Category Archives: Poetry

Mr Twonkey pays tribute to Ivor Cutler, “embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

“Embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

Influences are always interesting.

Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers is currently preparing for his new show – Twonkey’s Night Train to Liechtenstein – at the Glasgow Comedy Festival next Friday (9th March). Paul performs as Mr Twonkey, definitely one of the more eccentric acts in British comedy.

He reminded me that today (3rd March) is the anniversary of the death in 2006 of Ivor Cutler – Scottish poet, songwriter, humorist and arguably the eccentric performers’ eccentric.

Mr Twonkey phoned Mr Cutler in the winter of 1995

Paul says Ivor Cutler was “the embodiment of the Scottish eccentric.” His rider in contracts stated that he had to be provided with a two-bar fire and marmalade sandwiches – “Which,” says Paul, “is reason alone to love him. I would like to keep his name alive. He will be sadly missed and fondly remembered.”

In the winter of 1995, “feeling slightly hung over”, the future Mr Twonkey interviewed the then Mr Cutler by telephone for the music magazine Sun Zoom Spark.

This is what Paul/Mr Twonkey wrote.

I have edited it slightly for length.


An Interview With Ivor Cutler

By Paul Vickers

Mr Ivor Cutler drawing by Grant Pringle to accompany the article in  Sun Zoom Spark

In the heart of World War 2, Ivor Cutler held the position of navigator with the R.A.F, fiddling with maps and charts between 1941-42. He was de-ranked to first aid and store man for the Windsor Engineering Company when his peers noted he had other things on his mind.

He, however, was more suited to teaching movement, drama and African drumming.

He didn’t start writing poetry until 1942 and his creative waters didn’t really flow until he was forty-eight. But, since then, he has been a prolific songwriter with a chest full of wisdom spanning three decades; classic album releases (Dandruff, Jammy Smears and Velvet Donkey) and many books of poetry (Private Habits, Fresh Carpet and A Little Present From Scotland). He has also found time to carry out his numerous duties as chairman of the London Cycling Association.

He has made a name for himself by being a true original with perfect spoken word performance skills and graceful, offbeat sense of comic timing; a difficult man to predict; an impossible man to write questions for; a bona fide enigma, the man behind a huge assortment of atmospheric, melancholy laments.

“How are you doing?” I bellow in the voice of a Yorkshire mining town skivvy.

“Oh… I don’t know… I’m coming to life.”

“Could you give me a brief summary of what a day in the life of Ivor Cutler might consist of?”

“You ought to make yourself known to me…”

“NO. I think perhaps you ought to make yourself known to me don’t you think?”

I stammer and stutter a makeshift introduction. “Oh, I’m really sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Paul. I wrote something about you a year or so ago.”

“Yes… I was very touched by that. You turned out to be unique in saying you laughed yourself sick initially but then began to see there was stuff underneath and I bless you for that. It’s the first time anyone has ever spoken in that way about my work. I’m sure I’m not just seen as one of those belly laugh comics, but the way in which you did it, I think was very revealing”

“Would you like to be taken more seriously?”

“I like to be taken seriously although I use humour as a medium it’s just the way I’m made. It is a way of instantly grabbing people. Yes, of course but not everyone cares to have that happen to them which means 50% of the people who come across my work think it’s great and the other half think I’m a lunatic. I resent that very much.”

“Do people actually get quite aggressive about it?”

“Well not with me but people in positions of power. People who are able to give me gigs or work. A lot of such people think Cutler’s an idiot and we’re certainly not going to put him on our programme. But I don’t want to be seen as complaining about this. It’s very nice to be controversial rather than have the total acceptance of everybody. I mean I worked with the Beatles once – on the Magical Mystery Tour – and I was so glad such a thing never happened to me. This ‘treated like god’ stuff. It would have turned me into a more unpleasant person than I already am,” he giggles heartily.

“I did a tour with Van Morrison some years ago so I got playing all these big places. I’m not crazy about it when it gets over a thousand, because I like to see the audience. I get them to turn the lights up so I can see their faces. I don’t have such a desperate ego problem that I need to play to masses of people. I remember doing a gig in front of three people. It was snowing that night. It was very early in my career and it was a great show… But I prefer more than three actually”

“You seem to find great humour in the cruelty of situations – cruelty in the ways of nature, like the way animals behave.”

“Stick a knife through a tomato –  Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice!

“Well yes. They’re busy killing one another. If people weren’t to be cruel then the only thing we’d be able to eat would be salt. I mean, all these plants. You stick a knife through a tomato and it goes Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice! One has to be cruel to survive.”

“But your humour is, at times, very dark”

“Yes, the person who totally changed my way of creative thinking was Franz Kafka who is seen by many to use very black humour indeed.

“The nature of laughter is very often fear. One is glad it’s not happening to oneself. I mean the man slipping on the banana skin gets people laughing. People are glad it’s not them.

“By the way,” he interrupts himself, “I’m not a surrealist. I get that stuck on me a lot. I’m somewhere in between surrealism and realism which makes it difficult for people to know whether to laugh or not. A friend of mine, Phyllis King, used to get dead silence when she performed because people didn’t want to hurt her feelings by laughing.”

“I think your most beautiful song is Squeeze Bees from Jammy Smears. It conjures up this sleepy image of a little girl and a little boy being completely content, sitting in silence and just enjoying the sound of the beehive; very tranquil and romantic.”

“I struck a bee-type noise with the harmonium to get the right emotion. I’m an emotional man. I think people who like to hear emotion get themselves fed by my stuff but of course not all my songs are so emotional. I’m a happy man and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not!”

“What makes you happy?”

“Well I used to collect stones but I’ve grown out of that. People go through life and do something to make them happy for a while and then it becomes boring. In fact boredom has been a very big part of my life. People look at me and think: How can a man like him be bored? Well… I just am, I suppose.”

A Stuggy Pren was a chance to peep inside Mr Cutler’s unique drawers

A photographic exhibition to promote his poetry book, A Stuggy Pren, gave people a chance to go through the keyhole and peep in his drawers, count his cushions and revel in his sentimental attachment to battered and bruised ornaments that litter his home. He is one of the last, great romantic eccentrics and, as the modern world slowly closes in on him, Ivor is slowly pushed out. He rarely plays live nowadays and when he does it’s always in the afternoon, allowing him to return safely home to get a good night’s sleep in his own bed. Anything less than a familiar mattress to Mr Cutler, just won’t do.

“One last question, Mr Cutler. What would you like to see yourself doing at the end of the century?”

“Oh crumbs! Dead, I suppose! The way I find civilisation presently I’d be very happy to be in another world. Life can be very unpleasant for me. I’d be quite happy to shuffle off after doing all one can in a lifetime. You see there’s too much rock music around and I hate loud music. It makes my ears hurt and it interferes with my body clock. I’ve got a lot of fans through John Peel and I’m sure they all like loud music and when I think what they do to me compared to what I do to them, it seems very unfair. I’m a member of the Noise Abatement Society.”

Ivor Cutler: born 15th January 1923; died 3rd March 2006, aged 83.

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Filed under Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Poetry

Polly Trope organising a book fair in a fluffy booth at the back of a bar in Berlin

Polly Trope (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

indieberlin’s Polly has bridged cultural gaps in London
(Photograph by Joe Palermo)

Polly Trope is literary editor of the German online arts magazine and author of the autobio-novel Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway – a Guardian Best First Book Award nominee last year.

I blogged about her in April last year.

She lives in Berlin but occasionally turns up at Il Puma Londinese‘s Italian-language comedy shows in London. I have no idea if she understands Italian.

A couple of days ago, I got an email from her saying:

We are organizing an indie book fair and meetup for authors in Berlin. Since some authors are abroad and can’t join us we thought of having them phone-in like a radio show. But then we came up with… The Literophone!

We were partly inspired by an iOS app which lets you be phoned-up by a random stranger by way of an alarm clock every morning.

At the book fair, we will set aside a little soundproof cubicle for one-on-one readings. But also, now, it will be the private booth where guests can call up poets and get a poem read to them down the phone.

So, obviously, yesterday I Skyped her in Berlin.

“When exactly is the indie book fair?” I asked.

“Next Saturday – 7th November,” she told me. “It starts at 1.00pm (German time) and goes into the night. We are doing the Literophone roughly between 5 and 8.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In Neukölln, the trendy part of town, where everything is going on. It’s the Shoreditch of Berlin.”

“Why are you doing a book fair?” I asked.

Polly Trope - rotary phones and a mini-Socrates cast upon the background of a Tanguy painting poster.

Polly Trope sent me her photograph of rotary phones and a mini-Socrates bust set against the background of an Yves Tanguy painting poster.

“Because there are so many young people who come to Berlin, who end up staying here for no reason and then they become authors. They’re all very fashionable and cool and they’ve written a chat book or a collection of three stories but none of them have a venue to do their thing in.

“So we’re working with them and also have some of the cool older guys like the Berlin faction of the punk scene from the past… indieberlin is not mainstream. It’s a lot of cool types and we just want to have this party with readings. So many people are going to be doing readings, it’s crazy.”

“Are you telling me,” I said, “that Berlin at the moment is like Paris in the 1920s? Loads of literary people roaming around being creative.”

“Yes,” said Polly, “though I dunno if it’s gonna go down in history like that. But it’s trying to be that.”

“What’s the object of the book fair?” I asked.

“The object?” Polly replied, sounding slightly surprised. “A weird and wonderful experience of poetry and stories and flash fiction. There are gonna be talks in the afternoon but it’s mostly gonna be a party.”

“So it’s not a literary fair at all?” I asked. “It’s a piss-up.?”

“Yeah, with lots of literary types. We call it a networking event.”

“So basically,” I said, “you are going to have a literary piss-up with drunken authors and invite people to phone in from foreign countries who can’t be there to drink with you.”

“Well,” Polly suggested, “they can get drunk on the phone or on Facebook.”

”So what is the Literophone exactly?” I asked.

“A fluffy booth located in the back of the bar.”

“The bar?” I asked.

“The bar where we are doing it: one of these rock ’n’ roll venues. They have a little soundproof cubicle in the back where they can do stuff without disturbing the neighbours.

“At first the thought was we would have one-on-one readings where authors who want to can read their work to just one person in an intimate booth setting. Then it evolved. We thought: Oh! All these poets want to come and they can’t make, so maybe we can have them phone in. So we’re gonna phone them from the fluffy booth. Members of the audience can step in and phone a poet, who will read a poem down the phone to them. We will pay for the phone call.”

“How,” I asked, “are you going to make the booth fluffy?”

Polly Trope on fluffy bedspread (Photo by Iain McKell; fox mask by Cecilia Lundqvist

Polly Trope sitting on fluffy bedspread (Photograph by Iain McKell, with a fox mask designed by Cecilia Lundqvist)

“With blankets and fur coats and other furry things. My mum has a very beautiful fake fur bedspread which I’ve stolen. You know when you go to a London phone booth and you can see all these cards for ‘escorts’? It’s going to be a bit like that, except it’s going to be fluffy and it’s not going to be escorts, it’s going to be the names of poets. I’m going to get a rotary telephone and stick my iPhone in it.”

“Who is taking part?” I asked.

“Loads of people,” said Polly. There’s Penny Goring…”

“Not another of Hermann Göring’s relatives?” I said. “I had a blog chat with his very interesting great niece Bettina two years ago.”

“No,” said Polly. “Not Göring with an umlaut. Just with an O. This is a London Goring. And there’s Lucy Furlong: she’s a fantastic poet. I mostly asked poets if they wanted to do it – though there are storytellers of all kinds. We have so many people from America, England, Israel, all over, all going to be available for a couple of hours. I think it’s gonna be awesome.”

“Only Americans can be awesome,” I told Polly. “British people can’t be awesome.”

“But British people can be soo-perb,” she suggested.

“What would Germans be?” I asked.

“Super,” said Polly. “but with a soft S – szuper. Would you like to go into one of those fluffy poet phones if you could?

“I don’t know what I would say.”

“You don’t say anything. You phone up a writer or a poet and they say the things. But you would have to be in Berlin.”

“Someone in Berlin,” I suggested, “could phone me up and I could read one of my blogs to the person sitting in your fluffy booth in Berlin. I could read the Polly Trope blog to him or her.”

“Indeed you could,” said Polly. “I could put your card up in the booth. Will you send me one?”

“Yes. Is there any sequel to Cured Meat on the horizon?”

“I’m finished with Cured Meat,” said Polly. “I’ve run out of copies. I’m doing a new book now.”

“About?” I asked.

“It looks like it’s going to be a set of inter-connected short stories about smoking and ageing.”

Looks like?” I said.

Polly Trope (Pt=hoto by Joe Palermo)

Polly Trope with cigarette (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“Something like that,” said Polly. Stories about smokers and bars and womanhood and ageing and the quest for eternal youth. It starts with a smoking lounge that I used to go to and the people I met in there.”

Polly’s blog gives a hint of what the book may be like.

“What is a smoking lounge?” I asked.

“Just a part of a bar or a cafe where you can smoke.”

“Over here,” I said, “you can’t smoke indoors in public places. You have to go outside. In Scotland, all the smokers will slowly be killed off by hypothermia.”

“Berlin is very lenient for cigarette smokers,” said Polly.

There is a video promo on YouTube for the indie book fair.

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Filed under Art, Books, Germany, Performance, Poetry, Writing

An Edinburgh Fringe Performer’s Guide to Staying Solvent and Sane – maybe

Paul Eccentric signing a boom last night

Strawberry Statement: Paul inscribes a book

Last night, Paul Eccentric was back in London for his book launch, having performed at the Glastonbury Festival, where he fell off the stage for a second time – I think the first time was three years ago, but the people in the medical tent still recognised him and, as someone said last night:

“It is not good when the people in the medical tent recognise you.”

Paul is a man of many festivals. He even has a catchy performance poem about it.

Last night, he was launching his new book The Edinburgh Fringe in a Nutshell which is somewhat optimistically subtitled A Performer’s Guide to Staying Solvent and Sane at the World’s Biggest Arts Festival.

The first part – staying solvent – might be possible after reading this book. The second – staying sane – might be a fantastical step too far.

Julie Mullen

Julie Mullen looked normal last night

Last night’s book launch also included performances from, among others, Rob Auton (who, at one Edinburgh Fringe, managed the impressive feat of getting a 5-star AND a 2-star review of the same performance of the same show), multi-award-winning poet Paul Lyalls (who one year tried to sell the exhaust from his car at his Fringe performances) and Julie Mullen (who looks sane and ‘normal’ but looks can be deceptive).

I should point out other Fringe books are available:

Critic Mark Fisher’s The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: How to Make Your Show A Success (2012) which includes theatre as well as comedy shows… And performer Ian Fox’s How to Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show (2014, now in its second edition).

“So why did you write your book?” I asked Paul Eccentric last night.

“I have no idea, really,” he told me, “but someone during the Fringe said to me You seem to be very angry and I said I’m just a bit pissed-off with myself.”

“Why?” I asked

“For badly managing my day, for taking too many bookings in too short a time and forgetting to eat and drink. The guy said: You should write this down to stop other people making these mistakes. So I did.”

Paul with fan from Siberia (true) who bought 2 books

Paul with fan from Siberia (true) who bought 2 books

“Someone,” I said, “ told me they thought the book was fascinating to read even if you’re not a performer and not thinking of going up there.”

“Well, people have sai…” Paul started to reply.

I added: “…although it was your father who told me that.”

“He wants to know where his money went,” laughed Paul.

The book’s sections include:

  • How To Do It
  • The Show Itself
  • Travel and Accommodation
  • Publicising Your Show
  • Adventures on The Fringe

with advice from producers, performers, venue runners, publicists, reviewers and even me (I seem to have turned into a ‘Fringe commentator’ according to this book).

If nothing else, it is worth reading to see that even a wise participant like Paul Eccentric who has excellent and highly practical advice to give can be conned into thinking I know what I am talking about.

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A Brazilian computer turns my Tweets into poetry… after a fashion. Maybe.

A new website called Poetweet has gone online, created by the Brazilian Contemporary Art Centre. aka the B_arco Cultural Center.

You type your Twitter name into the text box, choose what type of poem you want and the software then allegedly tracks “the data of your inspiration” while, it claims, “analysing your deepest thoughts”.

Analysing my own superficial 140-character thoughts via my own Twitter account, Poetweet came up with this sonnet:

by John Fleming

Singing, vomiting & fisting
Into over 100 million stars…
But it must be something
And the sexual use of Mars Bars

Forget comedy and turn to crime
Drugs, creativity, mental health.
2016… Everything takes time…
And turned to Beautiful Filth

At my worldwide blog statistics
In brain is mainly in the plain
Of British alternative comics

This weekend, literally underground
Church in the Middle East…
Is that a bra in the foreground?

There may be more development needed in the Poetweet software.

It also came up with this Rondel…

by John Fleming

The World Egg Throwing Federation
Parlours and marijuana plantations
Winkleman pops up as a suggestion
Dead British television stations

Norwegian sex act in 2004. Honest.
Mad Frankie Fraser & feminism
And Lesbians in the Forest
The French for liberal Fascism

There are intentional emergencies
Now targeting Fringe comedy acts?
World aid is a holocaust of lies
Shot is real – not special effects
But have some vile Fringe memories

Make of that
What you will
I think I’ll wait
Computers are more
Like Vivienne Clore

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Filed under Computers, Poetry

My view of life was inspired by the film Lawrence of Arabia and by Rameses II

Yesterday, I posted my blog very late.

Today, I am posting it fairly early, to get it out of the way.

I have still not transcribed the troublesome blog chat. Well, in truth, I have two-and-a-half yet-to-be-transcribed long chats for potential blogs. This one is simpler.

Someone asked me a while back if I had a visual simile for life. They must have been on drink, drugs or recently joined some obscure cult. No-one asks that sort of question. But this person did.

I may have mentioned this visual simile in a blog before. If so, I have forgotten. My memory is notoriously shit.

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage in Lawrence of Arabia

Omar Sharif appears, as if in a mirage, in Lawrence of Arabia

There is a famous scene in David Lean’s movie of Lawrence of Arabia – the first appearance of Omar Sharif. My visual simile is different… but imagine you are alone and dehydrated in a desert. You have been there for day upon dry, searingly hot day. There is no water for hundreds of miles in all directions. You are going to die from lack of water.

Then, with the heat haze rising and distorting straight lines, you see a shimmer on the horizon, like a mirage. As the minutes go by, the shimmer becomes an abstract, moving shape. After more minutes, it becomes a shimmering, fluid single shape and, as it approaches closer, you can see it is the mirage of a man on a camel.

Except it is not a mirage.

As the shimmering image approaches, it starts to solidify into a real shape. It really is a man riding slowly towards you on a camel. And, as he comes closer, you can see he carries a water bottle on the side of his camel. In fact, there are several water bottles.

The man and the camel come closer until, eventually, they reach you.

And they pass you by. The man does not even look at you.

And then the man and the camel get smaller and smaller as they move away, until their sharp outline starts to disintegrate in the heat rising from the ground. The shimmering, fluid shape slowly breaks apart like black mercury blobs separating until they become abstract, moving, shimmering shapes and they merge into the horizon until they disappear completely and until nothing is left except the horizon itself, distorting in the heat haze.

That is my visual simile for life.

It is probably influenced not just by Lawrence of Arabia but by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, much quoted by the pretentious:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

My much-used photograph of me standing on Blackford Hill (photograph by ME-U-NF)

A legless photograph of me atop Blackford Hill in Edinburgh (photograph by M-E-U-N-F)

I go up to the Edinburgh Fringe every August and, at least once in that month, I try to walk up the Blackford Hill in the south west of the city for a bit of tranquility and to see the view – the castle rock (the plug of a onetime Ice Age volcano) rising up to the left and Arthur’s Seat (another onetime volcano) rising up to the right. Behind them, especially at dusk, with the lights of the city starting to come on, you can see the Firth of Forth glittering beyond and I imagine what that view might be like centuries and millennia from now. Standing on an island, looking at the small island on the left with the castle on top of it and, to the right, the bigger island of Arthur’s Seat, separated by the expanse of water beneath which lie the streets of the old town of Edinburgh.

You can look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Look on the face of Ozymandias at Abu Simbel

Apparently Shelley wrote his poem Ozymandias in competition with his friend the stockbroker and political writer Horace Smith. For their poetry-writing competition, they chose to elaborate on a passage written by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.”

Ozymandias is the Greek name for Rameses II

The real Ozymandias/Rameses, King of Kings

The real, dead,  Ozymandias, King of Kings aka Rameses II

Horace Smith’s poem is less well-known than Shelley’s Ozymandias – possibly because it is not as good or possibly because his was titled On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below. But it has an interestingly different ending. It reads:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great Ozymandias,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

So there you have today’s blog.

A little bit of pretentiousness, some poetry and a few photos.

It is a bit short on laughs, but you can’t have everything.

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Filed under Egypt, Poetry

Is copywriting gross capitalism and poetry pure art? And what you can do with a cow in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato and much else

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato

When I was in Totnes at the weekend, I met poet Matt Harvey who told me he had once made a radio programme for BBC Bristol called Beans Means Rhymes, about poetry and advertising.

“How did that come about?” I asked him.

“I had just written a love poem to a potato,” he told me.


“It was for a Waste & Resources Action Project Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. It was specifically created to modify people’s behaviour vis-a-vis the potato.”

“Specifically?” I asked.

“People,” explained Matt, “buy a lot of potatoes, eat a few of them and chuck the rest of them away. I was told I had to communicate in a poem that, if your potato does sprout in your storage area, you should not just chuck it away. You should peel, boil or mash it and, if you have some mash left over, you shouldn’t just chuck that away. You should put it in a bag in a freezer and have it later.”

“I would like to see what Tennyson would have done with that brief,” I said. “Why did they decide to do this in a poem and not in prose?”

“It was,” said Matt, “just someone’s very good idea to give me money to write a poem. They had a series of posters with pictures of specific food items on them and a little poem about each. The poem would contain within its crystalline purity little hints about the best way to relate to this food item.”

“How did you approach your potato poem?”

Brevity results from a good brief

A good brief breeds effective brevity

“They gave me a really tight brief. I now include it in performances I do because it’s so interesting: I read out the brief and then the poem.

“As soon as they told me the brief, I went and wrote a little bit of a gush of enthusiasm for the potato taking into account that your love of the potato should include not wanting to waste any part of the potato.

“I found writing to a brief was just a real pleasure: to write a six line poem that says it all. It made me more confident about writing poems to order. I always thought I would never be able to do that but the more specific the brief the easier it is to do, really.”

“Advertising,” I suggested, “is really the same as poetry in that you are selling a concept in a very few words.”

“Yeah,” agreed Matt. “Although, in poetry, you’re often focussing on something nebulous like a feeling of rapture or a nuanced feeling – as opposed to a vegetable.”

“Do you do widespread readings?” I asked.

“I do lots of village hall gigs,” Matt told me. “Have you come across the Rural Touring Forum?”

“I only heard about it,” I replied, “a couple of months ago from mind reader Doug Segal. He should have known earlier that I would be interested.”

“The Somerset one is called Take Art,” said Matt. “In Shropshire, it is Arts & Lung.”

“Sounds like pun,” I said.

“The Devon one invited me to offer a show,” said Matt. “It goes on the menu and village hall promoters get to choose what they want. I encourage people to bring Anglepoise lamps to my gigs, because I find a few Anglepoise lights will adequately light me and it’s really quite atmospheric.”

When we thought we had reached the end of our chat, Matt checked the messages on his mobile phone.

“Ooh!” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“There is some interest from a local snack manufacturer,” he said. “They want to talk to me about being creative with their foodstuff.”

“You are obviously a culinary cult,” I said.

“I was once a question on The Weakest Link,” Matt mused.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I was the official Wimbledon poet,” he replied.

“The London borough?” I asked.

“The tennis championships in 2010,” he replied.

“You stood up in the crowd and declaimed poetry?” I asked.

Matt declaimed his poetry to the BBC at Wimbledon in 2010

Matt read his Wimbledon poetry on BBC News

“I blogged poetry,” he explained, “and one morning, as a gimmick, I went out and read poetry to the queue. They stared at me, bleary-eyed, but they enjoyed it because they were filmed and they were excited. As soon a they saw cameras, they assumed I was important and assumed they should be excited, so they were.”

At the time, Matt told BBC News: “I have a rich inner tennis fantasy life.”

“How did you get that gig?” I asked.

“Wimbledon have had an ‘artist in residence’ for the past seven or eight years,” Matt explained. “The artist has usually been a water colourist or someone working in inks or oils. But, in 2010, they decided they’d have a poet and two enthusiastic women who had heard me on Radio 4‘s Saturday Live and who worked in the visual side at Wimbledon sold this idea to one member of the committee. The rest of the committee didn’t care either way, so they got it passed. The only thing they said to me was Don’t embarrass us.”

“So not too many references to balls, then,” I said.

“I must go,” said Matt.

And, again, we thought this was the end of our conversation, but it was not.

Comedian Matt Roper arrived.

“Did John tell you he went to Cambodia in 1989?” Matt Roper asked Matt Harvey.

“No,” said Matt Harvey.

Why would I? I thought.

“Matt has been to Cambodia too,” said Matt Roper of Matt Harvey.

“Oh?” I said. “Phnom Penh was very empty when I was there. The city had maybe only a third or a quarter of its previous population in it, so it felt very open and empty. The Vietnamese Army had left a month before, so people thought the Khmer Rouge might be back in power in a week or a month or six months. This was back in 1989. Now, from TV footage I’ve seen, I think it’s full of sex tourists and UN jeeps. S-21 was the saddest place I’ve ever been.”

The regulations at Tuol Sleng - S-21 - Phnom Penh

Regulations to be followed at Tuol Sleng – S-21 – Phnom Penh

S-21 was the former girls’ high school which had been turned into a Khmer Rouge interrogation centre and prison.

“S-21 is still on the list of tourist sites,” said Matt Harvey, “together with the Russian market and the royal palace. And you can also pay to fire a bazooka at a live cow.”

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What comedian Alex Frackleton learned from Billy Connolly 24 years afterwards

Alex Frackleton, back in 1989

Alex Frackleton, poet, back in 1989

In December, 1989, Alex Frackleton attended a surprise 50th birthday party for Scots folksinger Danny Kyle in the small town of Strathaven, outside Glasgow. About thirty people were hanging around in the bar downstairs while Danny Kyle performed upstairs.

Alex is now a comedian. Back in 1989, he was a poet.

“Why are we waiting?” Alex asked.

“Billy is coming,” came the reply. “We need to wait.”

“Of course,” Alex told me yesterday, “the penny hadn’t even gone into the slot and I had no idea who he meant, so I just stood there with my pint waiting for this guy called Billy, who was quite obviously fucking late, to turn up. A few minutes later the bar door opens and in walks Billy Connolly with his banjo case.”

Alex continues the story…

* * *

I’m introduced to Billy as a poet and we talk about the poets we like and our conversation takes us to William Topaz McGonagall, whom I love because he is so bad that he’s just brilliant – a comic genius without ever realizing it.

The ‘great’ poet William_McGonagall

The late ‘great’ Scottish poet William McGonagall

“I’d love to do something on old Topaz,” says Billy.

“Like a routine?” I ask.

“Naw,” says Billy. “Naw. I’d like to do something that honours him.”

“Perform one of his poems?”

“Naw, I could never perform one of his poems. Not on stage. It wouldn’t fit in with what I do live.”

“But,” I asked Billy, “if you were to perform one of his poems which one would you do?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” says Billy. “The Tay Bridge Disaster!”

“A classic!” I said.

“Indeed!” said Billy.

It’s time for Danny’s surprise, so we all troop upstairs and burst through the doors just as the applause for his last song begins to fade; then we all start singing Happy Birthday to You.

Danny, always the showman, introduces all of us to the audience of about two hundred, because all the surprise guests are talented musicians and singers, except me: I can’t sing to save to myself, let alone play a musical instrument.

He then introduces Billy – who goes up and does about twenty minutes of then-unheard comedy material about the G-spot. People are falling off their seats laughing and I am mesmerized because, while I had heard him on LP record, I had never seen the man perform before. This is a master craftsman at work. Billy finishes to thunderous applause and Danny comes back on stage and says:

“Thank you, Billy. Thank you very much indeed. Now, ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is a young man whom I’ve had the pleasure of watching over the last half-dozen years mature into a fine poet and performer…”

I look at him and I think: You utter bastard! Putting me on after Connolly, you cunt!

“Will you please welcome on stage the Very Poet, Alex Frackleton…”

I have to go up there. I don’t want to but I must because this is now my job and it’s my friend’s 50th birthday. As I pass Danny on the stage, we have eye contact and I’m sure he sees my fear, confusion, betrayal, bewilderment, not to mention the fucking panic in my eyes – but he just smiles and gives me a big, matey wink, as if to say: Aye, I’ve landed you right in the shit here – Deal with it.

I perform my poem How To Be An Individual.

There are a number of gags throughout Individual but the best one comes about two thirds of the way in. I turn my head left of stage and Connolly is pissing himself laughing.

Nothing will ever take that memory away from me. It means that much to me.

I finish to rapturous applause and I exit the stage.

Billy tells me: “That was fucking fabulous, Alex!”

“Thank you.”

Alex at the Hradec Festival, 2010

Alex at the Hradec Festival, 2010

“Naw,” says Billy. “That really was superb! You should perform The Tay Bridge Disaster! You’d bring it to life!”

“I’ll think about it.”

I never did get around to doing it.

I’ve been performing as a comedian here in the Czech Republic for the last four years and, while my comedy has been received well-enough for me to have repeat bookings at the European Theatre Festival… maybe I should take Billy’s advice and bring The Tay Bridge Disaster to life. Looking back and telling you about that 1989 event today, I have realised I am far, far more comfortable as a performance poet than as a comedian.

Billy did eventually perform The Tay Bridge Disaster in the 1994 BBC TV series Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland.

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