About six months ago I met Rachel and Jackie of EastSide Arts for coffee. Rachel and Jackie are always asking me out for these so-called “wee coffees.” They begin quite innocently with cappuccino and casual chit chat and usually end about an hour later with plans to take over Stormont or start our own radio station or host Glastonbury in Victoria Park. It is always dangerous having coffee with Rachel and Jackie because four months after you’ve casually said the words, “wouldn’t it be totally mad but really great if we could…” you will receive a phone call/email/hasty aside at the back of a gig, informing you that you are now in charge of bringing said, “totally mad,” idea to fruition. Two months after that, you’ll find yourself standing at the front of a Presbyterian Church, wearing a kaftan and belting out Creedence Clearwater Revival to a room full of pensioners and ukelele players. You will wonder how you arrived at this strange and beautiful place. You will wish to stay for as long as possible.
Six months ago the three of us sat in Cafe Nero and made a list of things we’d like to see happen in the East. We were using words like community and inclusion and welcome: all the usual funding buzzwords. We wanted to create places and spaces within the EastSide Arts Festival which would include everyone who lives in our little bit of the city. As per usual I was thinking about older people. There are a lot of them in the East as this part of Belfast has more nursing homes and residential care facilities than any other area. Over the last few years I’ve had the absolute joy of getting to know some of these older people and many of them have become good friends. They are such a rich part of our community here in the East it seemed ludicrous to think that -because of access or health issues- many of them wouldn’t get to attend our arts festival. “Wouldn’t it be totally mad, but also really great,” I suggested, “if we could take the gigs into the nursing homes and residential care facilities.” “Totally mad,” said Rachel. “Totally mad,” said Jackie and, in that brief, espresso-charged moment, Highlights from Home was both conceived and, almost instantaneously, birthed.
Fast forward to last Thursday when we kicked off our programme of Highlight from Home events with Anthony Toner and Ronnie Greer playing jazzy blues, (or is it bluesy jazz?), in a local fold, followed by Duke Special playing a Victorian organ and singing Ruby Murray covers, Kaz Hawkins gigging up a storm, beer tasting with the Boundary Brewing crew and a fabulous spoken word event from Joan and Sam McCready. Five little gigs in total. Almost 150 older people included. Not as any kind of afterthought or ad-on to the proper festival, but rather as an integral part of who we are here in the East. Each of these gigs was a little sample of exactly the same performance the general public were getting to experience in our arts venues. 150 older people enjoyed every second of their EastSide Arts Festival experience, (well, maybe 148- there were those two older ladies more interested in the apple tart than Anthony Toner). That’s a heck of a lot of tapping toes, and sing-alongs, cups of tea and chances to chat with visiting artists, care staff encouraged and residents left smiling long after the performers went home. Not such a totally mad idea after all.
On top of our Highlights from Home gigs we had a packed house of older people in for the ever-popular Jazz on a Summer Afternoon in the Park Avenue, while a large group of our older residents had their photography included in the beautiful Humans of East Belfast exhibition, currently on display in Connswater Tesco. (Huge thanks to photographer extraordinaire, Carrie Davenport and all the young people who helped with the shoot). But my favourite older people event of the festival was definitely last night’s, special, Dementia-Friendly, intergenerational Play It Again Jam, in Strand Presbyterian.
Hannah McPhillimy, Rory Nellis and the Belfast Ukelele Jam had the whole house singing, (clapping, air punching and drumming), along to vintage hits while our resident “cake artist” Hilary Copeland, provided her usual, fabulous spread of 60s themed cakes and buns. (I actually think the East might have run out of glade cherries last night). There was a whole heap of joy in the room, so many, beautiful, smiling faces and it really didn’t seem to matter whether you were 80 or 18; everyone sounded the same when they were singing, “Brown-Eyed Girl” at the top of their lungs. As the older attendees were leaving last night, still “sha la la’ing” as we helped them into their taxis, one lady took my hand and said, “thank you for inviting us.” It’s the kind of thing most polite people say when they’re leaving a dinner party or a soiree of some sort, but last night it sounded a little different. The lady was smiling as she spoke and there was also a tiny, little tear in the corner of her eye. It didn’t sound like everyday politeness. It sounded like she knew we were trying to invite everyone to our party, and though last night was wonderful, there are still lots of people in the East we haven’t invited yet.
This afternoon, I told Jackie and Rachel we need to have another coffee. It’s time to get working on the next round of totally mad ideas.