This weekend I found time to read Keith Hutson’s Troupers (Smith/Doorstop, 2018). It’s hot off the press; in fact, I was in the Poetry Business’ office the previous week when Keith opened the box from the printers with his books inside. It was great to share the excitement.
Troupers is a collection of 28 assured and accessible poems that deal with a showbiz past that never seems too far from the present. We see lives on and off the stage, interspersed with poems that feel more autobiographical. I love the way Hutson describes the predicament of the ‘Straight Man’, the deadpan half of a comedy double act, which ultimately, is the hardest role to perform. He also makes us question ourselves, to the point where we feel involved in the straight man’s situation, which is, I suppose, to be eternally misunderstood:
‘You think you could be me, don’t you?
The nobody who’s only there to prop
the patter up.’
The line break’s really doing its work here. And the end of the poem, ‘Try being the key’, really throws the scenario back at us. What might we unlock in ourselves if we had the courage, the talent?
There’s comedy and tragedy throughout the collection. Hylda Baker learns to lip read in the mills, and the Glasgow Empire has its ‘gang show audience’ giving well-known performers a run for their money:
‘Even when empty, anger
occupied this auditorium.’
Yet being on stage is redemptive. Take ‘Vera’ who performs in school:
‘Before they took her into care …
a vent act for the teacher with her Sindy doll
to Neil Sedaka’s Where The Music Takes Me’
It’s an event that lifts her, momentarily at least, out of her difficult circumstances. There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy. Take this description of Vera, ‘she had no father/ and a limp’. Hutson’s lines often come quick-fire, like gags in a stand-up routine, and like a good comedian, he’s able to shape our reaction, manipulate our emotions, by a subtle use of counterpoint. ‘Widow Twankey’ is that mixture of the comedic and absurd balanced with the hard-hitting truth. In the final stanza, and in the space of just seven lines, Hutson takes us from the uproariously funny, ‘Shingle trickles down his knickers’, to suicide by drowning, and manages to get this glorious simile in along the way:
‘Sleek as a private limousine, the tide arrives.
He bows a bit, and starts to wade.’
We learn the details of lives we consider well-known in these poems, and it’s this glimpse into their private lives which makes the characters all the more human. Frankie Howerd is fed LSD by his shrink. Tony Warren turns his hand to choreography in strip clubs before making his name writing Coronation Street (the soap Huston himself has written for). Maybe it’s this background that enables Hutson to understand so well the characters who inhabit the world of showbiz. Often, these are lives on the margins, rather than centre stage. Take ‘Crowd Control’, in which we learn the sponge dancer, Bryn Pugh, has married his daughters, or that Professor Cheer loses his memory through playing his skull like a xylophone.
Towards the end of the collection, the poems are linked back to Hutson’s own life and his early love of entertainment in ‘Brass Band’, where the rousing music takes the narrator back to his early childhood:
‘a boy of four, found on the prom
in Bridlington, not lost, just listening.’
Here, surely, is the seed of becoming a writer, in the listening.
Keith, I smile upon your performance. Many thanks for sharing it with me.