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July 19, 2002
Hitching a ride with Willy Russell
September 20, 1998. Watford Gap, just out of London. I'm standing next to a petrol station, trying to hitch a ride north to Glasgow. A beat-up old car stops and the guy inside offers a lift. He's driving to Liverpool, 200 odd miles in the right direction. I get in.
After a few minutes of conversation, I realise that I can't figure this guy out. He seems to own or rent property in both inner city London and Portugal, yet he's driving a rustbucket to Liverpool. And his accent doesn't add up. It's half Liverpudlian, and half something else. And he's got a suntan. And he's really, really interesting. He seems to have met all kinds of people, and he's got a wide perspective, and seems to have a well thought out opinion on virtually everything.
When the motorway takes us through the centre of Birmingham, we suddenly get a close, intimate view of some of the worst architecture in the world. There are horrifying slabs of high rise concrete all around us, and the guy tells me that this is where thousands of people on low incomes live. Indicating the buildings, he says "if you're going to build something brutal and inhuman, do it properly."
The conversation is wide-ranging. We talk about families, about Japan, about alcoholism. Eventually he says that he was lucky in Japan, because his work allowed him a foot in the door. I've been in the car for nearly an hour, and this is the first time he's mentioned his work. I figure it's a good moment to ask him what he does.
"I work in the theatre," he says.
The theatre, I think. I'm really interested in the theatre. I make a vague note to ask him what he does in the theatre, and then I forget. More time passes. Eventually I remember my vague note, and I ask him what he does in the theatre.
"I'm a writer," he says.
A writer, I think. I'm really interested in writers. I make another vague note, and let more time go past. But eventually I ask the question. "Have you written anything that I might know?"
"Well," he says, "Educating Rita?"
"Oh," I say. "You're Willy Russell."
"Yes," he says, "I am."
And I think: this is the guy who also wrote Shirley Valentine. This guy is a wonderful writer. And I think: perhaps I should let him know that I haven't just seen his name in lights in the West End. I really do know who he is and what he's done. So I ask him about something he'd said in an interview, that if you write well enough about a particular place, people in other places will be able to respond to it.
"Yes," he says, "I did say that." Then he pauses for a moment and smiles. "But it's not my idea. It is a good idea, and I think it's true, but I was just paraphrasing Isaac Bashevis Singer."
That's Willy Russell for you. He's an immensely likeable guy. Not only does he give long, brilliantly entertaining lifts to Australian hitch-hikers, but he's also incredibly honest.
200 odd miles later
Shirley Valentine is about a woman who's trapped, and who finds a way out. Her normal life has robbed her of self-esteem, of power, of respect. She has the opportunity to holiday in Greece, and while she's there she starts to re-evaluate herself. It's a difficult journey for her, and a fascinating one for the audience. Towards the end of the play she says "I think I quite like myself, really."
I always really liked that line. And on a Sunday afternoon in 1998, I had a wonderful conversation with the man who wrote it. When he slowed down to drop me off, I quoted that line to him.
"Thanks for writing Shirley Valentine," I said, "and thanks for putting that line in."
He smiled with an easy grace, and said "oh, no problem."
"And Willy," I said, "thanks for the ride."Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:39 PM in the Wandering category | Comments (0)
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