Sometimes everything about a gig goes absolutely smoothly, everything aligns to create perfection and the audience goes away knowing they’ve had a really good time.
Other times things get out of control. You’re not quite sure what’s happening when, and whether you’ll make it through the night, and it’s out of that sprawling anarchy that moments you’ll never forget are born. Nightmaring Spires was one of those nights.
On the page it was straightforward. I’d read some piece about Oxford – a bit of Company of Fellows and Photo Fit, Anna would introduce her new book, Tales of Unrequited Love, eight cuts newbies Rebecca Burton and Joe Briggs would be fabulous. And the evening would be rounded off in brilliant style by Karen Head, winner of the 2010 Oxford International Women’s Festival Poetry Prize, who was with us all the way from the States.
But I was a little concerned. People like short readings. And if we all gave short readings, that wouldn’t give much of an evening. Then there was the fact it’s the middle of the summer vacation – would anyone be in town? The idea of letting Karen down with numbers didn’t bear thinking about.
So we added open mic to the schedule, hoping someone would turn up. And then I had an e-mail out of the blue from Dennis Hamley, author of a host of other great young adult books, who is part of one of my online communities, Kindle UK Authors, and who had just found out I we were both in Oxford. And it turns out he’d written Hell’s Kitchen, a book set in medieval Oxford.
Then there was the music. Only there wasn’t any and I was feeling a littleinsecure – were we cheating the audience? But on the other hand, there was a jazz group turning up afteerwards to jam. Maybe they’d get there early. And the timing – 8 o’clock, because we discovered last time that starting at 6 in summer makes you boil alive – would people really come out for an 8pm start?
My mind was settled a little by meeting up with Sean MacLachlan beforehand to talk about Kindle. Sean’s a lovely guy, and a successful travel writer who’s now turning his hand to US Civil War horror – something we very much like the sound of here! Talking is great. There’s no time to worry. Even if it’s in a darkened store with a locked door because the delightful Dennis (the other Denns, not Hamley), Albion Beatnik impresario, owner and salonista supreme was in a flap.
I was heartened a little when I spotted the impromptu poet known as Dot standing outside with a rollie. Old hands will remember Dot – he came to Lilith Burning last year and sat in the audience writing a poem that he then performed at the evening’s close. And Dennis perked up to say someone was coming with a guitar. Super! Music – and open mic!
By the time I’d got my head back to worrying if anyone would turn up, I looked around and it was clear the more pertinent worry was where to put people. And by this time not only Dot but the person sitting next to him as well, who turned out to be the artist Martine Votvik, were scribbling away. Which meant Dennis’ kind scrambling around to get the jazz guys to turn up early was suddenly looking like it might make us overrun rather than stopping us underrunning.
Against all of which hubbub and muddle, with the running order still in flux and a path to any remaining spaces blocked off leaving people to huddle in the doorway, the evening began. It’s a cliché that raw and unrehearsed gives a night energy. It’s also not strictly true – it’s something Jack White, one of my absolute heroes, loves to say, but I’ve been to enough of his concerts to know that the chaos is skin deep. It masks a professionalism that goes down many layers, and it’s that level of professionalism that lets you leave the actual details to the flow. Which sounds like I’m saying we’re professional, which we’re not, but Anna and I at least are beginning to build up an understanding, to be able to read each others’ signals. We’ve been gigging for almost a year now. That’s the kind of period of time where if you perfect running orders you grow stale. Yes, you think about your set list to make sure you’re leading the audience through the night in a satisfying way that suits the night and the venue, but you also need to let your audience lead you. And that’s sort of what happened. Mark Atherton, the guy with the guitar who looked unnervingly like Apprentice superhero Tom, sang a fabulous piece about the river south of Oxford, at the end of which Dot was almost ready but only almost so I segued in with Photo Fit, and its towpath imagery. Martine didn’t have a last line, but the crowd cheered her on, and by the time she’d reached the end of a beautiful poem full of optimism amongst the blazing riots engulfing the country, she’d found one. Dennis (Hamley) captivated us with his reading from Hell’s Kitchen and scene-setting of a Name of the Rose style novel embedding in the nightmaring spires of early Oxford.
But the hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck standout moment of pure electricity came when Joe Briggs stood up. Rather nervously. Fluffed his first line, made a joke of it and got the crowd instantly onside, and launched into the most extraordinarily erudite, energetic, passionate piece of musical criticism I’ve heard:
The Milk Round by Rebecca Burton
A milkman dropped a crate of empty bottles
in the early morning, over a flower bed in the garden
in spring before flowers had arrived.
One shattered into, lets say, 19 pieces.
A black bird observed with one yellow rimmed eye.
Three days later a little girl
was drawn to the rising sun
glinting off a few of the pieces.
She considered them treasure and sat down to play.
In a week the milkman, missing
his missing bottle came back.
He asked the little girl about it.
She’d seen only treasure, and finders being keepers,
she didn’t tell him about it
(she was wise in the ways of treasure theft).
The blackbird blew on the other pieces
and they formed an almost bottle;
breaks where the missing pieces might have been.
It held a special kind of rain.
The blackbird drank it with his blackbird buddies.
Later that spring some pansies grew in the flowerbed.
In the roots were powdery bits of milk-bottle glass
which travelled up, right into the stem
and the leaves and the petals and the stamen
of the flower.
When the milkman cam back on his final round he found:
a little girl made of glass
a wet blackbird
and some golden pansies.