The Real Story: Live with Michael Symmons Roberts

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On August 19th I’ll be reading a new essay at the The Real Story‘s third regular live event, headlined by highly respected Forward, Costa and Whitbread Prize-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts. The Real Story is a group run by Kate Feld and Nija Dalal-Small, dedicated to publishing works of creative nonfiction.

The first public reading I ever did was at The Real Story’s inaugural live event back in January. Until that point the closest I’d come to spoken word performances were the PowerPoint presentations I was obliged to do at work. Cold, ugly affairs that required me to point at charts and parrot business non-words while my soul turned black and leaked into my shoes. In short, these presentations made me feel that public speaking was only slightly preferable to being shot at.

Writing and reading for The Real Story changed that belief, transforming me from a shy man who didn’t dare show his work to anyone into a shy man who now regularly stands on spoken word stages reading his private thoughts to strangers while shaking as if subjected to his own personal earthquake. Small but significant progress.

As well as Michael Symmons Roberts and myself, Kate and Nija will be reading, as will novelist Marli Roode and my good friend Nick Thompson. It’ll be a good time. These events are always a good time. There will be no PowerPoint.

p.s. Entry is free/donation-based. Like buying a Radiohead album.

Bad Language is 50

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On June 24th, Manchester’s award-winning spoken word night, Bad Language celebrates its 50th regular event. Operating out of The Castle on Oldham Street, it’s a free night where poets, storytellers and writers of all kinds get to stand on a stage and share their work with an audience of supportive strangers. As always the event features a notable headliner and the 50th show is topped by renowned poet Jo Bell. Compered by Fat Roland and Joe Daly, it’s always an entertaining night and you should come. You really should.

I first read at Bad Language a few months ago and frankly, it almost killed me. It was only my second ever public reading and prior to performing I was suffering from such a virulent form of anxiety that, given the choice, I would have opted for being eaten alive by a bear over stepping on stage. But I did it and it was okay. People were kind afterwards and I was largely glad that I had chosen it over the bear. Still, I felt I’d dropped the ball.

I read a so-so excerpt from a story and although the audience responded in an encouraging “Well done, tiger!” kind of way I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d stunk up the stage. As a desperate exercise in validation, it wasn’t funny or memorable or any of the things I’d hoped it would be. The next day I suffered a migraine akin to that scene in Casino where Joe Pesci put that man’s head in a vice. I took this as my body’s suggestion that I was rubbish and should probably kill myself. Instead I sat in a darkened room listening to Ivor Cutler albums until the agony passed, which is generally how I cope with things.

A couple of months later, I was asked to read at the fantastic Verbose in Fallowfield so I thought I’d give public reading another try. Otherwise distracted by my mother and sister performing in the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final on the same night, I did okay and left the stage feeling like I wasn’t pathetic, which if you know it is one of the better feelings. My mojo reinstated, I felt confident enough to beg Bad Language to let me have another go and they were kind enough to do so, adding me to the line up for the 50th event.

This time I’ll be reading my short story, The Language of Dogs, which requires me to repeatedly bark aloud a sexual slur. This may be one of the worst decisions I have ever made but it should at least be memorable. And if it all goes wrong, I have lots of Ivor Cutler albums.

Verbose and other things…

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This coming Monday will be a big day for my family.

I’ll be reading one of my stories during the open mic portion of Verbose at Fallow Cafe, Fallowfield.  Alison Moore, Nicholas Royle, Conrad Williams and a whole bunch of wonderful writers will also be performing. We’ll be doing so in front of an audience that is as likely to heckle as it is to collectively leap into the sky and kick the moon into the heart of the sun.

Meanwhile, down in London, my mother and sister will be on the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, performing a dance routine live on national TV before a studio audience and roughly 10 million viewers. They will then be judged by four celebrities and, more broadly, the internet.

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While our experiences will be *slightly* different, all three of us will be so possessed by nerves and performance anxiety that we’ll want to vomit until our eyes drop out of ours heads. But we’re all stepping out of our comfort zones anyway because that sort of thing reminds you you’re alive. And vomiting.

So, if you could come along to Verbose that would be lovely. If you can’t, please vote for my mother and sister to get into the final of Britain’s Got Talent (which you can do for free). If you can do both, I’ll kiss your hand and call it ice cream.

 

The Language of Dogs

On our evening walks, my greyhound Betty and I often encounter the same old man and his dog. The man is about 5ft tall while his dog, some kind of mastiff I think, stands almost level with his chest. The dog is male with huge, pendulous balls that swing heavily beneath it like milk-laden udders. Seeing them approach I’m always moved to consider a child walking his cow to market.

But when Betty spots them her reaction is less amused. Her ears scissor in flat against her head and she slows her pace. This is a reaction that I have come to recognise, and empathise with, as “Oh God. Him.”

This happens to everyone from time to time. You lock eyes with a tedious old acquaintance in the street and you feel your heart sink, dreading the awkward conversation that will follow. But while a human has the ability to fake a mobile call and gurn apologetically as they pass, a dog has no such option, knowing that even stopping to defecate won’t prevent them from being hassled.

This dog’s senses don’t seem particularly up to par so it rarely notices us until we’re close by, usually distracted by a patch of another dog’s urine or pausing to issue a turd that a horse would be proud of. But when it eventually spots us, it more than makes up for its lack of awareness with passion.

“WHORE!” it barks, bassy and emphysemic. Like a hollering drunk. “WHORE!”

The first time this happened I did a mental double take. Did that dog just call Betty a whore? Well, he certainly said it. There was no mistaking the word. So clear you could in all good conscience accuse the owner of having taught it. “WHORE! WHORE! WHORE!”

“Come on, now,” the owner admonished, heaving on the lead. Grunting through effort as his dog strained to reach us. “Give over. That’s enough.”

It was like listening to someone trying to calm a troublesome elderly relative. The type who becomes abusive after a few glasses of gin. Who considers themselves to be painfully honest rather than rude.

“Look, I just tell it like it is,” this dog might say. “Some people just don’t like to hear the truth.”

But really, this was no way to treat Betty. Until her retirement she had raced professionally, building up a credible record at Belle Vue dog track before being sold for breeding. When we adopted her we were told “Betty… didn’t take to breeding”, a statement that told a miserable story. Of her darting fearfully around a pen, desperately shifting her rump away from the hopeful, bucking hips of eager males. Eventually her new owners cut their losses and tossed Betty back over her trainer’s wall, leaving her for dead. Or for whatever people think happens to a dog when you dump it over a wall. So anyone with any decency would think twice about shouting slurs at someone who has suffered such a life. But this dog had no moral concerns.

“WHORE!” it continued, its shouts becoming strangulated as the man leaned back and shortened its lead further. “WHO…”

The word was cut off by a mighty heave that forced the dog to rear up on its hind legs like a dancing bear. But a bear whose greater specialism is cursing. Though in fairness it makes a pretty good job of dancing, hopping between its back paws like a chicken on a hot plate. An actor who can dance rather than a dancer who can act.

“I’m sorry.” the owner said as we crossed paths.

I leaned in to Betty, rubbing her behind the ear. “He just wants to make friends.” I said, compelled to comfort her.

“WHORE!” the dog shouted over its shoulder one final time as it moved into the distance.

I was reminded of the kind of men who try to woo female pedestrians by shouting sexually aggressive slogans from the windows of passing vans.

“I’ve got a chew toy for ya!”

“Show us all ten of your nipples!”

That sort of thing.

So as we continued on our way, I didn’t consider a new walking route or taking Betty out at a different time. Instead I headed home, picked a gravy bone out of her treat jar and stood over her, holding it high and tantalising in my hand.

“Okay,” I said, my voice firm and educational. “Repeat after me. Fuck.You. Fuck.You. Fuck.You…”

FlashFlood

I’m pleased to say that my story, ‘A Family of Armadillos‘, will be included in today’s FlashFlood event in the build up to National Flash Fiction Day. Every ten minutes a new story will be published on the FlashFlood blog, where you can also find archived stories from previous years. A total of 148 stories will be posted throughout the day, each under 500 words. Easily short enough to read on a sly toilet break and much healthier for your soul than yet another game of Candy Crush Saga. 

A Family of Armadillos

It was Christmas and the meeting room had been transformed, the conference table decorated with plates and foil trays. Of warm quiches and air-dried sandwiches. Savoury meat in all its forms. Coleslaw, crisps and brightly-coloured curry dishes. The room reeked like a dog burp. Still we piled our plates high and settled around the table, chatting.

“So, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”

I stacked potato salad and chicken biryani onto a segment of scotch egg. Ready for a question like this.

I’d long defined myself by my capacity to eat. Anything and the most of it. Always the one with the fullest and subsequently cleanest plate. The 10 second rule meant nothing to me. Unless something had fallen onto a patch of vomit, I would pick it up and eat it. But as I opened my mouth to reel off a list, Derek got there first.

“A family of armadillos.”

Derek had spent most of his career in the army. Much of it in Jungle Ops. Eating whatever he could catch.

“You just gather them up in sacks,” he said, making it sound as simple and everyday as picking flowers. “Then separate them and pin the sacks to the ground with stakes. They just sit there quietly until you’re ready to cook them.”

I considered this poor armadillo family. Heading off on a summer outing and suddenly finding themselves swept into a dark web of burlap.

“Dad? What’s happening?”

“It’s okay, son. Just keep still and they’ll forget we’re here. Trust me.”

“Then you just roast them in their armour.” Derek said. “Like a big shrimp.”

I considered judging him for this but remembered how many Sundays I’d happily eaten a baby sheep then asked for seconds.

“We’d eat monkeys,” he said, enjoying the attention that should have been mine. “Black Mamba. Anything.”

“What’s monkey like?” I asked.

“Stringy. All sinew.”

You could see the memory of it on his face as he spoke. Of biting into a roasted arm, the meat coming away from the bone in threads as if he were eating a violin bow.

I couldn’t compete. I considered mentioning that I’d eaten alligator but I’d ordered that in a restaurant from a set menu. I hadn’t torn its throat out then carved a steak from its flank. I guessed there was that coconut mushroom I’d struggled to chew and, upon removing it from my mouth, discovered a large, blooded toenail embedded in it. But I’d spat that out.

“One time,” I said in desperation. “I tried to swallow a whole doughnut in one go and almost choked to death.”

Derek listened, picking his teeth with a plastic fork. As he’d surely done with an armadillo claw.

“Jungle rat was my favourite.” he said.

I jammed a bhaji and a pickled onion into a tuna sandwich then bit down.  Determined not to be outdone.

Live reading at Bad Language

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Following my first public reading at The Real Story: LIVE! back in January, I’ll be doing my second at the Bad Language event at The Castle, Manchester on March 25th, taking one of the open mic slots below headliner Chris Killen and reading an excerpt from my short story The Wall.

I’m terrified of public readings and would rather wrestle a lion than stand in front of a small group of people and recite something I’ve written. But not having access to a lion, and knowing it’s for my own good really, I’ve no choice but to read. Literally no choice at all.

Bad Language is a great, free event, held monthly at The Castle and in various other venues across Manchester, where you will hear some fantastic stories and poetry. Seeing as I’m involved for the first time it might be a little less fantastic than usual but Chris Killen is great and I’m only on stage for four minutes. You could use that time to visit the toilet or the bar. Or simply to sit back, listen and think about punching me across the face and neck. Especially if you’re from Liverpool as I will be attempting a scouse accent, largely based on that of the boy from the “Accrington Stanley” milk advert.