50th Anniversary Cheltenham Festival of Literature 1999
11th October, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham:

Clive James and Pete Atkin - Review by Jeremy Walton
After having spent the last year or so in the wrong place at the wrong time, Pete Atkin-wise - missed Buxton, couldn't get it together for the Beautiful Changers (great name, BTW) and the FoD, haven't begun to mine the rich seam of the MV library, haven't even posted to MV for ages - I was getting concerned that my (self-appointed) title of Pete's Number One Fan was open to question. So it was with a determined air that I set out for Cheltenham last night to see him with Clive James at the Everyman Theatre. Surely, I thought, there might be some way in which I could perhaps stamp my name on this event, and demonstrate that the magic was still there?

How did Pete end up at Cheltenham? I've no idea how these things are organised, but it appears as if Clive was asked by Ian Hamilton to do a spot on Ian's day of the Literature Festival, and Clive opted to talk about his lyric writing (as opposed to his criticism or his memoirs or his poetry or... etc). Which meant that he had to bring Pete along to perform as well. It's not exactly comparable to Simon and Garfunkel, but it's pretty clear that James and Atkin are always going to draw a bigger crowd than Atkin on his own. Having got the punters into the tent to hear Clive James talk, they get to hear Pete Atkin sing as well. And, last night, they got something extra.

The sign in the foyer said that the show would be interpreted for the deaf - I think this was something that it had in common with the other events at the Festival. Sure enough, as the lights went down and Pete and Clive emerged, a third figure appeared from the wings to stand in a spotlight and 'sign' what was being said. At first, I thought this would be a distraction - even after Clive had introduced him (as - I think - Paul Mancini), saying that he considered it gratifying that deaf people wanted to come and 'hear' what he had to say. Paul signed throughout the show, even while (or especially while) Pete was singing. And I found that it gave a fascinating extra dimension to songs that I'd thought of as long familiar.

To see the way in which Paul interpreted each phrase with that graceful yet precise combination of gesture and expression was at times very moving - I especially remember his interpretation of "your self-esteem in disarray" in Faded Mansion (crook index finger of right hand, then draw it down chest from throat to stomach, as if unzipping yourself). And the way in which he mimicked the motion of the cradle, "drifting down in silence to the sea" in Canoe. And the repeated sign for death or dying (which appeared to come up an awful lot, for some reason) - extend first two fingers of each hand together, like two pistols, and drag downwards as if shooting someone.

I was so engrossed in watching Paul that it was some time before I realised that he was interpreting spontaneously. Clearly, he'd've had to do that for Clive's between-song chat, but I thought he might have had a rehearsal with the songs. In fact, he told me afterwards that he'd never heard any of them before. This made his task still more formidable - to think of him hearing a line like "a Venus made flesh in a shell full of sea" or "balanced, lapidary phrases" or "a surer way to navigate at night" and trying to capture its essence in a gesture was extraordinary. It must be like doing a controlled detonation on a bomb, I thought. Or painting the Mona Lisa with a paint roller.

Of course, there were funny moments as well. Clive made great play of the fact that Paul had to sign about Clive signing books and Pete signing CDs later on, but my favorite was immediately after Song for Rita, where Clive just said "Kris Kristofferson", and Paul went into a absolute flurry of fingers and gesture as he spelt out the name. And goodness knows what he was able to do with the line "I know that nothing lives that doesn't hold its place more worthily than I" (which I have to say to myself over and over, cancelling the double negatives, before I get the meaning).

As for the stars of the show, well - from the descriptions and reviews of Buxton, it sounds as if this was in much the same format, with Clive providing the linkage between Pete's songs, describing how they came to be written, his influences and the effects he was striving for. But the thing he emphasised over and over was how lucky he felt to have had Pete setting his words to music. In one of those characteristic verbal tricks where he helps himself to a specialised vocabulary, he described the combination of the lyrics and tune (when it works properly) as a compound, not a mixture - they can't be separated again. Although I didn't agree with his example (Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, where I think the verses are all-too-separable from the tune, and look suspiciously like a poem), I knew exactly what he meant (applied to, say, a song like History and Geography, which I think of as as near a perfect combination of words and music as I've ever heard).

Clive made great play about how the revival of interest in PA could be attributed directly to the Internet in general and the Website in particular. This seems to be a good peg on which to hang a story (the Front Row interview made much of it as well). The technophile in me winced as Clive kept referring to something called the Midnight Voices website ("no, Clive - it's a email discussion group - it doesn't use hypertext, y'see - you can't use a browser on it...") but those of us who recall his original post to MV realise just how much of an effort he's made in assimilating the jargon. In any case, the significant thing is probably the way in which he - along with the majority of the public - perceives these things, which is usually as a cyber-coffeeshop or some such awful construction.

Clive also threw in a number of what looked like spontaneous asides - explaining why he never went in for satire, for example, he said that real life often did too good a job at satirizing itself. To illustrate, he mentioned Mrs Thatcher asking for compassion for General Pinochet "on his bed of pain" (and, in an equal-time gesture, poked fun at Blair's "forces of conservatism" being responsible for everything nasty that's ever happened to anyone ever). Neither remark got a big laugh from the audience, which seemed to show that they belonged to both political persuasions in equal measure.

The previous time I'd seen Pete was in a small hall in Charlbury, sans amplification, with what sounded like a toy keyboard. He was delightful then, and he was delightful last night, but with an added degree of authority and impressiveness that perhaps partly came from a good sound system and a great piano. I thought that his piano playing was beautiful, not only on the standard piano songs like Thirty Year Man and Payday evening, but also on Faded Mansion and - especially - No Dice, where the sparse, punchy arrangement opened up new vistas. The guitar sounded good as well, but the thing that really shone was his voice - ranging from a velvety growl in the lower register to his sparse, despairing reading of "yesterday was oh-so long ago", way up there.

Adding a couple of "funny songs" (Stranger in Town, Song for Rita) into the set went down well - before the former, Clive appeared to be appealing to the audience to cut down on the reverence and - "well, you know, it's okay to laugh". Once again, I was struck by how people (who I guess are hearing them for the first time) find amusing lines in serious songs like Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. The laugh is a sure sign that they're listening closely - indeed, the way in which Clive uses his wit to grab your attention so that he can tell you what he wants is one of his most characteristic features.

Pete's characteristic features include his sense of humour (his onstage patter was naturally cut to a minumum as Clive was there to do the talking) and his diffidence and modesty - it seemed as if every time he finished a guitar song, he acknowledged the applause by pulling a little "thanks a lot, but it wasn't that good" face, which - as far as I'm concerned - only adds to his appeal. As, last night, did his socks - from where I was sitting, I could have sworn he was wearing one red and one green. But maybe that's getting too obsessive.

Pete's setlist was (not necessarily in this order)

Perfect Moments (guitar)
Thirty Year Man (piano)
Thief in the Night (g)
Faded Mansion on the Hill (p)
Stranger in Town (g)
No Dice (p)
Flowers and the Wine (g)
Canoe (p)
Practical Man (g)
History and Geography (p)
Song for Rita (g)
Payday Evening (p)
You Can't Expect to be Remembered (g)
Beware of the Beautiful Stranger (g)

At the end of the show, Pete invited Steve up on stage to make the presentation of the MV folio to Clive for his recent birthday. It was a nice way to finish the evening, and Clive appeared to be (from where I was sitting, anyway) very moved to receive this tribute, which must have been gratifying to the MVs in the audience who'd contributed.

After the show in the meet & greet session, Clive kindly signed my copy of At the Pillars of Hercules which, just before leaving home, I'd grabbed from the shelf that contains everything he's ever written. I tried not to gabble about how much I enjoyed his writing, and he tried to look like no-one had ever said such a thing to him before. Pete was his usually polite, affable self; I asked him the standard questions - next concert? new CD? (none planned, maybe next year) and tried to thank him for his excellent performance. It was nice to meet up with John Harris, who helped me out by buying my spare ticket (and who, if I heard right, had started the day in Bristol, had driven to Leicester and was on his way back to Bristol via Cheltenham). And it was good to finally see Steve and Carole in (what looked like) real life, and to take the chance to thank them for all their hard work on all this stuff that means so much to such a small - but select - number of people.

Finally, I was amazed to see that my notion of leaving a mark on the event had been fulfilled: the concert flyer contained a quote from an NME article which (it said) had been written by one Jeremy Walton. In fact, of course, I must bring my fifteen seconds of fame to an end by noting that it was written by Stuart Maconie, and all that I'd done was type it up for the website. For a minute there, it was beginning to look as if everyone's a critic nowadays!

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