Poem written at the Lit and Phil., Newcastle

Amidst the balconies, galleries and catacombs,

Ornate and functional with a weight

Other than history,

Worn wood seats and tables battered

With a century’s elbows,

I came to escape the thrum and sit

Surrounded by philosophical insight,

Such that a building should exist partly

For my own inclusion,

Partly for my imagination,

Partly so as I can say I’ve now been here.

Let its spirit and geniality,

It’s learning and it’s beauty,

Infuse into me a certain earnestness.

The first thing that happens is

I can’t fit my fat arse into the wooden armchair seat.

And then I get a crick in my neck

Trying to read what the man next to me

Is writing

And then I bang my knee on the underside of the table

And the resulting jog

Spills the coffee of the man across from me,

Who sighs,

Mops it up with a handkerchief,

Doesn’t say anything at all,

How northern.

I skim above the surface of potential intelligence.

I have the glasses, the pens, and even the haircut

Of a man who aims to probe the mysteries

Of the human condition,

But I just googled the fastest route to the

Nearest Tesco’s Metro.

Tick, goes the old Victorian clock.

Tick, and indeed, tock.

How many times has it ticked and it tocked

It’s inevitable onerous tick tock

As amateur learners write margin notes,

And fuss over spilled coffee?

Often e Crave the journey more

Than the destination.

They serve tea here in borrowed mugs.

The intricate coving and architectural embellishments

Gaze down on Sunday supplements.

I dribbled bottled water on my shorts

And it looks like I’ve wet myself.

The old man next to me chuckles

At a passage in his book on ethical Christianity.

If I stay still long enough

I will discover myself,

That I, a loose conglomerate of

Atoms, molecules and thought processes,

Should stand for more than

The repetition of my name.

Closure in the anonymity,

Physical presence, location, time.

If I stay still long enough . . .

These things may come.

And if I can’t get my arse out

From this seat wherein it is wedged,

This may happen

Sooner rather than later.


Why identity is powerful and necessary in spoken word.

Whenever I do any sort of work promoting myself in the spoken word community, invariably, I plough through photos and pictures that I’ve had taken specifically for the purposes of giving the audience a flavour of who I am. In such a way I hope to create a definite identity. Yet the more I do this, the more the created stage character who stands as an avatar for the real me moves further away from who I actually am.

For years now I have worn the same types of clothing and glasses when performing. These are not the sort of clothes I wear on a daily basis. They create an image, a kind of slightly less fussy Alan Bennett, except with thick frame glasses and perhaps a sequinned hat. And perhaps even, if you’re lucky, a feather boa.

Identity is a very important aspect of the spoken word community. Through words and images, poets assert themselves, their beliefs, their backgrounds and characters. Their promotional photos tell potential audiences the kind of thing they might expect from their work. Performance poetry and spoken word are the vessels many poets use in telling their stories, or asserting their right to be individual, different to whatever the norm might be.

This was something that I’d never encountered before I got into writing and performing. As a young gay man living first in suburban Surrey, and now the south of Devon, I was always aware that I was not an average person and did not fit into the heteronormative definition. Yet a part of me wanted to quell whatever difference there might be, hide it behind layers of what I assumed were respectability. Just because I was a gay man, I did not necessarily want the world to know this, an odd hang up from a childhood lived in the 1980s, before a time of gay pride, when Section 28 was legislation, and homophobia was both normal and expressed often.

The world has changed since then, or at least, British society has changed. Things are still not perfect, but it’s much easier now to assert a certain divergence from the norm. Or perhaps the norm itself has been exposed as a lie.

The last few months I’ve been having several conversations with myself about gay content in my poetry, and gay imagery in my presentation of it. Every now and then I have a tendency to write a poem in which I purposefully hide my sexuality, and I have no idea why this is. Naturally, there are a lot of poems I’ve written and performed in which LGBT issues are not the main focus, or even touched on. But then I tell myself off, and remind myself that it is my duty as an LGBT poet to help normalise a marginalised community, and that I owe it not only to my LGBT heroes who came before and did so much to help us get in to this situation, but also to the many other poets, performers and writers who assert their identity and do so with pride.

So there’s this social editor at the back of my mind which intrudes often, and the best material invariably comes when he is banished or ignored. So yes, I’ve been censoring myself, but from who? I tell myself off, and remind myself that the fight is not over, and that there are places in the world where the freedoms I enjoy are not taken for granted, or even permissible. In spite of everything, I, and many of my spoken word colleagues, am still an outsider. Identity is a powerful thing.

Thoughts from the Barnstaple Fringe

The last few days I have been in Barnstaple for the Theatrefest Fringe. And like any fringe there have been the usual highs and lows, intense hard work, leafleting, pounding the streets with heavy luggage and enduring incredibly long train rides. This year there were two other factors: the football and he intense heat. Yet ultimately it has been a positive experience. I’ve seen a lot of great shows and met some amazing people.

I decided to commute, the first day, from Paignton. What a mistake that was! I spent six hours on a train that day and didn’t get home till eleven, then had to come back again the next morning at six AM to get to Barnstaple in time for my tech rehearsal.

I’ve been involved in two shows this year, The Two Robbies and In the Glare of the Neon Yak. The Two Robbies has had amazing audiences, enthusiastic and responsive, and people have been quoting my own poems to me at odd moments, or shouting, Jellyfish! As ever it was a huge honour to be performing with someone like Rob Barratt, whose poetry relies on humour and wordplay, and we have been making plans to perform again together in other places. There have been some very good reviews placed on the Theatrefest website of our show.

The scariest show has been my new solo effort, In the Glare of the Neon Yak. It’s a brand new show, with a new theme and the whole show is a complete change for me, as it relies on dramatic techniques and a certain undercurrent of seriousness which is not usually a feature of my oeuvre. Audience numbers have been somewhat muted, but I have enjoyed the two shows that I’ve done so far.

As ever, the staff, volunteers and technical staff of this fringe are incredibly hard working, professional and supportive, and without them the whole event would be different.

Yesterday morning I had the honour of performing in a yurt at the Diversity Festival after the LGBT march, which I also live streamed on Facebook. I met some lovely people there.

So I have one more show this afternoon and then a three hour train ride home. It always feels weird to be going back to normality after the Barnstaple Fringe. The long train ride from Barnstaple to Exeter feels like a cleansing action, slowly returning the normal world, until the whole weekend feels more like a weird dream.

On the third runway

So yesterday Boris Johnson took a day trip to Afghanistan rather than vote against the third runway at Heathrow Airport. It seems a little extreme, to be honest, to travel halfway round the world to a country rebuilding itself from period of deep strife and horror. Or was that what he was thinking, on the way back? Was his plane delayed as it flew back to Heathrow?

He might have been in Nando’s, of course.

I’ve never understood how they will use the third runway. Heathrow already has two. One for landing, and one for taking off. What will the other one be for? And as soon as they build it, will the pressure begin for a fourth runway? This one, they will tell us, is for the planes taking off. We’ve got more planes landing now because of the third runway and we are running out of places to put them. It’s either that, or a multi storey aircraft park.

I must admit, I’ve always been a fan of civil aviation. I grew up near Heathrow airport and I used to go there when I was a kid and watch the planes taking off and landing. It’s powerful and it’s beautiful and there can be no more stirring sound than an Airbus A310 in reverse thrust. Whining it’s head off. Flaps up. Braking hard, then taxiing off the runway. Oh my. But even as an aircraft enthusiast, this has always had to mix in with my environmental beliefs. Aircraft are not good for the environment. They are high maintenance and they guzzle up a lot of fuel. A hell of a lot of fuel. And this gets pumped back into the atmosphere as carbon molecules. Oh, the guilt. How can something so beautiful be so very bad for you? Which is also what I think whenever I eat a hamburger.

Another part of me is always in awe of massive engineering projects. The logistics of building a third runway will be enormous. There will, of course, be a human side to it, too. Growing up near the airport, there are places I know that will, inevitably, be flattened by bulldozers to accommodate taxiways, aprons, terminal buildings, Starbucks. This sacred land where Dick Turpin terrorised stagecoaches, Herne the Hunter haunted monarchs, and Jeremy from Airport amused us all back in the glory days of reality tv, will be changed forever. Are we really so selfish as a generation?

The third runway is not the problem, it’s Heathrow and it’s infrastructure. In an age of mass communication and technology, we need less aircraft, not more. The more I think about it, the more I feel like hiding in Afghanistan to get away from it all. Which is also what I thought the last time I had to do some washing up.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak

Behold, for your delectation,
A tale of woe and loneliness
And pickled gherkins.
Eerie phatasms and little old ladies,
Grumpy train announcers and rumpy pumpy.
The preoccupations of modernity
Enmeshed with mythological imaginings
And, to be honest,
Just a dash of camp.
Make your way through the
Station turnstiles,
Our locomotive awaits,
And my word, it’s long
And throbbing.
My name is Robert Garnham
And this
Is In the Glare of the Neon Yak.

Mentioned in the Guardian, Telegraph, and on BBC Radio Five Live and Radio Two as having one of the funniest jokes of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, Robert Garnham returns with his new show, In the Glare of the Neon Yak.

Robert Garnham presents a poetical, theatrical spoken word piece set on a sleeper service on a cold night. Storytelling combines with comedy, poetry and spoken word as Robert tells the tale of a train full of circus performers, stalked through the night by a mysterious supernatural entity, the Neon Yak. Wordplay and whimsy abound in this brand new solo show.

Longlisted for the last three years as Spoken Word Performer of the year, and featuring on TV advertisements for a certain building society, Robert is proud to bring his new work to a venue near you.

Here’s a brief snippet.

In the Glare of the Neon Yak


On not being in it for the money.

The moment I go on stage, I know what the audience are thinking. They’re thinking. now theres a man with a smug demeanour. There’s a man who’s not in it for the money.

There’s a man who forsakes the capitalist system and does not perform poetry for personal monetary gain.

Well let me tell you, I got books for sale.

I tried to write a poem about an old photocopier last night. It just wouldn’t scan.

I don’t need contraception. Poetry is my contraception. My poetry has helped me not sleep with more people than you can imagine.

So, what is poetry? Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I suppose the ‘acknowledged legislators ‘ would be governments and town councils.

To be honest, I don’t think it would work. Have you ever seen a group of poets trying to solve a planning dispute?

I suppose it depends if they work in rhyme or blank verse.

Well, I think we’ll put the school next to the pool. And perhaps also the church hall.

The shopping centre. Hmmm, can’t think of where to put the shopping centre. I know! Let’s call it a mall, and then it can go with the school and the pool and the church hall!

The library. Hmm, has this town got an aviary?

The food waste refuse anaerobic digestion chamber . . . What the hell?

Mind you, judging by the high street in Swindon, it looks like the surrealists have already been at work.

So I’m a poet, and I get all kinds of weird commissions. Sometimes I think that my career is going nowhere. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ve recently been working as a Poet in Residence at a paper clip factory. It really is stationery.

I was supposed to do a workshop for a fear of commitment support group, but nobody put their name down.

The other night I was double booked, I was also meant to be at a gig for a group of amnesiacs. So what I’ll do is I’ll go along next week and remind them how good I was.

I’m actually looking for ways out into other lines of work and I think I’ve come up with a winner. I’ve decided to start up assertiveness training courses.

Because if it doesn’t work, nobody’s going to ask for a refund. They won’t be brave enough.

And if anyone does ask for a refund . . .

I can just say, well. There you go.

But poetry for me is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good and you wish it would never stop.

And when it’s bad, it’s just plain embarrassing. Although I do get roughly the same number of laughs.

The thing I like best about poetry is that it’s not all about profit and personal gain, it’s not a hugely capitalist enterprise, people aren’t in it to make a quick buck. And by the way, I’ve got books for sale.