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Tam Dean Burn - Year of the Horse

As kindred spirits go, actor Tam Dean Burn and cartoonist Harry Horse were made for each other. Both were involved in Edinburgh’s nascent punk scene in the 1980s. Both men played or sang in bands – Burn with The Dirty Reds, which gave rise to Fire Engines, Horse with Cajun cow-punk wild men, Swamptrash. While both men retained a fervent passion for their respective arts, beyond music, acting and drawing, they were fired by an anger at the political status quo and maverick counter-cultural leanings that allowed them to create work on their own terms. Unsurprisingly with such credentials, both men were inspired by the poetry and libertine spirit of William Blake.

Burn and Horse also found common ground concerning the war in Iraq. Burn recognised this from the series of Horse’s cartoons which appeared in the Herald’s sister paper, the Sunday Herald. Here were a stream of visually scatological depictions of Blair, Bush and all the other bogey-men apologists for America and Britain’s involvement, loaded with classical allusions and complete with accompanying texts to hammer their point home. Given such close social, political and personal proximity, then, it’s all the more remarkable that Burn and Horse never met prior to Horse’s untimely death in January 2007. By presenting all 52 of Horse’s cartoons that were published the year previously as part of his new show, Year of the Horse, however, the pair look set to collaborate at last.

Year of the Horse began its life in an ad hoc version put together by Burn for Resonance FM, the London-based radio station run by the London Musicians Collective. Burn has broadcast assorted dispatches for the station, including a mammoth weekly serial in which he read Blake’s collected works, as well as a series of plays broadcast live. These included one by friend and collaborator Johnnie Brown of The Band of Holy Joy based around the pet whippets owned by the late Associates singer Billy Mackenzie. Year of the Horse, though, was something else again.

“I’d been picking up on the cartoons on and off throughout 2006,” Burn says of the play’s roots. “I hadn’t really been able to follow them all, as there was a fair bit of that year I was in London. I didn’t have a clue who he was, even though we’d both been in Edinburgh. I’d moved to London in ’86, so our paths never crossed. I was travelling to London one day, and Resonance said that one of the live plays we’d been doing had fallen through, and did we have anything we could do. We were well used to doing things on the hoof, and I literally came off the phone and picked up a pile of papers. There on the front page of one of them was a picture of Mandy, Harry Horse’s wife, about what had happened to them, and I was gob-smacked.”

Horse and Mandy had seemingly died in a lovers suicide pact. Burn’s imagination pricked, through various contacts he pulled together four tracks by Swamptrash, a downloaded archive of Horse cartoons and texts and a copy of his children’s book, The Last Polar Bears. Together with acting colleague Alison Peebles, Burn collated an hour long memorial to Horse. Only the visuals were missing.

Through connections with the Radical Independent Book Fair, Burn presented a loose-knit performance at the CCA in Glasgow, with the cartoons projected as he read the texts and accompanied himself on guitar. The idea of an exhibition was mooted alongside a full show. After this was reported, Horse’s family contacted Burn, and with their blessing, Burn performed a lecture style version of the show alongside a small exhibition. Around this time, Horse’s family were contacted by journalists who’d heard about the show, and were keen to do a story. Which points up some of the speculation surrounding how Horse and his wife Mandy, an MS sufferer, died.

Harry Horse was born in Coventry as Richard Horne. He moved to Edinburgh in the late 1970s, where, as Harry Horse, he published children’s books, the first of which was Ogopopgo, My Journey With The Loch Ness Monster in 1983. The Last Polar Bears became a thirty minute cartoon for television, while The Last Castaways won the Nestle Smarties Book Prize. It was Horse’s parallel career as an angry and vicious satirical cartoonist, though, that made real waves, their scatological style channelling classical influences into a twenty-first century fury at the world’s injustices.

This continued after Horse and Mandy moved to Burra in the Shetland Isles, right up to their death. Rather any sensationalist speculation over the incident, in Burn’s show, it’s Horse’s brilliant visual and political insight that matters.

“It’s really important that Harry Horse is recognised as a great artist,” Burn says. “The cartoons are hardcore political images, but they’re steeped in political satire from way back. I think I understood what he was trying to do as a political artist, and I recognised the similarities. When I started speaking his texts I discovered the power of them and realised we were moving in the same sorts of areas. There’s one cartoon called Every Day Is Like Sunday, and it starts off by saying ‘All my heroes are dead.’ It then lists them all, and starts off with William Blake, and then Robert Burns. The fact that his number one hero was Blake and his number two was Burns was enough to tell me how much I had in common with him. There’s one called Blue Devils which refers to John Clare, the romantic poet. These are the people he related to more than people this age do.”

Burn recently saw some footage of a 1980s TV interview with Horse’s old band Swamptrash, which showed Horse at work in a newspaper office.

“There was everyone else,” Burn says, “with their primitive computers, and there he was, with his flowing locks, and using a quill. But that was him. He said himself he didn’t belong to this age.”

Even so, Burn has enlisted the help of Optimo DJ Keith McIvor, aka Twitch, to provide a soundtrack for Burn’s hour long show, which extends its initial format into something more polished than just a lecture.

“The form of it is very important,” says Burn, who more than most actors is willing to work without a safety net. “We’ll be finding out how to interact with the images as we go along, so it is a Scratch piece in a way that hopefully will develop as we go along.”

Twitch came on board after Burn discovered an obituary he’d written for Horse on the Optimo website. Another kindred spirit, Twitch had first worked with Burn on the Arches production of I Licked A Slag’s Deodorant several years ago. A renewed partnership on Year of the Horse was inevitable.

“You find these people who you work with and who you trust,” says Burn, “and that was certainly the case with Keith. The fact that he knew Harry Horse’s work was too much of a coincidence to ignore.”

Given Burn’s talent for making connections, as well as what seems to be a disparate series of elements that have fuelled the creation of this show, what, one wonders, might have happened if he and Horse had actually met?

“We would have ended up working together,” says Burn instantly, likening the potential meeting of minds to his work with playwright George Byatt, whose plays were performed with a live soundtrack by Fire Engines. “I know that. What we’d have come up with I don’t know, but we had too much in common not to do something.”

Year of the Horse, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 19-28
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, February 17th 2009

ends

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