The Approach

The approach

I could feel the engines throbbing through the joystick, the plane itself skimming the tops of the clouds throwing down a shadow of our outline, the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus hiding within their fluffy exterior hail, thunderstorms, bad weather. It’s a position I’ve been in more times than I can remember, the pulsating turbofans of my craft a comfort, the juddering engines, the pulsating jets, the oscillating power units, all of them at my control.
Bing bong.
I speak into the cabin intercom using that practised drawl.
‘Aaaaaaaaand ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, Captain O. Captain. Yes, I know my surname is Captain, you could say I was destined for this job. We’re about seventy miles from Westbury International. If you look out the port side windows, you’ll see a lovely view of the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus. So we should begin our descent any time soon. Until then, please feel free to be lulled by the pulsating, oscillating, throbbing, juddering of the engines as they soothe us through the sky . . . You know . . . I might even sing to you’.
‘Don’t’, the First Officer suggested.
‘Cabin crew, prepare for . . .’.
‘Landing?’
‘Yes . . Yes . . .’.
Instinctively, I reached out a hand and stroked the topside of the cockpit controls.
‘Bring us home safely, old girl . .’, I whispered.
‘Captain O. Captain’, the First Officer, Ben, said. ‘You really are somewhat eccentric ‘.
I could feel the engines quaking and gibbering through the controls.
‘Ben . . .if that is your name . . . Flying is instinctive. It’s a relationship between not only the captain and their machine, but also solid metal and the laws of physics. It’s like an affirmation of . . I say, are you okay?’
The sweat was rolling down Ben’s face. His upper lip was glistening. He stared straight ahead as if not even noticing the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus,
‘You see . . . The quivering engines . . .’.
All of a sudden Ben yelled, ‘Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand? You’re my father!’
I was silent for a couple of seconds.
‘But . . .’.
‘Don’t try to deny it. You know it’s true. I’ve been waiting years for us to be scheduled on the same flight, just so I could tell you this!’
‘But Brad, we have our pre-landing checklist . . ‘.
‘It’s Ben. Sod the pre-landing checklist! I rose up through the ranks just for this one day, and then the moment . . . The moment I’m with you . . I . . .’. Ben let out a sign, his head silhouetted against the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus clouds. ‘I realise that I can never come between the love you have for aircraft’.
I could feel the vibrations and the trundling of the engines through the controls.
‘So your mother must be Sophie’, I whisper, ‘that winsome mechanic whose coquettish charms lit up the engineering hangar all those years ago, resulting in our tryst in the starboard fan cowling assembly . . .’.
‘That was twenty four years ago’.
‘Jeez, they’re letting you fly planes at twenty three years old, now?!’
‘Captain O. Captain. I mean . . Dad’.
The sun shines brightly on the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus.
‘No time to talk, we’ve got to concentrate. Let’s get this baby on the ground ‘.
‘That’s what she said’.
‘Brad!’
‘Ben’.
We began our descent. The white fluffy clouds of the cumulonimbus gave way to a deep grey and the cockpit window was spotted with rain. A slight turbulence flexed our wings as the engines grinded and rattled through the controls. After a while we were out of the base of the clouds and the runway lights were in view.
‘Every landing’, I whisper, as we levelled and lined up, ‘is a controlled calamity’.
And the runway itself seemed to beckon us in. In much the same way that Sophie had beckoned me up into the starboard fan cowling assembly to show me an interesting leak. And then before we know it we’re down on the ground, wheels touching the runway, reverse thrust applied throwing us ever so gently into our harnesses.
‘You really only ever get one shot at this’, I tell him.
We taxi to the terminal building.
‘You really do . . ‘, I continue, my mind wandering.

An interview with Mary Dickins

When I first started performing I would travel up to London every month or so and perform at open mics. This was a great way to meet new people and see other poets. One of the biggest and noisiest nights was Bang Said the Gun, which took place at the Roebuck pub near Borough, and I would go often, sometimes just to sit and watch, and sometimes to perform.

It was at one such evening that I first saw Mary Dickins. I fell in love with her poetry immediately. Joyous, funny, an delivered in a deadpan that added to the comedy. We would later work together making TV adverts for a certain building society, and at one or two corporate events. Mary’s poetry has a joyful playfulness which masks a serious subtext. Well observed descriptions of every day life combine with a true poetic sense of wonder.

Mary’s book, Happiness FM, has just been published by Burning Eye, and I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to interview her.

How did you get into writing poetry?

I have a distinct memory of writing my first poem when I was four. It was a nonsense poem called “The man wrapped up in a Pin” and it rhymed. I was much more excited about it than the rest of my family. Throughout my life I’ve used poetry and creative writing as a therapeutic outlet but I saw it as more of a hobby and I never thought my work was ‘good’ enough for performance or publication until much later.

I’ve seen you loads of times performing on the London spoken word scene. How did you start performing live?
I have always been interested in the performance aspect of poetry and in my professional life was a conference speaker and lecturer but it wasn’t until I was 60 and attended an Arvon course run by Matt Harvey and Kate Fox that I got the confidence and self-belief to give my poetry a try. This led me to do open mic at the brilliant Bang Said the Gun and for the first time I experienced a really noisy and enthusiastic response. I thought that was wonderful and I wanted more.

Who are your influences as a poet and artist?
My influences are many and varied. I was very taken by the Liverpool poets and the irreverent breath of air that they brought to the poetry establishment in the 60s..  I was an early and devoted fan of John Cooper Clark and John Hegley and also poets such as Maya Angelou and Grace Nicholls. I am now an avid reader of all kinds of poetry and I think I probably take a little bit from everyone I like.

Your collection Happiness FM has a bright, upbeat feel. Was this a conscious decision at the start of the project?
I do feel that the best poetry is usually uplifting in some way so I suppose I do aim for that. I guess this evolved as I thought Happiness FM made a good title poem. My daughter Hannah designed the cover around that and together we aimed for an eye catching joyful feel. I was worried about the irony bringing out  a book with this title at a time when the vast majority of people were feeling singularly unhappy then I thought maybe it could bring a little joy into my readers lives.

You have a wonderful knack at finding the eccentric and the odd beneath everyday reality. How did you develop this quirky worldview?
Is it me that’s quirky? I always think it’s everybody else. I think that feeling excluded while growing up (long story) made me into an acute observer and gave me the ability to step back and view reality objectively. Let’s face it there is plenty about the world that is eccentric and odd so there is no shortage of ideas.

Your poetry can also be deeply serious. Do you think it is a poet’s duty to look at the bigger issues in society and life?
I’m not sure about the word ‘duty’ as this rather saps the enjoyment out of it. Poets describe and interpret the world around them and also chronicle the times they live in so the bigger issues are pretty hard for any of us to avoid. Exploring identity, for example, inevitably leads to us to examine and challenge existing values and systems. Poetry can be a powerful tool for change and personally I do like my poems to contain some kind of social comment however oblique. I think anyone with a public platform has a responsibility to try to make the world a better place and that includes poets. I want the poets I admire to have integrity and be truthful. But they should be allowed to express themselves as they choose.

What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time and place for writing?
I’ve never been very good at keeping to a self-imposed writing schedule although I can be disciplined and dogged if the situation calls for it. A lot of my writing takes place in my head and I find that 2am in the morning is the time when random ideas and solutions suddenly emerge. This means that the kitchen table is often littered with strange and obscure post it notes to self in the morning.  I find poetry courses and writing groups very useful as they give you homework deadlines and a reason to persevere.

What was your best ever gig as a performer?
It has to be when I won the Golden Gun at Bang Said the Gun a few years ago. I performed a somewhat blasphemous poem called “The Richard Dawkins Delusion by God” and Andrew Motion who was Poet Laureate at the time and also performing said how much he liked it. I floated home on the tube that night.

What are you working on at the moment or what will your next project be?
Well this is the rub. At the moment my biggest challenge as someone in a vulnerable category for Coronavirus is how to maintain a poetry presence and promote the book. Luckily there are online opportunities at the moment and I hope these continue as there are a few of us who might be stranded if they don’t. I have a number of new poems up my sleeve so I am looking towards the next collection.

What advice would you give someone who would like to follow on your footsteps and be a poet and a performer?
Don’t wait as long as I did but at the same time it’s never too late to start.

What made a performance poet?

There’s not much to do in Virginia Water once the lights are off. In fact there’s not much to do when the lights are on, either, unless you are one of the millionaires whose villas dot the woods and thickets of this strange commuter-belt town, the summer air thick with pungent earthy aromas, honeysuckle, fleshy rhododendrons, a sudden shower sounding like polite theatre applause as it falls on jungle vegetation. Nothing to do at all. Even less if you happened to live in one of the small cottages, one of the two-up two-down workman’s cottages which still survived into the 1990s before they were all bulldozed to make way for mansions bought by supermarket magnates and glam rock superstars. And even less yet again if you lived in one of these cottages and it was the mid seventies, and it was a period of rolling black-outs and you and your young wife lived in the top bedroom, and the other three rooms of the house were owned and occupied by the in-laws. There’s absolutely nothing to do under these circumstances.
I was born the following January.
There are things that I can still remember from a very early age. I can remember the hideous flowery purple and pink bedspread on my parents bed. I can remember the hideous flowery yellow and brown curtains over their window. I can remember the woods, the ominous, black, dense woods that would pull in the darkness amid their gnarled trunks like a lonely miser gathering in the eternal emptiness and oblivion which awaits us all. And I can remember the hideous flowery blue and white polyester dress that my grandmother used to wear.
I can remember my Grandad, too. My Grandad had brown buttons on his cardigan and I would play with them whenever he held me. He wore big, thick rimmed glasses, the kind I’d see on television Comedians. With just a word or two, my grandfather could reduce a room into peals of laughter. I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that I kind of take after him a little bit, that’s the inference. I even wear the same type of glasses.
My Grandad had a large shed at the bottom of the garden, a corrugated hut which looked like something from the Alaskan gold rush. Inside the shed were lathes and drills and all kinds of incredibly intricate machines which he would work over late into the night inventing tools and other equipment, tobacco tins full of nuts and bolts, rolled up blueprints and official patent letters tucked away amid the paint tins on the shelves. It was no place for a toddler, but I would stand in the doorway and watch as he operated his machinery, transfixed by the way he’d dance from one machine to the other. Years later I’d do the same, escaping to a shed or an outbuilding to work on manuscripts and poems, books, short stories, enmeshed in my own little world away from everyone else. So there I go, comparing myself to him again.
At this stage of my life, I didn’t have a sister yet, nor was I a spoken word artist. Nothing in my demeanour hinted that I would be a spoken word artist, and to be honest I didn’t really have the vocabulary. I did used to like putting buckets on my head, though, and there are plenty of photos of me with a bucket on my head. The fact that I’ve made a career out of very silly hats possibly stems from this. I can’t even remember how this came about. I’ve just got other people’s word to go on and, as I say, photographs. Perhaps I just liked making people laugh. As I say, it was Virginia Water and it was the 1970s, so there wasn’t much else going on. A toddler with a bucket on his head obviously passed for light entertainment back then.
The sporadic power cuts continued and two years later my sister was born.
The thing is, I can’t remember seeing my sister for the first time, yet I remember the day itself vividly. The reason for this is that I was with my Dad and my Uncle in Staines High Street, and they had just bought me a red pedal car, and the fact that it came in a big box and was obviously for me, made me feel very special indeed. It didn’t even occur to me at that stage that the red pedal car was a consolation prize for no longer having everyone’s undivided attention. In fact, the next time I would ever have everyone’s undivided attention would be on the stage as a spoken word artist. It’s something I would never experience again for quite some time, and even during sex, people would just close their eyes and think about someone else. Anyway, I had a red pedal car, which my mother, for some reason, christened Bertie, and a sister who, because we were a family of atheists, wasn’t christened at all, but was named Angela.
And oh, what a vicious thing she was. Aunts and Uncles would cower in fright. If anyone were foolish enough to pick her up, she’d bite a chunk out of their shoulder. From a very early age she’d boss me around, and in these crucial years of my own development as a human being, she taught me the valuable lesson that it’s sometimes not worth the effort because other people will always kick up a bigger fuss than you. Whenever we’d play games, my mother would whisper to me, ‘for goodness sake, let her win’. Which was another lesson I learned at a very early age. It’s not the winning or the losing that counts, it’s making sure that your opponent doesn’t throw a tantrum. At least I got a pedal car out of it.
I can’t remember the age at which i would begin to mythologise my past and my upbringing. I think it was probably just after my fourth birthday. We moved out of my grandparents and away from Virginia Water to a council house in the Surrey suburbs on an estate on a hill a couple of miles from the end of Heathrow’s runway. There are those who believe that homosexuality is a result of home conditions and human relations, the psychological environment of our formative years, and while I do not agree with some parts of this hypothesis, I understand that such people would probably point to the fact that I had spent most of my time up to this point with three generations of strong-willed women in my grandmother, mother and baby sister, as definitive proof. My grandfather was usually in his shed inventing things, and my dad was invariably at work in his job as a civil servant. On top of that, the Queen was a woman and so was the prime minister, and every single one of my teachers would be a woman until I was ten years old. I would dream of a time when men were allowed to make decisions and be in charge of things, perhaps then there would be no warfare or violence.
As I say, I do not agree with the environmental thesis of homosexual development, but I remember thinking from a very early age that something was amiss. (Not that I knew it was necessarily amiss. I thought my behaviour was perfectly normal. I couldn’t understand why people would get so uppity when I showed no interest in football, soldiers or motorbikes). I wanted a handbag, just like Mum’s. My two teddy bears, Fred and Jumbo, were both male and yet in my imagination they were also a couple. And most weirdly of all, the engraved pattern of my grandmother’s sideboard looked, to my young eyes, like a man’s bare legs and boots, a pattern repeated on both doors of the sideboard so that it looked for all the world like two men flat on their backs with their trousers off and their boots in the air. I found it weird that nobody else had ever noticed this or even commented on it, and also the fact that whatever they were doing, they’d decided to keep their boots on. To this day, I’ve always had a thing about legs.
I can’t remember much from the age of three. Perhaps times were hard and I was affected by the certain malaise or ennui easily associated with those who feel their lives are going nowhere. At the age of four I started school and I discovered that other people existed outside of my own family group. I found it inconceivable that people could have birthdays on a day that wasn’t the second of January. In a bizarre quirk of fate, I shared my birthday with my dad, my uncle, my great uncle and my grandfather, and it didn’t help matters that one of the first friends I met in school also had his birthday on the same day. In a deep and philosophical moment I might even be tempted to say that this deconstructed the obvious and laid the foundations for a variance in all things, souls dancing in the overbearing consciousness of the mind of a four year old who would later revel in difference and the position of the outcast, but what it actually meant was that it was always someone’s birthday other than my own. And when my own did come around, I had to share the cake.

The other major thing that I discovered at school was writing. From the age of six I became somewhat precious, at all times aware that I was a tortured genius and that I had literature pulsing through my veins. Or at least, I thought it was literature. I started writing because I wanted to have a book published like the books that my mother had in the case on the landing at the top of the stairs. I wanted to see my name next to those who’d written the books which she cherished and held forever in semi-reverence behind the sliding glass door of the MFI cabinet which dad had swore profusely while putting together one weekend. The volumes within seemed to have their own aura and mystique, and I knew that truth and reality were kept behind their slightly crumpled spines. I wanted to be treasured as much as these titans, these philosophers, that my mother would, ever so proudly, hold me in as much esteem as she held Jilly Cooper. I could feel the literature within me, or at least, I thought it was literature. In actual fact there was probably hardly anything of any literary worth until I was around ten. Each day my mother would drag me off to school and I would only ever be truly happy if it was raining, because rain meant that we could stay indoors during break time and not run around the school playground. We were given paper on which to draw, but I found that I filled up the paper much more effectively if I wrote instead. I’d use turquoise felt tip pen. And as the rain beat against the plate glass window of our county first school, my head would be transported to all kinds of places, my imagination fascinated with the possibility that the characters I’d invented could do absolutely anything. It rained a lot that year, and before long I had a novel.
My school was very religious and we had Bible readings every day and double Bible readings on a Thursday. In my mind the adventures of the characters in the Bible were easily comparable to the adventures of the characters in my novel, and if the Bible was an example of storytelling, believability, authenticity and gritty reality, then I knew that I’d got it spot on. For this reason I decided to call my first novel ‘Bible 2: Revenge of the Bible’, but my deeply religious teachers seemed to be dead against this idea.
‘You can’t call it that!
‘Why not? It’s just as good as the first one’.
‘The Bible is the word of God! It’s a sacred text! A lot of people could become very offended’.
‘Well, Bible 2 is the word of me!’
‘How dare you!’
‘And it’s got dogs in it!’
Because all of the characters were dogs, for some reason.
‘It’s the word of dog!
A comment which did not go down too well In the event I settled on a far less provocative, though oddly postmodernistic and even minimalist title, calling the novel ‘R’, because ‘R’ was the first letter of my name and, therefore, quite important indeed.
It is true to say that my career stagnated for the next four years or so and it wasn’t until middle school that my writing started to flourish in any meaningful way. In the meantime I’d continued writing and I would spend almost all of my spare time concocting stories and short works and there was a brief flurry of excitement when I was eight and, possibly to shut me up, my mother sent a manuscript to Penguin Books. I couldn’t see how they could possibly reject the works I’d sent, but alas the editors didn’t quite see how my manuscript could fit in with their publishing strategy and the novel never came about. It is true to say that I saw a niche in the market for novels about dogs flying through space and solving crimes, it’s only a shame that Penguin Books failed to share my excitement.
One person who did share my excitement was my teacher, Mister Shaw. There were two things amazing and astounding about Mister Shaw. The first was that he was a man. This was the first time I’d ever seen a man in a position of power and there was something liberating about this. It didn’t matter that he was as camp as Christmas, (as my Dad described him), or that he walked as if he had a roll of lino under his arm (as my Dad described him), what mattered was that he was a symbol for equality and made me believe that anything was possible. I’d imagine him each night going home to his wife and telling her about his day, and she being ever so supportive of his achievements. The second amazing thing about Mister Shaw was that he was the first person who took my writing seriously
Yes, I know that my mother wrote to Penguin Books. (Come to think of it, I’ve never seen any actual proof that she ever did). But Mister Shaw saw in me a talent which would one day envelope the world and make me synonymous with deep, powerful and engaging literature. He also saw that my career had been stagnating and was the first person to suggest that perhaps I might like to have human beings as the protagonists of my work rather than dogs. This was one of the most shocking things that had ever been said to me, but that night I went home and wrote a novel about a man called Bill, who was an Olympic skier who solved crimes in his spare time. The next day I took it back in to school and Mister Shaw asked me to read it out to the class
‘Really?’
‘Yes, Go for it. What’s the point in writing if you’re never going to have an audience?’
A performer was bom that day, dear reader With the rapt attention of Class 4, in the cosy confines of our prefabricated classroom hut on the edge of the school playing field, I read the stories of Bill the crime solving Olympic skier, and his comedy sidekick Ed, and Ed’s incredibly fierce wife Lenda. And I put everything into my performance, using different voices for the characters and the narrator, and the class watched on both aghast and unable to disguise their mirth that a comedy
performance genius studied each day among them. It was a reading worthy of note, as engaging as it was shocking and the whole hut resounded to my sonorous tones as each one of my classmates sat on the edges of their chairs, barely able to contain the excitement. And when my two minutes was up, Mister Shaw announced that this would be a daily occurrence.
And so it continued until the novel was done, until the end of the term by which time, to cater for the class and its insatiable appetite for more Bill and Ed stories,(which certainly did not lead me to getting beaten to a pulp each break time), I’ d written several more volumes. Bill and Ed became mini celebrities, and I longed for each day when I could, for just a short period, have everyone’s full attention. Even my closest friends would show their support and remark on my achievement with phrases such as, ‘Wow, you’ve certainly written quite a lot of these’, and, Please, tell me how the novel ends’, and, ‘How many more of these are you going to write?’

Little did I know that these would be the glory years, as far as my writing was concerned. Never again would I feel the undiluted support of my peers or the critical acclaim of my own literary output. By the time I left middle school I felt, what with having fifty two novels under my belt, that I would now to be regarded as something of a veteran of the literary scene. ‘Prolific’ does not even come close to describing the work that I churned out during this period, working on novels scratched in exercise books at every spare moment I could find. I can remember a family holiday in Hastings, walking back to the caravan park with my parents down a narrow country lane, feeling a new exercise book in my hand and the excitement of all the adventures that my characters would have. I must have been insufferably boring.

Xxxx

Going to secondary school could very well have ended my writing career. There was far too much going on now: homework, studying, the giddying swirl of hormones that suddenly necessitated appearing as ‘cool’ as the most pressing matter of every single moment, the bruises and psychological torture of getting beaten to a pulp every break time for not appearing ‘cool’, and a growing fascination with the same sex. My secondary school was huge, a factory for learning placed in a dank suburb of west London fed by the smaller middle schools of the surrounding area, a sprawling network of buildings and tower blocks, sports halls and annexes home to well over two thousand pupils, most of whom are currently now in prison. This sudden influx of new faces meant that I was surrounded by hundreds of young men of my own sex who were, overwhelmingly, much better looking than any of the losers I’d been to middle school with. Yet throughout the mental strain of trying to be cool while at the same time being beaten up for not being cool and concurrently trying to act cool about being beaten up for not being cool, I still wrote. I thought, misguidedly as it would seem, that it would make me cool.
The whole of my first year there was a dizzying splurdge of self-realisation and deep loathing. How wonderfully would this have been as inspiration for my writing, had I not still been ploughing ahead with the Bill and Ed stories and their adventures as crime-fighting Olympic skiers. Perhaps this constant writing might even have taken my mind off the sudden throbbing lust I felt for certain classmates, the agony of spending so much time with them and yet incapable of letting anyone know lest I should be revealed to be that most despised individual, a homosexual. For this was the nineteen eighties, and the only representative media depictions of my own self were as comedy high camp with humorous punchlines, or dangerous subversives threatening the very moral stability of society itself.
The regular break time beatings began to subside after the first year. The boys who beat me up could see that there really was no sense to it, no enjoyment in these daily pummellings, because something had changed in me. I’d discovered comedy. It’s all very well demonstrating your prowess to various friends and onlookers by repeatedly punching a first year student in the face, but this seems less attractive when that first year student says something so incredibly funny, truthful and personally hurtful that your various friends and onlookers burst out laughing at your expense.
In a bizarre twist of fate, I’d discovered New York Jewish stand up comedy and I would memorise routines and one-liners, quips and put downs that seemed to play very well to the breaktime bully crowd. ‘Don’t stop’, I’d yell, ‘I’m almost at an orgasm!’, even though I didn’t yet know what an orgasm was. ‘I’d say pick on someone your own size, but the nearest gorillas are in the zoo’. ‘I knew you were coming, I could hear your knuckles dragging’. That would take another thirty years. I had nothing to lose, it’s impossible to get beaten up while already being in the process of getting beaten up. And the reason I’d discovered New York Jewish stand-up was because I’d been given a long distance radio by my uncle and I could tune in to radio stations from anywhere in the world. I’d found a comedy station by accident and would listen to it to try and help me sleep.
Armed with a sudden love of comedy writing and emboldened by my first ever successful application of this for pure personal gain, buoyed also by the feeling of playing to an audience and getting laughs, and then adding homosexuality to the mix, I would write. And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

If you thought I couldn’t possibly get any more annoying at this stage with my writing, then you’d be wrong, as fortune decreed that I would be able to do just that. My grandparents gave me an old 1950s Olivetti typewriter, a chunky, clunky old metal box of a thing on which you’d have to press down each key really, really hard to get any sort of mark on the page. The silent pursuit of writing in pen in an exercise book now became an activity which all of the family could enjoy, as the act of composition was now such a cacophonous affair, a byproduct of this metal behemoth of a machine being that the whole house shook, creaked and rumbled every time I did any amount of typing. Within a few weeks I’d taught myself to type with two fingers and become seriously addicted to the smell of correction fluid. The letter E was the worst, it would stick every time I used it, so much so that I would set some of my novels in Wales just because the place names didn’t use so many vowels. Even now, thirty years later while typing on an iPad or a computer keyboard, I still press down harder on the letter E than any of the others. The adventures of Bill and Ed continued, though Ed had now been replaced with Justin.
I’d spend hours with that typewriter. The thing was built to last. Indeed, it still works today and I use it often in residencies and as part of art projects. Even at the end of the nineteen eighties it was outdated and finding ribbons for it was a tricky business, a simple writing session would leave me covered in black ink and absolutely physically exhausted. The typewriter was so loud that people would complain. Pedestrians walking past would wonder if there was someone in the house with a machine gun. Pictures would swing back and forth on the wall. My solution to this was that I’d go out and type at a wallpaper pasting table in the garage, but first the wallpaper pasting table broke, and then the neighbours would complain. How was I to know that they were running an illegal minicar business from the adjacent garage?
By the time I left secondary school and went to sixth form, Bill had retired as an Olympic skier and was now a detective. (Why not?). I had a collections of GCSEs good enough to scrape in to doing my A-Levels, though it was probably obvious to everyone but myself that I’d never be good enough for university. The lads I’d fancied from school were far from bright and I’d never see most of them again, only hearing about their exploits through mutual friends or the prosecution court reports in the local paper. By now they were boozy, car obsessed and mostly had girlfriends, though even some of the school bullies would greet me with a cheerful wave, the ones who weren’t now in politics or retail management.

Sixth form college seemed to pass very quickly. To the outside observer it must have looked like I was very industrious indeed. In fact I was so industrious that I didn’t once have time to fall in love, nor did I have time to concentrate on my writing career. I concentrated fully and exclusively on my studies with the idea of escaping from the suburban blandness of my upbringing to some far flung university, where I would get a qualification and then have lots of sex. As it was, I failed miserably in most of my subjects, left college, and got a job cleaning toilets at the local supermarket.
This at least gave me time to concentrate on my writing. How evocative, the sultry night neon, working the late shift and spending twenty minutes in the staff room working on yet another Bill and Justin adventure. The supermarket was huge, a purpose built facility with twenty aisles and a basement car park. At least I didn’t bring my typewriter with me. I kept a notebook with me at all times on my cleaners trolley, just next to the chlorine tabs and the bleach, this being a period well before health and safety. My refuge away from the world, just like my grandfathers shed, turned out to be the mop cupboard under the stairs next to the chiller cabinets, a bolt hole away from the busyness of the supermarket where I could write unhindered before the fumes took over and I became lightheaded.
It was around this time that two things happened which would send me off in a completely new literary path. The first was that I discovered the writings of Frank Kafka. This was, on the whole, a bad thing, because it opened my mind to several miserable possibilities and taught me that it’s all very well and good being funny, but a damn good mope will get you all the attention you need. How enamoured I became at the writings of this modernist insurance clerk with the manic stare and the preoccupation with never quite getting in to things. I became obsessed with the very image of him more than I did his actual work. How I wanted to be him! How I wanted to be that the lonely, pale, existentialist icon beavering away on his manuscripts in an almost mystical trance, sat at his desk looking out over the slate tile rooftops of Prague. I wanted to be the new Kafka, coming home after a hard day scrubbing urinals and mopping up god knows what from wazza floor, to create the most amazingly miserable short stories in which all hope has been long obliterated. In such a manner I took down my bedroom net curtains and turned my desk around so that I might similarly work while gazing upon the urban sprawl of my own imaginary ghetto. Yet the view from my window was not of cobbled lanes or the close packed tenements of the Prague old town, but of back gardens, barbecues, trampolines, conservatories, compost heaps and garden sheds.
How assiduously did I mimic Kafka’s style, discarding all trace of comedy for sense paragraphs, non-standard punctuation and visionary allegorical hints verging on mystical. ‘The Bus’ was an early classic, a short novel set on a bus ticking over at a bus stop but never actually going anywhere. Then I wrote ‘The Train’, about a train which pulls into the station but never leaves. I then wrote a novel called ‘The Ticket’, about a man who, without actually having done anything wrong, gets a parking ticket. Then I wrote ‘Metaphorisis’, a novel about a fly who wakes up one morning to find that he is a travelling salesman. In a further rash development, I decided that I didn’t even need capital letters, (which were always problematic with my old typewriter), and once a novel was finished I’d send it to a literary magazine, and they’d wrote back very quickly to ask if I was aware that it didn’t have any capital letters.
The other thing that happened was that my grandfather died. He’d had a series of strokes and had been recovering in a nursing home, and was seemingly on the way to a brilliant recovery. Indeed, he seemed to be enjoying the nursing home, and he was in remarkable spirits whenever I’d visit. One day he was told that he was now well enough to go back home and live with my grandmother again the next day, and he died that very night.
Some times, the coroner told us, people just give up all hope.
My father and I cleared away his shed. It was a sacred place for me, and to see it torn down felt more symbolic, as if there were one less place to hide in the world. Yet even at this moment me head was full of Kafka, almost as if I should embrace the sadness and the hopelessness of life. As a day out and a pleasant change from cleaning toilets, my parents took me to the coroners office to sign the official death certificate, which was done by a very eccentric official wearing a multicoloured bow tie and with a moustache that I can only describe as exuberant. He signed the paperwork with a fountain pen, his handwriting as artistic and as lurid as his facial hair, and that very afternoon I bought a fountain pen for myself. I have used it to write every single creative piece ever since.
By the time I was twenty, then, I was a completely different writer and success seemed just round the corner. I had a pen and a typewriter and a head full of dreams and a view of the world that was entirely unique, (except that some Czech writer from the beginning of the century had had one or two similar ideas). Success and literary greatness seemed just round the next corner. I was going to be a famous writer!

Not much happened for the next twenty years.
It seemed inconceivable that none of the great publishing houses wanted any of my experimental Kafkaesque pieces. After all, weren’t these the same publishing houses that were falling over each other for such material in the 1930s? Couldn’t they see that I was just as innovative as these existentialist titans, and that really, no progress had been made in literature at all in the following eighty years? The people that ran these publishing companies couldn’t possibly be as well read as me. I’d read all of Kafka’s stories and I understood well over half of them, and I’d not even spotted a single spelling error in any of them. And my novels came with the added bonus of invented punctuation, no capitalisations and, in the one novel which I knocked up over a frenzied weekend while the snooker was on, not one single letter M. Nevertheless the enthusiasm stayed with me, and when my parents decided, supposedly on a whim, to move out of the suburbs and off to the provinces. I decided, like many a displaced writer before me, to come along with them.
By now I was no longer a sullen youth. No more the emotional despondency of early adulthood, for I had brightened considerably, adopting all the nuance of the urban moper. Transposed to the provinces and a small city in the middle of nowhere, I became a Londoner, a mysterious metropolitan outsider to whose drab outer garments the fog of the capital still lingered, even if I actually came from the suburbs west of the airport and had probably only been on a tube train six times. The way of life in the sticks was much slower, and the attitudes of the locals tended towards the more conservative. I felt that I had made a mistake. I also felt, or at least, had a nagging doubt, that I would ever make anything from my writing. One particularly anonymous morning I put my pen to paper to begin a new novel about a man who would never make it in to the local cinema where he was queuing, and would simultaneously metamorphose into a badger, when I suddenly thought, well, really, what’s the point?
And I put the pen down.
I found a job in retail management in the selling of pencils. I went through several fashions and styles. Surfer dude, skater boy, sports jock, gentleman, hipster, chap, chav, businessman, loafer. My hair varied from mullet to curtains, side parting, centre parting, down at the front and spiked at the back, spiked at the back and down at the front, dyed blonde, dyed gray, dyed red. It was a busy six months. I cannot keep track of all these personalised metamorphoses.
By now I lived in my own rented flat over a shop in a seaside town. It suited me just fine, and I felt very content being there, apart from the boredom and the loneliness and the meaningless of my existence and the lack of opportunity and the lack of any kind of companionship and the inherent lingering suspicion that life was running away from me. I decided that maybe I needed some culture, something beyond the strange fungus that grew on the walls of the adjacent bus station. I needed something intellectually stimulating.
I went to a performance poetry night in a small arts cafe in the next town. I found my intellectual fulfilment. A variety of poets, primarily men, spewed comedy verse about baked beans or cricket or the pitfalls of putting together flat pack furniture, and while it didn’t rhyme or seem particularly poetic, the audience loved it and applauded enthusiastically. The thing is, none of it seemed very good. None of it seemed as funny as the stories I’d written all those years before at middle school. There were some amazing lines and some good rhythms, but on the whole I was distinctly underwhelmed, and yet the audience were amazed. A poem about sending a naughty text message to the vicar by mistake was written with such a lack of artistic clout and existentialist depth that I’d have been embarrassed to read it out, yet the audience went wild and clamoured for more. A lifetime of writing and a thousand rejection slips melted from my mind to be replaced by a new thought, I could do this! How long would it take to write something like this? Ten minutes? And look at the audience, bent over double in tears of laughter just because someone used the word ‘nob’. I could do this!
‘Yeah, sure’, the MC said, at the end of the night when I asked him for a slot at the next month’s event. ‘I’m always willing to give a slot to a newcomer’.
‘Actually, I’ve been writing for . . .’, I replied, then cut my answer short. ‘I mean, thanks, Thanks so much!’

Robert Garnham’s 17 Golden Rules for Getting the Most Out of Life!

Robert Garnham’s Words of Advice

1. No one is ever worth writing a poem for, though every now and then you’ll meet someone who’s worth a limerick, particularly if they come from Chard.

2. If someone tells you that they love you, it’s not always a test, it’s an affectation of the status quo, a joy delivered in the beauty of a relationship which actually works, so it’s best not to answer with, oh, that’s good.

3. Shrimp will always give you raging guts ache.

4. Hold on to your nostalgia, otherwise you’ll have nothing to be nostalgic about, except possibly for the time you used to be nostalgic about things, so maybe you can be nostalgic about that.

5. Look at your life. Isolate your fears, your demons, and anything else that gives you the willies. Engage with them and dance, and banish them with a smile and a wave and a cheer. Unless, of course, the thing that scares you the most is crushing loneliness.

6. It’s never too late to learn. It’s never too early to forget.

7. Only concentrate on that which requires no thought.

8. You might not ever mention the elephant in the room, but you can certainly wonder how it got through the door, and up the stairs.

9. Look at the mirror every morning and say, I am loved, I am loved, I am loved. At least this way you’re prepared for any other bullshit that comes along.

10. Everyone you see or meet or talk to has been born. Even Avril Lavigne. And if you think being born was difficult, try getting a mortgage.

11. Go on, help yourself to the last cake in life. Living is all about grabbing the last cake. Go on, have it. Enjoy it. The dog licked it.

12. Get up early one morning, when the dew is still on the grass, and go for a walk barefoot in the park. Let me know when you’re doing this so that I can come round and borrow your vacuum cleaner.

13.Do something that excites you every day. Subvert the rules. Turn things on their head. Naturally this does not apply if you’re an airline pilot.

14. How do we know that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? Who was the first person to discover this? How many similar things do we do which are good or bad luck without us knowing? Brandishing a vase on a Thursday? Sitting on a pouffe just after lunch? The mind boggles, Mrs Henderson, the mind boggles.

15. Give as much joy to the small things in life as you do to the large. Which is why me and my ex split up.

16. If at first you don’t succeed, then maybe catching bullets with your teeth isn’t the job for you.

17. If you don’t think you can get it out, why the hell did you put it in there in the first place?

Poetry has no relevance.

Poetry has no relevance. That’s what I hear a lot. Oi, knobhead! Your poetry has no relevence! That’s a hell of a heckle. From my publisher.

But it does. Poetry is useful. Honestly.

I was in an airport. Just minding my own business. Just browsing. Hanging around the arrivals gate with a sign reading JUSTIN BIEBER, you know, just on the off chance. When all of a sudden is call comes up. ‘Is there a poet in the building? This is an emergency! We need a poet!’

Turns out this plane was in trouble. The pilot had collapsed at the controls having had an allergic reaction to a Pot Noodle. And then the co pilot, on hearing that the plane was full of zither players on the way back from a zither convention, succumbed to an undiagnosed zither phobia and became a gibbering, incoherent wreck.

So I’m up in air traffic control and they’ve got a zither player in the cockpit and I’m relaying to him the types of controls that he should be operating.

The aerilon speed flaps are the colour of fine Devonshire cream in the early evening sun.

The throttle control knobs are kind of shaped like a veteran Shakespearean actor stooping to pick up a 20p coin

The rudder pedal is broad and flat like a clumsy child’s first attempt to draw a map of Utah.

The undercarriage lever looks like ennui.

And we did it, we landed that plane, between us, soothing it down to a very smooth landing lulled by sonnets and iambic pentameter, just a classy addition of enjambement on its glide slope, we landed it, oh yes, we did, and everyone was saved!

And at that moment I saw the potential of poetry in all its glory to affect the world as a power to be used for the greater good, elevating ordinary souls above the gods and deities, for are we not all messiahs of the modern age, we poets, we brave poets, pens aloft like spears of triumph!

Poetry. Is. Useful.
Hooray!

And then I got home to my normal life of crushing loneliness.

How we danced to the time of music!

How we danced to the time of music!

An autumn park an hour before dark
A council workman leaf blower and bare deciduous branches
Stark against a late low sunshine sky,
The world itself aching to monochrome, a
Glimpse of anorak amid the lengthening shadows.
It was you.

Caught up, tapped your shoulder, you turned and smile
And the years melt like Himalayan snows,
And we hug on the path by the tennis court nets,
Zigzagged and crisscrossed by chain link silhouettes.

You look good, I say, so do you, he lies,
It’s been so long, I can see in his eyes
That it takes a while for the years to unwind,
To bring the details of our shared life to mind,
He’s handsome still, but in a way much more rugged
Than the man I so often hugged as if he were the meaning
Of life
But I was young and stupid
And so was he.

How we danced to the time of music!

He says,
Let us not talk of the past,
Let us build up the present moment,
Rejoice in our shared existence,
Acknowledge the nights that would never end,
Celebrate the fact that we are still friends
And love this present time,
This moment right now,
And this moment too,
That’s what we should do.
Why?, I asked.
Ah jeez, he said.

The contentment we feel as we stand in this park,
Is more than our past, and it will make its mark,
So that we might celebrate the very essence of
Our being here
As two distinct people.
Let’s take this absolute second, this one,
And this one too,
And maybe not that one,
But this one definitely,
And rise with them above the years
We spent together.
Why?, I asked.
Ah jeez, he said.

Let us dance divine in the moment!
And twirl amid the autumn leaves!
And rejoice in the fact that
Two incredibly sexy and gorgeous young men
Can meet in a park so randomly
And not immediately ponder baser activities
As if a giant machine has zapped from us
All ability to lose ourselves to throbbing temptation,
And also,
I have a bus to catch.
Let us celebrate this!
Why?, I asked.
Ah jeez, he said.

Life is a journey we only pass once.
The skies above, weather patterns,
The subtle moving of continental shelves,
Evolution in its slow mutation,
The planets a dance in this ceaseless rotation,
The absolute thrill of being alive,
The miracle of time, the fact that we thrive
Against all odds in our permanent drive
Through time, oh, it is a blessing!
So let us, oh, let us come together
And celebrate this, the present moment, now!

Why?, I asked.
Was it really so bad, was I really so mad?
The moment it ended, did you feel kind of glad?
Did I not provide the love that you needed,
Comfort and companionship on which you feeded
Like a ravenous beast, a ghost for the haunting,
Was being with me really so daunting?
That you wipe me so brazen from your own history,
Wipe the slate clean, pretend it wasn’t to be?
But you were my lover, my one and my only,
And the nights ever since have been so very lonely
In a world that now ached, I managed so slowly
To lift my head nigh and feel slightly less lowly
That . . Hang on . .
Is this about the two hundred quid that you owe me?

I don’t know what you’re taking about, he replied,
And off he suddenly ran.

Becky’s Gift

Becky’s Gift

A few years ago now I was running Stanza Extravaganza, a night of poetry and spoken word based in Torquay. One month the regular night coincided with the Edinburgh Fringe and I was unable to host, so I asked my friend Tim King is he could do it for me, and he did. A couple of days later I received an email from a poet by the name of Becky Nuttall, asking if she could have a slot. She had been writing poetry for a while but had not yet read any in public.

The day after Stanza Extravaganza I asked Tim how it had gone, and he said that it had been an amazing night, because there was a new poet called Becky Nuttall, and she was brilliant. Oh wow, I thought, I can’t wait to hear her for myself!

Within a year or so Becky had become a regular reader and performer on the local scene, and a staunch supporter of the arts locally, as she had always been. Her poetry, measured and precise and beautifully atmospheric, is delivered in an equally measured tone which captivates the audience. Her work is timeless and draws on religious imagery, rock music, autobiography, the work of David Bowie, and the workings of the universe.

Becky’s first collection, Nick’s Gift, is a book as beautifully constructed as her poetry. The poems range from the autobiographical, such as The Puffin Man, such recounts a childhood encounter with an author who was blatantly grooming young children, to Protestant Girls in Catholic Schools with the exquisite line, ‘love the devil in me!’ The title poem is a beautiful and brief piece which uses sparse language to deliver the emotions of a life lived with the memory of that one special person with a last line, which I shall not repeat here, which explains just how long someone can influence a life.

For me, the most haunting and beautiful poem is one of the last. Spaceflight was written for a very special night in which the theme was the moon and its impact on culture and art. It again revisits an encounter with someone in 1973, a deep friendship which resonates, but this time outwards into the universe itself, riding on the language and imagery of David Bowie and that special magic which comes to all of us at odd moments of our life. ‘We are poets of the full moon’, Becky writes, ‘setting our words to the music of the spheres’.

Nick’s Gift is a remarkable book, deep in imagery and life and yet easily readable and relatable. Indeed, I have read it three times now and it lives on my desk where I can easily dive in and steal a couple of minutes in its presence.

Two months ago, I caught a late night bus from Plymouth and arrived at Paignton bus station just as the clocks struck midnight. And there on one of the benches I saw two people, teenagers, dressed trendily and just chatting and smiling, and my first thought was of one of the encounters Becky writes about. Because no matter what happens, life is timeless and emotion too.

If you are a fan of poetry which has emotion, nuance and humanity, then I thoroughly recommend this book!

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

Strung from lamp post to lamp post, the multicoloured fairy lights wiggled, jiggled and jumped in the wind. An angry sea scratched at the pebble beach. Flecks of sand stung cold raw cheeks. It was dusk.
The world seemed obsolete, nullified by the obviousness of the season. Decay, frost-shredded painted gaiety and cartoon characters diminished by the elements, painted on shuttered ice cream shacks.
‘It’s heaving down here in the summer’, I tell him.
‘How far is it to your flat?’
‘Just a road away. I thought we’d make a detour, so you could see, the, erm . . .’.
We walk huddled hands in coat pockets.
‘You look like your profile picture’.
‘So do you’.
I like the way that the wind ruffles his hair. His cheekbones are much more pronounced than I thought they would be.
‘Wild’, I whisper, meaning the weather.
‘Sorry?’
And he’s slightly taller than me.
There are lights on the horizon out at sea, ships sheltering in the bay, and they twinkle and pulse just like stars, and if it weren’t so cold then maybe I could create my own constellations.
‘I’m cold’, he points out.
And the multicoloured fairy lights throw down a glow which gives us several overlapping shadows, our two forms merged and combined like a pack of cards being shuffled. The iron legs of the old pier stride in to the angry sea like a Victorian lady holding up her petticoats,
‘Really cold’, he says.
‘When we get to my flat’, I tell him, ‘you’ll be warm enough’.

‘What’s that?’, he said, pointing at the pouffe.
‘It’s a pouffe’, I replied.
He walks around the living room, warily, looking at it from several angles.
‘What does it do?’
‘You put your legs on it when you’re sitting on the sofa’.
‘It’s green’.
‘Yes’.
‘Yewwww . . .’.
‘Shall we just sit down and, er, warm up and . .’.
‘With that thing, there?’
I sit down. He lingers for a bit, and then he sits down, too. We look at each other and we smile.
‘I really liked your profile’, I tell him. ‘We’ve got a lot in common, haven’t we? It was great to chat online, but I’m so glad we’ve met’.
‘Seriously’, he says, ‘it’s called a pouffe?’
‘Yes . .’.
He looks at it for several seconds.
‘I can put it out on the landing if you like, if you’ve got a . . . Phobia’.
‘It’s still been in here, though’.
‘Put it out if your mind’.
He smiles.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to’.
And then neither of us says anything for a while. I can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
‘A green pouffe . . .’.
‘Yes’.
He sighs, leans back in his chair.
‘I was in the jungle’, he whispers. ‘They said I was green. Green meant new, apparently. But I was more likely green because I just felt so unwell. The food, you see . . . And everything in the jungle was green, too. Have you ever really looked at the colour green? There are so many varieties. Green leaves, moss, bark, more leaves, green everywhere. And I felt so bad, I really did feel ill.’
‘That’s a shame. Let’s snuggle . . .’.
‘They reckon I had some sort of disease, brought about by flies. Mosquitoes, probably. They do things to the mind, and affect the way that we see the world. You can never tell how it’s going to go. But with me, it was the effect of everything. The greenery. The predominance of the colour green, just kind of crowded in on me. Made me lose my senses, in a way’.
‘Jeez. So, let’s fool around a bit, you and me. .’
‘And the greenery, it did things to me. I became obsessed. We were there to film a documentary, you see. About slugs, and I was the only newbie there, the only green member of the team. And as I say, I was throwing up the whole time . . ‘.
‘You never mentioned the throwing up.’
I try to put my arm around his shoulders, but he stands up and looks out the window.
‘Sure! A never ending spume of it. I was having visions, it was like some kind of hideous trance that the jungle had put my under. So they flew me home. And the film company, they paid to send me out and recuperate in the countryside. But the countryside, oh, have you ever been to the countryside?’
‘Every now and then. Say, aren’t you hot wearing that big jumper? And those . . Jeans?’
‘There was greenery everywhere. Greenery and scenery. And the scenery was mostly green. There were fields and trees and the fields and trees were green. Especially the evergreens. The greenest evergreens I had ever seen. And there was moss and dappled sun and rhododendrons. And there were villages and villages greens. And the village greens were green. And everyone out there eats their greens. And also some of the tractors were green.’
‘Fascinating. Say, has anyone ever said what nice lips you have? Very kissable . .’.
‘So then I came back to the city . .’.
(‘Here we go . .’).
‘ . . And there was lots of green here, too. The Starbucks logo is mostly green. And so is the fungus in the bus station. And my friend Pete’s car is green. And so is the tie I was wearing yesterday. And the traffic lights are occasionally green. Red, mostly, and amber, and red and amber, but occasionally green. And salt and vinegar crisp packets. Again, green. And the District Line is green. And it passes through Turnham Green. And even though the neon signs are multicoloured, you could probably turn ’em green. Green. Everything is green.’
‘Yes, it is somewhat ubiquitous’.
‘And it does things to me. All this green. It really does affect me very badly. I can’t stand it. I get flashbacks. Green flashbacks. You’ve got to understand’.
I laid my hand on his leg and made a mental note not to include broccoli with dinner.
‘I’ll move the pouffe’, I whisper. ‘Take it away from here, if that makes you feel any better. And then I’ll start on the dinner’.
He smiles.
‘Thank you ‘, he replies. ‘I’m sorry. But it really is giving me the willies’.
I get up and I move the pouffe outside where he can’t see if, and then I come and rejoin him on the sofa.
‘Oh my god’, he says. ‘Is that footstool over there beige? Oh no! I was in the desert, you see, surrounded by miles and miles of beige sand, when I started to feel very ill . . .’.
I let out a deep sigh, lean back on the sofa, and I start peeling an orange.