Editor Alan Parry had the opportunity to sit down with the co-founder of Baby Cow Productions, co-writer of acclaimed BBC sitcom The Royle Family, founder of the Manchester Literature Festival, and widely published poet and author, Henry Normal, to discuss his pathway into literature, his musings on comedy, and life in Lockdown.
Henry, do you come from a literary background?
God no! No, my dad was an engineer at Raleigh. He would work seven days a week. He would work Saturdays till two o’clock, Sundays till twelve, and then seven till six the other five days a week. He used to mend the machines at Raleigh. I think he was one of their top maintenance guys. He was also a member of the AEU union and, and both my granddads were miners. I think if you go back, they are all Irish labourers.on one side, and Yorkshire labourers on the other side. My mum ran a fruit and veg home delivery service, that was way ahead of its time. But she died when I was eleven in a car crash. We did not have any books in the house. When my mum died, we were very poor. Five kids… Dad working seven days a week. At school, I did like English, I had a good English teacher. He helped me to get involved with literature. I read more comedy then, the Monty Python books and Spike Milligan – stuff like that. It was actually Spike Milligan that got me into poetry because I read a book of his called Small Dreams Of A Scorpion, which I thought was a comedy book. I bought it from WH Smiths, he used to write all those comedy books mainly for kids…
Yes, I bought Badjelly the Witch for my daughter a couple of years ago.
Well, he used to write lots of books that were sort of pictures and quips and all sorts of things. So, I thought this was a similar book. But it was a serious book of poems, and it made me cry. I thought, this is a man that is so funny, yet he can make me so emotional. I loved it, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is a revelation!’ I was very withdrawn after my mum died. So, between the ages of eleven and say, fourteen, I kept very much to myself. And I was the last, no, the third from last in our class in the exams, after everything in that first year after mum died. Then, by the end of the school, I was at the top, because I actually stopped larking about and playing and actually did some work. I read a lot because I was withdrawn. I moved from comedy to poetry, and now I sort of balance the two. And, of course, I discovered the library, and the Liverpool poets. I discovered, Adrian Mitchell, who I always think of as being akin to the Liverpool poets. I discovered the publications of Jonathan Cape. If Jonathan Cape’s name were on a book, I would always read it. Then I would just try anything. It was quite a small library and a lot of it was not my cup of tea. But then when I found something that was, that really resonated, you know?
Yes, it is interesting that you speak about Liverpool poets, and people like Jonathan Cape, because I think that a lot of that poetry is that much more accessible?
Yes. So, I was growing up on a council estate having come from a slum district and that was my only knowledge of the world. I needed something accessible that I could say was from my world. And they almost were. But then, obviously, you only need one poem from another author and you go, ‘Oh my God!’ You find Dylan Thomas and he may not have the same background, but he is saying something that I can relate to. And then you move on from there – you try to find another one or two poems from a from a poet that will lead you to investigate a bit more.
I was going to ask you if you always enjoyed reading, but seemingly you did…
I enjoy reading poetry, and anything with short chapters. My favourite at the moment is Bill Bryson. I’ve always liked him because his work keeps me moving along. I like composite things. I could never write a poem that was an entire book. Even the book I wrote about my son is all broken up into small chapters. I think my brain works in small, composite parts, which works for comedy.
Then hopefully you will enjoy my collection.
There is something about thoughts, if you are linking lots of different thoughts together and building something – it is still made up of individual thoughts in the way that breath is still individual breath, and action is still individual action. I like to break things down to their atomic roots.
Thinking back to those things that you grew up reading, the Jonathan Capes, the Liverpool poets – it was an Adrian Henri poem that really sort of attracted me to poetry too. Back when I was doing GCSE English, I think it was an updated version of Daffodils…
Well, I was lucky enough to meet Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough. I was also lucky to meet and perform on stage with Adrian Mitchell. I found him in particular to be such a lovely man. I think when you read his poetry, having met him, his personality really comes out in his work which I think that taught me a lesson, that you are your poetry and your poetry is you, so you have got to be honest.
How would you describe your poetry and where would you place it?
Well, it is not for me to place it. I was thinking, just before we switched on, about my son, who is autistic and likes to paint. He does not mind what happens to his paintings. People love them, and I have actually had offers of money for them – he has put on an exhibition and we have hung them in frames around the house. But for him, it is just the act of act of painting that he likes. He will paint today, probably two pictures. And he will paint two more tomorrow, we have got like a garage full and I love that. He reminded me that when I first started there was no chance of me getting anything published. I was about fourteen when I started writing little bits of poetry in my bedroom. Even though nobody was seeing them, I had started a conversation with myself. It was me seeing something outside of myself. That was the landscape within me. I was learning to grasp it and understand it. And that is really what it has been all the way through. I am still driven by this. Even though there is no commercial need for me to write and perform. I am still driven to explore the inner landscape as it were.
Writing can be cathartic…
It is more than that. It is to do with your reason for living and your belief in what the core self is. I think there is something in that. As I say, even if it is only for me, and nobody else ever sees the work, there is something about that conversation that you have with yourself that is very meaningful for your life. If I were on a desert island with paper and a pen, and nobody ever came to that desert island… Even if it got blown up or something… I would still need
to explore my thoughts and feelings. It would be worthwhile for me. The fact that other people can eavesdrop on that, and may get something out of it is a great blessing. It is a lovely thing, that we can understand something of other people’s lives.
I think you have said something akin to Mark Twain, who wrote about his ‘call to literature’…
I think most people, most creatives, at the very heart of them, it is something they have to do. I was in comedy for many years, and if I talked to other comedians about why they are comedians, it usually came down to,and I cannot think of an exception to this, (and I have met, hundreds of comics and comic actors), it usually comes down to a disjointsomewhere in childhood, or somewhere in early adolescence. Somehow, they do not feel at the centre of the universe, or feel at the centre of their world. And they are just trying to make sense of the world, from the side of the stage.I think once you have got that in you, once you are trying to make sense of it, I am not sure it ever leaves you. I do not know anybody that has told me that they have become so fulfilled, that they do not have to create anymore. I think once you have created something, then you will go on to create more – you will want to find the next thing. A curiosity if you like.
You have an impetus to keep going?
Yeah, now with me, I would say it was my mum’s death. But it may have occurred, even my mum had not died, I don’t know. As I say, I talked to other people, and they have mentioned some sort of incident or moment that they are aware of. We are all searching for something. I do not know why human beings have this sense of loss or disconnect. But it is very common.
So, when did you begin to feel comfortable sharing your poetry?
It was whenI went to a writers group. A working-class writers group at Nottingham Central Library. It was part of what was called the Worker Writers Federation. I think they had them in Liverpool and Manchester… all over the country, probably urban settings. Once a year, they had asort of general meeting, in Nottingham. I was lucky that I was part of this group. At the general meeting, I was able to seepeople from all over the country, and it was quite exciting. People would perform there andthe writer of Cracker, Jimmy McGovern was there from the Liverpool group. But he was one of lots of people who were trying to represent the working-class perspective. So, I was very pleased when we eventually got to write The Royle Family, I felt like that grounding was something that paid off. When I first went to the group, there was about twelve, maybe fourteen people there, and I was just relieved that there were other people that I could talk to. You couldn’t talk about poetry on my council estate. If I told somebody I wrote poems, the skinheads would likely beat me up. So, to actually meet fellow writers and be able to think of myself as a writer, it was quite a strange leap, and was very healthy. They put out an anthology, which I had a couple of poems in, and then they very kindly put out a book of mine, I say a book, it was a pamphlet. I think it had nineteen poems in it. It is very thin. There’s a couple of poems in there I still perform on stage today. So, they couldn’t have been that bad
This is very much part of the independent poetry scene now. I think this is where it is at, really. Seemingly, chapbooks are the lifeblood of that scene. Short, themed collections appear to be what most publishing presses are putting out at the moment…
Some days you want something substantial, like with meals, Other days you want a snack. Some days you have only got five minutes. The length of a thing is no judge of its worth. And some of the poems, that have stayed with me, all my life, are fairly short poems. I mean, Dylan Thomas ‘Do not go gently…’ – not that long, is it?
No, it is not. Now, I should probably have started by asking this, but how are you coping with Lockdown, has it impacted on your working day?
Well, I live with my wife, Angela who is a writer. She has just written a Channel Four series called Close to Me about a woman who finds herself at the bottom of the stairs, and she does not know whether she fell, whether she has been pushed, or whether she jumped. That is an upcoming six-part series. So, she has been working on that in the afternoons and I have been working in the mornings. We have an autistic lad, Johnny who is now 22. I look after him in the afternoons. We have quizzes, we read, and do treasure hunts, and some menial tasks too, like folding washing and stuff like that. So, that is my afternoons. My mornings I spend either Zooming or writing. I have been writing a BBC Radio 4 show. The latest one is called A Normal Communication, strangely enough. I investigate a particular subject in each, and I have been investigating why human beings communicate. It is very interesting once you start looking into it. Verbal communication started when our numbers, if you imagine us as very early primates, when our numbers increased. We couldn’t pick fleas off each other, and groom each other and say, ‘I’m okay with you. You’re okay with me.’ So, as we needed a way of doing that over a distance, to lots of people, that became language. So, I have been doing that in the morning, and that goes out on BBC Radio 4 Tuesday 23rd Feb at 6.30pm. It is a half hour long. Some of it is funny. Some of it is a bit rude, and it does get detailed. I do get into things, I look at theories and existing research, because I enjoy doing all that. I am now looking at my next show, A Normal Ageing. Yesterday, I was looking up immortality, and all the people that we think of as being immortal, and what immortality means and what might happen if we were immortal, what would the problems be? I have this curiosity; I like the idea of examining what we are about. The poems usually come after. The poems that are not just me playing with words. I do some things where I play with words, which I love, it is fun to do. It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle or something like that, or a crossword. But the poems that come from the heart, that are about emotion, will happen when I reach a point where an image makes me feel something. I know you have brought out a book recently with photographs…
Yes, our Artist Collectives feature images and poetry…
You see, I was actually writing poetry from about fourteen, through to my early twenties, and then I went into television, and stopped writing poems. I was doing too much television, and running a company like Baby Cow, twenty-four hours a day. seven days a week, I did not really have any head space for poems. Then when I retired, or just before I retired, I started writing again, and it was actually photography that got me into it. Because there is something quite interesting about a photograph. It is basically just an image of colour on paper. It can make you cry, or it can make you laugh. It can even make you angry. I saw all these images of my son growing up. He was around sixteen or seventeen at the time – becoming a man. I looked at all these photos of me and him, when he was two, three, and four, and because he is autistic, he was very disconnected in a way that is far beyond any disconnect I have. These images made me feel stuff, and I thought, how can I communicate this? I am not sure that if I showed you the photo it would have the same effect on you as it did on me. I would be reading stuff into them; I would be reading a whole world within that image. So, I tried to write poems to tell people about my son, because I am going to die at some point, and he is going to need looking after. I wanted to say, this is something of his past, that he cannot tell you and that I cannot tell you when I am dead. And these poems will give you a gauge to it. So, that is how I started writing again. It is interesting what, and why we need to communicate. I was certainly spurred by a need to communicate something for my son.
Are there any poets out there that do this particularly well, that you admire at the moment? Poets that you think are able to sort of offer glimpses of the real world.
There are. I read some Alice Oswald recently, and she has such a way with language, I was immediately locked inside. I think she has got something special and obviously she inhabits a very different world to me, but I got something from her work. There is another book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Max Porter), about a man talking to Death about his kids and wife. I thought that was a very engaging and it stood out. There are lots of people that are writing good poetry. But it is really what it is all about in a deeper sense, isn’t it? Oswald, the way she captures things in a line, I thought she was quite brilliant. Then there’s Pete Ramskill, the Southport poet. Because I know him well, that when I read his poetry, I can see the emotion.
Are you fortunate enough to see Pete’s work before it is published? Are you in a relationship where you workshop, and share your work with others before you send it off to your publisher?
Pete and I do a lot of gigs together. So, I see early drafts of things which is nice. He is quite interesting, in that from his outward appearance, you might think he was quite a gruff sort of chap, but obviously he has got a tender heart – as a lot of people have behind. Often there is a barricade. The career I have followed most because we are old friends is Lemn Sissay’s. I have known Lemn since he was about 19, we used to tour together. Me, Lemn, and the singer out of I Am Kloot, John Bramwell. We did many gigs together, and every time I got a radio show or a television show or anything, I would get him involved. I am delighted that he has gone mega. He has become a world poet now! I am looking forward to seeing more poetry from him, because I know he has written his autobiography recently, and there are other projects that he is involved with. But I find his poetry, and the power of the emotion in his work stays with me. Yes, he has the intelligence, the poetical understanding, but it is that emotion. So, I would say, of all the poets alive today, he is the one I look to most.
With that in mind, how do you view the role of the poet?
Every time every time we start talking about poetry in any form of abstract, it becomes one thing, in the way that, say, music would not. So, I am a big Nick Cave fan, right? And I like The National – and they are very different, Nick Cave and The National – although they have got some things in common. So, if we were going to classify music, you say there’s classical music, there’s jazz and blues, there is hip-hop, there’s rock, there’s pop, there’s, psycho pop. There are thousands and thousands of classifications, and then even within one classification… We might call The National, and Nick Cave, rock, or we might call it emo music, or we might call it new wave. But even within that, you have got lots and lots of different bands. And some of the bands I do not particularly like… Then even within the work of Nick Cave, and the work of The National, there are albums that I am not particularly fond of. There are albums I love to bits. And then there’s tracks on the albums, and I might love a particular track on an album, and then another track I might spin on. So, you must not start to think of poetry as one thing, when other art forms are not thought of like that. Take paintings, they are all very different. And then even, Picasso did lots of different things over his career. I do not think you can ever think of any creative form as being one thing. But strangely enough, poetry is the art form where people do just that. People say to me on radio shows ‘Is poetry dead?’ Like, it is one thing. Like, I have got to defend this one thing. My poetry is not dead! Lemn Sissay’s poetry is not dead! Your poetry is not dead! What is this fixed, one body of poetry that is dead? I do not know. We have got to get out of the habit of thinking of poetry as being one thing and, and see it in the in the way that we see music or the visual arts, and think of it as coming from a million places and going to a million places.
You have spoken at length, about, about your personal experiences with your son and, losing your mother at an early age. I wonder, how far might you mine your personal experience for your art?
Very much so. These are the poems that connect with people, and make me cry. If I can cry writing a poem, I can think ‘That’s too raw, I can’t show that to anybody’ and then I might put it to one side for a while, and then I will pluck up the courage. I think of my mum and dad who have died, and my brother who has died, and I think what would they want me to do? What would I want to happen when I am dead? I think that I need to have the courage to share these, so I will then read these poems, or put them where someone can see them. Often, it will be these poems which people will say they remember.
I understand completely. I hope that if you read my collection, you will see that there are poems that are intensely personal, and others where I am just practising my craft. Moments of light, and moments of dark…
I think it is also important to recognise that we are not all in one gear, and that if we were all in that height of emotion all the time, it would be fucking exhausting. So, there has to be moments when there are little ditties. I have written poems, that my wife hates, in which I think of a subject and try to think of the most atrocious rhymes. These poems are a comic release. If somebody held up one of these poems and said that it was the sum of my work then I would be very upset, but then if somebody held them up and said they were part of my work, that would be fine. Think of all the great people on Earth. Think of Newton, and Darwin… They would have had a laugh at some point. If we had a joke from Darwin that was not very good, we would still think he was a great bloke.
To what extent do you think that comedy has social value?
Well, I read Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious when I was in my twenties, a quite interesting, although not particularly funny book. In it, Freud says that we laugh because we realise our own fallibility. For example, if I tell you the old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘A man walks into a bar, and says “Ouch!”’ It was an iron bar. The essence of this joke is the essence of about ninety percent of jokes. You set up an image in somebody’s mind, ‘A man walks into a bar…’ and then you reveal, as quickly as possible, an incongruity, ‘and says “Ouch!”’ Then you reveal a second image – it was an iron bar. We then realise that our brain has tricked us into thinking it was a bar in a pub. So, our laughter is an acceptance of our fallibility. So, I have always thought of humour as a lovely way to come to terms with our imperfection.
And there is some crossover between humour and poetry, in some of the work we have discussed today, yours and Spike Milligan’s for example…
I think they are linked, what you are often looking at in humour is the way reality works, but from a different perspective, to show some more truth about the way it works. You are often doing the same in poetry. Rather than looking at the telly, we are standing behind the telly, looking out saying this is it from another perspective as in the opening sequence of the Royle Family. I think that the basis of most jokes is just that, they are showing a different way of looking at something. I have no issues with finding humour and serious stuff within the same poem, I often do that. Some of the best poems have a bit of each and certainly, when you are watching a film or a TV show, if you have laughed with a character and then they are in pain, that pain is all the deeper. When we laugh with someone, we accept them. Take Trump for instance, he has never made me laugh. I do not think he knows how to do humour. Trump cannot make me laugh, because I cannot accept him, or his view of the world. Even if I gave him the funniest joke I had ever written, I doubt he could make laugh. He has no sense of connecting with you in any way. Quite the opposite of a Dave Allen, who within minutes, you would love. Not just like him, love him. There are lots of other comedians, like Morecambe and Wise, who you wanted to be your uncles, that connect with you in a deep way, in friendship. If you cannot laugh with somebody, you should take note of that.
What was the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?
I just finished watching an Australian show called Mr InBetween which is about a paid killer. The Australians do working-class and matter of fact very well. It is not sensationalised at all. The character has a daughter, and a brother with MS, and a girlfriend – and he is paid to kill people. I laughed out loud during those twelve episodes because I was so engaged with it. I cried too, and now I am at the end of it I am thinking how did I ever like him? This is a bloke who kills people. Strictly speaking I should not like him at all. But we are all imperfect. One problem with comedy in the past was with writers not making women characters funny. This was due to them not being given any faults. People are not funny without faults, and people are not loveable without faults. There is an old saying, ‘You’ll like people for what they do right, but love them for what they do wrong.’ Poetry is one of the ways we can explore those imperfections, and how we can come to terms with a world in which we are going to die, be forgotten, be in pain, and suffer loss. We are all looking for ways to get our head around this, and I think that poetry is a useful way to console ourselves. I cannot imagine how my life would have been without poetry and comedy. They are the difference between living and existing.