Making Other Plans: Nigel Planer, Flapjack
Nigel Planer is perhaps best known as Neil the hippy in the anarchic 1980s youth comedy The Young Ones. But as well as being an established actor with an impressive track record, he’s also a novelist, a playwright, and a scriptwriter, and has toured the country as a performance poet. So Making Other Plans, the fruit of over 50 years of writing poetry, should not come as a surprise.
The title of this collection, a nod to a John Lennon song, also reminded me of another, more obscure pop hit, XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel, which peaked at number 17 in 1979. Talking of dates, these poems are set in reverse chronological order, so that the final poem in the collection, ‘This Year’s Spring’, was written in 1970, and others were composed, as Planer points out, before the advent of duvets.
Miserable Neil in The Young Ones always took himself very seriously. Planer doesn’t do that. But there’s a Young Ones feel to a poem like ‘Suicide by Takeaway’ (“While my parents are dying / I am eating curries.”) ‘Waking Up Without You’, on the other hand, is properly poignant, about being separated from a child. ‘Breaking Up’ covers the same territory of “dividing the accessories” and “avoiding getting cross” with wry resignation:
Running off with someone else,
or trying to find another,
it’s all completely pointless,
I don’t know why we bother.
There’s a similarly world-weary air to 1993’s ‘Stud’:
I’ve notched enough numbers and I’ve begun to tire.
Other men may envy my success-rate, but I’m glad
I’ve put on weight and lost my hair.
There’s also the almost obligatory Larkin pastiche, which reads like something of a defence of “baldy gits in old-time specs” and their “posthumously sexist quotes”, which result in them being “corrected off the syllabus”:
The implications broaden
like an academic’s shelf,
so before the envy bone is gnawed on,
try writing something good yourself.
(‘This Be The Problem’)
The more recent poems in the collection are often haiku, suggesting Planer is maybe running short of poetic stamina, or even things to say, although their concision sometimes reads better than longer efforts from earlier decades.
But some poems stand out. There is real craft in the way that Planer lays out his Hungarian-Romanian family background in ‘Papa Victor’:
My dear old dad was an ARP warden in London in the Blitz.
Not wanting to hang around in Berlin to see
if they qualified in any way for Auschwitz,
and being the only house in their street without a Nazi
flag up, Granpa and Nana kept their middle-European wits
about them, and moved first to Paris in nineteen thirty-three
and then London, where twenty years later, mum had me.
Planer reflects that “Papa must have been a funny sight in his silly sitcom hat”, shouting to the English over the sirens that “ze Chermans are attacking”. But he adds: “No-one ever spat / at him, or called him names. In fact, he often said he found / the English to be tolerant. An attribute since gone to ground.” It’s sobering to think that Planer wrote this in 1994. Things have hardly improved since then.
It’s an honest and brave way of setting out your work, by inviting the reader to assess how you’ve developed as a poet over the years. There’s enough here to satisfy the curious, and to reassure the reader that whatever his comic beginnings, Nigel Planer is much more than a celebrity versifier – and that despite his many other talents, he certainly takes poetry seriously.