Brighton & Hove Camera Club, Brighton Fringe, Chris Wright, emotion, Harold White, history, interpretation, miner's strike, mining, National Coal Mining Museum, nerves, photographs, politics, Rattle Tales, reading aloud, Russel Brand, short stories, spoken word, stage fright, stories, Thatcher, Thatcherism, Wakefield, Yorkshire
I had an interesting experience at Rattle Tales’ Brighton Fringe show last week. I did something I’ve never done before; I read a story that was extremely personal to me in content to an audience of over a hundred people. The story in question is a very recent one, written in April in the ten days between Margaret Thatcher’s death and her funeral. During that time I felt that a lot of nonsense was being spoken about the former Prime Minister. Somehow she had been elevated in death into our greatest ever leader, the person solely responsible for dragging the country out of the Middle Ages, a visionary, a military strategist on a par with Churchill, a great reformer, all this and a woman too! On the other side she was demonised, acted alone (with no help from the men in her cabinet) and was literally branded a witch (just like in the Middle Ages). For the first time in my life I became fully aware of history as consensus. Something I had lived through and could remember clearly was being historicised. I realized that in years to come Thatcher’s legacy would only be remembered in polarised ways, the views of the majority would prevail but along the way certain views would be lost forever.
I am not from a big mining family. One of my uncles was a miner but he died when I was a small child (of lung cancer of course). He left a wife and a brood of children and I remember spending happy times with my aunt and cousins, going to their house for Saturdays and sleep overs. My Dad was in the army for twenty-five years and then worked in insurance. Looking back, I think he used the army as means of escape, a way of not living out his life in the industrial North. If he had stayed he may well have had a life as a miner; it was good honest work. Dad was the one who got away, but his siblings and their families stayed put and worked in the industries, lived on the estates and socialised in the working men’s clubs. They are called ‘working men’s clubs’ for a reason by the way, the men (and women) worked hard. My Dad brought his family back to Yorkshire after a long time away, after postings abroad and marriage to an Irish girl, but he was the outsider who had returned to his roots and never quite fitted back in.
I had a strange political upbringing, Dad was an out and out Thatcherite who saw the sense in the championing of individualism and the ‘on yer bike’ philosophy and Mum was a working class Irish Catholic who knew about prejudice and the value of community. As far as I am aware they never voted for the same party. During the miner’s strike I was at the 6th form of a huge Catholic school in Featherstone. Featherstone was a pit town and some of this kids I went to school with were hugely affected by the strike. Pride and despair are the two words I would use to describe those years; I’ll never forget it, friends who were forced to live on charity, a scythe slashed through whole communities. My politics were formed then and actually they haven’t changed much since, through student protests and countless petitions I have maintained a continued interest in what I perceive to be the injustices perpetrated by successive governments. I like to think of myself as left of centre but, as a like-minded friend said during the media circus surrounding Thatcher’s death, slightly left of centre in the 1980s is now considered to be raving Marxist, yet I’m certainly not that.
When I heard the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death I didn’t see it as a cause for celebration. Surprisingly, Russell Brand (in The Guardian) summed up what I, and many others from my generation, were feeling; essentially an unfathomable melancholic malaise, a real sense of loss and a nostalgic hankering for a past that may not have existed in the first place. His article was the only thing I read on the subject that I wished I’d written. As a writer I felt the need to address what was being over-looked by both sides and so I wrote a story set in a pit town on the day the news broke.
The main character in my story is based on my Dad’s surviving brother, a retired fireman and not a miner in reality, but possessed of the old-style working-class values I needed for my character. He would never celebrate someone’s death, no matter who it was. I had him firmly in mind physically when I wrote the story and then mixed in a bit of my Dad’s personality too. The character was an amalgam of the two brothers, one who had stayed in Yorkshire and one who had not. Writing it was a very moving experience so I knew reading it would be too.
I showed the story to a few writer friends and then put it up for Rattle Tales. In the intervening weeks I read my story aloud many times to myself and each time I ended up crying. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s Northern romanticism, the same reason I like Richard Hawley and Stan Barstow, the Brontes and Ted Hughes. Maybe it’s just that you can take the girl out of the North but you can’t take the North out of the girl, the reason I always end up with talking in a Yorkshire accent whenever I’m back home, a nostalgia for something I left behind. I put the story away for a while, got it out and read it again, and still I cried! Then the Brighton Fringe was upon us and there were suddenly loads of jobs to do organising the show. The Rattle Tales crew went into overdrive co-ordinating writers, proofing the anthology, marketing etc. and the stories were being interpreted by Brighton & Hove Camera Club so there was all that going on too. I forgot to practice the story again until the day before the show. I read it aloud several times throughout the day and I still couldn’t do it without weeping.
At the event I was unbelievably nervous. I know this was because my story was so personal to me because I’ve not been that nervous about reading to an audience for a very long time. I was shaking as I took to the stage and just after I started my voice wavered and tears welled in my eyes, but it got easier as I went on and by the end I was much better. It’s not very professional is it though, getting emotional on stage?
I needn’t have worried because so many people came up afterwards and told me how much they liked it and how my obvious emotion made the reading better because they could sense the feeling behind the words. I began to feel elated. I’m not an actor, I can’t do voices and dramatic performances (though in this case I did manage to resurrect my Yorkshire accent) but I did invest a lot of feeling in my reading. It was hard going but it was well worth it. I felt as though I’d achieved something, as though I made a story I’d borrowed memorable and that was the reason I’d written it in the first place.
My advice is this – if you have written something you have invested a lot of emotion in and you get the opportunity to read it to an audience, go for it, it’s a great feeling when you’ve done it.
Photograph by Chris Wright (Brighton & Hove Camera Club)
Archive still by permission of National Coal Mining Museum of England, Harold White Collection.