In Aberystwyth everyone is dressed up as a bunny or a nurse or a Hawaiian surfer, or has had their face painted Kabuki-white. It’s a university town, so some such carry on is only to be expected: yet the rituals of late adolescence seem to me so pronounced nowadays — the rut and glug, the prance and dance; the half-digested pap of US frat. Of course, this is my ritual of middle age: the carp and moan, the self-conscious distancing — as if afraid the knicker elastic of teenage abandonment is about to snap back in my face, yet again.
At the University Arts Centre everything is on offer: a museum full of ancient artefacts, a cinema with David Lynch’s Inland Empire playing, even a theatre offering Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. Limber pubescent girls in iridescent leotards cascade over the varnished pine floorboards in the dance studio. It’s odd, this cultured oasis in a campus, which, if not exactly a concrete desert, nonetheless has an air of desuetude.
Having signed on with an agency to promote my books, Iâ€™m now sent off to venues like this. Aberystwyth — Britain’s own Ultima Thule. In the battered green room, I look at my ageing face surrounded by exposed lightbulbs, and Archie Rice looks back. It’s the end-of-the-pier show — and I’m the entertainer. Could it get worse? I’m tired, I certainly don’t feel like making anyone laugh or cry or emote in any way.
On stage, glum, gloomy, I start my schtick. I read a couple of short pieces, indulge in a flight of fancy; and then I feel it: the impossible-to-mistake sensation of empathy, beaming back at me from the darkened auditorium. Damn it! These people are on my side: they’re tired too — but they also want to enjoy themselves. They haven’t come to deride — but engage.
In the signing line after the reading, I find that the Aberystwyth folk are the chattiest, the most informed, the most acute I’ve come across for a while. I wouldn’t say I left the Arts Centre with a glow — that would be obscene — but as I freewheeled my folding bike back down the steep hill to town, I felt a definite unburdening of the spirit.
Deep in the small hours, through the open window of the Bellvue Hotel, I heard late-teen drunken ranting along the seafront: the boy indifferent, the girl hysterical. “Fuck you!” She cried, and then again, “Fuck you! Really, fuck you!”
In the morning, I found a single blood-stained white sock lying in the concrete pot on the promenade, which should have held a plant, but instead contained only this discarded apparel and a few fag butts. Perhaps this was the real Aberystwyth, and the nice people at the Arts Centre were in fancy, psychic dress?