Best-known for his work in TV and film, Henry Normal is rediscovering his first love, poetry. Deborah Grace catches up with him.
Henry Normal is in Bexhill with the in-laws. They’re just out for a walk with his wife, Angela, and 19-year-old son, Johnny, so Henry’s grabbing a moment to give me a call. He is apologetic – we’d missed each other earlier – but life after retirement doesn’t appear to be getting any less hectic.
Henry Normal has enjoyed an illustrious career as a comedian, writer and TV and film producer, with credits such as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and Gavin & Stacey, to his name. His long-time collaboration with Caroline Aherne and Steve Coogan is well-known. With Coogan he wrote The Paul and Pauline Calf Video Diaries and co-founded Baby Cow Productions, whose output included hits such as Philomena, I’m Alan Partridge and Nighty Night. In June 2017, Henry was honoured with a special BAFTA for services to television.
Since retiring in April 2016, Henry has written and performed four BBC Radio 4 shows, combining comedy, poetry and stories about bringing up his autistic son, Johnny. There has also been a prolific outpouring of poetry, with accompanying UK tours and launches. Having started out, in his early career, as a stand-up poet, Henry co-founded Manchester Poetry Festival (now Manchester Literature Festival) in the 1990s. One of his proudest festival moments was hosting a reading by Seamus Heaney – the day after he’d won the Nobel Prize: “He was a very sweet man; everything you’d want in a poet.”
“In my early thirties, a lot of the poetry and literature festivals were in very rural places,” says Henry. “So I’d be gigging with Lemn Sissay and other urban poets, like myself, and it always seemed a bit odd that we’d be in Ledbury, or somewhere, when we should be in Manchester. I’m very proud that I helped start the festival and very proud that it’s still going.”
Now Henry is clearly relishing the opportunity to return to his poetry roots, following a 20-year hiatus when his TV workload meant there were simply not enough hours in the day. Whilst he finally has the time to write, challenging life events have also provided a major impetus.
“My son’s autism – trying to understand how that fits in with life and how to cope with it – that was an instigation. As was my brother’s death five years ago. I’m now at the age my brother was when he died. I thought it would be interesting to write, assuming that this was my last year on earth, the poems I’d want to leave behind. If you think you’ve only got a year to live you put pen to paper, rather than staring out the window. I’m writing full-time now. I’ve got to say it’s a real joy; poetry is something very dear to my heart.”
Henry’s new collection, The Department of Lost Wishes, contains more than 100 poems selected from his early works. The result is a series of bittersweet observations on life and love. And, as its title suggests, loss, is an underpinning theme, as much in Henry’s life, as in his poetry.
“My mum died when I was eleven, so I’ve sort of lived with loss and tragedy
and death. I became very introverted; I was quite gregarious before that. I think from then onwards I became very sensitive to the patterns of things going on around me, certainly throughout my childhood.
“I’m now married and have been in a stable relationship for over 20 years, so that doesn’t feature so much. But certainly in those early poems, the search for love was very much to the fore, along with the various mis-steps, shall we say, and the experiments, where you lead with your heart and hope things are going to work.
“There are probably 600 poems that I wrote back then. These are the ones I wanted to keep and the others I’m happy to let fall into obscurity.”
Henry says he was touched to hear that one of his poems ‘The Poem Within You’, had been chosen as somebody’s funeral reading.
“The fact that somebody had felt connected enough to have it mark their life is one of the greatest compliments you can have. I think all poetry is you talking to yourself and you just hope that anyone else overhearing gets some connection from it.”
An Evening with Henry Normal is presented as part of Chorlton Book Festival at Chorlton Library on 21 November 2018