Poet Clair Whitefield prepares to serve up some spicy verse at Edinburgh Fringe

Clair Whitefield in Chopping Chillies

Clair Whitefield in Chopping Chillies - Credit: Archant

The spoken-word artist tells Rhiannon McGregor about Chopping Chillies, her epic tale of magic cobblers in Camden Town.

Imagine talking in rhyme for 50 minutes – that’s 3000 seconds of verse to be witnessed. Poet Clair Whitefield will do just that when she takes her spoken word piece, Chopping Chillies, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August.

A tale that hinges on Whitefield’s on-going love affair with the melting pot of culture and cuisine that is London, the South End Green resident describes this work as her “love song to Camden”.

“I would go and get my shoes fixed at a cobbler’s on the high street and look out at the Chinese medicine shop across the road. And it got me thinking: what if these two joined forces? What if magical insoles could tickle all the right reflexology points in your feet and fix all your physical aches, pains and heartaches? That’s when I started writing this story about a magical cobbler who could do just that.”

Location and a sense of place play an integral role within the tale. The story follows Ajna Jan, a Kalari (martial arts) warrior and healer who inherits a cobbler’s shop on Camden High Street from his uncle. This journey from a kitchen in south India to one of London’s most iconic neighbourhoods is relayed to us through Katie, a young woman who runs the Indian cafe next door. They strike up an unlikely friendship and Ajna begins mentoring Katie in the art of Indian cooking. One of the culinary secrets he divulges is the Kashmiri chilli, an aromatic spice from which the piece derives its name.

And why is Whitefield so intrigued by the somewhat obscure profession of shoe cobbling? After quitting her job in PR at the end of 2010, she travelled to Goa where she trained as a yoga teacher. Despite her rigorous schooling there is one pose that continues to outfox her, called Baddha Konasana. Translated as “cobbler’s pose” it replicates the position side street cobblers in India traditionally sit in while fixing shoes.

Poetry has been in Whitefield’s repertoire since an early age, although she admits it has not always been of the highest calibre. “I have hundreds of notebooks of scrawlings. Not all of it is good. In fact a lot of it is cringe-worthy: teenage angst, the pain of your first break-up. But over the years I have found my voice and style and a way of writing that appeals to other people too.”

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Chopping Chillies has already played in scratch form to sell-out shows at the Soho Theatre, the Freeword Centre in London and Camden’s Etcetera Theatre and now the complete show is to feature in Edinburgh Festival’s PBH Free Fringe. The premise behind the PBH Free Fringe, which was started in 1996 by comedian and namesake Peter Buckley Hill, is that the shows run entirely off donations.

Over the years the main festival has become increasingly commercialised but as Whitefield explains of the Free Fringe, “it’s a format that works for performers like me as we get the venue space for free and so don’t have to pay any exorbitant rental fees. And it also means that people are, hopefully, more likely to take a punt on a performer they haven’t heard of before as they’re risking their time rather than staking their cash.”

This tale of a mystical cobbler is undoubtedly a labour of love for Whitefield, who has spent three years tweaking the original, transforming it from a love story to this enchanting tale of everyday magic, which has prompted people to “laugh out loud and even cry”.