Friday, 26 February 2016

Reading Stuff Out Loud

One morning last summer, Holly failed to turn up for breakfast. Holly is our youngest cat. Our cats tend to spend summer nights outside, patrolling the neighbourhood and doing cat stuff before returning at dawn to meow their heads off at the prospect of a bowl of cat food; except for Holly on this one occasion. I tried not to worry because they don't always all show up at breakfast, and when they go missing they have thus far always come back.

Holly turned up in the late afternoon. I opened the door to let her in and noticed that she seemed subdued, which could result either from having found herself trapped overnight in some neighbour's garage, or maybe just because it was a baking hot afternoon; but I noticed that she was hopping along on three legs, and worse - one back paw dangled from the ankle like an earring dangles from its lobe.

'Meow,' she said pitifully.

The vet told us that the leg was broken clean through. It could be set, but he could give no guarantee that it would return to full function afterwards, and it would probably be expensive. Thankfully the forecast was in error regarding Holly losing the use of that leg, although they were right about the expense. I could have flown back to England at least six times with the money which got sucked into that vet's bill.

'Damn,' I said to myself as I sat staring at a screenful of text much like this one. 'I really need this shit to start paying out.'

I'd been paid for the novel published by Obverse in 2013, and since then there had been bits and pieces here and there - mostly paintings done for the covers of other people's books; but I was conspicuously still some way short of buying a yacht, or even paying to fix the leg of a small cat. Maybe I should be reading this stuff before an audience, I told myself, recalling that it was the spoken performances of Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, David Sedaris and others which had got me writing autobiographical material in the first place. The big money is in performance - that's what everyone always says, plus that's how you shift units, units in this case mostly being my print-on-demand books. Were I ten years younger I would have written to the local radio station, maybe even to NPR saying look, you've never heard of me but that doesn't mean a thing. I'm the negative universe David Sedaris in that I'm English, I'm over here, and I'm not gay. I'm hilarious and you need to give me my own weekly show, and to pay me for it. This had been my promotional strategy at least since when, at the age of sixteen, I wrote a letter to Fetish Records explaining that I would probably one day be at least as famous as Throbbing Gristle, so can I have a record contract, please - oh and send me a blank tape so I can send some of my music for you to listen to. I can't afford blank tapes because I'm just a kid at the moment. Now approaching fifty years of age I had learned to accept that my promotional strategy was cranky and off-putting, and I needed to start at the beginning.

I would accrue valuable experience reading my shit out to a live audience, to any live audience I could get to stand still long enough, and eventually I would end up on either stage or the wireless with a regular pay-check, droning on about that time when me and Sean Downham nicked some penny chews from the Goose Lane newsagent in Lower Quinton as an aside to whatever memory I had decided to administer to my many millions of bewildered followers as an anaesthetic that week; and I would have money to fly back to England on a more regular basis, and vet's bills would no longer be a problem.

I nosed around online and decided that open mic poetry readings were probably the way to go given that no-one would be required to pay admission and there would be no expectation of my being any good. I had no intention of reading anything I would ever call poetry, but it seemed a better idea than attempting to pass myself off as a stand-up comedian, that being the other option.

Pretzels - what the hell are those all about? Am I right, guys? Am I right? Goddamn pretzels, man - all weird and shit.

It just wasn't me.

There was an open mic night, an event called the Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot held at the Deco Pizzeria here in San Antonio on the first and third Wednesday of each month. It seemed as good a place to start as any. My wife drove past the venue a few nights before, to be sure of where it was and so that we could take a look. It was a free-standing building in part of San Antonio characterised by striking art deco architecture. The venue seemed decent, so I dug my old minidisc recorder out from a box in the garage and tried to remember how the thing worked because I'd need to record the performance.

I'd had a couple of years worth of weekly writings gathered together as a print-on-demand paperback called An Englishman in Texas - after the blog upon which the essays first appeared - and I was going to read something from this to my as yet notional audience, something short which might hopefully get a few laughs in the right places. That was the theory. My printer is of the kind which refuses to work when a new printer cartridge is inserted whilst insisting that normal service will be resumed just as soon as I insert a new printer cartridge, so my printing off anything I'd written on sheets of A4 for recital before a live audience wasn't going to happen. This was a worry because I'd kept the font used in my paperback edition of An Englishman in Texas pretty damn small so as to cram it all in and to keep the size down to a manageable six-hundred or so pages. The book resembles a small housebrick but is easy enough to read in bed providing I'm wearing glasses. I would read from it on stage, or whatever was going to serve for a stage.

I spent a couple of days wandering around the house reading aloud from the paperback, timing myself so as to deduce what I could get away with. To my surprise and mild horror I found it took me a little over three minutes to read a page of my own text, meaning that I was pretty much limited to essays of three pages at most when the great majority of what I've written runs to at least five. I decided I might be able to justify four or five pages if it seemed likely that the material would go down well - keeping in mind that this depended on my ability to judge both the quality of my own writing and the tastes of the people who would comprise my first audience.

Well, not my first audience. I suppose, for the sake of argument, my first audience in this respect had been the teachers who judged the impromptu reading competition I entered when our school had some sort of activities week. I wasn't particularly interested in impromptu reading but I put my name down because I assumed it would be a piece of piss. It wasn't. It was nerve racking, and as I stuttered and stumbled through some unfamiliar and fairly dull text, I heard my own voice as though it belonged to someone else, and I realised that I sounded like a gurgling moron.

More recently - or at least back in the early nineties - I'd played guitar and sang in front of paying audiences as a member of the Dovers and then Academy 23, and I'd even begun to enjoy the experience before I decided I was fed up of being in bands and jacked it all in. The point here is that I'm not unaccustomed to performance. I suspected that reading prose wouldn't be quite the same, but assumed that it couldn't be too different.

When the day came I got in training by charging my discman with my most muscular Rollins Band CD for the morning bike ride; then by reading the piece I'd selected from An Englishman in Texas over and over once I was home; and then by changing my mind when I realised that Geoff was too long, I couldn't do a Tyneside accent, and in any case no-one would get the references.

The evening came and we drove over to the Deco Pizzeria. Bess stayed inside and shared a pizza with the boy, and I went out onto the patio which, judging by the speakers and assembly of people with a whiff of the poetic about them, was to serve as our venue. It was Wednesday the 19th of August and was therefore a warm evening what with this being Texas. I bought a beer and took a seat at a free table. The tables around me were strewn with sheets of paper, notebooks, tablets and the like, anything which could serve as a vehicle for text. It was still only seven in the evening. The Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot was scheduled to begin at eight, but I was early. Everyone seemed young, or at least seemed mostly younger than myself by a decade or two. I could turn my head and watch Bess and the kid through the window enjoying their pizza. She had told me that she didn't want to cramp my style, or something of the sort.

The place fills and people hop from one table to another as old friends do, excited and excitable. They compare notes and discuss who will read what, pieces they've been working on. I sit alone at my table trying hard not to think of Charles Bukowski recorded on a VHS video I once saw, steaming drunk and describing how he walked out of a university when someone asked him to read his poetry. Hungover, he throws up and collapses on the grass outside the building.

'Look at that old man,' says a student he identifies as one of the little birdies. 'He's really fucked up.'

This is different because not only am I not a raging alcoholic but I don't even like the beer, and yet somehow the situation feels similar. Everybody is young and full of beans, and everyone knows each other, but there's this old dude sat at a table pretending to read his own vanity published book, and the old dude is myself. The next table is occupied by a young woman in her twenties with horn-rimmed spectacles and a fifties hair style. She leafs through pages of text, scowling and making notes with a ball-point pen. She looks ready to give some section of society or other a hard time using just poetry, and I tell myself that appearances can be deceptive.

At least I hope so given that I'm beginning to feel like the enemy, the white man, the narc, the informer, the undercover Republican dressed as a plantation owner in Stetson and guayabera, and I'm sat alone and friendless, just monitoring the situation with my own book before me on the table like it's a bible. I am in a minority, and this reminds me that white males who describe themselves as such are always, without exception, arseholes.

My fears are reduced when a young black guy approaches with a clipboard. He is one of the organisers and he is somehow able to tell why I am here. Amazingly, he recognises me as a type. He asks what I intend to read, and doesn't seem to mind when I tell him that it isn't actually poetry.

'How long?' he asks.

'About ten minutes,' I tell him, hopefully.

He explains what will happen. There will be an hour or so of open mic followed by a group performance which has already been scheduled. I will be on later rather than sooner because ten minutes is long compared to what some have planned. He will call me up front when my time comes.

We begin.

It's all poetry, maybe performance poetry if you want to split hairs. Some is read from iPhones or tablets, and some from memory. Everyone is either in their early twenties or younger. Everyone has stage presence and confidence, and performances are peppered with nods and in-jokes shared amongst the other poets of the audience. There is a lot of laughing and shouting. A young Latino guy reads a poem about his genuine appreciation of low-riders and other stereotypically Mexican passions, things his supposedly more-enlightened friends somehow believe should be beneath him. It's funny and it's pretty good. In fact most of what gets read is good, or sounds good. Two school age girls take to the microphone. They look like characters from a Japanese cartoon series. They speak alternate lines of a single piece, call and response, addressing the phantom of some censorious school principal. We're going to wear our short skirts regardless, they tell him, then share cruel laughter and ask why he was looking and whether he liked what he saw.

I sigh and think of Hank Hill.

Young people know everything there is to be known.

My time is here.

'He's come all the way from England to read for us tonight!'

I suppose it isn't actually untrue. I stand and shuffle towards the mic like the fat old man about to set these beatniks and homosexuals right, and to tell them to vote Republican. My copy of An Englishman in Texas feels as fat as a bible in my hand, a self-published symbol of my redundancy.

Good evening, children. Allow me to regale you with some most entertaining tales of my days as a younger man.

It turns quiet so I introduce myself. 'As you can probably tell by my accent, I'm not from around here, so I hope you can actually understand what I'm saying because a lot of people have trouble with it.' This is pre-emptive, and comes from how often I'm asked to repeat myself.

'Iced tea,' I will say, and the waitress boggles and looks at my wife as though hoping she will be able to translate whatever language I'm speaking. I don't believe my accent can be so out of place as to mangle just those two syllables beyond recognition, so I suppose it's simply that they don't expect to hear so unfamiliar an accent in Texas.

I am dimly aware that I am talking horseshit, but I can't quite stop myself, and my accent now sounds like a caricature even to me. I read an essay called The Mysteries of the Pyramids which was written after someone tried to involve Bess and myself in a pyramid scheme. I've chosen this one because it contains jokes, spends some time making light of my being a foreigner, and identifies the relentless pursuit of wealth as essentially idiotic. I briefly give some account of which English terms I'm not going to bother translating into American, whilst wondering whether such an explanation is really necessary.

Then I take a deep breath and read, leaning into the text and finding myself surprised by how my voice sounds amplified through the speakers. To my own ears I sound as though I'm impersonating John Peel or maybe Stuart Home, which I suppose is better than sounding as though I'm impersonating David Sedaris or Henry Rollins. It's difficult to read in the low lighting of the patio, but I'm coping and somehow I manage to keep a steady pace without screw-ups; and I even enjoy it a little. I like how the words sound. I like what I've written.

I stumble briefly as I begin a paragraph I'd already decided to leave out, and there are a few further hiccups, but I get through the thing in just under twelve minutes. 'I hope that wasn't too painful,' I say as I finish with the intonation of Johnny Rotten asking if you ever get the feeling you've been cheated at the last Sex Pistols gig. 'Thanks for being tolerant,' I add, because I have the impression that most of them were listening, even if they didn't get the jokes or didn't think they were so funny as to warrant laughter.

Thanks for being tolerant. Even as I say it I am faintly disgusted by my own peculiar need to apologise, my apparent desire for approval. If they enjoyed it that's great, but I don't need people half my age to stamp my card or tell me I did okay. I already know that I did okay.

There's a smattering of applause, ramped up somewhat by the compère, the black guy I spoke to earlier. 'He's flown a long way to spit for you guys,' he tells the audience, but he's still calling me Mr. Lawrence. I sit feeling vaguely dissatisfied, not with myself so much as the circumstances and I can't quite say why. The Mysteries of the Pyramids seemed to go down reasonably well, but somehow I can't take pleasure from it. Maybe next time...

The next time is the 2nd of September. Two weeks have passed and Bess has dropped me off so once again I'm alone and watching everyone hop from one table to another as old friends do, excited and excitable. They compare notes and discuss who will read what, pieces they've been working on. Again I don't feel nervous, not exactly. This is just something I'm doing and it's the waiting which is the worst part, that and the waiter failing to bring me a beer. I'm English so I'm accustomed to buying drinks from a bar, and I'm not accustomed to a waiter who comes to your table to take an order. You know where you stand with the English system, but this guy took my order nearly an hour ago. I've seen him three times since then, and on each occasion he's caught my eye, pulled a face to show that he's realised he has forgotten to bring me a beer, and then still failed to deliver. I consider the possibility of him bringing a beer the moment I go inside to buy one at the bar, and the possibility of losing my table, and I also consider that I don't actually want a beer, that I'm just passing the time.

The evening grows dark, the readings begin, and at last I'm back on. There are a few supportive whoops. Some people seem to remember me from before. I begin with an explanation, recalling how on the previous occasion I stood before them as some fat old white bloke whining about how his previous girlfriend didn't understand him, and I tell them that I was very much conscious of this. 'That really wasn't my intention,' I explain, 'and were it otherwise, I kind of hope a few of you might throw things at me and tell me to shut the fuck up.'

Amazingly there is laughter, and I get the impression that they are on my side, but the problem is that by now it's too dark for me to read the tiny print of my paperback copy of An Englishman in Texas. I've purchased a reading light from the supermarket, a tiny LED on the end of a flexible armature which you clip to the top of the page, but the light it casts is too feeble to make a difference. This is why everyone else reads from iPhones and tablets.

'Ugh - can I get some sort of light? This is ridiculous.'

A young Latina who could quite easily be my granddaughter illuminates the screen of her phone and holds it over my shoulder, allowing me to read Tin of Doom, the account of a previous girlfriend who didn't understand me.

I've picked Tin of Doom because it's much shorter than The Mysteries of the Pyramids and is much simpler, a basic comic account of self-involved idiocy. It's also the one essay which has been named as a favourite amongst those who have read my stuff on a number of occasions. It's a crowd pleaser, and this time everyone laughs in the places I expect them to laugh. It does its job, and I take pleasure from the telling. It feels less presidential address, more rock 'n' roll.

I finish and savour the applause, then return to my table and phone my wife, who comes to pick me up. I feel buoyed up and powerful, like I've stepped off the stage after a great gig.

Two weeks later I am indisposed, it being the day before my birthday, and then the 7th of October comes around and I realise I can't face another reading. I'm entirely happy with the material I have, but even when it's well received I've realised that I don't actually care one way or the other. I don't need the approval. Then there's the waiting around, sat on my own at a table trying to work out how to get hold of a beer I don't really want when I'd much rather be at home. It's tedious and there's no-one to talk to with whom I could have any sort of meaningful conversation, or even a mildly amusing one. I've never really been a social animal, and I'm way out of my depth. There will be other, better opportunities, I decide.

The cast comes off Holly's leg after about a month. It's been tough because she's had to have the cast replaced at the beginning of each week, each visit somehow costing a couple of hundred dollars. Then we have to detain her in a little cat tent to keep her from jumping up onto anything, and all the while she's trying to get the cast off, and she obviously isn't happy about any of this. Eventually she somehow manages to chew through the thing, plaster, bandages, plastic armature and all. She seems to be getting around okay, so we decide to forego taking her back to the vet and coughing up another couple of hundred dollars. She gets on fine, although her leg now projects backwards when she sits, straight out as though she's enacting Christina's World, the painting by Andrew Wyeth.

So Holly is okay. We managed without the revenue tsunami I hoped I might eventually generate by the power of my words; and whilst the readings remain part of some remote and poorly defined ambition, I suspect there is a better way of doing it. Eventually I will find out how.

Download poor quality but nevertheless free MP3 file of my first droning live reading here.

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