Henry Normal, now retired, has written for and produced many shows, like the Royle Family, Gavin and Stacey, Red Dwarf, the Mighty Boosh, and many more. Credit: Henry Normal

“If I get the virus, I’ll die,” Henry Normal tells me. As a child, he was playing in the remains of houses bombed during WW2 when he found a gas mask. Not knowing any better, he put it on, and breathed in. “I had pneumonia and nearly died. My lungs have been weak ever since.

“Even though we aren’t the ones out there saving people, we’re still carrying this stress around. In that sense, we’re all on the frontline.”

Today, Normal should have been in Nottingham attending the poetry festival he co-founded back in 2015. Instead, he’s at home in Brighton, in his wife’s study, talking to me on Zoom. “I was really looking forward to it,” he says. “I was going to do a tour of all 60 libraries in Nottinghamshire and perform different poems at each one. It would have been a challenge, but a fun one.”

“At any point in my life, if you had asked me ‘what will you be doing in two years’ time?’ I would have had no idea… and thank f*** for that”

The poet-turned-TV-writer-turned-poet-again was born in Nottingham in 1956, under the name Peter James Carroll. He’s been involved in countless projects: co-creating The Royle Family, producing Gavin and Stacey, writing and performing numerous radio shows for the BBC, and, now, with the release of his latest collection The Escape Plan, seven books of poetry.

“At any point in my life, if you had asked me ‘what will you be doing in two years’ time?’ I would have had no idea,” Henry says. “And thank f*** for that. Because how boring would it be if we knew everything?”

He founded the Manchester Poetry Festival 25 years ago, which has since become a massive international literature event – and he hopes the same for Nottingham. This year the event was set to be the biggest it had ever been. Unfortunately, for reasons out of everybody’s control, that isn’t the case.

To make up for it, he recently completed a virtual tour of his house for Inspire Nottingham, reciting poems in different areas of his home (though, unfortunately, he doesn’t have 60 rooms). Normal lives with his wife Angela Pell, a fellow writer, and their son Johnny, who is an artist.

Henry’s son Johnny, who has autism, is a creative just like his parents. Credit: Art by Johnny on Facebook

“The first thing I thought I needed to do was just live a bit,” Normal says when asked about how the lockdown has affected his writing process. “If you start writing automatically, you’re not taking everything in. So, for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t write. Instead, I thought about things unique to me. The only truly individual thing you can write is the world from your point of view.

“Art is a conversation with yourself that other people eavesdrop on”

“Now, I’ve met some really clever, funny people, but none of them could write The Royle Family. In fact, the day we were supposed to start shooting, we didn’t film at all. We had to make all these corrections to the set, because the people who made it hadn’t lived in that house. I think all art is a conversation with yourself that other people eavesdrop on.”

Because of the lockdown, tasks that you normally wouldn’t think twice about have become activities in themselves, and this is reflected in Normal’s work. “I recently wrote a piece for Northern Soul about going to the shop, because that’s the riskiest thing I do. My wife’s face when I get back… it’s like Christmas. If I’ve brought her a Snickers, she’ll be over the moon.

“It helps to compartmentalise and home in on a particular event, rather than try and write about the whole thing at once,” he advises.

Establishing a routine has been a way of coping with this situation for many, but it’s been particularly important for the Normal household. “My son Johnny has severe autism, so we try and stick to a pattern,” Henry says. “As he can’t go to college, Angela home-schools him in the morning while I write, and I do life experience lessons with him in the afternoon while Angela writes. Whether it’s a bank holiday, a Tuesday, or the weekend, doesn’t matter. Every day is the same.”

One upside to staying at home is that they’ve been able to spend more time together. “We do quizzes every day, and he finds them so engaging. He displays knowledge I didn’t know he had.

“We go for walks along the coast. I love the sea – that’s the only reason I don’t still live in Nottingham. Brighton’s a touristy place with all sorts of things to do, and that’s what I miss the most, going out as a family. That and football,” he laughs.

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Henry Normal’s Lockdown Checklist:

  • Zoom quizzes

“I did a round on supermarkets. It’s funny – we all go to them, but we don’t know much about them. Do you know what ASDA stands for? I love things that are so familiar yet so unknown.”

  • Binge a TV show

“I’ve been watching Normal People. As someone that’s worked in television, I can tell that the production, the casting, everything, is excellent.”

  • Online shop

“We asked for some Häagan-Dazs ice cream and they gave us the low-fat version. So annoying. Ice cream’s supposed to be unhealthy.”

  • DIY haircut

“I’m starting to look like an old lady. I was thinking of cutting it all off, but you’ve got to time it right. Especially if you’re using Zoom, because there’ll be a permanent record of your bad haircut.”

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Between spending time with his son, sitting in his garden getting vitamin D for his psoriasis, watching Normal People, and dealing with people on Twitter (“I saw one tweet that said ‘so where’s God?’ I wanted to reply ‘he’s social distancing,’ but I thought I’d better not. That person didn’t even have 12 followers. At least Jesus had 12”), Henry Normal is almost as busy as he would be usually. But he still finds time to dwell on life. He is a poet, after all.

“Right now, we’re all sitting to the side of life, trying to understand how it works. I find it helps to think of it like this: say lockdown lasts for another three months. You’ve got two time periods: from now until you next sleep, and three months from now. It’s about doing something before you sleep, that you’ll remember three months from now. When this is all over, what will I look back on?”