Bruno Cooke on the many faces of artist, poet and social worker Tom Stockley
In an age characterised by fragmentation — multi-skilling, multi-jobbing, 27 tabs open, zero hours, proliferating income streams and contingency plans — Tom Stockley, or T.S. Idiot, is trying to stay afloat like the rest of us. Their recent or ongoing projects include a play, a film, a drag act and a zine; they run workshops and perform regularly. Such is life in a ‘post-everything digital world’. Art and work melt together. And, with more possible influences than ever, Tom says, artists can “absorb a cross section of creativity like never before”, and enjoy “a looser sense of formality or hierarchy”.
The politics came before the art
Tom has worked in rehabilitation and social care, with young offenders, exclusion units and on homeless projects, all of which have involved seeing “the direct effects of political decisions”. They grew up in south Devon — we went to school together — in communities where, Tom says, “you could see people struggling in real time before your eyes”. Living in Bristol for the last few years has brought yet more opportunities to listen and learn. Tom was part of the Action Medics First Aid team during last year’s political protests, and has spent time meeting refugees in Calais. “Witnessing state and police violence is”, Tom says, “an effective way of consolidating [one’s] political views.” Seeing riot cops “literally batter people black and blue before my eyes” put things into perspective “pretty effectively”.
Youth work and art go hand in hand. Such is also the case, incidentally, for Joelle Taylor, about whom I wrote for a previous edition of The Frip. DIRT grew out of Tom’s bicycle repair work with young people: beauty in movement. Ivana Cream-Cheese Bagel is the drag star of their new show A Double Blessing, which looks at “intersections of Jewish heritage, queerness and spiritual rituals”. Everything comes back to something, and Tom’s self-education in punk and hardcore, the DIY ethos and anarchist collectives has “put the politics into discernible actions and goals”. Out of lived experience has developed a sense of urgency, and of fairness. “For me,” Tom says, “the people drinking on the street outside my flat are as important to me and my life as the art galleries and theatres.” Resistance, community, art. “Anarchy is just as much in bike maintenance and knitting circles as it is in Molotovs and leather jackets.”
“We do have some privileges in this country but only if we fit in and behave ourselves. I’ve always found a lot of solace and solidarity in the stories of outsiders and I think that sense of belonging is inherently quite political.”
We’re in love, but open to seeing other people
Tom moved to Bristol a few years ago, after completing a fine art degree at Falmouth University. The degree certificate didn’t last long, and in protest-burning it (Falmouth had recently announced that it would terminate its Art Foundation course), Tom sparked some interesting conversation — my favourite contribution is from a self-described “gobby c**t from the midlands” whose grievance with the closure of the course was that fewer “underprivileged local kids” like him would have the “chance to interact with people [they] would probably never meet”, i.e. “posh-o twat-os” (his words, not mine).
Since then, Tom has evolved as an artist in a way that combines poetry, performance, punk aesthetics, protest and community building. A more recent tidal change has to do with coming to terms with, and having ‘the language to understand’ their queer identity. “I was always vaguely aware of the sexuality side of it, but to discover what it means to be politically Queer; to have this ancestry of subversion and to find the joy in a wider, global community has been quite profound. It’s not something I had growing up in a small seaside town.”
Tom has evolved as an artist in a way that combines poetry, performance, punk aesthetics, protest and community building. A more recent tidal change has to do with coming to terms with, and having ‘the language to understand’ their queer identity
For Tom, queerness is “a language of the othered, the outsiders, the bent and abandoned”. There is pain in it, but “an incredible amount of joy and resilience too”. And understanding this part of their identity has helped Tom learn “a radical approach to how we build communities, support one another and hold space for creative acts”. It has to do with seeing people as “complex, imperfect, exquisite” — beyond binaries. “Seeing myself through a queer lens has allowed me to be bolder in what I make and how I make it, and more authentic to myself too.” No longer “desperate to be liked, to be ‘nice’, to be without transgression”, Tom appreciates imperfection now more than ever.
“I don’t see people as perfect but I think they’re all pretty fucking amazing. We just need a few nudges sometimes and an opportunity to reflect and grow. That’s one thing that I hope is changing within queer communities — allowing each other to make mistakes in an environment that gently encourages us to be our best selves.”
And Bristol’s ‘constant flow’ is, at least for now, the right place for Tom to be. “Bristol is the France of England”, someone once tweeted. The city strikes an interesting balance between being ‘a melting pot of diversity’ (as UWE Bristol lauds it) and one of the most unequal cities in the UK. But for Tom, it’s the “fluid multiformity of Bristol and its community” that appeals. “Lots of people seem to be delivered here on various tides.” And while they’re “very open for what the future may hold”, Tom says Bristol has been “good to me”. Hence, “we’re in love, but open to seeing other people”.
The poetry and art of T.S. Idiot
When we were teenagers, Tom’s thing was art — contemporary art. Their work involved a lot of collage and texture; it was whimsical, self-reflective and often abstract. It was also sort of beyond categorisation, which is what you might say of their journey as a lyrical artist, too. “Politically and artistically my influences have always had a sense of cabaret to them, from Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire to DIY punk and community theatre. Working with a melting pot of performance, writing, design and live production is a natural way of working for me that comes, in part, from this cultural legacy.”
Recent and ongoing projects include a full-length play (DIRT); a stage adaptation of a previous short film (‘Salt In The Wounds’); a music-dance performance devised with Torbay’s Doorstep Arts –— “about our ancestors, ancient and contemporary”; a multi-format project comprising performance, workshops and poetry (A Double Blessing); story development workshops; one zine about losing three friends in 2020, and another about community work and social action, titled The Protest Poet’s Handbook. Plus, “on the fruitier side of things”, the aforementioned drag act.
The Protest Poet’s Handbook combines Tom’s eye for photomontage with a heart for protest and a nose for community building. And an ear for poetry … It’s by turns angry, playful and heartfully earnest, and contains many instances of the word ‘fuck’
The Handbook is everything a zine should be. Part pamphlet, part photo album, part jotter — something like a cross between the one of those booklets you sometimes get in CDs and a notebook. It’s A6, printed in something like coral — salmon? peach? pink? — on bright yellow paper. In it, you’ll find a short bio, poems in various styles (a haiku, a chant, bastardised versions of The Lord’s Prayer and ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’), a ‘protest poet’s playlist’ (featuring songs like ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ by Dead Kennedys), legal advice for those arrested during a protest, and frequent invocations to “fuck the police”. It’s by turns angry, playful and heartfully earnest, and contains many instances of the word ‘fuck’.
burning cop car in the street
how we love to feel your heat
molten metal in the road
you have reaped what you have sowed
— from ‘twinkle twinkle / burning cop car’
Zines may be making a comeback, and I think that’s a good thing. People tried using social media for creative expression, and it became the domain of influencers and a source of mindless time-wasting. But the beauty of a zine is that the artist curates the form as well as the content. Within the fairly flexible limitations of a small paper thing, it’s a very comprehensive mode of self-expression. The Protest Poet’s Handbook combines Tom’s eye for photomontage with a heart for protest and a nose for community building. And an ear for poetry.
i think of you every time i empty the shit bucket
and every time we can’t find the charger
for the burner phone.
i think of you every time i nurse my bruises,
even the ones i deserved.
— from ‘squatter’s lovesong’
And it might be the best way to get to grips with Tom as an artist and poet.
My legacy is a scribble on the cubicle door
a fuck you to anyone who’s left me kneeling on the cubicle floor,
Vomiting pipe dreams into a void of ceramic disappointment.
My legacy is a salute to every fuck-up, every addict, every dropout
Every modern druid with some silver in their veins,
Every student excluded and kid not included
Every resident of the forgotten estates
and every wretch who’s ever made a mistake
— from ‘loser’s legacy’
If you enjoyed reading Tom’s words, and/or reading about Tom as an artist, consider supporting their “queer, Jewish, community art project” A Double Blessing via GoFundMe here. The Protest Poet’s Handbook is available to buy from Tom’s website. It costs £6. And finally, here’s a series of quickfire questions and answers to roll as the curtains close on T.S. Idiot.
Which artists do you most admire and why?
Within my scenes, Bridget Hart is someone I massively look up to. They probably have the most integrity of anyone I’ve met. They’re one of the most uncompromising and supportive people going. Jemma Hathaway is one of my favourite new writers. We’re very proud of our babe Travis Alabanza in Bristol too, their reputation is well deserved.
Casting the net a bit wider (and further back in time, a metaphorical time travelling net) I’ve always been inspired by the fringe figures of punk; the queers, femmes and freaks. Jayne County was a true pioneer and Poly Styrene out-punked the punks by being unabashedly herself and expressing it the way she did with a furious, intelligent sense of poetry. Leigh Bowery, Linder Sterling and Lydia Lunch too. Just this legacy of truly odd, beautiful people who’s work has made me feel less lonely. My cult favourite is Viva Hamnell, a retired lollipop lady who fronted punk band The Bricks in the 70s. I booked her for a festival a few years ago and she was just gorgeous to meet.
What does your typical Wednesday look like?
Inauspicious, slightly moist.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Regret. And anything sweet. When I give up smoking I’ll have an eclair in my mouth at all times.
If you could be an instant master at any single skill, what would it be?
I’ve always wanted to do headstands but a few years ago I was working in a primary school and a gang of girls taught me so I’ve ticked that one off my list.
If you could get Boris Johnson to do one thing — politically or otherwise — what would it be?
Oh god. That’s a question with some explicit answers … I guess, beyond emasculating fantasies, I’d want to ask him what he actually cares about.
And finally, favourite colour?
Sky blue pink. That was a kind of non-joke from my grandad but it seems like a fabulous colour, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s what made me queer.
Bruno Cooke is The Friday Poem’s Spoken Word Poetry Editor. He is a postgraduate student studying global journalism with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, The Focus and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium. Bruno Cooke’s website is at onurbicycle.com. He has written four plays and one novel, Reveries — buy Reveries by Bruno Cooke on Amazon — and currently lives in Sheffield with his partner.