Peter Buckley Hill - July 2007

Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire

Even fish have fingers
Even walls have ears
Labour has left-wingers
Captain Morgan has his buccaneers
Towels have towel dispensers
Superman has Superglue
Even Marks have Spencers
So why can't I have you?

Comic singer and guitarist Peter Buckley Hill is best known for his extraordinary, impromptu unamplified late-night performances at Cambridge Folk Festival. Rychard Carrington spoke to him there.

How would you describe your act to someone who didn't know it?
I don't think I would describe my act to someone who didn't know it. I constantly have to because various people - the press, bookers and so forth - always keep on saying ‘what or whom are you like?' I find it impossible to answer that question without triggering my inferiority complex: ‘something like Tom Lehrer but not a tenth as good, and not playing piano'. I don't know, I just make people go ‘oh' a lot, which they seem to enjoy. The other vowels not quite so successfully. I occasionally coax an ‘e' out of them, and two nights ago I got an ‘i', but that's rare. ‘A's and ‘u's I'm afraid of, and, really, most of the time they're too drunk to attempt the diphthong.

You have a unique status here as a perennial fringe character.
It wasn't planned at all. Obviously I would like more stage time, I would particularly like some decent stage time next year, to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. My role here evolved, so I accept it. It is certainly harder work without a PA. I'm not a natural busker, I don't street-perform in any other circumstances. It all came about by accident. On one occasion in the mid-80s, I got three slots in the Club Tent - because I had a following by then - but because there was a mix-up with finishing times, they cancelled my third slot, which was towards the end of the festival, and my fans protested about that, so I had it announced that if anybody wanted to listen, I would play outside, as much as anyone wanted to hear. It just grew from there.

Your career seems to have evolved quite strangely. The two big things you do are Cambridge and the Edinburgh Fringe. Do you do many other gigs?
I haven't done so many this year. I'm a core member of Robin Ince's Book Club, I've been touring with them. The Book Club is a small collection of acts who do comedy, but not as Jongleurs Comedy Club knows it. I lot of my time this year has been taken up with organising Edinburgh. What I do at Edinburgh is not only put on free shows, where the price is normally about £10, but also I've been encouraging others to do so as well, so I've been organising something up there called the Free Fringe, which this year has about 1200 performances of 61 shows in 7 venues. You can imagine that that takes a bit of organising.

Are you still ambitious for greater success?
You never lose your dreams. Even at an advanced age you're still waiting for the man with the big cigar who says ‘Come ‘ere, son, I'm gonna make you a star.'

A lot of success is not to do with talent, it's to do with things like networking. Do you think that the way you've approached your career means that you haven't sold out in a way that could have got you more success?
Maybe so, but I think it's mostly the modesty or the inferiority complex. I can't seriously say to promoters, ‘book me, I'm good'; I can't do that with a straight face, even though I sometimes believe it. I also hate telephones: I can talk to friends on them, but what I find very difficult to do is to cold-call a stranger and sell them something, in this case me. I've tended to find excuses for not doing that. A lot of folk festivals tend to book the same stable of people and I'm not in that stable, which is a pity, because I could easily play a large number.

I see more than just comedy in your music. Am I right?
Well, yes and no. The semantic in that question hinges around the word ‘comedy'. The assumption is that comedy is amusing and nothing else, and of course that is not true of comedy. Good comedy has other elements in it and deals with issues. There are still the knob gag merchants around the circuit, and a generation ago that was the stuff of comedy in the working men's clubs that kept it alive, but now virtually every reputable comedian deals with major issues of society in their own way, in an amusing way that also provokes thought. This is what I aspire to do as well. It's perfectly correct to call that ‘comedy'.

I get the impression that you wear your heart on your sleeve more than most comedians do.
Difficult to say. Possibly.

I mean that Death Song might seem a strange song for a comedian to do, but I wasn't surprised when you did that. It didn't seem out of character somehow.
I'm quite proud of Death Song. It's got real people in it; it needed to be about the people that it was about. It was triggered by opening the newspaper and seeing Isaac Guillory's obituary. I didn't know he was ill. I wasn't a bosom friend, but I'd known him for years and years. We gigged together a lot. We were very opposite people, because he could play guitar and I can't. Everybody loved him apart from sound crews, who by and large hated him because he was very meticulous in his requirements. I don't subscribe to astrology, but he was very Virgo, and I'm very Pisces. I thought his death needed commemorating in some way.

I sense some raw feeling, even when you're being very witty, in songs such as Fishfingers and Sex Education Calypso.
Both of those are quite sad songs! You don't become a comedian unless you've had a strange childhood. Everybody will tell you that. Comedians are not the boys and girls who stood in the playground making the other children laugh. They are the ones who were laughed at. Ultimately it twists, and eventually you get to the stage where, subconsciously at least, you say ‘since this is going to happen for the rest of my life, it's going to be on my terms, and I'm going to conduct it'. Then you become a comedian. You can listen for this in virtually everybody's comedy. But I suppose me more than most.

I think that's why I find your stuff compelling, because there's a certain intensity there. You've got something to say, and you say it with humour. You are an expert craftsman of puns and rhymes.
Oh, thank you. Rhymes, certainly. I like rhymes. I like all sorts of parallelisms, but obviously rhyme is the predominant one.

What do you think is the appeal of puns and rhymes? It's not obvious why we like them.
It is not obvious, is it? When was the first rhyming poetry? Roman poetry didn't rhyme. Anglo-Saxon poetry did not rhyme, although it had alliteration. Rhyme is relatively modern. I owe a great debt to Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swann, both of whom were masterful users of the forced rhyme and the internal rhyme. I like to alternate masculine and feminine rhymes. In many of my songs I cram more and more syllables in as the verses progress, accelerating the rhythm.

Sometimes a line's really long; I think ‘how can he possibly get to the rhyme?', and you just manage to at the end.

Lets talk about your latest album, The Songs Of 2006, which features topical songs covering each month of the year.
Being the sort of person I am, I tend to do things in themes or clusters - obsessive-compulsive disorder or something like that. I couldn't just do one bird song, I had to do seventeen [on the album Torn Between Two Plovers]. I had been slowing down as a songwriter, obviously this irked me in the back of my mind, and when I heard about the whale being stranded up the Thames, I thought that this at least is worthy of commemoration. The other driver was The Book Club. At their Albany Club gig I really felt compelled to do something new every month, so it became fairly automatic to write a song and about the events of that month, for that month.

What are the best things about being a performer, that you've really enjoyed?
The applause, absolutely the applause. But of course, like with everything else, you get addicted, you become a junkie. You can't just face the world on its own terms, you have to start looking for people to say something good about you. It's the childhood again. People are born eccentric, and it's not a nice thing to be. If you're born eccentric, how do you know you are? There's a sign on your forehead that everyone can read but you. You only know that you suffer from this disease because people tell you. People call you mad, which is not a nice thing to be called. Of course children do it all the time, they point, they dance around you. To yourself, you're normal.

There's a certain attack in your playing and singing style, which is like you're getting your own back for unhappy things that have happened in childhood.
With hindsight, yes. Absolutely.

Little flowers need the rain
A body needs a head
Masochists need pain
And a baker always kneads his bread
Chicks need chickenfeed you know
Parking meters need a coin
When I told you that I need you
You kneed me in the groin.

Find out more about Peter at

Writer: Rychard Carrington