iamhyperlexic

Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: June 2017

Review: Unity Words, 28 June 2017

The first performer was Lily Gaskell.  Despite the similarity in our names, I could not get much out of her performance.  Lily Gaskell and Louise Distras, who played the music slot at Unity Words in May, are different people, and there are some differences between their performances.  But they are very similar.  Just about all my reservations about Lily Gaskell are the same as the ones I had about Louise Distras.  If you are going to play a solo guitar and sing, you need to have a reasonably sophisticated picking technique, and you need to vary your playing and your vocals to create something resembling a tone palette, rather than a massive splurge – certainly if you are going to play to audiences of people who are over 30.

Jamie Thrasivoulou, the first spoken word artist, performed without a microphone.  His voice projection was just right for the size of the room.  He is from Derby, and has an East Midlands accent, which is something I always notice, because the East Midlands accent is, in my opinion, the most under-represented regional accent in England.

Jamie is a very energetic performer, but he uses variation in volume and vocal style to good effect.  He has quite a varied speech register, combining references to drug-taking and homelessness with descriptions of Cyprus, and mentions of Allen Ginsberg.  He recited mostly from memory, but he also read from his collection, ‘The Best Of A Bad Situation’.  For (at least) his last piece, he put his whole body into it: he was throwing his hands about, staggering from side-to-side, occupying the stage.

I can think of two comparisons to make.  The obvious one, which I gather that Jamie has heard before, is with Sleaford Mods: ranting about working class liberation in an East Midlands accent, while wearing a polo shirt.  The less obvious one is with the late and lamented Michael Smith, from Jamaica.  I didn’t understand every line that Michael Smith uttered, but I could always feel it.  That is how Jamie Thrasivoulou’s performance struck me.

Ralph Dartford stood in for what would usually have been the mentored poet.  He is practising for his forthcoming show, ‘Recovery Songs’.  He did a piece about childhood friendship, a piece about Hillsborough (on the day that David Duckenfield was charged). He contravened his own principle, and read a piece from the screen of his smart phone.  He did a piece about a drug addict.  The recurring themes in his set were substance abuse, relationships, and the passing of time.  As a dry run, it was pretty good.  I would be interested to hear the material again, when it is the final performance.

There were three Pandemonium Poets.  The first was Tony Gadd.  He has a North Eastern accent, and began with a piece called ‘Siren’s Tears’, about government cuts to emergency services.  He did another piece which was somewhat disparaging about Wetherspoon pubs.

The second Pandemonium Poet was Tim Fellows.  Like Jamie Thrasivoulou, he is from Derbyshire.  His first piece was about a mining accident which killed a member of his family.   The next was called ‘Cumulo Nimbus’, and was about depression.  The last was a comic piece about trogging the food at funeral receptions.

The last Pandemonium Poet was Steve Harrison, who has performed at Unity Words, before.  The subject matter of his first piece, ‘Apron Strings’, was Yorkshire pudding batter, but it is an inter-generational poem, about the poet’s mother.  The next was about a Wetherspoon’s pub in Wellington, called the William Withering, the botanist who discovered digitalin.  Steve’s pieces are quietly-spoken, well-observed, and have some nice elements of craft about them.

The evening’s new performer was Caitlin Lyons.  This was her first public performance.  The subject of her poem was anxiety, of which she clearly has personal knowledge.  As a subject for one’s first ever public performance, anxiety is a difficult one. Caitlin’s delivery was excellent.  I suggest that, if she wants to develop mental health as a subject for her work, it is one of those things that is best looked at from a sideways angle, but her delivery style is pretty much there.

The headliner was Maria Ferguson, from Romford, in Essex.  She started talking about how she loves pubs, and we had the third reference of the evening to Wetherspoon’s.  Maria’s show, and publication, is called, ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’.

Maria Ferguson’s work is contemporary, what I call “urban” (by which I mean appealing to and understood by people who live in towns and cities), and most of it is unrhymed.  She has a varied delivery style, and some parts of her pieces are sung rather than spoken.  She gets away with this much better than some other artists.

Her main themes are a sense of place and identity, gentrification, feminism, friendship, and the passing of time.  Towards the end of her set, she offered the audience a choice between a piece about her favourite country (Tunisia), or one about going on a sunbed (with the underlying theme of subverting the mainstream image of ‘Essex girls’.  The audience were unanimous in asking for both pieces.

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Review: The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival, evening, 24 June 2017, Mexborough Business Centre

Janine Booth had already started her set when we arrived.  Neither Valerie nor I had ever heard of her, before.  As we were entering the auditorium and faffing about with our tickets and trying to be as quiet as possible, I could tell that she was from London, and that she was reciting a poem that was political.  Political poetry usually makes me cringe, especially if it is rhymed, which this seemed to be.  I listened, and got ready to cringe.  But I didn’t cringe.  It was #1 delivered with controlled anger, not shouted or gone through like a times table.  #2 The poet sounded as if she knew what she was talking about.  #3 She had something to say that was not something I had heard said just that way, before.  It was engaging and lively and not the sort of thing you hear very often.

It turned out that Janine Booth might have been carved out of a slab of Valerie’s imagination.  She is from London.  She is vehemently anti-Tory.  (The poem we had walked in on was about hating Tories.)  She works on the London Underground.  She went on to do a poem about angry, middle-aged women, among other things.

Her final piece was a pastiche of ‘Hallelujah’, by Leonard Cohen, and, in my opinion, was a little step too far.  It didn’t have quite the same measure of craft and authority as the rest of the set.  Apart from that, Janine’s set was excellent, and I wish I had not missed the beginning.  Valerie bought two of her books.

Next was Tim Wells, another Londoner.  Valerie and I heard him for the first time at 7 Arts Centre in Leeds (near where I grew up) when he was supporting Kate Fox, earlier this year.  I had a chat with him, afterwards, about our shared passion for ska and reggae.  We had heard some of the same sound systems, in Leeds, though not at the same time.

Tim Wells has one of the most distinctive delivery styles I have ever heard.  His short pieces, which deliberately end before the audience expect, put me in mind of a Cockney version of Ivor Cutler.  I find his longer pieces fascinating.  I just want to hear what he is going to say next.  Tim Wells is one of the purest performance poets I have ever heard, in the sense that, for any given line or stanza, it is often not obvious what devices he is using: it usually isn’t rhyme, or metre, or repetition.  He just has a poetic voice –  an original, contemporary, poetic voice.  His speech is certainly Cockney, but it is also easy to understand to my middle class, West Yorkshire ear.

By the time Tim Wells finished his set, the atmosphere in the auditorium was already well on the way to healing the North-South divide.

Linton Kwesi Johnson looked much as I had imagined him.  I have seen images of him, before, on television, and in magazines such as ‘Black Music’ in the 1980s.  That was decades ago, of course, but his appearance was still in keeping with my expectations.  He wore an umber fedora, which he kept on before, during, and after his performance.  He wore a red tie,  a tailored jacket and trousers.  He was thin.  Despite the greyness of his beard, he doesn’t look old.  As many people used to say of my late father, he looks distinguished rather than old.

Linton Kwesi Johnson broke two of the basic rules of performance poetry.  He delivered long preambles, some of them as long as the pieces they preceded.  He also elided straight from the end of one poem into the preamble for the following poem, with hardly a second’s pause.  (This is what I call, “Doing a Gaia Holmes”.)  But there are mitigating circumstances in both cases.  The preambles were to do with the struggle for justice, both generally and with reference to specific campaigns, of black people in Britain, and he was talking mostly from first hand experience.  Also, the elision had the benefit of silencing all applause until the end, which was helpful to one’s appreciation and enjoyment of the performance.  I strongly suspect that he did this deliberately.

I first started reading the Liverpool Poets in about 1983.  I have since heard the late Adrian Henri, and Roger McGough, live.  I first heard the recordings, and read the pamphlets, of Linton Kwesi Johnson in 1982 or 1983.  In all the time I have been reading and listening to poetry, this is the longest span of time between first encountering a poet’s work, and then hearing them, live.  About 35 years.

Most of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s set was from his early work: the work with which I am the most familiar.  Some of these pieces I have not listened to for 20 years, but I know parts of some of them by heart.  ‘Sonny’s Letter’, for example.  The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, more so than in just about any other live performance I have ever heard.  My vision became blurred.  I don’t know why: I wasn’t in tears, but I couldn’t see, properly.  All I could see was a thin, well-dressed West Indian man on the centre of a stage in a hall in Mexborough.  That man was the one and only Linton Kwesi Johnson.

I thank Steve Ely and the other organisers of this festival for bringing such an eminent performer to Mexborough.  It was an unforgettable experience.

Janine Booth and Tim Wells can both consider their reputations enhanced, because their sets supported and complemented LKJ’s set.  The common threads were: a sense of pride in one’s own identity, and the struggle for justice.

On the way out, Valerie shook LKJ’s hand.  He was having a cigarette.  As we left, he sounded as if he was hacking up a lung.

Review: The Price of Happiness by Kate Fox, s2 ep1, BBC Radio 4, 11:30 19 June 2017

You can listen to the programme on BBC iPlayer Radio for the next 29 days from today, or download it, if allowed in your territory:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08twgfv

Kate Fox is just about the best and most celebrated poet with whom I have a nodding acquaintance.  I have heard her perform live at Unity Works in Wakefield, and at 7 Arts in Leeds, and I had the pleasure of having a bit of a chat with her on both occasions.  She has national coverage (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about her on the BBC) and is one of the most effective campaigners in England for the belief that contemporary poetry can be relevant – sometimes, even, vital – to everyday life, and is worth paying to hear.

Like Matt Abbott, Ian McMillan, Kate Tempest, and some others, Kate Fox mixes her spoken word career with other art forms: in her case, stand-up comedy.  Today’s programme also had some musical accompaniment.  There were elements of audience participation which, to my great relief, worked very well, and were not at all an embarrassing mess.

The subject of the programme, entitled, ‘The Perfect Body’, is the amount of money that people – mainly women, but men, as well – spend on their appearance, and whether it is worth the expense and effort.  As regards hardly caring at all about what other people think of my appearance, I enjoy some advantages that Kate Fox doesn’t.  I’m male, and, although I did spend a long time in childhood being regularly taunted about my appearance and voice (I went through an artificial puberty at the age of 7) my circumstances were such that it never got to me.  All it did was to give me a rational fear of the mob mentality.

Despite the fact that this is not my kind of subject, I found the programme engaging and well worth listening to.  The most engaging parts were when she was talking about her own, idiosyncratic experiences, rather than talking generally.  But even the statistics about how much people spend on what items and procedures I found interesting. (There aren’t many statistics that I don’t find interesting, as long as they are derived from reputable sources).  She even mentioned the subject of cosmetic surgery (which, if I ever see it mentioned in a TV programme, causes me to change channels immediately).  Kate, if you are reading this, I know someone who may be getting in touch with you about your experiences.  The parts about being <adjective meaning ‘above average size’> and having large breasts provoked the most masculine reaction in me.  I find <adjective meaning ‘above average size’> women much more attractive than thin women.  I like women with big bosoms.  I know lots of men who are the same, but I unreservedly admit that this aesthetic does not fit the mainstream in this era (though it would have done in many previous eras – probably every era at least until Elizabethan times).  Even I get it that breasts beyond a certain size can not only be a problem socially, and psychologically, but can cause other problems, not the least of which is chronic backache.

A female comedian doing a live performance about women’s relationships with their own bodies, from a point of view which is socially mainstream (or working class, if you will allow) but personally quirky and idiosyncratic, invites comparison with Victoria Wood.  The fact that Kate Fox’s accent and outlook are also unmistakably Northern makes the comparison even more irresistible.  I am delighted to say that Kate Fox’s use of self-deprecation and trying to make a virtue out of one’s own ignorance or alienation is much less than Victoria Wood’s.  Even where Kate Fox uses these devices, the way she uses them is, in my opinion, more subtle and better-crafted than Victoria Wood’s.  This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Victoria Wood was from the North West, and Kate Fox is from the North East.  She now lives in North Yorkshire, but her accent is North Eastern.

This is the first time I have listened to one of Kate Fox’s BBC Radio programmes.  I will certainly be looking up the others on iPlayer Radio, including a short extract from The Verb on BBC Radio 3 about swearing.  Based on one hearing of this one episode of The Price of Happiness, the Kate Fox persona I perceived was different from the one I have heard live.   Live Kate is freer, quicker, expects the audience to keep up with her in more of a lively fashion, expects the audience to be more imaginative and unshockable.  BBC Kate sounds very slightly inhibited (duh – almost as if she were appearing on the BBC).  One of the reasons I will be listening to more of her programmes is to try to detect moments where BBC Kate tips over into Live Kate.

On the subject of performance poets on the radio, there is a rumour that I may be re-appearing on Phoenix FM, broadcast from Halifax, in July.

 

iamhyperlexic reacts to the recent attacks in Manchester and London

It was never my intention to make this an explicitly political blog, but something has happened recently that I feel the need to respond to.  If I respond here, it saves me time and effort on social media.

The thing that I need to respond to is not the attacks in Manchester and London themselves, but the reaction of someone on my Facebook timeline to those attacks.

The people on my Facebook timeline, in the aftermath of a terrorist incident, tend to fall into three categories: 1. The majority, whose concerns are humanitarian, who worry about the people affected, including not just the public, but the people who work in the emergency services; lament the conditions that seem to have led to the attack, and fervently hope that something can be done to improve things.  Call these people naive if you insist, but, if the world is going to improve, these are the people who are going to bring about that improvement.  2. The minority (among, as I said, my Facebook timeline) who want somebody shot, or hanged, or tortured, or whatever: the stale, cartoonish, right-wing, knee-jerk reaction.  I have reduced this body down to about 2 or 3, and I only maintain those for personal reasons, which need not concern us, here.  3. Neither of the above.  This is the category that concerns this blog post.

The person whose post I am engaged in repudiating is an atheist.  I am also an atheist.  It remains to be seen during the course of this dispute how similar our atheism makes us.

When he says, ‘Members of so-called Islamic State ARE Muslims too, despite denials by some Muslims and some on the left,’ I completely disagree with him.

I live in West Yorkshire, where there are a lot of Muslims, most of whom were born in the United Kingdom.  I spent 12 years working in the IT industry, in Leeds.  During that time, I worked in teams where 50 per cent or more of the members were Muslims of South Asian origin, usually, but not always, male, and, usually, but not always, born in the United Kingdom.

These Muslims hate Al Qaeda and ISIS more than I do.  They hate them for all the same reasons that I do, plus the fact that they are personally worried about the destabilisation of the communities and businesses that they and their parents have worked so painstakingly to create.

These Muslims also hate the government of Saudi Arabia.  The very idea of not allowing women to vote, or drive, or occupy political office, or run businesses, is something they find utterly ridiculous.  These Muslim husbands, if their wives had a good business idea, would not think, “This is proscribed by the Quran”.  They would think, “This might put us on an earner”.

I am a white, British man who grew up in the Jewish part of North East Leeds.  Between me, and the Muslims of West Yorkshire: we eat the same curries and kebabs; we are addicted to the same kinds of sport; we attended the same universities; we work in the same companies; we are concerned about the same kind of political issues.  Apart from the practice of Islam itself, the only things that we don’t have in common are the consumption of alcohol, and – possibly – attitudes towards homosexuality.  The last one is, in my experience, academic.

I have socialised with Irish people who were openly sympathetic to the IRA.  I have never met a single British Muslim whose reaction to Al Qaeda and ISIS was anything other than revulsion.

The last conversation I had with a British Muslim, a few hours ago, wasn’t about the atrocities in Manchester, or London.  It was about cricket.

Review: Unity Words 31 May 2017

I was asked at what time the event should start. ‘It’s up to you,’ I said.

Stan Duncan from the Black Horse Poets, who was due to appear as one of the Pandemonium Poets, bought me a drink: an expensive 275ml bottle of Holsten Pils.

Another one of the readers offered me a bribe, about which, the less said, the better.

Matt Abbott opened the event.  His poem, recently posted on the internet, called ‘Kick Out The Tories’, evoked rapturous applause.

Stan appeared as the first of the evening’s Pandemonium Poets.  He read a poem about coal-mining, containing medical terms, but, ultimately, and poignantly, about dust.  He read a poem about the recent atrocity in Manchester, which rhymed ‘religion’ with ‘smidgen’. He read his dog shit poem, influenced, as he acknowledged, by Benjamin Zephaniah.  The note of righteous indignation, and the use of repetition, show the influence.

The main compere, Geneviève Walsh, was introduced by Matt Abbott.  Somebody needs to explain to me, in language that an idiot could understand, why the compere has to be introduced by another compere.

Gen informed us that Facebook has started recommending what she should do with her ashes.  Her piece was about a pair of broken sunglasses, and she produced what purported to be a genuinely broken pair of sunglasses.

The second Pandemonium Poet was the evasive and slippery Lee McHale.  He did a poem about getting stoned.  He did a ‘Roses are red’ poem.  He forgot the words.  He mentioned a band that he used to be in.  He finished with a poem called, ‘Ted the Teabag’. Taylor’s of Harrogate should be very pleased.

Call me a risk-taker, but I think Lee McHale has much more to reveal.

Matt Abbott introduced Geneviève Walsh, again, because, say what the hell you like, Gen has just not got the hang of this compering business, yet.  She broke the microphone stand, albeit, not on purpose.  She can smash everything in the room except one of the beer pumps, if she likes, if we can just get a compere who is a compere, not a compere introduced by another compere.

A certain kind of last-day-of-term feeling seemed to pervade.  I don’t mean that in the sense of finality: I mean liberation, and spontaneity, and well-being, and hope for a brighter future.

Marina Poppa, who happened to be sitting next to me as she got up to read, was this month’s mentee.  She started with ‘Sweary Mary’.  After this, she forewent the hand-held mic, in the interests of freeing her arms.  Next, ‘I Do Not Like These Tory Gits’.  She acknowledged her debt to the forthcoming headliner, Jackie Hagan, and did a poem about performing.

She did a poem about shit.  She did a poem which was a tirade against sexual objectification.  She did a personal poem about a friend whom she lost to alcoholism.  She did the pubic hair poem.  I call it, ‘the pubic hair poem’, because I have heard it, before.  I also believe in fighting deforestation.

The music was provided by Louise Distras.

Louise’s performance evoked rapturous applause.  What she did is not my sort of thing, but she had nearly all of the audience in the palm of her hand.

Distras is a guitar and vocals solo performer.  Her vocals are best when she is at one end or other of the pitch and volume scale (low pitch and loud, or high pitch and quiet). She has a remarkable voice.  She seems to belong to the vocal school of Give It Everything You’ve Got, which is not a bad thing.

I am not going to write a song-by-song critique of Louise Distras’ set.  It suffices to say that I agree with most of her philosophy, which cries out for freedom and justice.  And she can really sing.  However, her right hand guitar technique is rather basic.  Most of it is what I would call, ‘thumping’, occasionally punctuated by a bit of left-hand damping and plectrum picking of the bass strings.  Even I can do that.  I think she picked the treble strings in one number.

Louise Distras has toured Europe, and so, what do I know?  In my opinion, she needs to develop a palette of tones and emotions, including not just some more advanced right hand technique, but some extended chords.  The audience at Unity Works gave her, at every time of asking, rapturous applause.  But I was not convinced.  Call me an old git, by all means.

And then, after an interval, Matthew Hedley Stoppard came on.

This man is living in the wrong decade.  He should be in the 1950s.

He described himself as, ‘a nervous, repressed librarian.’

He was wearing a green, knitted, tie.  I hate green, knitted ties.  My father had one. Somebody gave me one as a present.  I think it was fucking home-made, which made it worse.

Again, I am not going to provide a piece-by-piece description of Matthew Hedley Stoppard’s set, mostly because I don’t want to dilute his material, and I want you to go and pay to hear him.

He was nervous.  His hands were shaking.  He was brilliant.  He is Northern, and British.  He is fucking Larkinesque.

He finished with the words, ‘Thank you for looking in my direction, and feeling awkward.’  I rest my case.

Jackie Hagan opened with the words, ‘I had my leg off, and got loads of funding.’  She said she was glad not to be in Manchester (she comes from Liverpool) because it meant that, for once, she could not see a girl eating an artisan Scotch egg out of a shoe, or a group of 21 year-olds, playing Scrabble, ‘ironically’.  (You could see those things in bloody Leeds.)

As I told her, after the event had finished, she shares in common with Char March the attribute that the banter she delivers in between pieces is as good quality as the pieces, themselves.  In other words, the banter is part of the show, rather than being, as it is in 98 per cent of cases, an impediment that makes you want to rip someone’s face apart with meat-hooks.

Jackie Hagan lavished subject matter on us. I don’t know if she realised the extent of what she was doing, but that doesn’t matter.  She gave us stuff to think about, and I do not mean clichés.  Among these philosophical gems were such items as the following:

Is the straight guy, in the graph-paper shirt in the front row of this audience, the catalyst for more reaction?

If I hitch my skirt up, as somebody is going past, will it benefit anybody?

To what extent does the film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, fetishise the concept of, ‘the deserving poor’, at the expense of, ‘the poor’?

Is it better to sit in the light, or drink in the dark?

Is it better to buy ‘Schrödinger’s Scratch Card’ (a scratch card that you deliberately leave for 24 hours or more before scratching, so that before it goes into ‘a collapsed quantum state’ you still have the hope that it might win something)?

Further to all that:

Rob Reed (with whom Matt Abbott and I appeared at the Cluntergate Centre last October, as part of Wakefield LitFest) won the Fray Bentos Chicken Pie, for the best heckle.

Outstandingly the best reference to bisexuality or lesbianism throughout the evening was, ‘Relief Manager at Carpet World’.

Jackie finished her set by drawing eyes on the stump of her (right, from her point of view) leg, which has been chopped off just below the knee.  She drank most of a pint of lager out of the cup of her prosthetic leg, and that is not the sort of thing that you see every day.

Jackie Hagan is a brilliant performance poet, and, if you have not heard her, live, you should do so.  Her speech register is certainly Scouse, but she is by no means an alternative, female version of Stan Boardman: her philosophy is profound, and universal.  People who have been to Oxbridge and live in the Cotswolds should, for their own good, listen to Jackie Hagan.