Perhaps all writers are guilty of fictionalising their own childhood memories? With the benefit of hindsight, we attempt to impose meaning and order and significance on random events. To create a coherent narrative. Besides, memory is a fickle friend and who’s to say what’s true?
July 1967 and I am six years old (or almost so), wearing the party clothes of that kind of a child, in those kind of 1960s English village days in Sussex: a midnight blue velvet dress with a satin bow, white knee-length socks, black patent Mary Janes and a ribbon – possibly – in my hair. There are no photographs of that particular summer’s night, but there are enough of other birthdays and Christmases where I’m dressed like that for me to paint the picture.
I want to remember the evening was sunny and that we walked from the light of Oaklands Park into the shadow of the black-and-white-tiled foyer of the new, modern, concrete Chichester Festival Theatre – hand-in-hand-in-hand with my parents – and into the magnificent, timeless auditorium. Green carpets and purple seats, wide aisles and a wide stage like the bottom half of a thrupenny piece. No curtains, just white walls visible and pink balustrades and staircases. Peering at the tickets, finding the right row, all those legs. The material scratching the back of my legs and my feet not reaching the ground – then the flap of programmes and chairs as the audience stood for the national anthem.
But then. The houselights went down and the stage lights came up and that was it. Launched into another world, perfect and bright and different, exciting and confusing. I remember next to nothing about the play – except thinking Sarah Badel, as the ingénue bride, was beautiful – but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the falling in love, the understanding that in the theatre, life became something else, something magical. That we could be whoever we wanted on the stage and tell any story we chose to tell.
Fifty years on, after my first visit to that theatre, it is still where the magic happens.
The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special