Duck! It’s Dean!

There are a couple of Italian-designed train seats in poet Dean Parkin’s living-room, flush against the bookcases. Steven Russell asks why . . . and did his mum really have a swan machine in her kitchen?

“You’re probably wondering why a grown man is on a train with a duck. Well, my dad made it. He was a toy-maker. Not like Geppetto from Pinocchio, with droopy moustache, fashioning it out by candlelight. It was rather more industrial than that...”

That’s not the half of it.

Any creative type with a surreal background is sitting on a goldmine, because it can be tweaked for dramatic effect, and Dean’s is 24-carat. Basically, his father left his wife, two daughters and son when Dean was six months old.

“He moved out to run off with his secretary, but the thing was that he didn’t tell my mother he’d moved in with another woman. And my mother didn’t tell anybody that he’d left. And we, his children, never mentioned this to any of our friends. It was the ’70s and there wasn’t Jeremy Kyle on TV... you didn’t talk about it.

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“In 1983, 13 years after my parents split up, they actually got 25th wedding anniversary presents from people who lived in the village! My best friend, who I was friends with from the age of six to 18, never sussed that my parents weren’t together.

“My dad actually came home every evening for his dinner – mainly, I think, to see us, but he also loved my mother’s cooking. Particularly partial to her pea soup and dumplings... which was handy, because his new woman was apparently a rotten cook.

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“He’d arrive home just as News at 5.45 was starting, have his pea soup and dumplings, quick cup of tea and cigarette, and leave again when Crossroads had finished, at seven. He didn’t tell his new woman where he’d been. He could always be working late at the factory – a convenient, constant source of alibis. I’m sure in some ways she must have known he was probably coming over, but he never talked about it.

“He lied because he thought it would make life easier and he wouldn’t hurt people, but it sets up this elaborate network of lies and it’s not really healthy, is it? But it did give me a great imagination and make me a great liar! I say I use my powers for good, now, because writing uses a lot of the same skills: you have to have an element of truth, but the rest is imagination.

“The last bit of the show is my father’s death. That sounds heavy, but there’s dark humour to it. I talk about his catchphrase: ‘It’s not as easy as that.’ He was from Yorkshire. And, actually, the whole thing isn’t as easy as that...”

His dad, who died in 2001, ran a plastics factory in Lowestoft called Lowplas. It began life in the 1960s, blow-moulding the backs of TV sets. In the 1980s it changed its name to Playmore Toys. Top lines were cricket sets for the beach, pots and pans with sprayed-on smiley faces – Potty People – and ducks for the bath. They also made squeakers for the bottom of sweet-filled walking-sticks, and the stick handles.

The ducks were sold in two sizes – jumbo (17cm tall, to be precise) and small (13.5cm) – and came in vivid hues: bright red, green, pink, orange, yellow and pale blue. They had friendly faces, too. Dean reckons he can still spot a Playmore duck from a mile off.

Credit for melding this quirky family background with Dean’s poems, to create a 55-minute offering for Edinburgh, must go to theatre director and producer Paul Warwick. Dean knew him via Arvon writing courses; they bumped into each other by chance, got talking, and Paul offered to direct the show.

They’ve had perhaps 14 or 15 days together, in three or four chunks, working at it intensively. For Dean, attempting something like this for the first time, it’s been challenging, draining, thrilling, slightly uncomfortable and absorbing all at the same time – a poetry/cabaret version of running a marathon or swimming the channel.

He remembers a very early run-through in front of Paul. The duck anecdote was a five or six-minute story. “I ground my way though about an hour’s worth of material and he said ‘OK, Dean, what’s this story really about?’ I said ‘Well, it could be about my dad... And for about two hours I told him about the strange double-life. ‘Well, there’s your one-man show.’”

Most of Dean’s poems tapped into that source to some extent, and the Dad’s Ducks theme wrapped them all together. A pretend railway setting, meanwhile – carriage B, seat 42A, if I remember rightly – was perfect in tying together his many poems about trains and journeys. Hence the seats, borrowed from Northamptonshire-based Cobra Design Centre and usually a display item at trade shows.

That blue duck, of course, is another key prop. (A smaller and transparent version will be an understudy for Edinburgh, ready to be pressed into service should Blue Duck get lost, damaged or nicked.) Both are genuine Playmores, tracked down by Dean’s mum. The smaller one was donated by a man who used to work in the factory spray-shop, putting smiles on Potty People and the eyes, beaks and wings on ducks. Big Blue was donated by Dean’s mum’s neighbour.

The show is a mix of stories, poems and songs, with Dean “the weirdo on the train, telling you a story,” he smiles.

For some time he’s been doing “Sonic Tinkerings” on his Apple Mac – combining words with snatches of sound and music. The show features recorded inserts from a train guard – or “customer services manager” – who pops up every now and then with semi-distorted messages (including jargon like “detraining”) in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Dean’s.

“He provides moments when I can have a drink of water, really. If I just got up and read poems to you, you’d be really bored, so it is like a story and the tracks break it up – a different change of gear. The funny thing is, when I first did it he got more laughs than me!”

It was December when Dean was chosen for Escalator East To Edinburgh – the regional initiative that helps artists do their stuff at the fringe. (He also secured an Arts Council England grant.) Since then, it’s been all systems go.

“This year has felt like a week,” admits the freelance poet, who also works three days a week for The Poetry Trust at Halesworth. “It’s been enjoyable but a pain as well. It’s not just the writing; it’s finding the venue, writing the promotional blurb, trying to get sponsorship. I’ve always had a long to-do list.”

Dean’s Dad’s Ducks had a 20-minute workout in St Albans last month. It’s also been honed at New Cut Arts Centre in Halesworth, was due at the Jerwood DanceHouse Caf� in Ipswich last night, and next week has a final polish at the Luton Fringe Festival.

At the New Cut, he got some useful feedback from the audience, plus a message of congratulations on his answer-phone from his old English teacher. “At last, I got a well done from Mr Hackett!” Dean reports on his blog. “I’ve waited twenty-five years for him to give me good marks for one of my stories! My fault entirely of course – I was a window gazer at High School.”

Born in 1969, he grew up in Carlton Colville and left Sir John Leman High School in Lowestoft at 16. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do, but, looking back, the things he did all seemed to be pieces of a jigsaw whose picture would later become clear.

Dean spent six months on a YTS scheme, at a printer’s, and then worked for Panda Books in Lowestoft from 1989 until about 2001.

The year 1996 was a pivotal one. Poets Roger McGough and Adrian Henri came to the Marina Theatre, and a couple of months later Wendy Cope was at Lowestoft library. Dean started to read more poetry. He went to a poetry workshop at Lowestoft library and in the autumn attended the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for the first time. “I just thought ‘Wow! This is incredible! I didn’t know poetry was like this.’”

The following year he enjoyed an Arvon writing course in Yorkshire, where McGough was a tutor.

Dean found he particularly clicked with the work of American poets such as Stephen Dobyns. Lowestoft library had a big section on this sub-genre and he worked his way through it.

“The American stuff seemed much more open in the way they talked to you. I was never into the heavy, academic, fiddling approach. I don’t like poetry as academic puzzles or riddles.” The poems of Billy Collins and Thomas Lux also rate highly. “They make you smile but they’re sad as well, and there’s poignancy.”

He started writing poetry, himself, in 1996-7. His first work was published in the magazine Smiths Knoll; there were lots of workshops attended, and he joined a writing group run by Michael Laskey, who man who founded the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Dean had tried to write novels, short stories and plays in his 20s, but it hadn’t gelled. Poetry did.

“It felt like a good fit. My poems are anecdotal, like little stories. It taught me a way to hone them down. I felt like I’d ‘got’ it now: the way of saying things as concisely and as quickly as possible.

“All the other things I’d done, I’d more or less hit a cul-de-sac. With poetry, I sort of landed and started going forwards. There was a procedure: you could write something, take it to a writing group, fix it a bit more, send it to a magazine and get it published. And there was a little support team, as well. You felt like you belonged somewhere.”

He recognises poetry’s not for everyone, but likes to think of it as akin to music: folk will probably find something they like. They might not enjoy prog rock, but disco might be up their street. “I tell people ‘It’s only words, so don’t panic!’”

Before we go, we mustn’t forget the swan machine.

Turns out dad’s factory also made plastic swans. At home, in the kitchen, mum had a kind of drilling machine she used to bore holes in the bodies. People would plant daffodil bulbs in them and the flowers would grow throw.

“Popular in Holland but not very big in this country. We had more taste! Every time she switched on, the living-room lights would flicker. There were bits of plastic everywhere. Health and safety would have a field day now . . .”

n Dean’s Dad’s Ducks is at Zoo Southside cabaret bar, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, from August 6-30, at 5.15pm. Tickets: �5-�7.50

Keen Dean . . .

Thinks it was poet Matt Harvey, a one-time mentor, who labelled him ‘clearly the missing link between Eric Morecambe and Philip Larkin’.

With his sideburns, he’s a dead-ringer for printer Mr Munnings in the 1960s children’s TV series Trumpton

A sister bought him a little model of the character a few Christmas back!

First pamphlet, Irresistible to Women (2003), was followed by Just Our Luck (2008).

Has given many readings in the UK and the US, including Poetry at Georgia Tech (Atlanta) and The Troubadour (London).

Has run workshops in prisons, schools and on a NATO base in Germany.

Has been working in collaboration with London Sinfonietta on the Surf N Turf Project in three schools in Suffolk, generating words and poems to be set to music.

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