Monday, 27 April 2009

Bangor, Wales

Coming in on the train to Bangor, you get this deliciously precarious sense of teetering on the edge of the world. With the Menai Straits on one side and the looming, mist-weathed Bangor Mountain and its foothills on the other, the UK's fourth smallest city feels particularly wee, a temporary resident in a bold and ancient landscape.

It took me five and a half hours to get there, but these days train journeys like that ain't no thang. Unless my carriage is packed with brattish teens listening to trebly R n' B without headphones, or some knuckle-dragging lunk with the sort of boss-eyed glare that suggests all human faces appear to him as floating red-ringed bullseyes, then the ride offers some very pleasant me-time, where nobody can make any legitimate demands on me, and yet I don't feel guilty, because I'm heading towards a destination.

I was heading there as a featured poet for Poetica, a poetry night that takes place in the Blue Sky Café, and attracts a mixture of arty, bohemian types and chilled out hippies. If I was going to learn to be a mellower, less fearful character, surely hippies were the go-to experts.

My favourite part of the night was when the compere started the night by stepping up to the mic, then knocking out some beatbox harmonica. In ten seconds the room went from low-level chatter to rapt attention. It was one of the best opening compering gambits I've ever seen, a way of rapidly, non-aggressively asserting authority - and a blessed respite from 'so what's your name pal? And where are you from?'

Although there were invited poets, the evening began with an open mic session, and closed with one. For the second open mic, the audience were told to 'put your hands in your pockets - and write a poem about whatever you find there,' so any of the poems that got read out had been written during the evening.

Most of the open mic performers were Poetica stalwarts, but there was one guy, also called Tim, who was reading for the first time. I'd noticed him when he came in - he looked in his early twenties, had close-cropped hair, and was wearing a navy blue hoodie, and stuck out amongst the tie-dyed, dreadlocked hippies and brown-trousered retirees.

When he leant forward to speak into the mic for the first time, you could hear his panting breaths. He was shitting bricks. He read a poem called 'Mr Wrong', apparently autobiographical, about going from Welsh schoolboy boxing champion with a bright future, to a listless stoner at 21, after a series of unspecified 'misfortunes'. It was all written in metreless couplets, had a few awkward malapropisms, but was startling in its nakedness. He read the last line, 'My real name is Mr Roberts, but it seems to be Mr Wrong today,' and his voice broke as he hit the last word. The audience gave him a big round of applause, and he tugged at his hair, grinning bashfully.

'My legs are shaking,' he said.

This is a guy who has willingly, repeatedly stepped into a ring where someone else is going to try to deliberately hit him very hard in the face, yet reading his poetry to a roomful of smiling hippies left him so terrified it affected his ability to speak and stand. The pattern-creating part of my brain wants me to note that he was the second open mic ex-boxer I'd encountered in a week, though I'm not totally comfortable with introducing the obvious pugilist/performer analogy. For me, the most interesting thing to observe is that bravery and confidence in one area does not necessarily have any bearing on confidence in another. One person's routine triviality is another's gibbering nightmare. A lot of supposedly confident, together people have simply sculpted their lives so they don't have to come into contact with the things that they're afraid of. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, so long as they admit their limitations, and don't act haughty when confronted with people who knock up against their anxieties on a regular basis.

In the end, I don't think I could be a hippy. I'm too fond of order. Also, I think crystals are just pretty rocks. And I don't think global pharmaceutical conglomerates are conspiring to give the world tumours. And you don't see many hippies playing video games. I like machine-gunning waves of enemy grunts. I'm pretty sure that kind of talk gets your hippy card permanently revoked.

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