Bruno Cooke reviews Farewell Tour by Stefan Mohamed (Verve, 2022)
Many positive things have been said about Stefan Mohamed’s Farewell Tour. Comprising 37 poems over 80 or so pages, it pokes fun at the United Kingdom, leaving few stones unturned, and is at times delightfully silly. Mohamed finds humour in the customs, socio-economic structures, rituals and language of our strange, shared nation, and does so with a light heart. The reviewers quoted within its frontmatter praise its bite and irreverence, as well as Mohamed’s creation of a “new poetic register”. But while there is certainly much to enjoy within it – its satire can be sharp, its critiques incisive – there are also ways in which Farewell Tour, for me, falls flat, whether that be because of laughs that don’t materialise, opportunities that feel missed, or something else.
Like any British road-trip, Mohamed’s whistle-stop tour of the UK includes pub stops and kebab shops, mixtapes and audiobooks, a joke about Marmite (“you either love it … or you’re broadly indifferent”), and a brief moment to consider one of this wet island’s more sophisticated cultural exports: fish and chips. But first, a bit of scene setting, and itinerising. ‘Road Trip’, the collection’s opening poem, features one of Mohamed’s witty, descriptive takedowns – the first of several. This may be one of his strong suits. After painting a generalised vignette of the tour itself, involving a “stupid argument” between two road-trippers (who could be “best buds”, “fiery lovers”, “siblings paying off an unspoken debt” or strangers “united under the unlikeliest of circumstances”), Mohamed takes aim at Old Blighty:
[…] This sinking land, this
drowning land, this haunted, haunting, cursed
and cursing land. This stubborn rainy kingdom
of cracked breezeblock and deflated swamp. This
sulky empire, primarily exporting derivatives,
entropy and bad vibes.
He calls his collection an “end-of-the-road trip”, a “farewell tour” and a “last hurrah for a collapsing island”. He may be driving the point home, or he may be repeating himself. It took me some time, and noticing that Mohamed is taking Farewell Tour around the country for a series of live performances (he’s calling it… Farewell Tour), to appreciate that many of these poems were written to be spoken. It actually struck me while trying to illustrate what I didn’t like about a particular poem. The person to whom I read it liked it. I found myself liking it too, and wondering why I’d singled it out. Stefan Mohamed’s comedy, we realised, works better when given voice. The obvious flipside to this is, however, that it works less well when it’s not. For example, this, from ‘Itinerary’:
You will cut like crows
through the heart of Marmite County
from Oodle to Mashing
to Gossip to Pummelling
via Bishop’s Heartburn
then onward to Halfwick, Beleaguer
Heckhorn and Illtide
with a stopover at Queen’s Complaint.
does relatively little for me on the page. It’s more or less a list of place names – a strong list, whose entries tread well that line between daftness and reality (Mohamed has Pummelling and Dogdiss; Anglotopia has Cumming and Catholes). It’s about as gripping as a list can be, but it is still a list, and requires a bit of vim and vigour to get it off the ground.
Mohamed finds humour in the customs, socio-economic structures, rituals and language of our strange, shared nation, and does so with a light heart
Depending on where you draw your parameters, there are about seven poems in Farewell Tour that take the form of lists – most do so more explicitly than ‘Itinerary’. That’s one for every six or so others. It is a very particular format, and relatively easy to write. They are works of the imagination; we write them sitting down. But their scope is limited because of how hard it is to get a list of ideas to travel. Unless there’s something else going on, they sit on the page without doing much.
‘Traditional Pub Menu’ replaces country grub with offerings of “[c]olonial hooligan bantering on a bed of / redacted wince” and “[m]ean-spirited queue baked in walloping / Thames, with flaked cronyism and stone circles”. The three ‘Mixtape’ poems take the form of track listings. Some contain wry observations and moments of satire; others feel like filler. This is from ‘National Anthems (Mixtape)’:
1: Remember When Dogs Were Wolves
2: Remember When Cats Were Wolves
3: Remember When Binmen Were Wolves
4: Remember When Wolves Were Mental
My issue is that, personally, I want a story, some story. And a collection called “Farewell Tour” ought to have story in spades. But poems such as these paint pointillist pictures, vignettes that don’t have time to fill out. They are static. If the track listings spoke to each other, belonged to characters in an overarching narrative, or represented a change in mood that somehow related to the body of work at large, then they would ask the reader to do more.
Several times throughout Farewell Tour, Stefan Mohamed begins to develop original, funny ideas, but in my view stops short of realising their potential. ‘Poem To Be Whispered Tenderly Into The Ear Of A Stranger Bleeding Out Outside A Kebab Shop At 2am’, for example, invites the reader to whisper it out loud – to perform it – but doesn’t reward the performance (by, for example, being something it would be absurd to literally whisper into the ear of a stranger bleeding out outside a kebab shop. At 2am.). That, for me, is the mark it doesn’t hit.
I was a flower of the greasy spoon, yes!
When I put the Marmite in my hair
like the girls from Greggs.
Or shall I wear Heinz Baked Beans?
And how he kissed me
under the low wall
round the back of the Co-Op.
And I thought, well!
As well him as another.
Similarly, ‘Poem To Be Bellowed From Car Window While Hurtling Down A Hill At Unsafe Speeds’ ought to be ridiculous and hilarious to bellow as if from a car. I’m all for the theatricality, but the payoff feels wanting:
Who are you saying is dead?
What would you classify as dead?
In this scenario, is agriculture dead?
Is the soil dead? The land dead?
An excess of nation dead?
Chauvinism dead? Status? Dead?
Is the general notion of civic virtue
and group dedication dead?
‘TripAdvisor Review – King’s Trauma’ details one unhappy customer’s experience of taking “the Hitler Bus to Atrocity Park”. En route are kittens “crying from burning trees”, “zombies pulling teeth in flooded / living rooms” and a “bulldog named Bailiff chewing on a landmine”. The poem invites us to read as if we are reading a review on Trip Advisor. Again, a neat idea, but structuring it as a sequence of simple sentences, each separated by a double line break, makes it read less like what it’s imitating. The register is too un-naturalistic, too poetic. Its last line is the only one that reads like it’s from a Trip Advisor review:
Mangy drones raiding the suicide bins.
A bulldog named Bailiff chewing on a landmine.
Tiny skeletons welded to a radioactive slide.
Trying too hard. Unlikely to go back. Toilets very
well maintained. 2/5
And the following poem, ‘Traditional Joke Formats’, riffs on classic forms and hackneyed phrases, but quite quickly uses up the value of the idea itself. It wants to pack more punch.
With moments of well-crafted humour, it takes us (via King’s Nob, Rimwell and Shufflebum, and “avoiding Little Bungle for obvious reasons”) on what amounts to a pretty grim road trip
Of course, all of the hangups described here are entirely subjective – funny things are necessarily divisive. I may be missing something, and I’m willing to give Mohamed the benefit of the doubt because there are poems here that I like a lot, too. ‘Bertha Benz’, which sits squat on the page in a thick block of text, previews a fictional audiobook. It is a “radical / new adaptation of the classic historical footnote” that “reimagines Mrs Benz” (as in, Mercedes-Benz) “as a sort of proto-girlboss, / a Strong Female Character before there were / Strong Female Characters”. The poem has panache. Likewise ‘A complete History of the Contemporary Now – Revised Edition’ carries a joke – half funny, half serious – boldly yet measuredly over three pages. It suggests and shows, rather than telling, and changes over time.
And finally, credit to ‘A green and pleasant break (to be declared aloud by Richard Burton / and no-one else)’ – this is a example of a reading instruction that works! It takes its idea (something like ‘Jerusalem’ meets Poundland) and executes it neatly, leaving the reader feeling like they’ve taken part in something:
And was the holiday in Greece
with brother’s best mate’s stepdad seen?
And did the little boy divine
scream forth as I gave birth?
And was the bravest mum-of-six
run over here?
Bring me my 30-minute meals!
Bring me my secret lover!
Bag me my bargain: oh clouds unfold!
Get my hubby pregnant then marry me!
Farewell Tour is Stefan Mohamed’s second full collection, and builds on his successes as a comedy writer and performance poet. With moments of well-crafted humour, it takes us (via King’s Nob, Rimwell and Shufflebum, and “avoiding Little Bungle for obvious reasons”) on what amounts to a pretty grim road trip. There are arguments. There is a night in a dingy Travelodge. There is a well-observed discussion of UFOs, wherein the UFOs represent immigrants. (It’s not just UFOs. Hamsters and werewolves are at it too – stealing our jobs, seizing our allotments. “enough is enough.” I like his prose poems best.) But beneath it all, and just about seeping through the cracks, is love. Of a form. Mohamed rails against “this diseased / and crippled country”, “this haunted, haunting, cursed and cursing isle”, but chooses to end his tour with fish and chips – a wise choice – and, going out on something of a limb, a sonnet.
Bruno Cooke is The Friday Poem’s Spoken Word Poetry Editor. He’s written one novel (Reveries, available from You Know Where), four plays and two feature screenplays. Besides writing about poetry for The Friday Poem, Bruno muses on politics and travel for his personal website, and has worked as a freelance journalist, primarily for GRV Media, since 2019. He has lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, working as a writer, educator and occasional chef, and likes, among other things: black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle; receive updates via his Instagram page.