Spout : A show about tea!

Spout is an hour show featuring poems, stories and autobiographical silliness all around the theme of tea. If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of tea, or are a coffee drinker eager to make that leap, then Spout is the show for you! Spout is sure to create a stir.

Meet Roberts gran, who’s very fussy about how she likes her tea. Meet Aunt Rosie, who likes to sing while she’s boiling the kettle. Marvel at poems about hipster tea shops, tea-based rap songs and a group of magical fairies who specialise in baking cakes for gay weddings. This whole show will make you see tea anew!

Robert Garnham is an award winning LGBT comedy spoken word artist from Surrey. He has been long listed three times as spoken word artist of the year and has features in TV advertisements for a certain building society. Spout is his ode, his love letter, to this beverage of kings, this every day magic potion, tea!

Spout will be featuring at the Barnstaple Theatrefest, Reading Fringe, Guildford Fringe, the Glasdenbury Festival, Big Poetry and the Edinburgh Fringe, with other events to be announced soon.

Here’s an interview with the creator and writer and main performer of Spout, Robert Garnham!

I didn’t sit down to write a show about tea. I just realised one day, ‘hang on a minute. I seem to have an awful lot of poems about tea’. I think the reason behind this is that I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, invariably drinking tea, and wondering what to write about, and then looking down at the tea making paraphernalia in front of me and thinking, ‘yes, that will do’. In fact, I had so many poems about tea that some of them couldn’t possibly be squeezed into the show.

Of course, the show isn’t just about tea. In a funny sort of way, it’s probably the most autobiographical thing I’ve done. My grandmother and my aunt both feature prominently, and it was the weirdest thing, they just kind of barged their way in to the script while I was writing it. I would visit them both and invariably, out would come the tea pot and the whole ceremony of making a cuppa and having a chat. And my word, they could chat. I’d hear all the gossip about the neighbours and then they’d move on to stories about the olden days. It was always difficult getting a word in edgeways.

Working in retail, my first responsibility of every day would be to make everyone a cuppa. ‘We don’t do many miles to the cuppa’, is the saying we adopted, to explain why we would stop so often for a brew. And whenever a new recruit would start, I’d say to them, ‘are you good with technology?’ ‘Yes’, they’d reply. ‘Great, then can you go and put the kettle on’.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer mugs to cups. There’s nothing more refreshing than a strong tea made in a big thick mug. You can’t gulp tea down with a dainty cup. And there’s always the risk of accidental slurpage. A mug makes tea informal. They’re also easier for washing up, too, more robust than dainty cups. There’s a line in the show, ‘I’d rather have a dainty cup and not a builders mug’. This is pure fiction, personally speaking, and I only put the line in there because it rhymed and scanned, and not because it is true. I’m a poet and I’m allowed to do things like that.

So how would I describe Spout? It’s certainly scatalogical, a little bit weird, yet it hopefully takes the audience to places that we all know and recognise, whole simultaneously making them think about the world anew. I mean, that’s pretty lofty, isn’t it, having a show with such aims. And I hope it means that you might learn something about me, too. We’re all different, and yet we’re all the same. We are brought together by the things that we enjoy.

This show is dedicated to my grandmother Winifred, and my aunt, Mildred. Both were strong, independent women, Londoners who survived the Blitz, and helped imbue in me a love of those little stories which keep us all sane, tidbits of gossip, anecdotes, and humour in all the kinds of places where they might otherwise have been lost. They were also both prolific tea drinkers.

I hope you enjoy watching Spout as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and rehearsing it.

Gennady Yanayev : The Musical

For the last few years I’ve had an urge to write a musical. Perhaps inspired by the success of Hamilton, I, too, have pondered on a lyrical exploration of the life and times of a similar historical figure, whose story really must be told to a new generation before they sink, inevitably, into the dustbin of history.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of musicals. Whenever I’m watching them I think well, if you have something to say, just say it. No need to create a song and dance about it. I still have bad memories of the time a friend insisted we watch the classic animated film, that defining piece of art Yogi’s First Christmas. I had no idea it was a musical, and the whole thing could have been a good half an hour shorter if that characters didn’t burst into song every five minutes for no apparent reason, you know, just like people do in real life. And there was an amusing moment when the park rangers are stressing over how to get Yogi to go back to his cave and hibernate like bears are supposed to do, and I was scouting at the screen, ‘Just use a tranquilliser dart!’ Ok, so perhaps it’s wrong to diss an entire genre solely on the basis of Yogi’s First Christmas, but, unlike a lot of gay men, I’d never seen what all the fuss was about with musicals.
Until Hamilton came along. I just loved the idea of this historical biography being relayed in hip hop and rhythm, completely contemporarising the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. It made me look at the whole genre of musicals anew. And that’s when I saw how much of an exquisite art form this can be. Musicals are amazing! The songs form a bond between the subject matter and the audience, a harmony of rhythm and voice blended with words to create a shortcut to the depths of a characters soul, or merely to move the story along quickly when things get boring. And the songs, oh, the songs! Clever wordplay, sung conversations and interactions, glitz, glamour, sequins, feather boas, a celebration of choreographed movement, musicals, oh, musicals, suddenly appealed to the very depths of me!
In short, the vast majority of them are very camp.
And that’s when I decided to try and write a musical about the most un-camp person in the vast pantheon of historical figures, one of history’s losers whose story might now have been forgotten, overtaken by the urgency of current affairs.
Gennady Yanayev was the president of the Soviet Union. Yes, he was. You can look him up in the history books if you don’t believe me. He was the dictator of the largest country on the planet and one of the two big superpowers. Gennady Yanayev was he man on top. The big cheese. The head honcho of the Soviet Communist world. And like a titan, he stayed in that commanding role for almost three days. And then, just like that, he was gone.
1991. This was a time of glasnost and perestroika and the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. After decades of brutal rule and secrecy, paranoia and political persecution, subjugation, fierce control and the kind of mindset which meant that imminent nuclear annihilation was a normal fact of everyday life, so much so that it was factored in to making plans – ‘oh, were having a barbecue next Sunday, why don’t you come along? Unless the Russians obliterate Basingstoke in the mean time’ – the openness of Gorbachev was a refreshing breath of fresh air. He was affable and charismatic and media friendly, unlike Brezhnev, who always looked like a constipated badger, and his two immediate successors who both died within months of becoming leader. Gorbachev was smiley, open, breezy, and he saw that there was more to life than threatening to blow up the entire world.
But the hardliners didn’t like it. Well, they wouldn’t, would they. It’s what made them hard liners. They were hard to win over. They could see that Gorbachev’s policies might very well lead to the break up of the Soviet Union. Ha, as if that could ever happen! And OK, the Berlin Wall had come down a couple of years before leading to revolutions right across Eastern Europe, free movement of people and ideas, but Russia was still communist. They saw Gorbachev as dangerous. He had to go.
They waited until Gorbachev was on holiday. You can imagine the scene as he left the Kremlin. ‘Now you chaps behave yourself while I’m gone’. And off he went with his suitcase and trilby, probably whistling in a jaunty manner as he climbed aboard his limousine. And they watched as he left, running from window to window until his car was a dot in the distance.
The coup was led by the chairman of the KGB and the chief defence industry minister. They were the brains behind the operation. They thought that they had to take some kind of action to get the Soviet Union back on its true path. Hardliners both, but neither of them wanted to be the actual figurehead. So they chose the deputy president. They chose Gennady Yanayev.
Gennady was a grey, colourless bureaucrat with a stony face and thick glasses that magnified his slightly mad eyes. He had worked his way up through the party machine to be Gorbachev’s deputy. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him. Just the sort of person who would make the excellent lead character of my hypothetical musical. He also had another quality which adds a certain depth and almost comedic bounty to his character, and that’s the fact that he was, most of time, hopelessly drunk.
So Yanayev was declared to be the acting president of the Soviet Union, in an announcement which shocked the world and plunged international politics into a frenzy of paranoia and bad karma. It seemed as if the old, bad days of the USSR were back, that the hardliners had won while Gorbachev was being held under house arrest at his holiday dacha. Indeed, the word dacha had never been heard so much on the news. The whole world was in shock, religious leaders offered prayers, strategists and defence analysts looked at their nuclear capabilities, everyone was aghast.
Until . . .
Until Gennady Yanayev hosted his first press conference.
Never had a man looked less like a leader. He sat before the reporters and the television cameras in his brown suit and thick glasses, his hands shaking uncontrollably. He was blind drunk, and he slurred his words, his voice quavering, and when a young reporter pointed out that he had staged a coup, he was unable to reply, stumbling and bumbling over an incomprehensible answer. The next day the coup was over and Gorbachev was back in power.
And what of Gennady? Sentenced to treason, he was placed in prison but within a few years he was let out again, only to become employed by the Moscow Tourist Board. The rest of his life was conducted in relative obscurity, this rather bland individual who had once, for three days, been the president of Russia.
I envisage the musical beginning in an unglamorous office. Gennady is sitting at a desk stamping documents. There’s a bank of filing cabinets behind him. And as he stamps, in a humourless manner, he’s singing a song in a throaty, guttural fashion about how he likes paperwork. There’s truth in paperwork. There’s no wrong answer. And on the wall there are posters advertising various districts of Moscow. The scene ends when one of his bosses comes in, a young lady, who’s very sharp with him. ‘Your work is awful’, she says. ‘Just what has become of you? Have you always been this shoddy?’ Gennady looks, sadly, out the window.
The next scene goes back in time, and it’s here that I might use a bit of artistic freedom. Gennady is a young man, making his way up through the ranks. Each verse details a different rank, he’s twirling and dancing as soldiers and office workers detail the meagre ranks that he passes through. And then there’s a stirring scene where he’s asked by his wife, ‘Are you blind to our love?’, and he replies, ‘No, I’m just blind drunk’.
Next comes a scene where grey, stony faced men with deep voices invite him to join the Politburo. And then a bit of fun as we are introduced to the leaders of the Soviet Union, who One by one die off on stage, collapsing on to the floor. Brezhnev! (Dead). Andropov! (Dead). Cherenyenko! (Dead). They’re all dead, they’re all dead, and who oh who oh who is this?
A young, vibrant figure leaps on to the stage, ‘I’m Gorbachev!’
Naturally, what follows will be a joyful dance routine about how much everyone loves Mikhail. ‘Glasnost! Perestroika! Glasnost! Perestroika! We are aboard the Gorbachev train! Nothing on earth will ever be the same! Glasnost! Perestroika! Glasnost! Perestroika! We all love Comrade Gorbachev! Let’s hope he sticks around and he doesn’t bugger off’.
From here on the musical will become somewhat formulaic. There will be a soulful slow number about Yanayev’s love life, his drinking, the sadness at the heart of him and possibly a song about how he wishes he were more popular. And then the showpiece of the musical, just before the break. A riproaring smash hit of a song about the coup itself, called ‘Dacha coming atcha! We are the Gorby snatchers!’ followed by a scene in which Yanayev is pressured into becoming the new president.
Oh, I can just see it now!
After the interval, we see Yanayev in his office with a bottle of vodka, too afraid to go anywhere, looking out the window and checking for bugs. He’s lonely and he’s scared. Perhaps we might concentrate on this part of the show on his drinking problem. And next must come the press conference scene. Naturally, everything here will be exaggerated for comic effect. The press make him a laughing stock, there’s lots of rhythmical laughter and pointing and things build up into a kind of maelstrom, he finally admits that he doesn’t want to be the president. The scene will end with him being arrested.
And that’s more or less how the musical will end, with his release from prison and his interview with the Moscow tourist board being told through song. But at one stage near the end he might have the chance to put down his pen and dream.
For thirty hours, the world was his, from the frozen pines of Siberia to the heat on the coast of the Crimea, from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, this immense nation, trans continental railways and factories, farms and roads, cities and tower blocks, airports and shops, and people, millions of people, workers, students, soldiers, families, they were all his playthings while he drinker vodka in an anonymous Kremlin office. Did he have a chance to look out of the window and see the stars in all their timeless omniscience, in the grave and cold constellations reaching down with their ancient light, that he might dare to imagine himself in league with their firmament, dizzy with the promise of political power and the aims of a just, new world, or was he absolutely blotto? And later on, in his cold prison cell, or in his drab wood panelled office with its functional decor, did he ever have cause to let his mind wander and think, for just a moment or two, I was once in charge of all this? Or again, was he absolutely blotto? And on his death bed, did he once again recall that press conference in which he was exposed to the world, a simple man, an individual representative of a bigger entity, seeing his future undone before it could even begin, or was he so blotto at he time that he remembered nothing of it? All I know is that is a story which must be retold, a stirring reminder that even the most frightening moments of international chaos have a human story at the heart of them.
You see, I recognise myself in certain aspects of Yanayevs character. I have had plenty of moments in which fortune, luck and hard work have paid off, and each time the results have been far, far less than is ever envisaged. I’ve seen my own triumphs simultaneously exciting and blurred not by alcohol, but by self doubt, fear, and good old fashioned sloppiness. I’ve felt myself surrounded by stars and high achievers only to look in the mirror and see a bland nobody staring back. And I, too, have been placed in positions of power and influence of which I was qualified not in the slightest.
I would dare to say that the story of Gennady Yanayev is a story for us all, a modern parable, and a caution from history. For no matter how much a person might achieve in life, they will always be forgotten very, very quickly.

Performing ‘The Moon Wrapped in String’ this week.

On Thursday night I had the huge honour of reading a long poem I’d written in the immediate aftermath of the death of my father at the Artizan Gallery in Torquay. Music was provided by a friend, Sharon Hubbocks, on her violin, and the event also had a reading from Becky Nuttall performing a long poem of her own which was beautiful, mystical and invoked the work of David Bowie.

It had been my wish for quite some time to work with Sharon and she composed some music especially for the reading, a haunting, timeless piece which summed up the spirit of the piece of remembrance and the ethereal haunting landscape of the Australian outback. She also added sea shanties and drinking songs and a marvellous rendition of Neil Young at the end, one of my dads favourite singers.

I’d said at the time that this might be the only time I’d perform the piece and it’s quite possible that I might stick to this. I thought that performing the poem would be a daunting prospect, deeply emotional and somewhat traumatic. I also wasn’t sure if Sharon would be available for repeat performances. But Sharon says that she is quite happy to do it again, and there have been rumours of an invite to certain events

The poem in it’s entirely, and for a limited time only, can be found below.

The Moon Wrapped in String 

It’s the end of the 1960s. A young man, recently married, finds himself in the Australian outback, a land of red earth and scorching sun. He finds camaraderie in his workmates, English army soldiers and mechanics testing a new armoured vehicle in the desert. But there’s something timeless and ethereal at work, human contact and the private histories which every person has, memory and landscape, a generation’s subtle remembrance.

Spoken word artist Robert Garnham performs his long poem, The Moon Wrapped in String. Dedicated to the memory of his father, and accompanied by violinist Sharon Hubbocks, the evening will also feature a set of poems from artist and poet Becky Nuttall.

Ken Beevers’ new book

Ken Beevers’ book, Aquamarine, is a beautiful concoction of autobiography, humour, timeless emotion and a real sense of physical place. Beautifully put together by Poetry Island Press, it’s a constantly surprising source of that kind of momentary excitement one gets when reading real poetry, the kind that speaks truth and universal experience but with humour and a deftness of touch. A fish and chip shop described as a ‘utopian supper palace’ will forever remain one of my favourite lines in any poetry. Aquamarine is filled with such momentary gems, inviting the reader to read just one more page, oh, go on then, maybe one more. And, unlike a lot of poetry books, it’s got pictures.

In honour of Ken and his book, I have put pen to paper myself. And this is my very own ode to Ken Beevers.

Ken Beevers

A shaft of early morning sun through a crack of curtains.
Another day dawns bright and new.
I jump out of bed energised by the journey this planet has taken
Once more round the sun
And I run
To the bathroom.
Excitedly, I glance in the mirror, then let out a groan.
I’m still not Ken Beevers.

And I don’t think I ever will be.
There’s no mechanism for this,
One cannot simply pull some levers
And become Ken Beevers.
One must look inward if there’s ever a chance
Now and then
To be Ken.

If poetry was like a car
Then mine has just been towed
Like my grandads driving
I’m too middle of the road
Whenever I scribble a note
It hardly comes out as an ode.
But Ken is the real thing
He can shoulder the load
Words are his playthings

He’s the bad boy of south Devon poetry
He’s a trouble maker
An instigator,
Like trying to make a toasted sandwich
With a coffee percolator.
He’s never died on stage so he
Needs no undertaker
His rhymes are so hot
They put him in the refrigerator
He’s so damn cool
It’s because he just came out of the refrigerator
His name is Ken Beevers
But they call him The Beevinator

His poems are exquisite gems,
He needs a guard.
He’s so well hard
He’s the fish bar Bard
Yet he doesn’t expect acclaim
Like some of the other divas
He’s Ken Beevers.
Some of his rhymes are so potent
They often give me fevers
He’s Ken Beevers.
He once dropped his baseball cap
And a friend said,
Is that Justin Bieber’s?
And I said no,
It’s Ken beevers’.
Someone asked once,
Is he rowdy or serious?
And I said, neithers,
He’s Ken beevers.

He stands on the stage
Filled with just the right attitude
He’s so cool he’s got rapitude
He knows his place in the world
Both longitude and latitude
He looked after his neighbours puppy
But he made them pay for the mat it chewed.
Oh I feel such gratitude
In knowing Ken beevers.

So raise a glass and drink to Ken
This super poet
This titan of men
A man more genial is seldom seen
And his book is called Aquamarine
Some poems are risqué
But seldom obscene
He’s the hottest thing
On the Torbay scene
Don’t doubt yourself for a minute,
You’ll become believers
And it’s all thanks to the magic
Of Mighty Kenneth Beevers!

And Jacqui is lovely, too.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak Live at the GlasDenbury Festival 2018

In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a riproaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tight rope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F? An hour show combining poetry, storytelling and music, In the Glare of the Neon Yak is the sparkling new show from spoken word artist, Robert Garnham.

Mr. Juicy

Mr. Juicy is the twenty minute poem which concluded my 2017 show Juicy, which I took to Edinburgh and all over the UK. I am incredibly proud of this piece and listening to it again brings back all kinds of memories. I hope you enjoy it!

Elvis Impersonator, Newton Abbot Station

Elvis Impersonator, Newton Abbot Station

Have you ever gone through life thinking, wow, there are a lot of incredibly eccentric people out there? And then had that weird thing happen when you get all philosophical and start to wonder whether the weird people are actually the normal ones? What sort of person goes through life only caring what other people think about them?
I love eccentricity. In fact, were it not for the glaringly obvious, I’d love to be eccentric, too. I keep looking forward to being an old man, and having found my niche in the world of eccentricity, some kind of little quirk that I might expand and make all my own. And I don’t mean sitting on a park bench and barking at people, or being that man who used to walk around Paignton while wearing rabbit ears. I want to cultivate something epic, a kind of intellectual eccentricity, like Ivor Cutler, or Gilbert and George.
I haven’t seen Rabbit Ears for a few years, now. There was something almost graceful about him, the way he’d walk upright and with aristocratic bearing, and yet with a pair of rabbit ears perched right on top of his head. I remember one day my dad made a very rare excursion by bus into the town where I live, and sure enough, on the way home again, Rabbit Ears came and sat in the seat next to him. Dad spent the whole journey kind of looking at him out of the corner of his eye, while everything else pretended that he wasn’t there. And it was only when a kid came on that the silence was broken.
‘Mum, why is that man wearing rabbit ears?’
‘But why?’
‘Just be quiet!’
I wouldn’t say that I’d particularly have the bravery to walk around with a pair of rabbit ears, but there’s something distinctly charming and almost comforting about eccentricity.

One of the more interesting aspects of being a spoken word artist is that it involves a lot of late night travel. Gigs usually end around eleven at night and then I have to find my way either home or to the town where I’m staying. It’s usually considered polite to wait until the end of a gig, though I have snuck off early every now and then over the years. If I’m performing in London, for example, I usually stay in Woking, so that means a late night commute out to the suburbs. Which actually isn’t too bad. The trains are frequent and fast and I’ve never once been mugged, or at least, not knowingly. It’s possible during this time that someone has tried to mug me, but due to the fact that I often wear earphones at such times, I might possibly have mistaken it for a genial yellow or an enquiry as to the time. And there are plenty of people around, even on those late night trains. In fact there’s a weird kind of bleary eyed camaraderie, that we are all just winding down now, intent on getting home before midnight. In ten years of gigging, nothing bad has ever happened. I’ve also caught late night trains from Gloucester to Cheltenham, or Bath to Bristol, or Cambridge to London, or Oxford to Reading, and every single time I’ve felt safe and surrounded by people, even on the platforms.
Devon, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. Things are different in Devon. For a start, the trains are much smaller, shabbier, and seem to rock from side to side more than they go forwards. The trains are diesel powered, too. Which means that they seem to make a straining over exerted sound before they’ve even moved away from the station platform, shuddering and rocking and juddering until with a mighty effort they start creeping forward. And the stations they arrive at are dark, deserted, downright creepy and miles from anywhere.
And the other passengers. Wow, the other passengers are scary. There’s something about the train service in Devon, mainly because it’s the only public transport to some of these deserted rural communities, that seems to attract, if one must put it politely, prolific drinkers. Not only prolific, but vocal, too. Even if they’re travelling along and they’ve never met anyone else on the train, they have to kind of shout above the roar of the engines, which admittedly, are very loud. Even the most normal conversation sounds like a punch up and it’s not a good place to be for those of a nervous disposition. Cider is often the main beverage of choice, and I’ve begun to see those brown two little bottles as a symbol of potential trouble. The earphones come in handy. I’ve often listened to Radio Four over a background of what sounds like a full blown riot.
Mind you, I’ve always felt relaxed about public transport in Devon. I once managed to catch a bus from Newton Abbot to Paignton with my eyes shut, and nothing bad happened to me at all. The reason for this is that I had an eye examination at the hospital and a friend, Mark, had come along to make sure that everything went ok. The hospital asked me to bring someone, and it soon became apparent that this was because they were going to give me eye drops which would blur my vision and make me blind. This they duly did, and once my appointment was over, they let me go. But that was ok, I reasoned, because I had Mark with me. Mark would protect me, wouldn’t he?
Bless him, he made sure that I got to the bus stop okay. And then he said, ‘Right, good luck with getting home, I’m off’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m going shopping. Do you really think I’d come out all this way and not go round the shops? Anyway, let me know when you’re home. Send me a text’.
‘But I won’t be able to see my phone!’
‘It’s in your pocket. Right then, see you later’.
And off he went.
I’ll never know how I managed to get home. There was a lot of fumbling involved and as luck would have it at the time, I happened to live near the bus station.
But Devon’s stations are a whole different matter.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Newton Abbot doing a bit of train-surfing. Train-surfing, I hear you ask. What’s he going on about? Train-surfing is a method I use so that I don’t have to get the local service all the way from Exeter to Paignton. It’s usually full of drunks and ne’erdowells and it clatters along like a bouncy castle and it’s really most uncomfortable in every way you can think of. If you don’t get rattled to bits, you run the risk of a cider bottle over he head if you look at someone funny, or else some drunk is challenging everyone to an impromptu game of Buckaroo. So if I get in it at Exeter Central, then I get off it one stop later at Exeter St David’s and catch the fast service as far as Newton Abbot. The fast service is more comfortable and doesn’t stop at all the stations, and the scrotes tend to stay on the little local train.
That’s Train-surfing.
The only downside with this is that you then have to spend twenty minutes or so at Newton Abbot station, waiting for the little local service to catch up. And you know what they say about the place. At Newton Abbot station, nobody can hear you scream. However, even this is preferable to the late night local service. Or the Rat Pee Special, as Mark calls it. On account of the odours emanating from the on board toilets.
So there I am at Newton Abbot the having train surfed from Exeter. The stars are out and it’s pretty cold. My only company on the platform is the Neon coming from the Coca cola drinks machine. I’ve got my iPad for company and I’ve been listening to a comedy album, but now the local service to Paignton was just about to arrive. I’m looking, expectantly, into the gloom, waiting for the headlights of the train and it’s familiar strained diesel whine. And I, just pondering on an idea I’ve just had for a stage play called Dr Jeckyll And Mr Humprhreys, when an Elvis impersonator shambles along the platform.
Yes, an elvis Impersonator.
And he was drunk.
‘Excuse me’, quoth he, ‘Do you like Elvis?’
Now I know this is sort of like seeing a vicar or a priest and the first thing them saying is ‘Do you like Jesus?’ But it actually happened. This was the very first thing that he asked. And he was dressed like Elvis.
‘He’s okay’, I replied.
‘Them people’, he said, pointing in a kind of drunk way to the town of Newton Abbot in general, ‘keep laughing at me’.
The man is dressed as Elvis.
‘How come?’
‘They only care that Elvis died on the toilet. I keep telling them that there’s more than that. He made great music. But all they care about was that he died on the toilet’.
‘He died on the toilet?’
I didn’t know this for a fact, and I’d assumed that it was an urban legend.
‘Yeah. And they’re laughing at me because of it’.
I’ve never really liked Elvis, but I didn’t want to tell him this. I appreciate that he had a good voice and some good songs, and a certain rapport with his audience, but I’ve never really rated him as one of my favourite singers.
‘Do you like Elvis?’ he asked.
Well, here we go, I thought. But in my defence I was tired, and it had been a long day, and the fact that I had just performed to tens of people in Exeter kind of made me feel a little invincible.
‘He was ok. But for me, the best singer of that period was Roy Orbison’.
Now, I’ve told this story to a friend of mine and she said that this is the moment when the whole encounter could have gone tits up. He could have reacted badly. He could have lunged for me, for example, and beckme ever so violent and I could have finished my days dead, on Newton Abbot station platform, hacked to death by an Elvis Impersonator. But instead he seemed to take it very calmly and he said,
‘I love Roy Orbison! He was the best! Well, apart from Elvis, that is’.
‘That voice’, I ventured.
‘Yes! Oh man, he had such an amazing voice. Almost like an opera singer! That high note he hits in that song, what is it now . . .’.
‘Only the Lonely?’, I suggested.
‘Yes! It sends shivers down my spine. Oh wow, Roy Orbison was amazing.’
‘But not as amazing as Elvis, eh?’
‘Well’, he said, kind of standing back from me a little bit and doing something of an Elvis pose which involved a strange spasm of the leg, ‘That goes without saying’.
By now the train was coming in and I decided that I didn’t want to be stuck with a drunk Elvis impersonator for the rest of the journey, so I decided on a cunning plan. I would let him get on and then run down to the next carriage., seeing as though it was obvious that we were both waiting for the same train. I would pretend, in a very sneaky manner, that I was waiting for a train after his. Even though there was no train. This was the last service of the night.
‘Here’s your train’ I said to him.
‘You are’, he said, ‘a good bloke’.
And then he started that drunk persons thing that drunk men do when they decide that they have to shake your hand and kind of sum up everything they know about you.
‘You’re a good bloke. And I’ve really enjoyed talking. Such a good bloke. If I ever see you in the pub I will buy you a pint. Such a good bloke you are. Roy Orbison! Ha ha ha. You’re such a good bloke. You’re a really good bloke. Now come here and shake my hand. Roy Orbison! So good to meet you. Yeah. Roy Orbison. Elvis, man! And Roy Orbison. So good to meet a good person’. He said all this while shaking my hand.
At this point I realised that if I didn’t get on the train I’d miss it altogether. ‘You’d better get on’, I said, looking at the guard.
And as I watched him stumble on board, I managed to time it to perfection, running down to the next carriage and jumping on just as the guard blew his whistle.
I spent the rest of the journey hiding in the next carriage, squeezed up against the wall hoping that the Elvis impersonator didn’t see me.
As my friend Anne says, I seem to attract these sorts of people.

Jean Alesi and me.

Jean Alesi

In 1989 my mother bought me a second hand black and white television for my bedroom. I was fifteen years old and until that time, had not had my own tv. In those days, of course, there were only four channels so the likelihood of there being anything on to watch was very small. My sister had had her own colour tv for a couple of years, which wasn’t fair because she was younger, and not only that, but hers had a remote control. Remote controls were new technology. Our old big tv downstairs had a remote control and if you lost it, you could change channels by rattling a bunch of keys. How nonchalantly, my sister would sit on her bed and be able to change channels without even having to move or grab a bunch of keys. And now I, too, had my own television set.
It was a cranky old thing, (the second hand tv, not my sister), short, squat and smelling ever so faintly of burning dust and electricity. And if it was switched on for too long it would get very hot and it would turn itself off at inopportune moments, a strange little button at the back popping out with a fierce click. Once it had cooled down one was able to press the button and turn it on again. If it was still hot, the button would just stay out and you’d have to sit and wait for ages, which was no good if you were watching something really important, like Columbo. And during a heat wave you’d have to wait for hours. The damn thing would just not cool down.
In the defence of my tv, though, there occasionally wasn’t anything on at all. The announcer would come on and say, well, we’ve got no programs for the rest of the afternoon, so here’s the test card. Oooooooooooooo!
One day – and it must have been a Sunday – I caught the start and opening laps of the San Marino formula one Grand Prix. It was pretty hard to decipher what was happening, what with the fact that all the cars were shown in black and white, and there was always a lot of static interference every time my sister used her hair dryer. The television set had a dial, and you had to dial in to the television channel the same way that you had to with a radio finding a station. And very shortly after the start of the race there was a very bad accident involving Gerhard Berger.
Motor racing was a part of my life from an early age, but I’d never taken much interest in it before. My childhood bedroom wallpaper was of John Watson’s Marlboro sponsored McLaren. It’s great to think that it was such an unenlightened age that cigarette sponsorship was allowed into the bedrooms of small boys. I didn’t know much about John Watson, or motor racing for that matter, or McLaren, or smoking, butmy dad was proficient in all of these, and I picked up bits along the way, enough to know that the McLarens were still sponsored by Marlboro, and that the leading drivers of the day were Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, and my own favourite, Gerhard Berger. And the only reason I liked Gerhard Berger was because his second name was Berger. I liked burgers. I had no interest in taking up smoking, but eating burgers was definitely helped because of the wonders of Gerhard.
The race on my little black and white television was stopped because of Berger’s accident, and as I waited for it to restart, the inevitable occurred and my television turned itself off. I put my hand on the back of it and, sure enough, it was giving off a pretty intense heat. The strain of being turned on for almost forty five minutes was obviously too much. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it for a couple of hours, by which time the race would probably be finished.
So I went downstairs to the living room, and as luck would have it my parents were out gardening or something else interesting that parents do on a sunny spring morning, and I was able to watch the rest of the race on the big television in the living room. Now this television was colour, and having sat through forty five minutes of black and white, the contrast – no pun intended – was amazing. The colours were vibrant, the green grass around the track, the multicoloured cars and drivers and the McLarens looking just like they did on my bedroom wallpaper, their Marlboro branding vibrant and luxurious. I’d never seen a spectacle like this, the excitement and the intensity of motor racing revealed in all its technicolor brilliance, the primary colours, the advertising hoardings, the flags and banners in the crowd, the vibrant orange of the flames licking around Berger’s crashed Ferrari. It was probably at this moment that I fell in love with formula one Grand Prix racing.
Now it must be said that I was a weird teenager. At fifteen years old I’d already sussed that I was gay. It was obvious to myself, though not particularly so to other people. I wasn’t entirely camp and I wore the sorts of clothing that all my friends wore, so I’m sure that nobody knew, that it would remain this devastating big secret which I would carry with me to the grave. I told myself that I was very good at hiding it. I also thought that I was one of the handful of gay people in the entire world, that it was basically just me and Julian Clary. There didn’t seem to be any other gay role models. It was also the nineteen eighties. Homophobia was very popular in mainstream society and most people seemed to be very fond of it, particularly in Surrey where I lived on a council estate within earshot of the main runways at Heathrow Airport.
So I was kind of glad that I’d got in to formula one motor racing, because this was the sort of thing that the average straight man really liked, all those machines and engines and drivers and strategies and ladies in bikinis carrying large lollipops with the names of the drivers, and adverts for cigarettes and beer and after shave and spanners and motor oil, and brash egos and the roar of the engines. It was a straight person’s paradise. And the more I got in to the sport, the more I saw that this gave me an escape route should I be talking to my friends and the hypothetical question comes up, ‘Are you gay?’, to which I might reply, ‘No, and did you see the race at the weekend?’
The summer progressed. Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Berger. These titans, these gods of the sport who towered above not only formula one, but life itself. How excitedly Id tune in to catch their exploits, with their distinct personalities and their almost superhuman powers to pick me up and fly me away from gaydom into that sparkling iridescent rainbow glitter world of perpetual absolute straightness! And then, one day, along came Jean Alesi.
Imagine if you had to invent the perfect racing driver. Imagine if you were writing a novel and you realised that you needed a stereotypical barely believable cartoon character of a racing driver. What characteristics would you give them, if you were a little lazy when it came to inventing such characters? A firm jaw, dazzling blue eyes, a small stature, handsome youthfulness, sultry eyes with a faraway stare. And what kind of nationality would you give your invented racing driver? French? Italian? Well, why not a mixture of both? And what kind of name would you give your hypothetical stereotypical racing driver? Something distinctly European, yet a name which sounds fast even in its spelling and economy of letters. Jean Alesi. Four syllables, not very many letters. Oh my god, he was everything I wanted him to be!
Jean Alesi burst on the scene halfway through 1989. And all of a sudden these old towering idols of motor racing didn’t seem quite so special. Jean was in a much slower car, yet he was driving much better than them and spent most of his first race in second place before finishing fourth. He didn’t seem to care very much that there were people out there who needed these titans of motor racing to just keep going and going. Jean Alesi was like a fresh thought introduced into a tired way of looking at the world. Jean Alesi was the embodiment of excitement. Jean Alesi was the equivalent of saying, hey, you know what? There are other ways of living your life. Jean Alesi was also very good looking.
Oh my god, I liked him a lot.
And soon the exploits of Jean Alesi became the only reason that I watched formula one. Well, that and the need to appear to be the same as all the other blokes, what with formula one being so blokey. Because within this blokey structure, Jean Alesi demonstrated that there was room for something new and exciting. He held his steering wheel right at the top. He leaned his head over at crazy, exaggerated angles around the corners, it was like he was pretending to be a racing driver. It was almost, dare one say it, camp. He had no technical skill whatsoever. My nickname for him was Crazy Alesi. One of his former team mates used to call him Jean Asleazy. He seemed to run on pure enthusiasm.
I wanted to come out. I was desperate for the world to know who I was. But the world was a different place back then and the framework of support that most LGBT people in the Uk mostly have now was missing back in 1989. There were hardly any gay people on television, unless it were the basis of a joke or a cheap stereotype, and section 28 was prevalent in schools preventing teachers having serious conversations about homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was at the forefront of everyone’s mind whenever the subject of gay men was discussed. Homophobia was everywhere, in throwaway comments and the laughter of school fiends, jokes told openly, and in government policies. Being gay was a personal source of shame, a hideous joke played by nature and something which I thought I might even grow out of, or at least train myself to disregard. I just hadn’t met the right woman yet, a woman with short hair, blue eyes, no female bits and only male bits, possibly French Italian, probably called Jean. I wanted the world to change.
And Jean Alesi wanted to win a Grand Prix.
Over the next six years, Alesi found himself in another race. I was getting older, a teenager now, late teens, the early twenties beckoning, and I gave myself the target of coming out to the world as gay in a glorious burst of music and love, before Jean Alesi won his first Grand Prix. As luck would have it, Alesi soon signed to Ferrari, a team which at the time was in one of is periodic performance troughs, so the idea that Alesi might actually win a race was now almost impossible. This gave me some breathing space. I felt like a swimmer about to plunge into icy water, steeling himself, just standing there, year after year, unable to make that final move. And knowing that if I did, I’d get more than a cold shoulder. Every other week I’d sit and watch as Alesi found a new and exciting way not to win a race, and this seemed emblematic of my own struggle. Moments of promise and potential victory falling apart, and assured win undone by some minor trifle. For six long years Jean and I struggled together to get what we wanted, to make our name on history before it was too late.
And then, in 1995, when I was 21 years old, the bastard did it.
It was the Canadian Grand Prix. It was one of those races in which all the other drivers fell by the wayside. And this left Alesi out in front, victory assured. I remember those final laps, I was almost crying with delight, and yet while I felt pleased that he was actually about to do it, I also felt a sense of loathing that he should get what he always wanted, and I would be left there, alone. And as he crossed the finish line in an emotional moment of tears and celebration, I thought, well, my life hasn’t changed in the slightest.
If it’s any consolation, that would also be his last win in formula one. I did think about waiting until his second win to come out, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because there would be no second win. In fact it would be another four years until I came out to friends and family, by which time I already had had a partner. But that’s another story.
Every now and then Jean Alesi turns up on television. He’s much older now but he’s still good looking and my mother fancies him. To me he was the epitome of what a racing driver should be, but he’s always stood for more than that. He was my personal talisman, my guardian angel, he was there showing the way without him even realising that he was doing it. He showed me that you could change the order of things just by the force of sheer enthusiasm and, of course, a lot of hard work. My own coming out felt less like a fantastic victory and more like a plane crash. And perhaps Alesi had already had his coming out moment, the time he had told his parents that yes, he was a racing driver.
There are kids out there now looking for the same escape. The world is ever so slightly easier for them now. And that’s such a good thing, people seem far more open minded and people can be who they want to be. They don’t need racing drivers to show them the way. Or perhaps, they do. Perhaps we are all racing drivers now. We are all Jean Alesi.


When I was a teenager
There were only two things I desperately wanted.
To come out,
And for formula one driver Jean Alesi to win a Grand Prix.
Both of them took a long time
And relied less on skill and more
On the bad fortune of others.
The circumstances had to be just right,
And once this landmark had been reached,
The floodgates would open
And there’d be no stopping us,
Me and Jean Alesi.
There were lots of accidents in the way,
Near misses and heart stopping moments,
And in 1995, in the city of Montreal,
Jean Alesi finally took the chequered flag first,
To floods of tears and immense relief.
And yet.
Just as he crossed the finish line,
I, who was still to achieve my end,
Felt a sudden anger towards him.

Perpendicular: My new podcast

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on a podcast and it’s now ready to be unleashed on the world. Each episode is a purpose written piece featuring all kinds of whimsy. I’m hoping to release one a week but to get things going, here are two episodes.

I hope you enjoy them!