Arts

Murray Lachlan Young on bringing his Virus Diaries show to Imagine! Belfast and collaborating with Orbital's Paul Hartnoll

David Roy speaks to acclaimed poet Murray Lachlan Young about bringing his pandemic-inspired Virus Diaries show to the Imagine! Belfast Festival...

Murray Lachlan Young will be bringing his Virus Diaries to the Imagine! Belfast Festival

"I THINK that keeping the creative process going on a day-to-day basis is very important," says poet Murray Lachlan Young.

"As they say, 'a writer writes' – and if you don't write, then you're not a writer."

The US-born and Kent-raised wordsmith has little to worry about on that count: he's had plenty to write about over the past 12 months.

His new show, Virus Diaries, finds Murray (51) drawing upon a selection of his poems for BBC 6Music's Shaun Keaveny show on Friday afternoons. As 6Music's poet in residence for the past decade, he has delivered weekly short bursts of verse tackling a huge variety of topical subjects – everything from the path of parenthood and the politics of ginger bread to the complexities of Test Cricket and the mysteries of Doctor Who.

Thus, since last March, the poet has been regularly crafting worded responses to the multitude of ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has affected our lives. He'll be performing a selection of these pandemic-inspired verses for a Virus Diaries live streamed show as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival on March 23.

"They're all from the first 14 weeks of the first lockdown," explains Murray. "Paul Hartnoll from [electronic dance band] Orbital actually did soundtracks for them. We're going to be putting them out as an album [as Hartnoll & Young] before the end of this lockdown.

"Recently, I was asked by friends of mine at The Idler magazine to perform some of the poems, and I read the text without the music. It went down really well and I really enjoyed doing it.

"A lot of them were written as spoken songs but they really came across. So, I thought that putting together a bunch of them with some commentary in between and maybe some questions or discussion at the end would be a really nice thing to do for the festival in a couple of weeks' time."

While the show title might imply some sort of confessional element to the show, that's not quite accurate – as Murray explains.

"It's been an interesting journey, writing for the BBC," he tells me. "If [the writing] becomes too personal then I think it's very easy to lose contact with the people you're writing for. There's definitely been a real element of trying to do something for everybody with this.

"From the very beginning of the first lockdown, when the sort of shock hit the world and the UK, it became apparent very very quickly what my 'job' was: to reflect back to people what was going on, in a positive light.

"I mean, not in an annoyingly positive way or anything. But I just felt that the main thing was commenting in a way that kept my own spirits up and hopefully could be a part of putting a positive light on what was going on."

Murray Lachlan Young is BBC 6Music's long-time poet in residence

Thus, the Virus Diaries material includes the likes of I Need a Haircut, I've Got A Delivery Coming and Homeschooling, with I'm Going Shopping from June 2020 released as the first single by Hartnoll & Young and offering wry reportage from the post-lockdown paranoia-wracked aisles of newly Covid-compliant supermarkets, complete with a delicious lyrical homage to The Police's Don't Stand So Close to Me ("Sting's lawyers have not been in touch thus far", advises Murray).

The poet's robotic words are set to a pulsing Kraftwerk-ian tune from aforementioned Orbital man Paul Hartnoll. Having also recently collaborated on the lockdown-friendly family-orientated augmented reality story app The Chronicles of Atom & Luna, the pair first met over 30 years ago when they attended the same high school in Sevenoaks.

"It was a rough 'secondary modern' called The Wilderness School," explains Murray, who went on to study media performance at Salford University prior to making a name for himself as a 'rock and roll poet' opening for the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Julian Cope, eventually signing a lucrative record contract himself with EMI in 1997.

"There was the local public school, then the local grammar school, then the technical school, then there was our school – and then there was borstal. It was a really violent, scary place, but we managed to keep our heads down as much as we could.

"We were both in various different bands as well as doing other stuff. When Orbital just took off, it was like 'wow'. That made anything seem possible for the rest of us.

"So I really enjoyed getting the chance to work with Paul. I just listened back to it all yesterday and realised just how talented he really is."

While the first lockdown put paid to yet another theatre run for Murray's hugely popular live children's show The Mystery of The Raddlesham Mumps, for Virus Diaries he's getting back to the live work he loves – albeit via the web.

"It does make a big difference – because there's consequences," he tells me of his insistence on making the show a live event.

"For me in a performance, what I want to do is get to a point where I'm actually feeling: feeling the work, feeling the audience and being present. And there's nothing quite like a 'live' environment for that."

With that, I leave Murray to prepping the show, working on a new screenplay and indeed teeing up his next 6Music poem.

"The 6Music thing is a very very good discipline for me – because there's nothing like a deadline," says the poet.

"It's also great to have that platform to go out to however many hundreds of thousands of people are listening on a weekly basis. So it's a double winner, really. Even if I've done nothing else that week, so long as I've produced my 6Music poem then I'm still in the game."

:: Virus Diaries with Murray Lachlan Young, Tuesday March 23, 7.30pm. This is a ticketed free event, watch via Imaginebelfast.com

IMAGINE! BELFAST: THREE TO SEE

:: Noam Chomsky: Reflections on The Future of Democracy – March 22, 8pm

Noam Chomsky

In this interview with BBC journalist and presenter William Crowley, celebrated American linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky will discuss the current threats to democracy, ways to build solidarity and progressive politics.

:: Ulster's Lesser Spotted Queer Protestant – March 22, 7pm

Dr Richard O'Leary

Presented in conjunction with the LGBT History Club, Dr Richard O'Leary will take you in search of Ulster's Lesser Spotted Queer Protestant (LSQP). Drawing on newly accessed archival material, Dr O'Leary – a performance storyteller of true fairy stories, the coordinator of NI's LGBT Heritage Project and a visiting scholar at Queen's University Belfast – presents both an objective and subjective view, inviting you to "imagine a 19th century Ulster same sex couple, erasure, Billy Elliot, pseudonyms, the whack of the crozier, exile and love". The talk will be followed by a Q&A.

:: A House Divided – March 23, 7pm

A House Divided

A rare chance to see John T Davis's thoughtful and revealing 2003 documentary which follows Belfast artist Noel Murphy on his mission to paint the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The film shadows journalist Eamonn Mallie as he interviews the sitters – key players including the Rev Ian Paisley, John Hume, David Trimble, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – who ended up in the finished piece, The House Will Divide, which currently hangs in the Senate Chamber at Stormont.

A House Divided will be available on QFT Player from 7pm on Monday March 23 and free to watch until Sunday March 28.Watch via Queensfilmtheatre.com

:: Tickets and full information on all events available via imaginebelfast.com

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