Long, long ago, so long ago that the Malice Aforethought Press was not even a twinkle in my eye, I wrote a poem entitled My Plankton Theory. Here it is:
All my life I’d waited
To announce my plankton theory
The public laughed
Top scientists jeered
When they heard my plankton theory
When I was a small boy
I swam in ponds and lakes
Then I grew up
Got diving gear
And I worked out my plankton theory
Now I’m about to die
I won’t go skindiving again
It’s in my head
On my deathbed
But I never, ever tested my plankton theory
As I remembered, there was another version of this in which I had a bauxite theory rather than a plankton theory. That can’t be right, because the middle verse would make no sense. The flaw in my recollection was confirmed when I came upon a big fat book of poems in the same paper-midden as I found the old Malice Aforethought Press mail order catalogue. It turned out I was confusing My Plankton Theory with a wholly separate piece, a love song entitled 40 Years Of Hell In A Bauxite Mine. I shall draw a veil over that one.
The point is that this book is crammed with over one hundred poems, written I would guess between 1980 and 1986, and they are almost uniformly dreadful. I can just about tippy-tap out the words of My Plankton Theory without running screaming into the hills to throw myself into a tarn, but only just. I find myself thanking the Lord and his angels and the hideous bat god Fatso and many another deity that Het Internet as we know it did not then exist, for there would have been a very real risk that I would have posted my verses for the world to read instead of scribbling them in a private notebook. Youth of today, be warned! Think before you commit your burblings to the interweb!
It is not as if I can excuse the drivel as the product of teenage angst, as I was no longer a teenager. I do not understand, looking back, why I was writing verse instead of prose. But verse it was, page after page of it. It is true that I had a very short-lived career as a performance poet, in those heady post-punk days when performance poets were all the rage. When I say short-lived, I ought to be clear and explain that I did one gig. This was in Norwich, in 1982, where I supported the amusing band Serious Drinking. (The amusing thing about them was that they pretended to be oiky proles but were of course university graduates, and at least two of them were in receipt of healthy trust funds. I suspect genuine oiky proles spotted the imposture without too much difficulty.) My approach at the gig was that, after shouting – yes, shouting – each poem (examples, Snackbar Hooligan and Ten Days In a Shed), I scrunched up the sheet of paper on which it was hand-scribbled and threw it into the audience. I think I was generally well-received, and I am not entirely sure why this remained my one and only appearance before I resurfaced on a stage, twenty years later, shortly before the dawn of the Hooting Yard you know and adore. I do recall feeling a tingle of pleasure when the Norwich gig was announced by John Peel on his radio show. I was billed as “Frank Key The Poet”.
Perhaps, in spite of the lack of actual performances, it was the thoroughly wrong-headed idea of myself as “The Poet” that kept me beavering away at verses for the next few years. I moved away from Norwich and was no longer in contact with any kind of local music scene where I might have been prevailed upon to spout my stuff to crowds of adoring fans. The big fat hardback notebook was, then, quite consciously, just for me. I am pleased to be able to say that I never badgered family and friends with it. Few experiences are as discomfiting as being trapped in a room with someone who says “Let me read you a few of my latest poems”, and I had been at the listening end of that particular horror often enough never to inflict it upon anyone else. But it does make me wonder why on earth I was writing all this stuff, and that it was all verse and no prose.
As for My Plankton Theory itself, the roots of this towering work lie in the late 1970s, when I recall watching a television programme – probably Horizon – in which it was confidently asserted that “krill is the food of the future”. Well, almost forty years on, here we are in the future, and I am not eating krill. At least, I don’t think I am. Maybe I ought to take a closer interest in packaging, and lists of ingredients, and modern food production processes. It may be that I am eating a lot more krill than I suspect, shredded or pulped and somehow injected into my breakfast cereals and snack items and smokers’ poptarts and so forth. But I envisaged a more explicit krill-centred diet, chains of fast food restaurants called Krill R Us or Kentucky Fried Krill, krill-based delicacies for the gourmet, or even that staple of science fiction imaginings, the krill-pill, which I would obtain from a Krill-O-Mat before zooming off on my jetpack. Alas, the future has not turned out quite as forecast. Thereagain, when I was a little boy I swam in municipal swimming pools rather than in ponds and lakes, I have never been skindiving, and I never, ever really had a plankton theory.