Over the last few months Hannah McPhillimy and I have had the opportunity to tour our little music and word project, “Disappear Here” all over Ireland. It’s not a complicated set up. I read from my novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears and Hannah sings the incredible songs she’s written based around the book’s characters. I make Hannah sing a Bob Dylan song, we sell a few books/cds, drink some complimentary wine and try to make it home before midnight for we are most definitely not cut for the post-midnight excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. For the most part it’s been a lovely experience. We’ve seen an awful lot of the motorway services outside Drogheda, cultivated a mean in-car duet on EmmyLou Harris and eaten a fair few packets of wine gums. Sometimes, when EmmyLou gets old, we also do Roy Orbison. Occasionally we bring Lizzie, our cellist, along for the ride and she contributes an extra layer of calm, (and class), to the whole affair. At least once per outing I try to convince Hannah that she should swap the coffin sized keyboard she insists upon lugging up the stairs and across the rickety stages of Ireland’s music venues, for something more manageable, more suited to the manhandling capabilities of a pair of girls in high heels; a tin whistle ideally or even an ordinary-sized Casio. Hannah remains resolutely fond of her keyboard/millstone.
When we were first asked to perform for the Brussels platform in Belgium Hannah told the Arts Council there’d be no problem in bringing our own keyboard with us. I nearly kicked her. We were flying from Dublin. We were flying Ryanair. (To give anyone outside of Europe yet to experience Ireland’s favourite budget airline a reference point I would later be asked by a Dublin-based Ryanair representative to remove the single shoe which had tipped my checked bag one half kilogramme overweight and carry it on board as a second piece of hand luggage). It seemed unlikely that Ryanair would permit us to stow the keyboard in the overhead luggage locker and even less likely that we’d be able to manhandle it into a taxi, unto the Aircoach, through Dublin airport at rush hour on a Monday morning, on to a Belgian bus connecting the airport to the train station, through a provincial train station and on to a double-decker fast train, up several flights of escalators to the madly confusing Brussels underground and from the underground, through the streets of Brussels to our hotel without killing each other in the process. Just thinking about this complex operation made me break out in the total body sweat I have come to associate with manoeuvring the keyboard any more than half a foot across an inclined stage.
Therefore, it was with a kind of relieved joy approaching hysteria that I opened an email around a month ago to discover the good folks in Brussels were going to supply us with an onsite keyboard which would require neither manhandling nor self-wiring, (for it is not unknown to arrive at a venue only to discover that despite the fact you have no qualifications outside the realms of English and Theology, your host assumes you fully capable of wiring and operating the most complicated of soundboards with nothing but a roll of duct tape to hand). Later we would come to realise that though serious in nature, (something I’d long since gleaned from all those episodes of Poirot), the Belgians are an extremely generous and well-organised, (Metro system notwithstanding), breed of people. We were met at the airport by a lovely man holding a sign upon which was written something roughly approximating our names and then driven through the city in a car with tinted glass windows so passersby no doubt assumed us to be Angela Merkel, or some dignitary of equal standing, en route to sign important European documents. We stayed in a hotel with balconies and complimentary umbrellas, where breakfast was a banquet bookended by chocolate toast and every other guest was a pinstriped businessman. The reading was sandwiched between a very delicious two course meal with proper champ and Belfast beer AND there was an actual Ambassador in attendance. (We both remain unsure exactly what an Ambassador is or does; whether there is a single Ambassador resident in Brussels or one for each nationality/office block. Regardless, neither of us have performed for an Ambassador before and most likely never will again so this experience was a real treat for us both). Everyone we met at the Northern Irish Bureau was incredibly encouraging and both Hannah and I hit all time records on book/cd sales. Our sound technicians were so pleasant and enthusiastic, offering us up to 20 microphones if we were this way inclined, that we actually began to wonder whether they were real sound technicians or a pair of Metallica-shirted diplomats attempting to imitate some kind of Platonic ideal of sound technician certainly not indigenous to the Belfast arts scene. After the reading we had chips in a cone and a nice young man walked us all the way back to our hotel just to make sure we were ok.
I should probably say something here about the history and culture of Brussels or talk about the opportunities afforded by having our work showcased as part of such a wonderful series of arts and cultural performances. There’s a lot that could be said in both arenas; all positive. However, the main thing I brought back from Brussels, (aside from a suitcase of Belgian chocolate), was the lingering suspicion that we’d been by our hosts. After a pretty tough season back home it was a real blessing to be looked after so well. I came home a little more enthusiastic about writing than I was when I left Belfast and I’m very grateful to all those who quietly and generously had a hand in this. Good hospitality goes an awfully long way towards making people feel welcome and bringing the best out in them. The lovely people at the Northern Irish Bureau in Brussels are consummate professionals when it comes to hosting artists and anyone who gets the opportunity to perform at the Brussels platform should jump at the chance.