The next stop of my Summer tour of NiceMerica is Grande Prairie. A town that I only learned how to properly spell, on the day I was leaving. It's a small town, based on the booming oil industry, so although to my know-nothingly judgemental eyes, it looks blue-collar and small-time, there's money here. Money that is, apparently, being invested, in part, into the arts. Hence me. Hooray.
Outside my hotel window is a freeway, and parked along the sliproad between that and my room, is a line of huge, muscular trucks. Chrome caked in dusty mud, fenders somehow squinting into the sun, and gas hissing out of an exhaust next to a sign that reads “Venting is normal”. Tell me about it, mate. If this were my native England, then these trucks would be blandly ugly, and I wouldn't care, but its not, and so to me, they're iconic. My lack of knowledge of the world they represent making them mysterious and beautiful. Back on my side of the hotel window I turn on the TV and gawp at something called Timbersports, which seems to be some kind of extreme lumberjacking. There are profiles of the participants, CGI intros, pumping rock music, WWE style entrances, and then..they just hack away at a log with an axe. OK then.
We take a trip to an even smaller town called Beaverlodge, to do a promotional appearance. While the grown-ups set up the technical stuff, I go for a wander. Quiet streets full of low, wide, clapboard houses in pastel shades, each with a matching pickup truck. The dry warm breeze giving the dusty sidewalks the occasional little mini tornado. I find myself walking into “Golden Guns and Tackle”, the local gun store, and as the bell hanging over the door dings, I'm greeted by some very friendly women, who keenly chat to the man who is not from here. It's mainly hunting-focused, with racks and racks of rifles, both behind, and in front of the counter. Black ones, camouflage ones, and pink ones with flowers on for the kids. For reals. The lady behind the counter catches me staring at the guns, and asks where I'm from, I tell her, and I apologise, saying how strange it feels for a Brit to be in a shop with so many guns. She asks why. I assumed people knew that Britain doesn't have guns in the same way we know that some countries do, but I guess I was wrong. I tell her about our lack of firearms. She says “But y'all still have gun stores, right?”, “well, no”, I tell her. And she visibly recoils, her eyes wide, at the very idea.
Also, her store sold camouflage lingerie, because of course it did.
The next morning I'm up early to appear on the local rock station 2DayFM. I like doing radio, it always seems fairly easy and fun, and as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm totally at home talking about myself. I meet Evan, the delightful breakfast show host, who has one of those awesome and perfect American-ish DJ voices both on air, and off. I also meet Justine, his co-host, who immediately points out that she's wearing slippers because the in-studio webcam can't see her feet. Justine values comfort, and who can blame her.
The weekend flies by, the whole town comes out, as does the sun, and the shows are lovely. The audiences really pay attention, and much of my more subtle material (I CAN BE SUBTLE, SHUT UP) gets bigger laughs than usual, which is unexpected and great. We end the weekend having dinner at one of the producers houses – tired, achey, heads full of the echoes of applause and laughter, eating potato salad and drinking root beer as the sun goes down over the prairies outside. Not bad.
And then the next morning we all pile back into the tour bus and drive ten hours, to our next stop.
We arrive at our hotel in North Battleford, excited. Not only do we have a couple of days off, but the hotel, we have been told, has a waterpark! Slides and a jacuzzi, just down the corridor from your room! What finer way for some variety idiots to spend some downtime?
Flash forward 24 hours and we're at a different hotel. Long story, involving massive bedbug infestation and surly hotel management, which ended with the frankly stunning achievement of moving all the performers, staff, and all of the show equipment out of the hotel without any of the staff noticing. We did quite the mother of all runners. And the water slide was broken anyway.
This town is much smaller than our previous stop. Shelley, the festival director, talks of wall to wall sky, and she ain't kidding. Everything looks wider here. And sparser. The town centre has little in it – mostly bingo halls and liquor stores. But ten minutes drive out of town, along the big highway that runs along the train tracks, is the retail park. Big box stores, each almost as big as the centre of town. These places are as if an alien had designed a town – there are shops, places to eat, roads – but it's still less than the sum of its parts. Functional and nothing more.
Its hard to walk around, as these places are not designed for someone not in a car. The paths are dusty and muddy at the same time. At one point I get surrounded completely by hornets, dozens of them, all doing laps around me. Dogs bark at me from behind a chain link fence when I get too close to their owners car. I stop in front of a shape on the side of the road, the same colour as the dust it lays on. I move closer. A coyote? Dead, for a long time. It's head intact and frozen in a yawn. Its tail and back legs splayed out. Everything in between is just a seething mass of maggots. I stand there, in my suit, hat and sunglasses, staring at it. Thinking what a long way from home I am, and how, to people passing in cars, I must look like a scene from a David Lynch movie.
When I go into shops, my suit guarantees that I get viewed with a mix of amusement and suspicion. Half “Where did this odd creature come from?”, and half “What the hell does he want with us?”
At night, huge trains roll slowly through town. Hundreds of freight cars pulled by four or five engines all stacked up at the front. They shake the town with low, loud honks as they move stuff from somewhere bigger to somewhere more important. They don't stop.
During the days before the shows start, I start to develop a creeping dislike for this place. Careful not to mistake not understanding something for not liking it, but maybe, slightly, that's what happens. It seems to me that when you live somewhere like this, you feel the need to either explore and push outwards, or to retreat inwards. I think my fear was that its always easier to retreat. That the wide horizon would breed a narrow mind.
Then the shows begun, and I was pleasantly surprised. As I set up my first show, I play with some kids – a gaggle of impossibly cute and scrappy children from a First Nation family. They're glamorous mums sat chatting in huge sunglasses while the kids competed to see who could show me the funniest face. They pull their ears, pop their eyes, stick out their tongues – blue from snowcones – and giggle back at me as I laugh at them. Other kids come to talk to me, and climb on me, and play with me. I stare out at the people waiting for my show – families of all colours, punk kids with crazy hair, young hipstery couples – and I see a diversity I hadn't predicted. I see the community that events like this are for. A community where kids go on adventures on their bikes and come back with scraped knees. A community small enough that things like this can make a difference.
Two teenage girls come to talk to me. One in a wheelchair with a cast on her foot. I ask her what she did to her leg. “Old injuries”, she says. “You're young – how do you have old injuries?”, I ask her. She shrugs “I'm a fucking klutz”, grins, goes back to sucking on her candy pacifier, and squeals as her friend spins her chair around in circles.
I discover, halfway through the weekend, that the town is also having its first ever Pride. In the park, across the road from my green room, there are a couple of little tents with rainbow flags, so I walk over. On the fencing around the park, paintings of rainbow flags, people holding hands, trans rights slogans, and other weepily great things, have been taped up. They notice me, and have seen my show, so we chat. It's their first year. They had a parade. I can easily imagine how hard it must have been organising this in such a rural small town. But like I said, towns like this are small enough that it's easier to make a difference. I come back after my shows with all the coins I got in my hat and donate them to next years pride.
This is a place that has seen better days. There's not a huge amount of money here. There's racism. I heard it. But that's a lot of the world, not just this town. And the world is big, which is why the intolerance and unpleasantness one can find in it often feels like an unbeatable foe. But in a small town like this, having a weekend in which people from all over the world come and do shows, and anyone is allowed to watch, regardless of background, income, or anything else - is a powerful weapon for good. It illustrates that if people who don't get along share a common goal – even if its just watching an idiot like me for half an hour – then they can get along. It's easy. It shows that if you have stupid dreams of getting out of your town, or being an artist, or being different – it's totally possible – because here are some people who all did it.
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MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES
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