A bit like Wham! or the Pet Shop Boys? You decide . . .

The stereotypical view of a poetry festival probably involves a string of cardigan-wearing men with grey beards. Aldeburgh Poetry Festival isn’t like that . . . and certainly won’t be in November, with Project Adorno and Rachel Pantechnicon on the bill. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

THE simple (if prosaic) description of Project Adorno is Praveen Manghani and Russell Thompson. It gets trickier after that. It’s a musical-comedy double-act combining poems with programmed beats and understated pop songs with off-the-wall humour, though other people have said thing like: “Imagine Leonard Cohen working in an office and writing songs – from the surreal to the nonsensical – on a cheap Casio keyboard”. Subject matter has included the smell of second-hand books, love affairs with photocopiers and poems about old computer games. A reviewer at Cheltenham Literature Festival called Project Adorno’s offering “A bizarrely enjoyable hour of nerdy oddness”. Strange that.

Previous creations include Stop the Tardis (a lo-fi, sci-fi, performance-poetry spectacular), Dr Dewey Decimal in the House of Vaudeville (a musical about libraries), and Project Adorno’s A-Z of the London Underground (songs, stories and little-known facts about the tube system).

Regulars at the Edinburgh Fringe, their 2010 show was Project Adorno’s Top Ten of Popular Culture. All in all, the perfect way to close the first day of the 2011 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on November 4, you’d imagine.

Someone once called the lads “a sort of mix of Gilbert & George, Pete & Dud and the Pet Shop Boys”. Russell T, an adopted south Londoner whose roots are firmly in Essex, has his own take.

“I always tell people we’re a bit like Wham! There’s the one who does everything and writes all the music, and one who wanders around on the stage, looking vaguely decorative, and doesn’t really do much. Which is me,” he says.

When he’s not adorning Adorno, Russell is London programme co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes – England’s leading organisation (sic) for performance poetry and spoken word. “It makes performing” – personally – “a bit of a busman’s holiday, really,” he admits.

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Russell was born in Chelmsford and went to King Edward VI Grammar School in the town. He remembers family holidays in Suffolk – “to exotic destinations across the border” such as Oulton Broad, and a drunken teenage holiday that involved sleeping in a car in the back lanes of Beccles.

At about 17 came a move to Braintree and an art foundation course at the local college. He still has relatives in the town and spends a fair bit of time there. “You can’t escape somewhere like Braintree . . .”

The place has changed hugely, he says, with the continued impact of Stansted Airport and related businesses. “It’s growing a hell of a lot, which we’re very upset about at the moment, with lots of estates around the outside and still this tiny town centre which is not really able to cope with it all.

“I always tell people that when we moved to Braintree I was learning to drive and there was not a single roundabout anywhere. When we needed to do roundabouts, I had to go into Chelmsford. Now, Braintree is almost entirely composed of roundabouts!”

He doesn’t remember much in the way of poetry studied at school, apart from a little bit of Keats and Tennyson. “The way poetry was taught there, it wasn’t particularly innovative. There was none of the stuff you get now, where you get (punk poet) John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah on the syllabus.”

For Russell, writing poetry himself “was a kind of teen-angst thing. You start writing to impress girls. Once you’ve told a few people, you kind of have to justify the fact that ‘Hey, he’s a poet!’ and so you have to keep on writing!

“There was all that ranting poetry in the early ’80s – (performance poet) Attila the Stockbroker and things like that that used to get played on John Peel’s show. You listen to that and think ‘Hey, this is all right. It’s quite hip to write poetry; it’s not something to be embarrassed about. You can use it as a tool for social comment or to entertain people.’ It grew from there.”

Through the local arts scene in south-west London he came to link up about 14 years ago with Praveen, a musician who had run Project Adorno with his brother, who then went off to university and thus left an opening for a new collaborator.

“We came up with this idea of setting poems to music,” says Russell. “It took on this kind of beat poetry form. There’s lots of ’80s electro-pop in there; we’ve got very influenced by French chanson (a lyric-driven song) – Jacques Brel and so on.”

And from where did the yearning to perform come? “Well, it’s the whole case of ‘frustrated rock star’. I can’t actually play anything . . .”

Is it fair to say that a characteristic of Project Adorno is the taking of everyday things and raising them in our conscientiousness?

“Yeah. It’s not necessarily deliberate. I suppose we’re a bit geeky, really. Lots of things we take for our subject matter are things we genuinely are quite keen on. We did this show about libraries – Praveen works in the library service – and we did a similar show about the London Underground, because secretly we’re fascinated by the whole thing.

“It’s strange, though, that when you do shows about these things you come into contact with people who are the real geeks. We’ve come into contact with people who visit all the Tube stations in one day, but obviously we’re lightweights compared to that sort of thing. It’s like you accidentally stumble upon some scary cult!”

Strikes me you’re both quite nostalgic.

“Yeah, we are, I think. It’s part and parcel of being in your 40s, really. Praveen is quite big on primitive technology and early computer games.

Lots of our material is about the ’80s and ’90s. We recently did a song about some of the events in 1989 and put together a video, and the audience have to guess the year. You’ve got this slightly bizarre melange of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays with the Berlin Wall coming down.”

They do about 25 or 30 gigs a year and have been to Edinburgh eight times. The Latitude Festival in north Suffolk is also firmly on the Adorno map. Russell thinks he’s performed there four times and recalls fondly his first appearance a few years back.

“It’s a pity there weren’t more people there! I shouldn’t say that, really. It’s good now. It was fantastic being at this enormous, semi-empty festival with lots of space . . .

“Latitude is always a good buzz. The best thing from our point of view is that it’s the only one of the big festivals that really pushes poetry upfront – because it’s got the dedicated arena.

“And obviously we all love Latitude because all the poets get their names listed on the poster.”

His favourite Suffolk gig, however, is Short Cuts Cabaret at The Cut arts centre in Halesworth. In fact, an appearance there earlier this year is rated among his top three gigs ever.

Why? “A very good buzz. A very supportive crowd. It’s held only three times a year, I think, which gives it a real sense of occasion and community.”

Richard O’Brien (I presume it’s the man who created The Rocky Horror Show, but I could be wrong) reviewed Project Adorno’s Top Ten of Popular Culture at Edinburgh last year. On the plus side, he loved it enormously and urged people to go, though he did remark upon the wonky singing and embarrassing showmanship.

Then again, he pointed out that “life isn’t artistically polished or perfect and in their own shy, witty way, this duo struggle towards articulating the heart of a certain type of modern experience, drowning in ‘so many meaningless options’ but nonetheless celebrating every aspect of our cultural detritus”.

Was he right – and, if so, is that “DIY aesthetic” a deliberate strategy or does it simply represent who they really are?

“I think probably a bit of both. The fact that areas are unpolished (is) because we try to concentrate on certain elements of the performance. We’re both people with busy day-jobs; there’s a limit (to what can be done).

“If there are bits that are a bit rough round the edges, it suits the nostalgic feel – and maybe goes hand in hand with Praveen’s love of clunky technology!”

Project Adorno’s 45-minute performance is in the James Cable Room of the White Lion Hotel, Aldeburgh, on Friday, November 4. It starts at 10.15pm and tickets are �6. Booking details, and information about the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, www.thepoetrytrust.org and 01728 687110

ALSO appearing in Aldeburgh is another Essex-born poet, Rachel Pantechnicon. She’s ying to Russell Thompson’s yang – or, as one reviewer suggested, at first glance appears to be the love child that Eddie Izzard and Pam Ayres never told us about.

Rachel held down a long-term job as a manual typist at the Green Shield Stamps factory in south-west London, apparently. One day she wandered into a poetry event, simply to meet people, and got swept away by the momentum of it all. Next thing she knew, she was winning “slams” (poetry competitions where writers recite their work) and was on the radio.

Rachel, who has appeared at Latitude and won the 2004 Glastonbury Festival slam, specialises in motivational poems for cats and people . . . She has also written children’s books, such as Teenybop Theologian, Cheese-grater Leg-iron Lion and Michelle in the House of Crisps.

“I write poems about the things I see around me, like my hot-water bottle cover or the coving on the ceiling,” she says. “Some people call it ‘the minutiae of everyday life’, but my hot-water bottle cover is not particularly small.”

One poem, Four Magnolia Walls, is about a geography teacher who becomes a decorator and can’t leave behind his former life. Underneath each picture of a seashell on the narrator’s new bathroom tiles he adds an annotated note “in Humbrol paint, approximately dated to its nearest geological era, telling me if it’s a brachiopod, a bivalve or a lamellibranch”.

Actually, the poet does have a thing about the past. There are links on her homepage to websites about Essex and Suffolk churches, for instance.

“Oh yes, I like churches and archaeology. I have one poem where I get locked in a church for several months. It’s always a concern. I also have a poem where someone’s coccyx is dug up when a pipe is being laid in a churchyard, and the bizarre train of events that sets off.

“Flying buttresses, aumbries, hagioscopes – you can’t beat them. I’ve been to all the churches in Essex except Foulness, because you need a special pass to go there. They won’t give you a pass if you put ‘poet’ as your occupation, because they think you’re being ironic.

“The website about Suffolk/Norfolk churches is very good too. Badley (near Needham Market) is a favourite of mine. I once went to sleep in a church, on the floor, and got mistaken for a brass – I’ve got a poem about it.”

She also tells a tale about finding the missing end of the Bayeux Tapestry in her kitchen drawer, and “having to get Simon Schama to come round to authenticate it”.

It will soon have to go off to the cathedral to be sewn onto the main part, but until then is protected by a carrier bag and doing a cabaret tour with Rachel.

The rediscovered end reveals much about the origins of Felixstowe and Ipswich . . . “It will definitely be coming out at the Aldeburgh show.”

Rachel Pantechnicon has a half-hour lunchtime show at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Sunday, November 6, starting at 12.30pm. Tickets �6