With his background in writing for the stage and small screen, it’s perhaps of no surprise to those who know Keith Hutson’s poetry that his debut pamphlet should centre on music hall stars of yesteryear. But rather than simply being an extended riff on the well-worn ‘Tears of a Clown’ motif, Routines offers a carefully conceived and skilfully realised collection which draws on a wide range of emotions and experiences.
There are 31 poems included here, all of them sonnets of one style or another, a form which demands a certain pithiness. We kick off with the wry slapstick of ‘Juvenile’, about young Georgie Doonan, a music hall act whose schtick involved kicking his own backside (‘self injury with rhythm’) – clearly he would have been a serious contender for Britain’s Got Talent today – but we’re told that the critics weren’t kind. Then, at the poem’s conclusion, Keith pops up to affirm that ‘I know I’d have laughed, which won’t surprise you if you’ve ever run on joy alone’. That sentence sets the tone, for the rest of the book; we know that whatever follows is going to be affectionate, a series of shared experiences where the narrator is tugging and nudging at our elbow. Settle down and enjoy the show.
It’s the same in ‘Burlington Bertie’ in which we find the narrator breathlessly watching Anita Harris on The Good Old Days, dressed as a man ‘inside the loosest morning suit she dared to nearly wear’ and he recalls how ‘low-voice and with a gaze so laden and direct my stomach hurt’ she soon had him ‘taking in more oxygen that I’d ever required, or will again’. Honest autobiography, the young boy camped out in the stalls, moon-faced in the theatre lights.
There’s a conversational quality the writing, but at the same time it’s as painstakingly constructed as the punchlines of any of your favourite jokes: ‘Joan, I’ve seen your photograph, fab in a basque and tan, that cast-iron bath held high, before you disappeared again,’ (‘Coming on Strong’).
I particularly liked ‘Bad Impresario’, about William Paul, who books up ‘the ten most woeful’ turns from a series of auditions for an ill-fated tour of venues where ‘no one asked them back, except the Palace, Halifax’. ‘Fat Boy and the Old Codger’ is a beauty, about a pair of ‘stooges for Will Hay, pair of pudding-heads from both ends of the age divide’ who are mirrored in the ‘chubster’ narrator’s relationship with his ‘nan who made me laugh like I was full of helium’, ‘joy builds its bridge between the young and not-so, time and time again’ – delicious writing.
A lot of the greats of music hall and variety are in there – Vesta Tilly, Little Titch, Joseph Grimaldi and Tommy Cooper, alongside the obscure acts traipsing from venue to venue with ropey routines but which nonetheless sent their audiences home with a spring in their step. It’s this sense of escapism that Routines captures so well, regardless of how awful the ‘talent’ really was.
But Hutson is keen for us to see the price that some of these entertainers paid, how they suffered in order to make us laugh; there’s Selima Hunt, a tightrope walker in ‘Without a Net’, who falls to her death while heavily pregnant; or fourteen year-old Rosa Richter (in ‘Zazel, The Shooting Star!’) whose ‘soft bones bend unprofitably when they’ve entertained too long, too soon’ before she eventually ‘broke her back, which left her in a steel corset, alone’.
My favourite poem here, though (since you ask), is ‘Night Class’, about Dick Emery, who was massively popular in his day. Here, Hutson reminisces about the masks which Emery wore in his long career as a character comic, before the startlingly intimate denouement: ‘but better still, that dressing room hour spent with you, dead beat, explaining laughter like a schoolmaster, to set my mind alight.’
Personally, I can’t wait to see where Keith will go with his first full-length collection, but on this evidence it will almost certainly bring the house down – as Keith says in the book’s last poem: ‘you’ve got the leave ‘em wanting more!’