Interview: John Hegley on The Biscuit of Destiny, ‘A fair few people have said they like the elephants”


John Hegley is just back from a workshop in a Luton school for World Book Day when we speak, ‘very inspiring, honestly – really responsive kids,” he says, enthused by their responsiveness. We’re talking about his new John Keats-inspired show, The Biscuit of Destiny, which arrives at The Old Courts, Wigan on 9 March before continuing on its way around the country.

“The touring show is an extended version of my Edinburgh Biscuit hour. A cardboard biscuit is selected from a small array by an audience member and fed to a camel which I have drawn, and made likewise of cardboard (with a moving jaw).

“There are other drawings relating to the show, including John Keats’s hobby horse Florence Bascomb the American geologist’s dog, 7 elephants, a hamster, and some fig rolls. There is a song about King Midas and another about how showing appreciation even in a small way can have a very big effect. This is a sing-along number.

“The guillemot song is more of a flap-along piece but audience members are not obliged to join in although they will hopefully do so emotionally at some point in the 90 minutes.” Audiences have been reacting well and he’s surprised by how many people are willing to be a guillemot. But not just that, “a fair few people have said they like the elephants.”

One difference between the Edinburgh show and this year’s tour is the camel, and the biscuits; “It was a small venue in Edinburgh so I’ve had to double the size of the camel and the biscuits – so it’s a king-size camel and biscuits.”

In a career full of highlights, he has delivered performance poetry, stand-up comedy, music, and worked on radio, television and more. “Being something of a cat on hot bricks, it has been beneficial to not just have the one brick,” he suggests. We talk about that ‘performance poetry’ label that is often applied to his work.

“Ideally, every poet is a performance poet – I’m just imagining in the old, old days, I’d imagine all poets are performance poets… they would all really give it some sinew and then any poem can be made sensuous in that sort of way.”

Whether it’s performance poetry, or otherwise, he’s enjoying being back with the show. “It felt really nice to be doing it again and it’s just sort of daft. I think a bit of daftness alongside trying to bring people in emotionally… it’s nice to have the two things,” he says, “two sides of the biscuit.”

It was the late poet Michael Horovitz who got Hegley onto Keat’s letters while Hegley was Keats House poet in residence in 2012. ‘You’ve got to read his letters,’ he told Hegley. “So, I went and got a look at these letters,” Hegley recounts, “and, I’ve got a say I was flabbergasted, actually. They’re phenomenal. Phenomenal. And he wasn’t writing them for posterity… they’re playful, they’re hopeful.”

It’s a different Keats to the one many of us think we know. “He skips, hops, runs, mis-spells, jumps and jiggles in his correspondence and at one point says that he has met someone who looks to be suffering from ‘a scarcity of b(u)iscuit’ – this was the initial impetus for the show’s biscuit interest.”

The letters remind Hegley of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. “Just coming in at the world with his big imagination and his big hopes; being surprised by it (and) contributing to it in a lovely way.”

It’s hard not to ask given the topic of conversation; does Hegley have a favourite biscuit? I tell him, for context, that my own favourite is a dark chocolate digestive. “I have a fondness for jammy dodgers,” he says, “I warmly remember them at the tuck shop in the happy days of my secondary school in Bristol. I would say they are equal favourites alongside the conundrum of the fig roll.”

The return to Wigan has got Hegley thinking about an event he attended at Grundy Art Gallery ten years ago where, inspired by an exhibition of Northern Soul photos, he drew his grandmother meeting a young Northern Soul enthusiast in his Wigan Casino trousers.

Hegley has kindly shared some thoughts on that event and returning to Wigan, an updated drawing and a new poem ‘Wigan Ones.’

Ten years back, at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool
I was invited to an exhibition of photographs showing 1970’s Northern Soul enthusiasts
with a film demonstrating some of the basic steps.
In a small sunny room, I ran a workshop one afternoon relating to the exhibits.
An activity I suggested was to draw one of the figures from the show and add another of your own. 
Could be yourself. Could be your younger self. Could be Sir Stanley Matthews.
In my own contribution I drew my French grandmother in her Folies Bergères attire
alongside a big-trousered young dance-goer from the gallery. 
We devised some brief dialogues for those depicted and shared them
as we displayed our pairs of characters to the group.

Some years later with my trip imminent to perform at Wigan Old Courts
I have revisited my drawing with its reference to the town 
and its Northern Soul, Wigan Casino heritage.
To the image of my grandmother, I have added a small over the-shoulder dress-bag. 
This new accessory relates to her now extended address to the Grundy youngster 
in his expansive and charismatic trousers.

Wigan Ones – John Hegley

I like the rag of your trousers.
A reflection of within.
The mirror ball is turning.
Are you ready to begin?

In my bag is a potato.
It was just the perfect size.
It can see the wow of your trousers
through its budding spuddy eyes.

What flare, to spare
in your trousers, Mon Chéri.
Like the voice of Eddie Waring
from a bungalow T.V.
in a lengthy street
which otherwise
is only lined with houses.

We stare and stare
me and the pomme de terre.
Your Wigan ones are much to be admired
to be fair.

It’s a memento you may pocket
in your trousers, oh so wide.
The dance we’ve had
will keep us glad
when I have travelled foamwards
and I’ve become a memory
gone homewards on the tide.

When we’re no longer dancing
you’ll have a little something to explore.
It’s not a patch on your big trousers
not four potato
three potato
not even two potato more.
But still, it’s an improvement on the scoreline.

Here we are in Lancashire
and I would like to say
your keks are excellent
Monsieur Les Pantalons – Allez!

Oh yeah, so rare
the trousers that you wear.
We two do the pas de deux.
I pass the pomme de terre.

Image: John Hegley
John Hegley brings the Biscuit of Destiny to The Old Courts, Wigan on Thursday 9 March.
Further dates can be found here. For copies of the accompanying book A Scarcity of Biscuit visit Caldrew Press.