Ducktales with Tony Hawks at Swindon Festival of Literature

8 May

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At Swindon Festival of Festival, organisers hope that the audience take something special away from every event they attend. They hope their guests take something away too – even if its the ringing of applause in their ears. Some get to stay at Festival HQ, Lower Shaw Farm.

And last night, comedian Tony Hawks took a bit of the farm away with him. Following his performance to a packed Arts Centre, Tony – who appeared to promote his book about swapping life in the big smoke for the rural idyll in Devon – was presented with three India Runner ducks by festival director Matt Holland. Tony had already made mention of the fact that he was heading home by train, but seemed delighted by the unusual gift. And getting them back should have presented no problems. After all, this was the man who went Round Ireland with a Fridge and cycled across Devon with a pig stuffed up his jacket (more of which later). Mind you, he did manage to kill all his organic veg…

Once Upon a Time in the West…Country is the title of Tony’s new book. When Tony had a brainwave idea to move out of London – away from neighbours he’d barely spoken to for 17 years – to a village on Dartmoor, his publishers suggested he keep a diary – hilarity was bound to ensue (it always seems to when Tony is involved) and might provide material for a new book.

And so the anecdotes roll. He planted organic veg, over which he placed a frost cover. The butterflies he had so admired laid eggs, which turned into caterpillars, which munched their way through the veg. “Even if they hadn’t wanted to eat the plants they would have had to to stay alive,” he ruminates. Then there was the compost heap. He’d heard that urine helped the composting process.

Reading a passage from the book, he recalls how he relieved himself into the composter, only to be stung by a wasp on the end of his penis. We laugh, of course, at the absurdity, although he does detail the amount of swearing involved – lots – and says it took two days for the swelling to go down.

Still, it does seem his publishers got what they wanted, at least. He’s not alone in his adventures. Having rarely spoken to his London neighbours, he is delighted by his new rural neighbours, especially Ken, “a builder who welds, owns a digger, can fix computers, and never goes out – he’s on call 24 hours a day.”

After a trip to a Devon beach for a swim, which is frustrated by the sheer volume of holiday makers, and unwilling to install a swimming pool at home, one of Tony’s most audacious schemes is to build a giant paddling pool in the garden, and create a device – basically a rope, a chest expander, and a belt – that will enable him to ‘swim on the spot’.

It’s the kind of idea that only a very clever person, or a very stupid one, could come up with, and in Ken he finds a willing accomplice. The pool is installed, the “Hawks Harness’ is attached, and in he dives.

“Show of hands: how many people think this is a triumphant success?” he asks. He gets a smattering. “And how many think it was an unmitigated disaster?” That’s most of the audience. Oh, about 50-50 he says, throwing in a glib remark about the General Election predictions that later turns out to be spookily accurate.

Turns out it worked. And we’re shown a video to prove it. Generously, Tony has decided not to patent the idea. “I’m like Tim Berners-Lee with the Internet,” he says. “I’m giving it to the world.”

And so to the pig. Tony’s first two books – Fridge, and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, stem from drunken bets. The latter saw him track down every member of the Moldova football team beaten by England 4-0 in 1997, and individually beating them in a game of tennis. The idea is that sportsmen who are good at one sport are not necessarily good at all.

While in Moldova, however, he was struck the by poverty, and decided to put half of his royalties to good in the country. The book did so well that the Hippocrates Centre, a day-care medical centre for disabled children, was opened in 2000.

Just after his move to Devon, Tony received a letter from the Hippocrates Centre. Could he raise £10,00 for them? An earlier suggestion that he walk around Devon with a pig was modified – as herding pigs is not the easiest task over long distances, or even short ones – to ride from coast to coast with a pig. A miniature pig, Titch, was located, and off he set, from Ilfracombe to Plymouth.

The genius of comedians like Hawks is that he can find the funny in adversity, and so the insistence from DEFRA that every leg of the journey requires a livestock movement licence – putting pay to the spontaneity of his journey in Fridge – or the rule that says every bowel movement (the pig’s, not his) must be GPS logged and disinfected was turned from bureaucratic meddling into comedy gold.

We hope the ducks didn’t cause him too many problems. At least he wasn’t cycling back to Devon with them, and First Great Western don’t seem to place any restrictions on the passage of boxed ducklings.

He was soon on Twitter (with a link to the picture on the Festival Chronicle Twitter feed – yay!) asking his 31,000 followers for name ideas. Disney’s Huey, Dewey, and Louie seemed a popular choice as did – as this was election night – Dave, Ed and Nick. Festival Chronicle has humbly suggested Lucky, Mucky and Plucky. We’ll keep you posted.

Words by Peter Davison

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