– An imagined interview by John McGhee–
John arrives first: wide eyes and logger shirt. His hair is a home for herons. He orders house red, a large one.
John’s manner is hangdog and you find this charming. He’s got “the likeability factor”. He talks enthusiastically to you about his interests – teletext, television, temping, the mundane, shame, girls (unobtainable), children (unwell), music (loud and unfamiliar), the certainty of underachievement. You quickly warm to his generosity of vision and askew take on life.
‘I used to play chess with a boy called Michael Jackson.
He wasn’t very good at chess
but that was the least of his problems’
His words are a ramble, precisely planned. You’re left to guess which incidents are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and which are pure imagination. John tells you about his birthday party – it’s a disaster, naturally:
‘When I told you once I don’t like the idea of surprise parties
this was the kind of thing I had in mind.’
As John concludes his twelfth anecdote, Molly arrives. She takes off her red gabardine, sits down, and orders a green tea. They’ve run out of green tea, the tie-and-waistcoat waitress apologises.
She tinkers with her blonde hair and monologues about how the big city takes your hopes and warps them. Crap jobs are unavoidable, suddenly you’re bussing tables, your potential goes unfulfilled. You can relate easily to her story, her exact observations.
The screenplay of her life twists sinister at the end of Act One. She’s blown up. Her account of surviving the 7/7 underground bombings is agonising, arresting. Later, she tells you of how she fled the city to a drear Wales and, on a mountainside, imagined meeting her bomber, 22-year old Shezhad Tanweer.
‘You don’t look like a villain.
You don’t look at me but you say –
Well, why would I?’
There’s horror in the ordinary, then wit and tenderness when she talks about moving back home, in an episode where she dissects roadkill with her father. The effect is just as otherworldly as John’s surreal fragments.
‘A deer. It’s dead, laid out, perfect-looking with fur your fingers itch to touch. We can’t help but wonder why he’s brought this home, scooped it off the road, lifted it into a rental van, and is now shifting it onto his Black & Decker Workmate with a disconcertingly hungry look in his eye.’
John and Molly are conversational and comical storytellers, chatty and lyrical. They each draw on small-town roots – Scunthorpe (pop. 72,000) for John, a small fishing town on the south coast of Cornwall for Molly. Their humour and melancholy blends as they celebrate the small victories amongst everyday absurdity and dejection: cadged fags, infatuations, one-liners, mothers and fathers, jerkwater recognitions. There’s comfort in knowing that most people are failing just as hard as you are. Their stories are unsentimentally poignant.
“We’ve got the same publisher” Molly says, pushes a copy of her pamphlet across the darkwood table. “Nasty Little Press”, John adds. You learn that John and Molly are also spoken word performers. There’s a tension between page and stage, the accessibility needed for poetry to work in performance, and the richness and re-readability for enduring page poetry. This is managed well in John and Molly’s pamphlets. Both books are handsome too – the illustrations in Molly’s book, by her brother Max Naylor, are stunning.
The bill is settled. John and Molly are extremely polite to the waitress. Then Molly’s off to Battersea to rehearse her new show and John hustles for the Great Eastern. You’d give him the hug he seems to need but are concerned he might come apart at the seams. You finish your Sam Adams. John and Molly have left you with another way to view the world, some hope but some sadness. For all their quirky words, their goodwill, you’re still in the city, alone.