Friday, 15 October 2010

Plenty o' Horn

 Loch Kishorn Dry Dock in the seventies Stanley Howe

“Welcome to Loch Kishorn”, enthused my driver.  “They say you’ll get no kisses here, but plenty o’ horn.” I was 19 years old, and hitch-hiking my way as far north as I could to escape the fag-end of a long hot Mancunian summer. I nodded and refrained from further questioning. I stared out at the brand new slick of tarmac curving down to the loch. The concrete gullies on either side were full of empty beer cans chucked out, I supposed by oil rig workers.

We were discussing the unlikely prospect of me seeking employment in Loch Kisshorn’s rig fabrication yard. I see now that my Highland excursion that summer, as much as reading Karl Marx on the parental tennis lawn, was an essential element of the freelancer apprenticeship, providing skills in
  • proposing absurd hypotheses (me on an oil rig); 
  • nodding without understanding; 
  • learning at others’ expense; 
  • accepting free rides shamelessly;
  • using bullet points pointlessly.
All of which brings me to the present day.

The Feelgood Theatre Company has been a stable-mate of the Mandall family for many years, though arguably neither is particularly stable. Feelgood’s plays, or larks, mostly take place in unlikely parts of North West England, including Burtonwood Aerodrome, the Imperial War Museum, and various parks. It's always a worry when you bump into Feelgood's director, Caroline Clegg, because you don’t know whether she will ask you to find her a NATO battle-tank, or enquire whether you have chanced upon a flea circus suitable for an adaptation of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.

The night before my first visit to South Sudan, Mrs M sat me down in front of a TV drama called Slave, about a young girl who is captured in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, before being enslaved first in Khartoum and then, for many years, in a suburban home in London. Family viewing. We rang Cleggy, because she is doing a play in which the real life slave-girl acts out her story at the Lowry Theatre in Salford.

By the end of the phone call, I had taken orders from Clegg for DVDs of Nuban music, as well as sundry gourds and leg jangles.

Somehow, my commute between our Upstream camp on the Nile and the Ministry in downtown Juba doesn’t take in a lot of markets specialising in local music, gourds or shells on strings. So, on the final day of my last outing to Juba, I confessed my failure in a text message to La Clegg.

I got her reply on the way to the airport. She said that if I could get her a horn, it would be like Christmas and Birthday coming all at once.

A horn for the bird? This was definitely a moment for nodding and staring at the view. In fact there was plenty of time, because we were stalled on the Airport Road behind a demonstration in relation to the forthcoming referendum on South Sudan’s proposed secession from the North.

It was at this moment that my driver unburdened himself to me of his desire.

It was for a camcorder from the duty free shop.

This is not the sort of thing I normally get into. What if I get the wrong one, we fall out over the money, it doesn’t work, or it gets taken by customs?

Then I remembered the horn. Perhaps a small horn would get me off the hook for failing with the gourds and jangles. On the other hand, I mused, if I came up with the horn, there was a risk that she might ask me to provide a Dakota or a ride in Richard Branson’s new spaceship for her next performance.

The traffic started to move. Now or never. "If you get me a horn, I’ll get you a camcorder," I told the driver.

He said he would order it at the market after dropping me at the airport. “Which market”, I asked, puzzled. “You know the one by your camp, with the goats and the cattle,” he explained. To make a cow horn, it seems you first need a cow.

We exchanged our acquisitions shortly after my return to Juba two weeks later. I’d got his camcorder through customs in a corner of my cabin bag, but my horn took up the whole back seat of the Land Cruiser.

Recumbent on the mock calf-skin seat covers of which their owner is so proud, my horn boasted the black red and green of the new South Sudan, tastefully separated by splodgy bits of masking tape. Two foot of stiff plastic pipe led to a rugged mouthpiece.

We had a practice blast outside our happy row of prefab homes that I have come to know as Urinally, due to its proximity to the Gents. Everyone had a go. My neighbour Albert made it sing like a bugle on steroids.

They will hear it in the Nuba Mountains. They will hear it in Yei and Wau. They may even hear it in Khartoum. They will certainly hear it in Salford.

And here we are on youtube

Plenty o' Horn: first attempts in Urinally

Plenty o' Horn: the Master of Urinally

Slave – a Question of Freedom opens at The Lowry, Salford Quays on 23rd November.

Photo by Neil Matthew

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