How the Russians and the Hallé made me weep at the Free Trade Hall
By Monday, all the lads were up in arms because not only would we miss our Wednesday afternoon footy (PE) up at Mersey Bank but playing a lunchtime football match as well. We all swore like our dads and pretended we would all refuse to go. By the time we had walked home the news had left us all in a foul mood and conspiring fanciful excuses for not going .
Tuesday was worst, it was confirmed that we had to leave school by 12:5 p.m. sharp so no hot dinners or playtime – double disaster. Plus we had to suffer daily assemblies concerning our ‘Conduct’ and ‘Behaviour.’ The Headmaster performed waves of rage as he marched around the Hall with his meandering stories of ‘first rate’ past pupils who went onto greatness. This contrasted with the ‘ne’er do wells and the rascals who besmirched the school name. Their fate was hinted at darkly, but God would judge them. By God he would. His face now red and his large body spasming with rage. Most of us played with our socks, laces or scabs. Then sang a hymn at the end. Happy days.
It got worse at the Junior One, Two and Three kids were taunted relentlessly by the Junior Four bullies. For some reason they weren’t going tomorrow afternoon, so they got stuck into us. “Russians going to get ya!” “Stalin’s gonna snatch ya.” Shake hands goodbye, it’s probably the last time I’m ever going to see you’ – came to all of us in waves. By the end of dinnertime, four girls and one boy were crying, and everyone was in a right tizz. As we mournfully but silently walked in line to class, Junior Four classes were awaiting the arrival of the Head Master and his ‘strap’. He was going to busy that afternoon.
Wednesday came and, of course, at 12 p.m. we all trudged meekly onto the buses lined up outside the school. “My dad says it going to be really boring, I mean really boring” announced Jimmy. “They play all their different instruments and it goes on and on for two hours without a break.” We all sat there, much quieter than usual, not even waving at the shoppers and the business owners as we slowly made our way up Wilmslow Road. It was 1974 and the Curry Mile was in its infancy and the strange smells caused exaggerated coughing and gasping from those who weren’t used to it, living as they did nearer Princess Parkway or Yew Tree Road.
But this was my home-turf. As we were upstairs, I could confidently describe the various places I played, met others who lived nearby, where to avoid and where St. Edward’s Church was. Soon, on our left, we passed huge swathes of demolished or soon to be demolished homes. It stretched as far as the eye could see and provided hours and hours of the best hide and seek you could ever play – unless you were grassed up to your mum….
As we alighted our bus at the entrance of the Free Trade Hall, the enormity of the impeding event finally hit me. Although I knew nothing of its history (Peterloo, Suffragettes etc.) it’s sheer size, its stone facade and stepped entrance struck me silent. Like hundreds of others we were funnelled swiftly to our seats and told to stay there or else! Its expanse made it feel like the Holy Name Church down the road. Its stillness and heavy air demanded that you whisper. It had no echo.
The darkened stage and pit added to the mystery. Where silhouettes emitted occasional screeches or parps (well to my ear anyway). Suddenly, the light around us dimmed, an involuntary silence consumed us. My heart beat faster, my mouth dried in anticipation.
I was intrigued, more than that I was frightened, I didn’t know what would happen next.
In a flash we were hit by the booming tympanum and full stage lights, then silence and darkness again. I was rooted to the chair unable to look away. This was repeated twice more, and it almost whelmed my senses. I wanted to run away. Then the whole orchestra began its lament. The lights built slowly to reveal a small person – no – it was a puppet the same height as me. As the music and the puppets combined to reveal the story of the ‘Snow Queen.’ I lost sense of space and time. It felt like I was the only person present. I was warned by the string movements, emboldened by the brass barrage, alerted by the percussion section to impending doom. Yet I had never heard classical music before…how was that possible?
The puppets expressed human emotions and intention through their movement, there was minimal narration – but I managed to follow the story. How? I was experiencing the effect that highly skilful artists can have on a human’s psyche. In synergy, they evoked emotions in me that I rarely experienced or supressed even at my tender age of seven. Doom, despair, warmth, happiness and yes, love.
At the end when the Snow Queen allowed herself to love, knowing that it will melt her heart and kill her. But she does it anyway in order to save the ones she loves. I wept. Silently, salty streaks ran down my cheeks and my glasses blurred. The lights faded; the music ended. The orange audience lights were brought up slowly. I looked around at my classmates but couldn’t speak.
“What you are crying for?” hissed a boy from behind. “I’m not, shut up,” I moved to simultaneously wipe my face as I bent down to tie my shoe lace. It was too late. The word went around, and I was inundated with “Why? Why? Why?”
Back on the bus, I was teased mercilessly for being a ‘girl’ and threats were made to tell my dad. One or two threatened to stop me playing football with them as they would be teased too.
The consensus was that it was too long, but the puppets were brilliant. Soon talk turned to fights and football and where to meet tonight.
But not for me. I was still carrying that sacrifice and its consequences inside of me. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to be moved by the creativity of artists. I now knew what it felt lie to be different, to allow the experiences of others to capture my full attention. It made me change the way I felt about my surroundings, my day to day experience of living here. I now knew life didn’t have to be this way and a bigger world with different experiences lay ahead for me. If only I was determined enough to go and find it.