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Matt Abbot: Two Little Ducks

By | Published on Thursday 20 July 2017

We last came across spoken word creative Matt Abbot when he brought his debut Edinburgh show ‘Matt Abbott Is Skint & Demoralised’ for a short but acclaimed run at the 2015 Fringe, and it was great to hear that he will be back in the Scottish capital this summer for the whole festival.
I spoke to him to find out about his career, why he likes mixing the cultural with the political, and what to expect from this year’s show.

CM: Can you start by telling us what kind of content to expect from ‘Two Little Ducks’…?
MA: There are three key strands to ‘Two Little Ducks’. The first one looks at the socio-economic climate which led to many traditionally working-class communities to vote for Brexit. The second one captures my experiences volunteering at the Calais Jungle last summer. And the third uses my favoured kitchen-sink realism genre, but gradually works to pull the whole show together at the climax.

There’s also a peppering of social and observational humour. So it’s observation, humanitarian activism, storytelling and characterisation all mixed in together.

CM: … and why exactly is it called ‘Two Little Ducks’…?
MA: One of the core traditions in strong working-class communities is activities such as bingo, and ‘two little ducks’ is a famous bingo call. They can’t use those bingo calls any more because some of them (ie, ‘two fat ladies’ for 88) are deemed to be politically incorrect. Also, Calais is 22 miles from the UK.

The number 22 (or 2.2) also has a constant presence in the third strand, but that’s fictionalised.

CM: What wider themes does the show explore? Is the content entirely political?
MA: I’d say it’s more humanitarian and observational than anything else, in that it looks at the direct impact on people and communities. There is obviously a political element to the show, but it’s very much politics with a small “p”, if that makes sense. Rather than discuss policies and politicians, it looks at the impact, and the human element to what’s happening in the world.

Over the last thirty years or so, many traditionally working-class communities have suffered with the decline of core industries, and more recently, austerity politics. I also quite bluntly recount some of the things which I witnessed in Calais, which didn’t receive anywhere near enough coverage in the mainstream media.

And as well as looking at a lot of the negative themes which in my opinion led to the Brexit vote, there’s also a defiant celebration of traditional working-class culture; there is humour throughout the show, and rather than analyse from an outsider’s perspective, I’m simply talking about the community that I was born and raised in; from a range of viewpoints.

CM: You’re described as a poet and activist. It sounds like the show deals with the kind of things you are ‘active’ about..?
MA: Absolutely, yes. To be honest, the show is more a product of circumstance and experience than anything else. I’m able to write about the traditionally working-class communities which voted for Brexit because I grew up in a city which voted 66% Leave. I visited Calais a few times last summer because I wanted to help out and volunteer, more than anything else.

So every story in there – be it about homelessness, the education system, social exclusion, the refugee crisis, the NHS, etc – right through to overnight MegaBus marathons, festival sex and late night pie shops – comes directly from personal experience. My show is directly informed by my personal life and my activism.

CM: What attracts you to the idea of combining culture with politics?
MA: To me it comes entirely naturally. You should write about what you know and what you’re passionate about, and for me, social and political activism has been incredibly important to me since my mid-late teens. I also think that culture is a really important place for political discussion; in some ways it makes political issues more accessible, and I think it’s a really useful way of framing certain arguments and raising awareness, as well as motivating and challenging.

I completely understand why some artists choose to leave politics out entirely, because art and culture are a form of escapism, but each to their own. If I didn’t write about political issues then I’d write about football and real ale, and I don’t imagine that’d be quite as popular for some reason…

CM: Do you think a show like yours can help to achieve things, politically? Is it possible to create change through art?
MA: I would like to think that my show can help to alter certain perceptions. That’s the whole point really. I’ve heard so many people dismissing Leave voters as racist, ignorant, hot-headed Daily Mail readers. I passionately campaigned for Remain, but generalising Leave voters in such a way is really harmful and unfair.

In the same way, there’s an alarming level of hostility towards refugees, and I think the mainstream media plays a big hand in that, so I’m looking to shed a more accurate light on what Calais was actually like. Admittedly, a lot of that hostility does exist in these traditionally working-class communities.

Obviously I’m only one person, and this is only one show, so I’m not going to have a significant impact. But the more that issues like this are discussed in such arenas, the better. The show isn’t preaching to the converted, and is quite risky, but I think that’s essential. It is undoubtedly possible to create change through art on a wider scale; I’m just happy to play a small part in the overall puzzle.

CM: You touched on this earlier, but can you tell us more about the humorous side to the show?
MA: I’ve peppered the show with humour throughout, because the last thing that I want is for it to feel really intense. It’s not overly ‘ranty’ or ‘preachy’, it’s just that naturally, a lot of the issues discussed are bleak by nature. But I’ve always used humour in my sets and I think it’s really important. My delivery style is naturally engaging, accessible and humorous, and I’ve been keen to keep that in this show.

The humorous poems do have value and work in their own right, but they also serve as light-relief; almost like advert breaks in a documentary. But I’d never have anything there for the sake of it; as I say, they do have value in their own right.

CM: You’ve already mentioned that you spent time volunteering in Calais. Can you tell us about it? What did you do and whom did you meet?
MA: The first time I went there, I was taken by the National Union of Teachers, and a group of other activists that I loosely knew from West Yorkshire. They were staying in quite a large house on the outskirts of Calais, and they drove me to/from the camp and the warehouses, and fed me and watered me as well. That was a really powerful experience.

After that, rather foolishly, I went on my own. Those experiences take centre stage because they were more harrowing and vivid. I felt pretty vulnerable at times, but obviously I’m not foolish enough to think that I was even remotely as vulnerable as the people in the camp. On one of my trips, I worked with a charity called Greenlight. I saw a large group wearing hi-vis and asked if I could join them, and ended up working with them all afternoon. I’m still in touch with some of the volunteers from that group.

I mainly did litter picking, cleaning out the water containers and sorting things in the warehouses, but I also helped with a few English lessons here and there.

CM: How and why did you become a poet? Was it something you aimed for, or fell into?
MA: I started writing and performing spoken word poetry when I was 17. Before that point I’d had absolutely no interest in poetry whatsoever, but had always been obsessed with song lyrics, and words in general. The indie music scene was thriving, and Wakefield (my home city) had a pretty strong scene as well. I was at 6th Form College, so you can imagine the mindset.

I became obsessed with a band called Reverend & The Makers. Their frontman, Jon McClure, used to perform short bursts of spoken word before songs. Through that I was introduced to John Cooper Clarke, and it only took a few months before I’d started penning my own. And that’s how the whole thing started.

CM: What’s been the highlight of being a poet so far?
MA: Probably my work on the Stand Up For Labour/JC4PM tour. I joined in March 2016, and I was immediately doing theatres and venues with sold-out audiences of around 2000 people. So far I’ve shared a stage with Paul Weller, Ken Loach, Sara Pascoe, Shappi Khorshandi, Mark Steel, Francesca Martinez, Jeremy Hardy, Grace Petrie, The Farm, Attila the Stockbroker and loads more.

Political speakers have included Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Angela Rayner. So I’m performing with top level acts alongside top level political figures, which is a dream come true. The highlight of this was two nights at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool last September. It was an unbelievable atmosphere.

CM: Do you have any plans for the future, career wise?
MA: Well, to some extent, you can only ever really plan a year or so in advance, because you never know what’s around the corner. Both my life and my career have changed drastically since my last Edinburgh show in 2015. But I’m tentatively thinking about the concept for my next Edinburgh show, and I potentially have a collection on the horizon, so we shall see.

CM: What made you decide to return to the Fringe in 2017, after that first run in 2015?
MA: The 2015 run was really me just getting a taste of the action, so that I could see what the Fringe was all about. I immediately knew that it was the ultimate output for my work. I’ve always focused on performance above everything else, and the Fringe is the biggest and best stage in the world. I think no matter what happens, my Fringe shows will always be the driving force behind my creative output.

CM: What do you like about Edinburgh? What will you be doing when you’re not performing? Do you have a list of shows you are planning to see?
MA: Edinburgh is a stunning city, particularly during summer. Obviously I’ll be doing a lot of promo, but in my down time, I plan on doing a lot of reading/writing in the Meadows; some fitness work (partly for health, partly for routine), and definitely other shows – although I haven’t properly looked into that yet. I think I’ll largely play it by ear.

I’ve promised myself that I won’t be constantly on the lash, because I can see myself burning out if I do that. I think I’ll just do what I can to relax, stay on top of my game, and manage myself both physically and mentally. I’m aware of how intense it’s going to be doing this on my own, but I’m excited for the challenge.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after August?
MA: Hopefully I’ll be looking into a tour for ‘Two Little Ducks’. I also have a meeting with a potential publisher in September. But mainly I want to disappear to my favourite beach for a couple of days; refresh, reflect and decide what I want to do next. A lot of it depends on how well the show does…!

Matt Abbot performed ‘Two Little Ducks’ at Underbelly Cowgate at Edinburgh Festival 2017.