Alan James Tribute

Alan James in a field of poppies

It was an honour to be asked to speak at Alan’s funeral. I attempted to speak for those of us who knew him from the Birmingham and theatre sides of his life. It cost many tears to write and then more to read.

“Sometime in the late 90s the marketing department at Midlands Arts Centre were shocked and amused to hear that Alan and I were going on holiday together. They dubbed it the “Men Behaving Intensely: Tour of Ireland”, it was a funny line but they were wrong. They didn’t know us and they certainly didn’t know Alan; not like we knew Alan.

Our paths had crossed because at MAC Alan was starting to weave a web of connections, programming theatre, dance and music, separately but more excitingly together. Full of curiosity, Alan was asking questions about theatre and traveling to see dance. We’d convene to agree who was who and what was what and why this was that and she and they were more interesting than him and them.

Alan wasn’t drinking and always left too early, jumping into some form of Swedish car to drive west, chasing the sun long after it had set into lands unknown; unknown then, but later, as we grew closer, introduced to me as the Clent Hills, Hagley, Churchill and finally Bewdley; each a new delight more or less buried down a verdant lane.

Good things happened when Alan was close at hand. He programmed us and commissioned us. He catalysed us and when I say us I mean so many of us, not just us. He brought into MAC an extraordinary range of curious events and performances for everyone to draw inspiration from and with 7/8 of a Second, a big outdoor performance event in Cannon Hill Park, he produced what became a talismanic moment for a certain Birmingham scene.

Alan treasured a glittering array of such talismanic moments from throughout his life and when he referenced, them he did so with such generosity and praise for others that it was easy to forget that he was a key part of gathering those people, in those places, at those times, to experience those special feelings.

Alan was an enthusiast and loved sharing his enthusiasms. His mix-tapes and discs were an educational treat; exotica while it was still exotic, chill before it was big, folk way before any of us realised that was socially acceptable. In introducing us to all these wonders he was never patronising – though he had every right to be given how much he knew and how much we didn’t.

With his hip Bristol connections he loved Banksy before we’d even heard of Banksy, before everyone loved Banksy, indeed before so many people loved Banksy that people stopped liking Banksy at all. Charmingly Alan retained the fanatics thrill of an Access All Areas pass and white label pre-release disc. Once, Alan bestowed street credibility on me for almost a fortnight by giving me a Massive Attack album before it was officially available. When he heard we were planning a show called Voodoo City he borrowed, from a friend, an album so terrifying that the friend was only allowed to play it when his girlfriend was out. When I said I was thinking of buying a suit like this one he said I needed Chelsea Boots to go with it and then patiently explaining what Chelsea Boots were. When Sarah and I were married Alan honoured us by playing the first deejay set and kindly buried our ‘First Dance’ deep within the mix. When I turned 50 he quietly drifted into the party, a very special guest. We didn’t get to talk enough, he stayed, but not long enough, we agreed to meet again and soon.

Alan was at the heart of something special at MAC and so was genuinely hurt when restructuring did away with his job. For years after he would inspect this wound and prod it but in truth he was liberated; now he could freelance. Birmingham City Council engaged him to curate its artistic response to the new millennium which included, on 2nd & 3rd of January 2000, a multi-arts event at the International Convention Centre called Revolution!, which allowed him to commission many of his favourite local artists. A few years later he was the proud producer of the sensational performance event Blast! which sent steam and smoke and fire into the night sky behind Curzon Street station to celebrate Birmingham’s place at the centre of the Industrial Revolution.

We asked Alan to become Chair of Stan’s Cafe and he graciously accepted, fulfilling the role with great dedication and concern for many years. Alan was one of us and he helped bring us together as us.

Alan would disappear for long stretches. You would never know if he was off on tour, with a band in a recording studio or hunkered down – solo – craving that time when the days would start to lengthen, the winter end and the gloom abate. Then he would pop up, half unexpectedly, always dapper, always making the rest of us scruffy bunch look like, well frankly, like a scruffy bunch. My heart would leap to see him. He always made me laugh. He was always gone too soon.

He loved us. He loved Jonny and Pippa as people and artists and the things they made; Mark and Helen likewise and Brian with his orchestras and extraordinary obsessions; he wouldn’t stop playing me Mighty Math until I loved Mighty Math too. He loved Bobby Bird and NVA and Andy Goldsworthy and so on and on. Somehow he persuaded Birmingham Jazz to book The Necks and then, to compound the absurdity, persuaded them that the gig had to be in our scummy venue and that became one of the best nights ever.

Of course Alan knew the names of bands but also of birds and plants and nature stuff. From the back window of his cottage he loved seeing sheep come and go, and keeping a weather eye on the weather, which flowers were early, what neighbour’s vegetables had run to seed.

He loved summer evenings in a Bournville back garden sharing politics, gossip and old tales with Ros and John, staring up with Mick at where the stars should be, cursing the light pollution. Watching with delight as lovely Molly grew up, checking with me that I thought she was fantastic too.

“Come on the Severn Valley Railway. Come to where the river’s flow pushes the ferry back and forth, let’s walk in the Wyre Forest, let’s visit the standing stones, the blossom’s out, let’s climb the hills, come to see this very old tree”.

When he left our board we gave Alan a framed picture to remember us by, a blatant attempt to elbow our way into his glorious collection of treasures. We wanted a place close to him, with the records and posters for gigs, pictures and books, articulated sculptures of fish, wind-up toy robots and that special kind of glass that he liked.

This was supposed to be a 7″ and I’m afraid it’s become a 12″. It could easily be an album, a gatefold with bonus disc, an endlessly repeating loop on the runoff groove but I’ll end it with this.

When I hear those records, when I recount his stories, gather with these friends, when I drive west down the Hagley Road on the route that the sun will inevitably take: this will always be Alan James territory for me.

I feel genuinely privileged to have known Alan and if I hadn’t met him my life would be inestimably poorer. While he has left too early one final time, on this occasion, scrupulously polite as ever, he held on long enough to allow a lucky few of us to say ‘goodbye’ and for that I am grateful too.

I ran in my singlet, Dublin’s grey streets alive with politics and history.Laughing we ignored the paths, clambered directly up the peaks of Connemaraand camped by Galway Bay; before Alan zoomed us through the Irish countryside,windows wide open and Red Snapper rolling from the speakers –Lo-Beam taking us out of time.”

James Yarker, Birmingham, 3 May 2019.

Alan James was an impresario in the field of music and theatre. He managed musicians and bands. He produced performance events. He deejayed and compared. He spent time working for the Arts Council and programmed theatre and music at MAC, when Stan’s Cafe were based there in the mid-1990s. He was a great friend and supporter of the company and for a number of years was Chair of our Board.

In late April 2019 Alan died after a major stroke. The Guardian ran an obituary focusing mainly on his work within the music industry and based on a wonderful article written for Froots magazine by Elizabeth Kinder.

James Yarker

View related project