Sunday 9 August 2020

On Malady Nelson

I first read the poet Amy McCauley's 24/7 Brexitland in manuscript, before it was published as a broadside by Manchester's No Matter Press.

I'd been aware of her work since seeing her at the London Poetry Book Fair in 2018 when she performed, in its entirety, her debut OEDIPA (Guillemot Books). I chose it as my book of the year for Review 31, writing:

Oedipa by Amy McCauley is a book-length poem presented as a stage play set in a mental asylum in an English seaside town, with an all-female cast. It's a feminist take on Sophocles' Oedipus – ferociously good, brilliantly original. 

Citing Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Freud alongside a vast range of other cultural references, the poem expresses (in McCauley's words) 'the buggering muchness of the world that will not fit inside my head'. I saw her read Oedipa in London earlier this year, doing all the voices in an absolutely blazing performance – courageous, honest and visceral. Oedipa is very intelligent, confidently experimental but not at all daunting. Much of the incantatory verse is hauntingly clear and simple, such as this chorus, voiced by the Fates towards the end of Act III:

Toc toc

Have you ever seen a blind girl swim?
She looks like she's drowning
She looks like a thing with nowhere to go

Toc toc

Have you ever seen a blind girl drown
She looks like she's swimming
She looks like she's having the time of her life

This is poetry with range, depth, drive and ambition. 

On February 29th this year, a few weeks before the lockdown, I organised the very first Leap in the Dark, a Dada literary cabaret held in a dilapidated former Conservative Club in Paddington. I had by this time exchanged many emails with Amy and invited her to contribute something, or anything. She agreed and the first of her two performances turned out to be 24/7 Brexitland, which had now been published.

Dressed as a clown, Amy harangued the audience with a bullhorn as they read parts of her poem aloud from a Powerpoint display. Some walked out, others heckled, most recognised her performance for what it was - fearless, uncompromising, original and wonderfully strange. Later that evening she performed a work in progress called Propositions with actors Aea Varfis-van Warmelo and Alexis Coward. A powerful monologue for three voices, or one voice shared between three performers, it was prompted by Wittgenstein's Tractatus and by turns cerebral, combative, hard-edged and intimate. It will be published in September by Monitor Books, another Manchester indie.

But to come back to 24/7 Brexitland. Amy has over the past few weeks contributed to A Leap in the Dark (now a twice-weekly online gathering) pre-recorded  extracts from this long diagnostic poem which explores the state of things in Britain in the months following the  decision to leave the European Union. (The title refers to the structure of 24 x 7-line stanzas.)

Her first two readings were in persona as Malady Nelson, Amy's alter-ego - the disturbing clown make-up again, ash-white with a slash of red lipstick, smeared kohl-rimmed eyes and a blue nylon wig, askew, surrounded by Union Jack bunting as a ramshackle Britannia - and they were relatively straightforward.

On Friday night, aided by half a bottle of tequila, a pack of cigarettes and nerves of steel Amy as Malady turned up the dial and did something startlingly new. She fizzed and crooned and snarled and bantered; she howled and whispered and swigged Tequila and slurred and became glacially precise - an utterly vivid, protean, loveable and difficult presence. The invited audience reacted unanimously to her blazing six minute performance, starting with our composer-in-residence Helen Ottaway:

From Helen Ottaway to Everyone: (8:42 pm)

Oooooooooh he he he yeah yeah long notes and everything else. Utterly brilliant Amy

From Emma Devlin to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

AAAAAGH loved it

From Aea Varfis-van Warmelo to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

Malady was on TOP FORM tonight!

From Michael Hughes to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

Brava! Sensational!

From Jonathan Gibbs to Everyone: (8:43 pm)


From Michael Hughes to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

When I grow up I want to be Malady

From Alan Crilly to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

Ah, that was superb!

From Paulette Jonguitud to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

Wow. Wow. Wow. Loved it.

From Alan Fielden to Everyone: (8:43 pm)


From Ronan hession to Everyone: (8:43 pm)


From Ping Henningham to Everyone: (8:43 pm)

FANTASTIC Amy! sizzle sizzle

I'd add my voice to theirs - Amy discovered and uncovered something about herself and the world in this extraordinary performance. We were there. Watch it here and marvel.

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