How I’ve changed as a performer

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.

Gom – A sound poem performed by Robert Garnham Live in Bristol

As a performance poet I believe it is exciting and perhaps even necessary to look at what has come before. In such a way you might be inspired in ways you’d never imagine. I can’t remember how I got into the sound poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, but this poem is a response to that.

Performed live at Satellite of Love, January 2023, Bristol. Photos by Marius Grose.

Gom, Bristol 2023

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

Dancing with the Electric Dragons of Venus – An Audio Solo Show about LGBT history.

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

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.

Flurgen

Poem

Flurgen the Viking lay on the floor of the house
A spear sticking from the middle of his back.
Bloody hell, who did this?

My friend Mark has bet me ten quid that
I couldn’t incorporate the number 12 bus timetable
Into this poem.

Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.
Flurgen the Viking dead on the floor.
Whoever pulls the spear from his back
By Icelandic law
Has to avenge his death.

0723 Brixham Town Square
0724 Brixham New Road
And every twelve minutes thereafter.

Will it be Erik Jansen?
Will it be Jan Ericsson?
Will it be Ethel Shufflebottom?
She’s not from round these parts.
0726 Brixham Monksbridge Drive

I don’t know what happened
To the man who was meant to
Come and fix my door.
I don’t even care what happened.
I just want some closure.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.

Ethel yanks the spear.
That’ll do to train my runner beans, she says.
But now you have to avenge the death of Flurgen,
Points out Jan Ericsson.
Can’t be arsed with that, she replies.
0729 Churston Village.

I work in a shop
Which sells ornamental horses
This morning I sold three on the trot.
I said to the bloke,
You wanna box for that?
He knocked me out in Round Two.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.

0730 Churston Village School

Ethel that’s a fine spear you’ve got there.
Shame about Flurgen.
0731 Churston Village.
The bus is going backwards!
My brother’s got a police record.
It’s Every Breath You Take.
He played it on a old gramophone.
Wow, I said, that’s an old gramophone.
Is it a wind-up?
No, he said, it’s real.
Yesterday the sunrise was resplendent.
I work in a shop
Which sells ornamental horses.
He knocked me out in Round Two.
0733 Windy Corner.
Get up, Flurgen, for goodness sake.
The bus is going backwards!
I just want some closure.

In a misty glen Ethel
Came across the miscreant.
Did you kill Flurgen Flurgenssen?, she asked.
Yes, he said.
She gave him a damn good frowning andf said,
0734 Broadsands Library
Except for Bank Holidays
She said
How come the Three Musketeers
Are called the Three Musketeers
When there’s four of them
And they don’t use muskets?
She said
0735 Cherrybrook Drive
She said
Hey Mark that’s ten quid you owe me
She said
ABBA were being stalked
By Hank Marvin and his band.
Won't somebody help me chase the shadows away?


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.

Bad Pint

Bad pint 

‘To be honest’, he says, ‘I really can’t remember getting home last night ‘.

         And there he is, standing in the doorway of my flat, and he’s saying this with what almost amounts to a hint of jubilation in his voice. It’s New Year’s Day. And he obviously did get home last night.

          ‘Didn’t your brother give you a lift?’

          ‘He might have done, yeah, but . . . You know, I’m never drinking again. Well, not for a bit. Time for a dry January’.

          It’s four in the afternoon and he’s obviously just got up.

          ‘I must have had a bad pint or something’.

          ‘There’s no such thing as a bad pint. It’s just an urban myth’.

          ‘Mum used to say all the time, whenever I got like this, that it’s a bad pint. That’s what does it. Ask anyone’.

          ‘It’s a euphemism’.

          ‘A new what?’

           ‘Euphemism’.

           ‘They should get Health and Safety to look into these breweries. All these bad pints. Oh, my head!’

          He comes in and sits down in my armchair.

          ‘Ohhh, I think I’m going to be . .’.

          I hold the waste paper bin under his nose.

          ‘It’s ok’, he says. ‘I’ve swallowed it’.

          ‘Dear god!’

          I look at him, sitting there. He’s wearing his t-shirt and shorts, the clothes that he wears when he’s in bed. At least he had time to change out of the clothes that he had been wearing. I look at him, with his features that look like the face of a teenager has been grafted on to the frame of a sixty year old.

          ‘Can you remember midnight?’ I ask.

          ‘No’.

          ‘The fireworks woke me up’.

          ‘You were asleep?’

          ‘Yes’.

          ‘Jeez. You’re such a party animal’.

          ‘But you had a good time, though?’

          ‘I can’t remember’.

          I look out of the window. It was a mild, overcast afternoon. I can see people walking past to the park at the end of the street. I live in the ground floor flat directly beneath his. I knew that he was asleep because I couldn’t hear him moving around. I couldn’t hear his television, either.

          ‘Do you want something to eat?’

          ‘Urghhhhh’.

          He puts his hand right over his eyes.

          ‘Never drinking again. Too many bad pints’.

          His brother also lives in the same building. When the fireworks had started at midnight, his brother had gone outside and started up his car, and then he had just sat there for a bit, watching the fireworks from behind his windscreen. His rear brake lights had lit up my flat an otherworldly red as the new year came in. I must have gone back to sleep just after he had driven away.

          ‘I think maybe it might be a good idea for you to go off the booze for a little while’, I say to him.

          ‘I told you! It was a bad pint! And anyway, I’m doing the dry January thing. Not that I need it. Don’t you listen?’

          ‘I know, but you’re never serious about these things’.

          ‘Bucket’, he says.

          I reach for the waste paper bin again.

          ‘Swallowed’.

          His mother had thought we were lovers. I’ve never told him this, because I knew he’d go off on one. And when I’d told her that we weren’t, at the time that she was seriously ill and only a few days away from dying, she had told me that I should look after him. Make sure that he was okay. And I’d said, yes, I will. And that’s why I’d had been relieved, the night before at midnight, when I’d heard his brother get in the car at midnight.

          ‘I was thinking of going for a walk’, I say.

          ‘Urghhhhh’.

          He clamps his hand right over his eyes, tightly.

          ‘Work, tomorrow’, I whisper.

          ‘I know’, he says. ‘Bad pint . . .’.

          He gets up and shuffles towards the door.

          ‘Let me know if you need any food’, I tell him.

          ‘Yeah’, he says.

          ‘Yeah, you do, or yeah, you don’t?’

And then he’s gone, and it’s a happy new year, and the kids are going past on their bicycles and skateboards to the park at the end of the road, and the sun is already beginning to set, and his brothers car is still there where he’s parked if the night before, after he had brought him home.

In Search of Lost Thiim

IN SEARCH OF LOST THIIM

The fact is that for some time now Professor Zazzo Thim has been lost, and it is my duty to find him. The manner of his disappearance is, beyond question, one of the most unusual cases I have ever come across. Yet the evidence I have before me, and the testimony of various witnesses, all point to the one conclusion: that Professor Zazzo Thiim is trapped, helpless, somewhere in Marcel Proust’s grand novel, ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’.

          It did not take me long to deduce the basics of this case. Various students and colleagues of the Professor attested that he was busy constructing some sort of grand device in the basement of the institute in which he was employed. Various noises had been heard from the cellar towards the end of each academic day, and strange lights were seen by those leaving the building, orange in hue and regulating a slow rhythm. Those closest to the Professor could not find out from him exactly what it was he was building, though one colleague, Doctor Hermann Spatt, was most helpful in his assertion that the Professor was constructing a device which would, atom by atom, replicate his body as a series of words, and distribute them throughout a chosen text.

          ‘How do you know this?’ I asked.

          Spatt grinned at me from across his desk.

           ‘l asked my dear old colleague. I came right out and asked him. Of course, he was pretty drunk at the time. But he told me what the machine entailed and what would happen to him as a result’. 

          At this, Spatt’s smile faded, and he leaned back in his chair.

           ‘Such a sad waste’, he whispered.

          ‘You must obviously have been close to your colleague’, I said, gently.

          ‘Thiim? Oh no, I couldn’t stand the chap. What I’m sorry about is that a book so wondrous as ‘a la recherche . .’ should be sullied by his ugly mug’.

          The key to the basement in question remained locked and, on account of the strong, fortified doors to the cellar. I quickly deduced that it would take months, possibly years to enter that sacred room. Yet I remembered what Doctor Hermann Spatt had told me, and I set about reading Proust’s epic tome, that I may find some mention within its pages of the eminent Professor Zazzo Thiim.

          The institute was good enough to provide me with accommodation during my stay. It was late autumn, and the trees were almost without their leaves. The paths around the parkland in which the institute is set were slippery, and it seemed the sky was hardly ever anything but a deep grey. 

          Proust’s volumes accompanied me everywhere. I would take walks in the

gardens, or through the woods, with one volume open under my nose and the next thrust under my arm. I would go to the dining hall and sit with the other students, hardly noticing their banter, so engrossed was I in the societal gossip as recorded by the redoubtable Marcel. Even my rare journeys outside of the campus were spent in the company of the Guermantes family, the many minor characters and the overriding sense of times past as recorded in those weighty books. It seemed my whole life had started to revolve around the novel, and I would make lísts of the endless family members, associates and contemporaries of the narrator, but each evening I would sit down and study these lists, safe in the knowledge that none of those mentioned bore the slightest resemblance to Professor Zazzo Thiim.

          At around this time, Doctor Hermann Spatt, with the help of two science students and a Professor in electronics, began to build a machine using the blueprints found in Thim’s empty office which might, when up and running, be able to rescue the Professor from the depths of the accursed novel. The machine started to take shape in a far corner of the institute’s gymnasium, roped off from the rest of the hall by an arrangement of badminton nets, and each lunch time I would call in to see what progress was being achieved. 

          ‘None at all, Spatt said, despairingly. ‘The machine just wont function. It needs more electricity than we are supplied’.

          ‘Then how did Thiim’s machine run so effectively?’ I asked.

          Spatt pushed back the hair from his forehead and let out a deep sigh. “The energy needed to suck a character from a book is ten times more powerful than that needed to throw a character into the narrative. You see, Thiim had the advantage of gravity, but we have nothing, nothing at all’.

          I walked around the machine and looked at it from many angles.

          “It’s looking quite hopeless’, Spatt said, and l swear I saw a tear well in the corner of his eye as he contemplated his missing colleague.

          That night I retired to my room. By now the bed was covered with the six volumes of Proust’s masterpiece. My reading of it was haphazard at best, covering the first three sections of each novel simultaneously, so that my understanding of the plot and the order in which Marcel’s life was playing out was tenuous at best. At worst,I didn’t know what was going on.

          So many dukes, matriarchs, minor members of the aristocracy, childhood memories, subtle, beautiful women with strangely masculine names. That night I fell asleep and found myself in a nightmare, a dark, dismal Paris street where Proustian characters advanced upon me with their arms outstretched, their eyes displaying a frightening malice, humming, intoning some strange, ritualistic prayer which sounded for all the world like Kylie Minogue’s first hit single, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. I woke with a start, frightened into reality yet not trusting the world around me, the darkness of the night, the wind which, ever so gently, was roaring in the trees and stripping them of the last of the leaves.

          I got up and walked to the window. I was dizzy, I was sweating, yet the room was cold. It was as if the natural laws which surrounded and informed us all had ceased, that the earth itself no longer recognised whatever constitutions had kept it going for so many years. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the trees, and the leaves falling, one by one, across the sodium light of a campus street-lamp.

          ‘My God’, I whispered.

          Excitedly, I telephoned Doctor Hermann Spatt immediately. He answered on the third ring, and asked, blearily, what it was I wanted.

          ‘The machine!'”, I said. ‘You remember what you were saying? That Thiim had the benefit of gravity?’

          ‘Hmm?’

          ‘And that we needed more energy because we were sucking a character out of a book, not throwing one in?’

          ‘Yes?

          ‘Then why don’t we just turn the whole machine upside down? Put the machine on the floor and the book suspended above!’

          There was silence on the other end of the line, and then Spatt’s voice cane back. ‘My word!’, he said, ‘You’re a genius!’

          The next morning Spatt, accompanied by his assistants, set to work making the modifications I had suggested, while I, now with the help of three assistants of my own, continued my reading of Proust’s novel. We each took a volume and, starting at the very beginning, ploughed our way through the dense script, using different translations and even the French language original, so that we were working on three separate texts at once. Halfway through the afternoon Spatt rang to tell me that the machine was working perfectly, and all it needed was for me to find Thiim in the novel so that we might rescue him. This news gave us a welcome feeling of progress and we intensified our efforts until, by six in the evening, we were all very tired and our eyes and heads ached.

          ‘Thank you, lads’, I whispered, as they headed towards the door.

          ‘Erm, we were wondering’, said one of them, an amiable young man by the name of Adam. ‘Would you like to come out for a drink tonight?’

          I smiled at their offer, for it was proof that we had gelled as a team. “Thank you, but I would rather maintain my faculties’, I told them.

          Their shoulders slumped.

          ‘And I suggest you do the same, for we need our full concentration if we are ever to find the Professor’.

          Adam smiled. ‘Very well’, he said. ‘We wouldn’t have gone overboard, anyway. Just a couple of drinks and then back home’.

          ‘Thanks once again’, I whispered.

The days were getting shorter, and once I had eaten my dinner, (accompanied, once

again, by the ever-present Monsieur Proust), I went back to my room and prepared for sleep. To be honest, I was beginning to doubt that we would ever find Thiim in this mammoth book, and a part of me was content just to sit back and enjoy the experience of being a small part in such a large, well-funded experiment. Though the more l thought about it, the more desperate l started to become, as I realised that the whole project now depended on me and my abilities  wade through the novel for just the smallest clue. Worse still, I was afraid to sleep, for I knewthat I would be haunted by Kylie once again, that inane, stupid song, 1 Should Be So Lucky!’

Timidly, I retired to my bed.

          At two in the morning I was woken by a fierce pounding on my door. Hardly able to concentrate, I opened the door and blinked in amazement to see Robert de Saint-Loup.

          ‘Do forgive my intrusion’, said he, ‘But I was wondering if you had had word of the Duc de Guermantes?”

          ‘I beg your pardon?’, said I, hardly believing my eyes.

          At that moment M. de Charlus bounded down the corridor and patted Saint-Loup on the shoulder. 

          ‘There you are!”, said he. His eyes then focused on myself, standing in the doorway in a pair of boxer shorts and nothing else.

           ‘Hello!’, he said, twirling his moustache.

          ‘I say!’, said a voice from the end of the corridor. 

          They both looked up and bowed, courteously, as Albertine approached. “Are you not on the way to the Verdurin ball? I proclaim it to be the most whimsical event of the decade!’

          Hurriedly, I shut my door, then went over to the window. Oh, what a scene met my eyes!

          The quiet park was awash with people, elegantly dressed, bowing, nodding, dancing, chatting in the glare of the street-lamp as if they were in a ball or a turn of the century function. And they were all, I was horrified to note, characters from Marcel Proust’s mighty tome.

         I telephoned Spatt and he confirmed my worst suspicions. Some students, drunk of course, had broken into the gymnasium and fiddled with the machine.   

          Instead of pulling the hapless Thiim from the depths of the novel, they had, wantonly and without thought to the effects of their crime, pulled out every other character instead.

          ‘But this is horrendous!’, I whispered.

          ‘There’s no choice’, said Spatt. ‘We must round them all up and post them back into that hideous novel. Do you know what they’re doing now? They’re in the canteen, holding a mass madeleine tasting. This has got to stop!’

          ‘There’s only one way we can get them back into the novel’, I told the Doctor. ‘We must break into the basement and use Thiim’s machine’

          It took the best part of the night to round up all of the characters. Because we had been using three different translations, there were three of each of them, and the three Marcels had met some time after half four and, indignant that their individualities had been compromised, had challenged each other to a duel, (from which, naturally, each one backed out.) Charlus was the worst, and three of his characters had to be retrieved from the public lavatories and from various male student’s bedrooms before they were all accounted for. At last we had rounded them

all up and we were engaged in the act of congregating them around the door to the basement, a tricky act which was achieved only by the entertainment of a piano playing Chopin and the liberal refreshment of champagne. Spatt and I, meanwhile, busied ourselves at the door. The thick oak would not budge to our shoulders, neither to a rudimentary battering ram fashioned out of an old roll-top desk. However, when one of the Robert de Saint-Loups saw what we were trying to achieve, he supplied us with some dynamite which, he assured us, was fresh from the Great War battlefields.

          The following explosion was deafening. Two of the Mme de Verdurins went flying through the air, their stiff petticoats flaying in all directions. At last we entered that hallowed room and saw Thiim’s machine which, somewhat comfortingly, looked not unlike the reverse example we had fashioned in the gymnasium. Yet only now did Spatt and I see the almost fatal mistake that Thiim had made.

          Indeed, the machine functioned well, and had been put together expertly. However, the absent-minded Professor had, one can only assume, accidentally, mistakenly placed within its confines not Proust’s magnificent novel, but a CD of Kylie’s first UK Number One hit, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’

          It didn’t take long for the machine to be put to use. How affectionately we said good-bye to all the characters, who each invited us to various balls and society functions for the following Paris season. When they were all quite delivered, Spatt and I took Thiim’s CD upstairs to the gymnasium, where we placed it on top of the machine and pulled the necessary levers.

          Seconds later, Professor Zazzo Thiim materialised.

          ‘Oh, my word’, he said, feeling his nervous forehead. ‘I was having the time of my life! l’ve never danced so much!”‘

          ‘You realise what you did?’ Spatt asked.

          ‘Oh, the CD? Entirely intentional, my dear friend.

          ‘But that’s preposterous!’

          ‘So many hours I’d spent on that machine, a copy of Proust under my arm. So many years I’d dreamed of meeting those wondrous characters. Yet when it came time to leave I thought long and hard about it . . ‘.

          ‘And?’

          ‘And I realised that I would rather be with Kylie, instead’.

          ‘Good gracious!’

          ‘Well, my dear Spatt. They’re so stuffy, aren’t they? And Kylie’s much more . . . Vivacious’.

          At this, Thiim looked left, then right, then left again.

          ‘And another thing’, he added, confidentially, ‘She’s a much better dancer’.

Alas, the story does not end here. The following week, Kylie’s management refused to confirm that a new version of her original hit single had been mixed, with some quite bizarre vocals by various French dignitaries, mostly concerning the petty discriminations and social faux pas of early 20th Century Paris.

          ‘My god!’, Spatt whispered to me, down the telephone line. ‘We must have sent them to the wrong place!’

Yet not one scholar, student or academic genius happened to notice that Proust’s six-volume masterpiece now seemed not to have a single character left in it at all.