Dear John

Pleasance-bound poetic polymath John Hegley talks funding cuts and technology with Ruth Dawkins

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 09 Aug 2011

It seems that everyone has a John Hegley story to share and those who don’t have an opinion of him instead. Seemingly a regular recipient of backhanded compliments, he has been described in the press as "occupying the hinterlands of sexiness" and "awesomely mundane".

The man himself is currently in Edinburgh for a two-week run at The Pleasance with John Hegley’s Family Word Ship. He’s also fitting in a performance with Shooglenifty, at a benefit show for an autism charity, at Falkland Village Hall on 13 August. The day after his first show at the Pleasance, he agrees to meet.

I’ve been warned that Hegley can be an intense interviewee, who likes to turn the tables on journalists—and it’s probably true that he asks as many questions as he answers—but he invites me in to his slightly shambolic flat, makes me a lovely cup of Earl Grey, and settles down to chat without any awkwardness.

“I’m very excited about what sort of show I’ll have by the end of the run,” he says. “My girlfriend just rang for a chat and can’t believe I don’t have it all sorted yet, but the pieces are all there. It’s just a question of getting them in the right order.”

It seems that the Family Word Ship will be a show that continues to evolve. When Hegley turned up at The Pleasance for his first performance, he discovered they didn’t have a screen for his projector. “We ended up projecting onto the wall, and it looked great. It’s very fitting for such a rough and ready show, especially since there’s a big hole in the wall. I’m going to turn that hole into a cave and make it part of the show, but there needs to be something in it. I lay awake last night wondering who my cave dwellers are going to be.”

This spontaneity is a large part of Hegley’s appeal, along with embracing music and art to accompany his spoken word. “It’s nice if you have images. If something is above kids’ heads, they get something out of an image. Music serves the same function; it takes you in, without you having to understand the meaning of every word.”

Hegley is also one of those rare performers who can entertain children and adults simultaneously, without patronising either. He credits this to his time as a street performer, when audiences encompassed a broad age range. He's also spent time doing workshops in schools, encouraging young people to loosen up their creativity through whatever medium feels comfortable.

Many of those school sessions have been in Scotland, where he recently went on a tour of Aberdeen and Clackmannanshire with the Scottish Book Trust. “I really hope the Scottish Book Trust isn’t lost, with all the arts cuts taking place. It was amazing to visit places like Alloa, where it might be years before they get another poet visiting again. The kids came up with some wonderful stuff. We did an acrostic poem, and one of them used L to say ‘Love is here and there in Alloa’. That’s just beautiful. What a line.”

I notice, at this point, that Hegley keeps eyeballing my iPad, which I’m using to record the interview. He doesn’t look entirely comfortable with it. “Doesn’t it get covered in smudgy fingerprints?” he asks. “You used to know when an interview had started because the tape started rolling, but you just can’t tell anymore.” This is a man who, rather endearingly, still does pencil drawings to illustrate his shows, before tracing them onto old-fashioned acetates. Perhaps uniquely among established Fringe acts he has no press team or personal assistant; he hands out his mobile number and email address to anyone who asks.

We start to wrap up, and Hegley says that he’ll walk me to the end of the street; he’s going to pop into the nearby public library to make sure there are no more interview requests sitting in his inbox. We return to the subject of funding cuts. “I’d much rather an arts centre was cut than a library,” he says. “I know it sounds a bit tough to say that, but if there are going to be cuts, they shouldn’t touch the joy and comfort you see people getting from libraries. It’s a psychological thing, a library. An arts centre can be great, as can a theatre, but people with mental health problems, people suffering from severe ill-at-easeness can go into a library and feel comfortable.”

With that, John Hegley skips across the street, and heads into the library, where he will check his email and think about the cave dwellers that are about to become part of his show.  I walk slowly home, happy in the knowledge that I have a John Hegley story to share now too.