Hastings Battleaxe learns her lesson – at the St Leonard's Festival

Right. Battleaxe knows this now.  She is not a performance poet. At least, not the sort that performs spontaneously at festivals. Our Hastings Stanza group was taking part in the poetry bit of the St Leonard’s Festival, and I was included in the Performance group, which turned out to be a charabanc of pop-up wandering poets…..

You may well ask, what on earth gave me the idea that I might do something like that? Well, I enjoy reading my poems to an audience, and they are quite light, and sometimes funny….. However, there is a huge difference between facing an audience who know what to expect, for a defined time-slot at a defined event, where I have some control, and who are contained in an enclosed venue, and oh Lord busking on the Pier, or, total collapse of stout party, being on the Bandstand Stage in Warrior Square… Pop-up? Wandering? No.
       Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the festival is an informal affair run on a shoestring, but the organisation was a little, shall we say, ad-hoc.
       First, I went on the train to Ashford, in the company of  the excellent Tony Barrington-Peek, who does lovely poems for kids, and is well used to random rabbles of schoolchildren, and Antony Mair, the Co-ordinator of our Stanza group, who was not performing but had come along for the ride to give us support. Antony does lots for us, and I knew he was short of people to go on the bus, so decided to do the decent thing….
      We met a load of London poets at Ashford, and rode back to Hastings on the bus. You may well ask, why could we have not all got on the bus at Hastings station, but I would have no answer…. However, it was a nice little bus.

Our charabanc

       When we got to Hastings we had to wear large paper fish heads – again, don’t ask me why, but I guess it was sort of an arty happening thing. The heads were very hot, and it was actually quite panic-inducing not being able to see out. Our bus joined the festival parade with us wearing those fish heads, with the obligatory Hastings drumming band behind us. Quite weird.

Nooo….You have to be codding…


Check out the driver’s sou’wester


Fish-eye’s glimpse of the parade behind us

        I had made it crystal clear at the outset that I would not go on the bus and above all, Would Not Wear a Fish-head, but ended up doing both. I’d thought that Isabel, the organiser, would tell us a lot more about what we were supposed to do while on the journey. However, she said she was a bit hung over and hadn’t brought any of the paperwork – I had to give her my copy…. Then, of course some people had wimped out so there were not enough people to wear the heads……honestly, I make more U turns than a politician……
        Our first stop was the Pier. We asked Isabel what we were going to do – I had assumed we would be in the event room in the visitor centre – but she said we were going to have to ‘busk’ – she hadn’t filled in the forms to let us perform on the Pier. It was very windy and noisy, and eventually we huddled by one of the huts and read to each other and one or two curious passers-by who must have wondered what the hell we were doing. I managed to read one quick poem….. Philosopher came down to hear us, as did friend Jill – not an edifying experience for them.

Jill, Battleaxe and Antony – windblown

        Real performance poets either sing, rap, or do what I’ll call ‘rant’ poems – long passages of memorised material, delivered at breakneck speed and without drawing breath.  I genuinely believe they don’t mind what their audience gets up to – I can only think they hardly see them. Without some eye-contact with people in the audience, and feeling some connection with them, I just feel pointles, rootless and out of control – panicky, in fact.
        At this point, I would have done well to give up and go home with Philosopher, but had developed a masochistic determination to have a go. So, we got back on the bus and headed for Warrior Square.

Battleaxe and bus…

     The stage in Warrior Square was just that, a stage with mikes etc, and a random body of people dotted about on the grass vaguely in front of it, mostly paying no attention to what was happening. Knots of people sitting on haybales, eating picnics and drinking, folk wandering about, kids playing, groups of young people chattering, shrieking and looking at their phones – you get the picture.  Friends Jan and Tom came to watch, which was nice of them, plus various other poetry people.  As I said above, the genuine performance types just got straight up there and spouted forth apparently without a thought. Gavin Martin, who is in our group, told me he did get nervous, but you couldn’t tell.
     One bloke did an anatomically detailed piece about a rectal examination, which might not have been altogether the best family material.

Warrior Square – from Facebook. It was much fuller than this but you get the general idea….

         Being up on that stage would almost rank with the worst things I have ended up doing in front of an audience, and heaven knows, I have had enough experience of speaking in public, and have dug myself into some horrible situations over the years.  I’m remembering being trapped on stage with Ken Dodd at a conference entertainment night. I’m thinking about losing my temper with the CEO of one of our biggest customers in front of his senior management team and directors. (Actually, the losing the temper bit was fun, it was the moment after when I realised what I’d done…)
        I tell you, being on stage with the Queen at the RAH with 5000 women watching was not half so stressful…..
        I think I managed to get through it without making a fool of myself, but I did sound nervous. Never again.
       After, I abandoned the whole shebang without a backward look and headed for the nearest bar with Jan and Tom to drink gin….
       However, things did improve at the end of the day. The infinitely more sensible Stanza poets were reading at an infinitely more sensible event at a bookshop in St Leonard’s, and I went along, to listen and support my friends and colleagues. Turns out one person didn’t turn up, so I agreed with Antony to slot in instead, as a bit of therapy. It was so good to be in such an agreeable environment that I was more than somewhat manic – the gin, plus wine, did not help, but being able to read a couple of poems was very restorative. It was a really good do. We heard some lovely stuff,  and I hope I did not disgrace myself by laughing too much.
       A stressful day, but it is good to learn such a big lesson.


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