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.
“In the 1980s, no comedy clubs existed outside of London. In 1982 Chorley comedian Phil Cool came into our pub. Because I was into comedy I recognised him.
“He was about to make it big time and said he wanted somewhere to practise and work-in his routine. So I started a comedy club downstairs in our cellar called Laughingas Comedy.
“We had this idea that every other Monday night there would be a guest comedian and anyone else who wanted to try out their material.
“Then I went to London and brought some acts from there, such as Jo Brand, Jeremy Hardy from Radio 4, Arnold Brown from The Comedy Store, Phil Cornwell from Stella Street, Felix Dexter, who was one of the first comedians on the circuit, and Jenny Eclair.”
Now Steve has written a poetry book – Reflections.
So I talked to him via Skype.
Steve Taylor with his then wife Kim at The Royal Oak, Chorley, in the 1980s
JOHN: You got into comedy back in the 1980s at the right time. Is this the right time to get into poetry?
STEVE: (LAUGHS) Well, I stopped promoting comedy just as it became popular and there was money to be made out of it.
JOHN: And poetry?
STEVE: You can’t make money writing poetry, unless you write verses for Christmas cards and birthday cards. Who pays you for poems other than comedy nights? – If you’re lucky.
JOHN: So why the career change – writing poetry?
STEVE: I would never be arrogant enough to call myself a poet. Being ‘a poet’ is like you do it for a living. It would be nice to do it for a living, but it will never happen.
STEVE: It just won’t.
JOHN: So why poetry now?
STEVE: I’ve always written stuff but never kept it. Then, about three years ago, I wrote something on holiday which I really liked and I thought: THIS could be performed! It was a poem about Magaluf. So I tried doing a few poems at a couple of open mic nights and they went really well.
I thought: I’m going to save the poems. And, as time went on, I just felt myself in the frame of mind to write. When I started writing more and more and including them in stand-up gigs and putting some on Facebook, people started saying: Why don’t you put them in a book?
JOHN: Are they written as performance poems?
STEVE: In the book, perhaps about 30% are performance poems. There’s 100 poems in there.
JOHN: Is there a poetry circuit in the North West of England?
“Comfortable playing to an audience that don’t expect poetry”
STEVE: I’m not keen on the poetry circuit. I feel more comfortable playing to an audience that don’t expect to get poetry.
So I might play to an open mic night where it’s 90% musicians. Or a folk music club where it’s musicians and singers.
I feel better there because I don’t feel I’m competing against people who are doing the same thing.
I have a very low opinion of my ability and I worry that I won’t be good enough.
I’ve not done anything outside Lancashire yet.
JOHN: Could some of them be turned into songs?
STEVE: Maybe 20%-25% of the ones in the book were written with a tune in mind.
JOHN: An original tune?
STEVE: Yeah. But, as I can’t sing or play an instrument…
STEVE: Very, very funny bloke, Bob. He was a good friend. A great friend. I carried his coffin, sadly. He and I set up a comedy club in 2000. It was called Laughingas. The same name I had used before. Peter Kay did the opening night. He had done That Peter Kay Thing and was just writing and filming Phoenix Nights at the time. He packed the place; he did an hour and a half for his 20-minute set.
The trouble was, when we set that club up in 2000 and I phoned up all the Names I used to know, they said: “Oh sorry, we can’t do it now. We’re tied-up with Jongleurs.” Or “We’re tied-up with the Comedy Store. They won’t let us do other gigs…” Well, at least, they said they had to be available for them. If I booked them and, say, the Comedy Store had a drop-out and phoned them, they had to do it.
JOHN: Why are you not running clubs now?
STEVE: I keep losing money on themToo many people are doing them now.
JOHN: Have you been influenced by anyone in poetry?
The inspirational Northerner John Cooper Clarke
STEVE: Not particularly, but I love John Cooper Clarke. When I was into punk music in the 1970s, I thought: He’s a poet… But he is cool and trendy and listenable… It made me feel it was more acceptable to write poetry and it didn’t have to be arty-farty. My very first performance poem – it’s in the book – was I Want To Be a Ranting Poet. It was a put-down of ranting poets and now I am one at times. He is mentioned in it. I think John Cooper Clarke made poetry accessible to anyone.
JOHN: I suppose Wordsworth was a Northern poet.
STEVE: I’m not particularly interested in poets. I know very little about poets. There was a great poet on the circuit, sadly currently dead – Hovis Presley. There’s a lot of good Northern poets – like Tony Walsh.
JOHN: So you are writing poetry for ‘ordinary folk’ – but ‘ordinary folk’ get embarrassed by poetry, don’t they? They think it’s a bit arty-farty and ‘not for me’. Is there a problem about finding the audience?
STEVE: Yeah, but I run a pub, as I have done for 30-odd years. I did a launch party for the book in my pub – full of football fans, builders, rough ’n’ ready and I can’t believe how many of them bought it and liked it.
JOHN: Well, once people give themselves permission to read ‘poetry’ with an open mind…
STEVE: I sold out the first print run of the book quite quickly – I covered my costs and made a small profit – and I’m now in the process of seeing if I can get it in Waterstones bookshops.
JOHN: Is it available on Amazon?
STEVE: No, you can only get it through me at the moment.
JOHN: Is there a website?
STEVE: There’s a list of contacts in the book – My phone number, my Facebook page, my email.
JOHN: Isn’t that a problem? If you want to find out where to buy the book, you have to buy the book. This might slow sales.
JOHN: If you get on Amazon, you might find you become a cult in somewhere like Western Australia or Guatemala.
STEVE: The book is quite parochial to Lancashire.
JOHN: You think? I think it has got general appeal.
The Brook pub in Ramsbottom, near Bury, in Lancashire
STEVE: Well, the back section has poems about my home town of Bury, my time at college in Bolton, my love of Manchester and the village of Ramsbottom, where I am now.
JOHN: I don’t think The Beatles’ Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields only appeal to people from Liverpool, though.
You didn’t tailor it to a specific audience?
STEVE: I have written stuff to order. Someone asked me to write something for a wedding, to put on a plaque. And someone else wanted something about Bonfire Night. (It’s in the book.) It took me 45 minutes all in one go to write this quite long poem about childhood and Bonfire Night, which I was really pleased with.
Sometimes I can do that; other times I think over them forever. Most of my best poems come out in one go. I think the hardest thing about poetry is not the writing of it. It’s the coming up with the idea of what to write about. When I’m telling myself I have to write ‘some stuff’, it doesn’t really flow the same. It’s when I get an actual idea and a theme: that’s when it flows. It’s all about life, really – poetry and comedy. It’s about what you see and how you interpret it.
I WANT TO BE A RANTING POET
I want to be a ranting poet, I’ve got the accent right, I know it, Aggressive delivery of my own, And talking in a monotone, I’ve got no talent and want to show it, By being, A ranting poet. It’s easy when you get the hang, You don’t use big words just slang, You don’t have worries trying to fit, All the things you want to say on one line because in ranting poetry it doesn’t matter anyway and no one gives a shit. No one laughs and no one smiles, At poems that go on for miles, So how can I make my name, With poems that all sound the same, Johnny Clarke did it, he showed the way, A living legend still today. I have to think of something new, And give it my political left wing view, Talk about things that have happened to me, Nostalgia’s not what it used to be, Or wars and crime and unemployment, Dole queues, bus queues Snooker cues ? Disappointment . Walking the streets up and down all day, Depressing everyone going my way, No this ranting poetry’s not for me, I thing I’ll have to leave it be, I had a go I had my try, I think I’ll sod off home now Bye.
(SINCE THIS BLOG WAS POSTED, STEVE HAS BUILT A WEBSITE WHICH IS… HERE)
“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”
Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative.
“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”
Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”
Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…
DOWIE: This book my first prose work.
FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.
DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.
FLEMING: So why now?
DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.
DOWIE: Is that the word?
FLEMING: I dunno.
DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.
FLEMING: How has the book done?
An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway
DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.
FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?
DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?
DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.
FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?
DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.
FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.
DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.
FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…
DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.
FLEMING: To distract them?
DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.
“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”
“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”
“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”
It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.
FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?
DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.
FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…
FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.
DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.
FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)
DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.
FLEMING: A great name, though.
DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.
FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.
DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.
Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”
DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.
FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?
DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.
FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.
DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.
FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.
DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.
FLEMING: I don’t know that one.
DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”
FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?
William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea
DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.
FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?
DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.
FLEMING: On stage, though?
DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.
FLEMING: I think that might just be you.
DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.
FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?
DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.
FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?
DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.
FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?
John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August
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 magazineSun Zoom Spark.
This is what Paul/Mr Twonkey wrote.
I have edited it slightly for length.
STOP THE GAME THERE’S A HEN ON THE FIELD
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.
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.
“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 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 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.”
“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 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.”
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 Nutshellwhich 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 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:
“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
“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.
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:
AUDIENCE MEMBER 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…
ORIGINAL TRAILER 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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
“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 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.
“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.”
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.”
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 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!”
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.