Thursday, 1 February 2018

What do Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim and Mark E Smith have in common?

Answer: Besides continuing to stubbornly beat their own particular paths for decades without ever softening what they do... they're both the themed subject of two poetry nights coming up in London very soon, both of which I'll be involved in.

The Lawrence themed evening is at Bingo Masters Breakout, "London's premier poetry/ karaoke/ bingo night", which is exactly as described. Attendees will have the opportunity to sing Lawrence songs on the karaoke machine, win a cash prize at bingo, and listen to poetry - either from other folk on the open mic, or me in the feature slot. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the least conventional poetry nights in the UK, but has managed over a decade of activity and shows no signs of slowing down. I even managed to overhear two bearded youths talking about it while I was walking down a Central London street last week, so clearly it's reaching ver kids in the know.

It's a night that's also very, very difficult to plan a set for, but by pure coincidence I was working on a poem last year which I scrapped because I found it rather too Lawrency, and being contacted to do this gave me the excuse to pull it out of the draft folder and put some meat on its bones. So at the very least there will (probably) be that.

This will be taking place at The Betsey Trotwood at 56 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3BL on 9th February with a 7:30pm start. The Facebook details are here.

On a slightly more sober note, the death of Mark E Smith, while slightly unsurprising given recent reports of his health, still managed to shake up a lot of us on the poetry circuit. This might sound odd to outsiders, but Fall gigs were generally accidental socials for us, as we'd bump into poetry people we hadn't seen in a long while. Smith's lyrical ideas and influences were a beacon, especially to the more experimental spoken word artists, and that's resulted in a huge outpouring across social media over the last couple of weeks.

The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden is hosting a Mark E Smith special on Monday 12th February at 7:30pm, where anyone can turn up and do an open mic session where they reminisce, read Smith lyrics, poems or short stories by any of his influences, or whatever they feel is appropriate. This is a wonderful idea and I'll definitely be present, as will Tim Wells, Emma Hammond, Richard Price, Michael Shann, Matt Abbott, Claire Temple, Mark Gilfillan, Matt Melia, Dan Cockrill, Michael Wyndham, Simon Pomery and Gavin Martin… and others to be confirmed (Luke Wright - where are you?)

The Poetry Cafe is on Betterton Street, WC2 9BX, and again, the Facebook details are here.

(Thanks - kind of - to Jon Hall for the cartoon at the top of this entry, by the way). 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Bigger The Map

At the end of another trying day, we found ourselves lying down in a suburban London Bed & Breakfast not far from where my grandmother had lived. The amber street light outside bled through a gap in the curtains, so I could make out small amounts of detail in the minimal light- Anna’s arm arching on to my chest, and the faint traces of summer freckles creeping up towards her wrist. I could also see faded hints of flowers on the uncomfortably off-white wallpaper, like faint splashes of Ribena that nobody had been considerate enough to clean off.

Aside from the noise of the odd passing car, the silence was uncomfortable – unexpected even – for a grotty B&B. I decided to break it by talking, which had not usually been a good policy at many points in the last few months.

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve been behaving lately,” I began.

“I know, I know”, she replied gently.

“This isn’t me really, you know, it’s just that I’m ill,” I continued.

“I know, I know,” she repeated.

“Everyone says so,” I added, sensing rare sympathy from her. “It’s generally agreed”.

“I know,” she said again.

The simple repetition of her words and the noise of her gentle breathing was hypnotic. I had grown used to the metronomic noise of the grand-daughter clock we owned in our Bristol flat. When Anna first moved in, she demanded I let it wind down, as it left her unable to sleep. Once I had let it run its course, though, I found I couldn’t sleep myself – I needed the reassurance of its mathematical precision, the certainty of its rhythm. Without it, I felt afraid, wide open to chaos. Right now, her breath and repetitive platitudes were taking its place.

“And this is a fresh start,” I said. “Once we get to Australia in a few weeks, we can rest for as long as we want, and I can recuperate.”

“I know,” she said wearily. “I know.”

“But things are definitely going to change”.

“I know,” she replied again, and moved her hand slowly around to touch my face. I felt her fingers pulling gently at my eyelids, and the palm of her hand brushing my nose. I had forgotten how tired I really was, and her hands felt like a rubbery foam oozing in. Sleep rushed forwards, plugging my ears and eyes, making me oblivious to everything. Before I went under, I had a strange suspicion that she said something else, something which varied the script away from the gentle reassuring rhythms she had been uttering earlier. It caused a vague pang of doubt, but whatever it was, it wasn’t loud or shocking enough to stir me from the first throes of sleep.


The next thing I knew, light was piercing its way through the open curtains, and an unfamiliar middle aged woman was stood in front of the window, talking loudly at me.

“It’s not,” she trilled camply, in the manner of a 1970s TV show puppet, “in my nature to burst into the bedrooms of strangers in this way, but it’s fifteen minutes after the time you were supposed to have left this hotel, I’m afraid. I banged and banged on the door, but you might have been dead for all I knew”.

“What?!” I replied, sitting bolt upright, desperately trying to make sense of my surroundings.

“I said,” she replied, “You have got to be out in the next fifteen minutes. Unless you want to pay for another night here, that is, and,” she sneered, “I’d say you’re not in a position to do that”.

I quickly scanned the room in a vain attempt to make sense of the situation. We had set the

travel alarm the night before, but that had disappeared from the dressing table. Along with it, Anna’s clothes, her rucksack, and her yellow summer jacket had also gone. It was almost as if she had never happened to me, as if the last five years had been some sort of peculiar dream, and I had in reality spent the time sleeping in dingy hostels like this one.

“Oh, she’s long gone, by the way,” the lady said with a pleased expression, restoring some startling sense to the moment. “She left very early this morning in quite a bad way. Having hysterics, she was. I had to sit her down with a cup of tea, try to get her to calm down.”

“Where did she go?!” I demanded forcefully. I received a baleful glare.

“Oh, she’s paid, if that’s all you’re worried about. Don’t fret about that.”

I looked up at the woman in disbelief. She was possibly the angriest individual I had encountered in the last year, and 2005 had taken me to all sorts of places – the DSS, the squalid house-shares of untrustworthy acquaintances, and, due to a misunderstanding with some officers of the law, a police cell for the night. Her face looked like a silicon mask in the process of being peeled off, with a number of pale white spots the shape of individual Rice Krispies glued to her forehead. She looked down her long nose at me from behind dark curls in her fringe, waiting for me to respond.

“Where’s she gone?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

The lady tossed a sealed envelope on to my bed, then waited for me to open it. I ripped it apart with trembling hands, only to find the words “I’M SO SORRY” written in block capitals on a torn-off piece of paper, followed by a single, meaningless “X”, presumably meant to simulate one last kiss.

“What is this?” I asked, the panic bubbling to my head, “Where is she? What happened?!”

“What happened,” replied the lady, “is what always happens. Men like you happened to her. That’s all there is to it, dear. There’s no big mystery. Unfortunately.”

“Yes,” she said, dusting the windowsill whilst I sat in stunned silence, “we had quite a chat this morning. I only spoke to her for about ten minutes or so before she went away, but it was enough to get a good picture of things. She told me all about you and her. I know all about you, don’t you worry about that. You’re lucky I’m not pulling you out of bed by the ears and kicking you on to the street, dear, though I shall be charging you for an extra day if you don’t shift your backside at some point in the next ten minutes. And don’t think I won’t call the police if you don’t have the money to pay me with”.

This made no sense at all. Anna had left me before, four times in fact, but the departures were never sudden. Forty eight hours of tears, tantrums, shouts and arguments normally preceded her exit. Friends of hers appeared at the house to pick up her things, shaking their heads at me disdainfully, and it would always seem as if she’d picked the ones I disliked the most to arrive, purely to spite me. And then we’d sort it all out on the telephone – I’d tell her what I’d been doing to improve my deteriorating ways, and she’d come back wearily, hugging me by the front door in tears. A pattern had established itself. Anna never left me without having some sort of last word. There were times when I expected her not to return, but she wasn’t the type to do things suddenly and without spelling out her reasons. There was no victory in that.

“It’s not what it seems! I don’t understand what’s going on!” I spluttered, playing the sympathy card. “I’m ill! I’m on tablets!”

“Oh, we’re all on tablets, love,” replied the crone. “I’m on so many tablets I rattle when I walk. You don’t have the monopoly on tablets, let me tell you that”.

She left the room for me to pick up last night’s clothes and bundle them back on to my body. Panting and in a rush, I slipped on the faded grey New Order T-shirt that was at least ten years old. I didn’t even listen to the band anymore – it was a relic of my youth that I’d somehow never discarded, something I’d decided to cling on to for reasons that were unclear even to me. I then leapt into my 32 inch waist red corduroy trousers that were seeming at least an inch too small for me these days, and put the wrong socks on the wrong feet, the right shoes on the right feet, picked up my rucksack and went out to the hallway where the landlady was waiting. She was relishing every moment of my misfortune, and had the final line for my departure she delivered precisely with relish, as if she had been rehearsing it for half her life.

“It’s all the same with you lot,” she said, standing before the glass front door, whose vertical lines distorted the street outside like a picture slide puzzle. “With all your big ideas. My husband was just the same. Had a perfectly good job as a lorry driver for years, then decided to quit one day because he thought he could make a living as a landscape painter”.

She awaited a response from me, something as little as a facial expression, but I didn’t give her the satisfaction.

“I mean, a landscape painter,” she scoffed. “I said to him, ‘Jerry, people have cameras nowadays. Cameras and good photographers. Nobody needs good landscape paintings, never mind yours.’ Wouldn’t have it though, would he?”

She then opened the door and made a weary waving gesture for me to walk through on the street outside, seemingly spent of her quota of words for me. It slammed behind me as soon as my right foot left the first step.

I considered knocking on the door again in an attempt to get some more information from her, but the futility of this idea slowly became apparent. My brain was in poor logical working order on an average day these days, never mind after a sudden shock. Sudden shocks had the effect of numbing its workings, making it seem as if I was viewing the world through the lenses of a penny peep strip show at the arcades. It was all dim, slow, flickering and distant, and happening to somebody else. I felt like the voyeur of my own seedy life.

I looked up and down the street for possible signs of where Anna might have gone to. I was

greeted only by arching concrete streetlamps goosenecking their way over a quiet road, and rows of bed and breakfast hotels and Victorian houses. There was no sign of anyone around at all.

I pulled the rucksack from my shoulders and tugged at the giant A-Z atlas that I’d bought the day before from a charity shop. It was leather bound, as solid on the outside as a flatpack furniture shelf, and preposterously large. Anna had tried to talk me out of buying it on account of the fact that it was heavy, old and therefore, in her words, “out of date”.

“But it’s huge! It covers all of London, and all of the far suburbs we’re going to! You can see fields on it! And the farms are all marked!” I replied enthusiastically.

“Size isn’t important,” she said in a small, tired voice, too worn out to even bother to turn her statement into a weak double-entendre, “but age is. Look at it! The M25 is just a proposed motorway on the map. It hadn’t even been built when this was published.”

“Houses disappear, but streets don’t,” I said, smugly justifying my purchase.

I felt less sure of myself in the light of a new day, but hoped I was right. I flicked through the pages, and turned to page 24, which seemed to cater for the immediate area I was stood in. Roads twisted like spaghetti around the page, with one straight, orange A road spiking through the middle of them. I sat on the wall of a neighbouring house and considered my options. The first thought that occurred to me was to return to our Bristol flat to see if Anna would be back there, but then I remembered that I had the only set of keys. She had thrown hers into the Thames a week ago in the middle of an argument, and hadn’t bothered to get any more cut. I now realised that I should probably have read something significant into that at the time.

I phoned Anna’s mobile twenty times, and on each occasion it went straight to voicemail. I then considered telephoning her mother to ascertain her whereabouts, but her mother had placed strict instructions for me never to contact her house, demands that may even be enforced by the local constabulary. I had turned up drunk there on one occasion shortly after a row, and traipsed dog shit into her pile carpet. Contrary to her claims, I hadn’t known I’d trodden in it, but the combination of the angry shouting and the smearing and the smell had used up whatever residual goodwill there was left between us.

My brain, like an old Bakelite television, was taking its time in warming up, and I decided to walk to the visitor’s farm that Anna and I had made plans to go to the night before. I’d talked long and hard about how much it would mean to me, what a large part of my life it had been when I lived with my grandmother, and if there was any hope for us at all, any semblance of romance in the world, I felt that she might actually be there, maybe waiting for me, maybe just trying to make sense of who I was. I had no better ideas.

To get to North Edge Farm, which was clearly marked in a faux-handwritten font on the atlas, I had to follow a few suburban roads that almost appeared to twist into each other, then follow a curved lane which ran alongside some common ground to the north. One thing perturbed me about the atlas. Just above where the farm was, a fat blue semi-transparent dotted line ghosted its way across the landscape, showing the then proposed route of the M25. This had not been present during my grandmother’s days, and I wondered if it might have obliterated the farm now. As I slowly walked through the mist, and heard the hum of traffic in the distance, I totted up facts and figures in my head. I had heard of the farmer near Manchester who had decided to leave his business in the middle of the north and southbound carriageways of a motorway, but was quite sure that such things were far from typical.

I quickened my pace and eventually saw a giant concrete bridge in the distance, slamming its way across the winding lane beneath with delivery lorries snarling above it. Across the open ground I could see the route of a slip road sliding off the motorway embankment leading up to a neighbouring main road, and smaller vehicles and white vans creeping towards it. It looked like the toy road network I dominated the living room with as a child.

I looked to my left for the entrance gate for the farm. It was still there, but there was no mailbox by the stile, no welcoming sign, and no signs of any cattle or life. I put one foot over the other, and clumsily hauled myself over the fence, scraping my legs into mud as I fell awkwardly to the ground.

The grass was truly overgrown and hadn’t been mowed by man or beast in some years. Grasshoppers sounded off their announcements to their potential mates, and empty tins of Special Brew lager clunked under my shoes. As I drew closer to the main farmhouse, I could see only smashed windows, and the distant traces of half-scrawled graffiti over the face of the building. The closer I got, the more the roar of the motorway obliterated the noises of nature. As a child, I would have been pursued and warned by a flock of honking geese by this point, but now, at the turn of the twenty first century, all I could hear was the snake hiss of tyres on wet tarmac, and the growling throttle of trucks.

I turned to go back to the lane, consulting my map again to consider transport routes back into London from where I could return home to Bristol. I must have cut a troubled-looking figure, for eventually a car pulled up beside me, and the driver put his head out of the window.

“Where are you looking to get to?” asked the driver, an olive skinned man with cropped hair and a matey expression.

“Well, I wanted to go and look around the farm,” I said. “It used to be here. But this is all that’s left now”.

He regarded me with an amused face.

“How old’s that map you’re looking at?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Early eighties, I guess.”

“Jesus, mate…” he said. “Listen, that farm’s been derelict for almost as long as I’ve been living round here. The farmer packed up and went. Do you drive?” he asked, disconnectedly.

“No,” I replied.

“A shame. You see, I use one of these”. He pulled out a small black box with a shimmering flat monitor screen.

“They can show you an up-to-date view of the roads in your area. Suggested routes, possible short cuts, the works. I don’t even need to think anymore with this gadget, frees my brain up for other things!” he joked.

I held my atlas up weakly.

“This is a big atlas, though,” I said. “It covers the whole area! And it was cheap.”

The man laughed at me piteously.

“Well this,” he said, holding the black box up again, “is the whole bloody country, and it fits in my hand!”

I regarded him silently.

“You need a lift back somewhere?” he asked. “Hop in if you want”.

“No,” I replied. “I’ll be fine. I came out for a walk, and I suppose I should carry on having one”.

“Suit yourself,” he said. “Good luck!” then pushed his foot down aggressively on the accelerator and skidded away noisily.

I began to walk in the direction of the main road. According to the atlas, a railway station lay just two miles away, and from there I could get a train into central London. I assumed the train line, at least, would still be operating.

The roar of the motorway obliterated everything and stopped me from thinking about anything apart from the discomfort of the noise for awhile, but when I got further away I realised that my brain was working again, and the wrongness of everything that had happened recently came to the forefront. Somewhere in the country, in a mysterious, non-specified place untraceable by the man’s black box, was Anna, but no amount of technology was going to trace her at this stage, and no amount of life-changing, mood-altering pills were going to make her change her mind. She meant it this time. I knew that. The patterns of our relationship had inexplicably changed. There were no games being played anymore.

I turned back and walked towards the motorway again. The noise, the steady flow of traffic, the roar of lorries, the certainty of destinations, drowned the chaos of my life out. I welcomed the modern racket in, and gazed at the vacant farmhouse in the distance. As I looked on at it, I found myself wondering why I was in any rush to go home. It was summer, I had nothing good to go back for, and this was a kind of shelter. I could hide here for a long time to come.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Dog On Its Hind Legs

Of course, we’d both always wanted a dog. We’d discussed the issue many times over, weighing up the pros and cons, zig-zagging around the complexities of canine care. Who would look after the mutt whilst both of us were at work during the day? Would it be fair on the creature to be locked in a small flat in London? Did we really want to make compromises to our lifestyle, always having to put a quadruped first?

These are questions every serious dog owner should ask themselves before committing to their new role, and I’m sure you’ll have seen the numerous campaigning leaflets for yourself – “A Dog Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas”, “Dogs Are Animals, Not Fashion Statements”, “Dogs Die in Hot Cars”, that kind of thing. I was still in the process of quizzing myself over the muddiness of my desire to have a new friend versus the practicalities, when Claire came home one Saturday afternoon with a large black Standard Poodle.

“Surprise!” she declared loudly as she walked through the door with the soft metal haired creature, an eighties salon on legs. It regarded me with what seemed like a mixture of affected nonchalance and dismay, like a rocker sibling observing his skinny, short-haired liberal brother.

“We hadn’t discussed this properly yet!” I said, but she simply waved her hand at me dismissively, as if she’d had enough of that particular subject, then replied “His name is Geoffrey”.

“Geoffrey?” I shouted. “But Geoffrey isn’t a dog’s name! It’s the name of Tory MPs, or children’s presenters, or ageing Yorkshire cricketers! Dogs should not be called Geoffrey!”

“Well, that’s what they told me his name was at the rescue centre, and that’s what he answers to,” she replied, and the two of them walked off and barely acknowledged me for the rest of the afternoon.

In fact, if Geoffrey did indeed answer to his ridiculous name, he certainly never did it when I called him that day. It was almost as if I wasn’t a presence in the flat so far as the hound was concerned – he never once looked at me, nor acknowledged my entrance into the room. If this was what the glory of companionship with a mutt was supposed to be all about, I wasn’t feeling the satisfied glow at all. I was beginning to wish we’d bought a cat.

Two nights later, after two full days of being ignored by Geoffrey, I was woken up in the middle of the night by what I thought was the light in the spare room flicking on and off. I sleepily poured myself out of bed to investigate, and saw only Geoffrey stood by the spare room door, glaring at me. There was no other human presence to be seen.

“Is there someone else in the flat, Geoffrey?” I asked, almost expecting him to answer, but he trotted off doggishly to the kitchen, and returned to his bed-basket. It was then that it occurred to me that he must have used the light-switch himself.

I told Claire about this incident the next morning.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. “You’ve just been dreaming. He’s not tall enough to turn the lights on and off even if he stands on his hind legs.”

“He could have jumped up and switched them on,” I answered, but she just told me to stop being “silly”.

My suspicions about him continued over the coming days. Many of my possessions had been moved around the flat, some placed on different shelves, some with the tell-tale marks of pawprints or toothmarks. It was almost as if Geoffrey was expressing his dissatisfaction with my reading materials, hobbies and interests by dumping them precariously in unsuitable places. Some even smelt suspiciously of urine. I tried to raise these concerns with Claire, but they were greeted with the usual incredulity.

As you can imagine, then, it perhaps wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as it should have been when I walked into the kitchen yesterday to find Geoffrey stood on his hind legs, as bold as you please, frying up some eggs over the stove for breakfast. LBC Radio was also switched on, but in fairness I don’t know if he had chosen to listen to that station of his own volition or Claire had left it on before heading out. He didn’t even acknowledge my entrance into the room, not even to turn around from his activity to gauge my reaction. To all intents and purposes, it was as if I were of the lowest significance in the dog’s priorities. Whilst the eggs sizzled, he gently rocked the pan backwards and forwards with his front left paw. He looked more like a relative of Brian May’s than a dog.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I commanded Geoffrey, deciding there and then that using the stove surely had to be off the map in terms of what an owner should or should not allow a dog to do. But once again, Geoffrey failed to acknowledge me and I was stunned into silence, and could only watch as he waited for the pan to cool, and then licked the eggs straight off it.

“I don’t think dogs are supposed to eat eggs anyway, it’s bad for their bowels,” I said to him, but he was clearly too busy enjoying the results of his kitchen labour to comment.

While contemplating whether I should phone somebody to sort this ridiculous situation out – although I was a bit stumped to think of exactly who – I also noticed that various slices of Battenburg cake – my Battenburg cake – had been put on to saucers and strategically placed in the corners of the kitchen.

“What the hell have you done with my cake?” I asked the dog furiously, and at that very moment, a mouse scuttled out from under the fridge, took a nibble of the cake, and Geoffrey immediately pounced with the speed of a whippet half his size and clutched the creature in his jaws. Once the rodent’s neck was broken, he let it hang limply in his mouth, and for the first time ever, he looked at me. It wasn’t the loving, compassionate look a dog should give his owner, complete with wagging tail, but a cold, superior look, the look a bear trainer gives to the animal he forces to dance.

Geoffrey did not say a word – he never has done, for all his intelligence he clearly doesn’t think speech is worth the effort – but from his look I seemed to comprehend a clear message.

“Look at you,” he sneered, almost as if he had actually verbalized the phrase. “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that? For months your flat has had these mice, and you’ve never been able to get rid of them, you bumbling piece of airy, pink flesh with your music and your useless, decaying books. You haven’t known the creature’s habits, but I’ve made the effort to watch them come and go. That’s why I cut up your stupid cake and placed it strategically around the kitchen.

“And don’t you ever, ever, order me around again. I tell you, I won’t stand for it. How do you think it feels for me, having an owner like you? You might think I have the hair of the guitarist out of Queen, and need to get myself groomed in poncey boutiques, but you spend money on clothes and still look like some try-hard jerk. At least I can only ever be a dog, and I tell you, I’m bloody proud of that much”.

Once this glare-message appeared to have finished, he dropped the mouse where he stood, then trotted off into another room, leaving me to think about what had just happened. I hadn’t had the chance to absorb very much when Claire came home again and reprimanded me for eating eggs without properly cleaning the frying pan afterwards. I felt it pointless to explain the facts behind the situation.

I suspect I may not be long for this world. Geoffrey has other plans for me. Books about murder have moved their way mysteriously to the front of the bookshelf. The axe from the attic appeared in the hallway recently. And many times, when nobody has been looking, Geoffrey has bared his teeth at me in a manner which could be a hint of things to come. Claire never notices. So far as she is concerned, he seems to take priority in the household these days.

More than once at night he’s come into the bedroom and sniffed my testicles, and made mouth-gestures as if he’s about to bite them off. Next time, if I don’t wake up and notice him there, I believe it may well happen for real. Reader, if I am ever found dead, please take this note seriously, and examine the evidence on the basis of what I’ve just told you. I realize it will be an unusual case, but there may be other similar ones to come in these strange upside down times, where dogs are walking on their hind legs behind our backs.

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.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Leave The Capital

"The tables covered in beer
Showbiz whines, minute detail
Hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square
It's vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of
White frocked girls and music teachers
The beds too clean
Water's poisonous for the system

And you know in your brain
Leave the capitol!
Exit this Roman Shell!
Then you know you must leave the capitol

Straight home, straight home, straight home
One room, one room".

The Fall - "Leave The Capitol".

(I drafted this blog entry a long time ago, in a foul mood. I then left it as a draft for months, thinking "Do I really believe this is true? Do I want to have an argument about it?" But I revisited it today, and thought "Fuck it", and I'm about to press publish. So far as I'm concerned, it's ALL true). 

Technically speaking, of course, I left the capital a year ago, though it wasn't entirely planned that way, and the way in which I've done it would have been pathetic and half-hearted if it had been a sincere attempt at a protest. I'm now back in my birthplace in Zone 4, Ilford, a border town whose actual geographical identity seems to confuse local residents. A recent local newspaper poll showed that around 60% thought it was part of London, the other 40% considered it to be part of Essex. Given that the postal address is in Essex but the borough the town sits in is designated as part of London, you could forgive everyone for being muddled. As for me, whether I deem it to be part of London or not depends entirely on what mood you catch me in and how contrary I feel like being.

(Largely to see what would happen, I corrected my local takeaway owner the other day. He said to me "You know, sometimes I don't like living in London".
"You don't, though," I said. "This isn't London".
"Well... it is and it isn't", he replied). 

For today, I'm going to be a contrary sod and insist that I've left London, and I will do so only because I personally believe that it puts me ahead of the curve, meaning I can affect a pathetically superior air. Some time ago I interviewed Luke Wright about his brilliant book and spoken word piece "What I Learned From Johnny Bevan", and you can read the final results here (this is an exceptionally late plug, for which I apologise). Luke is somebody who has spent much of his career in either Norfolk or Essex, away from the financial pressures and distractions of the city, and is now one of the leading lights in live poetry, not just being a top draw himself but organising major events including the poetry stage at Latitude. At the time when Luke first began to gain a serious profile as a poet and performer, there was a bit of a dominant myth around the spoken word circuit that you had to live in London to get gigs and progress. Without being able to network freely, attend gigs and open mics regularly and be on call at the drop of a hat, you could forget it. A lot of poets in other towns and cities around the UK were occasionally openly angry about how much bias and preference London poets were shown. These days, I have to wonder if London is more of a hinderance than a help to anyone's development - it's true that there's a huge volume of poetry gigs and readings around the capital that probably rival any European city you care to name (much less British ones), but... well, let's weed out the problems, shall we?

1. The Cost Of Living

I hate to open with an obvious one, but unless you have a healthy trust fund or a constant flow of cash from willing sponsors, London is presently nigh-on impossible for an aspiring artist to survive in. Shelter recently published a tube map showing which stations were "affordable" to live near by. The results probably won't surprise you - the suburban concrete slabs of Essex are probably the cheapest places to get by, the rest is largely unaffordable.

Landlords in London seem to have a stronger likelihood for being greedy chancers, purely because the market dictates they can be, and very few people buy spare property with the aim of being a charitable service - their main concern is just extracting the maximum cash they can for their pension fund (at best) or expanding their business empire (at worst). If a flat or some shared accommodation happens to be within your budget this year, there's absolutely no guarantee it will be in 2017 - that Organic Greengrocers that's just opened up 200 yards from your house may be a signifier of gentrification and a huge rent hike. Back when I lived in Walthamstow, I'd see Real Ale pubs opening up and not feel any joy that I could now buy Chocolate Stout in a pub with a vintage pinball machine in it a stone's throw from my house, I just genuinely worried about what it meant in the broader sense. Nobody really wants areas to improve anymore apart from the people with mortgages. This is how perverse things have become (a few years back, my wife actually told me off for getting involved in a campaign to improve public transport in Streatham, because "if that actually happens, we won't be able to afford to live HERE either").

London, of course, hasn't been an easy city to get by in for decades, but the traditional support networks that existed for artists are being eroded away at a terrifying rate. Squats and co-operatives are disappearing as property skyrockets in value, with the relatively secure option of co-operative living being wiped out of the picture by councils of both Labour and Conservative persuasions (Lambeth Labour's anti-co-operative propaganda was interestingly one-sided and vicious for a supposedly "Co-operative Council". But the excessive dilution of the original principles of the Labour Party in its London incarnation are another topic for another day).

In the good old days, these obstacles were a bit lower and just about surmountable if, as an artist, you were prepared to take on a mind-numbing, simple day job which involved clocking in at 9 and leaving at 5 on the dot, providing you with a modest pay packet and an uncluttered mind. Local councils and education services used to be a brilliant source of all kinds of glorified data entry jobs and filing and post room work - however, as these roles now don't pay enough and are also often taking place in grossly understaffed environments, they're just not the source of a steady wage and a clear brain as they used to be. Also, a lot of the work I used to get paid to do in my twenties in London is now actually being done for free by people on "work placements".

2. The Focus Is Moving Away From London
Artists from other parts of the country may not actually hate London, but they certainly resent the focus it's had over and above other cities. Increasingly, the media are picking up on this and no longer want to publish stories about the latest Swinging Dick Whittington who moved to the capital to make their name. Rather, they would prefer to write about somebody who stayed loyal to their local community, helped to develop a scene (especially in a deprived or culturally desolate area) and came out with some unique sounding work, whether individually or as part of a collective. As the Government's drive for increasing artistic funding outside London gains ground, and more minor arts organisations in other areas up their game, this is going to become a more common story. And about time too.
If I were 22 years old now and two clear options were apparent - move to London to try my luck by myself, or attempt to join in to help build a poetry night or movement in a less obvious city, I'd probably take the second route for a whole host of reasons. Not only would I dodge the expense of the capital, but I would also be entering into exciting, unknown territories. The "streets paved with gold" tale is folklore, but creating something unique from scratch and giving a local environment something they possibly didn't even realise they wanted is far more exciting. Make your own myths and build your own movements - you don't have to join the existing machinery here. 
And as somebody on Twitter said to me recently: "If Bowie got a scene going in Beckenham, anyone can do it anywhere". (If you've never been to Beckenham, you possibly don't realise the significance of this statement. Take a train there and look around one day and wonder at how anything at all could have ever happened in Beckenham, even a thunderstorm).

3. The Supportive Environment
Poetry, like all niche art forms, has its arguments, spats and rivalries in any town or city you care to name. At its best, though, it offers a supportive community of generally like-minded people. Or at least, it should. 
When I first started performing in London, gigs were thin on the ground but everybody knew each other, and regardless of the genre of poetry they felt they were delivering, it was generally assumed that we were all roughly on the same side. It's true to say that some experimental poets tended to be slightly aloof and even argumentative, but we all generally moved in roughly the same circles and bumped into each other at events. 
As the circuit has grown bigger, however, the supportive social element has largely gone for a Burton.  If you attend a poetry gig in London these days, a poet is more likely to thrust a business card into your hand and bugger off after two minutes than actually make an attempt to befriend you and attempt to talk about the work over a drink. Networking has become fast and impersonal. The scene has also fragmented into different genres and different geographical bits of the capital, meaning cross-fertilisation of ideas is becoming increasingly rare. In the past, poets of all stripes would quietly absorb ideas from each other - these days, it's rare to see a page poet, slam poet, experimental artist and comedy poet in the same room at the same time, never mind the same bill.
None of this means that London doesn't also have some of the most well-organised and entertaining live poetry nights in the UK, but getting noticed here is harder than it ever was, particularly if you're trying to attempt something slightly outside the mainstream. Overwhelmingly, the promotional focus in London is on showing poetry to be an immediate, relevant and everyday force - a noble and necessary aim, but not one that's always fantastic for poets who want to find the time and space to develop a unique voice.

4. You're Not Wanted Here
I genuinely believe this is true (at least, we're not wanted by the powers-that-be). It's how I feel, anyway, often quite bitterly. If being born here counts for fuck all and London residents are steadily being forced out of the city, do you really think anyone cares about your latest collection of prose pieces enough to grant you easy access? "Money talks, bullshit walks". 
London now is a city that, through its financial pressures alone, only welcomes artists who have already accomplished something and are successes. It's where household names settle. It is not a city that offers developing artists the time, money or means to find their feet. If you've got a sugar-daddy or wealthy parents, or family who live within the London zones you're happy to cohabit with, then sure, you can while away your time developing your craft here. If not - you are coldly and unreservedly on your own.
This isn't something that's about to happen or might happen in the future, contrary to what you might read in the press - it's the state London is in right now. We lost the argument. Which is why nobody, not even those of us born in the general area, could blame any aspiring artist or writer from catching the first train in completely the opposite direction and taking their chances there. Go forth and seek your fortune. Just do it in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol or Hull. Only a complete idiot would chance their arm here. 
(These views are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone else at all. Sometimes that's just the way it goes.)