ROY is the moniker of the city’s most enigmatic storyteller and spoken word artist, who delights in mystifying audiences with tales that couldn’t possibly have happened. Charlie Power meets the man behind the persona, walking through the streets of Walton, where Roy grew up, to learn that his impossible tales are a perfect enactment of an impossible world that really exists – the world of the artist’s childhood.
Roy is somewhat of an oddity within the Liverpool creative scene. He revels in his inscrutability – it’s not his real name, his gigs aren’t advertised and just Googling ‘Roy’ is unlikely to be enlightening. Yet, in only two years of performing, he’s sold out shows all around the country, bringing his unique brand of humour, grit and allegory with a distinct Scouse twist to enraptured audiences. I spent a sunny afternoon with the spoken word maestro in his old stomping ground of Walton, exploring the themes behind his stories and the environment that shaped and influenced them.
For the uninitiated, Roy’s stories are frequently dark, gritty snapshots of the grim realities of life in deprived north Liverpool, punctuated with moments of comic genius and extreme violence. Characters often deal with organised crime, depression and familial dysfunction, but Roy’s main focus has always been on the theme of identity, or the lack thereof. From behind the sandbags of fiction and the armour of his stage persona, he ruthlessly dissects the insecurities that lie behind people we’ve all encountered. Take, for instance, the recurring character of Brian Scanlon, an underworld figure who has all that money and power could buy, but remains still deeply and desperately unhappy. Roy bases his characters and stories on people in his life, always trepidatious that someone will clock the similarities: “Yeah, I thought someone’s gonna see it and say, ‘’Ey, is that me? Is that our kid?’ But, like, how could you come to the conclusion that this vicious, violent, malevolent bastard was you?”
So far, he seems to have got away with it.
Roy began writing as a way to entertain his mates, and admits getting in front of a mic was never planned. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. Still don’t. I’m sticking with it, though, and trusting that I’ll find my way somehow.”
Despite the inherent Scouseness of the tales, the constant references to people and places Liverpudlians all know well, Roy’s message rings true to audiences everywhere. “Glasgow, Hull, Bristol, London, I was thinking they won’t get it, but it works. I thought maybe they’d just look at me blankly or talk during my set or walk out, but what they do instantly is relate it to their version of whatever I’m talking about that seems to be Liverpool specific.”
From uncertain beginnings, Roy now delights in winning over challenging audiences, silencing rooms full of Saturday night revellers. “Everything slows down… and the silence gets louder, then somehow everything just falls into place. That bit when you know you’ve deadlocked the listeners. Reactions can vary. Audible gasps a lot of the time. Nervous laughing others. My favourite is when there’s a kind of atmospheric delay, like, ‘Did he just say that?’ Or when they’re trying to figure out if it’s true.”
As we walk along Walton’s sunny high street, Roy laments the further decline of one of the most impoverished areas in the city: “So, when I grew up, this road was a proper high street – it was bustling, everything you needed was here, and now you look round and it’s shutters, vape shops, pawnbrokers, bookies.” He notes an off licence that used to give him and his mates booze on tick, and on his old street he points out a painted goal outline: “Poor woman who lived here, when we were like 13, 14, we just didn’t think we might be disturbing her life by volleying a ball at her house for five hours.”
Although times have changed, and Roy hasn’t lived here for 15 years, he is constantly bumping into people who stop for a chat – one woman is running meditation classes for children with ADHD, another is clutching a pair of grey trousers: “Our kid’s come home and gone, ‘Dad, done an overhead kick right on the astro at school!’ and I was like, ‘Yeh, an’ what lad, did it go in?’ ‘Nah, split me keks, though’.” There’s a palpable sense of community still alive here, despite the disinvestment and lack of opportunities that have plagued it since the 80s.
Roy stops outside of Spellow Library: “Without fuckin’, playing the violins an’ that, as a kid, me arl fella wasn’t about, me ma didn’t have disposable income, so [we went the] library for a day out, ’cos it was free. I liked it at the time, and I’m dead grateful that that used to happen, ’cos it probably played a part in me doing what I’m doing.”
“Throughout my stories, there’s a theme of lads who’ve grew up without dads, how it affects them and how they have nobody to show them the way. That’s not an excuse for how they might end up or turn out, ’cos loads of people who grow up without a dad turn out fine. But, in my area, what you’re taught about men is that they drink, they fight, they go missing and then they apologise. And then they drink, they fight, they go missing and then they apologise. And it’s just left to the mum to sort everything out.”
This culture of toxic masculinity is pervasive in most of Roy’s stories – men unable to express emotions, be creative, or even just have an actual conversation, terrified of letting anyone through their defences; the illusion of security and confidence they feel they have to project at all times. His characters are often lonely, isolated figures from broken homes, convincing themselves that “as long as the outside’s alright, it makes people think everything’s OK, but I won’t tell them I’m suffering palpitations and vomiting, and I can’t sleep.”
Roy delights in making his tales far-fetched, but just believable enough that he’s often harangued by audience members after gigs, outraged at the company he’s keeping. However, often the most shocking parts are lifted straight from his childhood. He leads me past his old school, Alsop: “It’s supposed to be a good school now, but it wasn’t when I was in it, it was wild – something would kick off and someone would go, ‘Alright then, I’m gonna fill you in’, and they’d go, ‘Yeh, alright then’ and they’d go down the subbies.”
We venture further down to the subbies, a huge amphitheatre-like area under the Walton flyover, where Roy paints a vivid picture of hundreds of kids standing on the slopes watching two lads scrap it out, cheering like Romans at the Colosseum. I ask Roy how much of his particularly brutal story, Please Mind Your Head, was influenced by this place: “That was a true story, that. Two kids about to fight, and one of the dads comes out. We’re all thinking, ‘Ah, he’s gonna go, ‘Come on, put this to bed, shake hands.’’ But he went to his lad, ‘Come here, put these steel toe-capped boots on, and kick his fuckin’ head in.’ It’s no surprise to me that that lad’s a heroin addict now. What kind of messages was he given growing up? Solve your problems with violence, no emotional release at all.”
While many of his classmates fell into drug abuse or organised crime, Roy chose a different path. “I always knew I was interested in being creative, but it was like it was a dirty secret. I was seen as a bit of an oddball.” He talks of the difficulties of creating your own identity in this kind of hostile environment, where conformity meant safety and a quiet life. We sip orange juice in the Thomas Frost pub and take in the motley crew of locals nursing pints of bitter and gazing vacantly into space. “A load of these people, you see them in here day in, day out. Thinking you’re content and you’re happy with your lot is fine, as long as you know there’s always something more. ’Cos you don’t wanna flatline, do ya?” Often his stories concern repressed men with all the trappings of success but enduring a deep, profound unhappiness – men who pursued what was expected without considering what would actually fulfil them. “You get to a certain age and you think, ‘I need to change here, I need to change direction in me life’. And then when you start trying to make a change, you let go of your old identity and reach a state of non-existence, where you don’t really know who you are. Things start to feel very confusing and your old life starts to appeal, and lots of people just go back, to an identity/life that they know isn’t serving them well, but at least it’s something they know. Doing something different is frightening.”
Having made this leap himself, Roy is keen for others to follow in his footsteps. “I try and encourage people just by saying, ‘It’s not daft to be into this, no one’s gonna skit ya for watching a subtitled film, y’know what I mean? You might like it’. Art, in any form, is for anyone. Most people I grew up with resist it because they don’t think it’s for them, or whether they’ll be made to feel welcome in this non-existent world. We’ve all got stories to tell. The magic is in how you tell them. If this plant pot, with his very limited vocabulary and over-reliance on local vernacular can do it, what the fuck is stopping you?”
Roy hosts the event It’s An Inside Job on 3rd August, a joint show with Toria Garbutt at the Bloom Building, Birkenhead. Support comes from Yammerer. Tickets are on sale now.