Monday, 2 August 2010

Never mind the Arts Council, I was the Dog's Bollocks

I had the wierdest experience yesterday. Don’t think I’m going to recover from it in some time.
Really got back a sense that, once in my life, I did something not just good but damn good. Excellent, a one-off, no-one else could have or has done it.
The thing is, 28 years ago in Belfast I founded a thing called Calamitous Clown Collective – a performance group that did clown shows in community centres, schools, in the street, at small town festivals…..places like that. Doesn’t sound much, except you have to know what Belfast was like at the time.
Absolute hell! Two communities who only communicated with each other to kill each other, a police force riddled with protestant paramilitaries and a death squad operating with state impunity to assassinate political undesirables, no law and order on the estates except that dealt out by the Provies or the UDA….
..and somewhere in this mess kids were trying to grow up and parents wanted that to happen without them being too screwed up, which wasn’t going to happen in schools and an education service run totally on sectarian lines - as was access to most government jobs, while outside the public sector were simply no jobs at all.
I was working there with an arts group that somehow did work on both sides of the sectarian divide. We’d ask kids ‘What do you want to do’, and ineviably they’d answer ‘This is Belfast, you can’t do anything’. So one day I got pissed off and said ‘OK, if you can’t do anything, let’s try the maddest, most outrageous thing we can, and if we fail, doesn’t matter cos you can’t do anything anyway but we still had the best laugh trying…’
And one kid said, ‘well, you couldn’t put on a circus show in Divis Flats’ ……and next Christmas we did, and we went on performing all round Ireland.
Which pissed off serious art bores somewhat, because the style of clowning we did was faster, louder, fuller on than anything anyone had ever seen ....... anywhere….. ever! Street kids from the Falls and Sandy Row with all the black humour you develop from those places, really going for it. Not so much Marcel Marceau or those baggy pants saddoes in the proper circus, more like Chaplin on speed performed by the Sex Pistols or Motorhead.
Wow, the English ‘alternative theatre’ types and the Dublin mime mafiosi hated it – almost as much as kids and Northern Ireland’s hardcore punk community loved it. We could, and did, blow anything else the ‘proper’ arts and theatre community could produce off stage.
There’s one BBC Northern Ireland TV clip I’d kill to see again. A TV producer and the manager of the Undertones put on a street festival in Belfast – mostly punk bands, and the Arts Council tried to hijack it. Welfare State International – then the UK’s leading cutting edge dangerous ‘alternative theatre troupe’ (at least to Guardian readers) were putting on some big performance in Botanical Gardens, and came marching down the street with their ‘rather droll’ version of a clown brass band just as the cameras were about to roll on our show. The entire street went silent, seething as WSI honked and bashed their way past, for all the world like an STD at an orgy.
I was fuming, more wound up than usual at their cheek, so as they passed the crowd and got to the top of the street I flew on stage and yelled ‘Never mind the Arts Council, we’re the Bollocks' as we went storming into our act. That street erupted like a riot kicking off.
Fecks sake, this was 'only' a clown show. Small kids fidget and get bored at the clown rich parents book for a birthday party. But here were hundreds of not just small kids but grown adults pushing each other - and even armed coppers - out of the way to get closer to the stage. I'd been at quieter Clash gigs than this!
And a year later it was all over – for me anyway. I had an accident performing, plus other heavy stuff happened and I had to give it all up, move away.
I knew the show went on. I knew some of the guys in 1985 put together something called Belfast Community Circus, which evolved, got serious and is now teaching circus arts to folk all around Europe, but I lost contact and never had a part in it.
Then yesterday at Peel Carnival some Northern Irish street performers looked strangely familiar. I recognised the full-on aggressive style, the dramatic build-up of the tricks, even my old bed of nails. It was like it must be for errant parents seeing a kid you were parted from at birth, fostered, all grown up and doing stuff to make you proud, without even knowing you.
I’m boasting, but I don’t care. I MADE that, I brought it to life and it brought joy to others. Seeing that one good thing from my distant past – almost forgotten, made me realise I neeedn’t care about all the petty crap going on around me, needn’t be dragged down by all the nonsense jobs and halfwit employers I must endure for the foreseeable future to look after my family. Because just once I created something so unique, so great, that no-one else could have done it. And it’s still excellent, still bringing nothing but joy to those who do it or experience it.
My Mona Lisa, my punk as fuck Sistine Chapel.
Never mind the Arts Council. Never mind anything. Yesterday was the dog’s bollocks.

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