An elegy for Woking

I had a great time last night appearing in Woking at the Light Box. It’s the first time that I’ve performed there and the audience was amazingly attentive and receptive. Which is to say that they all laughed in the right places.

Woking has long been one of my favourite towns, not least because it is the headquarters of the McLaren formula one team. But also because my sister lives here. When people go on holiday to all these exotic places, invariably, I go to Woking.

Woking has taken a lot of stick over the years because there’s nothing there except for shops and coffee shops. This kind of overlooks the fact that it has some very fine shops and some very fine coffee shops. Often I go wandering among the shops and the coffee shops, eulogising the wonderful choice and array of shops and coffee shops.

It also has a very good library. The library is air conditioned, and when I’m up there in the summer, and the Surrey heat flows in from the surrounding forests, I sit in the library and write. This in itself is nothing special, except that my friend and poetry colleague Ian Beech used to work at Woking Library. Indeed, the coincidence deepens because Beechy used to play cricket for the pub where I stay whenever I’m in town.

It’s solidly commuter belt, Woking. The audience at the gig was the least diverse I’ve ever seen. Once everyone commutes off to London in the morning, the place gets a little sleepy, which means there’s plenty of time to look around the shops and the coffee shops. And the forests, which are not so far away, the deep dark woods where HG Wells set War of the Worlds. Woking is the only place I know where the statue in the town centre is of an alien.

And there’s another reason why I like Woking so much. About ten years ago, I happened to see Paul Weller on his moped, which was decorated with images from his album covers. And he almost ran me over, because I was standing there kind of gawping. You see, Woking really is the city of dreams.

So that’s why I enjoyed performing there so much the other night. It really is one of my favourite places!

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Elvis Impersonator, Newton Abbot Station

A couple of weeks ago I was at Newton Abbot doing a bit of train-surfing. Train-surfing, I hear you ask. What’s he going on about? Train-surfing is a method I use so that I don’t have to get the local service all the way from Exeter to Paignton. It’s usually full of drunks and ne’erdowells and it clatters along like a bouncy castle and it’s really most uncomfortable. So if I get in it at Exeter Central, then I get off it at Exeter St David’s and catch the fast service as far as Newton Abbot.
That’s Train-surfing.
So I was at Newton Abbot the other day having train surfed from Exeter, and the local service to Paignton was just about to arrive, I was getting ready for it to pull in. When an Elvis impersonator shambled along the platform. And he was drunk.
‘Excuse me’, quoth he, ‘Do you like Elvis?’
Now I know this is sort of like seeing a vicar or a priest and the first thing them saying is ‘Do you like Jesus?’ But it actually happened. That’s the first thing that he asked.
‘He’s okay’, I replied.
‘Them people’, he said, pointing in a kind of drunk way to the town of Newton Abbot in general, ‘keep laughing at me’.
The man is dressed as Elvis.
‘How come?’
‘They only care that Elvis died on the toilet. I keep telling them that there’s more than that. He made great music. But all they care about was that he died on the toilet’.
‘He died on the toilet?’
‘Yeah. And they’re laughing at me because of it’.
I’ve never really liked Elvis, but I didn’t want to tell him this. I appreciate that he had a good voice and some good songs, but I’ve never really seen him as one of my favourite singers.
‘Do you like Elvis?’ He asked.
‘He was ok. But for me, the best singer of that period was Roy Orbison’.
Now, I’ve told this story to a friend of mine and she said that this is the moment when the whole encounter could have gone tits up. He could have reacted badly. But instead he said,
‘I love Roy Orbison! He was the best! Well, apart from Elvis, that is’.
By now the train was coming in and I decided that I didn’t want to be stuck with a drunk Elvis impersonator for the rest of the journey, so I decided on a cunning plan. I would let him get on and then run down to the next carriage.
‘Here’s your train’ I said to him.
‘You are’, he said, ‘a good bloke’.
And then he started that drunk persons thing that drunk men do when they have to shake your hand. Except he did it about three times.
‘A good bloke. And I’ve really enjoyed talking. Such a good bloke. If I ever see you in the pub I will buy you a pint. So good to meet you. Yeah. Roy Orbison. So good to meet a good person’. He said all this while shaking my hand.
At this point I realised that if I didn’t get on the train I’d miss it altogether. ‘You’d better get on’, I said, looking at the guard.
And as I watched him stumble on board, I managed to time it to perfection, running down to the next carriage and jumping on just as the guard blew his whistle.
I spent the rest of the journey hiding in the next carriage, squeezed up against the wall hoping that the Elvis impersonator didn’t see me.
As my friend Anne says, I seem to attract these sorts of people.

On receiving compliments .

Do you know what I’m really rubbish at? Compliments. I don’t mean giving them out. I’m free and easy with my complements and if I think something is brilliant, then I say it. What I’m pants about is receiving compliments.
It happens, every now and then. But lately people have been reading my book, and even better, buying it. And they’ve been ever so nice about it and told me so. And I’ve done that thing that people do, you know, automatically apologising and saying that it could be better, or some other attempt at humour.
So a friend took me aside a couple of weeks ago and told me that I need to work on this. This whole receiving complements business. Lord knows, it doesn’t happen often over the course of a lifetime.
Smile, they said. Smile and say thank you.
I mentioned this to another friend and he suggested I just put my thumbs up in recognition. To be honest I might not do this.
Another friends says, well, that’s all very well and good, but how are you at taking criticism? You must, they said, ominously, be prepared for that if you’re having a career in performance and doing things in front of the general public.
They’ve got a point.
The other day I received a couple of compliments about my performance style. I was very glad about this because this is the area I’ve been concentrating most on lately. I’ve even gone so far as to get advice from a theatre director, who has been watching me rehearse and gives me fantastic advice about movement and emphasis and all that sort of thing.
I didn’t go to drama school and I never even took drama during GCSEs. I acted in one play in 2009, but that’s as far as it goes when it comes to performance skills before I started all this poetry malarkey.
So I had to watch endless videos and YouTube clips and read all about the finer points of performance, and of course, I had to practise a lot, both on stage and in my room.
The compliments I received were:
1 – You never move your feet when you perform.

2 – I love the way you have perfected that tone of voice as if you’re ever so slightly nervous.

Now, the first thing there, the moving feet thing. I’m glad about that. My director Ziggy told me that this was most important and during rehearsals he’d shout, ‘Feet!’ if I started to move. So I’m glad that someone noticed.
But the second thing . . .
I always felt I sound confident and that this is an important aspect of my performance. And feeling confident makes me feel good about what I’m doing. But the person who said this was the mother of a fellow performer, and someone that I respect a lot.
So then I started thinking, well, maybe perhaps that’s my voice. Maybe that’s a trademark of my style which I’ve never noticed before. Maybe I should build on this.
So I started trying to sound a little nervous on purpose, but that just made me feel nervous. And then I’d get nervous about not sounding nervous enough. So I’d try to overcompensate by sounding confident but then I’d get nervous about not sounding confident enough. And that made me feel nervous, so I’d over compensate again. And now I have no idea where I am.
I’ve decided not to think about it. I’ve decided just to carry on where I am and the apparent nervousness (which I’ve never recognised) may come out during performance, or then again, maybe it won’t.
The last thing I need to do is write a blog post about it.
You see, I think I sound confident. And that’s good enough for me. I’ve decided not to worry about these sorts of things!
  

Steadfast

Imagine a prison

Impossible to break from

Yet without physical form.

Invisible walls

Built not of brick but of pain,

Notions, expectations,

Life ruined by the abstract.
There are others of your kind

Unseen in their struggle.

But the very nature of your

Sublime imprisonment

Blinds you to them.

Rather than fight, they pine,

Or else ignore the obvious,

Face sweating behind bitter masks.
Those who are fortunate

Fill you with anger.

Their love is nought but luck,

And now they love their luck,

And how lucky their love.

Another head of sweat rolls

Beneath your jaded caricature.

They’re so immature.
You dance in your mind.

Rhythms so sensual

Pounding party silly rhythms

Inexplicable sun shining smiling

Fresh faced rhythms incomprehensible

That fact should swamp denial,

Go on dance close your eyes and

Dance and let yourself go in a

Way that shouldn’t be disco lights

Flashing almost unbelievably as you

Submit to the bounty of freedom

Sugar flip heart pump running

Fingers across the forbidden and

Not one ounce of tired regret

Just don’t. Open. Your. Eyes.
Steadfast in your culture.

Grey tomb of the senses.

Flesh unblemished by whip crack.

Absolute devotion to the ether.

Shouting loudest from the opposite shore.

Anger seething in the night.

You’ve got to do what’s right.

You’ve got to do what’s right.

You’ve got to do what’s right.
Imagine a prison

Impossible to break from.

Not one, but many

Millions, everywhere,

And in some places more than others,

From which

Only the lucky few have ever escaped.

Six poems inspired by tea towels.

One of he weirdest projects I had last year was to write thirty one poems about tea towels. Here are six of them, all inspired by the pictures on my mothers tea towels. Hope you like them.

Poem

1. How would you describe the behaviour of cows?

Cows line astern 

Grass munchers in a row

Like forensic detectives

At the scene of a crime. 

2. Are you familiar with bovine behaviour? Y/N

N

3. Describe the types of cow that you saw.

Fresians black and white

Flanked by invisible maps.

Half of an hour hyped up.

Are they black cows with white splodges

Or white cows with black splodges?

4. Have you ever been caught under the silvery moon suddenly transfixed by the inate beauty of cows and the way that they seem to reflect the celestial moonglow as if lunar objects themselves?

N

WTF?

5. Were you aware of this before the incident?

I had a crush.

6. Explain in a single haiku the beauty of the cows you saw.

There once was a field of cows

Upon which I would browse

By the side of the gate

And other places on the farm

Often in shady areas but sometimes in the full glare of the sun. 

7. That’s not a haiku.

Oh

8. Eulogise a cow for me.

Daisy

I know this rhyme is lazy

And people may think me crazy,

Daisy

But in this rhyme I praise thee.

Says me.

Daisy

You are amazy.

9. Tell a cow joke.

In what way is a cow like my parents bungalow?

10. I don’t know.

They’re both fresian.

11. Do you have anything else to add?

I have no beef with you.

12. So I herd.
Poem
The quivering chrysanthemums

Which, in their stately manifest, 

Seem to shield all harm from life,

Colouring the inevitable with an

Affected glee multiplied by the

Verdant nature of their bloom,

Would justly fill my jaded heart with

Inordinate bliss, but until such a time

That I may bask in their chrysanthemummy goodness, I must

Temporarily satisfy my whims with

Hydrangeas and the occasional

Rhododendron.
Poem

On the fifth night we argued.

Lightning illuminated my lonely garret,

Flickering omens of someone else’s storm,

Grouching and crackling the radio with static

As I tried to find French soap operas,

Lazy drops falling from an overcast night sky,

Stained brown by sodium lights,

Rolling ever so sadly down sash window panes.

You fumed.

I stare out the window at a jumble

Of slate tile rooftops sheening in the rain.

Momentary sheet lightning illuminates

Jagged architecture, chimneys, television aerials,

Your sour face.

There is no such thing as perfection, you said,

In your defense admittedly,

Having skewered my heart with mild

Grumbling a which seemed to match the

Rumbling thunder.

Having supplied a list of all

The things in which I fail.

And now you say, there is no such thing

As perfection.

Yet I read your blog, in which, in

Glowing terms, you eulogized and praised

And refused to criticize the herbaceous borders

At Polesden Lacey.
Poem

He set up a library in which people borrowed not books

But tea towels.

And they were classified dutifully under the

Dewey decimal system

According to their subject.

People said he was mad.

The two most popular sections

Were Travel, and Cats.

The Travel tea towels arranged on shelves

According to country, region, town, city,

Municipal districts, culture,

The cats tea towels

Were all kind of clumped together

Although some attempt had been made

Discriminating long hair and short hair.

Plain tea towels were measured

As to their viscosity and were

Stored in their sections,

Friction and non friction.

On most days he would appear

From his office in a 1920s showman’s outfit

Complete with top hat, jacket and bandsman’s trousers,

All made out of tea towels,

And he would dance along the aisles

As if caught up with the absolute romance of

So many tea towels.

People said he was weird.

The humour section was off limits to kids.

One of the tea towels was a bit saucy.

Some people don’t wash them properly.
Poem

An early morning sun

Sets afire the desert land.

An opal mine shimmers on a heat haze.

Nothing but sand

And the dull empty crack of life,

Existence as grand.

In a tin shack bar sits Jack,

Fresh from the dust, weary from a

Fortnight’s driving, weary, he caresses

A cool early morning beer.

How many sheep will he have to sheer

Until his dreams come true?

Yesterday, he dreamed of rodeos.

This morning, the outback sky was split

By a lone vapor trail, at the head of which,

An aircraft reflected the morning rays

Heading south to cooler climes.

We live in fantastic times.

Seven AM, already thirty degrees.

He ponders on unseen passengers,

Heading to their cool bars, their

Cool night clubs, their cool trendy flats,

With their cool friends, their cool husbands

And their cool wives, watching the latest cool

Films and reading the latest cool novels,

How cool it must be to be so cool,

Oh, right now how he wishes he were cool!

He traces his forefinger on the frosted glass

And ponders on appetites, fashions,

A suburban existence,

And the thought that a landscape so vast

Could easily suffocate a weaker soul.

The tin shack radio blares through static

Seventies rock opera, and in the distance

He can hear the chug chug from the opal mine

And the bleating of sheep.
Poem

You said you loved me

And you’d get a tattoo of my face to prove it.

Only when I peeled back your sleeve

Expecting to see my own youthful twenty-something visage

Emblazoned in ink on your upper arm

I saw instead a depiction of

The secret lost garden of Heligan.

I was most indignant.

You said you’d had a sudden change of heart

I pointed out that the

Secret lost garden of Heligan

Was neither secret nor lost

Because they’ve got a website

And a Facebook page

And a Twitter account

And several published coffee table style books.

You said that tattoos are permanent

And the nature of gardens in all their seasonal

Glory are but momentary depending on the whims

Of the climatic variables which make up this

Fine isle, they never look the same

One day from the next

And I said, neither do I.

I began to have my suspicions

That something was amiss

When I saw a little old lady at

The garden centre coffee shop

Who had a tattoo

Which was a very fine outline of my own

Facial features 

And I said to Dean,

Was there a mix up at the tattoo parlour?

Yes, he said, there had been

A hideous mistake

But the old lady thought that her new tattoo

Was of snooker player John Parrot

So she was quite happy.

(His name was Dean,

I should have mentioned that

Earlier in the poem).