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Last Wednesday, some of the UK’s finest writers took to the stage to tell cautionary tales of adolescent adventure-tourism, the tragedy exchange-year students gambling away their allowances in alien European cities, and the crushing discrimination suffered day-to-day by bald men. Although this sounds like some sort of literary support group, it was in fact an instalment of Homework, a monthly evening of performances hosted by a group of talented and enthusiastic writers donned Aisle16, joined in this instance by special guest Nick Hornby.
John Osborne, author of celebrated non-fiction books The Newsagent’s Window and Radio Head: Up and Down the Dial of British Radio, was kind enough to explain how the group of writers formed and this singular night came to be: “I joined Aisle16 in 2008. At the time there were four members – Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland, Chris Hicks and Joel Stickley. I had known these guys since their early days – I was in the same year at university as Joel and Luke, and used to go and watch them at gigs around Norwich and at festivals so it was pretty exciting to be able to be a part. After spending years touring and performing pretty much non-stop, they invited me, Joe Dunthorne and Tim Clare to join. All of us were producing so much work and developing brand new shows, and there wasn’t really an opportunity for us to try out new material. So we created ‘a night of literary miscellany’, and now Homework is, pretty much, the whole creative output of Aisle16.”
“This season has been great. It’s been consistently good sized audiences, and we’ve put a lot of work into each night,” Osborne added. “Some of the nights during this run have been the most fun live events I’ve ever been part of, particularly Last Barman Poet, a show we performed based around the poem performed by Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail. At the end the whole audience were given a Tom Cruise mask and joined in a mass recital. I like the idea that at most nights there will be something particularly special, something to tell your friends about at work the next day. That’s happened this season too, with Tim Clare’s rap about Willy Wonka, and Summer Camp doing a cover of 99 Red Balloons. We are very lucky to have Homework, that it has developed and evolved and gives us the chance to carry out ideas which otherwise would never have life beyond conversations in pubs.”
Each instalment of Homework has a theme which is used to shape their performances. ‘Escape’ is the theme of the night in question, with each (strictly) unprompted performance arriving just about on the right side of chaotic, as the writers draw upon their own experiences of creative dissatisfaction and naïve misadventure with sensitivity, humour and subtlety. Luke Wright confides in the audience the scrapes of his early-twenties hitchhike to Africa. Overly romanticising the open road after one too many Kerouac novels, Wright admits with hindsight: “Growing up in the Home Counties as I did, it was unlikely that I’d ‘find myself’ in Morocco.” Even more depraved is Tim Clare’s tale of mid-twenties misadventure, told on the condition that the disclosure stays in the room, lest details somehow find their way to his dad via the handy work of ardent bloggers. Apologies readers, my hands are tied!
Joe Dunthorne’s story displays much of the heart and wit found in his novels Submarine and Wild Abandon. Travelling through India in a Rickshaw, essentially ‘a lawnmower encased in a cut price Gazebo’, Dunthorne and friends learnt the hard way why the Bihar district remains, as their guide book informs them, ‘off the tourist trail’, their progress halted by not only dense January mists, but illegitimate roadblocks constructed by local gangsters not afraid to board their snail-paced vehicle.
Both John Osborne and Nick Hornby mine their struggles to write novels whilst serving as English teachers for their respective anecdotes. Osborne, although a little out of sorts after dashing across town following a performance of solo show John Peel’s Shed (reviewed here: https://www.litro.co.uk/index.php/2011/06/15/review-stoke-newington-literary-festival/), delivers recollections of his year spent as a teaching assistant in Vienna, which are every bit as touching as his headline show, which was a deserving hit during its Edinburgh Fringe run this summer.
When Hornby takes to the stage, he admits he is somewhat unsettled, accustomed to reading rather than storytelling, and sensing that many members of the audience appear to have been born well after the period his tale takes place. In 1987, whilst idly playing a Trivial Pursuit machine, Hornby was asked by a passing police officer to appear in an identity parade. It transpired a Vietnam veteran had murdered a shop attendant in Soho, and once assured it was an inevitability the guilty party would be incriminated, Hornby agreed in the hope the experience might provide inspiration for his career-in-waiting. These hopes were supplanted by pure confusion and fear when Hornby was selected, with conviction, by the first witness, which he accounts to the fact that “those with hair cannot, for the life of them, tell bald men apart”. It all came down to the last witness, but fortunately for bookworms the world over, Hornby was not incriminated, instead “winning 2-1”.
Somewhere between storytelling and stand-up, Homework is uniquely shambling and charming. November 30th sees the last instalment of this year, and a screening of a brand new film in which each Aisle16 member is a poet resident in an improbable location. While Wright is somewhat modestly heading to his local library, Dunthorne is aiming for this Ritz. Clare has been denied his first choice: poet in residence in a poet’s residence. “He can’t laugh at himself, that’s Simon Armitage’s problem”, Wright quips. Wherever they end up, you’d be a fool to miss it.