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Putting the Hum into the Humdrum

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I was 5 in 1980 and consequently considered too young to go to London’s notorious Comedy Store. But had I stuck on a false beard and got the train up to town I might have seen a 27-year-old ex-bus conductor reading poems about his glasses, his dog and his brother-in-law to a room of angry drunkards who, in those years, dedicated all their hard-earned free time to making comedians cry. I wish I had gone because I would’ve been the one at the back who got it.

I first encountered John Hegley in the early ’90s, though only obliquely, via a schoolfriend who was hipper than me and had one of John’s early pamphlets. He showed me a limerick about ‘a creature from space/who entered a three-legged race/he was not very fast/in fact he came last/because he was a bag of oven-ready chips’. It may not look like much on the page, but it has three important things going for it: it’s silly; it’s short; and it makes full use of the last line, adding an extra foot to give the surprise a bigger kick.

There were other poems in there, funny, silly, stupid even. Like ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’:

Just because she’s got a walking frame
it doesn’t mean she’s a victim,
she hangs her budgie on the front,
he’s nameless
and she nicked ’im.

Spike Milligan’s glorious Silly Verse for Kids was a major element of my youthful reading. In fact I’ve still got my original copy with its torn cover and failing binding. That book’s mix of Goonish simplicity, puckish irreverence and sing-song jingle-like squibs of poems, all mixed up with Spike’s own illustrations, is just the same stuff you find in Hegley’s books.

It was another half dozen years before I finally saw him live and I wasn’t disappointed. To say the man is a good performer is like saying a potato is edible: it simply doesn’t go far enough (a potato being edible, you see, in so many different ways). John’s on-stag

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I was 5 in 1980 and consequently considered too young to go to London’s notorious Comedy Store. But had I stuck on a false beard and got the train up to town I might have seen a 27-year-old ex-bus conductor reading poems about his glasses, his dog and his brother-in-law to a room of angry drunkards who, in those years, dedicated all their hard-earned free time to making comedians cry. I wish I had gone because I would’ve been the one at the back who got it.

I first encountered John Hegley in the early ’90s, though only obliquely, via a schoolfriend who was hipper than me and had one of John’s early pamphlets. He showed me a limerick about ‘a creature from space/who entered a three-legged race/he was not very fast/in fact he came last/because he was a bag of oven-ready chips’. It may not look like much on the page, but it has three important things going for it: it’s silly; it’s short; and it makes full use of the last line, adding an extra foot to give the surprise a bigger kick. There were other poems in there, funny, silly, stupid even. Like ‘Grandma’s Footsteps’:

Just because she’s got a walking frame it doesn’t mean she’s a victim, she hangs her budgie on the front, he’s nameless and she nicked ’im.

Spike Milligan’s glorious Silly Verse for Kids was a major element of my youthful reading. In fact I’ve still got my original copy with its torn cover and failing binding. That book’s mix of Goonish simplicity, puckish irreverence and sing-song jingle-like squibs of poems, all mixed up with Spike’s own illustrations, is just the same stuff you find in Hegley’s books. It was another half dozen years before I finally saw him live and I wasn’t disappointed. To say the man is a good performer is like saying a potato is edible: it simply doesn’t go far enough (a potato being edible, you see, in so many different ways). John’s on-stage manner is bluff, his demeanour deadpan, bored even (it’s often described as schoolmasterly, and he claims he adopted this in those early Comedy Store days in an effort to keep crowds controlled), but now and then a sudden unlikely flash crosses his face and he’s grinning, crook-toothed and childishly joyous, like an infant who’s just heard a teacher fart. Loudly. In an instant he changes from schoolmaster to co-conspirator. But I’m not going to waste ink on John’s stage work: instead I want to write about how he looks in books. (Which isn’t to say that if he’s performing near you you shouldn’t go, because you should.) Unlike the other performance poets of that alternative comedy surge, John seems actually to like poetry for poetry’s sake. His isn’t an angry voice, he hasn’t a political axe to grind. Open his books and you find the absurd cuddled up side by side with family life. Tales of his beloved glasses and his antipathy to contact lenses (‘I don’t like contact lenses/and can you wonder why/if you want to put one in/you have to poke yourself in the eye’), rub along with regular canine eulogies (‘my doggie don’t wear glasses/so they’re lying when they say /a dog looks like its owner/aren’t they’) and stories of John’s childhood in Luton.

The Beatles in Our Luton Bungalow

With the Beatles about you had to admit that it got better. They put a hum into the humdrum and the drab. Those four made us glad to be alive. They made the five of us feel fab. They were one of the three things our family could appreciate together. The other two were sleep and oxygen.

Whatever story Hegley is telling, it’s the language, and the crystal-clear joy he takes in it, that sets him apart: the poems are almost as much there for the sound of the words he’s found as they are for the joke he’s telling. His rhythms and rhymes, his timing and the way lines stretch to fit the rhyme in, are a delight. This is something you notice on stage or in conversation with him: it’s the mistake, the verbal slip or trip that whips a flurry of sparks in the dark of his brain, linking words and sounds nonsensically to see if sense can be teased from the vocabularial cracks. It’s a linguistic tic, his love of words, the way they spill out.

The Happy Mistake

One night I heard another poet say ‘omelette’ when he meant to say ‘Hamlet’. I wish him well with his gift.

In his 1993 collection Five Sugars Please, there’s a prose piece called ‘The Common Poetry’ which describes someone who takes a flyer for his Edinburgh show and gives it back, saying: ‘I thought this was a comedy show. Poetry! Stuff that for a game of soldiers.’ Hegley then unpacks the phrase, trying to pry into its meaning: is he saying he’s ‘above playing with little plastic men’, or does he mean ‘real soldiers and not wanting to risk getting your head blown off?’ He concludes that the phrase means neither and both, that it’s a compound image, heightened language, ergo, poetry.
So ironically the man in the queue was actually using poetry to say poetry wasn’t for him . . . There is a common poetry which certain poets are committed to enriching, stocking its pool with ever more dazzling word fish. The common poetry abounds; rhyming slang, bingo calls, the names given to race-horses, which are incidentally considerably more imaginative than those given to dogs.
But it’s when Hegley turns this poetic ear to face the inner eye and describe the tricky relationship he had with his dad (who was half French) that the poems and the art reach above Milliganish absurdity and achieve what is missing from so much comic verse: a solid, beating emotional core.

The picture I usually paint of my father is the one of him smacking me as a lad: hard and uncompromising. It is not a lie but neither is it the only angle from which one can capture his portrait.

In the title piece of his book The Sound of Paint Drying (2003), he makes a journey to France to paint his own version of a painting his dad (long dead by now, and finally forgiven) had done seventy years before. He finds the café in his dad’s painting, sets up his own easel and has a go. The story is told simply in prose and snatches of poetry.

We find my father sat in Nice when he was twenty-six, he’s poking at some canvas with his range of hairy sticks. . . . And it’s highly naturalistic, it is not impressionistic it is not expressionistic neither futurist nor fauve it isn’t pointillistic, it is highly naturalistic, in places it is orange and in others it is mauve.

The Sound of Paint Drying, besides being a book, was one of the most compelling half hours of Radio 4 I’ve heard. John and a tape-recorder on a quest in France painting a painting, and talking with his dad who wasn’t there. At one point he just lets the microphone run, while he goes and has a kick-about up the road with some kids. The finest dead air the radio’s heard. As time has gone on, on stage and in the books, John’s mum and dad and his Luton upbringing, and, subsequently, his relationship with his own daughter, have come to the forefront of his work, or to be more precise they were always there, but with time the picture seems to have become more honest, less flippant. When Milligan wrote poems about depression he tried to write ‘serious poems’, and as a consequence wrote not-very-good poems. John, by not attempting to find another voice, another register, by not trying to write ‘serious poetry’, by simply being honest in the form he’s a master of, writes serious poems that are worth something, that are not diminished by being surrounded by funny poems or by being funny themselves.

May 2002

In the doctor’s reception the sign read: Are you looking after someone over 65 with mental health problems? I read the sign as: Are you looking for someone over 65 with mental health problems?

What Hegley talks about are the things in life that we all share. Family is at the heart of his work and at the heart of our lives: families with us or lost; loved, remembered or feared; the struggle that these relationships can be. It is the big heart that beats so well within the absurd and the surreal, inside the poetry that puts him head and shoulders above other comic poets of his generation; and a writer with heart, love, wit and an alarmingly fresh eye is always something, and someone, to cherish.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © A. F. Harrold 2013


About the contributor

A. F. Harrold is an English poet who has recently taken a turn into children’s literature and procrastinatory gardening. He usually divides his time between appearing on stages, pages and in the bath: www.afharrold.com.

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