At moments of crisis Bertie Wooster often tells Jeeves that he could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up the soul and cause the old knotted and combined locks to do the fretful porpentine thing (or some Woosterish version of that). For Bertie, the problem might involve an accidental engagement with some droopy girl who thinks that raindrops are God’s tears at our unkindness; or he’s been the victim of some dreadful prank at the Drones’ Club; or must steal a piece of silverware from the most ferocious of his aunts to enable one of the nicer ones to avoid losing a much-prized chef in a bet. Now, I’m not embroiled in any unwanted betrothals (as far as I remember) but I do feel like I’m living in a tale which would rival the fruitiest of Bertie’s exploits. My very locks have been fretful and my soul harrowed. However, the tale is not mine alone, so it is not mine to unfold, and I mention it only to explain the long radio silence, for which I apologise.
But way back about, ooh, only 5 weeks or so, though it feels like several months, I mentioned in these pages that I’d had a micro-pamphlet of poems published. Obviously I want people to read them—hell, buy them, even— so it seemed like a good idea to get involved in some of the various live lit events which happen near where I live. Years ago I used to run such events myself, but the hostess stress was a bit much, and I have a ridiculously busy life anyway, so I just wanted to pitch up at someone else’s party and do my thing. A couple of months ago, then, having checked with my editor (I’m going to say that a lot) that I’d have the pamphlets in time, I booked myself in for one of the open mic slots at an event in Lancaster. I filed the event mentally under “looking forward to”: I love performing, work would be finished, fun thing to do in the run up/wind down to Christmas. Great.
But as the autumn moved into winter all sorts of things were getting worse and worse and worse, as Fleur Adcock has it, and over November and December I became more and more incapacitated with stress and distress. By the time the week of the reading arrived I was averaging about 4 hours’ sleep a night (and we all know what great things you think about at 3.30 am), totally out of my writing routines and only just ok-enough to get through my final bits of work for the year. Throw in a steady stream of rejection emails (we all get them but at some times they are less easy to deal with than others) and a much-needed medical appointment turning up, at last, on the same day—ergo a few unexpected hours on the rainy M6—and I was ragged and wretched and in that state where even the simplest decision was pretty much beyond me. Should I cancel doing the reading? Dear friends rallied round with companionship, coffee and counsel: I had an image of myself like a battered, wrappings-coming-loose-and-contents-spilling-out package being handed from hand to kindly hand in some cosmic Grand Chain of compassion. I was deeply grateful.
The decision was about whether to do it or not was nearly made for me by DPD, whose van had a breakdown and whose—lovely, it turns out—driver turned up pretty late on the eve of the gig with an actual battered package containing the pamphlets. I’d expected to feel a thrill opening the parcel but was more neurasthenic than euphoric, and still didn’t know whether to go and read. After a further infusion of talk and coffee I warned the event organisers that I might or might not make it and decided not to decide anything—just see what I ended up doing. Take the pressure off. It’s usually a good idea. And what I ended up doing was doing it.
It should perhaps have occurred to me that ‘open mic’ at an event called ‘The Spotlight’ might involve, y’know, a mic and a spotlight, and therefore a small but significant stage, and being unable to see or make eye contact with the audience. It should also have occurred to me that, though I read poetry aloud frequently, as part of work, it’s been a really long time since I performed some of my own in a formal setting like this (rather than in a more-or-less regular group of known people). ISAHOTM that, though I wanted to read a teaser from wish you were here in the hope of selling a copy or two, it’s a very intimate and exposing sequence of poems; and that the other thing I planned to read was from a sequence even more raw and naked and vulnerable-making; and that in my current state I was already raw and naked and vulnerable and thus already way on the wrong side of the comfort border without a passport…. A lot of things SHOTM. Ho hum. Still, in the end I went, and here I was, sitting at a table sipping nervously at a pint of soda and lime (had to drive home) and realising quite how bad I actually felt.
The first few performers offered a pic and mix of music, “comedy”, prose and poetry but I wasn’t really able to attend because of the consuming anxiety I was trying not to vomit up onto the table. The friend I was there with had been before and had experienced it as a busy, friendly and mutually-encouraging space, but tonight it was quite sparsely populated and didn’t at first seem hugely responsive. (I’m quite ready to believe that my sense of it as a Toughish Room was mostly to do with my own state, though, it being the mind that creates the world around, and all that.) Anyway, after about 15 minutes I was summoned to the stage. Up I climbed.
In order to finish with a teaser for wish you were here (I could then be approached by people in the interval if they wanted to buy it and find out what happened next), I’d decided to start with the really REALLY raw piece. Thrown by the mic and blinded by the light (sorry if you hear that with the tune), I blinked for a few long moments. My legs were shaking. I felt rabbit-like and vulnerable. I heard a voice begin poem one and realised that my reading-aloud muscles had kicked in and were carrying me through it. At the end there was a fair few beats’ silence—horrified? moved? impressed? wordless with disdain??—and then (I think) a goodly amount of clapping. I read the first two poems from wish you were here—very different in mood: the ecstatic and tender kind of vulnerable, rather than the here’s-my-damage kind—and then it was all over. I have no idea if I remembered to thank people, or how I got off the stage without falling over; I fear I was graceless in all senses. But it was the best I could do. I got back to the table and sat down.
I managed to stay for most of the rest of the performances and in the interval approached a couple of people whose work I had enjoyed to tell them so. No-one approached me. The chasm of self-doubt yawned wider and wider: there’s something about a total lack of feedback which I always find profoundly disorienting, and sooner or later I will fill the gap with the worst possible fears. Eventually I told my friend I needed to leave and we sat in the café outside and had a cup of tea. She patiently listened to my anxieties, reassured me that I had come across as confident and, when I confessed in a small voice that the organiser woman on the door had said they’d “definitely like to have me back”, she gave me a sort of well, there you are look, and smiled. I drove home not really sure whether or not I was glad I’d done it. But it was done.
The storm then closed back in around me and I haven’t had much time to reflect at all, so I’m still not really sure if I’m glad I did it. I certainly hope I’ll enjoy the rematch a lot more. But what I do know is that it was about trying to hang onto something of myself and my own life in the face of all the fretful porpentine stuff. The year was ending with me feeling frightened, lost, furious and sad. But it had also been the year in which someone had published a slim volume with my name on the cover, and I had been brave enough to stand in a Spotlight and read from it to a room full of strangers. As Dr Jekyll noted of Mr Hyde (though with less bloodshed and, well, evil), ‘this, too, was myself’. I need to hang on to that.
Should you want to storm the stage in riotous celebration, you can read the first poem in wish you were here here.