Friday 24 July 2020

Before The Honey

I'm going to resist the temptation to say too much about this one. When I used to introduce it at gigs, I'd get great mileage out of claiming it was based on a real life event, often starting my introduction by claiming that it was a document of the typical experience of having attractive thirty-something women breaking into your East London flat in the middle of the night.

People would either laugh incredulously or heckle, obviously, because that's patently not true, but amazingly I have been asked who it was based on. "Who was this terrifying woman?" someone said in a concerned fashion after a gig.

The answer? Everybody and nobody. Without giving the game away too much, I was having an almost adolescent session of philosophically musing to myself about how much compromise takes place in relationships, how much their success depends upon being in the right place at the right time, and how suitable, lovable people seemingly emerge from the ether just at the time you're mature enough to deal with them, and how this can almost feel as if it's been plotted out for you by invisible or manipulative hands, even to the extent of you being seduced or bashed around the head by the comforts of conformity. Somehow, that romantic and anti-romantic naval-gazing eventually morphed into this poem, which perhaps partly addresses some of those questions but to be honest, probably just raises a hell of a lot more (not least about my state of mind).

The woman isn't based on anyone in particular at all, and while I was writing it the vision I had was actually very vague and imprecise. I've always imagined her to have blonde highlights in her hair and a green summer dress on, but that's as much as I ever saw. If you see more, let me know.

It's a very simple poem but it's one of the few old ones I don't get the sudden urge to stick red lines through and rewrite. What it sets out to do, it does, and it feels like it weaves a neat narrative and has some images I still quite like. In particular, the line "before you honeyed me to death" could have about four different interpretations, any of which is correct so far as I'm concerned (as smug as that sounds). Interestingly, how people interpret it seems to depend upon how they feel about relationships in general. It probably doesn't help that the scenario sounds so terrifying...

If you want to read it rather than listen to it, you can do so here.

Monday 6 July 2020

Newport Pagnell

One of the weirdest things I've found about live poetry is that it tends to be the material I feel lukewarm, or at best ambivalent about that gets the strongest responses from audiences.

This one is particularly odd. It was inspired by a really bad poetry night I attended, filled to the brim with wannabe slam superstars who had all the swagger but no decent material, and I envisaged that my own particular idea of hell would involve being stuck on a broken down coach on a motorway siding near a dull town with them (but not actually IN the town - too interesting, that). I have no memory of why I picked Newport Pagnell in particular, but perhaps something about the name itself and the town's proximity to Milton Keynes loaned itself neatly to the concept (I might be imagining this, but I think an early draft might even have used Milton Keynes instead of Newport Pagnell, but I correctly dropped it as being too much of a cliche). 

I really quickly wrote up the basic idea on the tube journey home, with two suited city workers sat either side of me making no attempt to disguise the fact they were gawping at what I was doing with interest and perhaps concern (which may have further fed into the poem's atmosphere of frustration and irritation). I tidied it up the following day and promptly forgot all about it, until I tested it at the "Poetry Unplugged" open mic one Tuesday evening and found it went down astoundingly well, even picking up compliments from people who haven't always been kind about my work. 

From then on, it became a feature of every set I did for at least three years, always getting the same enthusiastic audience response, until I decided to ditch it one day. Why? Well, the nagging doubts I always had about it never quite disappeared, and it turned out I wasn't alone. My wife complained about it one evening, arguing that it was a long rant about poetry and wannabes and "not about anything that really matters to anyone else". Somebody approached me after a gig to complain about the "bad vibes" the poem gave off. I performed it at an open spot at "Bang Said The Gun" and again, a couple of members of the audience took exception to the general tone. This would have been a brilliant response and their irritation would have been seen as proof of my genius if I genuinely believed that I'd written a savage piece of satire exposing the shortcomings and downsizable downsides of the spoken word circuit, but I really didn't. I too was plagued with doubts about the poem, and their criticisms felt far too on-the-money for my liking. 

This was also written at a time of enormous change in the poetry circuit when younger, streetwise and more naturally confident performers were surging towards the headline spots, and part of me wondered if I was responding to this threat with the insecurity and jealousy of an old lag rather than with honest criticism. Some of the poets who inspired the anger to begin with have probably developed into fine writers and performers by now, and possibly part of me wanted the live poetry circuit to remain an outlet and entertainment option for geeks, freaks, outsiders and weirdos rather than the flash boys and girls of London. I don't know this for a fact, but once the idea occurred to me, it never really went away. 

Anyway, fast forward to 2020 and I was slightly surprised when I was in the Poetry Cafe shortly before lockdown and someone collared me and asked me to do "Newport Pagnell" again. It's been retired for at least seven years now, but I suppose its repetition and the snappy simplicity of some of the imagery means it is, if nothing else, memorable to those who heard it. I don't like to use a lot of repetition in poetry, but the few examples where I have - primarily this and "Slow Death Of Another Trade" - have paid off with a much higher recognition factor and probably helped me to get gigs. 

People have often asked who inspired the "shit in a slogan T-shirt from Surrey" line in the poem. The boring answer is it's a composite again. It is true to say, however, that early on my days in the circuit I knew someone who was obsessed with success and discovering a good formula over and above everything else, and tended to sneer at anybody who "lacked ambition" - ironic, then, that he disappeared without trace very quickly before getting any gigs, perhaps realising that poetry was never going to scratch the fame itch he clearly had. Nonetheless, he never wore a slogan t-shirt - other poets who weren't very good did.

I would occasionally go into long, fanciful, almost surreal monologues before starting this poem at gigs, building up fanciful pictures about who this character was, to the extent that the audience thought I was having some kind of breakdown, before revealing them to be exaggerations and lies. There is no interesting story to be told here. To be honest, though, I often think those weird, rambling monologues were funnier and more interesting than the poem itself, though sadly I don't have any recorded examples.

Still, here's a live recording of the poem itself, so anyone who ever really wants to hear it again can just press play to their heart's content. This was recorded at the Live Poetry Podcast event at the Poetry Cafe, which I remember as being a fantastic evening (hosted and run by Dominic O'Rourke - long time no see/hear, Dom, if you're reading this). I don't think the poem itself is due a revival, though. 

Sunday 21 June 2020

Checking The Engine

Right, so this is a new one. A poem which hasn't even found a place in a live set yet, because it was written too close to lockdown (and who knows, maybe it never will. Maybe I'll decide I don't like it by the time I'm even back into a position to think about live sets again).

One of the problems I have with poetry as an artform, which I'm sure I've written about before, is the idea that everything is a confessional - that as soon as you write about it, it's both the whole truth and nothing but the truth (rarely so; often poets have a tendency to pick places or objects which scan better or which stronger metaphors can be built around) and something you feel really strongly about, or have suffered some trauma over. Otherwise, why put pen to paper in the first place? Well... the truth is that ideas are largely uncontrollable, and if two things which seem as if they could connect incredibly well in a poem pop into my head at the same time, then I'm hardly going to be able to resist the temptation just because it's not a burning issue or it may lead to false impressions. 

"Checking The Engine" wasn't inspired by a recent situation, but by those awkward relationships which have dogged both my life and everyone else's periodically. The people you're meant to get along with and life has thrown you together with, and have nothing against, but have noticed are a little stern, false or disapproving around you. Partners of friends whose differences of taste and opinion have somehow become a problem rather than something to be laughed off. Neighbours who wish they weren't living next door to you, without ever really telling you why. Dinner party guests who have taken an immediate dislike to you for working in the arts or writing poetry (you can only assume, having never met them before, and given that these are the only facts they've been provided about you). Usually what causes these people to finally snap isn't a serious situation, but an honest mistake or a trivial issue which then creates an eruption of rage, like one of Frank Spencer's jowl-quivering foes in "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em".

I'm going to resist the temptation to say whether the concluding lines of this poem are the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but they are based on something that actually happened to me. I did own a racing car duvet as a child - the top of it nearest the pillow was a cockpit, and the road stretched ahead on the rest of the covering. God, I loved sitting up in it and pretending to drive my bed around the chicanes of Brands Hatch, or imagine I was sleeping in a racing car for the night and not a warm house. I sat up for ages twisting an imaginary steering wheel pretending that I was an adult and I was able to drive, and of course, in the end I never actually learnt. Anyway.... POEM. 

Monday 15 June 2020


Back in the days when I had the time, and also when email was a less dominant form of written communication, I used to be a prolific letter writer. Some of the letters I wrote were sent to female friends I was now living some distance away from, or pen-pals I'd somehow accumulated through my interests in music or poetry.

The ways these narratives usually progress in film and fiction is that the person receiving these letters - which are, of course, witty, wise and often confessional, because we all think we're astonishing at writing letters, obviously - gets wooed by the writer and a serious relationship ensues.

That never happened to me, but whenever I entered into a relationship through other less extraordinary means, the letters often became a source of jealousy and suspicion. Likewise, at least one of the partners of the recipients of my letters made enquiries about who I was and what was going on, even though he didn't live on the same continent or time zone as me.

To summarise the problem in a nutshell, the posted written word can be quite loaded and more dangerous and easier to misinterpret than a phone call. That's the inspiration for this poem/prose piece (call it what you want) over and above everything else.

As to whether an event actually occurred as suggested in the audio below, not really. I never had a proper conversation with a partner about the appropriateness of someone else's behaviour, though I did have to deal with the odd withering comment or raised eyebrow ("Oh, I see [insert name here] has been in touch yet again") - but pretending I did have a serious issue gives the piece something to react off and bounce against; plus, giving the piece an interrupting additional voice also serves the added purpose of making me sound like less of a vain shit who is assuming romantic interest from someone else where there might actually be none. Now do you see how deceptive people who think about writing a lot can be? Stick to phone calls, that's my advice.

If you'd prefer not to engage with the audio below and just read the piece you can find the text here.

Monday 8 June 2020

Being English

Some poems never really get old, unfortunately. Years ago while at a writing workshop, I was warned to stop writing "topical" poems. The world moves too fast these days, I was told, and the turning cycle of publishing houses is slower than an oil tanker in high winds - by writing about political events, I was usually giving my work a six month "use by" date. 

This turned out to be rubbish advice (and possibly inaccurate nautical advice, though I'm no expert). While it's certainly true that political parties move at an incredibly swift pace, and the emergence of new figureheads and influential voices constantly surprises - I couldn't have foreseen Donald Trump becoming president when I first wrote this poem, though I might have had an inkling that Boris Johnson would eventually become Prime Minister - the underlying tensions seldom change that much. The political pendulum is constantly trying to find its natural resting place, and poems and works of literature which seem irrelevant one year can frequently become relevant again two years hence, however much you might wish that weren't the case. Sometimes all you need to do with political poems is swap the names of the politicians around a bit, and hey presto, they're relevant again and nobody is any the wiser.  

Still, nobody is actually named in this poem and none of the above really nails what it's actually about, but the lines "we are immeasurably, utterly sorry for every state of affairs/ but nothing must change" leapt out at me yesterday, and you'll know why. Apologies come easily to us as a nation. Shifting the entire narrative and instigating real change, on the other hand, often seems too frightening, too sudden and impolite, undoes far too much "tradition". Enough said, hopefully.

There's lots of bits of this poem I don't like anymore and I'd do it differently if I had to do it all over again, but that will never stop being a problem either...