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Words and Music

29th August 2011

I am jealous of musicians. There. I said it.

As a writer you spend hours staring at blank pages, trying to manipulate your unconscious to come up with something startling and insightful which will touch people on a deep level. Then you crank out the first draft against psychological resistance. Then you hate it. Eventually you go back to it and start rewriting and revising. Finally you agonise over the placement of paragraph breaks and commas. Weeks later you take it to a spoken word event and pour it out and if you got everything else just right, a few people are moved by it.

Compare that to musicians. They get together and work out a few chords, get into a groove and people respond intuitively to the music. We are programmed to change mood depending on the music we hear. If you don’t believe me, try watching a scary film without the soundtrack — or notice how often the hard rock riff kicks in as the action hero finally takes his stand.

Don’t get me wrong; I know how hard it is to become a skilled musician. I play more instruments than you might think — and none of them particularly well. I’m just saying, the pluckers and honkers and plonkers have a natural advantage.

One of the approaches to having a good Edinburgh Festival is to explore a theme. My season this year was coloured by two themes: magic and storytelling — of which another time — and music and storytelling. Even the terrific Devil In The Deck, which incorporated card magic into a story of dire predictions and fateful life choices, had a bloke sitting at the back cranking out fat guitar licks.

Two of the Chemical Poets were working the music in underground chambers. Texture presented a farewell to cyberpunk at the Royal Oak (I wrote “Royal Punk” first time, that would be a good bar) reading to his own music. He used a great little pedal to give some characters a Davros/Transformers voice. The Oak is a folky bar; the music and voice-changer were just what the show needed to lift the audience out of there and into the glittering data fields.

Harlequinade is a guy with a unique artistic vision, and I think it’s fair to say he was doing the only Lovecraftian clown/bouffon rap apocalypse show at the Fringe this year. His Church Of When The Shit Hits The Fan partner Asthmatic Astronaut supplied a lingering soundtrack. We were sitting in an arched cellar of the Banshee Labyrinth and the atmosphere was at its best when the story, and sound effects, sank beneath the waves on a journey to cosmic oblivion in brine.

Of course the main reason I have been thinking about this stuff was our Writers’ Bloc show at the Book Festival. Named Electric Lit Orchestra, I programmed only stories with a musical accompaniment — two of which were enjoyably dodgy: a one-man band and cross-gender karaoke. We brought in punk guitarists, a saxophonist, a cellist and even a small choir. And I can tell you, no matter how good your story is, people still wake up when the music starts.

Havers and Blethers

21st July 2011

Festival time in Edinburgh can be strange for the writer who performs their own work. You walk around a city choked with shows, operating from every conceivable venue, and many, many of them are absolutely dire. Yet unless you got organised six months earlier and paid the almighty price of entry to the Fringe programme, you probably won’t get a gig.

There are exceptions — Itsy’s Kabarett events have some slots if you can handle the intimidation factor of appearing between edgy comedians and beautiful women taking their clothes off. And PBH’s Free Fringe has an entire spoken word programme at the Banshee Labyrinth which you might be able to squeeze into somewhere. But on the whole, you’re more likely to be bumped from your regular haunt by a out-of-town trio singing topical comedy songs, losing money on every show.

Which is why it was refreshing last year to see the arrival of Havers and Blethers. This presented twenty different nights of unpretentious spoken word — powerful stories and poetry delivered by locals and guests, with a little music to taste. It’s back this year in a prime slot, 7.30pm–8.30pm; a central location, the Captain’s Bar on South College Street; and at the time of writing, it still has slots available.

Of course we’re talking here about reading to an open pub, not a sanitised back room populated only by poets waiting for their own slot. But it’s a pub packed with people who appreciate a good poem or a story, and will shut up for long enough to give you a chance. It has an occasional pirate theme, perfect for stories of buried treasure, exotic islands or sea monsters. And it’s beneath the room where William McGonagall died.

If you think you have something that fits the bill — five to eight minutes is about right — then drop the bar a line. Or pop in and ask for Captain Pamela. Yarrrr.

Havers and Blethers, Captain’s Bar, South College Street. 7.30pm–8.30pm, 1st–20th August. FREE admission.

Edinburgh Spoken Word

26th May 2011

Spoken word nights come and go. The earliest one I remember was Rodney Relax's Yellow Café in what is now Medina. Being a producer and avid consumer of stories, I’ve never been very interested in exclusive poetry nights like Big Word or Is This Poetry? and somehow I've never become a regular at the Forest’s lit/music/poetry institution The Golden Hour. Recently, though, we’ve seen three new nights around the capital. They’re all different, they’re all great, and all of them are on nights you might otherwise spend watching dregs on TV. Get out and try them.

First up, on a occasional Sunday night, comes Illicit Ink. Cunningly situated in the Speakeasy, a lush hideaway on Blair Street, this is the brainchild of Napier creative writing students who have descended from their ivory tower wearing big stompy boots. No open mic here — the evening is themed (anti-Valentine, faeries, murder) and they try to introduce some little extra to every show, whether it be winged MCs or actual interrogations. An intimate event to make the weekend last longer.

Winning the prize for easiest venue to remember is Blind Poetics at The Blind Poet. This night takes over the entire pub on the second Monday of the month. Run by Weaponizer supremo Texture, who has one foot in the world of prose and one in the world of poetry (as well as a weird third foot in the world of music) it’s already made a name for carefully chosen programming and a buzzing atmosphere. Get there early to secure a sofa.

Finally, Inky Fingers is the most established “new” night. Run by a colourful collective, headed by the energetic figure of Harry Giles, Inky Fingers normally drops in to the Forest Café on the last Tuesday of the month. Unusually, they open up with a solid feature performer and only then switch to their open mic. Here, you’ll get a real roll of the dice: I've heard several startling pieces of literature which came out of nowhere and demanded more than their allotted time, and seen a performance which was as close to a lethal car crash as you can achieve with five minutes and a single microphone.

Inky are serious about this stuff. They’re organising their own small festival for August 8th–13th. Six days of spoken word, and perhaps the last chance to appear in the embattled Forest Café. You have until June 10th to propose something …


16th March 2011

So I had a secret plan to try stand-up comedy in 2011. I feel comfortable MCing and lots of my stories are funny, so I thought it would be a natural progression. I thought I'd book into a beginners’ night and while I was waiting for my name to come up — these things have an eight-month queue — I would embark on a period of intense study to try, somehow, to assemble five minutes of usable material. That was before Siân Bevan offered me a ten-minute slot at her comedy storytelling night Electric Tales with two weeks notice.

I could have easily done a couple of stories from Crap Ghosts but there is a “no reading” rule. So it came down to memorising stories — which I should do anyway — or trying something new.

I’ve learned flash fiction word-for-word before, for a “prose slam”. I found I could do it but my performance lacked energy. I was so busy concentrating on getting the words right that I wasn’t throwing myself into it like I usually would. So I put the substandard spooks away for the night and worked up some material on The Six Million Dollar Man.

[Bionic Punch]

Nobody is quite sure what to make of Electric Tales. The storytellers like Gerry Durkin select their funnier stories. The comedians like Andrew Learmonth discard some nob gags and make room for something with more narrative. Coming at it from the storytelling angle is easier because it’s driven by a series of images: you talk about the bionic legs, then arms, then eye, then ear. You don’t need to remember the exact words. I practised while walking around the city. Mothers ushered their children away as I mimed the “bionic leap”. Where the links were not obvious I found a cognitive chain: helicopter drone leads to talking about the “pilot” episode, and so on. I was slightly staggered and utterly pleased to get through the entire ten minutes on the night without missing a link. It felt like about three minutes actually.

What stays with me is the backstage atmosphere. A comedy club backstage is an intense place. Everybody is relaxed and friendly on the tigerprint armchairs, but there’s a constant awareness of the audience, just through the wall. Everybody (except Siân) is out of their comfort zone; even a consistently brilliant performer like Alan Bissett wasn’t sure that The Stand comedy club was the right place for his Moira Monologues. There is no telling until you get out there. And before you get out, there’s a protracted period of standing just behind the stage door, just out of sight, waiting, waiting.

The night belonged to Susan Calman though. She put aside the guaranteed laughs to tell the story of her personal journey through Glasgow’s lesbian subculture and eventual coming out to her parents. It was fascinating — I had no idea mass punch-ups happened so regularly at women-only clubs — and moving, and of course, bloody funny, as ordinary life is. She posted the next day that she didn’t know whether it had been the worst or the best gig of her life. Part of the backstage talk had been about conventional stand-up and how aggressive it has become, as opposed to the storytelling. I really hope Susan decides to give us more of this stuff. Although a part of me wants it to have been a one-night thing, just for those of us who were there.

[Susan Calman]

There was also a girl who very much wanted to win a luminous robot. But that is another story.

The Death of Showbiz

1st March 2011

I visited Blackpool recently for my first magic convention. I saw some amazing things: guys reading cards held behind their back, mental transmission of a date between two strangers from the audience, dancers producing seemingly endless packs of cards, and even a dodgy levitating couch. But the most amazing thing was entirely spontaneous.

Having registered very late, my seat for the Saturday night gala show was in the back row of the balcony; not too bad for somebody with an interest in magic, as you get the benefit of an often revealing overhead view. The guy in the next seat groused about how bad the compere had been last year.

When the new compere came out he reminded me a lot of Ted Bovis from Hi-De-Hi. He talked about celebrating 36 years in showbiz, that he lived in Tenerife now, and worked on the Queen Mary 2. He had a real flavour of the old Blackpool about him.

Of course I had a flavour of Blackpool already. The sky was grey for my entire visit, tram works blocked most access to the seafront, and my hotel featured earnest young performers knocking out tired old showtunes to a disinterested audience who got free drink between 7pm and 10pm.

The trouble was, for a guy who had been 36 years as a stand-up comedian, he wasn’t very funny. He cracked some weak jokes about the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. Then he mimed a camp walk. He did a Larry Grayson impression. I don’t think Larry Grayson has been on TV for twenty years. It was pretty tedious. But he claimed kinship with the assembled audience of magicians because they were “in the business”.

What he failed to do was adapt to that audience, who were a younger breed than the ageing Northerners he was accustomed to, on the cruise ships he mentioned five or six times. For a while he got a lukewarm reaction, and general relief when he introduced the feature acts.

Then one guy in the balcony heckled him. He didn’t hear it, but he heard chuckles from the audience nearby. “What are they laughing at?” he asked. “Not you anyway,” yelled the heckler, and got a genuine laugh from the three thousand capacity hall.

Our host diverted into warm stories about Bernard Manning and a lecture on how he’d never “used language” in his career and how when he wanted to talk about “a certain subject — you know the one” he used the term “gardening”. Cue stories about husbands spending time on their allotments.

At this point, the heckler started a slow clap that spread across the balcony and down. I joined in with immediate delight. “Why are they clapping?” asked the puzzled compere, and when he worked it out, he was furious.

“I’ve never witnessed anything so disgusting in my life,” he said. “And you’re supposed to be in the business. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He was sufficiently passionate about respecting other performers that I felt guilty for joining in. “I’ve been in this business for 36 years and you will not shake me.” He got applause from scattered sections of the audience.

Five minutes later, he had passed through “I don’t have anything against gay gentlemen but (shiver) it’s not for me … yeuchh.” Now he was talking about women wearing bikinis without shaving their pubic hair first. He referred to it as “trimming the lawn”. The slow clap started again and this time most of the room joined in. He took offence again and determined to only introduce the acts, with no further comedy. But he never came back.

Later there was talk in the pub of whether we were out of line. But I felt fine. His material was racist, sexist and homophobic. He was performing to an audience from around the UK, with many women and gay people. He’d probably been using the same set for 36 years without bothering to update or adapt it. I enjoyed him as a dated, clichéd, colourful local character. But I really enjoyed watching three thousand people reject him.

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