Year 1

Mum

This is a photo of my mother pole-dancing at Hull Pride in August. There are several things you may notice while looking at it. The muscular couple in the centre perhaps. Or maybe the woman in her underwear on the right, her handbag clamped between her thighs. But one thing I think is immediately clear; that my mum does not give a shit.

Mum

Here she is again, look. The blonde, front row left. Not giving a shit during the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent 2015 with her burlesque troupe, The Ruby Red Performers. While watching this broadcast  I learned that she knew how to twirl a set of nipple-tassels in opposite directions. Also that she owned a set of nipple tassels.

Mum

And here she is not giving a shit while riding a scooter across the stage during the live semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. This despite the fact that, seconds later, the blasting caps on her bra would cause her bosoms to explode in front of an estimated viewing audience of 10 million.

I could go on but I fear I’m labouring the point, which just to be absolutely clear, is that my mum does not give a shit. What’s more, she never has. At least as long as I’ve known her. Whether that hasn’t always been the case, I’m not sure. All I know is that for the past 39 years she has been immune to stage fright. Doesn’t fear hecklers or criticism. Could not give a Christmas fig about negative reviews or cruel comment. She does what she enjoys, refusing to let anyone else’s sour-faced opinion stop her. And what she enjoys is entertaining people.

I know this because I have spent my life watching her on stage and witnessing the enthusiastic reactions she receives. In pantomimes, flitting around the stage in glittery wings as fairy Godmothers. In plays and cabaret. Singing and dancing. Or, on occasion, standing in front of Simon Cowell while wearing her undercrackers. If something requires charisma and confidence she’ll give it a try and she’ll generally ace it. Because she is fearless.

“I don’t know why,” she’ll tell me. “I’m just not bothered about what anyone else thinks.”

This is an attitude I’ve always admired in her and wanted for myself. Sadly, along with hazel eyes and the ability to hold my drink, it was not something I inherited from her. In its place I have a mortifying aversion to being the centre of attention.

Now, you might think that being the centre of attention is exactly what I might want. After all, I write indulgently self-focused non-fiction on a blog where there is a photo of me on every page. And I guess I do want attention but that doesn’t stop me fearing it. Because, unlike my mother, I’ve always been bothered about what people think. Always hated being stared at. Never keen on being the focal point.

As a child I would scream and run from the room each year when my family sang me Happy Birthday. And unlike my siblings, I refused to be involved in mum’s passion for amateur dramatics. My sister was convinced by her to dress as a flying monkey for a production of The Wizard of Oz (and later to join the Ruby Reds, that’s her in the BGT audition photo, 2nd right). Likewise my brother ended up performing a solo rendition of “Where is Love?” on the town hall stage. But I was a complete disappointment in that regard. My best effort would be to sing old time music hall songs and even then only in our living room and with a blanket over my head. I have never been anyone’s idea of a born performer.

But last year, from somewhere, I found a pinch of my mother’s confidence. Not much, just enough to make me say yes to the offer of reading one of my stories at a spoken word event promoted by The Real Story in January. I told myself it would be good for me, taking the line that nothing worthwhile is easy. What it ended up being was traumatic.

Weeks of anticipation and mounting stress seemed to have steadily whisked my guts into a soup, which sloshed around in my calves while I stood on the stage, feeling distanced from myself. Wondering if the words coming out of my mouth were words at all. Afterwards I had to take other people’s word for it that I hadn’t just been standing there for 10 minutes mawp-mawping  like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. But I’d got through it and once the sickness had died away I realised that I liked performing slightly more than I hated it. The thrill of getting a laugh when I’d hoped for one. And God, if I’m being honest here, the validation of a crowd. It wasn’t bad. So I read at another night. And another. And another etc. I learned from them all.

Some nights were wonderful. Others okay. A couple were truly appalling. Exercises in public failure where embarrassment hissed and spat inside me. Underscored my insecurities in fierce lines. But no one died. Apart from me. And then only on stage, so not really. I carry those experiences with me, where they persist like small stacks of bones. Never rotting away. Ever-present. Reminding me how awful things could be but also that, in the grand of scheme of things, that’s not very awful at all. And I found that the more I read on stage, the more comfortable I got and the less my anxiety owned me.

Throughout last year I read at a lot of spoken word nights and saw many people like me. Sensitive, ticking characters gambling with their own scraps of confidence. Squirming under spotlights that were not built with them in mind, their voices cracked and nervous as they apologised before reading. Sheets of A4 paper fluttering in their hands as if they were trying to demonstrate the beating wings of a poorly constructed origami bird. Some of these people read once and were never seen again. Others returned and grew, becoming performers that I’ve been anxious about having to follow on stage. And they’d been afforded this thanks to the nurturing nature of Manchester’s live literature scene.

Since last January I’ve read at many spoken word nights. For Bad Language, First Draft, Tales of Whatever, Speak Easy, Verbose and The Real Story. And at each event I have found supportive, constructive and inspiring people. A community that is not necessarily there to decorate people with praise but is certainly not there to destroy anyone. Only wanting the best from everyone who steps up to the mic. And for that I’m more grateful than I can really say.

From pushing myself to take that first step I’ve had the confidence to take further risks, which while not always ending in anything like victory have at least had value. I’ve sent my stories off to publishers and had my share of rejections but also my first successful book submission. I’ve been interviewed on the radio. Had one of my stories published on a podcast and picked up a regular paid magazine column. I also joined The Real Story, a group that supports emerging non-fiction writers in the northwest and gave me the opportunity to read in the first place and set my ball rolling. None of this is particularly earth-shattering by most people’s standards. I don’t consider myself to be a success. But as a socially defective periphery-dweller with crippling performance anxiety and low self-esteem, I’m cautiously proud of myself.

I’ve long accepted  that I will never have my mother’s courage and fearlessness. I will always find performing nerve-wracking. And I will never stop fretting about what people think. But I have learned that sometimes taking risks can be enough to change your life and that it doesn’t always hurt to give a shit.

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Evidently on FAB Radio

Evidently

(Update: The show, which was a joy to do, can be found on Evidently’s Mixcloud page.)

On August 13th at 8pm the brilliant Kate Feld and I will be on FAB Radio’s spoken word show Evidently, promoting the next The Real Story LIVE event. We’ll be discussing the event with presenters Ella Gainsborough and Kieren King as well as reading a couple of stories and introducing some songs that we’ve found inspiring.

When they’re not presenting their radio show, Ella and Kieren also run the Evidently  poetry night every 2nd Monday in The Eagle Inn, Salford. You can find details about it here. If you like live poetry, pubs and/or Salford then it’s really the night for you. If you’re one of those people who’s scared of going out in Salford at night, don’t be. Salford is probably more afraid of you than you are of Salford.

In case you’re curious about what Kate and I sound like before the show, you can hear Kate reading her excellent short story ‘Max and Bird’ on the latest edition of the Tapes and Tales podcast (I bloody love Tapes and Tales). And, if you like, you can also listen to me on this YouTube video, reading out commuters’ negative tweets about Metrolink.

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.

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.