‘To be honest’, he says, ‘I really can’t remember getting home last night ‘.
And there he is, standing in the doorway of my flat, and he’s saying this with what almost amounts to a hint of jubilation in his voice. It’s New Year’s Day. And he obviously did get home last night.
‘Didn’t your brother give you a lift?’
‘He might have done, yeah, but . . . You know, I’m never drinking again. Well, not for a bit. Time for a dry January’.
It’s four in the afternoon and he’s obviously just got up.
‘I must have had a bad pint or something’.
‘There’s no such thing as a bad pint. It’s just an urban myth’.
‘Mum used to say all the time, whenever I got like this, that it’s a bad pint. That’s what does it. Ask anyone’.
‘It’s a euphemism’.
‘A new what?’
‘They should get Health and Safety to look into these breweries. All these bad pints. Oh, my head!’
He comes in and sits down in my armchair.
‘Ohhh, I think I’m going to be . .’.
I hold the waste paper bin under his nose.
‘It’s ok’, he says. ‘I’ve swallowed it’.
I look at him, sitting there. He’s wearing his t-shirt and shorts, the clothes that he wears when he’s in bed. At least he had time to change out of the clothes that he had been wearing. I look at him, with his features that look like the face of a teenager has been grafted on to the frame of a sixty year old.
‘Can you remember midnight?’ I ask.
‘The fireworks woke me up’.
‘You were asleep?’
‘Jeez. You’re such a party animal’.
‘But you had a good time, though?’
‘I can’t remember’.
I look out of the window. It was a mild, overcast afternoon. I can see people walking past to the park at the end of the street. I live in the ground floor flat directly beneath his. I knew that he was asleep because I couldn’t hear him moving around. I couldn’t hear his television, either.
‘Do you want something to eat?’
He puts his hand right over his eyes.
‘Never drinking again. Too many bad pints’.
His brother also lives in the same building. When the fireworks had started at midnight, his brother had gone outside and started up his car, and then he had just sat there for a bit, watching the fireworks from behind his windscreen. His rear brake lights had lit up my flat an otherworldly red as the new year came in. I must have gone back to sleep just after he had driven away.
‘I think maybe it might be a good idea for you to go off the booze for a little while’, I say to him.
‘I told you! It was a bad pint! And anyway, I’m doing the dry January thing. Not that I need it. Don’t you listen?’
‘I know, but you’re never serious about these things’.
‘Bucket’, he says.
I reach for the waste paper bin again.
His mother had thought we were lovers. I’ve never told him this, because I knew he’d go off on one. And when I’d told her that we weren’t, at the time that she was seriously ill and only a few days away from dying, she had told me that I should look after him. Make sure that he was okay. And I’d said, yes, I will. And that’s why I’d had been relieved, the night before at midnight, when I’d heard his brother get in the car at midnight.
‘I was thinking of going for a walk’, I say.
He clamps his hand right over his eyes, tightly.
‘Work, tomorrow’, I whisper.
‘I know’, he says. ‘Bad pint . . .’.
He gets up and shuffles towards the door.
‘Let me know if you need any food’, I tell him.
‘Yeah’, he says.
‘Yeah, you do, or yeah, you don’t?’
And then he’s gone, and it’s a happy new year, and the kids are going past on their bicycles and skateboards to the park at the end of the road, and the sun is already beginning to set, and his brothers car is still there where he’s parked if the night before, after he had brought him home.
When I heard that the great literary extremist Professor Zazzo Thiim was holding a symposium on the use of alliteration in Antarctic literature, I knew I just had to attend.
I knew that getting to the venue in the first place was in itself was a hard enough job; the convention was to be held in a remote hotel in the mountains which, in the middle of winter, would be cut off from the world by snow drifts, and sure enough, when the week of the convention came, the only way to get to the hotel was by walking the last two miles. As the darkness gathered around me, and large
fiakes of snow began to fll from the black, black sky, I gripped the handle of my suitcase and made my way up the track into the wilderness.
It must have taken a couple of hours to make the journey, and when I arrived at the hotel I was feeling irritable and uncharitable to say the least. My eyes were blinded by the motion of the snow as it had flown across my vision, and my fingers numbed from gripping the case for so long. The first thing I did was to dump my bags next to the reception desk and sit next to the roaring fire, in order that I may thaw my aching bones and curse my stupidity at having set out on such a journey in the first place. Yet only the one thought, of any substance, kept coming to me as I sat there in the orange glow: after all this effort, this had better be worth it.
I soon became aware that an old man was sitting next to me and, after a while, he asked if I was there to see Zazzo Thim.
“Yes”, I replied, “Though I am now beginning to wonder if I have made a mistake.”
The old man wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck and gave a chuckle. “I can assure you that the convention will be well-managed and adequately attended for my needs, for I, myself, happen to be Zazzo Thiim”.
“What makes you so sure that it will be so well-attended?” l asked. It was snowing heavily outside now, and the hotel did not seem to be bursting with guests.
“The subject in itself”, the old man said, smiling gleefully. “Who could fail but be enchanted by such a subject? Antarctic literature, let me remind you, is an expanding genre. I expect there shall be quite a rush tomorrow morning for seats”.
At this, he looked first left, and then right, and then whispered to me in a severe, confidential tone:
“It’s quite possible that some people might not be allowed in’.
At once l felt bad. How close l had been in deciding not to come, yet others might not have been so foolhardy. I knew that there would probably be a limited attendance as it was, yet Thiim was sure that there would be more. I felt a sinking sensation inside of me, the dejection he might feel on walking into the conference centre that next morning only to see myself sitting there.
“I can assure you”, I told the old man, “That we shall all be thoroughly enlightened”
I went to my room and changed for dinner. I decided that I would enjoy myself, and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, yet the restaurant was virtually empty, with the exception of a table on the far side of the room where Professor Zazzo Thiim slurped, quite noisily, his soup. Every now and then I would look over at him and feel a well of pity deep in my stomach, and I soon decided that something would have to be done. But what could I do? As the waiters kept moving past, as if gauging whether or not we had finished, a plan began to formulate in my mind that I could, somehow, interest other people in the subject of Antarctic literature and perhaps even bribe them into attending. But the plan seemed hopeless, even fanciful.
After dinner I went for a walk outside in the snow. The mountains loomed, black shapes and shadows in the night sky, while gentle flakes fell from above, illuminated by the lights from the hotel. A frost was setting in, and the ground crunched with each footstep. At last l came to one of the chalets, and I was just about to turn around and head back to the main building when the door opened and Zazzo Thiim himself emerged.
“Ah!”, he said. “It’s you! Come in, come in, we shall discuss literature!” Feeling awkward at this sudden invitation, I tried to formulate some reason why I might go back, when all the time I advanced towards his cabin. “What a brave, hardy soul”, he said, “To be out on a night like this!” He held the door open for me and I entered the chalet.
It was warm inside and a fire blazed in the hearth. He motioned that I sit down, and before long he was telling me about his interest in Antarctic literature.
“I have always been interested in a young writer of Norwegian descent, Petter Jansen, a writer of such talent and deftness of touch. He would describe the harsh winters of his homeland and the very essence of being in the snow, a subject I would find most glamorous in comparison to my lowly upbringing. As soon as I could I decided I would seek out Jansen and learn from him the craft of story-telling, of descriptive language and other literary ideals. Only, according to those who worked in the book industry, Jansen was working in the Antarctic, at a research station near the South Pole”.
“Armed only with protective clothing and a set of his works, I joined an expedition by ski-mobile in the middle of the Antarctic summer. The nights were cold and the days long, the sun never seemed to leave the sky, and all the time I was filled with so many questions, so much I wanted to ask. His characters, you see, were fragile beings, brittle, like flowers left too long in the frost, and I wanted to find out why he spent more time describing the weather than he did the emotions and sensibilities of his characters. There were other questions, too: why he
should have spent all his life in cold places, when surely he could have lived anywhere on the royalties from his volumes, and why he had given up writing fiction only to work as a research scientist in the South Pole.
“On the tenth day we reached the Norwegian research station and I was privileged enough to meet Jansen. He was not what l had expected; of course, in the years since he had been published he had become an old man, and he sported the most wondrous beard, which almost reached down to the middle of his chest. He had a gruff accent, a dismissive way of sharing information, and a healthy dislike of anyone, including myself. I followed him as he worked, and watched as he drilled holes in the ice, sank instruments down into packed snow, took readings on electronic devices. He was monosyllabic, non-committal, and despite
everything, I started to wonder if I should have been there at all.
But that night we went to his tent and he shared a bottle of vodka with me. ‘And now’, he said, ‘The real work begins’. Imagine my surprise when he produced from a wooden chest a large manuscript, several thousand pages long, and a pen, whose ink kept freezing and he had to warm by candle-light. ‘What is this?, I asked. He turned to me, wearily, his face lit by oi lamps and the candles, and he said: “This is the finest Antarctic novel ever written. Indeed’, he continued, This is the only Antarctic novel ever written’.
I watched, silently, as he wrote. And with what devotion! He forsook everything in the outside worid, every distraction, and bent his head over the manuscript, writing with a bare hand, the fingers gripped tightly around the nib. For two hours he wrote, diligently, painstakingly, until his alarm clock buzzed and, of a sudden, he put the pen down, gathered the pages, and placed them back in a wooden chest.
The next day followed the same routine: scientific work in the daytime, an evening of vodka, then writing by table light. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was there with him – indeed. he almost welcomed my company and the interest I showed in his writing. Finally it came time for me to leave, for my colleagues were due to start the hazardous journey back to the coast, and I decided I would revel in his company for the last time.
“When he began writing I tried to watch the words as they were formed, but he kept shying away from me, positioning his body in such a way that I could not read what he was writing, and when the alarm clock rang to signal the end of his writing shift, he placed the pen down, the manuscript in the box, and he said to me: “That’s it now. Scram. The experiment is over!’
‘How crestfallen I was! It was as if I had been stabbed in the back. I returned to my tent that night feeling hurt, abused, and with a general dissatisfaction not only with Petter Jansen, but with all writers everywhere. That night I could not sleep, and a fierce wind blew up, which rattle the tent and moaned across the barren lands. In the midst of this delirium one thought came and it would not go – that possibly I might sneak into Jansen’s tent and read the manuscript for myself.
‘Two hours later the idea still lived with a bizarre logic. I could take the strain no more, and, as the first rays of the sun began to peek over the continental mountains, I left my lodgings, walked across the snow, and let myself into Jansen’s tent. He slept well, and I had managed to let myself in without him hearing. With the wooden box right below me, I had no choice but to open it up and read the manuscript right then and there.
‘Oh, the power! “The Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose’ is a work the likes of which I shall never forget! The intense truth, the humanity on display, the concern for a world forever spoiled by man’s eternal folly! The language seemed to ooze like honey poured on from a spoon, and yet the prose was sparse, the words as economical as ice. The book was set in the future, or very slightly in the future, and Jansen himself was a character, a fortune teller who was never wrong. And the final scene, where the mad explorer wipes away a frozen tear to think of the harm his fellow man has done, almost reduced me to an insensitive and indiscriminate howl
of anguish. When I glanced up, I noticed that Jansen was staring right at me.
‘What treachery is this?’, he asked. ‘My private words, spoiled for all time! What is this but an invasion of the lowest order! How dare you spoil these most sacred pages!’
‘I had no choice’, I replied. ‘And in any case, such a wondrous work needs an audience. There is much here that might change the world. How selfish can you be if you keep this from those who need it the most? What I have just read is the most intelligent, the most poetic work ever created’.
‘You have ruined my work!’, Jansen continued. ‘You have ruined me! We had a trust, you and me, a friendship . . .’. .. And then he looked at me for a while. ‘Did you really think it was that good?’
“So we came to an arrangement, right then and there, that I would tell the world about his work, but only if I choose locations and places that would guarantee the audience would be small. And that’s why l’m here now, in the mountains, in the middle of winter, about to host a conference on alliteration in Antarctica Literature. I mean, what kind of sad person would possibly venture all the way out here for such a thing?’
I looked at the old man and smiled. Professor Zazzo Thiim then cleared his throat.
“Apart from you, that is”.
Alas, the conference did not work out exactly as he had planned. I had left messages and notes to most of the staff and the guests of the hotel that the old man needed support, that he would be crestfallen if the conference was overly attended, and that they should do everything within their powers to put off potential attendees, and yet, that next morning, when Professor Zazzo Thiim took to the stage, he was confronted by a hall completely filled with people.
“Well …”, he said, laughing feebly into the microphone, then wincing as the feedback screeched round the hall. He activated the overhead projector to show a picture of a penguin, which then hung on the wall behind him, solemn, ethereal.
“There is . .”, he stuttered, “There is, in the power and beauty of. . .Huh-huh”.
Pleadingly, he looked at me, as if asking that I should remember the reasons why he had decided to hold the conference at this particular hotel. So what else could I do?
While no-one else was looking, I leaned behind me and activated the fire alarms. Everyone got up from their seats and the hall was evacuated in seconds.
If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.
It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.
I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.
However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.
In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral. For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.
At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.
Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.
My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . . I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.
I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.
I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . . Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.
Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.
I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.
There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.
So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.
So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!
Looking back on my Edinburgh Fringe this year, I’m astounded at how little went wrong this time. It’s weird, but every one of my visits to Edinburgh can be recalled through what went disastrously wrong. For example, in 2015, I lost my passport during the flight up to Edinburgh, and I would need it again a month later for a trip to New York. In 2016, I arrived in Edinburgh but my luggage went to Honolulu, so I had to do the first two days with the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, and none of my props. In 2017, things actually went quite well but I’d accidentally booked not enough days at my accommodation and had to find two more nights to stay somewhere in the city. In 2019, my train only got as far as Preston and had to turn back because the line was flooded, and then when I arrived in Auld Reekie I discovered that my show wasn’t listed in the PBH brochure. (My fault, I should have checked). And then on the train home, someone stole my luggage!
So I suppose all of these were damn good learning experiences, and this year I had flights sorted, accommodation booked, I’d double checked the PBH brochures, I had my favourite venue, (Banshee Labyrinth), and I had a show without any props, so if something happened to my luggage, then the show could still go on.
There were other things I did differently this year which seemed to work. For a start, I listed the show in the main Fringe brochure under comedy rather than spoken word. This was the first time I’d done this, (mainly because I knew I had a show which had a fair amount of comedy in it, unlike 2015’s Static, or 2017’s In the Glare of the Neon Yak). And I think this did lead to a slightly higher number of audience members. The idea of this came from a little research I did where it transcribed that a lot of people who get the Fringe brochure only ever look at the sections which interest them. Theatre, for example, or comedy. My own interest is comedy, for example.
The other thing I did was to include my name in the show title. For a long time the show was called ‘Yay! The Search for Happiness’, but I decided that this sounded too much like a motivational speech, and the title itself hinted that it ought to come with some kind of trigger warning. I decided on ‘Robert Garnham, Yay!’, which I think really worked.
Another thing which was different this year was my whole attitude. In years past I’d take a show to Edinburgh and feel as if all of my eggs were in one basket. If this failed, then I was a failure too by extension. And also, it has to be admitted, I was never as sure as my shows in the past, never one hundred percent convinced that I was writing or performing to the maximum of my (possibly limited) abilities. This year, with a show which had no props or music to hide behind, I had made sure that I knew the show inside out. I’d been rehearsing the thing since early 2020 and I felt that I knew every nuance of it. As a result, I felt much more relaxed while talking to people about my show. If an audience came, well, then it came. If it didn’t, then at least I knew I’d done my maximum.
And also, I had my writing, now. I wasn’t just a comedy performance poet. By the time I got back to Edinburgh in 2022, several things had changed in my career. I was now a published writer, humorist, newspaper columnist as well as a comedy performance poet. This helped me to see what I was doing the context of someone who wasn’t putting all of his hopes and dreams into one show. If the show was a flop, (a show I;d given everything to), then at least I had short stories in magazines, and people reading my newspaper columns. All would not be lost!
This all helped me be incredibly more relaxed in Edinburgh. It’s only taken about ten years, but I felt I was negotiating the fringe with some degree of knowledge which I could fall back on. I even started to enjoy flyering.
Yes, you read that right. Traditionally, I hate flyering. Dyslexia manifests itself with me with an inability to speak to strangers or say things on the spur of the moment. I cannot improvise to save my life and a witty comeback is a three hour process. I find engaging with other human beings to be absolutely exhausting, yet this year, I had something I could describe very easily. ‘A search for happiness on the high seas. Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!’ My eye-catching flyers helped tremendously, too.
And finally, I decided that this would all be an adventure. If it all went tits up, then it would be something to write about. After the last two years where nothing much happened, it really did feel like the most daring thing in the world to go to another city, another country, and bring a show with me. I knew that in the dark days of winter, I’d sit back and ponder on the people I met, the places I went, the lovely audiences I had.
Will I be back next year? In all likelihood, yes. And here are my highlights:
1. The young Scottish couple who came to my show and chatted afterwards about seaside towns. I’d pulled them in to the show at the last minute and worried that they wouldn’t like it. They did, and they bought a book. They told me the name of the Scottish town where they lived. I had to ask three times because I didn’t understand the answer. Abercernichnie? Aberlakichnee?
2. The lady who came to my show and flung her arms around me at the end, and then, much to my surprise, so did her husband!
3. The man who said that my show should be on Radio Four. But it was noisy in the bar and I thought he’d said he was from Radio Four and I got unnecessarily excited!
4. Gecko came to my first show and seemed to really like it, he laughed at all the funny bits and this helped the rest of the audience laugh too.
5. Ditto Alexander Woody Woodward, who it was a thrill to meet in the flesh.
6. The fight which took place during my penultimate show in the audience. Yes, you read that correctly. An audience member took exception to the noise coming from the bar of the Banshee. She went and told them to be quiet, in a very feisty manner. Next thing I know, she was laying into them! I had a great audience that night and it seemed to bind us all together as a shared adventure.
7. The wonderful audience I had at the last show, which included my good friend Elizabeth McGeown and also my regular ‘Robheads’ from Leith, who brought me a lovely present to open on the way home.
8. The tourist who took a selfie with me, and then another tourist who asked for my autograph, I suppose, just assuming that I was famous because I had a show!
9. The taster session I did at St Andrew’s Square during which I had a very big audience, a lot of whom were filming me on their mobile phones.
10. Selling loads of books!
11. Getting home that night and thinking, oh my god, was there really a fight tonight?!
I suppose I've always been a little bit clumsy. Affecting a demeanour each day of professional detachment, a manner almost sullen were it not for those moments in which human discourse were necessary, affecting an amiability, an openness, an expression of eager understanding and a willingness to compromise, only to have my belt suffer a sudden and catastrophic malfunction and my trousers fall around my ankles. A hand outstretched for a businesslike greeting, a shoe accidentally scraped against the skirting board, a sudden lurch sideways into a pot plant. Oh, I do apologise! And then later on, noticing the skirting boards around my office marked and scuffed by the numerous other times that I have stumbled. Hey, hey, your flies are undone. Again. And due to my body shape, I concede that my trousers have always been a little bit baggy.
The trill of the alarm clock had interrupted a dream in which I was trying to get a giraffe to go up the stairs of a double decker bus. The giraffe had been stubborn and no amount of tugging or enticing could tempt it up to the first floor, and once underway, it got wedged firmly, its fat buttocks blocking the stairwell, much to the consternation of my fellow passengers. It's the usual recurring anxiety dream. The long neck of the giraffe allowed it to peer up to the top deck, grinning like a bastard, while I pushed and shoved and swore from behind. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! I got up, showered, shaved, made some toast and pondered in the coming day, only to glance at my watch and discover that it was four in the morning. And then I recalled that the trill of the alarm clock had been a part of the dream. For the giraffe and I had been returning from a trip to the shops where we had purchased an alarm clock. I set to work at my desk, organising various work-related files on my laptop and trying not to think about my giraffe dream. I watched as the sun came up and lit the neighbouring houses a brilliant red, secretly resplendent as it rewarding me and others like me for getting up so early. I stopped for a few moments to look out at the sky, feeling if only for a short while the majesty of the planet in its eternal rotation, this celestial dance of time and fate, when the alarm clock sounded, this time for real. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! Had anyone been with me, no doubt, I would have at least given a smirk or acknowledgement of the humour in this, but as I was on my own, the only emotion I felt was one of deep annoyance. I got up from my desk and I switched the alarm clock off. The only comfort came from the fact that the new trousers I was wearing were significantly roomier than had been my previous pair.
I was never The class clown. When I think of this It gets me down. The popular kids Would mess around. But me? I wouldn't Make a sound.
I had a meeting with my boss today. I've written down everything that was said and I've made it into a short theatrical piece, which I call 'Bulbous'.
SANDRA stares at ROBERT from behind her desk.
SANDRA - I suppose you know why I've asked you here. ROBERT - To be honest, no, I don't. SANDRA - I've had an official complaint from one of your colleagues. ROBERT - Oh? SANDRA - It's about the meeting you chaired yesterday, on Effective Time Management. ROBERT - Yes, yes, I'm so sorry that it overran. SANDRA - No, it's not that. ROBERT - What . . what is it? SANDRA - (Sighs). Robert, is everything okay at home? ROBERT - Yes, absolutely. SANDRA - And you're not drinking heavily, or anything? ROBERT - No. In fact, I hardly drink at all. SANDRA - The complaint was actually about your appearance. Did you realise that your flies were undone the whole time? ROBERT - No, I didn't. SANDRA - So the message of the meeting, in which you were meant to instil in your colleagues a certain business-oriented professionalism, would probably have been received unquestioningly had you not got your foot stuck in the waste paper bin. ROBERT - Yes, that was rather unfortunate. SANDRA - And when you tried to pull it off, you sat on a desk, and the desk . . . Collapsed. ROBERT - Again, I apologise. SANDRA - And your nose. You see, Robert, it's becoming awfully red, and bulbous. That's why I asked about the drinking. ROBERT - As I say, I can only apologise. And I shall make an effort to act from now on in a more businesslike manner. SANDRA - Thank you, Robert. Please, for me, see that you do.
ROBERT gets up from his chair, shakes SANDRA's hand, then stumbles sideways through a glass partition wall.
Walking home through the silence of the park, I could hear a soft squeak, squeak, squeak with each footstep.
‘I've just had it with clowns’, Josh said. ‘I need a man I can respect’. We'd met online and he suggested we have a date at that new cream flan and custard pie restaurant that had just opened in the middle of the town. It seemed the sort of place where nothing could go wrong. The seating was comfortable and so was the decor, warm and inviting. We sat at a table for two at the rear of the premises. ‘That is very important to me’, Josh continued. ‘Love, yes. Love is up there. And physicality, of course, but respect. Respect is the most important of them all. It seems to me these days that everyone is a comedian, so you get that sense, too? Where's the depth? It's all artifice, isn't it? It's like we've become avatars, covered in layers of glitz and showy nothingness’. ‘You can depend on me’, I told him. ‘I treat each moment with absolute and utter seriousness’. ‘I just don't know why people feel the need to fool around’, he said, ‘in every sense of the word’. ‘I think people just want to be noticed ’, I reply. ‘That's what's happening in this modern age. We all seem to want to get a kick out of making other people uneasy. The nuance of yesteryear is gone. Subtlety is missing from all of our lives. I blame the internet and social media. People can't even be bothered to wait for the punch line, any more. They want immediate gratification, whether it be sexual or comedic’. ‘I can tell’, Josh said, ‘That you are a thinker’. ‘I try to be’. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I could see the small candle on the table between us reflected in his eyes. ‘Do you ever feel tempted’, he asked. ‘To become like all the other men? I mean, brash, and obvious, and only in it just for a laugh?’ ‘No’, I replied. ‘I try to play the long game. Strip away the surface and this world that we live in is a very serious place. And how else might one approach the act of living itself, but through the contemplation of philosophical and existentialist inquiry? In such a way, I forsake the easy option and the expediency of a cheap laugh in order to probe the searing heaviness of our own manifestation’. ‘You know what?’, Josh said, ‘I think I've finally met a man who I can respect’. At that moment the cream flan and custard pie conveyor belt around the serving desk suffered a sudden malfunction, sped up, and propelled its load, one after another, at such an angle and velocity across the room as to connect squarely with my own face, one after another in a perfect rhythm to the accompanying laughter from all the other customers. By the time the eleventh and last cream pie had been delivered with a forceful splat, and I was scooping the filling out from my eyes, Josh had long since gone.
I never realised before how small my bicycle was until I glanced sideways at my reflection in a shop window, my knees out at a crazy angle, dwarfed by the buses, the cars, the lorries.
b. I never realised quite how tatty my old jacket had become, so tatty that I tried to draw attention away from its tastiness by putting a plastic yellow flower in the lapel.
c. And I shouldn't have gone swimming and then dyed my hair. The hair dye had a chemical reaction with the chlorine from the pool and turned my hair bright green. Still, what can you do?
d. And as I filled in the official documentation online to tell my work colleagues my preferred name and pronouns, my computer’s predictive spelling changed my name from Robert to Parsnip.
e. Sandra, my boss, has for some reason pulled me from delivering a seminar on Modern Business Etiquette.
With the power of his intellect and his encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary stand-up comedy, my school friend Hasan could reduce the entire class into fits of laughter. And the laughter would drive him on, and he'd say something else that was funny, and the class would laugh some more. But Hasan was canny, he'd leave his best material for the end of the sequence, leading us up blind alleyways of silliness before delivering his punchline. Boom. As a result, this rather nerdy individual became one of the most popular people in school and I must admit to feeling rather jealous of his command of a room. My teachers would always tell my parents at parents evening that I was always serious, unsmiling, intense. They said that I wouldn't join in with the other kids, and would bury myself in my work. Perhaps they were worried that something would give, that I'd snap one day and have some sort of life-changing episode, go beserk and tell the other kids exactly what I thought of them. Humourless, is the exact word that was used on more than one occasion. But I carried on in much the same manner and took my exams. I left school with average marks. Hasan became a marketing executive for a company that manufactures airline meals.
To be mocked, and come out fighting with humour, is never a position in which I have ever found myself. Steady as she goes has always been my motto. I have rarely left myself open to ridicule by using the simple tactic of blending in to the background. And during those moments in which I have found myself in the limelight, I have adopted the simple strategy of being as intense and as dry as I possibly could. ‘You're too intense’, Steven had said to me, on what was to be the last night we'd spent together. ‘Just because I don't go down the street, laughing hysterically . . .’. ‘It's not that. It's more your tendency to over analyse everything. We can't even watch television comedies because you point out that certain things would never actually happen’. ‘All I was pointing out was that in real life, Tom would simply catch and eat Jerry . . ‘. ‘You see! You're too much of a realist. In all the time that we have been together, I never once heard you laugh. It's all buttoned up inside of you, isn't it? That's where you keep it. It has to be somewhere’. ‘Life itself is the ultimate ridicule’, I pointed out. ‘What does that even mean?’ The two of us are silent for a while. ‘I'd just like to find’, I tell him, ‘A well adjusted and content tarot card reader’. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ‘A happy medium’. Steven thinks about it for a few seconds. ‘OK. So admittedly, that was quite amusing. But it's too late, Robert. I'm sorry, but it's too late’. Steven bent down and picked up his suitcase, walked through the door, and slammed it shut behind him. The oil painting of a clown on the wall above the sofa wobbled for a bit, then fell off and landed right on top of me, my head tearing through the canvas, the frame of the picture now hanging around my neck.
Emerging from the supermarket on the corner, the busy street glistening with a damp drizzle which fell from the overcast sky, smudged neon into the road surface. I stood there in my jacket, my loose fitting trousers, my green hair, my Parsnip name badge, my squeaky shoes, my lapel flower. I decided that I would give up on trying to understand the world, and how good it felt! I didn't need Steven or Josh or even Sandra, I didn't need any of them. Life is filled with organisms and mechanisms too complex ever to make sense of, A small, battered car screeched to a halt right next to me and a gentleman in baggy, multicoloured clothing jumped out. Then another, then one more, then two more, then six of them, seven, twelve in all, until I was surrounded, and without saying anything I understood that there was a home for me. It didn't even need analysing. Life just becomes obvious, sometimes.
I am the captain of this good ship.
Seafaring is in my soul.
I spend my time in that bit at the front,
You know, at the top,
With the big windows,
What’s it called?
Where I steer it from.
I’m a very merry mariner
A merry mariner me.
I’m a very merry mariner
On a millpond mirror sea.
I’m the captain don’t you see
You can pipe me aboard any time.
Weeee-weeee, captain on bridge!
(Oh, that’s what it’s called,
My crew noticed my tattoo,
They always point it out.
Whenever I pass near them,
‘Anchor’, is what they shout.
‘Such an anchor’.
‘Here comes the anchor’.
‘Oh my god it’s the anchor’.
Is of an anchor.
Seventy five percent of my office
Have been taken over by cargo.
I suppose that’s why they call them
Next door is a room where I planted
Gorse, heather and wild grass
And let some sheep graze.
‘Why did you do that?’, my deputy asked.
I said, ‘It’s the staff common room’.
But I like being the captain
It’s the job I’ve always wanted to do.
They sent me to navel college.
I think it was the wrong one.
I know nothing about driving a ship
But I have an encyclopedic knowledge
Of belly buttons.
I run my fingers on the hull
And listen to the soft whispering of the ship.
‘Capital cities’, she says,
‘London, Paris, Rome,
Canberra, Delhi, Beijing’.
‘Oh my god’, my deputy said,
‘I think the ship is listing’.
I found a subordinate the other day
Piling plastic bottles on the deck,
Plastic bottles of French, Dijon, English,
Colmans and other brands
Of hot yellow sauce.
‘No, you idiot!’, I yelled,
‘I told you to make a
But I’m the captain,
Whatever happens, I’m the captain,
I’m the tip top nautical fella on this
rusty ship with its big brass propeller,
I’m the order barker,
I’m the port-side parker,
I’m the first mate berater
I’m the seaman inspiration
I’m the radar operator
If we sink I’ll see ya later
I’m the ship steering quip-sneering
Anchor-dropping boat flip fearing
Keep myself in uniform so
Never wear an earring
I’m the poop deck slipper
I’m the mid storm kipper
I’m the radar flashing blipper
I’m in charge cos I’m the skipper
I’m the captain
I’m the captain
I’m the captain
Don’t you knowwwwwwwww.
The other day we found
Water in the cargo hold.
‘Do you think we’ll sink?’
‘Maybe not’, I replied.
‘Capsize?’, they asked.
‘Extra large’, 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!
I got your poem right here, pal.
(A poem for New York)
The big pancake. The big muffin.
The big nausea. The big nothing.
The big fella. The smeller. The concrete devotional.
The cosmopolitan. The prostrate giant. Subway riders need sopial.
The metropolitan. The big breakfast.
The all-day lunch. You want fries with that?
The concrete funnel. The distorted mirror.
The seismic cherry. The licence to chill.
Everyone’s a comedian. The bright-lit scene.
The sidewalk dancers. The drama queens.
The big dodecahedron. The bastard. Tourists like sheep.
The bad boy. The stud. The lack of sleep.
Cavernous potholes so deep you’ll lose
Yourself for a week.
The big dependable. The three-way delicious.
The exuberant berry. The hungry papa.
The pumping beehive. The world’s biggest smurf.
The big glacial. The whole lotta crazy.
The big security. The big dependable.
The cuppa cappuccino. The big slice.
The clinging fire escapes. The big nice.
The big honker. The big foot long.
The oblong pretend. The same old song.
The big electric. Streets paved with bold.
The big eccentric. Do you what are told.
The rent controlled. The backstreet rats.
The big flapper. The cool cool cats.
The big big portion. The big punk.
The big leather. The big hunk.
Steam vent Charlie. The philosophic drunk.
The midnight caller. The big hallelujah.
The big quiche. The big what’s it to ya?
Shop awnings so coated in pigeon crap
It’s a wonder they don’t become fossilised.
The big apple. The big skyline.
The big apple. The big steaming.
The big apple. The big bouncy.
The big apple. The starstruck badger.
The big apple. The big deli counter queue.
The big apple. The human zoo.
The big apple. The big gold bit.
The big apple. Takes a bite of you
Before you can bite it.
The big apple. The big heat.
Sideswiped by a cyclist. My life is now complete.