For the last couple of months I’ve been teaching myself to juggle. I learned the basic three-ball cascade when I was 18 or 19 or so, but haven’t really juggled since. My excellent wife gave me some balls and a second-hand juggling book for Christmas, and since then I’ve been practicing wherever I can, a ten minutes here, five minutes there. I’m rubbish, but getting better, and can now do runs of the basic patterns. I’ve nailed the Cascade and Reverse Cascade, the Half Shower and Juggler’s Tennis — eventually I’m aiming for Mill’s Mess and Windmills and Box and Rubenstein’s Revenge. (Like mushrooms and moths, juggling patterns have tremendous names.)
Why? I’m doing it for fun — because it reminds me not to take myself too seriously, which I’m far too capable of. I’m doing it for fitness, too, and something like mindfulness. But mostly for fun.
The excellent people at Manchester’s premium spoken word experience Bad Language kindly invited me to join them for a reading at Kendal Calling festival this weekend. Wading ankle-deep through mud to the Carvetti stage in the Lost Eden area, I was humbled to join Mark Powell, David Hartley and host Joe Daly in bringing words to the woods. They are fantastic writers, and it was an absolute delight to hear more of their work. And because we all camped together, I was actually able to have a natter with them afterwards – on the rare occasions Mon and I go to Manchester, we always have to leave early, so it was a pleasure getting to know them better. Good people. Between Dave’s otherworldly species-bending marvels, Mark’s lists of life hacks and surreal perfume adverts, and Joe’s wonderful reinventions of everyday struggles as particular and personal Everests, it was humbling company to keep.
I read Coffin Routes, some of my new circus stories and several bits of Marrow. It was a tough and mobile crowd – the stage was right beside a main walkway between much louder stages – but there were gasps, winces and laughs throughout, so I think we held our own. We made the Top 12 highlights of the festival for Gigwise, too.
We didn’t catch much else of the festival, but what we caught was fantastic. As always, British Sea Power were magnificent. There aren’t many bands who sustain years of constant reinvention without sacrificing their core identity – Mogwai, for sure, and maybe Super Furry Animals – but BSP are treasures. They made ferocious headliners of the Woodlands stage on Saturday night, tearing through their back catalogue to finish with a sprawling Spirit of St Louis complete with crowdsurfing and Ursa the bear. One day, I will be that bear. One day. That was the sixth time I’ve seen them, and they keep getting better.
And then there was Kate Tempest. Mon and I knew and liked what we’d already heard of her work, so thought we’d mosey along to see her set on Friday. We were there early enough to be right at the front for one of the most amazing hours of my life. We thought she’d be good, but she was extraordinary. Brimful of passion, rage, courage and love, she was electrifying from start to finish, scintillating, blazing her way through the set like a sermon. And the music, too, was titanic, walls of sound that towered upward, a perfect fusion with the words. It was magnificent. Near the end of the set, Kate made eye contact with Mon for ten, fifteen seconds, rapped to her, sung to her. For the rest of that night, and the next day, and even now, aftershocks of her performance are still shaking through my life. Nothing seems quite the same.
The only downer was missing Seven Seals. They were playing at the same time as the Bad Language set on Sunday. In between readings, I could hear them scorching through their psychedelic synth-punk wonders. More people need to know about Seven Seals. Everyone needs to know about Seven Seals. Go and see Seven Seals.
When the reading was done, Mon and I said our farewells to the Bad Language crew and fled while we could, squelching through the swamps to the car. The campsite was a happy, slightly delirious Lord Of The Flies. Festivals and mud. That’s how it goes, right? A hundred tons of woodchip to soak up the swamps. It’s just as well I’m writing about bogs. Kendal Calling proved invaluable research.
Thanks again to Bad Language. It was an honour to serve with you, gentlemen.
Here’s Kate Tempest:
I’m currently wrapping up another film project before I get back to my writing. A couple of months ago, my friend Dom Bush and I were commissioned to make a film called Take Me Back To Manchester, based on the extraordinary true story of a lion tamer called Lorenzo Lawrence, an elephant called Maharajah, a cartoonist called Oliver East and a 200-mile walk across the country.
It was an incredibly tight turnaround – we had less than six weeks from commission to completion, and only three weeks from the shoot to the deadline. Dom shot the film, using drones and steadicam, and I cut it. I used the parallax effect for the first time to bring some of our amazing archive images to life. Technically we co-directed the film, but the story was so rich, the contributors so engaging, and the archive material so fascinating, that it pretty much directed itself.
Take Me Back To Manchester has now been shown at Toronto Comic Art Festival, and a shorter version will be screened on a loop in Manchester Museum.
Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up…
This is my last film project for a while. I’ve really enjoyed working on this piece and To The End We Will Go, but I’m more than ready to get back to the Hollows. I’ve been maintaining my erratic early morning writing sessions, even if that means grabbing five minutes before Dora explodes downstairs demanding her breakfast. Those snatched sentences and stolen paragraphs might only give the book twenty words, fifty words, a hundred words a time, which feels painfully meagre in isolation, but they add up over weeks and months. I’m up to about 66,000 words, for all the difference it makes, and happy with where it’s going. I think again of how little I achieved last year, and feel a grim urge to push on and make up for so much wasted time.
I loves a bit of juggling, I do.
Last month, at Dreamfired, I saw storyteller Fred Versonnen perform the amazing Elephant Story. The next morning, I attended his clowning workshop in Arnside. This had almost nothing to do with the stereotypical idea of clowning – no silly noses, no silly shoes – and was essentially a 101 on delivery, performance and body language.
Fred warned us at the start of the session that it might take us to some uncomfortable places. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. It’s taken me this entire month to process some of the things that happened in that class. I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get to grips with it, but at the same time, I no longer think I need to. I just wanted to record a few thoughts on what clowning means to me.
I’m not going to talk about the specific activities Fred led us through. They were plentiful, varied, invigorating, intense and brilliantly useful, but they will mean different things to each person who attended, and I don’t feel the need to dissect the actual workshop. I want to talk about what I learned.
I learned that I’m frightened of embarrassment. Most of us are, probably. During the workshop, we performed tasks specifically designed to undermine dignity and strip away the topmost layers of self-respect. I found myself trying to rationalise the embarrassment by imposing a narrative upon it, but every time, Fred forced me to confront it.
‘For a clown, embarrassment is a gift,’ he said.
In this way, I learned that clowns are truly fearless.
I also learned to wait.
In a world consumed with noise and signals, the clown is silent. She waits, absorbing everything, and then she waits some more, until the wait itself becomes excruciating – until the pause itself becomes the embarrassment – and then she responds. In that pause, the clown is naked. Every part of her is laid open for the world to see. The clown waits long enough for the audience to connect, to project their own feelings onto the situation, to drown in empathy, to cringe in anticipation. Every part of them is laid wide open. This is the tragedy of the clown, and the triumph. It has nothing to do with face paint or comedy trousers. Laurel and Hardy are clowns, and Pennywise is not.
I couldn’t live that way, but I’m trying to bring some of it into in my own readings. At the Flashtag story slam, I made myself pause, and wait, then wait some more. I took a stupid hat onstage for my final story, and I forced myself to wear it. I tried to share anticipation of what was coming next with the audience. It was, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been with my performance – the best I’ve ever read my stories. For everything I learned, I’m not sure I’ll ever know how to apply it properly. But I think I understand, now, that not knowing is itself part of clowning. It is Zen – pure action, without thought. I think too much.
At the start of this post, I said that the workshop had nothing to do with silly noses. That isn’t entirely true. At the very start of the session, as people were still arriving, we gathered in the kitchen to wait. Fred began to ransack the drawers, looking for props to use in the workshop. He found an orange ping pong ball. In a single, fluid motion, he spun to face me, bringing the ball to his nose, and he grinned. Just as quickly, he replaced the ball and closed the drawer. But in that second, or half a second, he’d become a clown. His face changed, his body changed – with the sheer, magnificent, wondrous joy of finding a ping pong ball in a kitchen drawer.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate what happened in that workshop. I don’t need to articulate it, of course, but I want to; and that is why I will never be a true clown. A clown wouldn’t need to analyse it, because they wouldn’t be scared of it. A clown would simply shrug, smile, and turn to embrace the vastness of this mad, sad, glorious thing that we call life.
After a wild and wonderful night in Manchester, I’m bowled over to report that I somehow managed to win the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. It’s still sinking in, but I’m delighted.
It was something of a journey – we left Dora with her grandparents, and drove down from Cumbria in the afternoon. Mon and I met friends Steve and Clare in the Northern Quarter, ate in the revelation that is V Revolution, then headed across the road to Gullivers to scope the venue: a brilliant space of worn floorboards and ornate plaster ceilings. The stage was bathed in blue and red light, creating corners from which the writers would prowl to read their stories. For the first round, competitors were paired off at random, with names plucked from a bowl and a coin toss to decide who read first. Once each writer had performed their story, the audience voted blue or red to decide a victor, and that writer continued to the next round.
It started ferociously, with the amazing Joy France reading an intimidatingly strong story about cleanliness (and willies). Her opponent was good, but that story would have annihilated all comers. I was very, very glad I hadn’t been drawn against her. She was duly voted through, and set the bar for the rest of the night. The stories were consistently excellent. Hand on heart, there wasn’t a bum note. Mark Mace Smith and Mark Powell, Joe Daly, Abi Hynes, Sarah Stuart, Geraint Thomas, Trisha Starbrook, Thomas Jennings and Ailish Breen all read absolute belters.
My name was drawn in the fourth bout. I read a piece called What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You, about a boy who turns into a harmonica. I was anxious, as always, but I’d been practicing, and I made myself take the time to enjoy it. My opponent was Thomas Jennings, who read a brilliant piece about the end of the world as experienced through last orders in a MacDonalds. It was a funny and affecting story, and I would have been happy to lose to it; but I scraped through into round two, where I was paired off with Mark Mace Smith. Mark is a vivacious slam poet who often performs under the name Citizen Mace – check out his stuff here – and he made for another tough competitor. I was up first, with a story called Charlie Loved The Circus. This is a 200-word nasty about why you shouldn’t be mean to clowns. Mark’s piece was a sweet wee story about a man falling – literally – for a girl. Another close vote, but I made it to the third round.
In the final, I read against Mark Powell and Joe Daly. Both are stalwarts of the Manchester literary scene – Mark runs Tales Of Whatever, and Joe is one half of Bad Language – and their stories were excellent. I was last to read, and went with a story called The Jubilee Best Bake Competition. I always planned to read this with an accent, but bottled it at Verbalise. So I bought a frumpy hat onstage. It’s made of green wicker, has a broad brim and is covered with flowers. Once I’d donned the hat, I couldn’t back down from the accent; and so I launched into my idea of what happens when the village baking competition takes a turn for the worse. The audience (joined, at this late point, by three exceedingly stocious men who thought they’d come to a boxing match) kindly gave me some laughs, and that helped me relax into the story. The hat helped, too.
The vote was tight again, but I sneaked it. I’m still thrilled, delighted and surprised – as well as humbled and happy to have shared my stories with such an amazing crowd. We stayed for a couple of hours after the slam, happily chatting away with the Flashtaggers, audience and contestants. It made me wish, once again, that I’d made more of the astoundingly vibrant Manchester literary scene when I actually lived there; then again, I’d barely started writing when we lived in Withington.
It was after 11 when we left Manchester, and we drove a deserted motorway in the dark. The journey gave me time to think. I’m over the moon to have won, but there are two things that burn brighter. Firstly, I won’t forget the sense of community I experienced at the slam; it’s a real thrill to share my love of stories with friends and strangers, and events like the slam are a howl of affirmation that stories are alive and people are hungry to share them.
Secondly, and quite honestly, I would have been proud to have been knocked out at any point, from round one onwards. This is because, for the first time, I read my stories the way I want them read. I used to gabble or murmur my way through a reading. A year or so ago, I set out to be better. I haven’t shaken the nerves, but I’m learning to manage them, and I’m coming to trust my stories. I’m not a confident person, but running a gauntlet of open mics has given me some confidence in my work.
Back at home in Cumbria, I tiptoed in to see my daughter. She snuffled in her sleep, and buried herself in the blanket. All journeys, no matter how big, are measured in stages and steps. For all the things I would change about myself – to write more often, to be more focused, to perform better – I wouldn’t change a step of the path I’ve taken to where I stand now.
Here’s a picture of me with a cheesy grin and my cheque for £1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I’ll be cashing this tomorrow, Flashtag – if there’s any trouble at the Post Office, I’ll be back with my bat.
On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.
I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.
He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)
After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.
Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.
Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.
The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.