In 1986, I was a first-year student at Wits Drama School in Johannesburg. Our big production that year was Shakespeare’s As you Like It, for which I was a stagehand and dresser. One of my tasks was to help the actor who played Touchstone the jester with a quick costume change before the final scene. Thus I can truthfully say that my first encounter with Terence Reis involved my ripping his clothes off in a dark corner.
While we were rehearsing that production, I remember walking into the tenth floor rehearsal room in University Corner and seeing Terence sitting with his guitar, playing and singing Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”. I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe someone I knew could play and sing like that. It just didn't seem possible. But once I got to know Terence I understood why. He practised. All the time. He was good, he wanted to get better, and he knew that the only way that would happen was if he played and played and played. And often, what he played was the music of Dire Straits. Of course, this was in the dark days towards the end of apartheid, and the cultural boycott was firmly in place: artists with a conscience wouldn’t have dreamed of coming to play in South Africa. It was pretty certain that unless he could afford to travel internationally (difficult and expensive), Terence would never get the chance to see the band he so admired play live.
Our paths continued to cross over the years: Terence built a very successful career in South Africa as an actor, voice artist and musician. I moved to London in 2000, and a few years later, heard that Terence was also in the UK, living in Canterbury. He started a band called Waterhorse, and whenever they gigged in London I tried to go. Like everything Terence did, their gigs were characterised by impeccable musicianship and utter professionalism. Then life overtook us and for a few years I didn't hear of or from him, except that he’d returned to South Africa. That was until a few months ago, when Terence’s astonishing news filtered through.
Let me ask you this: if, by some miracle, someone came to you today and offered you a chance to fulfil your dearest, long-held secret dream, what would you do? What would you do if they handed you your pointe shoes and ushered you into the wings at Sadler’s Wells? Or led you to the lane next to Usain Bolt in the Olympic Stadium? 99% of us would laugh nervously and back away. But Terence was ready. When Alan Clark, Dire Straits’ keyboardist, rang Terence in Johannesburg to say they’d heard his work with a Dire Straits tribute band and wanted to know if he would take over from Mark Knopfler for a comeback gig, Terence had what it took to say yes.
This was not luck. His decades of hard work closed the gap between an impossible dream, and walking onto the stage at The Royal Albert Hall last night. And I was thrilled to be there to see it. The gig was in aid of the Lord’s Taverners, a charity that offers support to young people facing big challenges. But as Alan Clark said last night, there can be few challenges bigger than stepping into Mark Knopfler’s shoes. I’m not going to rabbit on about the gig, about how Terence played and sang every song brilliantly enough to satisfy even the most die-hard Dire Straits fan, yet brought his own flavour to them. How he hit just the right tone between confidence and humility. How in the banging closing number Terence sang “We are the…” then cupped his hand behind his ear and 5,000 people roared “Sultans of Swing” back at him. Let me just say his feet were quite big enough for those shoes (and if you’ll forgive the crudity, he has some fearsome balls too!).
You may recall the story of the guy who saw an 18-year-old Lewis Hamilton go-karting, and placed £100 at 100/1 that he would be F1 Champion within ten years. Gambling was illegal in South Africa in 1986, but in my heart, I placed a bet like that on Terence. Twenty-five years later, on my feet and clapping so much my hands still hurt hours later, I feel like I hit the jackpot.
This morning, I was in the traffic behind a car with a rear window filled with Hello Kitty toys, teddy bears and dolls. Everything within, including the driver and her small passenger, was covered in pink, and a sugary pink decal proclaimed “Little Princess on Board”. Eeurgh, I thought. Now there’s someone doing her bit to set feminism back fifty years. And then I thought... maybe not.
Yes, like many of you, I’ve learned to hate the tide of pink cutesiness that seems destined to overwhelm our daughters. “Come,” the Marketing Monster drawls seductively, “Dress your little darling in this frothy rose creation. Won’t she look adorable?” And then, slightly more threateningly, “You won’t have a choice, because I decree you CAN’T BUY girls’ clothes in any other colour!”
I don’t have daughters, but I can see how it would drive you demented. Many of my friends, independent, cultured, creative women, are helpless in the irresistible tide of pink princessiness. Because it doesn’t matter what you say, what gorgeous alternatives you eventually manage to find in red or blue or purple, when she gets to nursery and her friends have bubblegum pink trainers that light up, you will lose the battle. And when her fourth birthday rolls around, she will beg and plead and weep for a Snow White, or Cinderella or Ariel outfit, and you will be forced to endure a Disney Princess party. With a castle cake. And a wand that lights up. Sorry.
Yes, we can rage and scream and argue. We can point out that the modern equivalent of a Disney princess waiting in a tower to be rescued is a WAG, and that we want more for our daughters than that. Or we can choose to look at it another way, and beat the Marketing Monster at his own game.
Firstly, it’s not the fault of the colour pink. It’s not my favourite hue either, but a colour does not a gender enslave. In fact, in Victorian times, boys were dressed in pink as it was considered a more regal colour, and girls were dressed in blue, to look more demure. It’s a modern advertising construct, not an irretrievable and tragic life choice. Pink will not make your daughter silly, won’t make her want to stay home baking with her plastic cookware or nursing dolls, and won’t make her shun an education. It’s just a colour, so get over it. Let her wear it if she wants to. I guarantee she won’t be seen dead in it when she’s 15 and going through her Death Metal/Emily Dickinson phase.
Secondly, let’s talk about being a princess. I think we’ve all got caught up in the negative implications of princessdom: the idea that princesses are pretty, passive creatures waiting for a prince on a white horse. That they’re spoiled and need looking after. What we forget is that a Princess is a young woman preparing to become a queen. And I’m thinking Cleopatra. Elizabeth I. Boudica.
Put aside your misgivings about hereditary monarchy, modern royals or male primogeniture. If our daughters aren’t just Disney-style princesses, they can be any kind of princess they like. They can claim all the best bits of being royal. After all, a princess is the heir to a great birthright.
So here’s my charter for modern princesses, for both little and grown up girls.
Yesterday evening, I went to a pub in Palmers Green, a great rambling Victorian place with a U-shaped bar. At one end of the U, they’d set up some temporary staging and rigged a PA system. A few people milled round, drinking and chatting, and I grabbed a seat close to the stage. If you’ve ever performed, been in a band or done stand-up, you’ve been in a venue like this one. You walk through the door and you know it’s going to be hard. Nobody’s really there to hear you, the space is the wrong shape, the gear and the staff and the stage are all just below par. Nobody’s going to make magic there, but it’s a necessary step in the long, tiresome journey of paying your dues.
After ten minutes or so, a skinny bloke in frankly absurd leggings got up on stage and grabbed the microphone. “Welcome to our music night!” he bellowed, as if we were at Wembley. “First up, we’ve got Mike!”
“My name’s not Mike,” said the first act, as he stepped up onto the stage with his guitar.
“Oh, sorry,” giggled Bagglyleggings, “I’m no good with names.” Rather a failing when introducing people is your job. Then the bloke who wasn’t Mike began to play.
And he was good. Really good. He sang a set of totally original songs. The lyrics were witty and clever, telling vivid stories of teenage relationships, parties and friendships. He played well, and sang fantastically, in a deep, husky voice that seemed mature for his age. But most of all, he performed with calm, professional grace. He gave it his all even when the soundman got the balance so wrong in his first song we could barely hear him. He didn’t miss a beat when the extraordinarily annoying girl vocalist from the next band stood in front of the small crowd and talked at the top of her ear-shattering voice to someone through one of his quiet songs. He sang like a star, even though he wasn’t getting paid, even though he’d got home from college half an hour before he had to leave to catch a train and two buses to that gig, carrying his guitar, and he hadn’t even got to eat his dinner. How do I know that? Because I’m his mum.
Matt (not Mike) played his first gig at an outdoor carnival in Finchley when he was 14 years old, half of an acoustic duo in which he was the guy who played guitar while someone else sang. Then he spent a year as the lead singer of a successful local band. He played his first solo acoustic gig in a bar near the Barbican when he was 16 years old. I was at that one too, and I remember being overwhelmed with terror and pride, watching him go out there, just him and his guitar and his words and music. Since then, he hasn’t stopped. He promotes his music tirelessly. He writes and records all the time, and he plays gigs anywhere and everywhere.
Watching him again last night, two years later, I was overwhelmed again. Yes, he’s handsome (and I have it on non-mum-biased independent authority that he is). Yes, he’s talented, and he has an effortless, witty stage presence that makes him a pleasure to watch. But most of all, I am so astonishingly proud of his courage. Because let me tell you, he is brave. He’s going after a dream, and he’s taking the non-X-Factor route. This route has no personal stylists, shortened cover versions or Simon Cowell fairy dust. While success will come to him in the future, there are currently no hordes of screaming fans or stadium tours. But he’s stepping up onto that rickety stage and he’s playing his heart out, developing his craft and gaining new fans every day. You’re all going to love him one day. But take a number and get in line, because I was first.
See Matt’s facebook page here and download his songs off iTunes.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.