I saw John Hegley at Just So Festival in August this year, performing to a crowd of parents and young children. It had the potential to be a difficult gig.
There were at least 200 children, sitting down, standing up, running around. A tough crowd? Hegley not only managed to keep them in the palm of his hand, he juggled with them – mainly reading from the hysterical Peace, Love and Potatoes. Earlier this month, I caught up with him and asked what he had wanted to be when he grew up.
“A bus conductor. I even had an outfit when I was six or seven. I liked the coloured tickets you used to give out. I actually became a bus conductor when I was 19-years-old, so I suppose I peaked early.”
Having achieved a dream so early on, I wondered when the back-up career of poet began. Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
“I can’t remember the whole thing, but I remember the first two lines: ‘The cave is hot, the pot is boiling; The ugly snakes around it coiling.’ It was published in the Luton Library magazine.”
“Well, it opened the doors of Luton Library for me, as I had to go in to collect the magazine.”
Was there encouragement from any teachers, a favourite English teacher, perhaps?
“Mr Brennan was my primary school teacher. One day, he called me up to the front of the class to ask me about my use of the word ‘uncanny’. I was ten, and he liked that I’d used it. I suppose it was the first small affirmation of my writing. Affirmation is so important for children. Mr Brennan once read us the same four poems every day for a week. We thought it quite odd that he read the same four every day, but we became familiar with them.”
Were there any favourite authors, poems or books which particularly inspired you as a young poet?
“The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy was one of the first novels I read. I was made to read it at school when I was around 15. Don’t know why it made an impact – I think perhaps it was because it pulled me into another world. Also, I was forced to read it. Forced feeding, genuine feeding of your cultural bank – it’s really a task to be thankful for, I think. Also Belloq’s Tarantella, and the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins taught me that language could be up-ended, played with and turned in that way.”
What’s the Hegley process like? When is writing time?
“I’m grateful for the time on trains. I do a lot of my writing on trains. A friend came round the other day and asked ‘But where’s your desk?’. I don’t have a desk. I don’t have a computer at home. I use the computer at the library, and write a lot in there. I have a typewriter and I like typing and sticking little pieces of paper over the mistakes. And I write long-hand.”
I’m curious as to what a poem starts with – a phrase? A particular subject matter? A final line? Do you ever sit down and put a three hour shift in, for example?
“Well, I certainly never sit down and make myself write. Little things come to me. I was in Stoke yesterday and I got my hair cut. ‘A bloke in Stoke who cut my hair…’. It can start with something very simple and then you can expand or abandon. It’s flotsam and jetsam – some is flung and some I find intriguing and keep.”
Do you ever write something that makes you do a tiny air-punch? On the odd rare occasion, I get that with an unexpected result with a photo I’ve taken.
“I’ve had that a couple of times. I wrote one called Death of a Dog and I thought it was really great to have brought this into existence and taken to its end.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Do your best. Focus. Do justice to the pieces you’ve written, as they have their dignity and integrity just as you have.”
Well, after that beautiful answer, I feel I have to follow-up with my equally beautiful final question – why do you like potatoes so much?
“They are like Dr Martens. Sturdy and basic. They’re the buses of the vegetable world.”
Says the bus conductor…
Words and Images by Chris Payne