I performed my satirical short story ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ as part of the 50th and final Leap in the Dark on 19 September. Thank you to David Collard for this opportunity, and for curating and hosting such a wonderful, regular literary night. A Leap in the Dark has been a real beacon of light during the lockdown, and an incredible feat of generosity and hospitality besides. David’s Leaps in the Dark began life as a Dadaist literary cabaret night in the derelict former Paddington Conservative Club, in West London, but since the Covid pandemic they’ve instead been broadcast twice a week on Zoom.
his powerful satirical perfomance pieceFinancial Times
‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ was first written for a one-off performance in Sir George Gilbert Scott’s wondrous, Renaissance Revival chapel at King’s College London, as part of The Cenotaph and the Public Sphere, a collaborative event devised by myself, the artists Stuart Brisley and Maya Balcioglu, and Dr Sanja Perovic of King’s, as part of a ‘loose collaboration’ (Brisley’s words) that we were conducting at the time. On that first night – and subsequently, where possible – a print edition of the full text of the work was given away after the reading.
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Following a second performance at The MAC in Belfast, I was astounded to learn that an artist named Zara Lyness, then a postgraduate student at the University of Ulster, put on their own performance of the work the following day, for a seminar group at the School of Art. In all my years of performing and giving readings, I’ve never known this to happen before. Here’s how the artist Shirley MacWilliam who was present described the event:
One of the students, Zara Lyness—to whom I think you spoke during the evening—read the whole thing. Very well. And brought the listeners to silence the way you did. Certainly it is a performance text—like a saprophyte that attaches itself to its host in time and space.
I of course retrospectively authorised Lyness’s performance. Since then, ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ has become an ongoing, touring project, with more than forty performances to date in the UK, Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in bookshops, arts centres, and spoken word nights, in workplaces and libraries, at festivals, dinners, and bookfairs – from the British Library to the London Radical Bookfair, from Brixton Book Jam to Turner Contemporary, from TULCA Festival of Visual Arts in Galway to Festival Poligon in Mostar. My policy where possible has been never to turn down an invitation to perform the work.
‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ differs from most short stories in that a final form is never fixed, and the text has to be updated continually: before each live performance, or new publication.
I really miss doing and going to live performances! But with the live literature scene and most live book appearances currently curtailed, I have been looking for ways to adapt my work to the current restrictions, and have rewritten ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ for Zoom and other live platforms. Saturday’s event was an opportunity to try out this new version of ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’, which is now specially adapted for online performance.
Thanks again to David Collard and Laura Hopkins for fifty Leaps in the Dark! The new online version of ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’ got an incredible response on Saturday (many thanks to everyone for the generous comments), so I hope it may be possible to find some new partnerships and opportunities to do more online performances as part of other live-streamed performance and literary events.
I am always keen to hear from readers, friends and colleagues about possible opportunities to perform readings of my fiction. So if you can think of an opportunity to present the new online version of ‘The Holborn Cenotaph’, do feel free to get in touch.
This work has been supported by an award from Arts Council England through the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund: for individuals.