After a recent party drought that found me at home every evening with a book, last week I actually left the house three times after dark, much to the children’s astonishment. Not for parties as such, but for performances, two literary and one musical. As usual, they got me thinking about performers and audiences, and how they reflect each other.
First, on the Monday night, I went to Damian Barr’s literary salon to watch and listen to Diana Athill read from her latest book, Alive, Alive Oh! (and what a great title that is). Silver-haired and elegant in a flamboyant blouse, which she confessed to having bought in one of her frequent catalogue sprees, she decamped for the evening from her residential home in Highgate, north London, to the rooftop bar of the Mondrian Hotel, with sparkling views down the river as far as the London Eye, and inside the room an audience of lit-up literary London.
Onstage in her wheelchair, she looked utterly at home. In unwavering old-fashioned tones, she read aloud for twenty minutes, a description of her first Club Med holiday to Greece in the 1950s. She made it sound idyllic, and hilarious, and we hung on every word. You could have heard a pin drop, but behind that you could hear us all thinking: “I hope I’m that good at her age. I hope I’m that good now.” Or, “I wish my mother were still alive.”
Two nights later I went to see Carrie Brownstein at Rough Trade East being interviewed to promote her new book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. This was a reading in disguise as an indie gig – the audience of two hundred or so, mostly women in their thirties, packed into the far end of the shop. They clutched coffees and beers. I noticed I was older than most of them, and the only one holding a glass of wine. As the lights went down, complete silence fell like a spell, settling on us, stilling us. Instead of songs we got talk, thoughtful and witty, as Brownstein chatted to the entirely converted. She had pre-signed the books – a signing afterwards would have taken too long – but still each guest strove to make a personal connection for a second. One handed her a drawing, one asked her about the latest Sleater-Kinney tour, and another asked, rather brilliantly, whether she thought her book would be stocked in the Portlandia Feminist Bookstore. Her crowd was as charming as she was, and I thought again how performers and audiences can be so like each other, like owners and their pets. Though I’m not sure which is which.
The following night I went to see John Grant at the Eventim Apollo (still the Hammersmith Odeon to my old mind), the room full of beards and plaid shirts, a mirror once again seemingly set up between the stage and the crowd. I took Damian Barr with me and we were given centre seats in row A of the circle, which felt like the royal box. “Look at where we are!” I said. “They might as well have set up two thrones for us.”
So we rattled our jewellery and looked down at the beards on the dance floor below, and John’s baritone filled the room, his warmth filled the stage, and we blubbed through “Glacier”, his heartfelt and defiant protest song. It felt like being hugged from the stage.
Afterwards we went backstage hoping to give him an actual hug but, as I suspected, he avoided the Gaumont Bar where we all gathered, trying not to look over each other’s shoulders to see if he’d come into the room. He didn’t and I don’t blame him. Reappearing as yourself, in company, only moments after you’ve been performing – revealed and exposed as your Public Self – can be excruciating. You don’t know how to be, what to say, and nor does anybody else.
Even more of a nightmare is being the friend who goes backstage after a disastrous show. On this occasion there wouldn’t have been any problem (we loved the gig) but what to say when you don’t? A friend of mine has the perfect solution – you simply sweep up to the performer, throw your arms wide and declare, “You’ve done it AGAIN!”
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war