Saturday, 2 June 2012

Starstuck

Of all the poems or pieces of prose I've written, this is the one which causes people to most frequently ask "Did that really happen?" It seems believable enough, I suppose - nothing much really happens in it, beyond a very cowardly and weedy junior office worker getting frightened out of his wits by a local hard-case.  In some small towns in Britain, you could be on the receiving end of this treatment several times a year.

Whilst I've been bothered by an average share of men with a point to prove before now - especially during my very skinny, speccy student days when I looked like a much easier target - it certainly never happened specifically as suggested below.  In truth, the basis for this piece of work was much more dramatic and eventful.  One night when I was wandering back from a pub in Rayleigh with some friends of mine, we were suddenly set upon (completely without provocation) by a gang of men who were slightly older than us and obviously just looking for a bit of a rumble.  My friends reacted swiftly and ran really quickly.  I did not.  I moved slowly, allowed myself to get confused by the chaos of the situation, and having been denied a huge war in a crappy small town in Essex the men set upon me instead, getting me on the floor and proceeding to give my head and body a thorough kicking.

People suspected that I'd write about this experience immediately - "Well, at least you've got some material there!" they quipped, after I'd luckily returned from A&E with no apparent fractures or brain damage - but I didn't.  The whole thing was probably over in about two minutes, and there's only so much you can say about such an event.  The pointlessness of it doesn't lend itself well to a short story, and violent poetry about street fights is a tough thing to pull off without seeming like you're trying to prove a point.  But one image did stay in my head for a long time, that being the "bulb flash" you get behind the eyes after a powerful blow to the head.  The last time I'd noticed it I'd been in a fight at school, and seeing it again immediately felt peculiar and a metaphor for the ridiculous situation I'd found myself in.  Years later, I finally picked up a pen and tried to rationalise everything, but with the threat of violence hanging in the air rather than the actual act of violence itself, which (as any hired thug knows) is usually a lot more chilling and effective anyway.  Hence, I am the man in the poem the "local star" got and is talking about in the past tense, not the person he's actually addressing his comments to in the pub.

This was both an extremely popular and divisive piece of work at live spoken word events, and I got so sick and tired of reading or performing it that I haven't bothered for a few years now.  This is partly me being bored with the work, and partly being tired of having to talk about it or justify it.  The content picked up admiration from some people who felt it was authentic in the way it approached the subject, but criticism from others who felt that it contained a Daily Mail worldview (which I don't think it does, it's a wee bit more detailed and rounded than that, I'd hope - small town boredom and Friday/ Saturday night culture deserves more focus than sneering headlines) and some others who just plain didn't like the violence contained within the poem and didn't feel it was what they'd come to a poetry night to hear (to which I would honestly say "Tough").  It was also a tricky one to pull off live, as I usually had to deliver both the man in the pub's lines and the feeble office worker's internal monologue, which meant switching back and forth between red-faced aggression and neurotic consideration every other minute.  It's also incredibly long - three poems could fit into a live set in the place of this one.  Anyway, it will probably make a return to live sets soon.   We'll see.  

In other news, you'll be pleased to know that I'm really, really quick at running these days, if nothing else.  

“Oi you.
Oi, stood next to me.
Oi.
Don’t ignore me.
My life is like a film.
You got that?
A film.
Are you listening, mate?
Well then I’ll tell you something,
there aren’t many stars in a small town
but I’m one of them.
I’ve seen you sat there,
lips smug as the arse crack of the Duke of Kent
but who knows your name?
Who notices when you’re here?”

(Don’t ask me how this conversation started.
I don’t know this man.
I was walking towards the bar,
my mouth dry from too much office coffee,
mucus clinging like pond algae
to the back of my throat,
when like a bird necked boy
I flitted into this space nervily,
jerkily avoiding his gaze.
Gazes are only friendly to some people,
and you can generally guess who).

“Ah see.
You looked at me then, didn’t ya?
You know,
it don’t make no sense
but I can tell how powerful I am
just by how many people in a bar
don’t look at me or say hello,
don’t return my stare.
I have that,
I’ve always had that,
and you can’t learn it.
Did you hear me?
You can’t LEARN that, I said.
Are you listening to me?”

(He only thinks I’m listening
if I look right at him
though I don’t use my eyes to hear,
and nature has taught me
to know my place.
I smile, I look, try to be on equal footing,
cowering, contemplating my
soft suede shoes,
raising my eyes just slightly,
and take him in, up and up,
notice his footwear is reassuringly
non-steel capped in its appearance,
his jeans are faded with continents
of lager splashes,
Australia on his ankle,
Greenland on his groin.
His Nike T-shirt delivers a tick
across a bear-like chest to
assure me he even meets
with corporate approval,
his hair is bristling over a
face dented and hit
like grey plasticine
with a wooden spoon,
his pupils pinpointed in
pure 360 degree eyes).

“You’d better be listening, mush.
I think it’s about time you knew a bit.
You don’t know shit, you.
Never spoken to me before, have ya?
Well I’ve never offered permission,
but I’ve made a few enquiries,
found out bits about you.
See, that slag you was with last night,
I’d fuck ‘er, me, given half a chance,
so naturally I wanna know more
about the bloke on her tail, and
I must say, I reckon
you’re a waste of space.
You reckon yourself some sort of
poet I hear? 
Let me tell you,
last week after the Lewis fight
we got tanked up,
looked for the nearest bloke like you,
got ‘im on the floor and
kicked him til he crunched, and
y’know that flash behind the eyes?
The one you get with a head punch,
bursting like a bulb in the
corner of your eye?
Well, that’s the press
shooting your defeat and another
victory for me
That, by the way, is also
poetry, which any tosser can do.
You can sit down now,
You’ve been warned”.

(I have turned into a ragged
shaking skeleton, rib cage hollow and
echoing fear, sparks and needles
replacing my internal organs
one by one, and I sit down, drink up,
and get out of this bar.
I caught only one glimpse but
his face is etched on my mind
more than any of the late night
TV hosts who gibber like chimps
for the after pub crowd that evening.
I feel as if I have just narrowly
avoided being star struck).

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