These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon.
But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.
This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.
‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’
‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’
‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’.
I’m not easily shocked. I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the years. But this poem isn’t about me, Much as I’d like it to be. For I only discovered this very morning, (And hold onto your hats, dear listener), That Terence Donovan, Father of Jason Donovan, Terence Donovan, Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours, Was born, Are you ready for this? Was born in Staines.
Yes, that’s right, Staines. Staines in the former Middlesex. Staines not far from Slough. Staines now pretentiously calling itself Staines Upon Thames To make it sound less like the sort of place You’ll get a slapping, Staines, Home to the Elmsleigh Centre and what’s was once A really cracking branch of Our Price, Staines, Where I went to school and worked In the local Sainsbury’s (But as I just said, this poem Is not about me), Was where Terence Donovan, Father of Jason Donovan, Terence Donovan, Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours, Was born.
It’s got a High Street, has Staines. It’s got a Costa, has Staines. It’s got a statue of two men Carrying a roll of lino, (Google it, I kid you not), It’s got a Sainsbury’s, has Staines, Where I worked 1992-1994 And fell in love with a till operative called Simon, But what it hasn’t got is a blue plaque Commemorating the birth of Terence Donovan, Father of Jason Donovan, Terence Donovan, Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours. Heads should roll.
We all know that Staines is the place where Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street came from, And you can shove that factoid up your arse, And don’t get me started on Ali G, But how many of you know that Terence Donovan, Father of Jason Donovan, Terence Donovan, Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours, Was born in bloody Staines?
Staines, for where the gods decreed A confusing one way system and a cracking Example of a brutalist multi storey car park Where my sister once got a puncture, Staines, whose library Seems almost apologetic, Staines, whose bus station is sympathetically clad In coloured bricks which are all coated in oil stains, Staines, Staines Upon Thames, Stains on the Thames, Staines, whose beauty and architecture have caused Many a lost tourist to drop to their knees and cry tears of Bitter jealousy, Staines, Where I once saw Russ Abbott in Woolworths doing his shopping Followed by a gang of kids who kept badgering him and Shouting, hey Russ, do your angry Scottish bloke for us, Until he told them to go away, Staines, where my mate Justin Found a pig’s eyeball on the seat of the photo booth, Staines, where I asked Justin, How did you know it was from a pig? And what were you doing in the photo booth? Staines, sparkling jewel of Spelthorne, Was where Terence Donovan, Father of Jason Donovan, Terence Donovan, Who played Doug Willis in the TV soap Neighbours, Was born.
Life’s funny like that. And I’ve got a Pop Tart on in the toaster So I’d better be off.
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 television 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 television set, 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, but my 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 along 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 in suburban Surrey, 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, and 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.
Indeed, homophobia seemed to be institutionalised. This was a time of Section 28, and the AIDS crisis was still very much being felt. And I was this strange little thing, closeted to the world and fearful of the future because I knew that, if things didn’t change, I’d never be who I wanted to be. And this was probably true of a whole generation. My only outlet was writing, and the stories I wrote were also explorations of the same closet. Characters were good friends, but nothing sexual was ever hinted at. Their only goal seemed to be to find a nice girlfriend and get married. None of these characters existed anywhere else but in an incredibly straight universe. 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 excited I’d 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.
It’s been a couple of years since the last Barnstaple Theatrefest Fringe, due to obvious reasons. It must have been so worrying for the organisers, with the world changing so rapidly over the last few months and the uncertainty which has clouded almost everything in the artistic community. It’s a brave decision these days to try and plan anything much too far ahead, whether it be a wedding or a party or, in the case of Barnstaple Theatrefest, one of the leading fringe events in the country.
So it was a huge joy that this year’s event went ahead, and the organisers must be applauded for making it happen. Yet even on the weekend itself, there were more challenges: an increase in Covid numbers, the train strike, the hot weather. It seemed that circumstance was conspiring to remind everyone involved that it’s really not too wise at the moment to get one’s hopes up.
But it went ahead, and it was a remarkable event. The one thing that has always struck me about Barnstaple Theatrefest has been the wonderful sense of camaraderie. Barnstaple is not the biggest town in the world, and there aren’t hundreds of events which make up the schedule, so anyone who participates in the fringe soon becomes acquainted with all of the other performers and technicians. On top of this there are several events where people can meet up and talk about their shows, whether these be the taster sessions, or the cabaret, or more social events in bars, pubs and cafes.
This is why I love being a part of it. There’s a genuine enthusiasm from everyone involved for theatre and performance, and I have several friends who I know only from the Theatrefest. This year there was the added bonus of the Soundwave Radio van parked in the square outside the museum, where one could just turn up and be interviewed live on the air about their show. I went along with my friend Melanie Branton, and we ended up chatting for over an hour about our shows and our art, and it was great to be there and have someone take what we do so seriously.
Naturally, any fringe event is hard work. My own strategy for getting in audiences involved flyering, exit flyering, taster sessions and chatting to other performers and fringe-goers. I’m not a religious man, but I also considered a damn good pray, too. As it happens I had a lovely audience every day for my show and made a few people smile and be happy, which is what my show was all about.
The world needs events such as this, and I can’t praise the organisers of Barnstaple Theatrefest highly enough. They are professional, enthusiastic, and I could sense the worry whenever I spoke to them, particularly on the first day with the train strike and the performers calling in unable to attend due to positive Covid tests and the such. And it’s true that perhaps audiences aren’t yet fully behind the idea of going out and seeing a show, particularly at the moment, but several performers had massive audiences nonetheless.
It’s always sad leaving Barnstaple. As the train left the station I felt just a slight pang of regret that life cannot always be like this. Maybe more towns should have fringe events, I told myself, or perhaps, maybe not, because this is what makes Barnstaple Theatrefest so unique.
I’m hoping that next year will be more stress free for the organisers, and that the world will be finally starting to look a bit normal. But for now, there’s a big smile on my face, because, wow, it was an excellent weekend!
Our eyes met across the literary festival tent, at the exact moment Professor Zazzo Thiim erupted into a coughing fit shortly after he’d tried to pronounce the names of the Welsh rural communities in Memflak’s Operetta Lampeter. It was cruel of the organisers not to cut his mic, but I looked up again and I saw you were still looking over at me, and both embarrassed, we smiled. Even to this day the sound of a phlegmy cough is enough to fill my heart with romance.
Ballad of a sad bouncer
We met outside the canvas marquee, the strong sun throwing red and white stripes across us.
‘So . . You like Memflak?’
And then we stood there for a while until a security guard asked us to move. Professor Zazzo was making his way to the book signing table, and we were in the way.
‘Do you need anything?’, someone asked him.
‘A glass of water, please’.
‘He wasn’t the most engaging of speakers’, you said, as we were bundled sideways. ‘Have you ever read any of his works?’
‘Only his pamphlet on the poetry of TV darts commentaries’.
‘Oh really? And what was his conclusion?’
‘That there wasn’t any’.
‘A wise man’, you said, and we both turned and watched as he took a seat behind a wallpapering table piled high with copies of his Memflak biography. There wasn’t a queue and a bird had defecated on his Panama hat.
‘So if you don’t like Memflak, then why did you come along?’, you asked.
I’d just assumed that most of the people who were there would have been single, naturally.
‘Just . . . Chilling’.
We chatted about so much that sunny afternoon. You told me your biggest fear was 3D printing machines suddenly gaining consciousness and 3D printing only other 3D printing machines and then the whole world becoming drowned in 3D printing machines. And I told you about a friend who had a 3D printing machine, but the first thing that the 3D printing machine had to print as soon as you got it was the instruction manual on how to print on a 3D printing machine, but the only way you could print the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine was to have the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine. We both laughed and agreed that the world was an unusual place, and I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, oh, how I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, but there was something lazy and wonderful about our sudden new friendship, and anyway, you weren’t allowed back in the B and B until 3pm. Instead, we went to the crowded cafe tent and shared a vegan sausage roll.
When you told me that you were a published poet, I almost fell off my seat.
‘But you’re so passably handsome!’
‘I know. It’s a shock, isn’t it?’
‘Are you . . . Rich?’
You couldn’t stop laughing.
‘I’m a poet. In fact, it’s the perfect career choice for me, thanks to my crippling fear of success’.
You told me that your first collection, Do Sheep Find Us Boring?, had won the Fortescue Prize for the best poetry collection to feature a mangle. Your second collection, The Non-existent Coffee Table, had fared less well, especially the scratch’n’sniff sonnet about sewage. And your third book, A Machine Which Exists Only to Destroy Itself, was what those in the publishing industry call a faulty fluorescent tube.
‘Why is it called that?’
‘Because it barely makes a flicker’.
I knew that it was because you were too handsome to be a poet. Your teeth were mostly the same colour and you had hardly any dandruff. When you sipped your tea, only a few drops went on your trousers.
I looked deep into your eyes. You looked deep into mine. The world around us seemed to fade from existence until its only components were you and me. And surely, in that stuffy tent over an over-priced sausage roll, we would surely have begun to kiss, had not there been a sudden clatter and thud from the next table and a cry of, ‘Buggering ‘ell!’, as Professor Zazzo Thiim’s chair collapsed.
We helped the old fella up from the grass.
We queued for a while to buy tickets to see the famous performance artist Bonjour Twain, for it was rumoured that she would be debuting a new piece called The Measurement of Intense Disappointment, only it turned out that queuing for the piece was the actual piece itself, and that Bonjour Twain was a thousand miles away at her home in the Alps. We then went in to a lively debate between a surrealist poet and another surrealist poet, which had been especially choreographed by the festival organisers who had told both surrealist poets that their opponent was an adherent to ultra-realism and would only be pretending to be a surrealist poet. Our next port of call was to see a book reading by Will Self, but Will Self was stuck in a traffic jam, so the audience passed the time by playing a good-natured game of battleships. Our final stop of the afternoon was a speech on Bouncy Castle Development and Design : From Mock-Medieval to the Integration of New Technologies’, which Doctor Margaret McParson actually delivered while bouncing on a bouncy castle, which went very well until she had to sip a glass of water.
It was a full afternoon.
‘Well’, you said, ‘I’d better be going’.
And now the world did that thing it does every now and then where it reveals its true colours and kind of stamps on the hopes and dreams that only reveal themselves in retrospect.
‘It’s been fun’.
‘Sure has. When will I . . . Where will I . . See you again?’
‘You can have one of my collections, if you like, then I’ll always be with you’.
‘I don’t really like poetry’.
‘My picture is on the cover. I’d like you to have it’.
You rummaged around in your shoulder bag and showed me the cover of Do Sheep Find Us Boring?. You looked about fifteen years younger.
‘That’s nine ninety-nine’.
I slipped you ten pounds. You didn’t have any change. Which is a shame, because I would have cherished that penny forever, perhaps drilled a hole in it and worn it around my neck. The book was OK, though.
You walked away after we parted with a jovial wave, and I watched you disappear into the middle-class utopia of the literary festival. I was distracted, momentarily, by Professor Zazzo Thiim tripping over a guy rope, and when I looked up again, you were gone.
I went over to the bouncy castle, and took off my shoes, and I clambered on. I bounced once. Twice. Possibly as many as five times. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was worried that someone would steal my shoes. This happened once at a funfair in Bournemouth. I’d had to walk home in my socks.
You know, things were jogging along just fine and the future looked incredibly exciting. I’d spent most of 2019 on the road, not only with the Hammer and Tongue tour to Hackney, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Oxford and Southampton, but I’d taken my show Spout to Barnstaple, Reading, Guildford, Edinburgh and Petersfield, and I’d also performed headline sets in Newcastle, Milton Keynes, London, Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and even the Eden Project, where I’d actually performed in the main dome itself surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, before spending the night in a shipping container which had been transformed into a hotel room. Added to this the corporate work I’d been doing for a certain building society, and my December I was absolutely burned out. I decided to take three months off from performing.
And you’ll never guess what happened next.
I’d been looking forward to 2020. I had gigs booked in faraway places and I was planning a new show, Yay!: The Search for Happiness, which would be something of a departure and I was excited about the whole process of putting it together. If 2019 had been amazing, I was sure that 2020 would be even better, the momentum having built up, but the international pandemic stopped everything in its tracks and all of a sudden, the whole world narrowed down to just my small flat in an out of season seaside town.
I wasn’t alone in this, of course. I mean, obviously I was alone in my small flat, but I wasn’t the only performer for whom the future had suddenly turned to mush. Up and down the country, and throughout the world, singers, artists, performers of all types suddenly found themselves without a livelihood and a very bleak future. In a way I felt lucky that I only had myself to look after, and no mortgage, but on the other hand, things would be tough.
I tried to make the best of it. I launched into online gigs. I made videos. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I started rehearsing and learning the new show. But the one thing that didn’t happen was that I was making any money.
So, things weren’t entirely ideal. But then something wonderful did happen. Torbay Council were looking for artists to pay to do create local works in order to help them recover from the financial hardship of the pandemic situation, and add colour to the local artistic landscape. I applied, with the vague idea of writing about a subject of which I knew very little, yet was a big part of the local culture. I went through several ideas, from hotel workers to those involved in the holiday industry, until it struck me that, in spite of having a wonderful relationship with the town of Brixham, I’d never actually learned much about its fishing industry.
The Trawler Basin (p10)
I sent an email to the Torbay Culture organisation, which was allocating funds, detailing an idea I had to write poetry about the Brixham fishing industry. It would be a strange departure for an LGBT comedy performance poet, but I was looking forward to embarking on a new project, and more than anything else, I was looking forward to earning some money.
Amazingly, they said yes. They gave me a timetable of when things should be accomplished, and then assigned me a producer, who would put me in touch with various people within the fishing industry. And for the first time in a very long while, I felt like a proper artist.
All I had to do was get started.
I didn’t know the first thing about the fishing industry. I knew that the fishing port in Brixham was one of the largest in the UK and that it had been there since god know’s when. My producer was a wonderful person called Clare with whom I had a couple of Zoom meetings and she gave me a few pointers of where to start. The harbour master? The fish market? Perhaps I should write to one of the trawler companies and see if I could interview one of their skippers. I was also interested in the ecological side of the business and how it affects the local ecosystem. But most of all I was glad to be involved in a project which took me way out of my comfort zone and my usual oeuvre of poems about badgers and dentists.
By the marvels of social media I managed to get in contact with the skipper of a trawler. Indeed, he was the only person who worked on the trawler. Officially, it was the smallest trawler in the Brixham fleet, yet Tristan managed to go out every single day and get his catch and then sell it straight from his boat on the harbour side. As a result he had made quite a good living over the last couple of years and slowly built up a reputation for the quality of his fish.
We exchanged a couple of messages and he invited me to come down to the harbour and interview him aboard his boat, the Adela.
This was my official first foray into the world of reportage and I must admit I did not exactly cut a very athletic figure as I clambered from the quay on to his vessel. I’m sure there have been less graceful entrances into the trawling business, but the damn boat kept going up and down on a swell and I kind of managed it by kneeling on the edge of the vessel and kind of falling sideways.
Tristan gave me a quick tour of his boat and then invited me into the cabin where we had a chat about what he did.
‘I started out on the bigger trawlers’, he explained. ‘Several of us going out for days at a time.’
‘Did you get seasick?’
I’d once caught a catamaran from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and I’d spent the whole journey honking up.
‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Really badly, for the first six months, every single day I was so ill you wouldn’t believe it. But you know what? I hid it from the rest of the crew. I tried to be all tough and manly about it, but I would find a space where they couldn’t see me and up it would all come’.
The cabin of the boat was decorated with photographs of his family and he explained that the boat was named after his daughter. I then turned the chat to what it was that he caught in his nets.
‘Anything with eyes and an arsehole’, he replied.
We both had a good laugh about that and he said I was welcome to use it in one of my poems.
‘Seriously, though, the impact of climate change is affecting the types of fish that I can catch. Ordinarily, you’d be assured of catching certain species at certain times of the year. But now, it’s all over the place. Fish which rely on warmer waters are spending more and more time further north. And this affects what I can sell on the quay when I return. Most of my customers are restaurants and hotels and what they put in their menus depends on what I can catch while I’m out’.
I asked him where he fishes.
‘That’s a secret’, he replied. ‘I can’t tell you, because I want to keep these places to myself. But let’s just say, some mornings the entire Brixham fleet leaves together, and they all go one way, and I go the other. I have my methods’.
We had a great time chatting and I think I was more tense than he was about it. Indeed, he seemed very media savvy, which was a relief, and the one thing I was worried about was that I would write all these notes and then not be able to understand my own handwriting.
Once we’d done, I clambered off the craft with all the grace of a hippopotamus, then went to the bus stop and wrote up my notes as quickly as I could before I forgot anything.
But I was on a high, because this was my first ever bit of serious community engagement. Perhaps, I thought, people might start to see me as a proper poet after all!
Solo Skipper (p18)
One of the things I looked into, with the help of Clare, my producer, was the history of Brixham.
Clare arranged for me to spend a day at Brixham Museum, poking through their archives and chatting to the curator. I was assigned a desk in the stores and the curator brought me files, folders and newspaper cuttings about the fishing industry, and we chatted about the Fishawkers.
The Fishawkers were a band of fishermen’s wives who ran the town while their husbands were out at sea in the 1880s. They would congregate on the quayside and bid on the fish that the fishing boats brought back. As this was conducted in the form of a traditional auction, the winning bidders were usually the ones who had the loudest voices and the Fishawkers had perfected the technique. They weren’t at all averse to using a bit of physical intimidation to make sure that they bought the best fish, which they would then ‘hawk’ from door to door in barrels. The museum provided me with plenty of newspaper accounts of Fishawkers brawling in the alleyways and streets of Brixham, and one in particular who was hauled up before the local judge for a breach of the peace and was then fined extra for her cheekiness in court. The judge had asked her if she had anything to say, and she’d replied, ‘I’ve got a bit of extra money here, guv, if you’d like to put it towards my next misdemeanour’, or words to that effect.
The thing about the Fishawkers was that they were officially breaking the law. They weren’t allowed to bid on fish and then sell them around the town. As a group, they appealed this law and won and as a result struck something of a minor triumph in the advance of women’s rights at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.
I also read about the role that the Brixham trawlers played in the First World War, when the fleet was attacked by a German U-boat, the captain of whom demanded he board each vessel and rob their kitchens of food and cooking utensils. I guess such things were hard to come by when working as a submariner. But the most stirring story was that of the work the town did to accommodate refugees from the Second World War. Belgians from the fishing towns on the North Sea ferried across the Channel to Brixham, having forged friendships during peaceful times with visiting Brixham fishermen. And as a the Nazis moved in, they piled all of their belongings, family members, furniture and hopes and dreams aboard their fishing boats and made the journey. In such a way, welcomed by the local townspeople, Brixham became known as ‘Little Ostend’, and the Belgians became a part of the town’s culture and community, getting jobs in shops and on farms, marrying locals and helping with the war effort. When the war ended, quite a few stayed behind. The rest left in a fleet of buses in order to make the return journey, the whole town coming out to wave them off.
And now here I was, at a time of Lockdown and pandemic restrictions, reading about their exploits in the confines of the museum store room, feeling the swirl of history around me and the odd idea that really, no matter what we all go through, we are just the continuation of something much bigger. Which was a pretty profound thought for a comedy performance poet.
Little Ostend (p47)
Clare suggested I look at the environmental aspect of the fishing industry. Bizarrely, a couple of months earlier I’d done a couple of online education courses, once it became obvious that lockdown was happening and that I’d be indoors for pretty much the foreseeable future. The two courses I did were both about as distinct from each other as I could manage. The first was a study of the Icelandic Sagas, delivered by the University of Reykjavik, and sure, it gave me one or two ideas for poems and short stories, but I took the course more out of interest. The second was delivered by the University of Queensland in Australia, and it was all about the coastal ecosystem, with special emphasis on coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that an area of Brixham just off the coast was home to a very important patch of seagrass. This was now something I could speak about with a small degree of prior knowledge, of how seagrass is a vital piece of the marine ecosystem in that it acts as a nursery for younger fish and the next generation of fish stocks. Not only that, but seahorses were a feature of the seagrass environment, and I’d always felt a strange kinship with seahorses. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the flippers.
During the time I was working on the Brixham project, I was also planning my new Edinburgh fringe show for this year. And as you can tell from the following extract, the project certainly had an influence!
Poet In Residence
The crew soon grew tired of my constant questions . .
Shakka Lakka Boom
At night, the captain regailed us with tall tales from a life spent on the ocean.
Captain and the Sea Monster
Wouldn’t you know, the weather was awful. I’d never seen such rain. I wore my usual ‘performance’ costume, but due to the intense and very persistent deluge, I wore a large raincoat over the top of them, and then a plastic mac over that, too. I was more worried about the camera and the microphone that I was wearing, but John and Clare kept themselves very dry while I stood on the quay with the rain rolling down my neck, performing to the camera. Worse still, the persistent rain flattened my traditional gelled, spiked hairstyle flat to my face, and the gel began to drip into my eyes. The book became a sodden mulch in my hands. In fact, it all reminded me of flyering in Edinburgh.
And thus, the Squidbox project finished with something of a damp squib. But it had brought me closer to the town, and for the first time I felt truly a part of the local community. The poems made their way out into the world and I was asked to perform some of them at Brixham’s Museum during their inaugural poetry festival in the spring. And sadly, when a Brixham trawler sank off the coast of Sussex that winter, the poem We are Brixham featured on the Devon News website. Indeed, the whole tragedy affected me not only that I’d spent the summer with the trawler crews, and we’d chatted about the potential for danger, but also because one of those who died had been a friend of a friend and I’d hoped to interview him at some point, though never got around to it.
Looking back now, the project seems a very interesting diversion. Once Squidbox was done, I was able to concentrate on the next solo show, and I incorporated a couple of the poems into the narrative, the storyline of which poked gentle fun at the whole process. By the time I’d finished the project, I understood that I certainly had the creative abilities to engage myself in something different, and this made me kind of fearless when it came to choosing a new project. But most of all, it demonstrated that no matter where we are and who we are, we are tied to the history, community and environment in which we are placed, and this kind of made me feel a little better about the world itself.
We are Brixham (p62)
You can watch a video of some of these poems, recording in the pouring rain in Brixham, right here:
Dear fellow scone enthusiasts. It pains me to write this letter, but circumstance has forced my hand. For many years, the Brixham Town Scone Society website has been a valuable tool for members to connect, ask advice, share cooking tips, and buy and sell both equipment and ingredients. There have been no complaints and many of us have both enjoyed, and taken advantage of, this wealth of scone-cooking know-how just a click of the mouse away. However, lately it has come to the attention of this committee that the Classified section of the website has been coming under some abuse from certain members whose interests lay beyond mixing methods and how to create a really cracking milk glaze. The problem first came to light when it was pointed out to me that a lot of our newer subscribers to the website, who filled in the online form, listed the classified section as their main motivation for doing so, yet almost all of them answered the question ‘How many hours a week do you spend cooking scones?’ with the response, ‘None’, and in a lot of cases, ‘I do not like scones’. This was somewhat perplexing and an investigation was launched in case there were some confusion in the title of our website, (Scones A-Plenty.com), or indeed if there were some new boy band or comic perhaps titled ‘Scone Man’, that was leading to this sudden influx in new members. However, after a terrible mix-up (no pun intended) the other day in which one of our senior committee members, Maureen Hepplethwaite, found herself not at a scone cookery demonstration as she had been expecting, but at a swinger’s sex party, it was decided that action was needed. The first thing we noticed was the number of young men offering a variety of different shaped spatulas for sale in the classifieds. While these are great implements in the mixing process, it is probably more common in the scone community to use wooden spoons, so I think it’s fair to say that this raised a few eyebrows among the committee. Most of these spatulas were advertised as being new, ‘or in new condition’, while some were being offered in a slightly battered state. At this stage, alarm-bells didn’t actually start ringing. The admin behind running a pro-scone website means that some matters don’t actually get attended to until there’s some kind of emergency. The Great Flour Shortage of 2005 was one such calamity, and equally fraught was the resignation of our chairman in 2009 when he announced that frankly, he preferred muffins. We then noticed the alarming number of society members offering scones of varying states of completion, some of which were ‘ready to pick up now’, others were, ‘come and collect’, while many were ‘lacking one final ingredient’. ‘Already in the mixing bowl’, apparently, (and according to Reginald, who does not proclaim to be an expert on such matters), means that the ‘seller’ is willing to conduct the process in their own home. ‘On the baking tray’, apparently means that they are willing to travel. And it’s anyone’s guess what ‘ready to be consumed with fresh fresh salad’, means. Suspicions were raised further when Phil Burton (member since 1988), advertised that he had a home-made ready mix featuring fresh sultana pieces and fruity chunks only to receive an email which read, ‘You’re a dirty boy, oh my, you’re a dirty boy!’, followed by someone’s phone number. Dear society members, this will just not do. To get to the root of the problem, we have employed a code-breaker whose previous area of expertise was the Egyptian hieroglyphs and also the mating call of the common sparrow. And it was no surprise to learn that the codes adopted by many of the users of our classified pages were also a base form of mating call in themselves . Once she had explained what many of the codes and terminologies
were, I, as your brave Chairman, decided to pose online as one of these lovelorn scone-bakers with an advertisement composed specifically to entrap the guilty. Spatula for sale (or rent). Slightly rusty yet ergonomically designed to offer maximum stirring. Mixture in bowl yet also functions on the tray. Fellow mixer must have GSOH. No salad please. Jam and cream to spread as desired. Satisfaction guaranteed. Stirs in an anti-clockwise or circular motion. Alas, the only reply to my classified ad was from another society member who offered me a ‘lasagne’. ‘I don’t get it’, I said to the code-breaker. ‘Nor do I’, she replied. And just to be safe, I haven’t eaten a lasagne since. Dear society member, it is time to put an end to this, and the decision was recently taken at a committee level to put an end to the classified section of our website. We understand that this may very well reduce the number of people who have joined our society, (over twenty thousand new members in the last six weeks, a figure which still manages to perplex us), but we believe that this is the safest method to rid our wholesome community of undesirable attention. Like many of you, I started out as a young man with a head full of ideas and dreams intent on devoting my life to the construction and consumption of the humble scone. Starstruck by such scone-bakers as Ethel P. Anderson and Audrey ‘Iron Knuckles’ McGinty, I saw the society as a means to connect with like minded souls whose purpose and heart were in a similar vein to my own. It has been nothing short of tragic to see our fine institution highjacked by those whose thoughts remain as base as their own animalistic instincts. I see this as an opportunity to root out these wrongdoers and make our society safe again! The moment I’ve finished writing this email, I shall be visiting the committee where no doubt we shall be indulging in the wholesome pursuit of the perfect scone. And yes, fellow committee members, thanks for asking, I shall definitely be bringing my own spatula. Yours The chairman.