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.

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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.

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.

A short speech on reading

Here’s the transcript of a short speech which I shall be giving tomorrow at a college.

When I was asked to give a speech on the importance of Reading, I was immediately enthused by the subject matter, as Reading is one of my favourite towns in Berkshire. I checked with the organiser and he said, no, reading. Not Reading. Ironically, the start of my essay on reading had been confused by a case of misreading. So you see the irony, there.

I’ve always read books. When I was a kid, my mother used to take my sister and I to the library after shopping on a Friday afternoon. The kids books were all kept in a wooden tray which you had to flip through. My sister liked all kinds of fantasy books about caterpillars that could speak and grizzly bears that could speak and even as a child I thought that there was something a little naff about this. Animals didn’t speak. Not even Tony the Tiger. I preferred the Gumdrop books, about an old, blue car. It didn’t speak or have any personality, it was just a car. I recently gave some Gumdrop books to my nephew and he said that they were boring. In any case, he’s probably too busy to read Gumdrop books, what with his postgraduate studies.

My mum had a bookcase at the top of the stairs on the landing, when we were kids. It had a glass sliding window as if all the books within were incredibly valuable. Most of them wee Jilly Cooper paperbacks but they all had similar spines and this kind of fascinated me, I dreamed of a time when I, too, would have my own books published with their spines all showing my name. Every now and then my mother would let me look at some of her books, they seemed so precious and this got me in to reading.

The bookcase was recently broken up by my father so that he could use the wood as a mount for his darts board. True story.

As a kid, mum would read books to me. She would try and miss out pages but I would always know. She then got bored of this, so she bought a tape machine and recorded herself reading books. Instead of sending me off to sleep, this actually freaked me out and I couldn’t possibly sleep, what with her disembodied voice oozing from the darkness, and I had nightmares for a month the day that the tape got chewed up.

As soon as I was old enough to read, I’d read with an unusual passion, and I’d read anything. Enid Blyton gave way to Jack London, and a book about the discovery of the St Lawrence River, for some reason, became my favourite childhood read. A book for kids by the astronaut Michael Collins called Flying to the Moon became another firm favourite, shortly followed by anything to do with Doctor Who. I read Douglas Adams at an early age, and Pam Ayres, which my mother would occasionally read to me. And I tried reading Watership Down, but as ever, was put off by the nonsensical idea of rabbits talking.

By the time I was a teenager, I’d read anything. My favourite writer became Franz Kafka and I became obsessed with the idea of existentialism, as you do when you’re young and you can’t get a date. Camus and Borges became, in my mind, my personal friends, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the weird uncle. I even liked Will Self, who was kind of like my successful older brother. I was the only teenager who held a party to celebrate finishing Marcel Proust, although no one came.

Reading brings me a weird sense of joy, every time I open a book, wondering where the author, in coordination with my imagination, will take me. I did a degree in English Literature and this almost put me off reading for life, what with all that Dickens and Shakespeare, but it did introduce me to the poetry of Frank O’Hara, who has become one of my favourite poets. And now I’m older, I read for recreation. Haruki Murakami takes me to some very strange places, David Mitchell, Geoff Dyer, David Sedaris. Reading has been with me all of my life and I don’t think I would ever be without it.

On the creative process behind my new solo show

The genesis of my new solo show, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, goes back two years, on the train from Edinburgh back to London from the Fringe. I knew that I had to write a whole hour show, and as I looked around the train I pondered on using it as the location to set the show. My original title, indeed, was Vestibule. I wanted a show about the different people standing in the vestibule of an overcrowded train, and what stories they would share.

The idea for a show with one story came from some of the performers I saw that year, in particular the wonderful Dandy Darkly, whose blend of cabaret and storytelling really struck a chord, and the storytelling of Matt Panesh. I wrote a fifteen minute long piece called Mr. Juicy, which I learned, as a basis for something longer.

The next year I went to Edinburgh with a greatest hits package of my poetry, which I called Juicy, and it did rather well, exceeding my own expectations. Yet I’d not done any of the things that proper performers do. No director, hardly any publicity, no mention of the show in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide. I knew that Juicy would be a stop gap. Mr. Juicy was the last fifteen minutes of this show, and despite its ad hoc nature, the show was performed at other venues around the UK.

Last autumn I took a week off to think about the next show. I had three elements, initially, which I wanted I combine: the idea of a show set on a train, a ringmasters outfit, which I’d bought from Amazon, and a title: In the Glare of the Neon Yak. I sat down with a pen and paper, intent on beginning the story and taking the four months up to January in writing it. Amazingly, I wrote the whole script in one frantic week.

My attention went back to Juicy for a couple of months, as I was still performing it at various places, but as soon as the last performance was done, I started the process of memorising Yak. Until a year ago, I’d never been able to memorise even a three minute poem. However, with a bit of perseverance, and the knowledge that the only way to do it was through hard work, is begun committing several of my poems to memory. I used the same techniques with Yak.

So over the last four months I have managed to commit the whole hour show to my brain. The script has accompanied me everywhere, in particular to the gym and the sauna, places where I can just go over and over the lines. The swimming pool is an amazing place to run through certain scenes. During the snow storms over the winter, snowed in at my parents bungalow, I rehearsed the show while looking out at the fat flakes falling from the sky. And two days ago, in a hotel room on the Atlantic coast, I memorised a whole section while watching the surfers.

I have also employed a director. This is the most scary aspect, as it means that someone else, other than me, is as serious about the project as I am. My friend Bryce has helped with the music for certain moments of the show. And I’ve booked a mini tour, taking in Exeter, Gateshead, Bristol, Guildford, Torquay, Denbury, Barnstaple and, of course, Edinburgh. Indeed, the whole show has taken over my life.

So there’s not much time for anything else. My normal rhythm of poem production and rehearsal has taken a back seat, at least, until September. I’ve been doing less gigs, except for local ones. Everything has condensed down to the show.

The scariest aspect of it all is that the show is different. My usual style is to break the fourth wall, interact with the audience and draw attention to the manufactured aspect of reading poetry in front of people. Yak does not allow me to do this, it is a self contained piece, serious in places, whose sole aim is not just to make people laugh. I’m really looking forward to the first performance, and yet at the same time, I’m very nervous indeed!

So I hope you will be able to come along some time, and see my new show. I just hope that it will all be worth it!