READ MY LIPS

Self-isolation? They only had to ask and I would’ve gladly provided the expertise; but maybe the Gove suspicion of experts lingers. Last year – or was it the year before? – I went a full week without speaking to another soul in person; and I didn’t even have the flu. It’s a talent of sorts, and one that makes doing what I do that much easier. But it’s been there a long time. The fear that closed schools will naturally entail stay-at-home parents minding the little ones means fewer employees available for the potential coronavirus battlegrounds. How much easier it was for my own parents when my school shut its gates for the actual holidays. They worked; I stayed at home – alone; a younger sibling had to accompany my mother to her workplace, but one of the few advantages of my seniority came into play and I was entrusted with the responsibility of being daytime housekeeper aged ten.

It’s easy to underestimate the expanse of the canvas presented to an imaginative child when he has the whole house to himself from breakfast till teatime; next to being locked overnight in a sweetshop, it’s about as good as it gets. The possibilities certainly seemed endless for me. With little television output and none of those newfangled video-game things to keep me entertained, the normal no-go areas were opened as temporary adventure playgrounds. The greatest battle of WWII never fought spanned several interior continents as the Airfix infantry climbed mountains (the staircase), fired down on the enemy from the hills (the sofa), fought crocodiles in the kitchen sink, waded through father’s Cossack shaving foam cunningly disguised as Arctic snow in the bathroom sink, patrolled thick, dense jungles (mother’s potted plants), and requisitioned the record player in order that Holst’s ode to the Bringer of War could provide a suitable soundtrack.

The dramatic exploits of toy soldiers and their Action Men brothers-in-arms was one outlet; but of more lasting significance were the tape recorder and the pencil-and-paper combo. The tape recorder, enabling the production of DIY TV and radio programmes, was the midwife to the not-so secret identity of Victoria Lucas 38, the reprobate responsible for the likes of ‘Buggernation Street’ and dozens of other wholesome videos that prompted YouTube to place me on their blacklist of demonetised undesirables; the pencil-and-paper combo, on the other hand, eventually led me all the way to this very post. Neither of these modest achievements could have been possible had all that home-alone time been exclusively devoted to kicking a football or riding a bike – both figured, but were secondary pastimes.

Fast-forward to a tacky 80s drinking den-cum-nightclub, the kind of venue where Del Boy and Rodney might have sipped cocktails they imagined made them look sophisticated. T’was there that the four-piece electric band I’d been the frontman of were booked to perform in 1989 – only, the band had collapsed the week before and the gig was honoured with just the two of us: me on vocals and Paul on acoustic guitar. I wore a feather boa. It wasn’t up there with The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but enough friends were dragged along to clap and they did their duty. Somebody saw fit to record it and there still exists, somewhere in my possession, an audio cassette of said performance; I can’t bring myself to listen even 31 years on, but at least it no longer remains the last occasion in which your humble narrator stood before an audience.

It’s been a strange week, mind. At 2.30am on Thursday, I was to be found braving the long-neglected top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, searching for a bag of brown rice that an online recipe reminded me I owned. It was there, but I had to remove all the other half-finished foodstuffs fighting over limited shelf space to get to it – lentils, flour, soya sauce, hundreds-and-thousands, Ovaltine; indeed, all that was missing was that one-time back-of-the-cupboard staple, Bird’s Custard Powder. Alas, like everything else, the brown rice had bypassed its expiry date by at least two years. Items purchased with the optimistic anticipation of future feasts that never happened had met the sad fate that befalls the relegation of a healthy appetite to the lower leagues. It was an oddly melancholy ceremony, rooting through what felt like the belongings of a deceased relative and then binning these now-inedible articles once imbued with the promise of banquets that went uncooked; finally, I was confronted by a shelf that would’ve shamed Old Mother Hubbard. I said it had been a strange week.

Stranger still, three decades on from a pale-skinned Shirley Bassey and his acoustic sidekick, the week began with yours truly standing up and reciting a trio of self-penned poems before an audience that applauded. And I didn’t even know any of them. The venue was a local arts/community centre I only realised existed this year, and it was hosting the monthly event that is known in poetic circles as an ‘open mic night’ – i.e. anyone can get up and read aloud something they’ve written if they get their name down in time. I was just a spectator last month – my first visit; but I wasn’t intimidated, the atmosphere felt welcoming, and I figured I could do it. Therefore, this month, I got there early and vowed to do it. So I did.

Pre-match preparation focused on both the right poems and the right voice. The latter was finalised via recording several poems as though broadcasting them on the Third Programme; it was important to me to ensure my diction was top notch and that every word was clearly heard. Some poems are better read in the head than read out loud, and it was through recording and listening back that I discovered which had the best rhythm for a public airing. Content mattered too. I deliberately selected a couple of poems looking back to childhood listening and viewing habits, ones I figured might chime with an audience whose average age appeared slightly more advanced than my own; sandwiched between this pair was one dealing with the annoying habit time has of moving the goalposts of perception – and that’s not a reference to an imaginary collaboration between Aldous Huxley and Gordon Banks.

Having published four collections of poetry in the last couple of years, I had plenty material to choose from – and I must have looked very much the pro, reciting from an actual book rather than the notepads or sheets the other participants clutched at the mic. After two solid decades devoted to prose, returning to verse had been an unexpected response to an emotional crisis that demanded an instant creative response as a means of keeping me sane. I used to write nothing but verse at one time, though most was done with the intention of music being added; it rarely was, and the jottings of the 90s remain buried in a binder. Life experience has promoted me into a different league since then.

After reading my third and final poem, I confessed to the organiser of the event I’d been just a little nervous, though she insisted it didn’t show; she also confirmed my belief that the subject matter of the poems might register with the lives of others, as had a friend who told me she was returned to her classroom in 60s Ireland when she listened to the evocations of my own in 70s England. Reading them aloud was something new, though I’m not getting carried away. I’ve learnt not to cultivate great expectations anymore, and the expulsion of romanticism from my vision means I can see clearly now. An excess of hope only ever spawns false dawns, anyway, so it’s best to resist it. I’ve just finished my first collection of short stories, but I don’t regard myself as the new Roald Dahl; I wrote them because I can’t stop. If people like it, great; if they don’t, I’ll still keep producing it. I’m a one-man cottage industry, and self-isolation comes with the territory – handkerchief or no.

Closedown Poem (BBC2 Revival) from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

© The Editor