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.