Customer Service in the Deep Dark Woods

My latest podcast is another short story written sometime during the 2000s.

I hope you like it!

https://soundcloud.com/robertdgarnham/perpendicular-customer

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Poem

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

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I was almost home
I was on my own
It came on
The microphone
The whole train
Let out a groan

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So comfy
So rested
My money
I’d invested
In a sandwich
For eight quid

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

It’s not fair
Don’t deserve it
My seat was
Not reserved
And now I’m
In the vestibule
I’m such a fool
In the vestibule

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It’s almost time
We’re almost near
Into every heart
Who holds dear
These words strike
So much fear

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

I sit with
A life coach
He said hey
I’m a life coach
Just trust me
I’m a life coach
And be happy
Just like me
Because I
Am a life coach
But he looked so
Miserable
As he got
On he coach

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It really is
A tough day
I was queuing
In the buffet
And just as I
Was about to say
Can I have
A coffee?

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

The man in charge
Hit by lightning
It was so
Very frightening
He was the
Conductor

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I don’t fear
Armageddon
And I’m not one
For religion
But I quiver
When you mention

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

The Lad with
No ticket
He really
Couldn’t risk it
He hid in
The toilet
He’s probably
Still in there

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I was sitting
In the quiet zone
Felt so peaceful
I was on my own
Now there’s music
From a mobile phone

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

Some people
Take so long
To sit down
As they faff around
And just when
They manage to

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Excuse me
I think you
Will find that
You’re sitting
In my seat
Get out please

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

The fear now
Is spreading
Those words that
I’m dreading
Welcome
To Reading!

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Excuse me
Says a lady
To the driver
Where is first class?
And the driver
Says ha ha
Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha
There isn’t one

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It’s personal
It’s galling
Those three words
So appalling

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My uncles
Dear funeral
It was so
Damn miserable
What’s worse was
The hearse was

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On ten years as a performance poet 2009-2019

This Sunday afternoon I did a radio interview with Jeff Sleeman. During the interview we talked about the fact that this was my ten year anniversary as a performer and indeed, Jeff had been at the very first gig I’d been to. It seems inconceivable that ten years have passed, for I remember the night in question in precise detail. I remember that three of the performers had been bald and that I mistook one from another, and congratulating them on a poem that they hadn’t performed. And I remember seeing Bryce Dumont a couple of days later doing his shopping and becoming very nervous, having seen a local celebrity out of his stage environment. It all seemed so new and fresh.

Ten years, though.

I asked the host, Chris Brooks, whether I could have a slot at the next event and he said yes. Great! But now a serious problem arose, in that I didn’t have any poems. Not one. I had no material whatsoever. I’d only come along to the night the previous month because I was bored. So I hurriedly wrote two poems, one called My Family, the other called I Don’t Want To Be A Performance Poet. Both of them relied heavily on rhyme. And the latter was somewhat prophetic. So I stood there, hands shaking holding sheets of A4 paper, and amazingly people laughed in all the places where I thought I was saying something funny. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe it. For years I’d written short stories alone and nobody laughed. In one moment I had doubled, tripled, quadrupled the normal audience for my output.

It’s probably fair to say that performance poetry has changed my life. When I look back at everything that I’ve done over the last ten years, I can hardly believe it myself. Ten years ago I was a shy individual who would do anything rather than speak to strangers or hold a conversation. And now I leap on to stages in far flung places and Spout the most meaningless whimsy, and people laugh. I came from a background in which such exuberance was seen as the sort of thing reserved for those from different upbringings, that those who, like me, were raised on the mean streets of Englefield Green’s notorious Forest estate, could not possibly aspire to a life in the performing arts. Culture was out of touch. I didn’t have the right to perform.

Yet I did have one thing going for me, and that’s my homosexuality. Growing up and feeling different to everyone around me, during a time of Section 28 and the AIDS crisis, a time in which homophobia was the natural response and the default setting of organisations and even those in authority around me, I kind of knew that the world wasn’t quite as settled as people assumed. My childhood love of comedy and writing could be more than just a hopeless dream. My voice could be just as legitimate as those who I looked up to, even if I felt that I was not entitled due to my upbringing, my education, my background.

It’s just a shame that it took twenty years for this entitlement to become apparent. We now live in a culture in which we are told that we are all entitled to a voice, and that’s great. By the time I started performing, I was thirty five. The spoken word scene is now filled with young people who leap on the stage from an early age with an imbued sense of entitlement and freedom. It was never this easy!

Regular Robheads will have noticed that I try not to be too autobiographical. Attendance at a poetry night these days, particularly in cities such as London and Bristol, is to be immersed in autobiographies and the dance of the self, explorations of emotion, lessons learned from life and hopes for the future. And yes, I have one or two poems of my own in which I explore my own life and things that have happened, but in the most part, I prefer to keep these away from public exposure. For a start, my own problems and misfortunes are very minor indeed and I have been very fortunate to live a life of contentedness. Secondly, I’m very aware that the persona of Robert Garnham, Professor of Whimsy, who appears on stage, is a complete fabrication. Anything that I say on stage will never have a ring of truth about it. The truth is seldom so convenient as to fit in with a rhyme scheme, and just because something rhymes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

So what I’m saying in this blog is that I am very happy with the person that I am now, and the progress that I’ve made during the last ten years. Each day as a performance poet is a learning process. I see those around me, those I look up to and admire who are way above me in the spoken word pecking order, and I try to see what they do and the way they achieve it. Jonny Fluffypunk, Rachel Pantechnicon, Byron Vincent, Melanie Branton, Liv Torc, people whose success and acclaim I one day hope to emulate, and that’s what drives me on as an artist and as a human being.

And that’s the last thing I thought I’d mention, here. In honour of my ten years, I’ve started calling myself a performance poet again. The biggest change in the scene that I’ve noticed, and one that has been pointed out by people such as Pete Bearder in his excellent book, is that the community has moved away from the performance poetry of the late 2000s, in which variety was the keyword, and comedy, and props, and general silliness and the willingness to shock, to become a kind of homogenised slam-influenced autobiographical entity known as spoken word. And while I’ve been pleased to acknowledge the ‘art’ part of the phrase ‘spoken word artist’, it’s taken about eight years to realise that this is not who I am. I am a performance poet, and more specifically, a comedy performance poet. And just by carrying on with what I was doing in 2009, (and what other people were doing too), I’ve somehow become a bit unique. And you know what? I’m really comfortable with that!

So, then, ten years! I’ve had the most amazing time. To celebrate, I’ve undertaken a little mini tour and the lovely interview with Jeff can be found below. My part of the show starts just after the hour mark.

https://m.mixcloud.com/jeff-sleeman/happy-sundays-03-11-19/

The Office of Insignificant Events

I’ve started going through some of the hundreds of short stories I wrote over the years. I stopped writing them around ten years ago when I began performing poetry instead. I’m still really proud of them and I hope you’ll find them entertaining!

Here’s one.

https://soundcloud.com/robertdgarnham/the-office-of-insignificant

Branching out

(Here’s a short story I wrote almost twenty years ago.)

Branching Out

There has been much said and written about the following subject in the academic community, it seems almost superfluous to add my own comment to the wealth of material already published on this topic. And yet the story itself seems somewhat compelling, like all good mysteries, and more so because it is, quite defiantly, true. The fact that a senior practitioner in literary matters has attested to the honesty of all involved adds a touch of authenticity to the whole situation, and who are we to argue with the judgement of a colleague so esteemed as Professor Zazzo Thiim?
‘They were branching out, pure and simple’, he told me, one charged evening at the local pub. He leaned back in his chair and seemed, just for a second, incredibly tired, as it the events of the previous week had drained him of energy. ‘I first heard it reported to me by one of my younger students, a naive fellow whose panicked account seemed ill-judged and unworthy of comment. But then other students and colleagues began attesting to the fact. They, too, had heard and seen with their own eyes, that the local skateboarders were quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson. I knew immediately that I would have to probe deeper’.
The old man leans forward across the table and interlaces his fingers. ‘I started that very evening. With a flask of cocoa and a pair of opera glasses, I went down to the local skate ramp and watched them from the bushes. I felt like a television botanist watching the mighty gorillas of some dank, faraway jungle. How incredibly amusing their mannerisms, how obvious the social gradations and rank within their clique, that they might defer to the most able of their group, and lend advice to the weakest. I would surely have watched longer had not I felt a sudden hand on my collar and a policeman inquire as to what I was playing at. ‘We have a name for people like you’, he told me. I can tell you it wasn’t a comforting situation, but when I told him the reasons behind my being there, his face relaxed. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The poetry thing. We’ve been racking our brains over that one, I can tell you. Come down to the station’.
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Am I under arrest’.
‘Not at all’, he replied. ‘We’ve just found one of them trying to break into the library. Perhaps you might like to have a quiet word with him’.
The lad in question was a poor specimen, I can tell you, a pathetic, individual whose half-hearted attempt at perfecting the skater-boy look was almost laughable. On being asked exactly why he was breaking into the library he denied all knowledge that it had been such a building, that he was under the impression more that it was the off licence. When the constable slid a copy of Tennyson’s poetry across the table towards him he made a frantic attempt to grab it from his hands, only for the book to be snatched away from him. ‘Not so fast, sonny’, the constable said, in his laconic, laid-back voice. ‘First we need to talk terms. We can help you get your fix, but first you must help us. We need your skateboard’, he continued. ‘You see, there’s a little mystery here, and we need it cleared up’.
The Professor lets out a laugh. ‘I cut quite a figure on the skateboard ramp, I can tell you. Sure, I fell off a few times, but I soon won respect from the posse not only for my aerial acrobatics but also for my detailed knowledge of Romantic-era poetry. Indeed, things were going along quite fine. How glad I was to see that the stories were true – a particularly athletic turn at the board would be greeted with the words, ‘At Arthur’s ordinance, tipt with lessening peak!’, or a bad fall decorated with the expression, ‘lay low and slay him not!’ I must say, I quite enjoyed my spell with the lads, and at no time did they twig that I was a seventy-four year old academic professor, except when I passed around a packet of sanatogan in the mistaken belief that it was a bottle of alco-pops. ‘A fine pinnacle!’, I yelled, heading up the ramp at great speed. ‘And made as a spire to heaven!’ Brad was especially vocal and conversant in Tennyson’s later works and at times he would exclaim, ‘Sluggards and fools, why do you stand and stare? You are no king’s men!’, or even the ultimate insult, ‘Let this be thy last trespass, thou uncomely knave!’ As the sun started to set, the dusk spread out her silken fingers and seemed to caress the shapely ramps, and in the encroaching dark came a camaraderie I have not yet ever felt, not even in the throes of really good group discussion on Hemingway. Joining in with their masculine bravado, I put up the hood of my jacket and, feeling somewhat exuberant, shouted, ‘While Jove’s planet rises yonder, were now to rage and torture the desert!’ Oh, how absolutely wonderful I felt!
The effect, though, was immediate. The skaters stopped in their tracks. One skateboard, bereft of its rider, swung to and fro on the ramps before it, too, fell silent. ‘What was that?’ Brad asked. Flustered, I repeated my quotation. ‘You’, he said, breathing harshly through quivering nostrils, ‘Are an imposter!’
The rest of the group crowded in on me. I stumbled, and tried to make some kind of retraction to my earlier statement, but the damage was done.
‘That was Robert Browning’, Brad pointed out. ‘What are you, some kind of freak? Who quotes from Browning at a skate ramp?’
‘Yeah’, someone else piped up. ‘What kind of a sicko are you?’
I don’t mind telling you that I was scared. I escaped with my life, and for this I am monumentally thankful.
Naturally, the trouble vexed me for ages. Back at the department I toiled at my desk and tried to read into the whole episode some kind of reason, some kind of explanation behind the adoption of Tennyson. I looked at his rhythms, I looked at his metre, I looked at his rhyme scheme, but none of them matched with the rhythms I had heard on the skate park ramps. The content of his poems were also barren in their significance. I could see in his metrical skill and his lyrical genius no link to the satisfactory clatter of skateboard on concrete, no link between his romantic inclinations and narrative expression to the wearing of a hoodie. Late one night, though, thoroughly tired and dejected, I found the skateboard that I had borrowed that night, and the more I looked at it the more I could see that there was, however slight, a connection of sorts. Four wheels, I told myself, and one standing platform, just like the four isolated tenets of romanticism, the stylistically gothicism inherent, the reaction against enlightenment, imagination, vision and idealism, mixed with the surface and sureness of Tennyson’s reign as poet laureate – surely, this was what the skaters were alluding to in their adherence to his work? How relieved I was to get to bed that night’.
The Professor frowns and he lowers his voice. ‘I wrote up my report the next morning and submitted it to the head of my department. That lunchtime I felt free. In the Spring air I could hear the clatter of a distant skateboard and I nodded, knowingly, to myself. The world seemed right, somehow. The world seemed a better place. But that afternoon I received an anonymous letter.
How horrendous the news that it contained! It came from an ex-skater, whose adherance to the poetry of Tennyson had been questioned by some members of the group. He said that the skaters were not quoting from Tennyson – oh no – they were reading. There was a book stuck in the overhanging tree, he explained. And to prove their dexterity on the skateboard, the skaters in question would attempt to read a line at random as they were suspended in mid-air. If it had been a crisp packet, the anonymous writer concluded, then they would have read out the ingredients. There was no mystery.’
The Professor drained the last of his wine and made to stand. ‘The department has been embarrassed by this whole episode,’ he said, ‘As you can probably imagine. I would be grateful if you could not mention some of the more lurid details of this story’, and with that, the old man was off.
I followed a few minutes later. It was a dark night and there were a few stars hung in the sky. As I walked back to my car I was overtaken by a child on a unicycle, and he was quoting Oscar Wilde. But then, it could have been the drink.

The latest from WrinklyTown

One of the joys of spending my weekends in Brixham is catching up with all of the latest gossip from the neighbourhood where my mother lives. The main talking point around town at the moment seems to be the idea that the local tourist industry have had to place a bell in the harbour which rings every time the tide comes in or goes out. As yet, residents are unsure whether the bell rings just once, or just carries on ringing, like those annoying wind charms that the house next door have hung up from their washing line. The Muv opines that a series of bells ringing through the night might not be the sort of the thing that would be welcomed by the various hotels and bed and breakfasts around the harbour area.

The other talking point is that the local harbour authority have agreed to accommodate two large barges for the winter in order to make some money. They will be attached to the sea bed, the Muv says, all of a sudden an expert in maritime technology, with four legs on each corner, so they’ll be towed in, kind of like an upturned coffee table. With the tide bell ringing away and the two barges, it sounds like the town is becoming something of a boom town.

The other talking point is the cancellation of the annual trawler race. This has been done, apparently, on health and safety grounds. The annual trawler race has become a tradition, a celebration of trawlers and everything trawler related, and a chance for the town to let its hair down, like it usually only does at Christmas, new year, bonfire night, the pirate festival, the music festival, the biker festival, the harvest festival, the midsummer festival, the beer festival, the food festival, the air show and Easter. It really is a shame and I asked the Muv, who seems to be an expert in these matters, whether perhaps some of the trawlers have become a bit feisty hence the need to concentrate on safety.

‘Well according to my fiend Martha, who’s son works on one of the trawlers, they used to replace the fish in the holds with ice and crates of beer and then take to the high seas crowded with friends and family and drink as much as they possibly could. Remember Rodney? He needed his stomach pumped after the last one. He was off solids for months. But no, I have no idea why it’s been cancelled on health and safety grounds’.

The Muv is currently in the final preparation for the annual craft fair. I do love the way that this small port has its own culture and tradition, and the craft fair is one of these. ‘My job is to show one of the judges around’, she said. ‘But what we didn’t realise was that the two judges hate each other. Apparently, they used to be good friends and would work together and one judge would go round the other ones House every day for coffee. But then one day she asked why it was that whenever she came round for coffee, she was made to sit in the conservatory. Anyway, since then, they’ve hardly spoken to one another ‘.

One of the fiercest competitions during the craft fair is the annual cake contest. Now I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but last year there was a big controversy and cover up when one of the cakes at the end of the contest was unclaimed by its owner. With the town hall needing to be handed back to the council, the decision was made to carve up this cake and pass it around the craft fair organisers. The next day it’s owner inquired as to where it was, and this is where the cover up began. People denied knowledge, and rumours were purposefully spread that a homeless man had snuck in and put it under his arm. All knowledge of the whereabouts of the cake were denied. Should the truth ever come to light, it’s probable that the chair person herself would have to stand down. So you haven’t heard this from me, right?

Two years ago the Muv spent the summer working on a knitted representation of the children’s television character Bagpuss. She created her own pattern and worked tirelessly, making this knitted Bagpuss, and entered it in to the Knitted Character section of the craft fair. And then in comes Deirdre with a wheelbarrow containing a knitted representation of every member of the Brixham Male Voice Choir, intricate down to skin tone, individual clothing and hair colour. Mum’s knitted Bagpuss just didn’t stand a chance. This year word has got out that she is working on the nativity scene, and yes, I did urge the Muv to perhaps consider knitting the feeding of the five thousand for next year, but she would have to start now and perhaps carry on knitting right through the year, but she didn’t seem keen on the idea. I think she is looking at doing Kermit the Frog.

I’m off back home tomorrow morning, and as ever, it’s been like being delivered straight into a Victoria Wood sketch. People ask me where I get my strange ideas from in my poetry, and really, I don’t know. I really don’t know.