A Good Idea - Irlam Fringe Festival

I think some people thought I was bloody mad to fly to Manchester for one evening and then fly straight back again. I think that because I was one of the people who thought it, so it follows that there were probably a few more who thought it as well.

“Are you mad?” A little voice in my head (which was really just me doing a funny accent) kept saying, “are you bloody cracked or what?”

As it turned out, I wasn’t mad at all. Going to Irlam turned out to be a very good idea indeed.

There was this Fringe Theatre Festival, you see, and one of my short plays got selected to be in it. As soon as I heard that, I said, “I’ll go.” I just resolved. To hell with the cost and the hours travelling. I’ll just go.

As I said, I’m glad I did.

Lots of people did lots of things to make it happen but The Festival was Jane McNulty’s baby really. And Jane, as I have learned, is a bit of a force of nature. When she gets her teeth into something, she doesn’t tend to let go. She booked the venue, she assembled the actors and the directors and the tech-wizards and the bar staff and the ladies who sell raffle tickets. She built it and they came.

It took me a while to get to Irlam Catholic Club (a fine establishment). The journey involved cars and planes and trains and buses. There was even a short run on a badly behaved knee. But I got there at 7.10 for a 7.30 start. 

“There’ll be nobody here yet.” I said to myself, my mind still operating on West of Ireland time. 

The place was packed. Jammers. Twenty minutes before the kick-off. Unheard of where I come from. The large hall was filled with people chatting and socialising and queuing for the bar and… stop, wait, ‘queuing?’ ‘for the bar?’. I know, I’d never seen it before either; an orderly line, waiting for their turn to procure a drink. I told Toto I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and went to score myself a seat.

One of the things I liked best was the seating arrangement. The seats, to my eye, were laid out for Bingo rather than in the orderly lines boringly associated with theatre. And, Bingo, it worked. People sat at their lines of tables and chairs and they were able to interact and look each other in the eye and still have a good view of the stage. The way people were sitting added considerably to the evening, for me. One to remember, that.

I got sitting with a lovely couple. Retired, I’d say. Never caught their name. We chatted away the whole evening. They were nice to me and struggled gamely with my funny accent. 

The raffle lady came round.

“How much for a strip of tickets?”

“A pound.”

“How many will you give me for five pounds?”

A momentary beady-eye

“Five.”

“Right.”

I won two bottles of wine, so that worked out okay too. 

I won’t do a review of all the plays. From the moment the lights dimmed, right through to the end of the evening, there was never a moment’s doubting of the skill and professionalism of the acting and directing talent on display. These people meant business and, whether it was comic or tragic or dramatic business, they had all brought their A-Game to the stage. 

The audience was warm and receptive and savvy and fine. A lovely audience. Jane did a brief intro at the start and then let the plays do their own talking. No individual intros. When one play was finished, the next came on. The audience got it and the evening flowed.

My play, 'Dance Night', was up last. It had a great cast; Samantha Vaughan, Hayley Cartwright and David Milne. Gayle Hare directed. They made me cry a little bit. At my own play. The buggers. Well done, guys, and thanks very much. You did my scribblings proud.

Afterwards there was no rush to vacate. There were drinks and chat and fun and warmth and drinks and a doll (for some reason) and drinks. Then a taxi back to the airport hotel. I left my phone in the taxi and the taxi driver drove back and returned it to me. That’s Manchester for you, they’re all right.

Jane says she’ll do it all again next year. Keep an eye on her and on Irlam too. If you’ve got a nice short play, let her have a look when she asks for it. If you’re lucky enough to get chosen, they’ll take good care of your play and of you as well. 

You can be sure of that. 

Back River, Run Deep

It happens quite often.

A song will take me back to a time or a place in a flash and in amazingly vivid detail.

It happens quite often but I wouldn’t always jump to write the memory down. In fact, I think I’ve only done it once, here. It’s almost too easy to do. The evoked memory rings crystal clear such that it’s the simplest task to write it down and slap it up on the blog here. 

The reason I don't is simple enough. I don’t reckon that things which are easy to write are always easy or enjoyable to read. Witness the person who dashes off a page or two of something that has just occurred to them and then shows it around everyone to read. It might be ambrosia to the writer but it probably ain’t going to set the rest of the world alight. It’s self-indulgent, you see, and that’s what posts like these are; the ultimate self-indulgence. They are probably more suited to some private diary, locked up in a drawer somewhere and only pulled out to act as an aide memoire when normal memory has failed or, indeed, after all memory is gone.

As a further aside, I wish the songs that evoked things for me were a bit ‘cooler’ or something. That would make for a more vibrant piece too. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? You don’t pick ‘em, they pick you.

Where to start this time? The song or the memory? The memory or the song?

In 1976, I was thirteen and still being hauled along for every family excursion that was planned. I was still too young to be left home alone, it seemed. This wasn’t a problem. As I recall, I enjoyed the excursions.

Over that Summer holiday we would all regularly go and visit some friends of Mum and Dad’s who lived in a house out by the seaside. We would set off after our tea (which, in case you don’t know, happened at six o’clock in the evening). These friends had kids of their own who were a year or two off my age, enough that we would spend our time kicking around aimlessly while our parents drank tea and chatted across the television noise.

The first part of this evoked memory is the impatience I felt, in that Summer of ’76. The need for this visit, pleasant and all as it was, to be over and for us to be on our way home again. 

Back to the River.

Because, yes, I had the River in my blood that Summer.

Did you ever see where I grew up? It was a council terrace house, nothing big or fancy, but it was in a great place. Right across the road from the river. You only had to go down the garden path, across the road and you were, literally, in the river. Perhaps, then, it was only natural that the river would, for a short time at least, capture my imagination and my energy. It had captivated my Dad for every day of his life so why not me, if only in a fleeting way?

Across the road, the river was split by a weir which cut along its length for a hundred yards or so. The old photo shows it (it also shows my two older brothers, out on the rocks). This stone weir split the river into what was known as the ‘Back River’ and the ‘Front River’. The Front River was there for all to see, wide and slow-slowing, little boats dotted all along its way. But the ‘Back River’ was different. Not everyone could see it, not clearly anyway. You had to get your waders and tuck your jeans into the bottom of your socks and you had to wade across the front river, climb over the weir and down into those faster-rushing currents which lay beyond.

I wanted to get home that evening before the dusk grew too deep. I wanted to be in the Back River for ‘The Rise’. 

Late in the evening, on the Back River, the small trout who lived there would ‘Rise’ to take the flies that were landing on the water. It was a united effort for the trout and you could pretty-much set your watch by it. The trout were pretty tiny and they would throw themselves bodily out of the water in their quest for the fly. In quieter pools, they would sit beneath the surface and suck the flies down, causing only the slightest circle to appear on top.

For a time, that Summer, all I wanted to do was to wade over there and be in among the rise, all by myself. Well, almost by myself. 

I had my radio along too. 

I had a tiny transistor radio with a circular dial on the front and a black leatherette case to hold it in. In my memory, I brought my radio with me down the Back River. (I say, ‘in my memory’ ‘cos I can’t be sure of such things anymore). I kept it in my pocket, the volume down low, and tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

That’s where I heard the song that inevitably whips me back to those moments, in the dusk, in the river, down among the rise.

The song is ‘Let Your Love Flow’ by The Bellamy Brothers.

Maybe it came on the radio while I was down there, alone, in the river. That surely must be it. Whatever the reason, this transient, largely-unremarkable song whips me back to my thirteenth year with astonishing potency. I can feel the flies catching in my hair, the suck of the rubber waders on my calves as the cool river tugs on them, the clean brown water replete with the hint of tiny fish moving within. 

It just takes me back there, that’s all. 

And, I guess, it might say something about me too. Who I was, back then. After all, it was the long, dry Summer of 1976. The Olympics were about to start, The Sex Pistols were fuelling media rage, and there was I, on my own, in the back river, watching the rise, not caring if I never caught anything. 

Perhaps these memories come to give us a little context for our lives. To remind us who we were and where we came from. 

Perhaps not. 

Perhaps it was just a song. In a river. Long, long ago.