Diary: Arbroath

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I rejoin the tour after a couple of days, and, stepping off a busy commuter train into early evening sunshine, I feel glad to be back on the road again. Arbroath is red sandstone and quiet streets at this time of day. A holiday feeling, as well – visiting grandparents in Forfar as a child, this was the site of an occasional day trip to the beach. (My dad used to go on summer holidays here too, the entire extended family decamping from Dundee to a live in a disused bus on the outskirts of Arbroath. After this tour, I have a newfound respect for them.)

I pass the Keptie Pond on the way up to Hospitalfield, ducks basking in the sunshine – which is not something I’ve ever imagined a duck doing before – and a couple of young lassies walking a dog. I arrive at the Hospitalfield Arts Centre just as the minibus is returning from town, too. It’s a beautiful building – that red sandstone. Angela, a barmaid who is a fount of both knowledge and boundless enthusiasm, explains that the impressive bits we can see were added in Victorian times to the original monks’ hospital. I can only presume they were added by someone who really liked dogs, as there are cast-iron dog statues perched on every available surface.

This evening has ended up being a bit of a tour reunion – several of the performers who started the tour have rejoined us, for this start of the last leg. Having headed up one side and down the other, we’re now making for the centre of Scotland. Jamie has refused to leave us on his appointed date, being too caught up in the atmosphere and momentum of the tour. This is fortuitous, as he and young fiddler Robbie Grieg have been working on some tunes together, and it’s sounding good.

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We’ve also got Zara Gladman – better known to much of the internet as Lady Alba – back on tour. She introduces herself with a Hamish-Imlach-inspired autobiographical song – telling of her exploits with smokies and cider earlier in the day, and predicting the evening’s possible end of her snogging a guy with glasses and throwing up in her handbag. (Sorry, readers – only those on tour get to find out if it comes true.) She has the audience in stitches before she’s even really started her set, and it only gets better. For her final song, the (in)famous Bad Romance cover, she ducks behind a saltire for a superhero-esque change into No-voting, Irn-Bru-hair-rollered Lady Alba.

Next up is another one who’s rejoined us from earlier, poet Harry Giles. His work is new to me, and blows me away. He’s definitely a performer as well as a writer, and his poetry works as perfectly in speech as it does on the page (the best sort of poetry, if you ask me.) He reels off a quick-fire list of questions –

Can you pick up small objects from the floor?
Are the police there to protect and serve?
Do you struggle to sense what others are feeling?
Can you pick up a pound coin?!

And on, and on. After, he explains that these are questions culled from three scourges of the modern world, the UK citizenship test, the ATOS work capability test, and a psychometric test for jobseekers (which was proved to give the same results no matter how you answered the question.) Harry recounts a friend’s humiliating experience of being asked repeatedly to pick up a pound coin from the floor at his work capability assessment. I feel furious. We need more poets like this one. He should be shouted from the rooftops. He should perform outside jobcentres across the country. It’s not just me that he’s impressed, either – some of the audience is disappointed that he disappears at the break for a train back to Edinburgh, and can’t sign his book for them.

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It’s coming on for twilight as the audience goes outside for the group break photo. Tealights glowing in yellow jars outside. Noticing the tiny changes in sunsets makes me realise how close we’re getting to September.

After the break, Jamie’s on, opening with his new partner in crime Robbie, singing Glenlogie – ‘a sad song, with quite a happy tune.’ We’re a little bit south of proper Sunset Song country now, but I recall Chris Guthrie at her wedding party, musing on how so many of Scottish songs are sad – she thinks it fits with the land and sky, a sadness inherent in the very air of Scotland.

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Rós is enthusing the audience as usual, encouraging them to take our multicoloured chapbooks for their colleagues and friends. ‘I’ve been challenging myself to sneak them into people’s pockets without them noticing,’ she jokes. ‘I’m just waiting for someone to turn round and shout, Why are you touching my bum?! It’s all for the campaign!’

Our final act is Esperi, all the way from Carnoustie. (I think his mum calls him Chris.) His set-up hints at mysterious things to come, wires and keyboards and a multicoloured kids’ xylophone. ‘You haven’t seen him yet, have you?’ says Alex. ‘Just you wait.’ As he plays, he seems to be making more and more layers of noise, impossible-sounding, from the back where we can only see him holding an acoustic guitar. Sneaking down the front to see what’s going on, it’s amazing. He starts playing a keyboard… Through a tube. With his mouth. Tapping pedals lightly with his feet sets off new sounds. He’s got a variety of toy instruments spread around, he kneels on the floor to reach them, something like a child at play and something like a strange hybrid of man and instrument. Playing with toys and making it beautiful. The joy he’s finding in it is infectious. He spins a yellow sound hose (or, in layman’s terms, whirly tube) round his head, making a whooshing sound that you could probably get on a computer, but why would you want to when you could do that?

Making sound for the joy of making sound is the key principle for Esperi. His songs seem to have a theme of youth, childhood, birth, renewal – he dedicates Storks to a little sixteen-month-old boy, and another song is from the eyes of his childhood self, in a snowy field by Carnoustie which became the ice planet of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. So it’s not all the sadness of the land and sky – the joy of sound and of singing is everywhere too, in the vocable choruses of waulking songs and bothy ballads, the sound and movement and imagination transforming hard work into – well, hard work that isn’t completely miserable and soul destroying. No, there’s definitely happiness in our music too.

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It’s dark when the dazed audience filters out of Hospitalfield, and we pack up with the aid of head torches. Sitting in the back of the minibus as we drive back to our campsite at Monifieth, I look out at the streetlights and night-clouds, transported back to what seemed like epic bus journeys between Dundee and Forfar as a child, and the layer of imagination that could cover the landscape from a child’s mind. If we take one thing from Esperi’s set, I’d say it’s that we should keep that layer of imagination, see things in all their possible ways of being. Things can’t get better if we can’t imagine how they could be, and, besides, it’s fun.

That, and we should all get a whirly tube.

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