Hollie McNish, Charlotte Higgins and Inja, Cambridge Junction

So here I sit, finishing off some beer bought yesterday. It was supposed to be drunk through the evening and wee hours, watching election events unfold. As it happened, the quick, sudden, shocking exit poll sent me to bed before 1am. So, I still have the beer, and to think back to Hollie McNish’s gig from Tuesday, it’s probably as cheering an evening as I could hope for today.

Hollie McNish is a brilliant UK poet. She spent a good few of weeks in my social media feed as multiple people shared and shared the powerful poems Embarrassed and A British National Breakfast. I was lucky enough to see this performance of Megatron (Transformers). I’m there somewhere on the front row, up near the rope of the boxing ring, cheering. Big Sis booked a couple of tickets to see her in Cambridge, and after working out I could just about make a train home, I was able to go along too. I am so glad I could.

It opened with rapper and poet Inja. He was such a warm, relaxed stage presence, drawing everyone with his pieces about dashing between homes, family and late night rap gigs, and my favourite, The Cooking Song.

Next came Charlotte Higgins. She began with a couple of fairytale-inspired poems, her smiling face and soft voice belying the darkness at the heart of the words – in that sense, very much true to original fairytales. They were short, sweet and shot through with delicate dread, turning on an sharp edge. I loved her poem written for a Cairn built on the English/Scottish border, Cornerstones, and not only because ‘loch’ pronounced with a Northern Irish accent is a truly magical sound.

In another poem, about Seamus Heaney, Charlotte really captured that desire to reject a writer because you’re supposed to love them, books piled onto the pile next to your bed by well-meaning relatives, assumptions made by other readers and successful avoidance, until, accidentally, you do fall in love with their work, hard and fast, for all those reasons everyone thought you would. Often, that their words feel like home. Her final poem, ‘Auto-complete’, was very funny indeed. It builds, layer upon layer of questions, with sudden serious, suddenly touching, and many hilarious questions, each given the same tender questioning emphasis, bringing the audience with her, in layers of laughter and recognition.

And then, Hollie. The rural poet, living where the air is clean and the nights are truly dark, dubbed an urban slam poet by the ‘London’ that never signs its name in emails. The poet that celebrates the superhero powers of the mother’s body, and inspires uprisings of breast-feeding mothers, between telling us hilarious anecdotes about discussing sex and death with her Glaswegian grandmothers. She used her hardcore spreadsheet skills to analyse which of poems get the most complaints, giving us a countdown of the top five, with special mention to a particularly insistent grammar troll. Those trolls have highlighted some truly brilliant poems.

I expected to love Hollie’s poems, be inspired and fall in love with her a bit, again. That happened. I didn’t know I would laugh so much. I laughed until I cried at the stories she told, at her poems, and her words. Her words are so frank, and skilful, without the over-blown pronunciation or word-trickery that some poets and spoken word performers like to use. She begins each poem as if she’s starting a conversation with you. Her poems explore the straightforward and visceral – the feeling of touch and being touched, the reality of motherhood, the outspoken bluster of racism or misogyny, with a humour and lightness of touch that’s a real pleasure to listen to. If I listed here all the poems she did that I loved, her whole set list would appear. So I’ll just recommend going to see her. There’s still time if you’re in Brighton, Galway, Dublin, Cork or Belfast. You will laugh so hard. Otherwise, there is also her album and her book. Her youtube channel has a great collection of videos too.


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