(Warning: This is a bit of a sappy blog. Sorry).
About seven years ago I found myself living in a small, and terribly posh, village on the outskirts of London. This was the kind of village which is often featured on Escape to the Country. It had two pubs, a cricket green, a common, (still not sure what the difference between a common and a regular park is- possibly the presence of people with red setters and Hunter welly boots), and an actual duck pond. It had a ridiculously English name. Successful business people owned large houses in this village and every day commuted from their large houses to inner city London, returning on the late train with carrier bags of expensive Waitrose food for dinner. It was the kind of village which has a missing generation. No one between the ages of 18 and 40 lived in this village. No one between the ages of 18 and 40 could afford to live in this village. (Nb I am not a successful business person. There is a long and quite boring story about how I ended up living there at the age of 29).
Suffice to say I only managed six months in this village before the loneliness and long nights reading novels in the car, parked outside Tesco, for something to do, drove me back to Belfast. Even though I think I’m a pretty outgoing and sociable person, and I would definitely want to be my friend, by the end of my first month’s sojourn I was really struggling to find any sort of community. By the end of the third month I was pretty desperate. I’d even approached a complete stranger in Café Nero, (who was about my age and reading a book, so obviously we had a lot in common), and said, “I’m very lonely. Would you like to be my friend?” (It should be noted, this is not a good way to make friends). Shortly afterwards I left this village and moved back to Belfast, where after five years in exile, I didn’t really know anyone any more. I had to start building up a community one friend at a time; going to events and readings alone, making small talk with anyone who looked like they might be kind enough to talk back; slowly, very slowly, discovering where I might fit in to the arts community in Belfast. Thankfully Belfast was a much easier place to be lonely than the terribly posh English village. People took me under their wing and invited me along to events. I made friends. Great friends. I became part of a community I’ve grown to love and depend upon. I was encouraged to write books. I’m pretty happy in Belfast now. However, I still remember what it feels like to walk into a room at a reading or a gig, on your own, knowing no one, trying to look as if you’re quite confident in your aloneness yet really wanting to be known.
All this to say, I was running a wee event for the Out to Lunch festival on Saturday morning and I noticed that around a third of the people who arrived at the Black Box were on their own. I’m not saying all these people were lonely or in search of community or unable to find some sucker to accompany them to an early morning music and spoken word event. I’m just saying it reminded me of myself, going solo to readings and gigs back in 2010, making my first brave and stumbly attempts to find a wee place in Belfast’s arts community. And it made me appreciate the community we have here in Belfast, where mostly you can walk into an event by yourself and be reasonably confident that by the end of the reading/performance/show you’ll actually have met a few people you didn’t know before. And it made me want to try harder to be a good host when it comes to programming events, to make sure the people who come to my events know that, no matter how odd or awkward they may be, ( and oh my goodness there are some odd and awkward souls knocking about the Belfast arts scene), they’re really welcome.
By 11:30 on Saturday morning the Black Box was packed. Full houses always make programmers happy. It’s nice to look down a room and see no empty chairs and people standing at the bar. But to be honest, I was much more heartened by the fact that I couldn’t get my audience to stop chatting so I could get the show started. People had been forced to find seats at strangers’ tables and squeeze unto sofas with folks they didn’t know. There were loads of little conversations bouncing round the room as they shared cake and started getting to know each other. It’s always magic when this happens. It reminds me why I love to put arts events on, why I don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn and carting amps around in the back of my car and endlessly running to all night Tesco’s for more disposable cups. I love bringing people together. Most of us who run events get a little high on happy audiences, enjoying themselves.
Yes, it’s important that we programme high quality art at our events, quality should never be compromised in the attempt to create a welcoming environment, but it’s equally important that we continue to remember lots of people haven’t bought a ticket just to be blown away by the music we’re putting on, or astounded by our poetry or inspired by the art. They might also be at our arts events because they want to find a wee spot to belong, a place where it’s easier to be themselves for a couple of hours or a chance to meet some people who don’t make them feel like a spare part. This isn’t a particularly profound blog. It’s just a wee reminder that sometimes it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be on the edge of things. I’m thankful for the fact that I can dander into pretty much any arts event in Belfast and feel right at home. Maybe I’m being naive here but I don’t thing an arts event should ever be intimidating. I know we can run events professionally and still manage to be warm and welcoming and dare I say it, personable, with our audiences. I know this because almost every day of the week I visit one of Belfast’s venues and encounter front of house who smile and chat and welcome me to their venue like it is an extension of their own living room. It makes me feel known, in an entirely uncreepy way. It makes me want to go to even more arts events. I really hope other people are having the same experience. I want to run more events in 2017 which are just as focused on community as they are on showcasing great art.