Do you know a Robbo? That lovable rogue or thieving toerag (depending on your point of contact with him) who lives down the road but has a second home at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. I once knew a ‘Robbo’ who was so prisoned-up he set out his toothbrush, shaving brush, and face cloth like he was setting a place at a dinner table. Given the wonderful account of Robbo in The Devil in Cardiff, I know Patience Agbabi must have met a few such characters in her time.
Here, our Robert Owen (Robber Owing, one of many funny play-on-words throughout the poem, as you can tell from its title) meets what turns out to be the Devil Incarnate in a pub (where else!). Thinking, ‘He’ll teach him the tricks of the trade,‘ his trajectory down into that fiery hell, is sealed when taking the Devil with him out on the job.
Preying, as they tend to do, on the vulnerable, Robbo’s comeuppance comes in the form of ‘this old dear‘ who he claims owes him money. She turns the words, Repent/or the Devil take your soul and the teapot ancient!’ on Robbo, which the Devil acts upon by ‘bagging’ him.
But our teller of this tale, Huw Fryer Jones (The Friar’s Tale), knows that no place, not even hell can hold Robbo and that within a month, ‘they’ll be begging him to go/Get an ASBO from Hell, Robbo.’
The poem is taken from Telling Tales, Patience’s modern reworking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The collection is a marvellous labour of love. Like Chaucer’s 14th Century telling, this is a gallery of rogues and heroes’ written in various poetic forms. It is an amazing piece of work.
Here is Patience brilliantly performing the Prologue to Telling Tales. (It is funny when about a minute and a half in, people are so with the rhythm of Patience’s words, they start clapping along, but then get shushed by others because they can’t hear).
Patience Agbabi has performed her poetry all over the world. Her work has also appeared on the London Underground and human skin. In 2013, her poem, The Doll’s House, based on Harewood House, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She has lectured in several UK universities and has been a Fellow In Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University since 2008. The following year, she was made Canterbury Laureate and received a Grant for the Arts to write her fourth collection, a Canterbury Tales for the 21st century. Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014) has been described as ‘The liveliest versions of Chaucer you’re likely to read’ – Simon Armitage.
The Devil in Cardiff
Huw Fryer Jones
D’ya hear Robbo got sent down again?
When a snitch gets sent down
what chance for the rest of us, eh?
Allowed one call and he calls me,
the div. I ses, Where are ya? He ses,
Hell! No signal down ‘ere. Can’t bloody text!
I ses, What you doing down there, moron?
Ses he met a man in the Dragon,
asks him what he does and Robbo
ses he’s a bailiff, helluva sly, Robbo.
Man ses he’s a bailiff too, for his sins,
an’ Robbo gets the bevvies in.
Talk breaking, entering, weapons,
summonses, like, repossessions.
Sell his nain for a pint, Robbo.
Pint of bitter for me … Robbery
but he got a suspended … So they’re playing pool
an’ man says he’s not a bailiff at all
he’s the Devil Incarnate!
Robbo ses, I was the devil in Cardiff
meself last weekend. Broke the ASBO,
banned from South Wales, me … Robbo,
Robert Owen. They shake hands like
they’re arm wrestling an’ Robbo winks.
Ses he’s got a job on the side selling
dope to the cops, raking it in.
Thick as thieves, they were. Ta!
Closing time, there’s a lad in a Lada,
won’t start. He’s revving it hoarse,
cursing it to hell. Freezing cold, it was.
Car’s choking like an old bag
then comes back to life. Thank God, ses the lad,
drives off. Robbo laughs, If you’re the Devil
you shoulda taken the car, you div,
but the Devil ses no, he only takes what’s his
when the curse means business,
none of your half-baked.
Robbo ses he’ll teach him the tricks of the trade.
They’re well out of town now
an’ Robbo stops at this bungalow,
peeling paint, leaky roof,
knocks on the door with his leather glove
and this old dear opens up, Oh, it’s you!
tries to slam the door but he pushes through.
She says, I owe nothing, I’m a poor, old woman.
But Robbo’s got this fake summons –
non-payment of a fine with interest.
Pay up or pay the price, he ses,
and the Devil’s laughing in his overcoat
like he just told an old joke.
Nothing on the shelf but a teapot
full of old coins. Robbo grabs it,
empties the coins on the carpet.
Mine, he says, To cover an old debt
I paid for you, on a street corner.
Helluva sly, Robbo. She says, You’re
wicked, Robert Owen, I only
knew one man, my late husband, Dai,
then starts speaking Welsh, like. Repent
or the Devil take your soul and the teapot ancient!
Robbo tells her where she can put
her repentance and the Devil bags him and the teapot
non-stop to Hell! Dying for a pint, he is.
Only serve tea down there, and bloody biscuits …
Bitter for me … He’ll be back here
in less than a month, though, bet you a fiver,
they’ll be beggin’ him to go.
Get an ASBO from Hell, Robbo.