When I told a friend I had been booked to read poetry at the Royal Albert Hall, his suggestion that I ask the staff where they kept Hitler’s testicle might indicate something of my own complicated relationship with high culture. My first response to the BBC Proms’ kind invitation to perform at a venue so prestigious that my family had heard of it (as opposed to, say, a room above a pub in Farringdon), and to have the results broadcast on Radio 3, was barely-trammelled delight. My second was blind social and sartorial panic. Would I need a garment with a buttonhole? What if I accidentally ask for a fish-knife?
I spent four years studying in Oxford, which implies a certain comfort with grandeur and formality. I did, however, spend half of the last one chin-deep in post-war social realism, reading and empathising with novels such as Larkin’s Jill, in which a gauche provincial undergraduate nearly passes out when a rich female acquaintance helps him put on a bow-tie. The signifiers of success and status are vexed and various, and I had never attended a Prom in my life.
As it turned out, a shirt and trousers was more than adequately-formal garb; I left my suit jacket draped over my chair, a relief even in the relative cool of the Elgar Room. (One slightly less ball-focussed friend believed I was taking the stage in the main auditorium.) Watching the Prom itself from the demotic discomfort of the Gallery, whether craning our necks over the balconies and propped up against the hard stone wall, was in itself instructive: among the closed-eyed men in shorts and baggy T-shirts and the young couples lying supine on the floor, engaged in light-to-medium petting, most of my ideas about decorum soon went sailing out of the window towards the Albert Memorial. If this was the audience I had to read for, perhaps I had nothing to fear after all.
Ducking out before ‘Bolero’, I reconvened with Tir Eolas, the classically-trained folk band with whom I was sharing the bill. The evening’s compere, Georgia Mann, took us through our tightly-regimented setlist (margin of banter: limited) and informed me I would be introduced with a witticism taken from this very blog, which had, I realised, lain un-updated for an uncomfortably long time. The path to the stage was littered with potential trip-hazards. I was deeply concerned I would accidentally say ‘fuck’ on the radio, collide with the adjacent musician’s double-bass, or make an awkward reference to a dictator’s genitals. If you tune in at 22:10 on Tuesday, you will discover I did none of these things.
In fact, the performance went off with an almost dreamlike smoothness, the post-Prom patrons greeting my opening broadside against corporate philanthropy and subsequent digression into the vagaries of medieval travel literature with what seemed like genuine enjoyment. I’ve rarely had so much fun on-stage – not least in the final segment, where I indulged my scarcely-private Leonard Cohen fantasies by reading a poem over a responsive underscore cooked up in only thirty minutes earlier that day by the scarily-adept Tir Eolas.
I was thrilled to hear ‘Magician’s Assistant’ being brought to life by a whole array of tinkling dulcimers and evocative effects. Humouring my vague understanding of concepts such as ‘major’, ‘minor’, ‘arpeggio’ and ‘music’, the band created an alternately woozy and glittering soundscape that mirrored the tension and release of the poem’s romantic negotiations. It may be that participating in the musical process helped to alleviate some of my own Proms paranoia. At any rate, if this happened at every reading – suit or no suit – I could probably get used to it.
The poem on which I collaborated with Tir Eolas, ‘Magician’s Assistant’ is soon to be published in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse. This post initially featured on the Huffington Post website.