I’m sitting on the train to Bristol Temple Meads thinking about Conversations on the Train. A man with a case, which in my musical ignorance I mistake for a ukulele case, gets on. He stows the case on the luggage rack above his seat and sits down. Shortly afterwards, I hear the word ‘Southbank’ followed by ‘I had to tell someone.’ Brilliant, I think. It might not be my conversation, but the polite man next to him has nodded before reinstalling his headphones in his ears. It’s my conversation now.
I tap the man on the shoulder and ask, ‘what’s that about Southbank?’
‘Oh, I’ve just got a gig there, next weekend,’ he says.
‘What is that?’ I say, pointing to the small case on the luggage rack.
‘It’s a mandolin.’
I’m excited by this, probably, embarrassingly, only because I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a few years back.
‘Perhaps you should get it out and play!’ I exclaim.
‘No, you get in trouble for that.’
My face falls. He takes the mandolin down, but only to show it to me.
‘I play on platforms you know, but sometimes, on trains, people want peace and quiet. Nobody wants to listen to you getting it wrong and starting again. Do you play at all?’
I tell him no, that my grandmother was a violin teacher but when I tried to play, it sounded like I was murdering a bag of cats.
‘It’s so unfair that they give children a violin as the first instrument they learn to play,’ he says. ‘You have to have such a good ear and such precise fingering, it’s like giving a kid some oil paint and saying, ‘right, do me a Mona Lisa.’
I think this is perhaps a slightly over-exaggerated allusion.
‘Mandolin is great because it’s exactly the same tuning as a violin,’ he continues, ‘The point is, when you play the mandolin it doesn’t matter where you put your fingers because it sounds the same, whereas if you misplace your finger on the violin it sounds terrible.’
I look at the mandolin, ‘So how did you get this gig at the Southbank then?’
‘I got a call from the organiser saying they were putting on a gig at the Southbank as part of the festival.’
‘I’ve heard about this,’ I say, ‘don’t they have a giant fox made of hay?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘It’s the beach, the beach. We’re playing in one of the beach huts. Come, come, next Saturday, two o’clock. I’ve hopefully got the most hilarious caller, she’s a punk girl, she wears plastic breast plates of different colours, and a big cockatoo-like headdress, which occasionally she replaces with motorcycle crash helmets as she makes noise with a scaffold spanner and implores the audience to get up and dance.’
‘Where did you find this girl?’
‘In the circus, I work in the circus.’
‘You play the mandolin and you work for the circus?’
‘No, no. I’m Head of Radiation Dosimetry in a hospital, those are just things I do on the side. I’ve got a proper job. I’m a physicist and I play the mandolin.’
‘How do you have the time?’ I ask.
‘Exactly the same as the girl who sits next to me in physics and plays bassoon in the Brunel Orchestra and does an aerial circus act, you know, where you climb up and wrap silk around yourself.
She’s one of these phenomenally clever girls from Royal Martin Hospital. She’s absolutely a brain-the-size-of-a-planet type of character. There’s about three other people in the department who can juggle. And all of them sing in choirs.’
‘Physics Department of where?’
‘Of the Bristol Royal Infirmary.’
‘So the circus is…’
‘The circus is the Invisible Circus.’
I know the Invisible Circus well. I’ve been to many of their shows in Bristol and highly recommend them, I tell him.
‘The invisible circus is still going strong,’ he says. ‘They’re in delicate negotiations for the space at the moment.’
‘Yes, I hear there were plans to build a youth centre in their current space.’
‘Well, everything a youth centre could want the Invisible Circus have in spades.’
He puts on a mocking voice and describes youth centres who make claims of teaching kids pool and techno music. Then talks about having seen kids coming to arts centres and sight-reading music and truant kids who like theatre.
‘I mean all of my kids can juggle, daughter rides a unicycle,’ he says.
‘I taught at Circomania…. And, how sad is this, I was treasurer of the European Juggler’s Convention in Slovenia – which is the world’s largest juggling convention.’
We pull into Bath and he gathers his things together and stands to leave,
‘So look, if you’re around on Saturday, come and watch us at the Southbank Centre, just by Queen Elizabeth Hall.’
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And then he recites his mobile number aloud to the entire carriage.