Bilston Voices last night went for a Black Country themed evening and it gave the proceedings a consistency of tone that is sometimes lacking in the more diverse selections usually on offer. This time round I had seen all of the performers before and was looking forward to hearing more of their work. Jill Tromans, from Scribblers, kicked off with a couple of good poems and a very funny story about a man taking his pet chicken to the vet. It was her best performance so far. She performed, rather than read, the two poems and gave a very expressive and animated reading of the story. She also introduced them well and had the audience laughing out loud at the links as well as the writing.
Eileen Ward-Birch followed with a reading of a selection of her poems and a nicely observed, if rather slight, memoir of a childhood visit, in winter, to see relatives in Aldridge. She fitted quite a lot of short, diverse poems into her set ranging from one about the renovation of St Leonard's Church in Bilston to one about internet shopping via one about the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano eruption.
The three remaining performers for the evening had something in common. Much of their poetry would have been utterly incomprehensible to anyone who wasn't born within about five miles of the venue but achingly funny to anyone who was. So, from Geoff Stevens, we got a poem about pigeons, one called "Why am Darlaston blokes so slow?", another about a Black Country dialect sex chat line and so on all delivered in a heavy Black Country dialect that really engaged the audience. Dialect poetry has to be very well done to succeed and Geoff's is very well done indeed.
After the break Mike Tinsley took over and things took a turn for the prurient. This being Mike, we had expected no less. He included poems about sex, death, Christmas and carrots (in sick) in his very enjoyable set. One of Mike's tricks is to take jokes, usually dirty jokes, that are so old they are creaking, and give them a new lease of life as poems. It works well, though the groans from the audience are as loud as the laughs. He's a thoroughly entertaining performer who included more dialect stuff to confuse any visitors from out of the district.
We finished off the evening with Brendan Hawthorne whose poems were just as good though perhaps (a little) less seamy. He covered the way that pubs have changed their character over the years, health and safety and the wickedly funny idea of a Black Country dialect SatNav among other topics though my favourite was the slightly more thoughtful, though still funny, one about a lifetime of trauma caused by not getting a bright orange space hopper for Christmas in 1969.
Another great night for five excellent performances. Bilston Voices just goes on delivering the goods every time.
It seems that after years, decades even, of being a man defined by his complete lack of style and elegance, I have somehow, accidentally, become fashionable. On Friday I had to attend a meeting at one of the college's other sites which I haven't visited for ages. One of my erstwhile colleagues greeted me and then looked at me and told me that I was looking stylish. Given that I was wearing what I always wear, which is about as unstylish as it's possible to get without actually wearing rags, I was somewhat taken aback. I suspected her of having a little joke. After all I was wearing a perfectly ordinary shirt and perfectly ordinary trousers, neither of which fit me terribly well since I went on my diet. What could she possible have meant? Seeing my look of utter bewilderment she explained to me that it was neither the shirt nor the trousers. It was the Parka jacket. Apparently they are now the height of cool fashion. Given that I've had mine for years, ever since I visited the Army and Navy stores shortly prior to my holiday in Iceland, it seems that not only am I fashionable for this brief moment, but I am a bona fide trend-setter.
I of course dismissed this as either a joke on her part or, at the very best, a little sartorial hyperbole.
Then today I picked up a copy of this week's Shortlist, a magazine for men that is handed out free on the nation's city streets. There, in the middle, is a long article, with lots of photographs, explaining how - in their words - "the ubiquitous outdoor staple is back on trend this season". One of the ones pictured is very nearly identical to mine. I am, it seems, at the cutting edge.
Of course the one that looks like mine has one big difference. It costs £250. My ex-Norwegian army one cost £45. Still, I should wear it every time I go out for the next couple of months. Being fashionable is a novelty that I'm not used to and of course it won't last. A little way down the road they will suddenly be supplanted by whatever the next trend is and I shall go on wearing mine because it's warm and waterproof and I won't be fashionable any longer. I will however, henceforth, at least be able to say that there was a time when I was.
Of course we had Lego as children. Didn't everybody? Brightly-coloured, interlocking plastic bricks that could be formed into any kind of toy imaginable. Lego, possibly Denmark's most famous product.
But before we* had Lego we had Betta Bilda, a very similar product made by Airfix. The bricks were smaller, all white and didn't lock together as well as Lego - though they were made of very sturdy plastic. To build a roof for a house there were small green tiles that were incredibly awkward to put together. There were door frames and window frames with little pieces of transparent plastic that had to be fitted into the window frames and little plastic doors that fit into the door frames. In short you built a house in the same way that you might build a real one.
Of course, in those days, when you bought a box of bricks, of whichever type, you got rather a lot of them. Nowadays when I glance on the toy shop windows I see that if you buy Lego you buy enough to make one specific model - often a model that has been licensed from a film - and that's all you buy. I daresay you can still buy general sets but I haven't seen them around.
And I haven't seen Betta Bilda for years. I don't know if it even exists any more. Lego was probably the superior product but nostalgia isn't about what was best, it's about what you remember best and I remember that Betta Bilda set with pieces small enough to choke a child that were fiddly enough to be next to impossible for uncoordinated childish fingers.
Sometimes I wonder where all the these things that I get misty-eyed over went. They must have been lost or given away or thrown away as we grew up but I don't recall anything ever having been thrown away. I suppose that they were abandoned and forgotten and then quietly disposed of by parents who wanted a home less cluttered by things no longer used. It's a pity really that our pasts are so disposable.
(*That is to say, specifically, before my brother and I had Lego. I don't know which was actually the earlier product. I suspect it was probably Lego.)
I'm intending to pop along to the next Poetry at the Cafe open mic session at the Margaret Rose Abri Cafe on Cheapside in Digbeth so when I realised that this month's Rhymes, another event I've been intending to visit, was there last night I thought I'd pop along and have a look at the venue. It's only a few hundred yards from the college where I work and I killed some time by having a bite at the Warehouse Cafe and a stroll around the opening evening of this year's German Market and then headed down.
I didn't take my usual notes so I can't give a detailed review but what I can say is that it was quite daunting. If I ever get to perform at Rhymes I'm going to have to seriously lift my game. Two young poets, Sean Colletti and Andy Cook got the evening off to a very fine start indeed and they were followed by Fatima Al Matar who maintained the momentum with a set of poems that were startlingly accomplished. Even as I was enjoying all of this I was thinking how pale my own work seemed in comparison and how timid my performances.
After a break we had the main reasons for the evening - the new Birmingham Poet Laureate, Roy McFarlane and the new Birmingham Young Poet Laureate, Jordan Westcarr. Jordan started and if he can write like that now he's going to be magnificent with a few years experience behind him. Roy was of course terrific. He always is, performing superbly crafted poems with passion and fervour.
It was a terrific night. I shall be making a point of seeking out future Rhymes events even if they are rather disheartening.
I have no idea if anyone will like this poem or not but I would like to talk about what it means and how it came to be written.
Part, perhaps the major part, of what a poet does is to make connections. Each poem is in itself an attempt to connect the poet's experience with the experience of the reader. More than that though, the actual construction of a poem is an exercise in connections an many different levels. On the purely structural level there are the connections of the words to form rhythms and rhymes. There is the connection of lines to form verses and verses to form complete poems. But that's all purely mechanical. The real connection is the connection of ideas. The humblest limerick usually starts with a couple of lines which are joined by lines three and four to a twisting or subversion of the idea in line five. The greatest of poems link ideas in subtle and interesting ways. One of my favourite poems is Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray. Whenever I read it I wish that I could write that well, hope that one day I shall write something so nearly perfect. The beauty of the poem to me is the reality of the way that it links the ideas of life and death.
I don't pretend that my poem above has any such merit, perhaps no merit at all, but it's creation was a linking in ways that not many of the poems in this series have been. It started out with a couple of lines based on my favourite book-
Alice falling, Alice flying
Alice laughing, Alice crying
which went nowhere and didn't quite make it, in that exact form, into the final piece. I had been intending to write a poem connected with Alice In Wonderland but nothing more came to me. What came next was the doodle from the book that I have been using to provide inspiration - a doodle of an old lady on a bench, looking half-mad and quite frail. It occurred to me that she might be a very different Alice, an Alice whose inner world was very different to that of the young heroine of the book. I drafted a couple of versions on that theme but I didn't like either of them.
Then I saw a teenage girl begging in a subway in Birmingham. She looked even frailer than the lady in the doodle. She may well have been trying to get money for drugs - she certainly looked ill enough. As I continued on my way home I speculated on how she had come to her current situation and the poem, as it finally appears above came to me almost complete.
I juggled the order of the lines a little to create a sense of narrative and finally had it done. The poem connects Alice Through The Looking Glass, a random doodle in a book and the sad life of a teenage beggar. I don't know if it's successful or not - poets are not able to objectively appraise their own work - but I hope so.
And I hope it makes a connection with some of my readers.
I decided on a whim last night to drop in to City Voices in Wolverhampton. It's a while since I've been, though I do try to attend the sister event, Bilston Voices, as often as I can. On offer we had four of the writers who contributed to the recent New Writings From Wolverhampton anthology and one former resident of Wolverhampton who now lives in Scotland and had travelled down especially for the event.
We started with Michelle Moore who read us two stories. The first, Starting Block, I recognised from the anthology. It's a short but well told tale of the pressure that can be put on children by their parents. The second was new to me and on a similar theme of childhood but more about the pressure of children's own expectations.
Second on the bill was our visitor from Scotland, Neil Ledbeater, who gave us a set of lyrically descriptive pieces. He started with a few about various aspects of nature. When he moved on to some reminiscences about his Wolverhampton childhood they were still lyrical and rather nicely observed though the poem I liked best was about the rail journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
Next came Marion Cockin substituting for the absent Yvette Rose. Marion gave us the two poems from the anthology and a fairy tale told from memory. The two poems were very good but the fairy tale, though well enough constructed and well enough told, left me a little cold. It would have been completely suitable for its intended audience of young children but I prefer more complex material. Still, she had substituted at very short notice and I wouldn't be able to remember enough of my own material to put together a full set if called on to do it.
After the break Nick Pearson did a mixed set of humourous and serious poems. They were very observational about life and the surrounding world. They included his contribution to the anthology, Dwellings, and a very nicely drawn portrait of a not particularly nice coffee bar.
We finished up with, as Simon, the MC put it, "not a national treasure yet but certainly a local treasure" Win Saha who had been kind enough to come over to me in the break and tell me how much she had enjoyed my work at the performance workshop last Saturday. Her set was about half and half material I had heard before and material I hadn't. Mostly her poems were her customary clever and witty verses on all sorts of topics - from the shape of the faces of the members of the royal family to why she won't were purple. I was quite taken with the rather more sombre mood of Requiem which was especially relevant as we approach armistice day.
It was a good, mixed set and, as I feel I ought to make the effort to get along more often even though Tuesday is not a great night for me. I shall certainly be at the next one though as I am on the bill with a reminiscence about visiting the Philippines at Christmas.
Editing a piece for my forthcoming performance at City Voices, I noticed that Word had put a red line under "aubergine" in the phrase "breakfast consisted of banana and coconut served up with fried aubergine".
Checking why it was wrong, I realised that it was because I had the spelling checker set to US English. What was more startling was the suggested correction - "fried aborigine".
I was at a performance poetry workshop on Saturday. It was an excellent afternoon with a lot of useful advice and a chance to try out a new performance poem. The best thing to come out of it though was two more invitations for gigs.
I will be appearing at the December City Voices on Tuesday 14th. That one will be a prose reading about travel at Christmas, though I haven't decided yet on exactly which piece to use.
I was also asked by the MC of Poetry @ Margaret Rose Abri Cafe if I'd like to go along and perform there, probably on 2nd December. As it's about 200 yards from where I work it's an opportunity too good to miss. I shall probably do a couple of poems, one serious and one funny. More if I have time though they are only seven minute slots. Should be fun.
It's a long time ago and I suppose one shouldn't bear a grudge but, nevertheless, there was this incident. I was in my late teens and on the bus on the way home from school. My friend Pete was with me. As was my habit at the time I was sucking on a glacier mint. We had boarded the stop, as usual, at the end of Cumberland Road. Two stops later, at Bilston Clinic, Pete's nephew got on the bus. When he saw me eating he asked me for a sweet. Of course, given our local dialect what he actually said was probably, "giza suck" - something that could well be misconstrued nowadays but an innocent enough remark round here meaning nothing more than "please give me a sweet" (That's "please give me candy" if you are American).
Pete instantly chimed in with "he can't, he only ever carries one in case he gets mugged".
It was so unfair, and so untrue. In the first place I always started the day with two - one for going to school and one for going home. And apart from that the reason that I carried so few was that I liked them and if I'd carried six I'd have eaten six. If I carried six whole bags I'd have eaten them all too.
I've never forgiven him for such a calculatedly offensive remark.
I haven't eaten a glacier mint for years now but I think I may buy a bag on the way home. At two a day they should last me a month or so of journeys too and from work and that's quite enough nostalgia for anyone.
Until last night I didn't even know that the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham had a theatre, a hardly surprising gap in my knowledge considering that it's tucked away up the back stairs in a corner of the attic. I'm glad I found out though because that's precisely where I spent an hour or so in the company of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre doing their new show, "On The Telly". Of course given that the company consists of one guy, Kev Sutherland, and two socks "his new show" might be more appropriate.
I am completely baffled by two things about the Socks. The first is the question addressed in this show - why aren't they on television in their own prime time show. They are funnier than anything currently showing on any channel. As funny as anything that I have ever seen. And the second is how on earth anyone can go on being as consistently hilarious. The standard hasn't dropped at all since I first came across them on the internet a couple of years ago. There isn't a single misfiring moment in the whole show. I was quite literally crying with laughter throughout most of the evening as they gave us what was an almost completely new show with just a couple of old favourites thrown in (including the briefest of nods to their classic Halloween sketch.)
Among the other junk was that old box of 78rpm records that I mentioned. So that you get an idea of the soundtrack to my childhood, here, with a few links to the ones I particularly remember, is the full list of the records in the box. It should be noted that sometimes the song that I remember was the B-side.