Ahead of Henry Normal’s appearance at Metronome in October, we chat to him about bees, ghosts and the oncoming AI apocalypse...
I was lucky enough to get two back-to-back interviews with Henry Normal, each one better than the last. Henry is an esteem-magnet: writer of The Royle Family, producer of Alan Partridge and a raft of the best British TV comedies, beloved Nottingham-born poet.
Twenty minutes into our chat, having solved most of the world’s mysteries, I have to let him know that my recording has only been picking up my questions and not his answers. Could we please start again from the top? Henry, calling in from a motel in Pocklington on his travels, laughs graciously. I bang my head against the table and call back, the conversation is away again.
So, you started writing poetry in your teens - did that give you some street cred and social cachet or was it a bit uncool back then?
When I was eleven, my mum died in a car crash and I was living in Bilborough, council estate, the skinheads were about, so you know it was quite a rough sort of place. Very withdrawn. I got into poems through comedy, I loved Monty Python and Morecambe and Wise and things like that. I got into Spike Milligan and then I discovered the Liverpool poets, Roger McGough, Brian Patton, and Adrian Mitchell.
Spike Milligan brought out a book of poems called Small Dreams of a Scorpion. I thought it was a comedy, but it was actually a book of serious poems and it made me cry. And I remember thinking he's so funny and yet it can make me cry, and I thought that's what I want to do.
So when other kids were out playing football, I was sat in my bedroom with a... I didn't have a typewriter or anything in them days, so I did it longhand with a piece of paper and a pen. And it wasn't till I was about nineteen that I joined the Angel Row Writers, right in the centre of Nottingham…
That was at the Central Library?
Yeah, I met other working-class writers. Before that I was sort of on my own and I didn't really know any of the people that wrote. Nobody would write outside school, you know. At Angel Row there were lots of people doing different things. There was a chap called Barry Heath who wrote a play called Me Mam Says, which is a very Nottingham play.
He was well established at the time.
Yeah, and so it made me feel like you could be working class and a writer. Because all the images you got were, you know, sort of old blokes in tweed with pipes, weren't they? And...
Never fancied the tweed.
Never fancied the tweed. Not for a goth. They had a Christmas do and I was asked to get up and read a poem, and people laughed. I was hooked. There's something lovely about performing in front of an audience ‘cause all the middlemen, all the people that you have to get past that don't understand where you're coming from, are out. It's just you and what you want to communicate and the people in front of you. It's all about communicating. And I've still got stuff that I want to communicate.
I find it quite beautiful, the idea of celebrating our humanity with comedy and poetry and other forms of communication. It's something you can't get with AI
So performance for you is about that communication?
I read Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious when I was a teenager. And it talks about the way humour helps us to come to terms with the fact that we're all imperfect.
And I think what's beautiful about that, that we are all imperfect. I saw a psychiatrist when my son was born. It was hard coming to terms with the fact that he was severely autistic and would never leave home, never have a job and never have a girlfriend. And we went to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said, ‘everybody has the same problem’. And I thought that's a bit odd. And the psychiatrist said, ‘everybody thinks that they're not good enough’.
So I think about Freud and the idea that comedy helps us come to terms with that. I find it quite beautiful, the idea of celebrating our humanity with comedy and poetry and other forms of communication. It's something you can't get with AI. If you think about it, the thing that AI is most shit at is jokes. Right if you type into AI ‘write me a joke’ all it’ll do you is puns.
That sounds very similar to my own sense of humour. So, it may overtake me.
I like a pun, but I'm sure you work on different levels. There's a human element to communication and I think AI has not mastered that. And AI is not imperfect. AI is just building on things that have already been written. But maybe humour relies on the unexpected…
Also, it involves what's not there. If you ask AI for jokes about bees right, you ask and it’ll say, ‘Oh, one bee says to his partner bee “I love you honey”’. It won’t give you this joke that I heard when I was seven in a schoolyard. A man goes into a shop and he says, ‘I'd like to buy a bee please’. A shopkeeper says, ‘We don't sell bees’. And he says, ‘Well, you've got one in the window’.
We fill in the blanks very often with poetry and comedy as a communication. You don't put it all down literally. You leave gaps for people to bring themselves to it. And there's lots of... I'll tell you another joke, just to illustrate it.
So a man is in court. And the judge says to him, ‘How do you plead?’, and he says, ‘I plead innocent’. And the judge says, ‘But you were caught exposing yourself’. And he says ‘No, no, no, I was making love to my wife’. And he says ‘That's ridiculous, making love to…your wife's dead’.
He says, ‘I know, I was making love to a ghost’. ‘You were making love to a ghost?’ And the judge turns to the courtroom and he says, ‘Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? Has anybody here ever made love to a ghost?’
A man at the back puts his hand up, and the judge says, ‘You've made love to a ghost?’ And the man at the back says ‘oh, sorry, I thought you said goat’.
I don’t think ChatGPT would understand the goat.
No, AI can’t do that. The essence of that joke is the man has embarrassed himself and it's nothing to do with ghosts. There's constructions in humour and constructions in the way we communicate that AI doesn't get.
You need the experience of living to be able to apply that.
Yeah! And to understand embarrassment, to get that. We laugh because we go, ‘Oh hell’. I'm not too worried about AI. I know in America there's striking, all the stuff with face recognition, that’s horrible, but just in terms of creativity I don't think - we'll use the word ‘yet’ - I don't think that AI is going to overtake any writers.
That’s a modern concern. Are there any pressing topics you’d still like to get round to?
I think they’ve got to affect you personally, I think if you start saying, ‘Oh I’ll try to write about a particular crisis in the world’ it becomes false, it might as well be AI.
You've got to filter it through yourself. So what I tend to write is things where I have a reaction to them and I'll try to communicate what my reaction is. Sometimes it's it’s where you see the irony. We show that the emperor's got no clothes. One of the jobs of comedians and poets is to say, ‘Have you noticed this?’
You also see patterns. I'm in my sixties now, so I've seen some of the lies that the politicians tell, I've seen them tell the same lie again and again and again. So you see things, and if you point out those things, then it gives more context to the moment. So yeah, I think poetry and comedy, they both have a sense of rhythm to them.
And that poetic rhythm, when you moved on to screenwriting and producing TV, did you take that to the rest of your work?
I hope so. It's funny isn't it, poetry is such a huge word. A poem on the other hand is a very small thing. It's contained, you know, it's like a small plot of land. It's not the wild of the universe.
And if we talk about poetry, I would hope that there's a sense of poetry that I've brought to everything that I've been involved with. A sense of the values of I was brought up with as a working class lad and you know, I think Nottingham has a great sort of tradition of directness, friendliness and honesty that I hope I've brought into all the different places I've worked and lived throughout my life.
You're back with us in Nottingham soon, at Metronome on 3 October. How do you feel about the live shows?
I think the best thing about being live is you're with other human beings and no two performances are ever the same. And certainly with Nottingham audiences, people get involved, you can feel it, and it comes out in your performance. It’s a bit like football.
When I used to play football as a kid, I didn’t think about the future or the past, I was in the moment. I just enjoyed the game, the use of your body. I think there’s a similar thing when you’re performing poetry. Everything outside the room, that's not your concern, your concern is that moment in the room.
That reminds me of Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, when the character Smith is jogging. He stops running at the finish line, he’s doing it not to win but because it's his state of mind, it's that clear-headedness and being in the present.
I just want to mention that is the seminal book of my life. It’s the image that stays with you. Better to fail on your own terms than on other people's - it took me a while to understand that’s why he stops running. But as soon as I did, I've been walking to the finish line ever since.
Henry Normal performs Collected Poems and Other Landfill at Metronome on Tuesday 3 October. More information can be found here.
We have a favour to ask
LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?