Book Review: 'A Moonless Night' by Henry Normal

Words: Andrew Tucker
Thursday 22 February 2024
reading time: min, words

Retiring from an illustrious career in TV, Henry Normal soon stepped into another role as one of Nottingham's favourite poets. Ahead of his homecoming show at the Playhouse in April, we review his dusky new collection...

Screenshot 2024 02 21 At 19.48.53

‘I shall never see sales of my poetry,’ writes Henry Normal on the dearth of reading options in an airport’s duty-free, ‘next to a giant Toblerone’.

Whether or not Mr. Normal’s work ever becomes part of a pre-flight meal-deal, only time and the whims of the Easyjet marketing team will tell. If not it’s a shame, because these are the passing rituals to which he adds the poetry - finding the connections between the flitting modern world and other parts of being human that are bone-deep and unchanging. ‘What do I want from this communication?’ he asks. ‘Diversion from the humdrum/enough to shake the earth’.

If there were an office sweepstakes for a ‘Nottingham’s Favourite Writer’ competition, you might well be crossing your fingers to draw Henry Normal from the pot; a man who, after a jam-packed career in TV comedy from Partridge to The Royle Family, has found another niche as a much-loved stand-up poet. He’s now touring with the similarly gifted Brian Bilston, and they’ll be appearing together at the Nottingham Playhouse on the 23rd of April.

That’ll be a grand homecoming for Henry, and he is resolutely a Nottingham writer. Like the city’s best, he is never far from his social conscience, wearing it lightly in A Moonless Night like a favourite cardi. He gives Gil Scott Heron a post-Brexit twist in ‘The Electorate Will Not Be Patronised’, and offers wry warnings to a downbeat public in ‘Resolution’: ‘don’t break beneath the energy bill’. 

It’s hard to take in the state of the world without keeping one eye on technology - when we last spoke to Henry we talked about AI getting wilier by the year, and A Moonless Night offers its own cheery look at tech dystopia. ‘I look much better in AI,’ he writes - ‘it’s captured the real me.’ ‘The Last Post’ reminds us that we won’t be tallying up LinkedIn contacts on our deathbed, and Normal takes stock of the tools that Silicon Valley engineers are using to stir us into conflict in the wonderfully named ‘Hell-gorithm’ - what’s the point of progress, if it seems to mainly offer up ‘homophobes hoping to be my mate’?

If modernity seems a bit madcap, where do we go? The natural world is here as a place of respite, and it can even be a comfort food worthy of the duty-free itself: we see ‘the crinkle-cut surface of the ocean…sandstone granola…Hand-made Heaven’. Tastebuds are often prodded - ‘night falls,’ says one title, ‘like icing sugar through a sieve’ - although due warning is given to us of the dangers of becoming over-caked: ‘resist the calories,’ says Normal, ‘at Patisserie Valerie’s’.

I shall never see sales of my poetry
Next to a giant Toblerone

Henry Normal

Henry Normal’s a natural storyteller who knows when to best to zig and when to zag, and we come to look forward to the book’s eccentric leaps between topics. On one page we might find ourselves being evicted by bailiffs and ‘betrayed by the state’; on another we’ll be touring an asylum for cats, finding there ‘a Puss who’s lost the suss/A Tom that’s lost its aplomb’. Sometimes poetry can be hard work, but there’s never a moment of slog here. The book makes light work of difficult things.

Without becoming laden down, a real sadness can be found in the margins of even some of the more tongue-in-cheek poems. ‘I’ve ghosted myself,’ Normal writes on ‘Poem from an empty seat’, ‘I’m…not up my own sleeve’. We might think that to imagine the ‘moonless night’ is to imagine somewhere dark without mitigation.

But much of this collection, even though set in our uncertain present, offers a roadmap towards a guiding brightness over the horizon. The moonless night isn’t an abject hopeless time - it’s the point when, as Normal says in the titular poem, ‘constellations shine brightest.’ Optimism waits - whales deep in the ocean, ‘grey in blue…sleep/their faces to the light’. Even a black hole, Henry reckons, may just be ‘an unseen universe/waiting to be discovered.’

This is a book that ponders the universe with a pun - and it’s another collection of real charm and principle from one of our city’s most memorable writers. You might not find ‘A Moonless Night’ stacked between the Oakleys and the Tanqueray on your way through East Midlands Airport, but it is the sort of thing that you might like to take travelling with you. It’s a book that deals with being lost in darkness, but in the end it seems to know the way home.

'A Moonless Night' is available from Flapjack Press here.

Tickets for Henry Normal and Brian Bilston's show at the Nottingham Playhouse (April the 23rd) are available here.

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