Routines begins with a simple nod to comedian Georgie Doonan (1897-1973) who In time to a drumbeat ... kicked his own backside. The poem is typical of this lovely collection of 31 such sonnets, celebrating both the simple absurdity of the act:
Some critics called it
nothing but self-injury with rhythm .
A newspaper dismissed the act as fit
"only for idiots with no command
over their sense of wonder"
while also casting a glance into the more speculative and philosophical:
So why, when Georgie booted his behind,
did those who knew no better split their sides?
He must have had an impact deeper down.
The fantastically lavish and unusual stars who glitter, pirouette and stumble through this hilarious, affectionate collection, all clearly made a deep impact on the young Keith Hutson who, his years as a script-writer for Les Dawson and Coronation Street still decades away, either heard about or actually saw their performances for himself, such as in Burlington Bertie, when he recalls the tradition of male-impersonators and remembers seeing the song on television:
Then Christmas 1968 gave me
Anita Harris on The Good Old Days,
inside the loosest morning suit she
dared to nearly wear. Low-voiced and with a gaze
so laden and direct my stomach hurt,
through Bertie she breathed I haven't a shirt.
This had me taking in more oxygen
than I'd ever required, or will again.
Hepfully, Keith Hutson has added a list of notes about the poems, which serves as a kind of introduction to many of these interesting people - and a precursor to some intrepid Googling.
The cast of characters is truly diverse, from A human dragonfly in chiffon - to slow-motion wrestlers (painfully tense / for the participants ... as two men coaxed one show-stopping headlock / from such a fractured tussle that the clock / became immobilized...) to the phenomenal feats of Hunger Artists Giovanni Succi (1853-1905) and Frances Thomas (1935-1978), whose exploits Keith recalls in terms which get to the heart of the performers' sense of identity and purpose:
I'm not a freak,
but one exemplar of the human will
to take control and keep it, breath by breath.
This aphorism might describe much of the instinctive will power and strangely targeted energy and dedication behind so many of these eccentric artists, and seems to me to somehow sum up the inner steel and instinctive desire for theatre that underpins the careers of so many performers. It is a strength of character evident in Joan Rhodes (1921-2010), the wrestler, strongwoman and stuntwoman Keith remembers in Coming on Strong:
Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,
missing til twenty then, as lean as luck,
in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book
up, bent iron bars, broke four nails, took four men
on at tug-of-war and won
It is a poem which hits me at a deeper level every time I read it, a hard, truthful thump of spirited triumph. Both the matter-of-fact portrayal of poverty and injustice (Three and in the workhouse) and Hutson's relentless listing of achievements rouse my empathy and admiration for a woman tough enough to keep refusing King Farouk, and there is something unexpectedly beautiful in the way that this former cabaret star, who had slept rough in Soho, joined a travelling circus and ended up appearing in films such as The Pink Panther Strikes Again and The Elephant Man (as well as running a café in Crouch End!) not only transcends hardship with her shows of strength, but does so in such unlikely manners - more than breaking nails or bending iron bars, it is the phone book which knocks me for six: there is something of the everydayness of the choice, the fact that we have all held a phone book and can thus imagine the feel of the thick slabs of paper between our fingers, which brings tears to my eyes when thinking of this workhouse girl ripping into it and tearing it to shreds.
There are sad stories as well as happy ones in Routines - stories of racial prejudice, obscurity in old age, and of death and injury during performance. The poem Without a Net describes the desperate poverty of trapeze artist Selima Hill (1827-1863):
Seven months gone, and still walking the wire
and elsewhere there are implosions of divisions, such as in Pond Life, where Fred Pelham (1798-1852) gave us an impression of a frog, slowly waking up and in an ingenious routine managed to unite the social classes in his audience; and in Raising Steam, where the RADA-trained Reginald Gardiner, uncoupled from the poverty of posh, pulls of a brilliant inversion of class stereotypes, self-parodyingly mimicking trains:
But airs and graces fed a fire that burned
inside our chap to take genteel and make
it locomotive, powered by his knack
for sounding like The Orient Express,
raising the age of steam with every breath:
his clipped delivery of train on track;
the thunder of a tunnel in his chest;
whistles the theatre walls rebounded back;
the pant of a leviathan at rest.
It is worth noting that Keith Hutson is himself a talented performer, and it has been exciting to see him delivering these super slices of theatrical nostalgia in the flesh - never more so than in his comedic renditions of The Fish Fryer, with which I'd like to leave you. There is little information to be found about Billy Bennett (1887-1942), but Keith's sizzling celebration is eulogy enough: to think that such an act - a man pretending to fry fish and being splashed by the occasional spurt of imaginary hot fat - should have proved so enduringly popular, and then form the basis of a poem which, when I've seen it performed, has reduced audiences to collapse in laughter, is a testament to the inexplicable brilliance of the kind of entertainment so poignantly depicted in Routines - and to see Keith twitch and flinch against the spitting juices of invisible fat is to watch a true professional at work. Embodying Bennett's quoted advice - The secret is to get the audience to flinch with you - Hutson slips into the role with an understated verve that is reminiscent of Tommy Cooper in its faux-clumsy naturalism, and illustrative of the poet's experience as a boxer in its inch-perfect rhythm and ever so believable jabs and jerks as the spitting fry attacks:
Somehow it entertains
them - a ninny in a pinny plagued
by boiling oil
Indeed, it does. And so does this whole unique, rewarding, high quality collection of poems - which I just can't recommend highly enough.