She was walking up the stone steps of the ruined castle. A low mist was rolling in. Well, there had to be a low mist, didn’t there? Everything else was utterly unique, why not throw some mist into the mix? The steps were steep and she wondered if the people who’d lived and worked there all those centuries ago had ever complained about how steep the steps were, the castle itself built on the side of a vast, rocky granite crag of a hill. She knew there had to be an element of function and fortification, but she wondered why they hadn’t made at least a few concessions. It would be all so different if the place had been built these days.
Martin was ahead of her. She couldn’t see him. The mist was starting to make everything damp. She didn’t want to hurry, lest she slip, and that would really be the icing on the cake.
A voice came back from ahead.
Her name wasn’t Misty. It was Vanessa. She wasn’t laughing, either.
‘Can you just stop for a moment and let me catch up?’
The steps looked treacherous in the wet. But she’d heard rumours of a tea shack at the top and it didn’t look like it would be very busy today, what with the weather and the mist and the fact that the car park had been almost empty. She had already decided that the tea shack would be the ideal place to decide, at least for herself, if Martin were the man for her. But he’d already gone scampering off into the gloom leaving her at it. The signs weren’t good.
‘Martin? Where are you?’
‘There’s lots of lichen, up here’, came a voice from the swirling fog.
‘Seen any wizards?’
She was alluding to a joke they’d made in the car on the way here. The joke had been about wizards. They’d both laughed.
‘Wizards? Why would I see any wizards?’
‘Remember? What we were saying? In the car?’
‘Honestly, you’ve got a memory like a sieve!’
She stood aside to let a couple of hikers pass who were coming down from the castle. Both of them had two Alpine walking sticks each, as well as boots, waterproof jackets, backpacks. She smiled as they passed and fought the temptation to jokingly tell them that they’d lost their skis. They smiled and nodded, and then disappeared into the gloom. Damn, she thought. She should have asked them about the tea shop.
‘You were saying about wizards, remember? And how they’d had to carry around these wands, you know, tools of the trade, and how phallic the wand actually is when you think about it, when you look an ancient folklore . . ‘.
‘Phallic. You know, substituting a long wand for the fact that they’ve probably got very small penises. Good morning’.
Another hiker with two Alpine walking sticks passed her, going down. Jeez, that was embarrassing.
The bastard’s gone on without me, she thought. And she continued climbing the steep, damp steps, feeling a pull on the back of her thighs.
The mist was getting denser.
This validates everything, she told herself. They weren’t compatible. Sure, it’s good not to spend so much time in each other’s company, but to leave her completely alone on the treacherous steps on the side of a ruined medieval castle, which loomed like a giant tree stump in the mist, showed that he didn’t even consider their relationship to be anything other than two individuals whose paths became occasionally diverged.
At last, she came to the top of the steps and an area where slabs of granite poked out between the tall grass, the world beyond the immediate vicinity a formless void of mist and damp, the castle walls looming.
Martin was nowhere to be seen. And she could see no tea shop.
A hiker with a pair of Alpine walking sticks emerged from the fog and passed her.
‘Misty, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s Vanessa’.
For reasons which are too tiresome to go into, I decided to purchase a fake beard. I’d done a bit of research online and I’d noted the differences between those that use elastic around the back of the head, and those which clip around the ears. On various websites, the convention seemed to be that those which clip were the most durable, as the elastic ones are prone to perishing with repeated use. I don’t know why someone would want to use a fake beard repeatedly, it probably being more prudent in the long run actually to grow a beard, but in any case, and pondering on the pros and cons of all the various permutations of fake beard construction and design, I set off into town, intent on making a purchase.
One of the fun parts of online research had been the reviews of fake beards left by previous customers on the various websites. ‘A tendency to itch . .’, for example, or ‘Amazing! Looked just like the real thing!’, on another. ‘It fitted right over the top of my normal beard with no problem at all! Nobody suspected a thing’, read another, or, ‘Terrile! The elastic snapped on only its second usage and almost had the eye out of the ambassadors wife’. The funniest customer review for a fake beard came from a young lady called Samantha who wrote, ‘I originally got this for a costume for myself, but didn’t use it. My son ended up wearing it to dress up as an old man in his first grade class. It worked well and stayed on for most of the day. But beware: this does not look real in the slightest’. Well, it wouldn’t, would it?’.
The fake beard can trace its heritage back to the days of the Yukon gold rush of 1896. In this rugged environment up in the frozen north, the vast majority of potential prospectors arrived clean shaven before making the perilous journey into the wilds, armed with little more than hope and a good shovel. As the winter set in the more rugged among them sprouted impressive beards, and as the famous rhyme points out, the bigger the beard, the more they were feared. In this environment of deep cold and lawlessness, a man was judged solely on the volume, mass and bushyness of his facial hair, and only those who made the grade were unmolested by rival prospectors, bandits, thieves, ne’er do wells, robbers and the perennially shifty. And those without beards didn’t stand a chance.
Gordon McKirk saw a niche in the market and, with his patented glue made from fir tree sap, and a healthy supply of skunk pelts, began to sell fake beards to the prospectors. His Klondike tin shack set up between brothels became one of the most visited businesses of the gold rush, new arrivals making a beeline straight from the steamers and through the mountains to his shop in order to cultivate the manly frontier look. Gordon himself would offer a bespoke fitting service, matching the skunk pelts perfectly with the various chins presented to him, applying the sap glue with a small brush and applying the fake beard before revealing to the customer their new look by means of a mirror hidden behind the curtain. Alas, this was a trick, as the mirror actually was a portrait of one of a number of existing rugged gold prospectors, such as Dangerous Dan McHiggins, Dangerous Dan McKinley, Dangerous Dan McNish, Dangerous Dan McFortescue, or Toby Simpson, who wasn’t particularly dangerous, but he did have a big beard. In actual fact, all of the gold prospectors who left Gordon McKirks shop looked more or less the same, smelling of fir tree sap and skunk pelt, and would promptly get robbed the moment they set foot outside the shop.
Alas, Gordon himself was to succumb in 1898, when, blinded by the various pungent aromas of his skunk pelts, and deafened by the constant honky tonk music coming from the brothels on either side of his Emporium, he tried to fit one of his fake beards to a full grown adult male grizzly bear.
When I was a kid my next door neighbour was a kindly old lady called Celia. She lived alone and kept herself to herself for the most part, though she did volunteer for a couple of days a week listening to children read at the local primary school. She also was quite deaf, and her voice would get higher and higher the longer the sentence that she was speaking. So for example she might say, ‘I was walking through the town the other day and I Thought I Might But Some Daffodils SO I DID AND I MUST SAY THEY’VE STARTED TO COME UP AND THEY LOOK SPLENDID!! But the most unusual thing about Celia was that she always had fake beards hanging on her washing line.
There were always at least seven of them. And you would never see her wearing any of them, which was the weirdest thing. In all other regards she was quite normal and genial, and she was a churchgoing lady who was admired by the local community for the most part.
Of course, there were rumours about why she would have fake beards hanging from her washing line, the suspicion was that she was helping out with the local amateur dramatics society, but she had never shown any inclination towards the arts or any interest in theatre whatsoever.
At about this same time there was a series of cars being held up late at night by an armed individual, a lone figure who for one reason or another became known as the Masked Monk of Maidenhead. It was always something of a mystery why he should be known as the Masked Monk of Maidenhead, as there was nothing particularly Monk like about his reported appearance, and nor did the miscreant operate anywhere near Maidenhead. Rumours then began to persist that Celia, my own next door neighbour, was actually the Masked Monk of Maidenhead, what with all the fake beards hanging on her washing line. It didn’t matter that not one report of the Masked Monk of Maidenhead mentioned any facial hair, fake or otherwise. Nevertheless, rumours persisted and Celia started to become a suspect.
‘It’s just my fluffy BUNTING’, she would say. ‘Every day is a celebration so WHY NOT PUT OUT BUNTING? AND WHY NOT MAKE IT FLUFFY?’ Let’s face it, we’ve all heard of Normal Bunting and the WORLD NEEDS CHEERING UP AND I’M THE ONE TO DO IT!’
As is usual in these situations, the truth was even stranger than fiction and there was a clearer story at the heart of Celia and her fluffy bunting. And bizarrely, it did involve the Masked Monk of Maidenhead.
As I say, she was a church going, god fearing lady, who also did charitable work every now and then for the local monastery. Of the ten monks who lived there, three were bearded. Living by rules which stipulated anonymity, every time the monks appeared in public, they had to look the same so that they were compelled not to form emotional attachments to ordinary people and be swayed from the path of their teachings. Celia would, therefore, provide them with a beard washing service so that they could go about their religious piety freed from the constraints of picking bits of fake beard from the filters of their tumble dryers. When one of their number rebelled against this doctrine and formed an unhealthy obsession with an optician named Brenda, he was ostracised from the religious order and would spend the rest of his time flagging down passing motorists, demanding from them use of their laundry facilities.
Of course, this might all be rumour and inneundo, and to be honest, Celia is probably long dead now.
Alexander the Great, allegedly, was a prolific wearer of fake beards. In the days when he was seen out and about while wearing one of them, he was apparently known just as Alexander the Average. A ruler of the known world by the time he was thirty, Alexander appears in statues, artwork and on coins clean shaven and looking pretty damn hot, yet contemporary accounts always mention him stroking his beard. It is not pointed out whether he was wearing the beard at the time that he was stroking it, or if this was just a mistranslation. What is clear is that many historians suggest he would take time away from the rigours of his court and duties, his lovers and soldiers and necessary admin, don a fake beard, and slip into the busy city streets of Babylon in search of open mic comedy nights.
It is not known whether or not Alexander graces the stages of such institutions himself, or whether he preferred just to sit at the back and heckle. But there are accounts of a comedian from this time, known as Alexander the Great Ninny, who was more of an observational comedian and whose act was much mimicked by such later comedians as Mark Twain and Queen Victoria. One of Alexander the Great Ninny’s Jokes runs as follows:
‘What’s the big deal with conquering Persia? What’s that all about? If you really want to set yourself a challenge, try sorting out the Babylonian annual theatre festival. On the one hand, you’ve got bloodshed, screaming, decapitation, impaling, horror and massive human suffering, and on the other, you’ve got the conquering of Persia’.
Now naturally, this is kind of joke that nowadays has been done to death, with a punchline that you can see a mile off, but at the time it was all new and, contemporary accounts attest, Alexander the Great Ninny would then end each set by tugging his fake beard down, revealing a glimpse of his actual face, and saying, ‘Guess who, folks!’, before scampering off stage to thunderous applause.
So as I say, I decided to go out and buy a fake beard. To be honest, as I left my house the other day I felt excited by the prospect of buying a fake beard and this put something of a spring in my step. I walked with a bit of a smile on my face, the sort of smile which told the world that I was off out to buy a fake beard. I’ve often seen this smile on the faces of other people, and I can always tell what it is that they’re up to, and now it was my turn to have this smile. And those with beards, fake or otherwise, often have the same smile but it’s hidden away from the world. Hidden behind their beards. The smiles might even be fake, as fake as the beards that they hide behind. A philosopher might say, we’r all hiding behind fake beards.
There’s a joke shop in the town where I live. Mister Happy’s Jocular Palace. It has costumes and party accessories as well as Jokes, and for a joke shop, it’s run by the most miserable man I’ve ever met. How tough life must be for him, a man with no sense of humour, spending his entire life running a joke shop. Unless, this itself is the joke. Perhaps he has found the best way to live his life, like a miserable comedian, a man who draws out laughter from the world but hides behind his own ennui,
So I go in to his shop and he looks up from his newspaper. He probably doesn’t get many customers on a Wednesday morning. I walk past the whoopie cushions and the fake noses, the plastic dog turds and the squirty lapel flowers, to a display of fake beards hanging in packets on the wall. And there were so ,at different types of fake beard. Stick on fake beards, hook behind the ear fake beards, elastic strap fake beards, short fake beards, long fake beards, fake goatees, grey fake beards, brown fake beards, white fake beards, and all kinds of different length, from just a couple of inches to ones that came down halfway down your chest, there was every conceivable kind of fake beard you can think of.
Mister Happy puts down his newspaper and ambles over.
‘I’m looking for a fake beard’, I told him.
‘How long do you want it?’, he asked,
‘Just for the night’, I replied.
On how I learned to love writing short stories again
The only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer. When I was a kid, I’d write all the time. For me, the most wonderful thing in the world was a new notebook with all of its blank pages and the limitless possibilities of the words that would fill it up. If there was one thing I really enjoyed, it was making people laugh because of what they were reading, knowing that it was my own words that had caused such merriment. I remember my English teacher, Mr. Smith, encouraging me to write, and I’d show him my stories and he’d sit and read them to himself and every now and then he would laugh. And I’d always ask him what it was that had made him laugh.
During my teenage years I discovered existentialism and I forgot all about wanting to make people laugh. I just wanted to be seen as a deep thinker, a modern Camus or Kafka astounding people with my weighty philosophic intellect. The only things missing were a beret, and a weighty philosophic intellect. This ‘phase’ took a few years to get over.
In my twenties, I moved to Devon and joined a writers’ circle, and for the first time I would be reading out my words to other people. And when they laughed, it was the most magical feeling in the world. I spent all my spare moments writing, in my first flat, which was on the third floor of a spooky gothic mansion, and I’d sit there all evening and write and write and write, endless short stories which I’d then immediately file away, and sometimes not even print off.
Education came late to me, and I spent seven years doing an undergraduate course, and then two years doing postgraduate, all by distance learning, so writing took a back seat but I’d still have a crack at it if I had a spare few moments, though I’d never look at what I’d written once it was done. And as soon as my education was over, I discovered comedy performance poetry and the deep joy of being on stage and making people laugh.
Of course, this was a pivotal moment, because now I was getting paid and travelling all over the UK, spreading comedy and joy and meeting wonderful people. Indeed, the last thirteen years have been a magical experience and I never thought that I’d be in such a position. The fact that I make strangers laugh and enjoy life, if only for a few minutes, makes me feel incredibly privileged.
A couple of years ago, I went back to writing short stories. The only difference now was that, thanks to this thing called the ‘internet’, which wasn’t around when I was younger, I could now submit the end results. And wow, the response has been amazing. I’ve had short stories published all over the place, from magazines such as Stand and Defenestration, to Ink, Sweat and Tears, Riggwelter and Jersey Devil. Indeed, I have even been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in the USA, which is where most of my work is published.
But the most amazing thing of all is that some of the stories I’ve had published were ones I’d written twenty five or thirty years ago. Stand, one of the most respected magazines in the UK, have agreed to publish a story of mine next year which I wrote one evening at that old gothic flat. Black Moon magazine have just published one which I remember reading to the writers’ circle all those years ago. I’m absolutely astounded that these old stories are finding a new lease of life, while at the same time a little sad that I wasn’t brave enough to send them off at the time, as a nerdy twenty something.
So what’s my point with this essay? I suppose it’s ‘never give up on your dreams’, or something trite like that. Or at the very least, ‘give it a go, because you never know’. I was deeply unsure of myself for most of my young adult life and this has continued to some extent. I certainly don’t feel like I have a sense of entitlement but I’m at least glad that I am now a little braver when it matters.
And writing? I still love it, as much as I did when I was a kid!
This story was originally published in the Wonderzoo Anthology.
Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse
I think I’m going to burst into flames. It’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, except that one time. I was on a train, and the train manager came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Take care as you alight’. Oh, I thought, I didn’t know that was a possibility. But right now, right at this moment, I think I’m going to burst into flames.
I was reading this story the other day about some man who burst into flames. There he was, just minding his own business, when, woof! A dog came in. And then he burst into flames. Ironically, his name was Ash.
He’d called his next door neighbour for help but his next door neighbour had said, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
‘And the rest of me, too!’, Ash had replied.
And after that, he was quite dead indeed.
It’s quite disconcerting knowing that you might go up at any minute. I phoned my ex and I said, ‘I’m worried that I’m about to go up!’
‘First time for everything, he sighed.
So much for rekindling old flames.
The thing about spontaneous human combustion is that I expect it’s the sort of thing you can only do once. I’d spent most of the afternoon in the shower. My friend Beth has always said that I have a warm personality. You don’t know the half of it, I thought of replying. ‘Let’s go to the funfair’, I suggested, ‘and pretend that it’s not about to happen. And by the way, I think I’ve got heart burn’.
‘OK’, Beth said.
‘OK what?’, I asked.
‘OK, let’s go to the funfair’.
I don’t think Beth believed me when I said that I was going to burst into flames. She said it was like one of those stories you read where the lead character is also the narrator, and it’s obvious that whatever troubles they faced they had survived, because it was a first hand account. She then told me that she didn’t entirely believe in spontaneous human combustion, but that her uncle had once seen spontaneous goat combustion, and for the rest of the day he had had a strange hankering for a lamb roast.
But she didn’t believe me, I’m sure of it. On the other hand I’d hate it if my last words were to be, ‘see! I told you!’
A friend of mine is a fireman and I phoned him up and I asked him for some advice.
‘Well’, he said, ‘you can always fight fire with fire’.
‘But that’s no bleeding good!’, I said. ‘In fact, I reckon it would be counter productive.’
‘If you want me to rush round with my big hose’, he said, ‘then you’ve got another thing coming’.
We met at a house warming party. As I say, he’s a fireman.
Ironically, his name is Bern.
Beth and I arrived at the funfair on a glorious evening. The funfair was on the village green next to the pub and the main road. The setting sun had made the sky all red and the neon and fluorescent lights of the fair contrasted and complemented the glory of the clouds. The world seemed lit with promise as if in competition with the mystique and the firmament of space in its eternal and ethereal wonder, lighting the angular facade of Wetherspoons.
‘You haven’t dried your hair after your shower’, Beth said.
‘It’s true, I am somewhat moist, but it’s all on account of the spontaneous human combustion’.
‘Just plan to do it at nine o clock’, she said. ‘Say to yourself, nine o clock is when I’ll go up in flames’.
‘Why?’, I asked.
‘Because then it won’t be very spontaneous, will it?”
‘It doesn’t work like that’, I pointed out.
‘How would you know, if you’ve never done it?’, she replied.
The funfair had all of the usual accoutrements such as stalls and a dodgems and a couple of rides, but in the middle was a circus tent with a barker standing out the front. And by this I don’t mean a dog, but a man dressed as a circus ringmaster. He seemed very excited about the tent behind him, which was decorated in large fluorescent lettering and the word, FUNHOUSE.
Beth and I stood in front of him for a little bit.
‘Roll up!, he said, through his loudspeaker. ‘Roll up! Gaze in wonder at our Funhouse! Never before in human history has more fun been crammed into one small space! See the amazing Bearded Man! Marvel at the badger who thinks he’s on EastEnders! We have relics from the sinking of the titanic, including some of the original ice! We have a horse! And a very large rug which needs putting away! Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up!’
‘This might take my mind off the spontaneous human combustion’, I pointed out, ‘and if it doesn’t, they might at least have fire extinguishers’.
‘Don’t be so blase’, Beth replied.
We went inside. Beth didn’t seem very impressed. The first place we went was the Hall of Mirrors. The skinny mirror made me look thin, the wavy mirror made me look wavy, the fat mirror made me look more or less the same. The ghost train was inoperative and instead there was a rail replacement bus. The tunnel of love was just boring.
Beth seemed to be wavering in her appreciation of the Funhouse, yet I, with my lurking inevitable internal combustion, saw the fortune teller sitting on a pouffe in the corner, puffing away on a crafty fag, and thought, hmm, she might know what my future has in store. As I approached she stubbed out her ciggie in the foil casing of a half consumed Bakewell tart, and I was glad that she didn’t immediately reach for a fire extinguisher. She had an expression on her face like a ferret with gout. Her chin looked like it was about to leave her and go and join a much more successful face.
By way of greeting she said, as is customary, ‘Hello’.
Her voice was gruff, like that if a trawlerman called Pete. She waved her hands at the lingering smoke.
‘Got told off yesterday, didn’t I?’, she said, ‘I was having a gasper. Didn’t realise it was against company rules’.
‘You didn’t see that one coming?’, I asked.
‘I’m a fortune teller, love. For other people. Don’t work on meself, does it? I deal in the mystical workings of the universe, not company health and safety regulations. Now, tell me, love. Have you been to a soothsayer before?’
‘Yes, I have’.
‘And what did they say?”
‘Sooth’, I replied.
She didn’t laugh.
‘Now, listen’, she said. ‘Some bastard has nicked me tarot cards. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to use a pack of HeMan Top Trumps’.
She opened the lack and laid them on the table between us. Skeletor, was the first card, then came Castle Greyskull. The next card was Skeletor again, followed by another Skeletor. Then Groundskeeper Willie.
‘Sorry, love, don’t know how that got in there’.
Then came another Skeletor. She looked up at me.
‘Let me guess’, I said. ‘The Skeletor card isn’t necessarily an omen of death?’
‘Let’s put it this way’, she replied. ‘You’ll be saving on winter heating bills’.
Beth and I went and had another mooch around the Funhouse and we both decided to leave. The petting zoo in the corner only had chickens and I’d never wanted to pet a chicken. There were also a couple of cocks, but that’s a different matter. I had a go on the Test Your Strength machine but I couldn’t even lift the hammer. We were just about to leave when there was a sudden blinding flash of fire and warmth.
‘Oh my god!’, Beth screamed, ‘He’s gone up!’
As luck would have it, it was only a fire eater, which I was glad about because I’d been wearing my best shirt. With great panache he spewed tongues of fire, momentarily lighting up the Funhouse and scaring the chickens. Ever the snowman, he pranced and danced, his flaming torch raised to his lips followed by a blinding flash, a sharded explosion whose warmth and brilliance seared into the night throwing shadows as if making us cavemen once more, solitary beasts in search of warmth, or an inhabitant of Milton Keynes.
I’d seen fire eaters before. On holiday at the coast one year, I’d been mesmerised by Marvello and his mastery of flame. The next year, The Great Splendido was similarly exuberant, scorcher to the stars. And now here at the Funhouse, this, apparently, was Ben.
He was an interesting character. His face was angular and defined, almost cubist, like a tescos carrier bag full of chisels.
Beth and I stood and watched, entranced by Bens mastery of putting fire in his gob, and when he finished we both clapped.
‘Ah, thanks for that’, he said, in a strange high and squeaky voice. ‘Just doing my job’.
‘You were so good at it!’, I said, ‘you were literally on fire!’
‘What I’m really interested in is how you protect your insides from burning up’, I said.
‘To be honest’, he said, ‘you do get a bit of blowback, that’s how I lost my eyebrows. But as for my insides, yes, there have been one or two occasions where my lunch has been reheated. And I once belched at my Aunt’s flat and accidentally roasted her budgie. You know what, though? The best advice I could give is just to relax and not even think about it. So that’s what I do. I just get on and live my life. Oh, and when I’m practising at home, I’m always careful to turn off the smoke alarm’.
The whole time we were chatting I noticed that his bow tie was smouldering.
‘How did you get in to this?’, I asked.
‘Curry’, he replied.
He was quite cute, was Ben. I might even say, hot. I could imagine living with him, and how handy it would be. He’d have a steak and kidney pie cooked in no time. But I knew that it wouldn’t last, the two of us. I’d just had the ceiling of my flat repainted. I licked my fingertips and squeezed his bow tie, putting out the tiny flames with a slight hiss.
‘I’d better go’, he said. ‘And get my indigestion tablets’.
‘Bye’, I whispered.
At that moment the fortune teller ran over, and said rather breathlessly, ‘You will fall in love with a mysterious . . .’.
‘You’re too late’, I said.
Beth and I went outside. The sun was starting to set and the funfair was coming alive. On one side, the rides and the stalls, the lights, the neon, the music and the noise. On the other, a demonstration of dogs herding up some geese. The world seemed perfectly normal.
‘That’s the best advice’, Beth said. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t panic, don’t prevaricate. Be free to live your life without pondering on something that might not happen. If we let fate dictate our actions, then a fear of the unknown will take over, and we will never be free to enjoy ourselves. Now matter how far fetched our private fears, we mustn’t let them ruin the good times.’. She took hold of my hands. ‘Let’s go home’, she said, ‘It’s starting to get a bit chilly’.
I smiled at her and gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Yes’, I whispered.
And then, all of a sudden, woof!
‘Weren’t you here before?’, the waitress asks.
‘A while ago’.
He’s conscious that his English accent makes him stick out. Outside the diner windows, tall firs capture the early evening darkness, while trucks thunder past on the old highway. Bright neon reflects on the wet tarmac.
‘There’s really nothing special about me’, he insists, as he sits at a table near the plate glass window. He picks up the laminated menu. ‘It must have been over ten years ago. . .’.
‘But I sure as hell remember you’, she says.
And he feels a strange connection inside. Sadness mixed with nostalgia. A hint of shame. Some jubilation.
‘I was a different man back then’.
‘You were on some tour, right? You and your . . Your uncle, right? Driving around the country. And you’d just come down from Canada’.
‘Oh, I sure remember you!’
So much had changed in the previous ten years. He looks around at the other customers in the diner. Truck drivers, a family in one corner, some lone drivers, a young couple. The rain intensifies and it starts to roll down the plate glass window.
‘You were young’, she says. ‘Mind you, so was I. The world was a different place back then, wasn’t it? Weren’t you drunk?’
‘I probably was’.
‘And we’d never had a Brit in here. Do you remember? We danced . . .’.
‘Oh, I remember you, honey’.
She stands next to him and taps her long, painted nails on his shoulder.
‘You swept me off my feet. We glided across this very floor, the music was just the same but it was the music of the moment. You treated me like a proper lady for the first time in years. The bums at the counter, oh sure, they were laughing like hyenas. I said to the guys, this here is a real gentleman . Remember that? This here is a real gentleman ‘.
‘As I say, I was . . Different back then’.
‘Oh, I can’t forget someone like you. I really can’t, sugar. So, what brings you back? What brings you back here, to this crummy diner in the middle of nowhere?’
He wants to tell her that he’s retracing his steps, finding himself, doing something in memory of his late uncle, doing something in memory of his self, but it all sounds so trite.
‘I just felt like something to eat’, he lies.
And everywhere he’d been so far, nobody had remembered him at all. And it looked so different, everything looked like it had changed. It was quite dispiriting. Nobody had remembered him.
‘You staying here? For the night? In our little town? There’s a motel next door. Yes sir, you really did treat me like a proper lady’.
He and his uncle had adjoining rooms, and whisky. It was probably one of the very first times he’d even had whisky.
‘I don’t think it was me’, he says.
He gets up from his table by the window.
‘Oh, hon. I always remember a face’.
‘It wasn’t me’, he says.
And he walks away, back to the car, runs across the parking lot in the rain, through the puddles and the neon.
There has been talk lately in spoken word circles of the direction that the movement has been taking over the last decade and how it has shifted away from the scene that existed in the 2000s and before. Many have cited the influence of slams and American slam culture, others have pointed out that spoken word has become more literary and closer to page poetry, with the emphasis very much on words and use of language. And while neither of these are bad things – (my own philosophy being that it is what it is) – I do ponder every now and then on how it used to be.
I’ve spent the last twelve years or so performing all over the UK and during this time I have honed my regular ‘set’ down to what seems to work best on stage. My poems are mostly humorous, and rely on conventions of stand-up comedy and a certain approximation of what poetry should be contrasted with what my poetry actually is. There’s a bit of prop work and an awful lot of silliness. And some awful silliness. And people seem to like it.
As Pete Bearder pointed out in his wonderful book about the spoken word scene, ‘Stage Invasion’, ‘Many older poets I have spoken to have lamented the loss of diversity in British performance poetry that was previously known for its humour and cabaret quirk’. He goes on to mention performers such as Rachel Pantechnicon, Chloe Poems and AF Harrold, who were at the top of their game back then and were the zenith of the performance poetry scene. Reading between the lines, the question seems to be, ‘when did performance poetry get so serious?’
Over the last year I’ve been working on a spoken word / music collaboration called Croydon Tourist Office, led by my friend Bryce Dumont, who used to run the Epicentre Cafe in Paignton where there was a monthly spoken word night. It was at this time that the spoken word scene was still heavily influenced by a cabaret style where anything went, where most performed created a character on stage, and authenticity wasn’t as important as it has now become. Or indeed, maybe the creation of stage personas actually accentuated the authenticity of the performer. Who knows?
Anyway, Bryce had been diligently recording every set that I performed back then and he emailed me a link to all of the material. Several things struck me. First of all, the poems weren’t as good as I remember them, but hey, I was only just starting. Secondly, my linking material was much better than I remember it being. Thirdly, my performance voice was much, much slower than it is now. (This was before I’d even heard of poetry slams and the necessity of cramming everything into under three minutes). And fourthly, wow, I certainly did some weird things on stage!
When I first started performing back in the late 2000s, the local scene was heavily influenced by comedy and surrealism in south Devon, and I soon joined in with a bizarre mix of my own, of prop-based avant gard and whimsical verse which, at the same time, mocked the whole idea of poetry performance. And for a while, this was my Unique Selling Point. And although I wore seemingly normal clothes on stage, I was very much a persona, the Professor of Whimsy, an exaggeration of my actual self.
So here are some of the incredibly bizarre things that I did back in those formative years, 2008-2012:
1. Used a mobile phone to deliver my set from a cubicle in the toilets.
This was fun. I set up a mobile phone I’d borrowed from a friend behind the mic. I put it on speaker phone and then called in my set while pretending to have raging stomach ache from the toilet at the rear of the premises.
2. Built a cardboard robot called Robot Garnham on stage and let him do my performance.
This was also fun. I operated the robot via a fishing rod from the side of the stage. And then at one moment I sat down and read the paper while the robot performed. It was really weird. People were facing the robot and laughing.
3. Phoned a friend halfway through a set to ask him what my next line was.
I had no idea if this was going to work. Again I used the speaker phone. A friend was at home with a copy of my poem. He fed me the lines down the phone.
4. Performed a set of Pam Ayres poems through the window from the street.
So the premise of this was that I’d orchestrated a row with Bryce. I said that I was going to perform some Pam Ayres poems and he pretended to physically throw me out of the cafe. I then proceeded to do a whole set of Pam Ayres poems through the glass windows from the darkened street. And people were walking past and I’d interrupt my performance to say hello to them.
5. Pretended to drink Pam Ayres urine after pretending to choke on a cream cracker.
Just the usual performance. I’d started the set by announcing that I’d gone to the doctors and Pam was in the waiting room, and that she had misunderstood when I said that I was a fan of her work. She got in a mood and left, but accidentally left behind her urine sample. I then performed a poem while eating a cream cracker and halfway through faked that I was choking. Of course, the only thing to hand was the Pam Ayres urine, and down it went in one gulp. The audience reaction was amazing. It was actually cold tea.
6. Performed a whole set with a tea bag sellotaped to my forehead.
Still no idea why.
7. Performed the same poem twice in a row with no explanation.
Which was fun but then at a gig a few years later one of the performers was so drunk that she actually did this, so now I’m a little embarrassed. Perhaps I should perform the same poem three times?
8. Tried to get inanimate objects to race each other.
OK, so this was my performance art piece, ‘Static’. I’d start by tuning a radio to static, and then placing these objects in a line on a table. I’d line them up and then wave a flag while keeping my finger on a stopwatch. Obviously the objects did not move. I tried this three times, then removed the objects, turned off the radio, and went and sat down in my seat.
9. Built a large hadron collider on stage.
Taking a length of garden hose, and a custard cream on a saucer. I’d eat half the biscuit, then pick up a crumb, and blow it through the garden hose, putting the two ends together and then taking a photo with a digital camera. I’d repeat this three times, and then use my laptop to show pictures of the atoms smashing together.
10. Got a poet to dress as a spaceman and pretend to interrupt my set as visitors from the future intent on making sure my rise from obscurity did not occur,
You read that right.
11. Got an eminent and well respected page poet to perform Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as a poem.
That was a beautiful evening. James Turner was the well respected poet. He did his research thoroughly and even sent me a critique of Lady Gaga’s lyrics.
12. Stood behind another poet as he performed and ate crisps, noisily, while staring straight ahead.
Not much else to add here.
13. Performed while standing on a hip exercise swivel disc.
That was fun, because the more I swivelled, the more I turned around to face the rear, so I kept having to frantically swivel to face the audience again. I’m still not sure why.
14. Performed through an iPad which I held up to my face while wearing a large box on my head.
The box was covered with fairy lights and tin foil. The iPad was showing a video but it was just my face. It was surprisingly effective. I’ll have to do this again some time.
15. Dressed as a crocodile, which had nothing to do with my set.
Nor did I refer to it during my set.
16. Wore a fake moustache which slowly moved around my face.
Halfway through the set I took out a large piece of paper and held it up and subtly moved the moustache every time I hid behind the piece of paper, which I was pretending to read from, and then pretending that I didn’t know why the audience were laughing every time I looked out from behind the big piece of paper.
17. Performed the Pet Shop Boys song Two Divided By Zero on a talking calculator.
You’ll find this funny if you know the song.
18. Used an Elefun toy game to blow small pieces of crepe paper with poems written on them into the air.
This worked amazingly well. Elefun is a plastic toy elephant that has a fan in it so it blows pieces of paper out of its long tubular trunk. And it was fun because the pieces of paper blew up out of the toy elephant’s trunk quicker than I could read them, plus I was catching them in a small net so most of the time was spent flailing around with this tiny net trying to catch and then read the small pieces of paper on which the poems were written.
19. Hired out my five minute set to another poet who wasn’t on the bill.
Inspired by a ‘gallery within the gallery’ which used to be at Tate Modern, if you’re interested. I can’t even remember who the poet was. I mean this was back in the day, so it wasn’t like anyone had come just to see me. But you should have seen the look on the host’s face. Plus I made ten quid.
20. Read a poem from an incredibly large piece of paper.
And I mean, really, really big. Which meant I’d spent the previous evening sellotaping together six incredibly large pieces of paper to form one huge humongous piece of paper.
Maybe I should be more adventurous and go back to these days. It certainly was fun. When I first started performing I received a lot of wisdom, advice and encouragement from Rachel Pantehcnicon and she told me that if she could change anything about her career, it would be that she would have less props that she had to lug around the UK. I suppose this was struck home for me when I had the pleasure and honour of supporting John Henley at a gig in London. Indeed, it would be just the two of us all evening. Willing to make a good impression, not only did I cart up on the train the biggest box of props you’ve ever seen, but also a table to put them on, which I then had to transport across London on the tube! After the gig I was so knackered that I just left it backstage at the theatre. I wonder if they ever wondered where their extra table had come from . . .
As I say, times have moved on, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Or maybe it is. Who am I to judge? I do pine for the days when an evening out at a performance poetry gig (as they were called back then, no ‘spoken word’), could entail anything from performers getting absolutely naked to reciting poetry while standing in a paddling pool filled with jelly. Both of which, incidentally, I’ve seen. It was all a little rough around the edges, and most of the performers had stage names, and everyone was absolutely unique in their own quirky way, and the emphasis really was on comedy and spectacle, and at the end of the night you knew you’d seen something amazing. Audience expectations may be different these days. I just hope I somehow remain myself as a kind of bridge between the past and the present.
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.
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 . . .’.
‘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’.
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.
This is the show that I was supposed to have toured the U.K. with this year. Alas, it was not to be.
Life can be so juicy at times. Juicy like a sweet apple, filled with goodness. It’s the small things that make it so ripe for exploration, for prodding and poking. Robert Garnham’s new show is an hour or so of performance poetry and spoken word, comedy rhymes and whimsy by the bucket full.
With poems about life, LGBT issues, being envious of beards and the pitfalls of fancying a surfer, Juicy culminates in an extended theatrical piece about love and lust set at an airport departure lounge.
Multiple slam champion and longlisted as Spoken Word Artist of the Year in 2016 and 2017, Robert has performed everywhere from the Womad Festival to London Gay Pride. He has recently featured in a tv advert campaign for a U.K. bank.
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?