Good golly, Miss Molly and boats
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
All other mammals plus equal votes
Being rather silly and porridge oats………………
August 1979 saw the worst disaster in the 100-year history of ocean yacht racing, as a freak storm hit the Fastnet race leaving 15 crew members dead.Starting in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the 605-mile Fastnet race is one of amateur yachting’s greatest challenges. Competing boats set sail from Cowes, travel along south coast of England, up across the Irish Sea to the Fastnet Rock (the most south-westerly point in Ireland), then sail back across the Irish Sea to Plymouth.
The 1979 race began on August 11 in fine weather, with 303 yachts – carrying 2,500 crew members from all over the world – taking part. But two days later, over a period of 20 hours, they were facing a terrifying, deadly storm, as violent, force 10 winds whipped up 50ft waves in the Irish Sea. More than a third of the yachts were knocked over until their masts were parallel to the water, and a quarter capsized completely.
Meanwhile, my family and me were on our annual camping holiday in Osmington Mills in Dorset. Force 8-10 gales blowing for three days solid. The tent got blown down twice, poles bent, no-one sleeping because of the noise of the wind. The campsite was stripped bare as tents were simply ripped or blown away. We stuck it out, mainly because I’d paid for two weeks in advance. What it was like at sea is unimaginable. In the middle of this, coming and going on the radio was Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be cheerful. Part 3’ to which we sang along through gritted teeth. I put it down to having been in the Scouts (who, as we know, smile and whistle through all difficulties).
I think of this when I’m going through the doldrums, as I have been of late. Because sooner or later, there’s yet another reason to be cheerful. Like going in for my quarterly check-up for my prostate cancer and being told that the new injections are doing the trick, my p.s.a. is down to 4.6 (apparently this is a Good Thing, so I don’t ask what it means) and almost certainly I’ll not be needing chemo or radiotherapy. Not for some time, anyway. And I’m told that sudden attacks of tiredness, headaches and mild baseless anxiety is simply a side effect of big doses of oestrogen. I begin to understand more about the female condition. Or imagine I do. Reasons to be cheerful, indeed.
Good things come for unasked and unexpected. Friday night, about 10.30, I’m idly checking my emails and messages, and there’s a post from Kim Moore telling me that their guest poet for a poem and a pint has been struck down by the ‘flu, and can I stand in at short notice. Can I do it tomorrow, in Ulverston. I’m knackered; it’s a 250 mile round trip. Can I do it? Of course I can. First of all I’m flattered; this is my involuntary mentor and inspiration asking;they’ll pay me. And there’ll be an audience. I don’t know about you, but I realised a long time ago that of all the joys of being alive, the buzz of performance is right up there with the best.
I need to do two 20 minute slots. Imagine! It’s like winning the pools. Gold dust. I need to knock out a gig list. I need to practise it. I need to find out where Ulverston is. I need to get the diesel topped up, to check the tyres. By 3.00pm on Saturday I’m already tired. There’s a traffic jam in Mirfield. It takes me 45 minutes to get to the M62. It should take 10. I discover the windscreen washers aren’t working. I notice the diesel pre-ignition light is still on. I will agonise about this all the way there and back. What can it mean? The delightful satnav lady tries to persuade me to leave the M6 at a junction earlier than I think right. I override her, which means she tells me too often that she needs to recalculate the route. By this time it’s getting dark, time’s passing, I haven’t time to stop to get something to eat (I probably did, but panic is an interesting thing) and when I get to Ulverston I find there is a one-way system that the nice satnav lady is unaware of. At 7.10pm I find a car park and the venue…the Coronation Hall……and I realise I have been seeing it on and off for at least 10 minutes. I am sweaty, tired and anxious. The journey that should take two hours ten minutes (says the AA) has taken three and a half.
Why am I telling you this? Because five minutes later, Kim Moore greets me fulsomely, someone buys me a coffee, I meet Kim’s husband, Chris; someone takes my books and looks after the selling of them, and I sit down in a handsome room full of extremely nice people, and I listen to five splendid poets. One is Kim who reads ‘Men I never married No. 25′ and sends shivers down my spine. And Jennifer Copley reads poems that are wry, precise, sightly off-kilter, funny, dark and memorable. I am already very happy.
I get to read two sets to a full room. In between there is music from Demix. They do John Prine’s Speed of the sound of loneliness , which I’ve loved for years. I sell a goodly lot of books. I am buzzing. I could go on all night. I could take up Kim and Chris’s offer of a bed for the night, but I’m so wired on adrenaline I decide to drive home and sleep in my own bed. I do this in just over two hours, running on fumes and perfectly content(apart from that pre-ignition warning light).
Here’s the thing. This is a one-off. So I’m thinking of gigging poets who do it for living. I think about Pascale Petit and all the others like her, on what seem to be endless train journeys. I think about the ones who drive long distances, regularly, just (just!) to read to rooms of indeterminate and unpredictable size and warmth. I think about the ones travelling from centre to centre, to tutor workshops. I taught just one last year; I was knackered.
Today I’m tired and happy. But I’ve had two huge bacon and tomato baps with a lot of grease. Tomorrow I don’t have to go anywhere. All next week, in fact. Reasons to be cheerful. Thank you, lord for adrenaline. And thank you for all the travelling, gigging poets and tutors who do it again and again and again.
From me, a special thank you to the organisers of a poem and a pint in Ulverston.
Let me persuade you to enter their Poetry Competition, to be judged by another of my inspirations, the poet and wild-swimmer, Clare Shaw. It’s competitions like this that fund great poetry nights. I can’t find a link via google as yet, so I’ll make do by scanning in the details from the competition flyer.
Next week, another reason to be cheerful…a new guest poet. See you then.