I knew it was a bad idea. I was guilted into it because it was for“Charity”. Just how bad an idea it was only became apparent when I set foot on stage. For every second of my two minutes or so, a drunken, howling, baying mob heckled and jeered my every word.
The “it” was a local version of Britain’s Got Talent (I know!); staged in a pub/night club at 10pm on a Sunday (I know!!) on the night that England went out of the World Cup 4 -1 to Germany (In my defence, that hadn’t happened whenI agreed to help out). I gave into the pleas of a pretty film student by taking part in the show so she could shoot some footage for her end of year project.I knew they were no chance of winning as one of the other acts was an eightyear-old break dancer. There were two singers, two dancers, a Spanish guitarist and me. The guitarist was first up and the crowd talked loudly throughout his piece. The half of the crowd that listened started the inane clapping that seems to accompany programmes like BGT and Strictly Come Dancing. I knew this was not a good idea for two reasons. Firstly, audiences don’t clap together: instead of a crisp handclap bang on the beat, it becomes a slow crunch that surrounds but never quite hits the mark. Secondly, the acoustics were appalling and I knew it would be difficult for the guitarist to hear. He lost his timing and as the disinterested half of the audience grew to three-quarters and the chatter crescendoed, he finished the piece early as he knew the game was up. He was given a sympathetic round of applause which was a standing ovation compared to the reception they had in store for me.I had the misfortune to follow the 8 year old break dancer who was cheeredto the heavens.
The MC introduced me apologetically: “Now we have a er..,a er.. stand up poet. He goes by the name of Mark Niel. Some polite clapping accompanied me as I took the Microphone. I tried to engage the crowd in a call and response to try and control the background chatter, “Give me a cheer if you’re having a good time tonight”! “Yeah!” they answered and that was the last time they listened to a single thing I said. Barely a word into my first poem the jeering and cat-calling commenced. They had been pissed about England all day and here was a man in a black suit who would be a surrogate for their frustration and disappointment.
They set about me as if they were a bunch of fat kids armed with crowbars and baseball bats and I was a piñata stuffed with Play Stations and Marsbars! They hurled derision and disgorged their bile. No one could hear what I was saying. It only mattered to them that I was a boring, talking person when they wanted music or dancing. For two minutes that bent the laws of physics, I smiled, recited and performed my heart out in the face of an alcohol-fuelled lynch mob. Not everyone was like this. A few were sympathetic souls but mob mentality is very hard to overcome. The shouting, booing and drunken chanting quickly overcame any sense of order. I finished and invited the MC back. We went through the charade of a post match interview and feedback from the three judges. I nodded, smiled, and even managed a joke when asked how I felt that it had all gone. “Well actually, that was one of my better gigs”. One or two quietly acknowledged my brave face with a smile or quiet laugh. Very few were listening at this point and I let the final scene play out. In spite of this, I strangely found this a positive, life-affirming experience. I was proud of myself. I walked on with confidence and in spite of not being given a chance, I performed, didn’t lose it and finished my set. I walked off with my dignity in tact. But the most important thing is, I didn’t crumble. A year ago ,this would have been a crushing experience but not now. Even though I was being jeered, I was standing in front of an audience, doing something I love: performing poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I hope it’s a very long time before I get such a receptionagain (if ever!) but I learned something about me, about who I am and what I want to do with my life. This is no passing flirtation with poesy. I am committed to reaching people, to try to win hearts, minds and a little more of everyone’s time for the written and spoken word. If that means a two-minute humiliation from time to time, I’ll pay that price.
That’s because these bruising encounters are off-set by obverse experiences: the woman who last week told me it wasa privilege to be part of my audience; the man who wandered into the CrossKings pub for a drink and nothing else then sought me out to say he’d never considered poetry before but thought I’d been brilliant. He bought some of my work and said he was going off to read more. Opening the mind of the woman and man in the street is addictive stuff and I need another hit.
So my poetic colleagues, some of whom I’ve met but the majority I haven’t: Keep the faith. Keep fighting the battles and by degrees we’ll get there. Thanks for reading. This has been my turn to share. It’s been two years, one month and three weeks since my last day without verse.
My name is Mark Niel and I am a poet!