I came up to London yesterday for the launch of South, a magazine that has published one of my poems. The first time I’d read in London – at the Poetry Cafe, no less, and I was nervous. All these proper poets who would have been published here, there and everywhere and have done more readings than I’ve had hot dinners. You know how it goes… So, dressed in my purple shirt and trousers and hoping I’d look smart enough, I got on the coach at Newton Abbot with my folder of poems in my bag and a substantial packed lunch.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dealing with a flask of soup on a coach. On a train it’s not a problem. Although it rocks a bit, the movement of a train is relatively even and if you put something on a table it stays there. The same can’t be said of coaches. After I’d poured out the butternut squash, carrot, coconut and ginger soup – one of my best, though I say so myself – I left the cup on the table for a moment or two while I screwed up the flask. Yes, you can see it coming, can’t you? Although half of it was still left in the cup, I couldn’t believe just how much of the delicious orange puree had distributed itself over me, not to mention the table and the wall of the coach – both fortunately made of plastic, unlike my purple outfit. I did the best I could with a large hanky and my glasses-cleaning cloth, then resorted to pouring water over myself (the seat was plastic too) and trying to wipe off more. By that time it felt as though I’d had an ‘accident’ of a different sort, but at least I wasn’t looking quite so orange. When I’d done as much wiping as I could, I took myself off to the toilet and did the best I could there – being thrown about from side to side and with water spurting from the tap. I emerged looking more wet than anything else, but was conscious of tiny bits of carrot still nestling in the pile of my velvet trousers.
Once I’d cleaned up everything in sight – the wall, my coat, my bag – I sat back in my uncomfortable wetness and contemplated the sorry state of this would-be poet. With a bit of luck people wouldn’t notice the stains too much, but I’d said goodbye to looking – or feeling – professional. Ah well. I then took out my phone and found that two of the friends who had said they were coming to the launch couldn’t make it, for perfectly valid reasons. As the third one had already said he might not be able to get there I was starting to feel a little unsupported, which was more of a dampener in my damp state. Never mind. The important thing was to get there.
These days, living in rural Devon, I quite often find arriving in London a shock to the system. I soon get over it, but when I stepped out into the dark and wet of Buckingham Palace Road, dragging my little wheelie case, the rush hour felt like an assault. The people, the cars, the lights, the noise – and the insistent rain, which found its way into everything. Outside the Tube station there was such a crowd that the barriers were being shut and people were pushing to get through. As a Londoner I might once have waited it out, but I simply couldn’t bear it and instead managed to negotiate my way through the hoardings and building works to the bus stop. It seemed almost a miracle that before too long the right bus came along half-empty and took me more or less where I wanted to go.
Making my way towards Covent Garden I was soon a lot more damp and bedraggled. How could I possibly be a credible poet with wet hair? I rearranged my luggage and put up my umbrella – doubly inconvenient, with the wheelie case, for getting through the crowd – but by that time the damage was done. I thought I knew Covent Garden pretty well, but somehow Drury Lane seemed to have moved since I was last there or else morphed into Bow Street. After wet and fruitless wandering I asked outside the station – side-stepping the eager man with the rickshaw – and was directed to the Poetry Cafe by someone who expected a tip but resignedly said he’d do without one.
And so eventually, much the worse for wear, there I stood, umbrella and luggage dripping, in a cramped cafe where everybody except me seemed to know each other. (I’m sure you’ll recognise that feeling.) Downstairs was another room crammed with orange plastic chairs. The only place I could find to leave my luggage was a sofa at the back. When I came down again from the cafe I found two people had taken my place, leaving me to sit on another sofa which was so low I could hardly see what was going on or be seen by anyone else. Not only was I the unprofessional poet, I was now the invisible poet.
When I looked at the reading order I was relieved to see I was fairly near the beginning – I wouldn’t have to be nervous for too long, at least, and I could leave during the interval if I wanted. But then when the introductions started I realised none of my angst was necessary: the MC was welcoming and put people at ease, the poets who read before me were highly entertaining, I hastily revised my selection of poems and chose some lighter ones which seemed to go down well. In the interval I found that one friend of mine – a man well into his eighties – had actually made the effort to come to the reading and was looking for me. And of course the other poets weren’t smart and professional and awe-inspiring – they were just ordinary people who happened to write rather good poetry. The warmth and bonhomie of the occasion enveloped me and by the end I felt at home, just as I would have at a local poetry event. I had not only survived but enjoyed my London debut, and I didn’t have to worry about being a poet.