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.

On the Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose – The Best Example of Antarctica Literature ever written.

ON THE SILKEN BREATH OF A PENGUIN IN REPOSE

When I heard that the great literary extremist Professor Zazzo Thiim was holding a symposium on the use of alliteration in Antarctic literature, I knew I just had to attend.

      I knew that getting to the venue in the first place was in itself was a hard enough job; the convention was to be held in a remote hotel in the mountains which, in the middle of winter, would be cut off from the world by snow drifts, and sure enough, when the week of the convention came, the only way to get to the hotel was by walking the last two miles. As the darkness gathered around me, and large

fiakes of snow began to fll from the black, black sky, I gripped the handle of my suitcase and made my way up the track into the wilderness.

          It must have taken a couple of hours to make the journey, and when I arrived at the hotel I was feeling irritable and uncharitable to say the least. My eyes were blinded by the motion of the snow as it had flown across my vision, and my fingers numbed from gripping the case for so long. The first thing I did was to dump my bags next to the reception desk and sit next to the roaring fire, in order that I may thaw my aching bones and curse my stupidity at having set out on such a journey in the first place. Yet only the one thought, of any substance, kept coming to me as I sat there in the orange glow: after all this effort, this had better be worth it.

          I soon became aware that an old man was sitting next to me and, after a while, he asked if I was there to see Zazzo Thim.

          “Yes”, I replied, “Though I am now beginning to wonder if I have made a mistake.”

          The old man wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck and gave a chuckle. “I can assure you that the convention will be well-managed and adequately attended for my needs, for I, myself, happen to be Zazzo Thiim”.

          “What makes you so sure that it will be so well-attended?” l asked. It was snowing heavily outside now, and the hotel did not seem to be bursting with guests.

          “The subject in itself”, the old man said, smiling gleefully. “Who could fail but be enchanted by such a subject? Antarctic literature, let me remind you, is an expanding genre. I expect there shall be quite a rush tomorrow morning for seats”. 

          At this, he looked first left, and then right, and then whispered to me in a severe, confidential tone: 

          “It’s quite possible that some people might not be allowed in’.

          At once l felt bad. How close l had been in deciding not to come, yet others might not have been so foolhardy. I knew that there would probably be a limited attendance as it was, yet Thiim was sure that there would be more. I felt a sinking sensation inside of me, the dejection he might feel on walking into the conference centre that next morning only to see myself sitting there.

          “I can assure you”, I told the old man, “That we shall all be thoroughly enlightened”

          I went to my room and changed for dinner. I decided that I would enjoy myself, and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, yet the restaurant was virtually empty, with the exception of a table on the far side of the room where Professor Zazzo Thiim slurped, quite noisily, his soup. Every now and then I would look over at him and feel a well of pity deep in my stomach, and I soon decided that something would have to be done. But what could I do? As the waiters kept moving past, as if gauging whether or not we had finished, a plan began to formulate in my mind that I could, somehow, interest other people in the subject of Antarctic literature and perhaps even bribe them into attending. But the plan seemed hopeless, even fanciful.

          After dinner I went for a walk outside in the snow. The mountains loomed, black shapes and shadows in the night sky, while gentle flakes fell from above, illuminated by the lights from the hotel. A frost was setting in, and the ground crunched with each footstep. At last l came to one of the chalets, and I was just about to turn around and head back to the main building when the door opened and Zazzo Thiim himself emerged.

          “Ah!”, he said. “It’s you! Come in, come in, we shall discuss literature!” Feeling awkward at this sudden invitation, I tried to formulate some reason why I might go back, when all the time I advanced towards his cabin. “What a brave, hardy soul”, he said, “To be out on a night like this!” He held the door open for me and I entered the chalet.

          It was warm inside and a fire blazed in the hearth. He motioned that I sit down, and before long he was telling me about his interest in Antarctic literature.

          “I have always been interested in a young writer of Norwegian descent, Petter Jansen, a writer of such talent and deftness of touch. He would describe the harsh winters of his homeland and the very essence of being in the snow, a subject I would find most glamorous in comparison to my lowly upbringing. As soon as I could I decided I would seek out Jansen and learn from him the craft of story-telling, of descriptive language and other literary ideals. Only, according to those who worked in the book industry, Jansen was working in the Antarctic, at a research station near the South Pole”.

          “Armed only with protective clothing and a set of his works, I joined an expedition by ski-mobile in the middle of the Antarctic summer. The nights were cold and the days long, the sun never seemed to leave the sky, and all the time I was filled with so many questions, so much I wanted to ask. His characters, you see, were fragile beings, brittle, like flowers left too long in the frost, and I wanted to find out why he spent more time describing the weather than he did the emotions and sensibilities of his characters. There were other questions, too: why he

should have spent all his life in cold places, when surely he could have lived anywhere on the royalties from his volumes, and why he had given up writing fiction only to work as a research scientist in the South Pole.

          “On the tenth day we reached the Norwegian research station and I was privileged enough to meet Jansen. He was not what l had expected; of course, in the years since he had been published he had become an old man, and he sported the most wondrous beard, which almost reached down to the middle of his chest. He had a gruff accent, a dismissive way of sharing information, and a healthy dislike of anyone, including myself. I followed him as he worked, and watched as he drilled holes in the ice, sank instruments down into packed snow, took readings on electronic devices. He was monosyllabic, non-committal, and despite

everything, I started to wonder if I should have been there at all.

          But that night we went to his tent and he shared a bottle of vodka with me. ‘And now’, he said, ‘The real work begins’. Imagine my surprise when he produced from a wooden chest a large manuscript, several thousand pages long, and a pen, whose ink kept freezing and he had to warm by candle-light. ‘What is this?, I asked. He turned to me, wearily, his face lit by oi lamps and the candles, and he said: “This is the finest Antarctic novel ever written. Indeed’, he continued, This is the only Antarctic novel ever written’.

          I watched, silently, as he wrote. And with what devotion! He forsook everything in the outside worid, every distraction, and bent his head over the manuscript, writing with a bare hand, the fingers gripped tightly around the nib. For two hours he wrote, diligently, painstakingly, until his alarm clock buzzed and, of a sudden, he put the pen down, gathered the pages, and placed them back in a wooden chest.

          The next day followed the same routine: scientific work in the daytime, an evening of vodka, then writing by table light. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was there with him – indeed. he almost welcomed my company and the interest I showed in his writing. Finally it came time for me to leave, for my colleagues were due to start the hazardous journey back to the coast, and I decided I would revel in his company for the last time.

          “When he began writing I tried to watch the words as they were formed, but he kept shying away from me, positioning his body in such a way that I could not read what he was writing, and when the alarm clock rang to signal the end of his writing shift, he placed the pen down, the manuscript in the box, and he said to me: “That’s it now. Scram. The experiment is over!’

          ‘How crestfallen I was! It was as if I had been stabbed in the back. I returned to my tent that night feeling hurt, abused, and with a general dissatisfaction not only with Petter Jansen, but with all writers everywhere. That night I could not sleep, and a fierce wind blew up, which rattle the tent and moaned across the barren lands. In the midst of this delirium one thought came and it would not go – that possibly I might sneak into Jansen’s tent and read the manuscript for myself.

          ‘Two hours later the idea still lived with a bizarre logic. I could take the strain no more, and, as the first rays of the sun began to peek over the continental mountains, I left my lodgings, walked across the snow, and let myself into Jansen’s tent. He slept well, and I had managed to let myself in without him hearing. With the wooden box right below me, I had no choice but to open it up and read the manuscript right then and there.

          ‘Oh, the power! “The Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose’ is a work the likes of which I shall never forget! The intense truth, the humanity on display, the concern for a world forever spoiled by man’s eternal folly! The language seemed to ooze like honey poured on from a spoon, and yet the prose was sparse, the words as economical as ice. The book was set in the future, or very slightly in the future, and Jansen himself was a character, a fortune teller who was never wrong. And the final scene, where the mad explorer wipes away a frozen tear to think of the harm his fellow man has done, almost reduced me to an insensitive and indiscriminate howl

of anguish. When I glanced up, I noticed that Jansen was staring right at me.

‘What treachery is this?’, he asked. ‘My private words, spoiled for all time! What is this but an invasion of the lowest order! How dare you spoil these most sacred pages!’

          ‘I had no choice’, I replied. ‘And in any case, such a wondrous work needs an audience. There is much here that might change the world. How selfish can you be if you keep this from those who need it the most? What I have just read is the most intelligent, the most poetic work ever created’.

          ‘You have ruined my work!’, Jansen continued. ‘You have ruined me! We had a trust, you and me, a friendship . . .’.  .. And then he looked at me for a while. ‘Did you really think it was that good?’

          “So we came to an arrangement, right then and there, that I would tell the world about his work, but only if I choose locations and places that would guarantee the audience would be small. And that’s why l’m here now, in the mountains, in the middle of winter, about to host a conference on alliteration in Antarctica Literature. I mean, what kind of sad person would possibly venture all the way out here for such a thing?’

          I looked at the old man and smiled. Professor Zazzo Thiim then cleared his throat. 

          “Apart from you, that is”.

Alas, the conference did not work out exactly as he had planned. I had left messages and notes to most of the staff and the guests of the hotel that the old man needed support, that he would be crestfallen if the conference was overly attended, and that they should do everything within their powers to put off potential attendees, and yet, that next morning, when Professor Zazzo Thiim took to the stage, he was confronted by a hall completely filled with people.

          “Well …”, he said, laughing feebly into the microphone, then wincing as the feedback screeched round the hall. He activated the overhead projector to show a picture of a penguin, which then hung on the wall behind him, solemn, ethereal.

          “There is . .”, he stuttered, “There is, in the power and beauty of.  .  .Huh-huh”.          

          Pleadingly, he looked at me, as if asking that I should remember the reasons why he had decided to hold the conference at this particular hotel. So what else could I do?

While no-one else was looking, I leaned behind me and activated the fire alarms. Everyone got up from their seats and the hall was evacuated in seconds.