I was recently given an award at an event organised by the Americana Music Association UK, so that I could immediately turn and hand it to the person who won it. Of course, presenting an award is also an honour, and a pretty easy gig – you’re on stage for maybe three minutes in total.
I don’t get asked to do it very often. The last time was about eight years ago, and while I waited my turn in the audience a woman sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hi Barry!” she said. “You’re looking well!”
“Oh,” I said, “thanks.”
She seemed pleased to see me. We had a friendly chat, during which the appropriate moment for me to say “by the way, I’m not Barry” came and went.
In fact I never said it; she eventually realised I was someone else, and broke off the conversation abruptly. I turned around, but I could feel her eyes on me as she thought: what kind of person pretends to be Barry, when he is not Barry? She was about to find out – 10 minutes later I was on stage.
I am thinking about this on my way to the Hackney Empire on the night of the AMA-UK awards. I pick up my ticket and walk into a drinks reception full of strangers. I imagine them whispering to each other as I pass: is that Barry? He looks terrible!
Eventually, I find someone I know and press them into a slightly manic conversation – when the situation demands it I can be gratingly outgoing, but it takes a lot out of me.
It is only as I’m looking for my seat in the stalls that I remember I have been to the Hackney Empire before, for the Christmas panto five years ago. I had been pulled from the audience by the ugly sisters from Cinderella, dragged onstage and sported with, in front of a capacity crowd.
It remains one of the most traumatic incidents of my life, even though the whole thing was planned: I was writing a piece about the panto, and was given an assigned seat. I knew something was going to happen, but no one would tell me what. I sat through the first act with my heart thudding. Then the ugly sisters were lowered to the stage in the basket of a hot-air balloon, and my vision went white.
For a minute I think I might even be sitting in the same seat, but I still remember it was E15, and I’m in H15, a few rows back. Still, as the lights go down, I realise I’m beginning to relive the horror of that night. My heart starts thudding all over again.
By tradition, Cinderella’s stepsisters are played by broad-shouldered men. If they choose you, any attempt to remain in your seat is futile. I can only piece together what happened next, because by then I had retreated to a quiet place inside myself, but I believe I was dressed up as a series of comic book characters while the ugly sisters sang Holding Out for a Hero. Then I was suddenly back in my seat, a cold sweat drying beneath my shirt.
At the awards show there is a band playing, but I am still revisiting the ghost of Christmas 2017 when a man with a torch crouches near my elbow.
“H15?” he whispers.
“Yeah,” I say.
‘Tim?” he says.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“Come with me,” he says.
I am led backstage, speech in hand, past people holding awards and hugging, past photographers and technicians, to a spot in the wings. Suddenly I have a hundred questions – chief among them is, will there be enough light for me to read out there? – but there is no one to ask. It’s too late – the band is already coming off stage, and in the faintest tones I can hear myself being introduced.
Someone gives me a little shove, and I find myself before the audience, with bright lights in my eyes.
At first it seems to be going well and the audience is attentive. Words are coming out of my mouth, and the audience is listening. But every time I glance down at the folded sheet of A4 in my hand, I see that I have not yet read the first line. With some effort, I make a point of listening to myself.
Wait, I think: are you telling them about the panto? They don’t want to hear this! It’s a music award!
But it’s an anecdote with no off ramp – I must press on. Finally, I get to the name of the award recipient. The audience applauds. I am given the award itself and – just for a second – I think about not handing it over. I think instead about raising it above my head in triumph, and shouting “This one’s for Barry!”