An ode to Jeremy Wade

Today’s daily poem podcast is an ode to TV fisherman Jeremy Wade.

<div style=”font-size: 10px; color: #cccccc;line-break: anywhere;word-break: normal;overflow: hidden;white-space: nowrap;text-overflow: ellipsis; font-family: Interstate,Lucida Grande,Lucida Sans Unicode,Lucida Sans,Garuda,Verdana,Tahoma,sans-serif;font-weight: 100;”><a href=”https://soundcloud.com/robertdgarnham&#8221; title=”Robert Garnham” target=”_blank” style=”color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;”>Robert Garnham</a> · <a href=”https://soundcloud.com/robertdgarnham/a-poem-for-jeremy-wade-wav&#8221; title=”Daily Poem 33 : A Poem for Jeremy Wade” target=”_blank” style=”color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;”>Daily Poem 33 : A Poem for Jeremy Wade</a></div>

Looking back at my first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Edinburgh Fringe and what a big part of my life the festival has become. This summer was due to have been my ninth visit, and my fifth with a solo show.

The current situation means that everything at the moment is up in the air, and several reports have mentioned the precarious position the Edinburgh Fringe might be in. I can’t now imagine a year without the fringe, and if it were to no longer be a part of our lives, then this would be a very big shame indeed.

Each year at the fringe, I keep a blog and this year I looked back to 2016, the year I took my show Static to Edinburgh. This was my first year with a show on my own, having been there in 2014 with Poetry Ping Pong, and 2015 doing guest slots at other shows and performing at the Burning Eye showcase with Monkey Poet.

What I didn’t mention in the blog, (maybe I was too embarrassed!), was that I left my passport on the plane flying up and it was lost. And I knew I was going to New York a few weeks later to perform, and at the back of my mind I was thinking, uh-oh, I won’t be able to do that now. So this was eating at me all the time during the fringe.

But there were good moments, too. Breakfast with a world famous performer who told me how to go snout the whole process properly. Killing it as a guest at a comedy night and then being recognised in the street by someone who’d seen me at that gig. It was a rollercoaster of emotions!

The other thing was that my show had moments of silence and prop work, performance art and movement, and my venue was the corner of a bar. So it was impossible to perform the show the way that I wanted it. By the end of the week, I really was thinking of giving up spoken word. I remember my last show was as a guest at Boomerang Club, and I genuinely went into that gig thinking, wow, this is my last ever performance!

Things turned out well in the end. Static at Edinburgh in 2016 was a turning point because it showed me that I had to work harder at performance poetry, and make it a career, and that I needed to be way more professional. The meeting with the famous fringe performer, which you’ll read about below, certainly changed my whole way of working and mindset towards the whole process. Indeed, maybe that was the turning point of my career. I still use his methods now, every single day!

So anyway, here we go. Time for a crazy adventure!

Day One

Well here I am then, on a train heading to the Edinburgh Fringe. Well, almost. First of all I’m going to Woking to spend the night in a room over a pub, and then tomorrow morning I will be flying up. It was either that, or fifteen hours on a coach. In fact it’s cheaper this way than getting the train. How ludicrous is that?

So how am I feeling about all this right now? There are several emotions. I’m nervous, naturally, that everything is going to go tits up. Nobody will show up for any of the gigs, and when they do, I fall into that age old trap of being crap. I’m excited, because this is the Edinburgh fringe and a lot of my friends will be there. I’m also grateful that I am able to spend an entire week immersed in art and culture.

I’m also nervous that the logistical arrangements I’ve made will fall apart. The accommodation, the travel, the train, the plane.

So here so am, then, on the train, and I’ve managed to get a high profile seat in first class. It was a whole three quid extra to get in here, and I feel privileged, because they don’t just let anyone in. That three quid means a lot.

And I’m the only one in here as the train leaves Exeter, which makes me feel kind of poncey. But then a lusciously blonde muscular lad sneaks in and plugs his mobile phone into the charger. A minute or two back he’s later to look at his phone. Then he slides in, commandeers the seat for himself. Good move!

And oh mamma, what a good looking chap he is. Amazingly he offerere me a Fruit Pastel, and then we get talking. Where are you going? Woking? Me too! Where do you live? Paignton? Know it well! What do you do? Spoken word artist? I’m a property developer. And we chat for ages, about books he’s read, his love of To Kill a Mockingbird, his skills as a weekend surfer, and then it starts to get embarrassing. Whenever I try to relax he asks something else, and all the time I’m looking at those luscious legs.

At Honiton he gets off and meets a man on the platform who gives him a suit in a bag. He gets back in and looks at the suit, the tie, spreading them out on the table. Very smart! We chat some more, and then the man comes to check the tickets.
You’re in the wrong section, he says. Please move back to the standard class.
I’ve still got two hours of this train ride to go, but I’m already thinking, ah, yes. The adventure has begun!

And will I still be thinking of this blond lad in seven days time?

Day Two

Heathrow

So here I am now at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five. I stayed last night in Woking, which is one of my favourite towns and a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. When I booked into the hotel I asked if it was okay to pay with a debit card. We accept anything, the receptionist said, apart from goats.

It seems kind of unreal at the moment that I shall be performing this afternoon in another country. Okay, that country is Scotland, but when you’re used to Torbay, anything north of Newton Abbot is dodgy ground. The coach driver from Woking to the airport was incredibly jolly and rather envious of my old suitcase, which forms part of the show. You don’t see many of those, he said.

I expect the baggage handling crew are saying that too, right at this moment.

Edinburgh

It was a weird day. I mean, they talk about the madness and the insecurity which hit some more than others. Has it already hit me?
The flight was fantastic. The stewardess who found me an empty overseat locker advised me to use it quickly as those who bring suitcases on board will nab it. She was one of the jolliest people I’ve met in a long while with an evident love of life and a loud booming laugh which echoed from the galley all round the plane.

The flight was 45 minutes. It took 30 to get my case at the baggage reclaim. I caught the bus to the city centre straight to my venue, arriving ten minutes before my show. The audience seemed to enjoy it, (both of them), but I treated it as a rehearsal and afterwards pondered on a raft of changes I might make for the rest of the run. I also need to be louder. Tomorrow will be an entirely different matter.

I walked the mile out to my student accommodation, then realised that I’d left my jacket at the venue!

It was great to see Dominic Berry and Chris White, and later on I bumped into Rose Condo, Dan Simpson and Rob Auton.
It’s going to be a mega week!

Day Three

I am deep into the Fringe, now. Yes, I know that sounds weird. But I’m into the rhythm of the Edinburgh Fringe and what it means to be here, which is to say, the usual routines of flyering, exit flyering, chatting to people, finding out when other people’s shows are, and that big contentious issue, the Bucket Speech.

What is the Bucket Speech? Well, this is the free fringe, so we don’t get paid to perform, but we don’t have to pay the venue either. Because of this, we are not allowed to charge visitors entry, but we are allowed to pass round a bucket at the end. Now I was having serious philosophical thoughts about this and I decided not to do a Bucket Speech, (the bit at the end of each show where you ask for donations), and instead make the whole thing free. Yes, really. Absolutely free.

I’m not yet sure if this is a good strategy. For me the joy is sharing the words and meeting people. There’s no way that I’d recover the costs of coming here. Now it must be said that I might change this philosophy, depending on how things go.
I have been flyering. But I haven’t really done that much. Yesterday I did lots of flyering in the Royal Mile, but then got bored, so I went to the museum and I had an excellent time.

I’ve met so many friends up here, people who I know from so many different parts of the country, like Rose Condo, who I met in Manchester, Dan from Bristol, and Sam Webber, who I know from Barnstaple. Today a friend is coming up from London. It’s like the annual meeting place of performance poetry.

The plan for today? More flyering, and I’ll be performing on the Royal Mile with some other poets. I haven’t even thought about open mic nights yet, or anything like that.
And the Fringe Flu? I haven’t caught it yet.

Day Four

My student accommodation is down the hill past the Scottish Parliament, turn left, then walk halfway to Glasgow. It’s a brand new building with one or two snags, the first snag being that it’s bloody hot even with the windows open, the second snag being that the sensor light in the bathroom stays on as well as the extractor fan for about an hour after use, the third snag being that it’s so far from the centre of Edinburgh. But that didn’t stop me being waken at seven this morning by what I thought was thunder, turned out it was a bloody cannon being fired. Is that normal, or are we at war? It sounded like they fired it right next to the building.

I’ve reached an odd point in the fringe, now. I don’t care if I don’t get anyone to come and see the show, now, because I’ve done it a few times and I’ve had an amazing time doing so. If nobody turns up, then I get an hour off! I mean, the way I look at it is that I’m offering to do a show at three o o’clock every day, and if no ones up for that then, OK, I’m all right with that.

I went to a few shows last night. Gary from Leeds, funny and as human as ever. Dominic Berry,enthusiastic and genuinely inspirational. I wore a tshirt advertising my show, and I thought, that’s a good move. The moment I stepped out the building someone yelled, in a. American accent, ‘Hey buddy, like the tshirt. Naaaahhht’. He’s probably a Trump supporter.

The agenda for today is a few more shows but first I’m off out in search of some modern art. Modern art is my passion and I want to see something inspirational.
Another early night tonight. I’m such a lightweight. The other night I went out with Dominic and Chris White, feeling like an old man. We didn’t even get to where we were going before I apologised and said that I really had to go home to bed, it was almost ten o’ clock. In fact, compared to all the other spoken word artists, I feel like a very old man. Even Gary from Leeds, baldies that he is, is ten years younger than me. I don’t drink, and I really can’t take these late nights. There’s an open mic at eleven pm every night by which time I’m usually in bed. Maybe that’s what’s keeping me sane?
I’m using the wifi in McDonalds to write this. I’m trying to see as much local culture as I can.

Outside my venue

Day Five

Well that’s another day done and dusted. I’m really into the rhythm now. The rhythm of expectations being cruelly dashed. Yesterday’s audience was a very minimal two. I asked them beforehand if they were there to see my show and they said, no. But do carry on. Don’t mind us, we’re just here for a drink and a chat. I did a couple of poems without any microphone and then took a couple of selfies. Can’t let an opportunity like this go to waste!

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the modern art gallery instead of flyering. I mean, I’m on holiday. There was an exhibition of Joseph Beuys, one of my favourite artists. I couldn’t spend a whole week here and not see it! The only trouble with Edinburgh’s modern art gallery is that it’s such a long walk from the centre of the city. So the whole trip took about two and a half hours.

Then an offer of a gig came through, representing Team Poetry at Stand Up And Slam, which is a poetry verses comedian slam. Everybody there was so young and whoopy, and the music was so incredibly loud, and the MC shouted and wailed and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but I went up and performed and the place went mad, I won my round and helped the poets win the whole contest. At the end we had to come out with slick jokes or short poems on a given theme and the theme was drinking, so I did the following haiku:

The man with no arms

Fighting in the local pub.

He was kicking off.

Which also brought the house down, and it was only afterwards, like, seven hours afterwards, that I thought about the Fringe joke competition and how it might have stood a chance in that. Had they not already done the competition at the beginning of the week.

So here I am, about to go out flyering and stuff. My legs are aching and it feels like I’ve lost two stone. It doesn’t look it, but it feels it.

Just a quick word about the show I saw last night, Dandy Darkly’s Myth Mouth. It was flipping fantastic! Storytelling and humour, camp wonderfulness and a celebration of the joy of living. Go and watch it!

My view while flyering

Day Six

Some of my performance colleagues here have been in Edinburgh for the whole three weeks and the fatigue is starting to show. There’s a certain numbness to them, as if they are kind of ever so dissociated from the world around them, a weariness, and most amusing of all, a slight loathing of anyone who’s just arrived. Last night I went to see AF Harrold at Hammer and Tomgue. AF is one of my favourite performers and a jolly decent chap too. He’d just arrived in Edinburgh and he was sharp, articulate, funny, alert. You could sense the love in the room.

I’ve only been here a week, of course, but a fatigue of sorts is finally starting to manifest itself. Having said that, I’ve finally got the art of flyering down to a tee. I spent the first few days oblivious to the fact that you have to make an impression and sell your show in about 2 and a half seconds. I’d spend the first two seconds of that time by saying hello. By which time they’d walked on. But now I just blurt out, ‘Free poetry show? Free poetry show? Free poetry show?’ And then act very relieved when someone takes a flier.

My legs ache like anything, I’ve been up and down that sodding hill so many times. I found a short cut the other day, it cuts a minute off the journey, and it was like the best thing that has ever happened. I’m starting to feel like a local. I see people making fundamental navigation errors and I’m thinking, Pffft, tourists! I’ve also built up this witty repartee with the man in the newsagents near my accommodation where each morning he pretends not to recognise me from the day before. Oh, how we laugh.
So there are two more Statics to go. But already I’m thinking of new projects, ambitious ideas gleaned from watching so many wonderful shows. I haven’t seen much poetry: the spoken word shows are storytelling in the main part, and very funny at that. However, I’ve found poetry in the best of places, such as Dandy Darkly’s fantastic Myth Mouth, which I really, really recommend. It’s perhaps been the most inspirational show I’ve seen while in Edinburgh, and the one that has really spoken to me.

It was misty and cool yesterday and I felt right at home. Today it is hot and sunny and I’m not looking forward to it.

I still haven’t seen any of my flat mates and the same packet of pasta has been in the fridge now for five days.

Day Seven

So the good thing about the fringe is that you see all kinds of different acts and the potential for being inspired is heightened. I’ve seen so much while here that I’ve got a very clear idea of where I need to be and how the show can be massively improved with just a few small tweaks. Yesterday I was very privileged to have breakfast and a long chat with one of my favourite performers, (who wishes to remain anonymous because of the trade secrets that he divulged thereat). We met at a coffee shop in the new town area and he took me through every aspect of putting on a show, from the logistical detail of publicity and accommodation, to the more fundamental aspects of rehearsal, writing, learning the damn thing. It was the most enlightening couple of hours I’ve spent in a long time, as he imparted information which an artist might ordinarily have to cough up a lot of money for. I bought him toast and coffee to say thank you. In fact, I was so inspired that I went away and did a little bit of writing right then and there.

Now, obviously I should have been flyering. And I did a lot of flyering yesterday, both in the Royal Mile and Cowgate. I flyered like you wouldn’t believe. And while I was flyering I was thinking, I shouldn’t be doing this. But it’s a necessary evil. Spoken word show? Hello madam, I’ve got a show today at three. Spoken word show? Spoken word show?

It’s a lonely business, flyering, even though you’re surrounded by people. You’re surrounded by all the other flyerers. And they’ve all got various degrees of annoyance, like the pushy ones, or the cheeky ones, or the ones who are just plain rude, and even those who insult anyone who doesn’t take a flyer. What’s that all about?

So I did all this flyering, and what do you think happened? No audience. I could only be philosophical about it, of course. I’m at the fringe, yes, but really I’m not that well known in the slightest. My show is on directly after Harry Baker, and he’s a world slam champion. And I’m also a slam winner. Well, second at the Swindon slam, anyway. Later on in the day I watched Gecko’s excellent show and he did a song about the painting that shares the room with the Mona Lisa and I thought, hmm, I know exactly how it feels!

But it’s all a great experience and a valuable learning opportunity. I’ve seen so much that has inspired me that I know exactly the manner and tone that I shall be adopting in my writing. And yes, I’m probably the oldest performer on the spoken word scene up here by quite some margin, but I feel all new and eager to get on with it.

My venue

Day Eight

So that’s it, then. I’ve done the fringe at Edinburgh with my first solo show. And I managed to combine it with a holiday, my first for a year or so. I think it was only in the last day when I thought, OK, better work at this. And wowzers, I spent four hours flyering. I flyerered in the Royal Mile. I flyerered in Cowgate. I went to other people’s shows and flyerered on the way out. I flyerered by mistake when I went in a shop to get some water and left my flyers on the counter. I flyerered like a machine which has been built just to flyer. And if all paid off, seven people came to the last show and they gave me money even when I did my ‘don’t worry, there won’t be a bucket speech’ speech.

Last night I had a feature slot at Boomerang Club. I’d been feeling a bit weird all day before that, what with all the flyering, and I even thought, hmmm, what if this is my last ever performance? I mean, last ever. What if I called it a day after this, after the Boomerang Club? It was only a fleeting thought, and it kind of mixed up with the knowledge that I would be going home, to make me feel unusually emotional. Plus if you’ve read my blog you’ll know that I’ve been having vision problems, which makes life difficult at times and has affected my ability to perform and read at the same time. So I did a set of all my favourite poems and finished off with my most favourite of all, ‘Plop’, which seems a good summing up of my performance career. But I also started the set with a brand new piece, which I call ‘Introduction’, a piece I wrote after my meeting the other day with a top fringe performer who really inspired me. And I thought, ‘If this is to be my last ever performance, ever, then why a, I writing new material?’ As I say, it was only a fleeting thought!

So here I am at Edinburgh Waverley station. I’m in Starbucks. And I’m feeling chipper about the future. Static is done and dusted but I’ve started rewriting it and I have a very clear idea of how it will evolve. It might still be Static, or it might be something entirely different, but it will be a different beast, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge of rewriting it, rehearsing it, learning it.

This has been the most incredible week and a huge learning experience. I’ve had so many adventures along the way and seen so much good stuff, and I’ve felt younger than I have in years, and also older than I’ve ever felt. I’ve got one or two projects on the horizon that I can’t wait to work on, performance art pieces and a multi-disciplinary piece which I’ve written and is very funny indeed, the music project, the novel, there’s so much on the go at the moment! It all makes me wonder what the next year will bring till I’m back here again.

And I remembered. Yes, I remembered. Do you recall my first blog, the one I wrote on the way to Edinburgh? I remembered the lad who came and sat with me, all those days ago, who charged his phone and we chatted. I thought I’d forget all about him, but I remember. I hope he’s had a good week, too.

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.

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 Tea Philosopher

(Poem written for my show, Spout, but ultimately not used)

The tea philosopher

The tea philosopher arrived
And sat himself down in the middle
Of the tea shop.
Dressed entirely in black,
With a beret too,
Just like the philosophers you see on tv,
He was only charging five hundred quid
For a full days philosophising,

We kept the tea coming,
Of course,
Because that’s why he was there.
Here you go, we would say.
Socrateas.
He didn’t laugh.
And he sipped it contemplatively,
And every now and then,
Jotted something down in his notebook.

At opportune moments he would
Hold his forefingers in the air,
As if to say, quiet,
The truth is almost upon me.
And we dared hardly breathe.
And we crowded in.
And we watched as he worked
And pondered
And probed the human condition
And we could scarcely believe it
At the end of the day
When he put down his pen,
Stood up, and cleared his throat
And said,

Without the spout,
The tea
Will just stay in the pot.

He then
Gathered his belongings,
Took his pay check,
And left.

That was worth it,
Then.

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.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak- What it’s all about.

Introduction: The setting of the beginning of Neon Yak is obviously based on London Paddington, particularly the sleeper service, though for some reason this one is going north, to Edinburgh and further. I once caught the sleeper service to Paddington, but found that it was named erroneously. Because sleep is the one thing that didn’t happen. Ten years ago I took the train from one side of Canada to the other and the magic has always stayed with me. But Canadian trains are different, your bed travels in the direction of the train, not oblong to it, and you don’t fall off your bed as it goes around a corner.

The idea of Neon Yak came on a crowded train from Edinburgh to Devon. I was standing in the vestibule with lots of other people for part of the journey and I thought, hmm, I should write a show about the different people here, and call it Vestibule Dreams. The show started to mutate when I saw that I could create connections between all the different characters.

Tony the Train Manager : Tony is based on a real person. A van driver who I knew. He had the same gruff voice and West Country accent. He would make up such amazing stories about the things he’d seen that day. ‘Hailstones the size of yer fist’, was one frequent story. He was a bizarre gentleman who had a weird phobia of Cornishware bowls, you know the kind, with the blue and white stripes.

The Circus of Mediocrity: When I was a teenager I wrote a novel. It wasn’t very good, but it was set at a circus. At the time I wanted to be regarded as a serious writer, so I wrote this psychological novel about a circus where weird things were happening. The idea stayed with me and sprang into mind when I decided that the characters in the train should be members of a circus. Only it would be a hopeless, raggedy, run down Circus. The ring master is clearly drunk and very fed up.

Jacques : Jacques was the main love interest in the novel mentioned above. The narrator ran away to the circus and slept in the wardrobe caravan with Jacques as his room mate, among all the sequin costumes and the smell of damp. Jacques was a bit of a prima Donna. This is the character that I had in mind when I was writing Jacques’ lines in the show. Young, excellent, flawed, slightly self indulgent.

So Jacques gets turned on by clowns. I expect this is a real thing. Weirdly I’ve had people ask me, having watched the show, whether I get turned on my clowns. No, I don’t. And they always look a bit startled. As if they wished they hadn’t asked. Mind you, if you look at a list of the people I’ve dated, you’ll see plenty of clowns. Sometimes, these things only become obvious in retrospect.

Molly : Ah, Molly. Molly is based on a real person. She’s in her late eighties and she’s still obsessed with sex. She’s a wonderful person. And yes, she actually did stand in her back garden at night and see the bombs falling on Bristol during the Second World War. I have told her that she is a character in my show and she has no interest in it whatsoever, bless her. Nothing fazes her. Amazingly, she still goes swimming in the sea when it’s warm enough.

Jennifer : Jennifer is also based on a real person. During the train ride across Canada I became friends with a lady called Jennifer, who was travelling for work but took the train because she was afraid of flying. Being the middle of winter, we decided one night that we would try and see the northern lights as the train passed across the prairies of central Canada. Jennifer and I lay on the floor of one of the carriages and looked out through the windows, up at the stars and the satellites and the aircraft, and the lights of a distant city burned on the horizon, and it could well have been the most romantic night of my life had there been any physical attraction. We didn’t see the northern lights, but she did point out the W of Cassiopeia, which has forever reminded me of her. This is alluded too later on in the section with Adam. The next day she got off the train at Edmonton and I said bye to her in the station, and wrote down my email address. I never did hear from her.

Is this all a dream? : The bit in the middle is just music and me faffing around with a toy train. It felt weird going to a shop and buying a toy train. This section was put in to give me a rest as by now I’d been talking for forty minutes, and I thought it would also give the audience a rest from listening to me talking.

Adam : There are aspects of Jennifer in Adam, too. But he’s a physical kind of person, in my imagination, an alpha male tough guy who gets what he wants and acts as a bit of a bully, but also happens to be a clown. I don’t know why Jacques should love him so. The episode in the toilet cubicle is clearly going to be just a one night stand, a momentary diversion from life, a transaction which will soon be forgotten, yet the narrator clearly thinks that this is the start of a beautiful relationship. It’s doomed, he’s doomed, we are all doomed!

I gave my phone to a young lady called Jennifer : This very short line draws together all of the story, and it only came to me after I’d written the first few drafts. In a moment which I can still remember, I scrawled it down and then a big smile came to me as I realised how clever I’d been.

The Neon Yak: So what’s the Neon Yak? I based it on the idea of Herne the Hunter. Herne, part man part deer, is a mythical figure from the forests around Windsor and north west Surrey, where I grew up. A glimpse of Herne was meant to herald a time of uncertainly. When I was a kid I would go on cub camps into the woods and I remember one of the cubs was particularly spooked and certain that we would all be haunted by Herne the Hunter. It didn’t help matters that, for some reason, the legend was also crow barred into the TV adaptation of Robin Hood, at the time riding high in the ratings in the early 1980s.

Coming from Surrey, woodland landscapes have always been important to me, particularly those around Woking, which are deep and dense and downright spooky. The idea of a Herne-like phantom, but kind of an opposite to Herne, came to me during the writing process, a glimpse of whom signals that things will be better. It’s a very visual imagining.

The narrator : Is the narrator me? I’ve certainly travelled a lot these last few years, and caught lots of trains. And yes, I’ve often felt like a Poundland Michael Palin. Looking at my writing, it’s amazing how much of it takes place on trains, planes, and other forms of transport, even cargo ships and space capsules. Perhaps the whole show is a psychological cry for help, an admission that there’s something indefineable that I’m looking for, that I just need to escape . . .

Performing this show has been a wonderful experience, and every time I do, it feels like the characters have become friends, people in whose company I feel totally at ease. Which has never really happened before. It seems to draw together so much from my life. I just wonder what I will think of this show in future years.