Unless I’m going to get something particularly useful from it like a great interview or story, a free curry, or maybe a private tour of an art gallery, haunted castle, gin distillery or secret nuclear installation, I tend to go ‘a bit incognito’ on book projects the better to observe and eavesdrop. I remembered exactly why when on taking my seat at the Harrogate Theatre on Wednesday night, the cheery, voluble man next to me shouted “Are you from the Yorkshire Post?” as I got out my little notebook and settled down to take in some of the Comedy Festival. Shortly after, a sort of recognition dawned and we engaged in further small talk. “Shame about Terry Wogan, wasn’t it?” he asks. “Yes” I reply blankly, this being the only possible answer a person in possession of their senses could give
In the fullness of time and for the finished book, when I’ve ‘processed’ the evening with trained therapy professionals skilled in this stuff, I’ll say more about quite why this was one of the more difficult hours of my life. It wasn’t the fault of the Canadian comic…although perhaps some of it was like the long, very awkward anecdote about the size of her father’s appendage and the obligatory ‘preaching to the choir’ about ‘issues’. But no mainly, my discomfort stemmed from other sources than the enthusiastic, smart young performer, mainly stuff emanating from sections of the small crowd, who were either ‘silent smilers’ (perfectly reasonable thing to be but perhaps the worst kind for a performer, who thinks they’re dying) or loudly and persistently trying to get in on the act.
“Anyone in from Canada?”
My neighbour: “ YES!… YOU!”
“Who was the best Spice Girl, do you think?”
” SCARY….BECAUSE… SHE’S FROM YORKSHIRE!!”
Then, terrifyingly, the comedian notices us and leans forward into the spotlight, shading her eyes
“Are you guys on a date?”
“HEE HEEEEE SQUEEE! HEE HEE HEE HEE..” comes the worryingly delighted squeal from my new chum
“NO! NO, WE’RE NOT” I shout far more quickly and loudly than is strictly necessary.
Later, brooding in The Bell Tavern over a small strong craft beer, I conclude that it’s no-one’s fault. Like Formula One, The Apprentice and taramasalata, stand-up is just not my thing. It’s not you, it’s me. We should start seeing other people. Like Jean Michel Jarre, Debussy and the Chuckle Brothers.
These are not names chosen at random. These were the cultural delights that I had a genuinely hard time choosing from by the time I’d got to Leeds for my evening just as the Marchers had eighty years before. They were given a slap up reception with Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding – by the local Tory party again, I should add – with uniformed staff asking ‘Beer or Tea, Sir’. It was, by all accounts, perhaps the finest night of the whole march, and certainly in one of the finest buildings in England “The epitome of northern civic bombast” Architecture Today, called it, a little snidely if you ask me (If London does it, it’s bravura, if Leeds does it, it’s bombast) but then, as I am so often told, I’m far too touchy and ‘chippy’ about these things. Anyway, it is grand. More anon.
Before reaching the town hall though, I had my final quick jaunt on the 36, surely the coolest, poshest local bus in England surely with its occasional breakfast services, its library, reclining seats and unfathomable tray tables. I’ll miss it. And then a long dull trudge up the A61 via Harewood House where the Lascelles family, reputedly Norman invaders (they come over here, taking our jobs, land, linguistic and cultural infrastructure, harrowing our North…) ended up making such a packet from plantation ownership that it takes even a virile, energetic, early middle aged writer/broadcaster (ahem) half an hour to walk alongside its forested border (wherein lies somewhere, by the way, the new custom built Emmerdale set)
There are two ways of seeing such a state of affairs. Firstly that it is deeply weird and wrong that one family should grow rich from the toil of black people in exploitative conditions on the other side of the world, slavery in fact. But then on the other…well, no, there is no other actually. But the family acknowledge this dark legacy and maybe at this remove we should be slow to judge.
Judging is all the rage these days. On the 36 I leafed though a paper and saw that Lily Allen was getting ‘trolled’ for apologizing to the people in the Calais ‘Jungle’. And then I did my own spot of it when I read that the Art History A level was being scrapped, firing off an angry tweet about Michael Gove’s philistinism and demanding suggestions for compensatory cultural delights in Leeds to enjoy that night. It turned out there were dozens on offer; Steve Howe, Jean Michel Jarre, The Brontes and Sleuth at the theatre. After some sifting, I narrowed it down to An Evening With The Chuckle Brothers or a recital of early 20th century French piano music. In the end I went for the latter and, with all due respect to the other talents, I chose well. Debussy’s Piano Preludes, in a battered box set from Wigan library, were my entrée into classical music and these haunting, limpid, sensual pieces still make my head swim
Stephen Osborne has recorded the Debussy preludes for Hyperion, but this is a version by François-Joël Thiollier
Two strange and rather brilliant things conclude the night. Appearing after the interval pianist Steven Osborne jokingly dedicates the performance to ‘the person who came here rather than see the Chuckle Brothers apparently”. But odder is yet is to come. I get back to my hotel and am writing up my notes when I receive a tweet from Michael Gove stating that the scrapping of Art History A level is nothing to do with him (‘I Heart Art History’, he emoji’s) and so I reply to the effect that I stand corrected if he isn’t to blame. He concedes the exchange “Thank you Stuart – a genuinely fair minded thinker”
“A genuinely fair-minded thinker” …. Is that one for the book jacket I wonder?
As in “No-one writes about the Nazis like Sven Hassell! Hats Off!” Frederick Forsyth
Or “I was gripped from the first murder” Harlan Coben.
I shall think about it. But now to bed.
I have a lot of fair-minded thinking to do before Wakefield