Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Mortimer Ribbons

Towards the close of the last decade, just as the London spoken word circuit really started to find its feet and actually gain mainstream media publicity, numerous characters seemed to come and go.  In the rush of apparently new faces, it became confusing to keep track of what everyone was up to.  You would meet people fresh from university with William Burroughs books under their arms who would appear at Poetry Unplugged three times to read some cut-ups then never be seen again. Then you'd get poets or writers who were actually damn good who disappeared suddenly and unexpectedly, and had no mailing lists organised to tell us what was going on.  And Mortimer Ribbons - or Mort, as he was known towards the end of his performing career - was one such.

I first became aware of him at Poetry Unplugged.  An incredibly dapper figure, he sat down onstage and glassily gazed at the audience beneath the brim of his hat while delivering a sinister and downbeat monologue about the unrealistic nature of most ordinary people's dreams.  It referred largely to people's fantasies about relationships and sex, and was a straightforward piece but expertly delivered (I guessed immediately he had a background as an actor) and written with care.  I approached him at the end of the night to say how much I'd enjoyed his performance, and made encouraging noises believing him to be a new writer and performer.  He was perfectly polite and amiable about this, but to my embarrassment I later found out that he'd had a long history with poetry, running workshops and performing throughout most of the seventies and eighties, and had even been an actor in the Crystal Theatre Group in the sixties.  In my defence, I can only say that I've witnessed other people give similar 'encouraging' praise to long-serving performers at the Poetry Cafe and elsewhere -  if poets aren't on the Latitude hitlist and the first time you've see them is at an open mic, incorrect assumptions can get made. Hey, we can't all be everywhere at once, and it's not as if any of this stuff goes out live on the BBC, you know...

Our paths continued to cross, with us sharing a couple of poetry bills in London, including at a notorious event in Shadwell which booked bands and poets. The poets on the bill either tended to get a rough, mocking ride from the audience (and on occasion the bands) or blow everyone away. Numerous people got gigs at this night, had a brilliant time and felt insufferably smug while watching their fellow poets bomb, only to be invited back again another week to bomb themselves. It taught poets a lot about working with difficult crowds and developing some humility, something many of us needed to learn back in the mid-noughties. Anyway, I digress.

Mort, so far as I'm aware, never "stormed" it at this venue. His act was too macabre and sombre to possibly illicit whoops of enthusiasm. What do you do when someone stands on stage, staring at you through glassy eyes beneath a wide-brimmed hat, making slow, dramatic gestures and riffing on distinctly noir ideas about all the things that would never happen in your life, reminding you that death was an inevitability? A whoop and scream of "Yes!" wouldn't feel appropriate. And death began to feature much more prominently in his work. One piece I remember him reading regularly at this time contained the regular refrain "But not in this life". Each burst of optimism, each private fantasy, was demolished with this uttered dismissal. I wish I had the text or some sort of recording to show you how it worked, but I don't. And it did work. Mort was a captivating and subtle performer who just got audiences to shut up and look at what he was doing. And the particular thing he was doing was never going to spark a revolution or propel him to headline slots with Hammer and Tongs, but you remembered it - or I remembered it - years after the event, when all the hundreds of slam-winners and boisterous versifiers all joined together in my brain as one unidentifiable mush.

Months passed, and I didn't see Mort. On the poetry circuit, that's quite usual. People have demanding dayjobs, families with needs, problems of their own. I assumed he'd be back soon. Then I was talking to a poetry promoter - the very same poetry promoter who ran the night I mentioned - in a bar about a night he was giving half a thought to putting on for Halloween, consisting of dark or horrific poetry. (A night that never came to pass, so far as I know).

"Well, you know who would be a shoe-in for that kind of bill," I said. "Mort, obviously."
He looked at me slightly taken aback.
"Dave," he said. "Mort's dead. He passed away some time ago."

He went on to explain to me that, even while he was performing at his venue and doing other gigs besides, Mort had actually been going in and out of hospital for cancer treatment. His health had been in poor shape, and the last anyone had seemingly heard of him were a few half-hearted gig arrangements made on the phone, subject to his health, which were pencilled in then never confirmed. Radio silence commenced, and news filtered back through the circuit that Mort had indeed passed on. News I obviously hadn't received myself.

My first response wasn't to be upset, and I didn't feel the need to grieve. I admired Mort, but I was never  properly friends with him (more is the pity). We were on nodding terms and talked about each other's work on occasion, but I knew nothing of his life or background until after he died. What I felt, however, was terribly chilled and unnerved, and there are many moments where I remember him (like today) and still get that chill. I realised that for most of the whole time I'd watched him perform, he knew he was unwell, and possibly his life would be over soon. It seemed to explain the "Not in this life" refrain, and his obsessions with film noir and trash novels with death on every page. His work suddenly acquired an extra layer.

Of course, these are all assumptions on my part, and it's entirely possible he wrote all the material ten years before performing it and it bore no relation at all to his present life, and the whole thing was fuelled by some dark coincidence. But nonetheless, the fact that during a dark and worrying time in his life he bothered to get himself to pubs with sticky floors to take a mic and try to shut a chatty London audience up - that's astonishing. Will I spend my last year or two on Earth like that? I might, but don't bank on it necessarily, and I doubt I could ever do it with such style.


Most of this blog entry has actually been sitting in my draft folder for three years now. I keep returning to it and feeling awkward about it. Is it really my business, as an outsider of a person's circle, to have this particular interpretation of someone's work and death? Have I said everything I wanted to say? Have I done Mort as a performer justice? I'm seeing three big "Nos" in answer to those questions, like a row of three lemons on a fruit machine. I don't know if I have any right to be saying this, or any right to be here. But a couple of years back, when I was surfing the web trying to find out more information about Mort, I saw James Brown (of "Loaded" fame) saying that he'd seen a memorial bench with Mortimer's name on it in a park. He asked if anyone knew who this Mortimer Ribbons character was. A couple of people piped up affirmatively. The bench has since attracted attention from people on other social media sites, marvelling at his name and wondering whether he lived up to it. Damn right he did. And I did want to actually answer those people's questions, somehow, if nothing else.

There are very few film or audio clips of Mort online, but I managed to find the one at the top of this blog entry on YouTube. It seems to be a clip of him from 2008 improvising work at an open mic in a pub where people happen to be watching a football match in the next room. It's not the best Mortimer performance I've ever seen or heard, but you can get a clear impression of his presence and where he was coming from, and the finality of it at the end is striking.

"And finally the waitress watched the hero walk away, realising at last... that he never was a poet, and he's never going to Paris, and he's not going to take her with him".

At least, not in this life. Not in this life.

So I suppose I could rewrite this blog entry again, and sit on it for three more years wondering if it's appropriate, but clearly nothing in this life can ever be perfect. In a minute, I will press "publish", and it will be done.