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Henry Normal Remembers His Nottingham

18 April 18 words: Henry Normal
illustrations: Alex Vine

Poet, producer, and co-writer of the nation’s favourite, The Royle Family, Nottingham-born Henry Normal is a mate of the mag and helped Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature. Here, the Baby Cow Productions co-founder reminisces about the city that shaped him, and lets us know what to expect at this month’s Nottingham Poetry Festival, birthed by the man himsen...

“With a knocked chicken and a bow-legged hen” was the first line of a song that used to be sung on the terraces at the City Ground back in the early seventies. The singers were mainly skinhead “boot boys” in the Trent End, and me, a twelve-year old with a centre parting, flares and plimsolls. I was once told, after being stopped by a gang of Leicester fans, that from the way I dressed I wasn't worth beating up.

I didn't share much with the skinheads apart from a love of football, a working-class sense of humour and the appreciation of a simple rhyme. This was the start of my interest in poetry. The sight of a hundred or so frightening-looking youths all singing “with a knocked chicken and a bow-legged hen” still makes me laugh. I try to picture the bloke who wrote the line explaining it to his mates in the pub, trying to persuade them that they’d still look hard while singing it.

Sitting on the smoke-filled top deck of a number sixty bus from Bilborough to the city centre each work morning when I was eighteen, I wore a parka over my suit and carried a haversack. I was embarrassed to be overdressed. Arriving at the insurance brokers on South Parade, I hid the parka and haversack behind other coats and spent the day in my cheap, purple, flared suit, feeling underdressed. I wasn't at home in either world.

There were only a few places in Nottingham I felt drawn to. The first was Selectadisc. If you wanted to buy a Led Zeppelin album back then, you could go to Boots in Victoria Centre, past the women's make-up counters, to a well-lit, clean, plastic music section where progressive rock – as it was called then – sat alongside easy listening and traditional jazz. If you swapped the labels round, you could get Deep Purple in rock for 72p as opposed to £3.50, but some poor bogger was then going to have to pay £3.50 for Acker Bilk.

Or you could go to Selectadisc with its black walls, its distinct smell, its noticeboard with posters for gigs and handwritten scraps of paper declaring “band members wanted”. This was not just a shop, but another world. They even had an old sofa in there.

The second place I loved was the Midland Group in Hockley, where the National Videogame Arcade is now. The Midland Group was an art gallery and arthouse cinema that put on live events. It was a bit like a small Lakeside and Broadway combined. For me, it was an oasis. The art wasn't like the art in the Castle; I remember seeing a performance artist dressed as a boxer, beating up a bag of onions for twenty minutes. As he punched away, he cried. It was comical, perhaps unintentionally so, but it was certainly memorable.

My third bolthole was Mushroom Books in Hockley. Ross, who ran the shop, now runs Five Leaves in pretty much the same fashion. Here were books you wouldn't find in WHSmith, or Sisson and Parkers. There was a sense of community about what Ross and his colleagues were, and still are, building. Ross was the first person to stock my poetry collections – he jokes about still having some of the original batch left – and he was the first person I talked to about publishing when I returned to writing poetry. For Five Leaves to publish Staring Directly at the Eclipse was a privilege and something of a homecoming for me.

Finally, the Central Library was invaluable back then. There, I was lucky enough to happen upon a writers’ workshop run by Wendy Whitfield. To meet like-minded local writers was such a turning point in my life, and what I wrote for those meetings wasn't that different from the content for The Royle Family and Paul Calf that I was to write later, although for the workshop it was for an audience of no more than twenty.

Around the mid seventies, there was a Nottingham Festival each year, and one lunchtime I left the insurance brokers’ office and went up to the Playhouse to watch Roger McGough. He was the first poet I'd ever seen live. He read Summer with Monika, which I still remember now, some forty years later. It's such an honour to have him back in Nottingham this April headlining the Nottingham Poetry Festival. I don't think I'd have had a lifetime's career in creativity without seeing Roger that day, or without those great places around Nottingham. I owe them all a huge amount.

A couple of years ago, together with Craig Chettle from Notts TV and Antenna, I set about creating a long-running poetry festival for Nottingham. It was due to football that I met Craig and his wife, Penny. We jointly produced the film I Believe in Miracles, brilliantly directed by Johnny Owen. Ironic to think that my love of Forest has brought me full circle.

Now in its third year, Tommy Farmyard does a great job of coordinating the festival, and there is a wonderful sense of community with all the Nottingham poetry groups. Supported by NTU and Castle Rock, there are over fifty events, including performances from Jackie Kay and Hollie McNish. This year I'm doing ten free shows at County Libraries, following on from my City Libraries tour last festival.

My early life in Nottingham taught me that it's important to have opportunities for people to express themselves and to see new possibilities. For me, poetry is not in any way elitist, but has always been about the communication of a different perspective. I love the quote by Albert Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Henry Normal website

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