The last time I performed at the Festival Of Fools in Belfast was in 2007. Back, then, by popular demand.
The magical thing about street performing, as I've mentioned before, is the way it unifies people. Nobody buys a ticket to see a street show ahead of time. It doesn't rely on booking celebrities, or how much your PR budget is. It's much simpler and more pure than that. For 45 minutes, there's someone doing something fun and exciting in the middle of town, and if you want to watch - no matter who you are, how much you're worth, what your opinions, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality or hat size is – you can. For a little while, everyone can be unified in watching an idiot like me do cool tricks and make dumb jokes. I love it for that, and of course, for a city like Belfast, with a history of pain built on the shaky foundations of clashing beliefs, something as simple as a busking festival that is for everyone, becomes all the more beautiful, profound and powerful. And fun.
The first morning's hotel buffet breakfast is spent catching up with old friends and making new ones. Fellow members of the secret society, whom I last spent time with in a selection of green rooms scattered across the world. Grizzled vets and keen young upstarts. Friendly ribbing and genuine hugs. Like an extended family coming together for a wedding, but with marginally less arguments and secret resentment.
We take a walk around the town to scout out the pitches. After a while, buskers develop the 6th sense of being able to walk down any high street and be able to see – matrix-like – where the pitch should go, where the people will walk, where they'll stop, any potential problems, street furniture that might be fun to play with etc.. As we wander around making mental notes, I realise that, perhaps, when I was here last, I didn't really appreciate how gorgeous this city is. Huge piles of handsome smooth stone from a dozen or so decades back sit dominating the corners of wide streets, spilling their weather-beaten sets of sharp steps out onto the pavement. The architectural equivalent of a stocky old geezer in a tweed suit who could still handle himself in a pub fight.
And of the less handsome buildings – every other one is tattooed with enormous, beautiful murals. Some subtly corporate sponsored, others perhaps less legal, but no less wonderful. Too many to catalogue. Look down a side street in the cathedral quarter and glimpse four-story high faces staring back at you. It's all rather splendid.
The first day of shows start. It was windy when I was here ten years ago, and its still bloody windy. And just like when I get booked to perform in a venue with a low ceiling, I love the challenge. The gusts blow my tablecloth almost off my table several times, and sends me vase of flowers clattering to the cobblestones so often I have to enlist a tiny little girl to pick it up and put it back whenever it happens. I also ask her to go get me a large latte with just a touch of cinnamon, and to get a receipt, but no dice. I love working in conditions like this, although I'd never let the audience know it. Finding yourself in a battle with the elements, shaking your fist at the sky in anger never fails to be funny. Problems, as they saying goes, are, to a clown, gifts. The art is in overcoming them just at the point when the audience think you never will.
Kids crowd me after each show, their flat and beautiful Belfast accents professing “You were really funny” with just a hint of considered surprise – because – to be fair – they've never heard of me, and TV has told them that if I was good, surely they would have. They thrust the festival guide into my hand, turned to my page, along with their mums pen, for me to sign. “Can you put that its your birthday?” one little ginger headed moppet requests. “How did you know it's my birthday?”, I ask. “My friend told me...”, and apparently everyone knows, and the guide-signing turns into an odd kind of reverse birthday card ritual. It's hilarious and lovely. More so, when, during my last show of that day, one of my fellow bukserados crashes my show and leads the audience in singing happy birthday to me. Dawwwww, you guys.
The thing about a three-day festival is that it's over to quick. The first day, you're finding your feet, warming up, getting the lay of the pitches and crowd. The second day, you're off and running, and then by the third day, it's all over and you're packing to go on to the next thing. But at least there's an end of festival party. Conversations with a wild-eyed and fantastic clown who talks of transmutation of energy and not being at all scared of death. Chats with variety legends about the difference between inspiration and theft, over the single malt that he bought you, drank from plastic hotel room tumblers. Overcaffeinated profundities and manifestos agreed upon. Anxieties shared. Love reaffirmed.
I'm at the point in my life now where I'm adjusted enough to know, and value, these times without becoming as doom-laden about the reality of them being finite, as I used to. I'm a lucky boy, and as I get older, I start to be better at enjoying the lucky work life I lead, rather than being obsessed with its temporary fragility. I'm learning, slowly, to “be here now”. And what a delightful now that was.
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