Leopards for Swans @ Aberdeen – by Duncan Harley

I was privileged to obtain a copy of Edi Swan’s splendid history of His Majesty’s Theatre a couple of years ago. I forget precisely how the book arrived in my hands.
It was either via Amazon or, more likely via a swap for some Leopards.

In the days when Leopard Magazine was on the go as an independent voice for the writers of the North-east, I was able on occasion to get my hands on a few writer’s copies. Just to oil the wheels you understand and not to oil my bank account.

Artists, local businesses and heritage centres usually benefited from the spare copies. One may have ended up in Royal hands. But, of course, my tongue is tied to this day.

Whilst researching a story, folk more often than not will ask when it will be published and can they get a complementary copy sent out as a reward for speaking onto the page. As politely as possible, the writer will usually resort to some excuse or other.

“Ah, well, that’s an editorial issue” or “I’ll see what I can do” is often the reply. “Of course,” is a complete lie, as is the single word “Yes”.

In truth, the right to a free copy is generally restricted to reviewers and original writers. Both might just get a print-copy or maybe just a PDF – that is if they are lucky and insistant. Currently I am on various digital lists to review stuff as diverse as Dacre Stoker’s new history of Dracula, Mike Shepherd’s take on Bram Stoker's stay at Cruden Bay and part two of Alan Stewart's 'North East Defences during the Second World War'; but I have no spare copies of any of these to hand out, and that’s a fact.

Leopard typically had a shortfall in circulation. By that I mean that projected sales figures usually exceeded reality. Folk lent the magazine around so the actual sales were a fraction of the readership. I know this also because my A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire suffers from the same difficulty.
Folk are wont to say how much they enjoyed my book. But when pressured to reveal where they purchased it will typically volunteer that it came from the local library stocks – which is fine – or via a friend who got it from an auntie who got it from a friend at the Garioch Heritage Centre who was given it by neighbour at number 42 who inherited it from a distant grannie over at Maud.

I digress. Said Leopards – remember the Edi Swan book – were to do with an article about the Music Hall as I recall. It was closing down week, prior to the makeover, and we - Janice and I - had been invited to cover the final curtain. The night went well and an article or two was duly published. As a result, I penned a piece about the history of the hall.

“The March 2016 closure week saw a performance of Aidan O’Rourke and Jason Singh’s experimental sound work “Connect:ed” (sic). The very next night the Music Hall hosted a final production titled “Your Hall Your Story”. Following an introductory speech from Aberdeen Provost George Adams the evening focused on the recollections and reminiscences of the users of the venue. Compere Robert Lovie and actor Cameron Mowat led the audience of around 600 on a journey through the sometimes turbulent but always entertaining history of Aberdeen’s favourite concert venue using both live and recorded recollections told first hand by those who were actually there. The stories came fast and furious throughout the evening. Roberta Duncan told how her father rose to international fame following a world record roller-skating endurance marathon in the main hall. His record-making 61 hours stint seemingly stands to this day. Mary Smith remembered meeting Sir John Barbirolli at a Hallé Orchestra performance, Aberdonian Sandy Hood recalled listening to Mahler at the venue and a local councillor, former European and Commonwealth lightweight wrestler Len Ironside, told how fellow-wrestlers had a particular dislike of the Music Hall wrestling ring. “It was up on stage” he said “which meant that you felt every bump and had every chance of being thrown out of the ring and down the ten feet or so to the floor. When this happened, the audience would simply lift you up and throw you back in. On one occasion he recalled that as this was going on, a voice rang out “Is there any word yet aboot’ ma new hoose please councillor Ironside?”

Edi’s take on the Music Hall was by then unavailable on Amazon and bookshelf-bereft I turned to Erica Banks – then Press Officer for HMT and she was pleased to help.

In a splendid swap, we bartered a few copies of  '150 Years of Aberdeen’s Famous Concert Hall',  again by Edi Swan, for a few copies of Leopard Magazine. I recall keeping one for my personal collection and donating the other five or so the Aberdeenshire Library Service.

A few weekend's ago, we bought tickets for a backstage tour of HMT.

It was splendid. Led by a volunteer guide who clearly knew both of Edi’s books inside out and had an intimate understanding of the workings of the theatre, we got a glimpse of the reality of backstage life. The front-stage glitz and glamour are not reflected in the backstage areas. The dressing rooms are drab, dank and often shared. The under-stage is cluttered and, in some ways scary. In fact, ghosts of days past haunt the place from top to bottom.

“What is a theatre without a ghost” said our host. And Jake, the theatre ghost has a tale or two to tell – but only if you go on the tour of course.

Suffice to say that he was unfortunately beheaded during a performance in far off 1942 at a time when outdoor circuses were banned due to the Nazi menace.

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire plus the forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire - due out in March 2019


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