I had a lovely gig in Bristol the other week. The venue was a theatre on an old lightship in the harbour. It was moored to the quay almost totally static but even so I kept lurching sideways. The boat wasn’t even rocking, it was probably just something psychological going on deep within me. Boat = movement. What a nob, I expect people thought.
I’d fretted a lot over my set for the gig. I often get Set Fret but this was something else. I wanted to do some of my old bangers, of course, but I also know that I can’t keep hold of them forever, and that the new stuff has to be unleashed on the world at some point.
But there’s also another thing going on. Over the last couple of years I’ve begun to assess what it is that I like in a performance and I’ve been trying to translate that to what I do on stage. Humour and timing, of course, are things I’ve always had an eye on, and hopefully been got at, but lately there are one or two thinks that I’ve been tinkering with because, well people change over the years, don’t they?
One of these things is volume. I’ve begun to appreciate volume. Or rather, I’ve begun to appreciate it less.
Maybe I’ve been watching too many Ivor Cutler videos. Or Bob Newhart. Or, come to think of it, almost all the people I watch for enjoyment. Laurie Anderson. Edith Sitwell. Alan Bennett. They’re all quiet, somewhat reserved, and seldom loud. Yet they’re funny and they’re clever and I want to be both of those things. I’ve been to plenty of poetry gigs where the poet - and it’s usually a young man, though I don’t want to develop stereotypes- suddenly starts bellowing into the mic halfway through a poem. That sort of thing’s not for me. I’d feel I was bullying. If you’re going to shout, then at least stand back from the mic. I feel it also changes the dynamic of a performance from enjoyment to hostility. I know that some people may enjoy this, and may appreciate this in a performance, because a performance is what it is and what we’re all there for, but we’re all different, and hooray for that. For me, though as soon as a performer starts shouting, I feel that I want to Get Out Of There. So I come away from these performances hoping that I don’t annoy people in the same way.
So this means that I’ve been trying to adopt a more relaxed, conversational tone when delivering my linking material. And I’ve been working hard at this, because it’s hard, after a lifetime adopting something of a more performative tone. But I’ve been having a bash at it. Here’s my little secret as to how I’ve been conditioning myself to be slightly more conversational and less forced: I start my set with the words, ‘Hello, there’. It’s impossible to be loud or forced when the first thing you have said is, ‘Hello, there’. And if I feel myself getting more forced or desperate or less conversational, then I say to myself, ‘Hello, there’.
One of the other things I’ve been concentrating on is sex. No, not in that way. I mean, the sexual content of a set and the effect that this, too, has on an audience.
In the early years of my comedy poetry career, I relied quite a bit on content of a sexual nature. Naturally, this was a comedic version of sex, performed (the poem, I mean), by someone who you’d think was probably not very good at it, and therein lay the humour. Indeed, my first collection with Burning Eye, ‘Nice’, was about relationships and more specifically, sex, in the most part. I remember someone writing in a copy of it that had found its way into a poetry library in Manchester, ‘Not nearly enough mention of sex’.
The thing is, I was in my thirties when I wrote some of those poems, and possibly just about passable enough to seem naive and comfortable with such relationships. But now I’m very nearly fifty and the idea of me being on stage talking about sex seems, well, creepy. I’m aware that many in the audience will be thinking the same thing.
I’m not alone with this idea. I was chatting with an LGBT performance poet who’s much higher up the spoken word ladder than me, and he was saying that he is going through a similar process of removing the sexual content from his sets because, as he gets older, he feels it less and less appropriate. I felt that this vindicated the unease I also feel these days of standing at the mic and talking about orgasms and the such. It also maximises the humour when I might mention something vaguely sexual during a set.
So it feels that I’m becoming much more mature as a comedy poet, and gosh, that’s taken it’s damn time. I’m more aware of the audience and more aware of what it is which makes me feel, after a performance, that I’ve done something I can be proud of. This has come about through several years of studying what it is that people laugh along with (as well as laugh at). It also means, hopefully, that I’ll not be stereotyped, just like the words written in that copy of Nice.
We all change. In fact, that was the subject of my very first solo show, ‘Static’. But right now, I’ve never felt so relaxed as a performer, and so at one with my material. Another friend of mine, the American fringe performer Dandy Darkly, once said to me that you can be as silly and as weird as you want to be, so long as you do it with conviction, and that’s definitely what I’ve been aiming for of late.
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
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
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’,
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
There was always something special about the house where my Grandparents lived. On a wooded hill to the west of London, in winter the back bedroom window looked out over the whole of the city right the way from Heathrow to Canary Wharf and if you looked close enough you could see the fins of the aircraft winding their way between the hangars, the motorway signs of the M25, and maybe I’m just imagining it, but the lights of Piccadilly Circus. Actually, I’m probably just imagining that last one.
The front windows looked out over dense woodland. Dense, creepy woodland which in my imagination went on and on and housed bears, wolves, ghosts, and extended all the way to the Arctic. I was a pretty imaginative kid. The woods actually ended after a couple of miles with a golf course. But it’s always fun to paint such vivid pictures.
The thing about my Grandparent’s house was that bits had been added on the back over the years, so that what once had been a two up, two down cottage was now a two up, six down jumble of rooms one built on the back of another, so that it was always an adventure as a kid making your way from the front living room to the toilet, passing through five different doors and feeling as if one were getting further and further away from planet earth.
But it was a house where I always felt happy and comfortable, because it seemed like the sort of place where nothing bad could ever happen. There was a jumble of outbuildings at the bottom of the garden, one of which was Grandad’s magical workshop which had lathes and drills and drawers and a workbench and blueprints and I imagined him pottering away like the mad inventor that he probably was, and how I would later become a similar mad inventor, except with words. Perhaps.
The best day of the year was Christmas Eve. We would go to visit my Grandparents and the dark woods would kind of hold a romance within them, and the lights of London would twinkle like stars, and halfway through the evening, Gran would go to the kitchen and come back with sausage rolls baked in the oven, severed on her famous ‘silver salver’, and to be, this felt the most festive time of the year. And we’d chat, and Grandad would get merry on his whiskey, and my sister and I would sit on the floor and have cola, and it seemed such the most perfect night of the year.
It’s probably my Grandad that I most resemble. We both wear the same kinds of glasses and I found a photo of him the other day where he was wearing clothing remarkably similar to that which I wear on stage. Grandad was a mild, quietly-spoken man who would make a room crack up with just a soft-spoken phrase or one-liner. He was kind of a mix of Ronnie Barker and George Burns, and I miss him every day even though he passed away in 1995.
‘Have you been waiting long?’, I remember my gran once asking.
‘No, not at all’, he’d replied. ‘I watched the sun go down, and I watched the Moon come up’.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I’ll be off to my mother’s in Brixham. And tomorrow night, she will bake some sausage rolls and we’ll be using that same silver salver. It’s a tradition we’ve kept up with every year.
The following poem is taken from my book Woodview, the first third of which is about life growing up in that house on the hill in the woods.
Christmas Eve on Knowle Hill
In this room sing the memories of moments,
of spiced pies and flames a flicker,
frost sipped from removed overcoats which
smell of cross city trains, junctions,
winding B roads to this wooded hill
and a cottage barricaded against forest intensity.
Glimmer stars glimpsed between bare branches,
curtains drawn. The city lights undulating
on waves of cold, curtains drawn.
Ramshackle architecture, bits added on, the
kitchen with the oven through labyrinths of dark
passageways, rooms locked against the winter,
A spindly tree with multicoloured lights
and baubles on the picture tail, tinsel
twisting as heat rises from the gas fire.
A draught under the living room door.
Can you smell the sweetness of the city?
I hum this festive murmur of jovial
whisky warmth, sausage rolls, a silver salver,
seasonal serviettes and a quiet magic in the
woodland mysterious, this love we have
for moments and memories past.
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.
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!
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.’
‘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?’
‘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’.
Torquay 2 Woking 2
Three hundred or so low guttural individual voices
Combine into a cohesive whole, a chorus of
Feral anticipation as custard coloured titans
Skip on to the pitch, the first among them kind of
Punches limply through a paper hoop
Emblazoned with their team sponsor's logo,
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
Three half-hearted palm slaps and then the paper gives way,
These athletic specimens of masculinity and matching socks,
Shiny blue polyester shorts a-gleam under the spotlights,
Back slaps and star jumps, half-hearted jogging,
While the opposing team, who must have had an
Awfully long bus ride, kind of slouch on to the field,
Mooching along the sides of the pitch like slugs around lettuce.
I'd brought a book to read assuming there would be seats.
Instead I was pressed up against the lanky frame of an
Ever so friendly thought unusually potty-mouthed
A rote of a lad who replica custard coloured shirt
Had last year's sponsor, McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd.,
And who suggested at top column that the home team
Might like to consider breaking the fucking legs of the opposition.
Someone then tried to start a chant going,
'Oh we do like to beat them beside the seaside!
We're gonna beat you by two or three!'
But it kind of got drowned out
To a chant of 'Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Put them all in intensive care!
Captain Ollie's got great hair!'
I have come with a friend who's there for the football
But also to show me the football and he
Made a kind of grimace when I said I'd brought a book.
The home team did some warm up exercises.
'They're dancing!' I said, 'it's all a bit camp, isn't it?'
Number 32 is just my type, bleach blond hair, stubble,
Long legs and snake hips.
'Coooo-eeeee! Over here! Yoooo-hooooo!'
My pal said, 'He's on loan from Bournemouth'.
I said, 'That's okay, I'd give him back in one piece'.
The stadium announcer extols the virtues of both teams
And attests to the veracity of
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost,
And the game begins, number 32s elegant fingers splayed
As he dribbles the ball, like he's a ballet dancer,
Or a gymnast balancing on a beam, though even
The home team audience yells that he's a useless
Time wasting tossbag who gets the ball and does fuck all,
Go back to Bournemouth you useless waste of space.
He's got lovely eyes.
The ground rumbles and thuds as they race from one end
To the other, kicking up clods of grass and winning
The applause of the audience who shout encouragement,
These lads in custard who aim at the goal at the other end,
Someone misses a sitter, someone else scuffs it,
And then the ball goes in the corner and two opposing players
Prance and dance around it like Torville and Dean.
My eyes kind of wander off to the other side
Where twenty or so or the away team supporters chirrup
And you can just make out the faded lettering of
Last years sponsor showing through under a new coat of paint,
McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd. is better than any competition.
Only the word 'tit' is still showing.
My pal has already told me in advance
The skill of number 10, whose speciality is
Less the sublime and precocious nature of his craft,
More his knack for falling over at just the right moment,
Now he goes down like a sack of spuds and the
Audience erupts, apparently this is a good thing,
He's allowed to aim a ball at the keeper and boom,
In it goes, I almost spill my cup of tea
As I'm jostled and the lad next to me flings
His arms around my neck, jumps up and down, the
Tea oscillates as I breathe in his Lynx Africa antiperspirant,
I must say I enjoy it a lot.
And now I want number 10 to fall over again.
Wouldn't you know it, he does, never fails to disappoint,
Fortune smiles twice in the low setting sun,
Achilles in his death throes, Icarus mid melt,
Our hero is downfallen and rolling in the mud like a hippo,
The ref's cheek bones prominent as his blows his whistle.
Boom, scores! The audience is enraptured once again,
Another clingy embrace of Lynx Africa,
I'm a cuppa carrying eucalyptus and he's my own personal koala,
Number 32 looks down wistfully as if jealous, I hope,
Oh, I hope, of me and my new found tame delinquent
Who sips a surreptitious beer from a paper bag and
Chinks against my half spilled Darjeeling, cheers!
Caught up in the joy of the moment I attempt to start a chant
Based on the third movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony
But it doesn't take hold.
Really, I'm only here for my pal who's brought me along.
This is his culture and I'm an interloper.
But I want to show that I understand life
Beyond the cliche, broaden my mind and experience
Every nuance of our shared cultural history.
'We're winning ', he says during the interval
As we queue for pies sold from a shed
Next to the unoccupied press box.
'Well, they are', I point out, 'We're just watching'.
I'm taking him to a drag show next weekend.
And then the announcer wants us all to sing happy birthday
For Little Liam, whose favourite player is number ten.
And Little Jimmy, whose favourite player is number ten,
And Little Jack, whose favourite player is number ten,
And he reminds us that we can all vote for the
J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost
Man of the Match, which is usually won by number ten.
'I'd like to vote for number 32', I say, perhaps too loudly,
And everyone around me laughs and says how funny,
They love my sense of humour.
Two more goals soon after the interval.
Perhaps the audience has tired itself out,
I'm the only one who seems excited, and my new friend
In the McClintock shirt hardly seems inclined at all
To repeat his usual celebratory hijinx, no doubt
Enervated by his previous exertions and the two litre bottle of cider
Stuffed down the front of his trackie bottoms,
And when the ref calls a halt to the show I pat
My pal on the back and ask whether four nil in some kind
Of club record.
It was two all, he says, they switched ends.
Why didn't the announcer explain this
Before I got excited over nothing?
Oh, this communal kickabout, this colossal crowd clapping
This unified oneness this matey definitely not homoerotic bonding,
This celebration of the hunter's skill this
All-encompassing rough and tumble this slippery sport a spurt
With spurious curiosities this worship of the physical
This proof of prayer this spectacle this weird excuse
To suddenly bellow 'Nice tackle!' and no one bats an eyelid
This playing out of certain urges but would they ever let me
Join in? No, probably not, and number ten has got mud all over him.
What did you think?, my pal asks
As we file like clocked off factory workers
Into the adjacent streets, not that he's interested really,
Immediately he then adds, shall we get some chips?
I think of number 32
In the dressing room.