Henry Normal has an impressive list of credentials. His many accolades include co-creating and co-writing some of the most popular TV series of the nineties and noughties, not least The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show, and the Paul & Pauline Calf Diaries. Many more shows have benefited from his magic touch, among them Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, and Alan Partridge.
Today, Normal focuses on his lifelong love of poetry, which he shares in his award-winning (occasional) series for BBC Radio 4, A Normal…, as well as in his prolific writing.
The Fire Hills is the latest of his poetry collections. It captures his first year of living in Sussex “armed only with a pen and unwarranted optimism”. The voice throughout is unmistakeably his, combining a trademark dry wit with infectious delight in language, as illustrated wonderfully by the poem Bird spotting.
Sick of seagulls shitting on your head?
Ever considering shitting on theirs instead?
It goes on to explain a myriad of ways in which one might take this kind of revenge:
Uncork on a stork
Defecate on a kittiwake
Mark a skylark
Curl a poo over a curlew
This becomes funnier and funnier through the sheer relentlessness of bird and poo pairings, until its corking final stanza involving the King and his swans which I won’t spoil for you here (buy the book and read it for yourself – it’s worth the cover price for this poem alone).
The particular style of list poem is characteristic of Normal. The adeptness with which he works it throughout The Fire Hills is one of the book’s great joys. Using this form, he goes on to tackle subjects as varied as chaos (Pandemonium), whether to hug and risk contracting Covid (Affection or Infection), and how his nose is continuing to grow in Proboscis Colossus, which ends thus:
By the time I die it’ll be off the grid
They’ll be lucky to shut the coffin lid
This poem is not alone in reflecting Normal’s increasing awareness of his advancing years, his ageing body, and a creeping sense of mortality, which ranges from mere mention of tinnitus in Noises off to the poignant tenderness of When I’ve forgotten:
And the very best of all I was
is all because of us
This absence is just passing through
I live, as I always did, in you
My personal favourite on this theme, however, is King of the echo chamber — a perfect example of Normal at his best, finding the humour in our inexorable slide towards expiration:
I hoped I might evolve
to become wise with age
I didn’t know it would involve
so much beige
During the course of the book, we accompany Normal, experiencing the change of seasons through his eyes, his broken arm, his family and new home, as well as snippets of events in a world still rocked by Covid. Amid the many brilliant humorous poems, the moments where he addresses the desperate state of the world are testament to his skill as a writer (and a human) in that he takes us with him through the gear changes. Raising your heart above the parapet is a great example of this:
So here we are again
Looking for something to believe in
Normal is unafraid to break up the book’s overriding mood of humour with poems of great tenderness and beauty, as can be seen in A dead butterfly trapped and Vigil, which deal with his father’s death.
This collection is written in a way that is accessible without compromising on depth. Normal finds the personal in the universal and presents us with a way to navigate life, even with a body and world which are showing their age. This is a fine collection that I will return to again and again.
The Fire Hills by Henry Normal is available to buy here.
To read Henry Normal’s writing for Northern Soul, click here.