Sunday, 20 March 2011

An absolute delight

Sally Bavage writes:
35 Years of Loitering by Ray Brown was an absolute delight – a tour of a creative life in interviewing and writing plays for mainstream theatre, articles for magazines, radio scripts… the list was extensive, the many snippets both amusing and thought-provoking.

Ray was born and brought up on the edge of Thorner and although he has lived locally for most of his life he still feels like the ‘boy on the edge of the village’ wearing the ‘cloak of alienation.’  He has the quirky perspective of someone who can observe the ordinary and discern the extraordinary. Who else would be radicalised by the accounts department of Butlins?  Or move from an apprenticeship at Heathrow to an early academic career in Psychology? 

Kurt Vonnegut “wrote fiction in order to tell the truth” and this philosophy has informed Ray throughout his long professional life.  From first writing about an early (and unsuccessful) attempt to seduce his eighteen year-old naïve but “pretty” self (his own choice of adjective) – possibly by Quentin Crisp on later reflection – he found his voice for both the serious and the comic. The miners’ strike of the 70s was a significant benchmark in his perspective, as was the later civil war in the place once known as Yugoslavia, which he observed at first hand from many trips to a region he continues to love and visit.

He made his first visit to the region in 1985 and soon fell in love with the country and its people. He has returned once or twice a year ever since. In his play normal! which was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 2003, he worked with two actors to present a funny, moving and compelling mixture of fact, fiction, performance and dramatic readings which also featured music and voices recorded live in former Yugoslavia. “The title is a quote,” he told us. “It’s what everybody said in response to questions about the war and its horrors.”

In an early part of his career, writing for the groves of academe – including ghost writing a textbook he was later asked to peer review - he also taught locally, wrote pub guides, articles for magazines and scripts for successful plays performed nationwide.  A spell of creative writing residencies in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, British Rail workshops included a poignant one in a local hospice.  He clearly painted for us a picture in words of the black humour of chemotherapy patients who raised hairless eyebrows at revelations in the writers’ circle or else raised their hair (wigs) to reveal, in another way, their life history.

Radio scripts have formed a significant part of his life for decades and he treated the audience to some excerpts from shows on topics as diverse as flight and … duffle coats. Music became a key medium in his delivery of the message, and a delightful conflation of the jazz trumpet of Humphey Lyttelton with the sound of the machine attaching toggles to the likes of the 555TM duffle as worn by Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea was masterful.  Who amongst us did not call up an abiding memory of duffledom?

He spoke movingly about writing Living Pretty, the life story of Alfred Williams, who was his neighbour when he lived in Kirkstall in 1981. It is based on the autobiography which he co-wrote, To Live It Is To Know It, which moves from a childhood in Jamaica to retirement in Leeds. It tells of an ordinary man made extraordinary by resilience, intelligence and good humour. Alfred spoke in a blend of Jamaican patois and other dialects, but Ray was able to represent his speech with great authenticity, because dialect and the way people speak is one of his obvious fortes. Alfred Williams once cultivated a plot on Burley Model Allotments, and there was once (and still is) a plan to put it on outside the allotments hut.

His politics have always informed his work, although an over- bold use of a clip of the voice coach of Margaret Thatcher when prime minister persistently being told to lower her voice led to a period in radio wilderness. Not that this changed his perspective: his commitment always to use the interview and music links to “tell the truth” remains undimmed.  Ray has, and continues, to shine a light on life from his position “on the edge of the village”.

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