The 100 Little Kindnesses
I sometimes catch myself thinking – even preparing to say – I worked damn hard to get where I am today. Always with that tone of shirty defensiveness.
Worse, I sometimes – increasingly less often, but sometimes – look at the successes of others and think: but I work so hard! When is it going to be my turn to catch a break?
The problem with eliminating this type of thinking is there’s a grain of truth in it – the likelihood is you have worked hard, and there are people in this world who have had better opportunities than you, whose luck has been better, even if you are a straight white middle-class male playing life on its lowest difficulty setting.
But I’ve never felt that same indignation rising on behalf of the hundreds of people who have helped me to do my dream job without starving to death.
Because that’s the truth. Hundreds of people worked damn hard, usually for free, to get me where I am today.
When I first tried doing performance poetry I showed precisely zero natural aptitude for the artform. I was mumbling, my pieces were either two-sentence recondite maxims that even I didn’t understand, or 4000 word prose extracts. Standing behind the mic I felt blind with terror.
It took me – not just a couple – but dozens of open mics to begin to get to the point where I had the beginnings of an entry-level poem. That’s not false modesty. I really do mean the beginnings of an entry-level poem. I was a really horrible writer, and a really shy performer.
Without people organising those open mics, and all those poor chumps who gamely sat through the interminable minutes of my learning public speaking live on stage, I’d never have kept going.
I got given my first ever paid gig by Ross Sutherland. He offered me ‘fifty bones – your choice which ones’ and a sofa to crash on in exchange for a 15 minute set. I was not even slightly qualified. I performed on the same bill as Salena Godden, who just blew me away (not to mention Ross himself, whose writing was lightyears from anything I could conceive of). That night, I took the first step towards a lifetime of poverty and heartbreak, and a career that’s been sustaining me these past 8 years.
Without him, I’d never have kept going.
Back at uni, at the appalling-named Chill Em Out Jazz Café, I got to watch dozens of performance poets playing to sold-out rooms. Some, like Martin Newell (who was the first performance poet I saw live), were mesmerising. Some (names redacted) were awful. I learned from all of them.
Without them, I’d never have kept going.
I went to some of my first poetry gigs outside of uni with Luke Wright. He organised a whole slew of nights, and began offering me slots irrespective of my lack of merit. When I first heard him read out a poem at the UEA Creative Writing Society, my first thought was: Jesus Christ, that’s good. He set the bar high, and early. Years later, when he began co-programming the Poetry Arena at Latitude festival, he offered me sets way above my competence level. I was often dreadful. He invited me back. I got better. These days, I like to think I am Good At Festivals.
Without him, I’d have never kept going.
When I started my solo career, I was worried it would be horribly lonely, doing gigs without my mates around me. Very quickly, I began meeting the same poets at gigs and festivals. We performed together, braved tough rooms together, shared rapturous nights where we absolutely smashed it. Again and again I gazed up at the person onstage and found myself reminded of exactly why I got into this game in the first place.
Poets like Byron Vincent, Kate Tempest, David Jay, Laura Dockrill and Tim Key, all doing the same thing so differently, so damn well. I could name a dozen more but we’d be here all night and I’d sound like a simpering luvvie. Obviously my fellow members of Aisle16 are particularly close to my heart. I’ve learnt/stolen so much from every poet I’ve seen get up there and rock a crowd.
Without them, I’d have never kept going.
Here in Norwich, I’m hugely spoilt having support from organisations like Writers Centre Norwich and Escalator East To Edinburgh, giving me opportunities like taking shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the Melbourne Literature Festival, and ultimately, Beijing, Shanghai and Brunei. People like Anthony Roberts and Chris Gribble, and promoters like Steve Larkin of Hammer & Tongue, have been incomprehensibly supportive of what I do, giving me opportunities to grow as an artist and make mistakes and professionalise what I do.
Without them, I’d have never kept going.
And of course, my parents and my wife and my friends all conspire to keep me sane and bolster my resolve when I’m feeling low, and to give me the sort of rich, adventure-filled existence that produces good material for the stage.
Without them, I’d… well you get the fucking picture.
If that all makes my career sound a rather brittle, precarious thing, that’s because it is. I get to do it thanks to the hard work and continuing support of a whole army of people, most of whom stand to gain little or nothing from my success. I could go on to namecheck a bunch more (Tom Searle at Show + Tell, my old agent Maggie, ok, ok I’ll shut up), but this is an opinion piece, not an acknowledgements page.
And the bottom line is, every single week dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people, most of them strangers, step out to support my lifestyle. Everyone who comes out to see me perform, who buys my books or album online, who shares one of my videos or links to my webpage is helping me continue working in a job I absolutely love. It still blows my mind that, at the Edinburgh Fringe, complete strangers paid for the privilege of sitting in a darkened (occasionally pitch black) room while I yelled at them for an hour. Imagine! The nutters! The beautiful, generous nutters.
Every time you head out to a spoken word gig, every time you link to your favourite poet’s youtube clip, every time you drop an artist a tweet saying ‘you were awesome last night mate’, you’re helping shovel food into the cavernous maw of that person’s dream. Without wanting to fill you with sucking, hollow remorse, you’re creating a world where people like me can exist. The crappy, ridiculous coracle of my career, such as it is – the career, in fact, of any artist – is borne entirely upon an ocean of little kindnesses.
Without you, I’d never have kept going.
So I guess what I’m trying to say – perhaps what I should have said right from the start, instead of all this schmaltz – is thank you.
And buy my goddamn merch.
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