For the first five years of my life as a professional writer I was known as Gregory “Gagarin Way” Burke. Now I am Gregory “Black Watch” Burke. Gagarin Way, a play about the disappearance of socialism, was successful but enjoyed nowhere near the critical and commercial impact achieved by Black Watch, a play about the Scottish regiment’s deployment to Iraq. Indeed, based on the following ratio – amount of success enjoyed to number of years until people stop writing the title of your last big hit in the middle of your name – I reckon I should get the Black Watch monkey off my back by about 2068. Which will be nice, because I’m due to be 100 that year.
This means, of course, that this year I am 40. I know it’s the new 30. And I’m sure I read somewhere about the big Four-0 not mattering any more but it is kind of looming there, making its presence felt, refusing to be ignored. And I do kind of feel that I need to mark the milestone by doing something. I’ve never felt like this before. I didn’t bother having a 21st or a 30th. I never really bother about birthdays generally. If the missus remembers, it’s a bonus, obviously. But with the 40th it feels like the onus is somehow on me. It’s a dilemma. Should you have a big party or a midlife crisis? Hire a hall and invite a load of people who might not turn up or make a fool of yourself with an inappropriate sexual partner and spend the next 30 years – 70 now marks the official onset of old age, I believe – surveying the heap of ashes that used to be your life?
Luckily, the advantage of being a writer is you can get actors to perform your midlife crisis on a stage in front of a paying audience. I thought that should be the course of action to take. You jot down the likely, self-destructive scenario that might play out if the thought of no longer being young has caused you temporarily to take leave of your senses and then you get a group of paid professionals to do the actions in your stead. Everyone’s a winner. Apart from the young actress who has to spend the whole play being hit on by an ageing lothario. There really is no business like it.
Talking of ageing lotharios, by happy coincidence I returned this week from a friend’s wedding in Ibiza. Marko, or “Football Mark” as he is known to his intimates, is the last of the “young team” who drank in Dunfermline’s Bruce Tavern in the 1990s to throw in the towel and succumb to domestic bliss. The Bruce is a legendary hostelry that has been in situ for more than 600 years and the joke goes that it’s only been redecorated twice in that time. The second time was when they acknowledged the dawn of the new millennium by installing a women’s toilet.
Back to Ibiza. People had gathered on the White Island for Marko’s wedding from all over the world – Sydney, Los Angeles, Dubai, Cairneyhill, near Dunfermline – reflecting the astonishing fact that the “young team” have done all right for themselves. The venue for the nuptials was a luxury small hotel, a converted finca with a spa attached. It was agroturismo at its finest and as far removed from the Bruce as you could possibly get. They didn’t have mince toasties on the dinner menu for one thing and the barman cut the lemons for the gin and tonics instead of biting them. The tone was slightly lowered on the first day we arrived by some blatantly Scottish volleyball action in the pool and the requisitioning of a plunge pool for Super Lager storage but, cultural differences aside, we threw ourselves with gusto into the upmarket pampering that the establishment specialises in. Over the week I spent an obscene amount of time in a dressing gown.
The bride was a very pretty, Australian girl from a well-off family. Just the sort of girl I thought Marko would end up with. He was a bit of a legend with the girls in his day. A bit of a legend all round actually. In fact when his older brother – who was his best man because he was the only person Marko knows who wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his new family – sent e-mails asking for a couple of amusing anecdotes for his speech, he said he didn’t want anything that involved drink, drugs, women or football violence. “Why did none of you answer my e-mail?” he confronted us at the hotel pool. His brother’s speech may have been short but Marko’s timing has always been impeccable. He has solved the midlife crisis by getting married to a girl 10 years younger than him just when it’s about to hit. And he’s moving to Australia. Any impulse to make a fool of himself over the next few years can be done safely within the confines of marriage. He has hung up the disco boots at exactly the right time.
“I started writing my new play, Hoors, with the idea that it would be the disappointing follow-up to Black Watch. And, having spent two days in rehearsals hearing what I have written, I can say without fear of contradiction that I’m well on the way to fulfilling that ambition.”
If I’d been asked to introduce the reading of my new play at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh last Saturday night, these would have been my opening lines. Fortunately, I didn’t have to but, as I mentioned earlier, it is one of the hazards of being part of the creative team that produced Black Watch that all of us are saddled with its legacy. It’s precisely two years since I last sat in a rehearsal room. I was a bit giddy to begin with. Writers don’t get out much as a rule. But if you also have a young child for whom you are primary carer then your horizon contracts to the swing park, Tweenies pasta and the latest episode of Balamory. So it was a bit like when you were going on a school outing and you would have your packed lunch eaten before the bus left the playground. I used up all my funny stories that I’d accumulated over the past two years – it’s amazing how funny you can be about teething when you’ve had time to practise the material.
That’s another advantage to being a writer, people will always laugh at your jokes. If they don’t, you can decide they aren’t right for a part in the disappointing follow-up to Black Watch. I think the actors sussed out quite early on that the play they were going to be reading was perhaps the author’s discussion with himself about this impending “event” in his life. And it wasn’t just because I was complimenting the youngest, female member of the cast on her acting so much. It was then that I resolved to spend my 40th birthday at the Edinburgh Playhouse, with my wife and daughter, watching CBeebies Live.
Gregory Burke’s play ‘Black Watch’ is at the Barbican until July 26. ‘Hoors’ will be staged when he digests the full ramifications of turning 40
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