This one is dedicated to my good friend Lucy, who often comes with me to London poetry readings. I’ve taken her to standing-room only upstairs rooms in Victorian pubs, damp basements that turn into saunas in the summer, corners of (yet more) pubs where poets compete with the steady traffic to/from the gents, drunk hilarity from the bar and piped music. She listens, she smiles, she pays her way, she never asks ‘is it nearly over yet?’ and she never complains. And whenever I invite her, she comes along, cheerful as ever! Thank you, Lucy!
Yesterday she and I were at the launch event for Eyewear’s ‘Best New British and Irish Poets 2017’ anthology, at the Windmill in Brixton. I’m very grateful to have a poem in such an anthology, and in such good company. Luke Kennard, thank you for picking it up – I didn’t feel able to elbow my way in to your entourage yesterday to say so, so I’m saying it here. I also want to thank Charles Johnson who originally published the poem in ‘Obsessed with Pipework’.
The Windmill is apparently a legendary music venue – award-winning, longstanding etc. But it had a very strange effect on me. The instructions to find it were to ‘walk along Blenheim Gardens until you think you’ve missed it’ – and I can sort of see why. The road is quiet and residential. The Windmill is slightly set back, and has the appearance of a social club or a school games hut, quite the opposite of the gentrified gastropub one expects in these well-connected, used-to-be-gritty parts of South London. The first thing we noticed was a huge barking/drooling dog on the roof, presumably the one the landlord sends in when punters are reluctant to leave at night.
When I walked inside, I had the most weird sense of deja-vu, or rather being transported back in time to the early eighties, or even earlier. I was hit by a sudden smell – it was as if People Had Been Smoking in there – you know, like in the old days! And no-one had opened any windows since 1986. But wait! I don’t think there were any windows.
The place was dark and deserted but for a chap behind the bar. He was friendly, and sold us two very reasonably priced glasses of wine. I resisted the urge to ask for half a lager & lime, telling myself this is not Lewisham in 1978, I am not a teenager but I was drowning in flashbacks to school discos, freezing cold bus stops, dingy pubs with sticky floors and the acrid taste of snogs with boys who smoked and drank bitter. I tried to laugh it off, thinking it was because I’m currently loving my box set of The Sweeney (“fags, slags, jags and blags”), with all its wonderful shabby London locations and dialogue.
Things got going though, and after sitting outside in the sun for a while we made our way back in for the start and found it packed. Yes, standing room only – although we did find seats at the back for a while, until someone came to ‘fix the air conditioning’ above our heads and we had to move. We heard readings from Eyewear poets, from Luke Kennard (who was the selector for the anthology) and also from contributors, including Jayne Stanton down from the Midlands and Telltale’s own Jess Mookherjee. Todd Swift, Eyewear publisher and compere, was very entertaining and saw us through not one but two power cuts when the fuses went. And Jill Abram was there, at one point working the desk and getting the mic in order – she’s clearly a multi-talented woman.
When it came to my turn to read, I had the usual struggle with the lighting/reading glasses etc, and then when I started speaking I heard this rough-sounding Sarf London accent ricocheting round the room – is that me? I have no idea what was happening, unless it was the trauma of the flashback-stuff and being so close to where I grew up – plus The Sweeney – but I was channelling Denis Waterman (“Ere Guv, isn’t this the boozer where you nicked Fat Charlie in that blag?”) Anyway, I couldn’t do anything about it – if I’d have smartened up my vowels halfway through then it would have sounded weird – like I was putting on a posh poetry voice or something. And I wasn’t imagining this – I mentioned it to Lucy as I sat down and she confirmed it. Ugh! Is there no end to the stressful situations we put ourselves through??!
By that point I was too embarrassed to risk introducing myself to Luke K. So I left feeling rather sheepish about it all. We couldn’t stay to the end as I had to get back to Eastbourne, so I felt a bit guilty about that too. But hey, it was a lovely sunny day. And on the way home I picked up an email to say I’d had a poem accepted for Magma. So that cheered me up. I didn’t watch any of The Sweeney when I got home though.