leaves, green everywhere. And I felt so bad, I really did feel ill.’
‘That’s a shame. Let’s snuggle . . .’.
‘They reckon I had some sort of disease, brought about by flies. Mosquitoes, probably. They do things to the mind, and affect the way that we see the world. You can never tell how it’s going to go. But with me, it was the effect of everything. The greenery. The predominance of the colour green, just kind of crowded in on me. Made me lose my senses, in a way’.
‘Jeez. So, let’s fool around a bit, you and me. .’
‘And the greenery, it did things to me. I became obsessed. We were there to film a documentary, you see. About slugs, and I was the only newbie there, the only green member of the team. And as I say, I was throwing up the whole time . . ‘.
‘You never mentioned the throwing up.’
I try to put my arm around his shoulders, but he stands up and looks out the window.
‘Sure! A never ending spume of it. I was having visions, it was like some kind of hideous trance that the jungle had put my under. So they flew me home. And the film company, they paid to send me out and recuperate in the countryside. But the countryside, oh, have you ever been to the countryside?’
‘Every now and then. Say, aren’t you hot wearing that big jumper? And those . . Jeans?’
‘There was greenery everywhere. Greenery and scenery. And the scenery was mostly green. There were fields and trees and the fields and trees were green. Especially the evergreens. The greenest evergreens I had ever seen. And there was moss and dappled sun and rhododendrons. And there were villages and villages greens. And the village greens were green. And everyone out there eats their greens. And also some of the tractors were green.’
‘Fascinating. Say, has anyone ever said what nice lips you have? Very kissable . .’.
‘So then I came back to the city . .’.
(‘Here we go . .’).
‘ . . And there was lots of green here, too. The Starbucks logo is mostly green. And so is the fungus in the bus station. And my friend Pete’s car is green. And so is the tie I was wearing yesterday. And the traffic lights are occasionally green. Red, mostly, and amber, and red and amber, but occasionally green. And salt and vinegar crisp packets. Again, green. And the District Line is green. And it passes through Turnham Green. And even though the neon signs are multicoloured, you could probably turn ’em green. Green. Everything is green.’
‘Yes, it is somewhat ubiquitous’.
‘And it does things to me. All this green. It really does affect me very badly. I can’t stand it. I get flashbacks. Green flashbacks. You’ve got to understand’.
I laid my hand on his leg and made a mental note not to include broccoli with dinner.
‘I’ll move the pouffe’, I whisper. ‘Take it away from here, if that makes you feel any better. And then I’ll start on the dinner’.
He smiles.
‘Thank you ‘, he replies. ‘I’m sorry. But it really is giving me the willies’.
I get up and I move the pouffe outside where he can’t see if, and then I come and rejoin him on the sofa.
‘Oh my god’, he says. ‘Is that footstool over there beige? Oh no! I was in the desert, you see, surrounded by miles and miles of beige sand, when I started to feel very ill . . .’.
I let out a deep sigh, lean back on the sofa, and I start peeling an orange.

On getting, or not getting, gigs.

On getting, or not getting, gigs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got lots of dates going up and appearances which I’m really looking forward to, and lately I’ve been concentrating on my new show and rehearsing and learning lines rather than hunting out performance opportunities. In fact I’ve got a little mini tour lined up, and three dates over three nights in three parts of the country. However, there’s nothing worse than the possibility of a gig slipping through your fingers. It happens every now and then, and it’s happened twice this year already.

But today. Oh my. Today . . .

Now, I don’t really mention spoken word around my family. And to be honest, I don’t think they know exactly what it is that I do. Hell, sometimes, I don’t even know what I do! They know that it’s something to do with poetry, and that it might be funny, but, like my friends too, they’re not that interested. It’s like knowing someone who works in risk management, or caravan cleaning. You’ve got a rough idea, but you’re not really that interested, and you certainly wouldn’t want to come to work and watch them.

I was chatting with my mother today and she is on the committee of the local horticulture society. They have events ever now and then, where horticulturalist can let their hair down, and one of these is coming up. She said she had been asked to find a ‘funny local poet’ to do a set at their next shindig. The poet would be paid the full going rate. Excellent, I thought, here we go! Another adventure in poetry land, a gig with the local horticulture society!

The conversation kind of went like this:

Conversation with the muv.

‘I had to book someone for our next horticulture society meeting. We need entertainment so I suggested comedy poetry’.

Me: oh yes?

Mum : Yes. I decided we needed someone good and local. So I’ve found a local comedy poet who’s going to come and perform, and we are paying her a hundred pounds.

Me: Really? Who did you get. Jackie Juno? Shelley Szender? Brenda Hutchings? ( All of whom are famous local funny poets, but by this time I’m also wondering why she hadn’t thought of me).

Mum : No. She’s called Ethel Skidmore. (Name changed to protect the actual person ).

Me: who?

Mum : Ethel Skidmore. Apparently she’s the funniest poet in Torbay,

Me : I’ve never heard of her.

Mum : She was very highly recommended by a friend of mine. Yes, Ethel Skidmore. So I looked her up and she does lots of local amateur dramatics, so she must be good. She’ll do some Pam Ayres for us, and other funny poems like that one about being old and dressing in purple, and she might even do one or two she wrote herself. Can you imagine that! She even writes her own poems as well as performing!

Me : So you want the funniest poet in Torbay and you found someone called Ethel Skidmore.

Mum: yes. We are all very excited! She even plays the ukulele.

I think the moral of this story, really, is that even my closest relatives have absolutely no idea what it is that I do! And also that what people really want, at the end of the day, is a Pam Ayres impersonator. Or at least, the local horticulture society!cropped-img_3625.jpg

On having a larf.

For goodness sake, anything makes me laugh these days. I don’t know what it is but if it’s funny, then I’m in to it. Over the last week I’ve listened to Steve Martin, watched a Judd Apatow Netflix special, several episodes of the Larry Saunders show, I’ve listened to Gecko’s wonderful album, Ivor Cutler, watched an Arnold Brown DVD, Flight of the Conchords, and, believe if or not, Hinge and Brackett. Oh, and I’ve just started rereading Hunter S Thompson.

Why this sudden need to immerse myself in comedy? And also the sort of comedy that I don’t normally watch or listen to or read?

For some reason I’m remarkably receptive at the moment to anything which makes people laugh. I start each day with web comedy shows of snippets, such as Portlandia, to which I’ve become addicted, or Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. I’ve also watched hundreds of hours of random sketches and web broadcasts from comedians and Youtubers, some of which is particularly cringe worthy or not really funny. And that’s now I spend my breakfast, a bowl of coco pops and squinting at my iPad.

Life by its very nature is serious, and because it’s so serious, it’s also inherently funny. We go to work and we work and we come home from work. To my mind the funniest places in the world are the city of New York and the whole of Britain. These are places where life is taken seriously yet, at the same time, not that seriously. Where humour exists to alleviate awkwardness or to get a point across, where sarcasm dances with parody to create something truly special.

Watching all these funny people, I noticed something funny, and that’s the Funny Muscle. Being funny and spontaneous is a skill which can be developed. I’m using mine right now as I write this sentence and I’m wondering where the next time during this sentence will be where I might be funny. Ok, so it didn’t happen during that sentence, and it’s probably not happening during this sentence either.

The weird thing is, immersing myself in such a way has helped me to see the world differently. I have a day job, which is filled with the usual petty annoyances and temporary hardships, but I look at it now more as a sitcom. Admittedly, not a very interesting sitcoms, but the situations which arise certainly have comedy in retrospect. I get home and I laugh, honestly, I do. Likewise, if you’re afraid of a person, or have a certain aversion to a person because of the way that they make you feel, then look at them as a character in a sitcom. They begin to conform to their own stereotypes and this makes them funny, even if they’re not funny people.

Perhaps that’s why I’m watching so much comedy, and so much diverse comedy. The warbling and innuendo of Hinge and Brackett are a long way from the stand up of, say, Trevor Noah, but they are a diversion from my every day life which I feel that I need right now, to take my mind off the normal crushing loneliness of existence. And in not restricting myself to a certain genre or type of comedy, I’m hoping to give my comedy muscle a huge work out. Though obviously, not enough to end this blog with a joke. IMG_0348

On having a sofa phobia.

During a performance in Plymouth the other night, the host encouraged the poets to talk about fear and what it was that each was afraid of. Ever since I was little I’ve had an irrational fear of sofas.

I have no idea why this is. The look of a sofa, to me, is really quite disgusting, so much so that it becomes a hindrance especially when people want you to come round their house. I do not have a sofa of my own and I doubt that I ever will, and I can’t even watch a sitcom or a soap opera if there is a sofa present on screen.

I go around to visit friends and I just kind of linger. Either that, or I sit on a kitchen chair. The worst thing about dinner parties is that, eventually, the host will say something like, ‘Let’s all go and sit in the living room’, and sure enough they will have a sofa, looming there with all its evil intent, and I will shudder inside and try to summon up some courage. It’s why I don’t go to many dinner parties.

I cannot describe how disgusting sofas are. It’s the cushions, primarily, and the fact that they are so big and cumbersome, and that people sit on them and eat and generally live their lives on sofas. The worst thing of all – and this really does give me the willies – is when you are on a train and you see abandoned sofas in people’s back gardens. It really does make me feel quite queasy.

At the moment my favourite art gallery in Torquay is having an exhibition of abstract art, the centrepiece of which is a giant sofa covered in graffiti, and there is no way that I will be going there until after the sofa has gone. I saw a picture on the internet and it was like being slapped in the face.

My sister thinks that this bizarre phobia goes back to when we were kids, and there was a particularly nasty sofa at a relative’s house, sitting on which felt like you were being eaten by a big cushiony fabric-covered monster. This might be true, but I think the real reason is that even before this, when I was a baby, I remember having jelly and dropping some on the sofa at my Uncle’s house. I remember being upset because the site of that jelly on the sofa was so disgusting, and I remember people fussing around reassuring me that I would have some more jelly, and me trying to explain that this was not what I was freaking out about. I’ve always hated jelly, too.

Coffee shop sofas are okay so long as I sit directly in the middle of them. So is the sofa at Tim’s house, a good friend and poetry colleague. Again, so long as I sit directly in the middle, equidistance from the arm rests. (Just typing this is making me feel sick).

So there I was on stage in Plymouth the other night, talking about my sofa phobia, and the audience was laughing, when a woman said that yes, she completely understood, and that she, too, had a sofa phobia. ‘Is it the cushions?’, she asked. Yes, I replied.

Because of that I feel able to write about this now. It’s an unusual affliction and quite humorous to the uninitiated, but it’s real, and I thank you for your support in sharing this with you.

I’m going to go for a lie-down, now.