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.

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.

Branching out

(Here’s a short story I wrote almost twenty years ago.)

Branching Out

There has been much said and written about the following subject in the academic community, it seems almost superfluous to add my own comment to the wealth of material already published on this topic. And yet the story itself seems somewhat compelling, like all good mysteries, and more so because it is, quite defiantly, true. The fact that a senior practitioner in literary matters has attested to the honesty of all involved adds a touch of authenticity to the whole situation, and who are we to argue with the judgement of a colleague so esteemed as Professor Zazzo Thiim?
‘They were branching out, pure and simple’, he told me, one charged evening at the local pub. He leaned back in his chair and seemed, just for a second, incredibly tired, as it the events of the previous week had drained him of energy. ‘I first heard it reported to me by one of my younger students, a naive fellow whose panicked account seemed ill-judged and unworthy of comment. But then other students and colleagues began attesting to the fact. They, too, had heard and seen with their own eyes, that the local skateboarders were quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson. I knew immediately that I would have to probe deeper’.
The old man leans forward across the table and interlaces his fingers. ‘I started that very evening. With a flask of cocoa and a pair of opera glasses, I went down to the local skate ramp and watched them from the bushes. I felt like a television botanist watching the mighty gorillas of some dank, faraway jungle. How incredibly amusing their mannerisms, how obvious the social gradations and rank within their clique, that they might defer to the most able of their group, and lend advice to the weakest. I would surely have watched longer had not I felt a sudden hand on my collar and a policeman inquire as to what I was playing at. ‘We have a name for people like you’, he told me. I can tell you it wasn’t a comforting situation, but when I told him the reasons behind my being there, his face relaxed. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The poetry thing. We’ve been racking our brains over that one, I can tell you. Come down to the station’.
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Am I under arrest’.
‘Not at all’, he replied. ‘We’ve just found one of them trying to break into the library. Perhaps you might like to have a quiet word with him’.
The lad in question was a poor specimen, I can tell you, a pathetic, individual whose half-hearted attempt at perfecting the skater-boy look was almost laughable. On being asked exactly why he was breaking into the library he denied all knowledge that it had been such a building, that he was under the impression more that it was the off licence. When the constable slid a copy of Tennyson’s poetry across the table towards him he made a frantic attempt to grab it from his hands, only for the book to be snatched away from him. ‘Not so fast, sonny’, the constable said, in his laconic, laid-back voice. ‘First we need to talk terms. We can help you get your fix, but first you must help us. We need your skateboard’, he continued. ‘You see, there’s a little mystery here, and we need it cleared up’.
The Professor lets out a laugh. ‘I cut quite a figure on the skateboard ramp, I can tell you. Sure, I fell off a few times, but I soon won respect from the posse not only for my aerial acrobatics but also for my detailed knowledge of Romantic-era poetry. Indeed, things were going along quite fine. How glad I was to see that the stories were true – a particularly athletic turn at the board would be greeted with the words, ‘At Arthur’s ordinance, tipt with lessening peak!’, or a bad fall decorated with the expression, ‘lay low and slay him not!’ I must say, I quite enjoyed my spell with the lads, and at no time did they twig that I was a seventy-four year old academic professor, except when I passed around a packet of sanatogan in the mistaken belief that it was a bottle of alco-pops. ‘A fine pinnacle!’, I yelled, heading up the ramp at great speed. ‘And made as a spire to heaven!’ Brad was especially vocal and conversant in Tennyson’s later works and at times he would exclaim, ‘Sluggards and fools, why do you stand and stare? You are no king’s men!’, or even the ultimate insult, ‘Let this be thy last trespass, thou uncomely knave!’ As the sun started to set, the dusk spread out her silken fingers and seemed to caress the shapely ramps, and in the encroaching dark came a camaraderie I have not yet ever felt, not even in the throes of really good group discussion on Hemingway. Joining in with their masculine bravado, I put up the hood of my jacket and, feeling somewhat exuberant, shouted, ‘While Jove’s planet rises yonder, were now to rage and torture the desert!’ Oh, how absolutely wonderful I felt!
The effect, though, was immediate. The skaters stopped in their tracks. One skateboard, bereft of its rider, swung to and fro on the ramps before it, too, fell silent. ‘What was that?’ Brad asked. Flustered, I repeated my quotation. ‘You’, he said, breathing harshly through quivering nostrils, ‘Are an imposter!’
The rest of the group crowded in on me. I stumbled, and tried to make some kind of retraction to my earlier statement, but the damage was done.
‘That was Robert Browning’, Brad pointed out. ‘What are you, some kind of freak? Who quotes from Browning at a skate ramp?’
‘Yeah’, someone else piped up. ‘What kind of a sicko are you?’
I don’t mind telling you that I was scared. I escaped with my life, and for this I am monumentally thankful.
Naturally, the trouble vexed me for ages. Back at the department I toiled at my desk and tried to read into the whole episode some kind of reason, some kind of explanation behind the adoption of Tennyson. I looked at his rhythms, I looked at his metre, I looked at his rhyme scheme, but none of them matched with the rhythms I had heard on the skate park ramps. The content of his poems were also barren in their significance. I could see in his metrical skill and his lyrical genius no link to the satisfactory clatter of skateboard on concrete, no link between his romantic inclinations and narrative expression to the wearing of a hoodie. Late one night, though, thoroughly tired and dejected, I found the skateboard that I had borrowed that night, and the more I looked at it the more I could see that there was, however slight, a connection of sorts. Four wheels, I told myself, and one standing platform, just like the four isolated tenets of romanticism, the stylistically gothicism inherent, the reaction against enlightenment, imagination, vision and idealism, mixed with the surface and sureness of Tennyson’s reign as poet laureate – surely, this was what the skaters were alluding to in their adherence to his work? How relieved I was to get to bed that night’.
The Professor frowns and he lowers his voice. ‘I wrote up my report the next morning and submitted it to the head of my department. That lunchtime I felt free. In the Spring air I could hear the clatter of a distant skateboard and I nodded, knowingly, to myself. The world seemed right, somehow. The world seemed a better place. But that afternoon I received an anonymous letter.
How horrendous the news that it contained! It came from an ex-skater, whose adherance to the poetry of Tennyson had been questioned by some members of the group. He said that the skaters were not quoting from Tennyson – oh no – they were reading. There was a book stuck in the overhanging tree, he explained. And to prove their dexterity on the skateboard, the skaters in question would attempt to read a line at random as they were suspended in mid-air. If it had been a crisp packet, the anonymous writer concluded, then they would have read out the ingredients. There was no mystery.’
The Professor drained the last of his wine and made to stand. ‘The department has been embarrassed by this whole episode,’ he said, ‘As you can probably imagine. I would be grateful if you could not mention some of the more lurid details of this story’, and with that, the old man was off.
I followed a few minutes later. It was a dark night and there were a few stars hung in the sky. As I walked back to my car I was overtaken by a child on a unicycle, and he was quoting Oscar Wilde. But then, it could have been the drink.