One of my favourite literary magazines is Slightly Foxed, a quarterly for ‘real readers’. This beautifully-produced little review publishes personal essays and reflections on books that have been around for many years, that you excavate at the back of second-hand bookshops or dig out of a box in your parents’ attic, along with your old school reports and hand-made birthday cards. It’s off-beat, knowledgeable, friendly and thoughtful, like the best kind of librarian or book shop owner.
A piece I particularly enjoyed in the winter issue of Slightly Foxed was Daisy Hay on The Swish of the Curtain, a 1941 children’s book by Pamela Brown, about a group of children who set up their own theatre, producing scenery, costumes, musical scores and even lighting rigs on their own. I read it at about 11 years of age, a stage-struck kid and a bookworm, and immediately adopted it as a manual for life. My brother and the children next door were co-opted into various entertainments, from song-and-dance numbers to magic acts (courtesy of my brother’s Paul Daniels Magic Set).
But, like the children, my big ambition was a ‘proper’ play. As the children in Swish had written a play that triumphed in the Cotchester Theatre Festival, I thought it would be a good idea to use their plot. Using the description in the book, I adapted the tragic tale of Saddler’s Circus for our four-person company to perform.
My brother Peter was the circus strong-man, in his swimming trunks and a kangaroo skin my mother had brought home from her travels. Janet from next-door was the clown, with wide baggy trousers held in place by grandpa’s braces. Her brother Gavin was the evil circus ringmaster, Saddler himself. I, of course, had the glamorous part of the daredevil bareback horse rider. Unfortunately the budget didn’t run to a horse, so we played the neighing bit from the start of Adam and the Ants’ Stand and Deliver, when we needed an equine voice. Versatility and imagination were two of the main skills I learned from Swish, along with an unashamed messing about with other people’s plots. The cast persuaded me to add a dramatic happy ending, with baddie Saddler being killed in a freak horse-riding accident (off-stage, cue Stand and Deliver) and the circus being sold to Billy Smart.
It was, of course, the most enormous fun. I graduated to school plays and the university theatre company, but became somewhat disillusioned with the world of the stage during a disastrous two-week run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the Salford University TC played Loves’ Labours Lost nightly to an audience of three people. I’d done no dramaticals since, until last year the wilder sorts at the office decided to put on a full-scale pantomime. This time I got to play the evil villain, resplendent in top hat and enormous moustache, and rediscovered the joy of am dram.
It strikes me more and more that the things one really enjoys in life – those that are cast-iron guaranteed to make you happy – are the things you enjoyed at the age of 11.By the end of your first decade you know yourself well enough to know what you like; you’ve had enough experience of the world to have some idea what to make of it and (unless you were unlucky) you haven’t yet had to learn to hide your true enthusiasms.
So forget expensive spa visits, shiny technology, posh restaurants and ridiculously priced handbags. The things that really make life worth living for me are putting on plays, reading and writing stories, riding my bike fast down a hill. And I had another trip back in time on Saturday night, when the Gentleman Caller treated us to tickets for Madness. At the first disco I ever attended, aged 11, I remember bouncing enthusiastically up and down to Baggy Trousers. Little did I suspect I’d be doing the same dance three decades later, with just as much joy in my heart, if sadly a little less fresh cartilage in my knees.
2012 has been a tough year. For 2013, far from putting away childish things, I’m going to remember what I was like when I was 11. I still climbed trees, and pretended my bike was a horse. I had zero interest in fashion, but a lot of interest in dressing up. I wanted to run away to sea, disguised as a cabin boy, to have adventures. I jumped up and down to my favourite records, with complete lack of self-consciousness. If I felt like writing a novel, or a play, or a poem, I took a pen and some paper, and wrote it.
Next time I’m trying to decide what to do with my life, I’m going to ask myself what that 11-year-old would have wanted. Right now, she seems to have a better handle on life than I do.