Does the label ‘geeky’ remain an insult? You’d hope the word’s pejorative nature is slowly evaporating, as we increasingly feel a need to catalogue and understand the world around us. The quest for true knowledge may be eclipsed by celebrity culture, but collecting and embracing the esoteric is increasingly celebrated. For all his obsessive documenting of British eccentricities and human nature, writer John Osborne wouldn’t label himself as a geek. “I think my work appeals to geeky people,” he tells me. “But it is an interesting word, which has evolved over the years.”
Since bursting onto the spoken word scene with his show and Radio 4 programme ‘John Peel’s Shed’, Osborne has studiously looked below the surface of the everyday. In 2002 he won a box of old vinyl direct from the legendary DJ’s shed. The musical haul ranged from a Boyzone punk covers band to Atom And His Package’s ‘Pumping Iron for Enya’. It was certainly an eclectic assortment of recordings. “It didn’t feel right they were in a box, only coming out when people visited.” This led to his exploration of the strange and funny tales behind the obscure and long-forgotten tunes.
You get the idea he’s bursting with a sense of romance and enthusiasm. The world is certainly there for him to obsessively explore and understand, and he can find wonder in the most mundane of places. “I walked past a charity shop the other day. There were two blokes doing the Easter window display, which I’d describe as the type of people you’d be intimidated by. One of them was lining up some daffodils, the other directing from the side of the window. I thought: ‘I bet they didn’t imagine this a few years ago.’”
At moments his work reveals a vulnerable side. Perhaps this is where his talent for observation originates; a more arrogant individual might lack an interest in the world. His show ‘The Newsagent’s Window’ saw Osborne exploring the stories behind the innocuous postcard adverts in his local shop. Once again he looked at something and wasn’t content to accept it at face value. “I wouldn’t say that a story can come from anything. But, there are certain things I can look at, that I want to explore in detail.” He admits he’s no investigative journalist, postulating much from mere snapshots of conversations, he could even be accused of benevolently filling in the gaps when details are missing. Although not a verbatim account, these romantic supplements do bring his subjects to life. It also reveals what he expects from people, that he wants everyone to be fundamentally good, optimistic and stoic.
His gentle wit and knack for clever wordplay has taken him to festivals like Latitude, Glastonbury and Bestival, presenting his own Radio 4 programme and performing at Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes. The latter welcomes him once more with a new work. The remit has evolved, concentrating on the different methods we use to get through the day. With poems inspired by his experiences in a minimum wage office job, ‘Most People Aren’t That Happy, Anyway’ reflects the lives of a group of outwardly miserable people. Observing their conversations during the daily grind, accounts of illness, abusive ex-partners, trials and tribulations, he started to wonder about the nature of stoicism. “I thought these are not happy people, but there was a real inner strength to all of them, this real resilience. They weren’t complaining, they just got on with it.” It’s something we should be proud of, Osborne is adamant about that, describing it as: “that war mentality”. Common perception paints the British rolling up their sleeves and struggling through. So now his new show offers accounts of normal people and their reactions to everyday adversity. He’s certainly proud of his new show, saying it may be the funniest and diverse thing he’s written.
So does the downbeat nature of the show’s title indicate a new shade of bitterness creeping into his work? “I’d not really thought of it. Maybe I’ve had enough of the whimsical and blindly optimistic.” He may meanderingly comment upon the apparently mundane, but the results are rarely less beautiful, valuable or captivating than the most epic legend or successful film franchise. Whilst warm and familiar, his observations expose the fleeting nature of human experiences. Beneath his gentle demeanour lays a sharpness of wit and intensity of purpose. Comical, insightful and steadfastly relatable, John Osborne’s special gift is cataloguing our experiences, showing us that we are not alone.
John Osborne: Most People Aren’t That Happy, Anyway comes to Otherplace at the Basement, on Fri 8 – Sun 10 May, as part of Brighton Fringe.
Words by Stuart Rolt