How the song ‘Manhattan’ is actually about Paignton, Devon. True story!

Story Behind the Song

The most cursory glance at Wikipedia or Google will not reveal the full story behind the song ‘Manhattan’, written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1925 and sung by, among others, Ella Fitzgerald and Lee Wiley. Originally intended for the revue ‘Golden Gaieties’, the song has grown to become a signature not only of Fitzgerald’ career, but also an evocative glimpse of 1920s New York society. However, the truth behind its composition is strange enough to be a subject for a comedy itself, and it is this that I shall concentrate on in this essay.
          The story of the lyricist Lorenz ‘Larry’ Hart – (for it is the lyrics of the song that I shall be concentrating on) – in its sadness, is a direct contrast to the sensitivity and humour of which his work is most remembered. Throughout his life he struggled with alcoholism and also the emotional turmoil of his homosexuality which, at the time, was not a socially accepted mode of living. At the same time he was enormously successful as a lyricist – his partnership with Richard Rogers – who wrote the music – resulted in such songs as Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and, of course, Manhattan. That such a talented man should die relatively young and alone of pneumonia at the age of 48 is, of course, tragic for one who brought such joy to the casual listener.

          It is only recently that the full story of ‘Manhattan’ has come to light. As in most cases of art, the simple and timeless lyrics were the product of much editing before a definitive version was arrived at. It is in this process that the most surprising discovery has, of late, been made – ‘Manhattan’ was originally intended not to be about Manhattan at all. A first draft, discovered by historians of popular song, corresponds with the time that the lyricist spent at the English seaside resort of Paignton where, incognito, he was able to recuperate in a harbour side boarding house and recharge his creative batteries.

          Paignton must have seemed a thousand miles from 1920s New York. Indeed, it is odd to think that a lyricist used to the lights of Broadway, Seventh Avenue and Times Square should be immersed in a location in which the only comparable sight was the splendour of the Torbay Road or the lights of the pedestrian crossing at the bottom of Victoria Street. But Hart was industrious during his stay in Paignton. His landlady at the Haddock’s Halt Guest House recalls visitors to his room, local theatrical types with whom he collaborated on such shows as the Fish Gutter’s Lament and the ever-popular I Am The Wife of the Crazy Golf Man. How sad it is that such scripts are forever lost, and that Larry Hart should have used the pseudonym Maud Jenkins on all such promotional material.

          It is not know whether Hart partook of such local delicacies as fish ‘n’ chips or candy floss during his stay in Paignton. As an advocate of inner rhyming in his work, it is certain that, even if he were not aware of their taste, he would almost certainly have attempted to rhyme them. If one were to look at the work he produced on his return to the Big Apple, one will find evidence of Paignton’s memory buried, as if a code, in such songs as ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’ or ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. ‘My heart is sings like a crazed midships man / My eyes they sting as if hit by a fish ‘n’ chips pan’, or , ‘You’re woozy over wine, you feint over beer / You stole my heart on Paignton Pier’.

         It is interesting, of course, to speculate on the adventures of Larry Hart during his stay in Paignton. An intensely private man, he was not prone to mix well with other people – however, local historians have placed him at many a local party in the Paignton area and there are reports of him joining Agatha Christie, Gilbert and Sullivan, the D’Oyly Cartes, Albert Einstein and others at a wild party just outside of town, dancing the Charleston into the small hours and consuming vast amounts of chicken tikka misala. Such local tales, of course, have to be treated with the utmost caution, though one would find such to be historically accurate with the exception of the chicken tikka masala. It would almost have certainly have been a light korma.

          Hart’s stay in Paignton must have been recuperative. He regularly attended the local writers circle, or so it is thought, though he left once halfway through a workshop because he could think of nothing to rhyme with ‘Dartmouth Steam Railway’. His biographers explain that he had seen magic in the area, in the sun rising above the pier, in the calm waters of the harbour, the bingo halls, the bins out the back of Tesco’s. After a while, the lure of New York must have seemed like the hint of a timeless other world : who needed the subway when it was just as easy to ride the Number 12 to Newton Abbott? What was the point of the Empire State Building when Paignton had its Woolworth’s? Who needed the Big Apple when Paignton was his very own small, shrivelled prune? Perhaps it is in such a form of mind that Hart sat down one midsummer’s night in the Haddock’s Halt and, ignoring the sound of skateboarders in the street below, wrote the first draft of the song that would later become ‘Manhattan’.

          And here it is in all its raw poetry. One has to remember that the final wording was not yet decided on, but I think you will recognise, underneath, the song we all know and love today :
Summer journeys to South Devon

and to other places aggravate all our cares

We’ll save our dayrider tickets
I’ve a little bedsit in

what is known as old Torbay Road

We’ll settle down

Right here in town.
We’ll have Paignton beach

Foxhole and Goodrington too.

It’s lovely going through

Hellevoetslus Way!
It’s very cool and neat

on Victoria Street you know.

The number 12 bus charms us so

When cool sea breezes blow

As far as the co-op.
And tell me what street

compares with Winner Street

In July?

Sweets and crisp packets gently gliding

by.
The great big town is a wondrous toy

Just made for a pensioner

We’ll turn Paignton beach

Into a doctor’s waiting room.
We’ll go to Hookhills

Where they all look ill

In the wind

And starve together dear in KFC
We’ll go to Broadsands

and eat a pasty or a roll

In Victoria Park we’ll stroll

Where our first wallet we stole

and we were mugged
And EastEnders

Is a terrific soap they say

We both may see Dot killed off

some day.

Paignton’s glamour may never spoil

The dreams of a pensioner

We’ll turn Paignton beach

Into a day-care centre.

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A good gig!

I had a good gig on Wednesday night. In fact it was as good as it gets, because of several reasons. The first reason was that I practised really hard, memorised everything that I would say, and when it came to it, I didn’t forget a single thing. The second reason was that the audience was fantastic. The third reason was that the structure and the dynamic of the evening was perfect: a young audience, some of whom had trendy beards, and the fact that I was the middle poet, after a serious but incredibly good opening act, and before the main headliner. The fourth reason, and the most important one for me, was that several friends came along and I wasn’t naff, and that my publisher, too, was there.
Not being naff is the biggest contributory factor to a successful performance. I felt at ease with the material and with the props that I would be using. I started by dancing and saying, ‘I don’t know why, but I’m feeling really frisky tonight’. I then did a little dance. I don’t normally do a little dance, but the time just seemed right. This kind of set the whole thing up, and the audience were incredibly up for having a bit of a laugh. I think it helped that the person before me had been brilliant, but deeply serious and very poetic. I was the complete opposite. I ended the evening by dedicating this ‘car crash of a set’ to the memory of Victoria Wood.
So that was the gig, and it just went so smoothly. However, the feeling afterwards was one of mild euphoria mixed with the impression that perhaps every night should be like this. A young, youthful audience in a town where I don’t perform that often, and the feeling of being surrounded by friends. The best bit has to be the moment where I was chatting to my publisher, and someone came up to buy a book. At least that showed him that it was worth him publishing me!
The euphoria lasted all the way home, which was a long way, a two hour drive back to Paignton. There’s nothing better than the sense of a night coming together really well. As the lights of Bristol faded in the rear view mirror, we sped along the motorway passing sleeping towns, strange clusters of road lights and an empty motorway, the sort of place haunted by jobbing comedians and long distance lorry drivers, insomniacs, the perennially lost. I slept well and I was on a bit of a high the next day, until about lunch time.
That’s when the thought starts creeping in: Just what’s been going wrong at all the other gigs?
  

Thoughts on my collection ‘Nice’

It’s been a few months now since my first collection came out, so I thought I’d write a blog post about just what it means and how it feels.
Every time I see the book, I get a strange little feeling inside of me of pride mixed with a weird sense of justification. The book represents an acceptance, of sorts, that I’ve been acknowledged at least of being worthy of publication. And I suppose I could go back to my degree in literature and the essays I used to write about publication, ‘the cannon’, and the curatorial act of editing and publishing a book.
‘Nice’ exists, it’s out there. It’s mixing with the big boys, and with company that’s in a different league. It lives on shelves in people’s houses, next to books by much better writers and poets, more respected titles, with my name beaming out from its spine. And this is the scariest part. Because it looks just like a normal book!
These are probably emotions which every writer or poet feels. When we read a book, we see these people at their best. We don’t see them on a day to day basis, stumbling over words while buying a train ticket, or walking into the door of Superdrug because they thought it was automatic. I live in my own head and I’m wrapped up in the usual doubts and frustrations of being Robert Garnham the human being, whose a very different creature to Robert Garnham the performance poet / spoken word artist. This morning I spelled yoghurt all over the kitchen counter, and then accidentally missed the bowl when I added granola. It’s everywhere right now, because I haven’t had time to clear it up.
But the book, it goes out there. It’s filled with my best stuff, poems I’m really pleased with and a cover which I love because I based it on a very clear image which I had in my mind, a very clear representation of myself which I wanted the world to see. And every now and then, when I’m swimming or walking, or when I have time to relax, I tell myself, just for a second or so, ‘Hey, you’re a published writer’.
‘You have a book out!’
When I was a kid, it was all I ever wanted. I’d write, and I would write and write, and I would carry on writing, at break time at school, at weekends, every evening, writing, writing, writing. And when I became an adult and got a job, I’d write at lunch hour. I wrote novel after novel and I’d send them off, and nothing would ever happen.
Five years ago I discovered performance poetry.
So the fact that ‘Nice’ exists, with its deliberately understated title, means more than you will ever know! Because it’s out there right now, representing a Robert Garnham of the imagination, and it’s doing a damn fine job!  

 

I have no idea why I’m apparently so popular in Brazil.

Robert Garnham

Hello Brazil.
I’m writing this because something unusual is happening, and extraordinary high amount of people who look at my website who come from Brazil. I’m quite pleased with this, because Brazil is a country which I know almost nothing about except for the fact that Ayrton Senna came from there. Another reason I like this is that the Pet Shop Boys are big in Brazil. So maybe we could tour together sometime. I mean, you never know.
Now I’m aware that there could be an error, of sorts. Perhaps it’s just one person in Brazil who looks at my website several times a day because he really likes whimsy. Perhaps I’ve got a friend who’s on holiday there. Perhaps there’s a mechanical breakdown which means that most of the people who look at my website automatically get registered as having done so in Brazil, and not Basingstoke. Whatever’s happening…

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I have no idea why I’m apparently so popular in Brazil.

Hello Brazil.
I’m writing this because something unusual is happening, and extraordinary high amount of people who look at my website who come from Brazil. I’m quite pleased with this, because Brazil is a country which I know almost nothing about except for the fact that Ayrton Senna came from there. Another reason I like this is that the Pet Shop Boys are big in Brazil. So maybe we could tour together sometime. I mean, you never know.
Now I’m aware that there could be an error, of sorts. Perhaps it’s just one person in Brazil who looks at my website several times a day because he really likes whimsy. Perhaps I’ve got a friend who’s on holiday there. Perhaps there’s a mechanical breakdown which means that most of the people who look at my website automatically get registered as having done so in Brazil, and not Basingstoke. Whatever’s happening, I’m not complaining, because at least it means that someone is looking at my website.
But it allows me to daydream. Of a hidden fan base, and invitations to perform somewhere really exotic, like Manaus, in fact I’ve already written a poem where this happens. I try to imagine my book becoming incredibly successful there, and I’m asked to go on Brazilian tv and be genial and humorous while the translator does her work. I daydream of becoming a household name in Brazil.
I know that none of these will happen. But it’s good to daydream, and enjoy the moment while it lasts.
A POETRY GIG IN THE AMAZON BASIN
Thick dense jungle vegetation.
A circle of audience members in a hut by a swamp

By the banks of the mighty Amazon,

Peering at me, nervously, I approach

A microphone which buzzes, or maybe it’s the

Mosquitoes, 

wondering how I ended up here,

And whether to do my famous poem about Lidls.
Thirteen hours by plane from Heathrow, six hours

By internal flight to Manaus, seventeen hours

By pick-up truck then a boat ride followed by

Six hours trek through jungle vegetation led by

A man in a hat with a machete, to this place,

A hut near a mining settlement, only to be

Greeted by puzzled frowns, there’s been a

Booking mix up, they were expecting Pam Ayres.
Preliminary chit chat to break the ice.

Isn’t it annoying, I tell them, when you’re baking a
Soufflé, 

and it doesn’t rise properly?

The rainy season floods took my house away, someone

Helpfully pipes up, I decide not to perform

My new poem about temperamental vacuum cleaners.

I decide on a joke.

 ‘I hear you have electric eels here

In these parts’, I tell them, ‘I’ve heard about them, 

they 
Sound shocking’.  
In the silence that follows I hear the

Distant hooting of parrots.

The relentless humidity causes beads of sweat

To roll down my face like the last lingering hopes

I once had that this would be a good gig,

Having taken with me through the jungle, on the back of

A mule which complained most vociferously all the way,

Twenty copies of my book titled 

‘101 Things Not To Do
At Junction 13 Of The M25’, 

plus the sudden realization

They my fee of sixty quid probably wouldn’t cover

The four days of travel from Basingstoke to here.

Headlining next month, apparently,

Is Kate Tempest.
Distant thunder rumbles.

Fat lazy drops fall from the sky

Falling on fleshy leaves like polite theatre applause.

I make a final effort to tell them some half-baked

Anecdote about a wellie-throwing contest at the annual

Village fete in suburban Surrey where I grew up, only

For the audience to respond with a smattering of applause,

Possibly glad of this sudden exotic interlude into my set,

The chance to learn about a different, strange culture.

The next act after me does some

Urban street dancing, and the audience loves

Every second,

It’s always difficult going on first.

Why I’m no longer going to compete in slams. Possibly. Well. Maybe just one or two more.

Last night I was at Hammer and Tongue in Brighton, supporting The Antipoet, and I had a great time in front of an enthusiastic audience. It was the first time that I’d performed in Brighton, and everyone made me feel very welcome.

One element of the evening, and a large part of the night, was the slam competition. Naturally, I wasn’t in it, because I was already on the bill. And in any case, I had made a solemn declaration to myself never to enter any more slams.

Why is this? I think it’s because I have recently started to realise that slam competitions do not show off the best of spoken word. A three minute crowd-pleasing rant is very entertaining and skilful and often performed incredibly well, but does this translate to a twenty minute set? How can an artist keep up with the energy of such a piece over a longer period? And is there a risk that in a slam situation, everyone seems to act more or less the same?

This is what I was thinking last night. I’d come up with a solution, in my mind, of a slam competition in which the poet gets ten minutes to do a selection of poems, of varying styles and topics, so that the audience can get a better sense of who they are and what they have to say about the world. I’ve had great fun in the past with slams, doing my finest comedy poems which I have practised, but these are only a part of my overall oeuvre.

I know that a slam competition is a very definite art form and a very specialised event. Slam poetry is a style, like jazz or hip hop. The idea I propose of something longer is more of a spoken word pilot show, a chance for an audience to judge, in a playful manner, a longer set. And people would still play to the crowd, no doubt. More skills would come to the forefront, such as props and movement, which are usually frowned on in slam circles.

Anyway, that’s my idea.

But then last night, the slammers were excellent and varied. There was a young lady who did a Kate Tempest-esque piece which was mesmerising, and there were one or two comedy poets who used the language of stand up and mime. In fact, every poet had their own style and method, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Which kind of leaves me in two minds. Should I forego competing in slams? I’ve had great fun in the past and won prizes here and there, and the exposure is great. Maybe I shall do one more. Just one more little slam somewhere, and see how I feel about it. I mean, what harm can it do? When introducing me last night, Sally Jenkinson told the audience about the first time she had seen me, which was at the Bristol Slam. If I hadn’t competed there and done quite well, then she would never have known me from Adam.

So yes. Maybe one more. One more little slam, and then no more.

Although, I’d like to do the Bristol one again . . .