Zebra

My new book Zebra is out now! I’m hugely proud of it. I believe that it contains some of my best writing, and I can’t wait for other people to read it and let me know what they think.

Zebra is a book several years in the making. Not only does it contain more of my comedy poems including some old classics as well as newer pieces, but it also contains my more serious work as well as material from my two Edinburgh shows, Static and Juicy. It’s a layered, textured book, which really gets a grip on life and what it means to be alive. There are one or two deeply autobiographical pieces, dealing with growing up in the suburbs of Surrey, first love, school, as well as a poem written five minutes after learning of the death of David Bowie. There’s also plenty of merrymaking and whimsy, of course, playfulness and poetry.

So why is it called Zebra? There are several reasons, not least that it’s named after a poem of mine which I used to perform while sharing stage with a cardboard Zebra. At the Barnstaple Fringe a few years ago the cardboard Zebra started getting a bit ragged so a friend and and I went round the art and craft shops of Barnstaple to find some gaffer tape to fix it. On the way home from Barnstaple my friend’s car had its sump guard fall off, and the zebra gaffer tape saved the day! He used it to stick the sump guard back on. The other reason is that it’s a nod to one of my favourite groups, Yello, who had an album called Zebra. Everything I used to write at the time was done to that cd. I must have been about nineteen.

I’m enormously proud of Zebra!

You can purchase your copy wherever you see me, or here http://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/zebra

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Noel Harley

Yesterday being Remembrance Sunday, I was thinking of my Great Uncle Noel, about whom I knew very little except that he died during the Second World War. Ever since I was a kid, I’d seen his name on the war memorial next to Virginia Water Station, without really knowing much about him.

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By chance I was scrolling through a Facebook group for the area in Surrey where I grew up, only to see someone had mentioned him in a posting about Remembrance Day services. I got in touch with the person who had made the post comment to discover that she is a relative on my mothers side. We chatted online about my Great Uncle, who was also her Uncle.

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Noel was 22 when he died, in 1943. He was stationed in North Africa, working on clearing mines in advance of an assault, an operation which took place in pitch black on a night in which there was no moon. Added to this there was fog and also significant dust thrown into the air by the movement of the tanks, and the lorry in which Noel was travelling collided with a stationary tank. He was buried at the Al Alamein Military Cemetery in Egypt.

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I’d never known any of the details. His death was just one of millions and there are now very few people alive who would have known him. My distant cousin was kind enough to email me some documents and photographs about Noel. And this is when something very strange occurred.

It’s long been a spooky fact that I share my birthday not only with my dad, but also my uncle and my grandfather, Noel’s brother Alfred. And while my uncle and my dad are twins and come from the other side of my family, it’s always been a little odd that three generations of us have the same birth date. I opened the email from my cousin to find a scan of Noels birth certificate, only to see, remarkably, that he was also born on January the second.

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This strange fact, this weird coincidence, had been hidden for all of these last few years, and only my late Grandfather would probably have known this. Every time he celebrated his birthday, he would have remembered his younger brother Noel, who died when he would have been about thirty years old.

It certainly makes me think about fate, if such a thing exists, but also about the life that he, and many others, did not have.

Static : The Script

Hello,

Here’s the script of my first solo show, Static. It hasn’t got the poems in it, but I thought people might like to read the in between material.

It was performed on several occasions throughout 2016 and on one occasion in 2017 in Torquay, Exeter, Bristol, Edinburgh, Guldford and Totnes.

It was all a bit wobbly but I had great fun with it, and it was the mist autobiographical thing I’ve written.

STATIC
Robert Garnham

Robert is in the performance space with a small battery radio tuned loudly to static.

Poem : ‘Static / Wind’

I tell you what, it gives you the willies. 

Thinks about things for a while. Opens performance book.

Poem: ‘The Increasing Physical Dexterity of Justin Bieber’

2009.
Feeling so damn unique. There’s nobody like me in the world! That sensation of circumstance, geography and time being in just the right alignment to create me, and me alone. And there’s poetry in my chest, it’s beating away, pounding out strange rhythms with the absolute promise of being such an individual, that I might one say change society and make a real difference to the world!

Putting pen to paper. Oh, you brave poet! Your words will echo like an aftershock, an earthquake as time itself bends in on you with your uniqueness, like Lord Byron with a megaphone, Wordsworth with an attitude, Ted Huges on the ten o clock news shaking his fists at convention.

2016
Seven years of writing poetry and discovering that there’s nothing really unique about me after all.

Seven years of writing poetry about minor trips out to the dentist, mild personal discomfort and vacuum cleaners. Seven years of looking in the mirror every morning and saying, Yeah, that’ll do. Seven years of my work being compared to that of John Betjeman, usually by people who say things like, ‘His work is not as good as that of John Betjeman’.

Seven years static. A life spent going nowhere.

(Sit)

I want this show to be one of those worthy shoes, you know, where you learn all about me as a person and all of my shortcomings. I suppose my first shortcoming is that I was born in Surrey, a county so bland and so irrelevant that absolutely nothing newsworthy or interesting has ever happened there. And that’s a fact. Look it up in the history books, if you like. Nothing interesting has ever happened in Surrey. My birth there in 1974 coincided with the resurfacing of the Guildford bypass, whereas here in the same year you of course had the Olympics. Oh, and later that year my aunt saw a badger.

I was brought up with this sense of low expectations and the absolute blandness of existence. Even my name is boring. Robert Garnham. I sound like an estate agent. I like to think that I was named after my dad’s favourite singer, Bob Dylan, who is of course, Robert Zimmerman, and this at least makes me a little bit excited about being called Robert. But at the time I was born my aunt worked in the factory making Robert’s Radios in Molesey. I can imagine the decision-making process that led to my parents choosing such a boring name.

(Improvised family conversation involving Robert’s Radios).

Robert sits in the chair as his own mother while feeding a baby, presumably Robert. He stands to indicate when his father is speaking.

I suppose I got off lightly. My Uncle worked for a fork lift truck company called Lansing Bagnall.

Robert builds a theremin on the table out of a corn flakes packet, two Wellington boots, a tape machine. He plays the theremin.

Let’s try and . . .

The tape machine interrupts him. Improvised silliness with the tape machine.

School was hell.

Poem : ‘2 Abbey 1’

(Stand)

I grew up in a house on a hill. Three generations, six of us in a two-up, two-down cottage surrounded by woods in the hills of Surrey. From the back bedroom window at night I could see the whole of West London. In the evenings I’d tune my radio through the static to the jazz stations, sit there for hours in the heat and the humidity of the sticky forest Surrey summer, and gaze at the neon and the road signs and the motorway lights.

Poem: ‘The Prince of Belgium’

Apart from being gay, that was.

(Sit).

And oh, mamma! I was very gay. I was probably the gayest thirteen year old that Surrey had ever seen. Yet my whole suburban mindset dictated that I should stay in the closet and not tell anyone because this was Surrey and people didn’t really want to know about such things, they were too busy buying bowler hats and going to wife swapping parties and voting for weird Conservatives and because of that I thought there was something wrong, a strange error in the system which just affected me. I knew that everything had to change but the time was never right.

It took a few years, and I came out to my friends first. They were surprisingly supportive, but at the same time they were incredibly surprised. Even though I’d been the gayest thirteen year old that Surrey had ever seen. You see, by the time I was twenty, I was a completely different person.

In fact, it still comes as a complete surprise when people discover that I’m one of those gay people that you hear about. I think, personally, it’s because I’m so macho, and manly, and tough, and masculine, and something of a hard nut. I think, basically, it’s because I’m a stud.

(Stand).

Though to be honest, I’ve always felt like a gay man trapped in the body of a bus driver.

I always wonder what my friends thought about that whole gay thing.

Poem : ‘Not Flamboyant’

I was set up on a blind date suggested by mutual friends and we hit it off immediately. At the time I was a part time shop assistant, and he was a trampoline salesman. Looking back now I see that he was incredibly patient with me. In fact he even said that it was what inside that counts, and that to him looks weren’t . . .

Hmmm.
Come to think of it, he charged me twenty quid.

Poem : ‘The First Time’

So I came out. And I had oodles of sex. And I masturbated a hell of a lot. It’s hard to believe looking at me now but when I was 18 to 20 I was a very attractive young slip of a thing with a trendy haircut and a face lit up with the evident joys of life. I always wondered what my first partner would be like and I would daydream about the usual ones, bearing in mind that this was the early 1990s. Peter Davison from Doctor Who, or Chesney Hawkes, or for some weird reason, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. My first proper partner was a young man called Jamie, a slightly taller, thinner version of Lance from Neighbours. He invited me back to his place ostensibly to show me his collection of Star Trek memorabilia. I knew it was about to get really interesting when he took me up to his bedroom to let me see his collection of phasers.

Poem : ‘Jamie’.

Oh, when I look back on it now it’s like I was doing it all the time. But as I’ve got older, I’ve shown less and less interest in these matters. Things have slowed down. I’ve slowed down. I’ve become static.

I feel like there’s this sense that my life is going nowhere. I’m now officially middle aged and there’s a huge list of things that I’ve never done.

(The list is written on cards. Robert dances and improvises as he unveils them).

I’ve never bought a house.
Learned to drive.
Fallen in love.
Had a promotion.
Earned the respect of my contemporaries.
Had a jacket dry cleaned.
Hosted a barbecue.
Owned a sofa.
Walked a dog.
Got married and had kids.
Bought a round in a pub.
Used a power drill.
Been arrested.
Paid a bribe to council bin men.
Used an axe.
Slapped a yak.

When I look at my life I’m tempted to think that I haven’t done much with it. I don’t have a fancy job or a nice big house or a big throbbing monster of a car. In fact all of the things that seem to drive successful people seem to have passed me by.

And I’m ok with this.

It lets me concentrate on the important aspects of living, like sleeping and biscuits and buying hair gel.

Here’s a diagram to illustrate my thinking on this.

(Improvised diagram and flip chart section).

I’m about as camp as an oak tree. I’m about as flamboyant as Ryvita.

(Look left and right as if imparting a secret).

Yet I see wonder and amazement everywhere. I watched a documentary once in which it was pointed out that the echoes and shockwaves from the Big Bang which created existence itself can still be heard as static on a radio receiver. The idea of this has always interested me immensely. I may be just a poet, but I’ve always wanted to probe the origins of life and existence and make my own little mark on the world. The work of the large hadron collider, I believe, will ultimately shed new light on the mysteries of the universe, and I try to muck in and help where I can.

So for you, ladies and gentlemen, and for science in general, and for deeper understanding, I’m going to construct a large hadron collider right now, right here, on stage.

Robert takes a length of garden hose, a camera, a biscuit on a plate, and attempts to create a black hole by smashing atoms together in the garden hose. He finishes by holding up photos on his ipad of the resulting smashed atoms.

Of course, I would need a proper scientist to tell me what this all means.

It’s all connected. Everything is connected. Time and memory, light and shade, and all those atoms spinning around, radio signals from the original Big Bang, and me, me as a young man with all that wonder and amazement, I’m still that person only I’ve channelled it all elsewhere, the parts of it that haven’t been ground down by the finer detail of living, every now.

Yet I’m also aware that the world I live in is freer and more open and accepting than other parts of the world, and that’s what this next poem is about.

Poem: ‘The Doors’
Poem: ‘Badger in the Garden’

Robert performs the performance piece ‘Static’ which starts with the radio being switched on again.

The whole piece is delivered with the radio on. At the end of the piece, Robert packs away all of the paraphernalia and sits on the chair with the radio in his lap. He turns it off.