‘To be honest’, he says, ‘I really can’t remember getting home last night ‘.
And there he is, standing in the doorway of my flat, and he’s saying this with what almost amounts to a hint of jubilation in his voice. It’s New Year’s Day. And he obviously did get home last night.
‘Didn’t your brother give you a lift?’
‘He might have done, yeah, but . . . You know, I’m never drinking again. Well, not for a bit. Time for a dry January’.
It’s four in the afternoon and he’s obviously just got up.
‘I must have had a bad pint or something’.
‘There’s no such thing as a bad pint. It’s just an urban myth’.
‘Mum used to say all the time, whenever I got like this, that it’s a bad pint. That’s what does it. Ask anyone’.
‘It’s a euphemism’.
‘A new what?’
‘They should get Health and Safety to look into these breweries. All these bad pints. Oh, my head!’
He comes in and sits down in my armchair.
‘Ohhh, I think I’m going to be . .’.
I hold the waste paper bin under his nose.
‘It’s ok’, he says. ‘I’ve swallowed it’.
I look at him, sitting there. He’s wearing his t-shirt and shorts, the clothes that he wears when he’s in bed. At least he had time to change out of the clothes that he had been wearing. I look at him, with his features that look like the face of a teenager has been grafted on to the frame of a sixty year old.
‘Can you remember midnight?’ I ask.
‘The fireworks woke me up’.
‘You were asleep?’
‘Jeez. You’re such a party animal’.
‘But you had a good time, though?’
‘I can’t remember’.
I look out of the window. It was a mild, overcast afternoon. I can see people walking past to the park at the end of the street. I live in the ground floor flat directly beneath his. I knew that he was asleep because I couldn’t hear him moving around. I couldn’t hear his television, either.
‘Do you want something to eat?’
He puts his hand right over his eyes.
‘Never drinking again. Too many bad pints’.
His brother also lives in the same building. When the fireworks had started at midnight, his brother had gone outside and started up his car, and then he had just sat there for a bit, watching the fireworks from behind his windscreen. His rear brake lights had lit up my flat an otherworldly red as the new year came in. I must have gone back to sleep just after he had driven away.
‘I think maybe it might be a good idea for you to go off the booze for a little while’, I say to him.
‘I told you! It was a bad pint! And anyway, I’m doing the dry January thing. Not that I need it. Don’t you listen?’
‘I know, but you’re never serious about these things’.
‘Bucket’, he says.
I reach for the waste paper bin again.
His mother had thought we were lovers. I’ve never told him this, because I knew he’d go off on one. And when I’d told her that we weren’t, at the time that she was seriously ill and only a few days away from dying, she had told me that I should look after him. Make sure that he was okay. And I’d said, yes, I will. And that’s why I’d had been relieved, the night before at midnight, when I’d heard his brother get in the car at midnight.
‘I was thinking of going for a walk’, I say.
He clamps his hand right over his eyes, tightly.
‘Work, tomorrow’, I whisper.
‘I know’, he says. ‘Bad pint . . .’.
He gets up and shuffles towards the door.
‘Let me know if you need any food’, I tell him.
‘Yeah’, he says.
‘Yeah, you do, or yeah, you don’t?’
And then he’s gone, and it’s a happy new year, and the kids are going past on their bicycles and skateboards to the park at the end of the road, and the sun is already beginning to set, and his brothers car is still there where he’s parked if the night before, after he had brought him home.
If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.
It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.
I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.
However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.
In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral. For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.
At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.
Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.
My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . . I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.
I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.
I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . . Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.
Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.
I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.
There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.
So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.
So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!
And below you can see a couple of videos of poems from the book.
These are poems about memory, place, and growing up. These are poems about the things that happen and the people you meet along the way. Fleeting encounters on sleeper trains, becoming invisible in a Japanese mega-city, growing up in a house on a hill in the woods glimpsing the whole of London from the back bedroom window, and dreaming, and becoming entranced by the neon.
But most of all, these are poems about the woods. The forest. The trees. Obscuring memories, perhaps, as well as the view. Lonely autumn walks through a leafy copse, imagining other places, other existences.
This collection of poems from Robert Garnham is subtly autobiographical and layered in surprising ways which takes the reader beyond the present moment.
‘The poems are a journey through memory, travel and the “everyday miracles” trying to find “meaning where there is none” and finding a home that “probably never existed”. Very serious stuff but you’re knocked off-balance by the humour which ranges from the ironic to the iconic, the snappy to the quirky, the satirical to self-deprecating, the wit and wordplay.’
‘Robert Garnham has an unerring eye for the bizarre, and a penchant for the outrageous statement, such as ‘I was never interested in poetry’. He told the school careers adviser he wanted to work in a garden centre. The Pet Shop Boys were dismissed by his dad as ‘whining bastards’. At the same time Robert developed a strange admiration for the US comedian Bob Newhart. Need I say more?’
‘Woodview is an evocative and sensitive collection of poems and prose that resonates with leaving childhood behind and searching for an identity. Robert is known for his wit and whimsical works, ever present here. Tenderly sitting beside these are the beautiful and honest poems in the section ‘A Person’ where Robert shows ‘the workings of my heart’. Woodview is Robert at his very best’.
Three hundred or so low guttural individual voices Combine into a cohesive whole, a chorus of Feral anticipation as custard coloured titans Skip on to the pitch, the first among them kind of Punches limply through a paper hoop Emblazoned with their team sponsor's logo, J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost, Three half-hearted palm slaps and then the paper gives way, These athletic specimens of masculinity and matching socks, Shiny blue polyester shorts a-gleam under the spotlights, Back slaps and star jumps, half-hearted jogging, While the opposing team, who must have had an Awfully long bus ride, kind of slouch on to the field, Mooching along the sides of the pitch like slugs around lettuce.
I'd brought a book to read assuming there would be seats. Instead I was pressed up against the lanky frame of an Ever so friendly thought unusually potty-mouthed A rote of a lad who replica custard coloured shirt Had last year's sponsor, McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd., And who suggested at top column that the home team Might like to consider breaking the fucking legs of the opposition. Someone then tried to start a chant going, 'Oh we do like to beat them beside the seaside! We're gonna beat you by two or three!' But it kind of got drowned out To a chant of 'Put them all in intensive care! Put them all in intensive care! Put them all in intensive care! Captain Ollie's got great hair!'
I have come with a friend who's there for the football But also to show me the football and he Made a kind of grimace when I said I'd brought a book. The home team did some warm up exercises. 'They're dancing!' I said, 'it's all a bit camp, isn't it?' Number 32 is just my type, bleach blond hair, stubble, Long legs and snake hips. 'Coooo-eeeee! Over here! Yoooo-hooooo!' My pal said, 'He's on loan from Bournemouth'. I said, 'That's okay, I'd give him back in one piece'.
The stadium announcer extols the virtues of both teams And attests to the veracity of J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost, And the game begins, number 32s elegant fingers splayed As he dribbles the ball, like he's a ballet dancer, Or a gymnast balancing on a beam, though even The home team audience yells that he's a useless Time wasting tossbag who gets the ball and does fuck all, Go back to Bournemouth you useless waste of space. He's got lovely eyes.
The ground rumbles and thuds as they race from one end To the other, kicking up clods of grass and winning The applause of the audience who shout encouragement, These lads in custard who aim at the goal at the other end, Someone misses a sitter, someone else scuffs it, And then the ball goes in the corner and two opposing players Prance and dance around it like Torville and Dean. My eyes kind of wander off to the other side Where twenty or so or the away team supporters chirrup And you can just make out the faded lettering of Last years sponsor showing through under a new coat of paint, McClintock's Polystyrene Coving Ltd. is better than any competition. Only the word 'tit' is still showing.
My pal has already told me in advance The skill of number 10, whose speciality is Less the sublime and precocious nature of his craft, More his knack for falling over at just the right moment, Now he goes down like a sack of spuds and the Audience erupts, apparently this is a good thing, He's allowed to aim a ball at the keeper and boom, In it goes, I almost spill my cup of tea As I'm jostled and the lad next to me flings His arms around my neck, jumps up and down, the Tea oscillates as I breathe in his Lynx Africa antiperspirant, I must say I enjoy it a lot. And now I want number 10 to fall over again.
Wouldn't you know it, he does, never fails to disappoint, Fortune smiles twice in the low setting sun, Achilles in his death throes, Icarus mid melt, Our hero is downfallen and rolling in the mud like a hippo, The ref's cheek bones prominent as his blows his whistle. Boom, scores! The audience is enraptured once again, Another clingy embrace of Lynx Africa, I'm a cuppa carrying eucalyptus and he's my own personal koala, Number 32 looks down wistfully as if jealous, I hope, Oh, I hope, of me and my new found tame delinquent Who sips a surreptitious beer from a paper bag and Chinks against my half spilled Darjeeling, cheers! Caught up in the joy of the moment I attempt to start a chant Based on the third movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony But it doesn't take hold.
Really, I'm only here for my pal who's brought me along. This is his culture and I'm an interloper. But I want to show that I understand life Beyond the cliche, broaden my mind and experience Every nuance of our shared cultural history. 'We're winning ', he says during the interval As we queue for pies sold from a shed Next to the unoccupied press box. 'Well, they are', I point out, 'We're just watching'. I'm taking him to a drag show next weekend.
And then the announcer wants us all to sing happy birthday For Little Liam, whose favourite player is number ten. And Little Jimmy, whose favourite player is number ten, And Little Jack, whose favourite player is number ten, And he reminds us that we can all vote for the J. Arthur Bowyer's Synchro-Boost Houseplant Compost Man of the Match, which is usually won by number ten. 'I'd like to vote for number 32', I say, perhaps too loudly, And everyone around me laughs and says how funny, They love my sense of humour.
Two more goals soon after the interval. Perhaps the audience has tired itself out, I'm the only one who seems excited, and my new friend In the McClintock shirt hardly seems inclined at all To repeat his usual celebratory hijinx, no doubt Enervated by his previous exertions and the two litre bottle of cider Stuffed down the front of his trackie bottoms, And when the ref calls a halt to the show I pat My pal on the back and ask whether four nil in some kind Of club record. It was two all, he says, they switched ends. They what? Why didn't the announcer explain this Before I got excited over nothing?
Oh, this communal kickabout, this colossal crowd clapping This unified oneness this matey definitely not homoerotic bonding, This celebration of the hunter's skill this All-encompassing rough and tumble this slippery sport a spurt With spurious curiosities this worship of the physical This proof of prayer this spectacle this weird excuse To suddenly bellow 'Nice tackle!' and no one bats an eyelid This playing out of certain urges but would they ever let me Join in? No, probably not, and number ten has got mud all over him.
What did you think?, my pal asks As we file like clocked off factory workers Into the adjacent streets, not that he's interested really, Immediately he then adds, shall we get some chips?
I think of number 32 Isolated In the dressing room.
The tiny single-engine aircraft was just a dot at first, hovering on the horizon above the fir trees. ‘You got everything?’, Justin asked. ‘Everything’, I replied. I meant it, too. Condensed into a silver canister which shone in the low sunset. We watched the aircraft land, kicking up dust from the unmade runway surrounded by deep forest. It came to a rest in front of us. The pilot hopped down. ‘You boys ready?’, she asked. ‘Yup’. ‘You got everything?’ I held up the silver canister. ‘Ah’, she said. ‘You’re one of those modern sorts . . .’. We climbed up, Justin and I. There wasn’t much room inside, just as well I had the silver canister. If you didn’t know any better you’d have thought that I was carrying someone’s ashes. Our pilot walked a long way from the aircraft and had a cigarette next to the periphery of the makeshift airfield. ‘I hope she doesn’t set the forest alight with her cigarette butt’, Justin pointed out. ‘The undergrowth is tinder dry . .’. I’d let him sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I was strapped in, the silver canister on the seat next to me, with our bags and backpacks. Of course, we could have easily left our equipment indoors, in the living room just next to the front door, before condensing them. But there were certain things that we might need on the four hour flight. Our pilot walked around the aircraft and checked all of the flaps and the rudder and the wings, and then she hopped on board and started the engine. The old craft shook and throbbed. ‘You got everything?’ she asked. ‘Canister!’, I yelled. She turned us around and we took off with a kick of acceleration, up over the tops of the trees and into the low setting sun. She put on a pair of sunglasses. ‘Dark matter compression?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I yelled. I’d forgotten how noisy aircraft can be. ‘So what do you do with it, just plug it in?’ ‘I know it sounds silly’, I yelled, ‘but you add cold water’. ‘It’s amazing what they can do these days’. ‘What?’ ‘I said, it’s amazing what they can do these days!’ ‘Certainly beats camping’, I shouted, as we banked over a winding blue river. ‘It’s great, too, you know? Sleeping in your own bed every night, even if you’re thousands of miles from home’. ‘Sure’, she said. She was silent for a bit. ‘The canister . . .’, she said, ‘its watertight, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it to . . You know . . pop open up here’. Justin changed the subject. ‘Do you know if there’s a florist near the airport?’ he asked. ‘I have to get a bunch of flowers for my mother. It’s something I always do. I promised her, as soon as we landed I would get her some flowers’. ‘Birthday?’ ‘No, just a regular gift’. ‘What a thoughtful son you are’. ‘Got to keep her happy’. The little aircraft’s engine let out a reassuring constant tone. I reached down and rummaged in my rucksack for a plastic bottle of water. Some of it leaked the moment that I took the cap off. ‘For goodness sake!’, our pilot yelled, ‘be careful back there!’
All I said was, Why is it so draughty in here? And you gave me one of those looks Like the tosser that you are, Sprawled akimbo half on the sofa, Half on the pouffe, You sports vest attired shag bunny You king of pungency masked in Lynx Africa You gymnasium dumbbell botherer whose limbs Look like the spare parts left over when Mother Nature has tried to make its first gibbon, You text speak Netflix modern day lothario Looks more like Onslow Whose only cultural refinement is the ability to Belch the theme tune to Countdown You harbinger of sloppy sex whose bedroom technique Feels more like conducting an oil change on a Ford Transit van, Said, I can't feel a draught.
And I was apt to point at the curtains The net curtains the fine lace net curtains Which were lifting ever so gently away From the window frame gently swaying net curtains And I said What's causing this, what's causing this, eh? Is it the ghost of Liberace trying to make a grand entrance? And you didn't get my cultural reference And thinking back I didn't know what it meant either.
And furthermore I insisted persisted that Should I stand there with feather next to the Obviously ill fitting window frames A feather whether the feather should Demonstrate by means of its bristles undulating Sensuously Like a naked James Bond opening titles dancer See them undulating these bristles Like a naked James Bond opening titles dancer Who ironically Would almost certainly feel a draught.
And did I not impinge the possibility That the curtains should billow so Undulating billowing curtains ballooning curtains Swishing whistling billowing curtains Right in front of the TV screen That we might Billowing curtains billowing curtains Fluttering across the TV screen Lose sight of the bigger picture?
And thence did I not utter a silent prayer A private invocation a spell a trance Hands clasped flat palm on palm Eyes screwed tight shut palm on palm Prayer pious prayer eyes shut prayer While you Scooped up and consumed Honey roasted nuts?
And did I not expostulate And did you not lie there Half slouched with your bronzed muscles That put me in mind of the cheap handbags in Primark With your shorty shorty shorty shorty denim shorts Which when you take them off just kind of Maintain the same shale put a book across the top Use them as a makeshift coffee table With your bleached blond blond blond blondie blond Sandy beach bleached hair short spiked Like the stubbly pasture grass around the steaming cowpat Of your bald patch With your face that looks like the top half was incredibly surprised That the bottom half had grown a beard And now it was off to go and join A much more successful face With your tattoo of Marilyn Monroe that had got so wrinkled She now looked like Sid James Did you not lie slumped there and suggest I sit at the other side of the room Sit at the other side of the room? No I replied, I ain't no draught dodger.
I stepped into a tropical bar. Simon Reeve was there in a slow dance, And I lost myself to his floppy fringe Whose sweat-soaked flappy fronds would Tickle my blushing cheeks, Whose stubble scraped at the twilit skies Like a cat’s claws on anaglypta, Whose come-to-bed eyes betrayed none Of the entitlement of his classical features But a yearning for a sweetness so virile That he could have been a treacle tart And I ached, how I ached, To be the custard.
Backpack merely decorative, Naive tone a faux Theroux, Poor man’s Palin, Cargo-trousered doyen of sand dunes And jungle trains, No armchair droner he, Riven with Reevisms, river crossings, Barrier reef rovings, Now gyrating for my pleasure in the aptly named Club Flamingo.
Simon Reeve whose dimpled smile Hauls in the night like a Titicatan net-lobber, Whose unblemished skin betrays the Goodness of various restorative unguents, Whose manly chin is jutted like the Bulbous bow of a speeding Shinkansen And probably twice as purposeful, Whose sensitive eyebrows are seldom parabolic, Yet neither do they quiver intense for Reevsie is an empathic soul, Whose backpack is admittedly superfluous, Whose torso is Michaelangeloian in its Sculpted accommodation of his lean yet Muscular frame on whose bounty I would Willingly consume a quadruple-decker cheeseburger Dipping a chip in a reservoir of mayonnaise Stored for convenience sake in his belly button.
Action man for aunties. Secret poet banging sand out his boots. Earnest and eager though neither over with either. Mortal enemy of Professor Brian Cox. No world-weary Whicker he, but a clamorous compassion And the kind of face That would make even Vladimir Putin Contemplate a five minute fumble In the broom cupboard.
Simon Reeve, whose tousled locks hold Within their definitely un-dyed verdantness A vitality that would put Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to shame, Whose rich deep Colombian coffee coloured eyes Might penetrate x-ray-like beneath layers so effectively As to pass right through the earth’s core every time He bends down to pat a puppy. Whose nostrils hardly flare. Whose afterthought goatee clings on like A countryside hilltop copse stunted By the choking emissions from a nearby pig farm Yet in whose branches barn owls berate the night With their haunted warbling, Whose luscious lips have tempted many a plastic surgeon To bemoan the artifice of their own creations And now before is delicate tongue-moistened plumpness, Whose sturdy shoulders in their perfect powerful paralleogramatic Precision Would easily raise a live rhinoceros clear out Of the Serengeti mud hole Into which it had stumbled probably distracted By the beauty of Simon Reeve’s face in the first place.
And I, Simon Reeve, I am that rhinoceros And this ain’t no mud hole, It’s the Club Flamingo And our song has now ended And our dance has now ended And you’ve picked up your backpack Which definitely doesn’t contain Just a couple of pillows to make it look full for the cameras, And off you go.
Last year I became the Bard of Exeter. During this time I’ve been working on various poems about Exeter, written often during visits to the city. You can read them below, they’re not in any kind of order. I really do like the city of Exeter and I’ve enjoyed my time as the Bard.
The River Exe Reminded me Of my ex. One has a sinewy Snaking nature And a big marsh Where wild things live, The other Is the River Exe. (You must have seen That one coming, Dear reader). One would turn Several times a day And often Not realise it. The other Is the River Exe. (Tidal, you see).
Oh, Exeter Airport. From the front You look Like a primary school. Your departure gates Are numbered Gate One and Gate Two. Your duty free shop Is more of a shelf. ‘You don’t hear many planes’, A friend observed As we sat there in the Living room of your Departure lounge. ‘That’s because’, I quipped, ‘There aren’t any’.
She said, ‘Take me to your favourite place, Restaurant, bar, tavern, Eatery, joint, cafe, Bistro, bistro, bistro, Any place we can get food, It doesn’t matter where, So long as we’re together. We can look into each other’s eyes Amid the ambience, And fill our souls with sustenance Of two different kinds’.
Next to the vending machine On platform three at Exeter St Davids, She said, ‘I think we should See other people’.
I’m Bard of Exeter, I said. More like, barred from Exeter, my friend replied. Ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, funny.
I’m Bard of Exeter, I said. More like, barred from Exeter, my cousin replied. Ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, funny.
I’m Bard of Exeter, I said. What’s that?, my friend Bill replied. It’s an honorary position, I explained. No, he said, I meant what’s Exeter?
I’m Bard of Exeter, I said. More like, barred from Exeter, my neighbour said. Ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, funny.
This is why I don’t Tell many of my friends What I’m up to.
There’s a view of the Cathedral, The B and B owner said, From your window. And she was right. She had blue tacked it To the wall of the shed.
Let’s picnic in the grass, he said. In front of the medieval cathedral Whose precious beauty has tempted Many a passing tourist to drop to their knees And feint at its buttresses. The rain Made my pork pie soggy.
Is there a ram In the RAMM? A ramp To put the ram In the RAMM? A van to carry The ram to the ramp To put it in the RAMM? A man to drive the van To carry the ram to the ramp To put in the RAMM? No, But there’s a giraffe.
I contacted my sister, I texted her To say we’d arrived In Exeter. She didn’t know we were going, It perplexed her.
From Telegraph Hill The lights of Exeter Twinkle in the distance Like private stars in a constellation Of one. I’m lost in that timeless beauty Once again.
And then we drive Round and round The multi storey car park. The poetry Has long since evaporated.
As Splatford Split approached I still didn’t know Which way you would go. I watched your hands on the wheel. Lazily, you turned the car to the Left hand lane And I did a little air fist pump, Then held on, Ready for the rocket boost Of Telegraph Hill. Quicker this way, you said. Mmmm, I replied, And I wanted to kiss you.
The next stop is Exeter St. Thomas. To the uninitiated, they panic, Bloody hell, we’re here much sooner Than we thought. It’s OK, I think to myself, relaxing, you’ve still got Another five minutes until Exeter St. David’s. But it must be disconcerting Nonetheless. Similar names, you see.
That night, before I went to sleep, I thought, Oh, Perhaps some people Actually do want to get off at Exeter St. Thomas. The universe Is a cosmic joke.
I went for a walk Down to the quay By the river In the sun. I’d bought a chocolate milk From M and S Food Hall, Sat on a planter on the cobbles, Necked its fine rich nectar. Such fun. Although I was the only one there When I get up to put the bottle in the bin, I took my bag with me, Because, you know, You can never be too sure. My friend James is in his 70s and recently Had his very first pickled egg, So you never know what’s coming. Anyway. The quay. It was nice.
I was in the men’s section At Exeter Primark When the tannoy announcer said, ‘Could security Please be aware That Mister Strange Is in the men’s section. That’s Mister Strange In the men’s section.’ I looked around But I couldn’t see him.
I always look Too deeply Into things. Where others See objects I see Atoms.
I like the sunshine Too much To be an Overnight success.
While he was in the queue Getting their coffee She found a table and Pushed two chairs in, Pulled out one for herself, And one for the one She wanted him to sit in.
(In an Exeter coffee shop I overheard someone complaining about their neighbour who apparently spent most of the day sieving his gravel).
The gravel siever has a cluttered attic. He’s out there now, He’s out there every day Sieving his gravel, And by all accounts he’s got a cluttered attic, Cluttered with boxes, The boxes he had when he moved into the bungalow Whose gravel needed sieving.
Does he ponder on those boxes as he Sieves his gravel? Does he ponder on sieving his gravel as he Pokes his head in the loft Like a Jack in the Box Regards the clutter and lets out a mutter? There’s no single performing. There’s no shingle uniformity. There’s so much going on in the world But only two things going on in his.
I went to the ticket office. The man behind the counter asked, ‘Single?’ Is it really so obvious? I sat in my seat on the train. The notice above me said, Available. Is it really so damn obvious?
The A303 isn't as long as it used to be (It shrunk)
In prehistoric times, Apparently, The A303 Didn't stop at Exeter, But kept on going.
Continental drift played a part, Of course. Dinosaurs, and then The Romans Used it to go to Present day Nova Scotia. There were tea rooms, so peaceful, Very pleasant. Mind you, no Motorways in those days.
Genghis Khan Got stuck behind a tractor. Emperor Napoleon Got stuck behind a tractor. The Earl of Effingham Got stuck behind two tractors. And I bet he was Effingham.
The Moon was slightly closer back then. Stone Age man Worshipping cats eyes gleaming Brighter on account of the Moon glow Not quite so far For Armstrong and co to go.
Cowboys in the layby, And the hunter gatherer clans of Wiltshire Refused to welcome outsiders. Mostly we just Left them to their own Devizes.
There once was a man from the A303 Who wanted to go to Honiton via the B353 He took the A3033 And then the B453 And then the B353 itself but he ended up in Chard.
I'm a trainspotterspotter. There were two fine examples In Exeter St David’s last night. I spotted both of them Lurking amid the passengers With their notebooks and their cameras And their anoraks. But then I noticed that I had been Spotted by a trainspotterspotterspotter And that he was being spotted By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotter And that he was being spotted By a trainspotterspotterspotterspotterspotter And so on Until the time it would take to Explain all of this would be more time Than there is in the whole of existence More than all of the grains of sand on earth Or stars in the universe So it's just as well that They kept the buffet open late.
My cousin Phil Slipped at the top of Telegraph Hill Bounded end over end In a never ending cartwheel Right from the very top, Then straight through the middle Of a loving couple's picnic, Damaging a sausage roll And two scotch eggs Virtually beyond repair Falling at such a velocity His shoes flew off And one of them clouted a nun Who shook her fist at him. Phil Still managed To blend into the left hand lane Of the motorway.
About 25 years ago I used to work in a shop In Sidwell Street And at lunchtimes in the summer Sunbathe on the flat roof, From where You’d be able to see The cars snaking up Telegraph Hill. Probably wouldn’t have been able To see Phil, though, Because he would have been too small And he didn’t exist, really.
Looking back on my Edinburgh Fringe this year, I’m astounded at how little went wrong this time. It’s weird, but every one of my visits to Edinburgh can be recalled through what went disastrously wrong. For example, in 2015, I lost my passport during the flight up to Edinburgh, and I would need it again a month later for a trip to New York. In 2016, I arrived in Edinburgh but my luggage went to Honolulu, so I had to do the first two days with the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, and none of my props. In 2017, things actually went quite well but I’d accidentally booked not enough days at my accommodation and had to find two more nights to stay somewhere in the city. In 2019, my train only got as far as Preston and had to turn back because the line was flooded, and then when I arrived in Auld Reekie I discovered that my show wasn’t listed in the PBH brochure. (My fault, I should have checked). And then on the train home, someone stole my luggage!
So I suppose all of these were damn good learning experiences, and this year I had flights sorted, accommodation booked, I’d double checked the PBH brochures, I had my favourite venue, (Banshee Labyrinth), and I had a show without any props, so if something happened to my luggage, then the show could still go on.
There were other things I did differently this year which seemed to work. For a start, I listed the show in the main Fringe brochure under comedy rather than spoken word. This was the first time I’d done this, (mainly because I knew I had a show which had a fair amount of comedy in it, unlike 2015’s Static, or 2017’s In the Glare of the Neon Yak). And I think this did lead to a slightly higher number of audience members. The idea of this came from a little research I did where it transcribed that a lot of people who get the Fringe brochure only ever look at the sections which interest them. Theatre, for example, or comedy. My own interest is comedy, for example.
The other thing I did was to include my name in the show title. For a long time the show was called ‘Yay! The Search for Happiness’, but I decided that this sounded too much like a motivational speech, and the title itself hinted that it ought to come with some kind of trigger warning. I decided on ‘Robert Garnham, Yay!’, which I think really worked.
Another thing which was different this year was my whole attitude. In years past I’d take a show to Edinburgh and feel as if all of my eggs were in one basket. If this failed, then I was a failure too by extension. And also, it has to be admitted, I was never as sure as my shows in the past, never one hundred percent convinced that I was writing or performing to the maximum of my (possibly limited) abilities. This year, with a show which had no props or music to hide behind, I had made sure that I knew the show inside out. I’d been rehearsing the thing since early 2020 and I felt that I knew every nuance of it. As a result, I felt much more relaxed while talking to people about my show. If an audience came, well, then it came. If it didn’t, then at least I knew I’d done my maximum.
And also, I had my writing, now. I wasn’t just a comedy performance poet. By the time I got back to Edinburgh in 2022, several things had changed in my career. I was now a published writer, humorist, newspaper columnist as well as a comedy performance poet. This helped me to see what I was doing the context of someone who wasn’t putting all of his hopes and dreams into one show. If the show was a flop, (a show I;d given everything to), then at least I had short stories in magazines, and people reading my newspaper columns. All would not be lost!
This all helped me be incredibly more relaxed in Edinburgh. It’s only taken about ten years, but I felt I was negotiating the fringe with some degree of knowledge which I could fall back on. I even started to enjoy flyering.
Yes, you read that right. Traditionally, I hate flyering. Dyslexia manifests itself with me with an inability to speak to strangers or say things on the spur of the moment. I cannot improvise to save my life and a witty comeback is a three hour process. I find engaging with other human beings to be absolutely exhausting, yet this year, I had something I could describe very easily. ‘A search for happiness on the high seas. Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!’ My eye-catching flyers helped tremendously, too.
And finally, I decided that this would all be an adventure. If it all went tits up, then it would be something to write about. After the last two years where nothing much happened, it really did feel like the most daring thing in the world to go to another city, another country, and bring a show with me. I knew that in the dark days of winter, I’d sit back and ponder on the people I met, the places I went, the lovely audiences I had.
Will I be back next year? In all likelihood, yes. And here are my highlights:
1. The young Scottish couple who came to my show and chatted afterwards about seaside towns. I’d pulled them in to the show at the last minute and worried that they wouldn’t like it. They did, and they bought a book. They told me the name of the Scottish town where they lived. I had to ask three times because I didn’t understand the answer. Abercernichnie? Aberlakichnee?
2. The lady who came to my show and flung her arms around me at the end, and then, much to my surprise, so did her husband!
3. The man who said that my show should be on Radio Four. But it was noisy in the bar and I thought he’d said he was from Radio Four and I got unnecessarily excited!
4. Gecko came to my first show and seemed to really like it, he laughed at all the funny bits and this helped the rest of the audience laugh too.
5. Ditto Alexander Woody Woodward, who it was a thrill to meet in the flesh.
6. The fight which took place during my penultimate show in the audience. Yes, you read that correctly. An audience member took exception to the noise coming from the bar of the Banshee. She went and told them to be quiet, in a very feisty manner. Next thing I know, she was laying into them! I had a great audience that night and it seemed to bind us all together as a shared adventure.
7. The wonderful audience I had at the last show, which included my good friend Elizabeth McGeown and also my regular ‘Robheads’ from Leith, who brought me a lovely present to open on the way home.
8. The tourist who took a selfie with me, and then another tourist who asked for my autograph, I suppose, just assuming that I was famous because I had a show!
9. The taster session I did at St Andrew’s Square during which I had a very big audience, a lot of whom were filming me on their mobile phones.
10. Selling loads of books!
11. Getting home that night and thinking, oh my god, was there really a fight tonight?!