Wednesday, 29 July 2009

More What I Did On My Holidays

My word, I am pooped. This weekend just gone, I set off for four gigs over two days. My voice still hadn't (and still hasn't) recovered from Latitude, so I left little Tim Jr back in Cambridge and resolved to stick to spoken word.

I was in fairly high spirits after my gig on Thursday, supporting Byron Vincent on his Poetry Link tour, at Wax Lyrical in Colchester. It was my first time at the Wax Lyrical night, and Molly Naylor and Ross Sutherland were both on the bill as well, meaning essentially I got to perform with a bunch of much-valued chums. The audience were really lovely and I think I did one of the best twenty minute sets I've ever done. I felt very at ease and enjoyed just sort of blathering, telling anecdotes and making up my set on the fly. It also provided yet another reminder of the value of decent lead-ins - not only do they set up the poem nicely for the crowd, but I find now that the right sort of preamble actually helps to put me in the best mental state to perform the poem well. Anyway, basically it was great fun, and I really enjoyed getting to watch Ross, Molly and Byron perform their sets all on one night, to appreciative spectators. Oh, and the sound tech guy was a total champ - he stuck a lovely tickle of reverb on Tim Jr and made him sound all Hawaiian, full, and dreamy. Kudos to that guy.

On Friday it was off to Camp Bestival, down on the south coast, at Lulsworth Castle. There's something particularly cruel about Camp Bestival's location - from on site, you can see the ocean shimmering just a mile away. It felt like it was constantly teasing me - I mean, festivals are okay, but with the insanely hot weather Camp Bestival had, you can't help but wish you were down on a beach instead, cavorting on the sand or diving into cool blue waves.

Camp Bestival started out as a bit of a culture shock - we arrived to find ourselves kicking through drifts of jammy-visaged sprogs three or four deep. Squealing tykes battled with plastic swords, scampered about with balloons and crammed ice cream wafer sandwiches into their red, mewling gobs. The music on the main stages at Camp Bestival was pretty shite. I condescended to watch Florence and the Machine, against my better judgement, and wished I hadn't. I don't know what all the fuss is about - all I saw was some crapulent, equine-mawed toff caterwauling and dropping barrages of slurred f-bombs between her nondescript dirges, much to the consternation of the watching parents and children. Beatboxer Beardyman on Saturday was a similar waste of time - a smug, irritating cunt trying to spin a meagre party trick out into a career. I'm easily impressed by beatboxing, but you have to have some kind of interesting content or be exceptionally good at what you do - Beardyman has neither, and he compounds the problem with his constant toe-curling attempts at humour. It's like being stuck in a lift with Timmy Mallett.

But when the sun goes down, all the children suddenly seem to get removed by some sort of snow plough, and then Camp Bestival turns into a really excellent dance festival. Better yet, because it's such a family festival, the atmosphere in the late evening stays convivial - there aren't so many of the boss-eyed spannered townies you associate with banging choons. On Friday night we had a good ol' dance for many hours, ending up in the Silent Disco. Clare's Law: as the length of a Silent Disco increases, the probability of both DJs playing Cheese approaches 1. I bowed out gracefully as soused revellers bellowed Hey Jude up at the tent ceiling.

My readings on Saturday went okay. It's a bit tricky judging content and holding an audience when there are packs of roving kids swarming here there and everywhere, but I think I did okay. The hard thing is that a lot of parents tend to use book tents as creches, plonking themselves down on a cushion and leaving their kids to shriek and run about. There wasn't too much of that when I was on, though, and I'm usually shouty-shouty enough to make little children run away crying. I did a reading from We Can't All Be Astronauts in the early afternoon, then a poetry set with Scroobius Pip in the evening. I felt as if my rendition of Dear Man I Saw On The Platform At Colchester was a bit lacklustre - I think I might retire it for a while, just until I get the feeling back. I'm not an actor, so if I'm not feeling it then it just turns hammy, and I don't want to force that awful am-dram bollocks on some poor crowd.

By the time we were due to leave Camp Bestival, I'd become acclimatised to the huge numbers of kids, and found myself - embarrassingly - putting a hand to my chest and sighing with increasing frequency, as I saw and heard lots of very cute, very endearing things. Camp Bestival isn't my cup of tea - despite curator Rob Da Bank's claims of championing new bands, the music in the day is exclusively toothless crap - but the children there were obviously having an absolute whale of a time, and I was really happy for them.

Saturday evening we headed west, down to the Port Eliot Lit Fest. Aisle16 and Port Eliot have an association that goes back longer than I've been involved - at the last Port Eliot in 2007, we ended up doing about 20 plus hours of performance over two days; they might as well have renamed it Aisle16stock. I always enjoy Port Eliot because of its limited size - if you do a gig there, you instantly acquire a pseudo-celebrity that lasts for the whole weekend, and you can just wonder around chatting to people.

On the Sunday, me, Ross Sutherland and Joe Dunthorne did a performance of our show Found In Translation, about our attempts to infiltrate enigmatic French experimental literature group, the Oulipo. It went really well, as we suspected it might, because audiences at Port Eliot are always lovely. None of the mothers complained when I did my groin-thrusts and fecal splattering, which was gratifying. The weather on Sunday was crappy in the extreme - it was raining when we got up and it continued, unabated, all day and all evening, not letting up once. Port Eliot isn't really designed to cope with that sort of weather, and the tent we were performing in was leaking badly, the DI boxes for Ross's laptop sitting in an ominous marsh and bits of paper plastered to the stage with water.

Later on, I did a reading in the Round Room of the house. As the name suggests, it's a huge circular room with an elaborate and quite disturbing frieze painted across the wall and a large domed ceiling with a big chandelier hanging from the centre. I was directed to stand right beneath the chandelier, and as soon as I did, I could hear my voice being amplified and projected across the room. I believe it's called a Whispering Gallery - the acoustics are such that, if you stand in the centre of the room, your voice is projected by the architecture and you can hear everyone in the room perfectly. Lots of people turned up and I really enjoyed reading from Astronauts with my newfound big, booming voice. I did my first ever Q & A at the end, which was fun, and allowed me to babble enthusiastically about a bunch of things I like. Thanks Port Eliot!

Aside from some issues with our car breaking down, we had a great weekend. I think all this living outdoors has worn me down a bit though - I'm feeling ever so slightly under the weather, and I can feel my glands swollen up in my throat like big ol' gooseberries, so I'm committing to lots of water and quietness for the rest of the week, in the hopes that I can recover my performing mojo in time for Saturday, when I'm off to the Kendal Calling festival for yet more spoken word shennanigans and living under canvas. Hooray!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What I Did On My Holidays

So, after a day of sleeping and staggering groggily about the flat with Supernoodles dangling from my slack gob, I've officially recovered from Latitude festival 2009. My voice is still pretty buggered, so no arias for a week or so, but aside from that I'm compos mentis so woot.

Despite intermittently shitty weather, this year turned out to be a bit of a corker. I was performing every day, doing sets in the Poetry Arena and also reading from We Can't All Be Astronauts in the Literary Tent. The reading from my book was a particularly nice surprise - they told me to tell the audience that I'd be signing copies afterwards, and I cringed at a vision of me sitting glum and alone behind a pile of my books. Instead, we sold out of copies! I felt incredibly flattered and a tiny bit fraudulent, but, you know, I think in these instances it's best to drop the self-effacement and just enjoy it, which I did. Thanks if you bought a copy. You made me feel really chuffed.

In the Poetry Arena the audiences seemed bigger than we've had in previous years, and on Thursday and Sunday they were particularly enthusiastic. I didn't catch everyone who performed, but I felt Nathan Filer, John Osborne, Kate Tempest, Dockers MC and MC Angel had particularly good innings. Kate Tempest with her band Sound of Rum managed to get a crowd who had started out listless and subdued up on their feet and dancing by the end of their set, which was incredible to watch. John Osborne did the best performances I've ever seen him do - I particularly enjoyed the point where audience members started spontaneously yelling out names of bands that only use the vowel e. One guy shouted out ELO, to which John responded: 'That's a rubbish attempt. There are three letters in that name. One of them's e, and one of them's l. Do you see where you fell down?'

The tent on Sunday just got warmer and warmer as the evening went on, until it was rammed and the crowd were really up for it, whooping and cheering and belly laughing. My highlight of Aisle16 and Friends was watching MC Angel start a rap battle with Keith Allen. Keith Allen was better at freestyling than you might have guessed, and it was great, drunken, knockabout fun that had the audience laughing and questioning their sanity in equal measures. Aisle16's late night sessions in the Poetry Arena always teeter on anarchy, and the upside of that is that amazing bits of performance can arise spontaneously and give everyone present one of those festival 'moments' that we're all fiending after. Watching Ross Sutherland carry the mic into the middle of the audience to lead the tent in a rousing chorus of Total Eclipse Of The Heart was another bumper, albeit silly, moment.

Thank you to everyone who came to watch us, or gave poetry a try over the weekend. It's really salutory to do it and basically not be crap. It reminds me of why we do it in the first place - we just want to give people something fresh and new that can be funny and exciting and emotional all at once. That sounds gushy and pretentious until you're in the middle of a show that's going really well, then you realise, oh, it's true.

In another news, yesterday I stumbled across the Decemberists for the first time. Someone mentioned them in the same sentence as Jonathan Coulton, and I was like, aha. I love what I've heard so far. After my nap yesterday I got up and had a little dance around the living room with my wireless headphones on. Here are just two, Valerie Plame and The Legionnaire's Lament. Funtimes.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Ghostbusters... Yes, We're Back

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. I know you must have been tearing at your hair and gnashing your teeth with sheer boredom, and for your fortnight of torment, I beg your forgiveness. A combination of tech problems, writerly busy-ness and lovely weather have left me with mere slivers of free time, and every time I've looked at the blog and thought 'Shall I?' I've backed down like a wheelchaired grandmother wimping out of a river jump. I think part of the problem has been that I've got lots of ideas for involved, substantial posts, which will take ages and which I haven't been able to face starting - then compared to their rich majesty, a little Youtube vid or 'so, this is how my week has been' update feels as a crude Crayola scrawl against the artistic fruits of history's grandmasters.

In terms of writing, I've been mucking with stuff from my next book, getting it ready for some part of it to be looked at by another human being. Sitting down and writing prose is something of an odious experience for me, occasionally punctuated by satisfying - albeit brief - flurries of productivity. I like a lot of the parts of being a writer, except, for the most part, the actual writing. Hmm.

I've also been working on getting my poetry sets ready for Latitude festival at the end of this week. I reckon one in every five performance poems that I sit down and write ends up making it into my final set. And I don't often write performance poems. This means if I want some new pieces, I have to commit to a pretty intense work schedule so I've got more chance of turning up one that works. It's a little frustrating when you finish a poem, think 'wowee this'll be a banker', then deliver it at your next gig to crickets. But, you know, I'd rather work hard than be rubbish. I've got a poem in the works at the moment which I hope, hope, hope will wind up becoming a solid part of my set, and I'm trying to get it finished for Latitude so it can have its debut there.

Um, I completed Mario Vs Donkey Kong and Mario Vs Donkey Kong 2: The March Of The Minis, the former on the GBA, the latter on the DS. A mon avis, Mario Vs Donkey Kong is brilliant - a fun-packed dose of classic platforming action that sees you, as Mario, pursuing Donkey Kong after he steals a sackful of clockwork Mario toys from the factory. The level design is superb, the gameplay tough but fair, and the difficulty level ranges from easy to fiendish - a rare and welcome concession to hardcore platformer fans who want a challenge they can really sink their teeth into.

Mario Vs Donkey Kong 2 is pants. The fun, intuitive platforming action of its predecessor has gone - in its place is a joyless Gyromite clone (you remember Gyromite, right? No? Exactly) mixed with the most tedious elements of Krusty's Super Funhouse. Instead of getting to dash, backflip and 'yahooo!' as Mario, you must use the DS stylus to shunt little chittering Mini-Marios round small, dull levels. They move slowly, the stylus system is iffy, and the boss battles with DK are samey and bland. It's like a rubbish version of Lemmings, and the failure is all the more painful when you remember how classy the previous title in the series was. It's a rare swing-and-miss for the Mario franchise, and a sobering reminder that Nintendo's much-lauded innovation has risen from a history of pig-in-a-poke goofs, from Gyromite's ROB to the it's-so-bad Powerglove to the unwieldy Superscope to the nausea-inducing Virtualboy.

So, coming up I'm performing at Latitude festival in Suffolk on Thursday (9:10pm in the Literary Tent), Friday (6:00pm in the Poetry Arena), Saturday (11:30pm in the Poetry Arena) and Sunday (6:00pm in the Poetry Arena). I'll also be part of Aisle16 and Friends every night in the Poetry Arena, 11:00pm Thursday and Sunday, 1:00am Friday and Saturday. I'm helping to compere the Poetry Arena too, so basically, busy weekend pour moi. The weekend after I'm at Camp Bestival on the Saturday, reading from We Can't All Be Astronauts in the day, then doing a poetry set in the evening. On the Sunday, we'll be at Port Eliot Literary Festival, where I'll be performing with Joe Dunthorne and Ross Sutherland, doing our show about our attempts to infiltrate the enigmatic French experimental literature group the Oulipo - Found In Translation. Later that day I'll be giving a reading from We Can't All Be Astronauts. Then, weather-permitting, we are going to get plastered. The following weekend I'll be at the Kendall Calling festival, doing some performance poetry, then after that... oh, you can just check out my schedule. Be really nice to see you if you're about at any of those festivals. Come and say hi. Teach me a really elaborate handshake or something.

There. I think that's all for now. I've managed to write about poetry and video games in the same post, thus alienating both halves of my audience at once. If you don't feel excluded by one, you probably hate both. Well, that's what this blog exists for. Taking the rival camps of people who like poetry and people who like video games, and bringing them close enough that they can glare at one another, stoking their mutual emnity and mistrust. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just remembered that there's a new episode of This American Life ready for me to listen to. See you at the festival!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Knock Knock

You know how, a few days after a celebrity death, you always get this surge in not terribly sophisticated jokes about their passing? My friend Tom once announced, several years after her death, that he had made up a Princess Diana joke.

Tom: Knock knock.
Me: Who's there?
Tom: Princess Diana.
Me: Princess Diana who?
Tom [beaming]: Dead!

This developed as a meme, to the extent that, for the past 5 years, the first I have heard of almost every celebrity death has been my phone buzzing, and a text from either Tom or my friend Joe, that simply reads: 'Knock knock'. The phrase has taken on a terrifying odium that makes my chest tighten whenever I read it. Thus I awoke at 7:09am inside my tent on Friday at Glastonbury, to two texts reading: 'Knock knock'. Actually, Joe's read 'Knock knock', Tom's was: 'Don't blame it on the sunshine / Don't blame it on the moonlight / Don't blame it on the good times / Blame it on the knock knock'. I could barely bring myself to reply: 'Who's there?' because Tom's text suggested the unthinkable answer. It's horrible knowing that somebody has died, but not who. When I was told 'Michael Jackson', I was really spun out, but I knew it was true, because for all their levity, Tom and Joe have never ever lied in any of the dozens of 'Knock knock' texts they've sent me. There's a certain unspoken code to them, something almost, y'know... sacred.

The thing that really got to me was realising that, some day, who knows how soon, I'm going to receive one of those texts from Tom or Joe, and I'm going to reply, 'Who's there?', and the answer will come buzzing back through the ether... 'Dan Ackroyd'.

One Day, It Will Be Ackroyd

I find out in a flurry
Of poorly thought-out movie allusions
They carry the news like pall-bearers
‘Busted, mate’
‘Bustin’ makes him feel bad’
‘He really is a ghost now’
Tom, a veteran at text obituaries, says:
‘Apparently they found him with a phone in his hand.
Who was he gonna call?’
But Joe weighs in late with:
‘My mother-in-law is a little... high strung’
Which, though irrelevant,
Is the only Driving Miss Daisy reference,
Meaning he wins.

It’s one choc chip in an otherwise raisiny day –
Clocks grind like winches
I find it hard to load the dishwasher

We always said fame is a hen’s egg filled with fog
Those nights we ran amok
Snapping the noses off plaster saints
When it was
Knock knock Monkhouse
Knock knock Beadle
Knock knock Hussein
How our scorn prowed through the gloom
Like a distress flare
So by the doomy dawn
We were damp with cooled hubris
And huddling to get warm

Now, in the aftermath,
I regret my smug distance
My insistence their deaths are none of my business
I know the jumper will some day snag
That if it can be Ackroyd
Then one day, it will be Murray
One day, it will be Culkin
One day, it will be T