The pair were at Newcastle’s Lit & Phil where Alexander, its president, opened a long-awaited new lift for wheelchair users
With thanks to DAVID WHETSTONE at The Chronicle
Multi-talented Alexander Armstrong – actor, singer and Pointless presenter – was in Newcastle to perform ribbon-cutting duties at one of his favourite buildings.
He officially opened the long-awaited new wheelchair lift at the Lit & Phil, Westgate Road.
“This is a very exciting development for the Lit & Phil,” said the Rothbury-born Lit & Phil president.
“I’m very, very proud of my association with the Lit & Phil which has been an ornament to the North East throughout its history.
“It has always been about accessibility really. The Lit & Phil, for example, welcomed members of both sexes long before its contemporaries around the country.
“It has been at the heart of its ethos so it seems right that this is something we should celebrate.”
Paul Gailiunas, chairman of the Lit & Phil (full name: the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne), said there had been a plan to improve access to the building for at least 20 years.
A “very, very generous donation” from a member – who asked to remain anonymous – had enabled work to proceed.
“I know there are members who had not been able to get in who now can,” he said before explaining that this was just phase one.
Money was now being raised to install a lift to link all floors of the building and to refurbish the ground floor and provide more accessible toilets.
Present to test the new lift was Lesley Aspin in the mobility scooter she calls her “car”.
“I have been coming in but this makes it much easier,” she said.
“I didn’t really like to leave this outside. I’m lucky because I can walk a bit but others can’t.”
As well as snipping the ribbon, Alexander was at the Lit & Phil for a public ‘in conversation’ event with North East children’s author David Almond.
Their paths had crossed before, it turned out.
“I appeared in the film of Skellig in 2009, for Sky, as a psychotic PE teacher, Mr Hunt,” said Alexander. “So we met at the premiere.”
He invited David to go back to 1997. “Tony Blair had just swept to power, the Princess of Wales was killed and at the same time a book called Skellig arrived.”
“I finished it in June ’97,” recalled David. “At the time I was a special needs teacher in Tynemouth.”
He had been writing short stories and had just finished a collection of them called Counting Stars.
Having dropped the manuscript into the postbox for his “long-suffering agent”, he turned and the first line of Skellig came into his head: “I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.”
“I never planned it to be a children’s book. Writing is like living; if you try to plan it too carefully you’ll end up being disappointed.
“But I got half way down the page and felt a great sense of liberation, a new feeling of strength and a new world of opportunity opening up before me.
“I remember the feeling. I ploughed into the book and it just wrote itself through me.”
Skelling was published in 1998 and went on to be Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and to win the Carnegie Medal. It has been adapted into a play, an opera and that film.
Alexander wondered what it was like having your book adapted into a play.
He said when he first went to London he lived in a flat owned by theatre director Trevor Nunn who was suffering from a frozen shoulder – resulting, he said, from his efforts to obscure the view of a difficult writer whose work he was directing and who kept trying to look over his shoulder.
David said Trevor Nunn had directed the first stage version of Skellig in 2003 which David had adapted himself. It hadn’t been a painful experience.
“Writing for young people… what is the difference?” asked Alexander.
“It’s hard to define. Sometimes I’ll say there’s no difference,” said David.
“But I think there really is a difference. Because of a child’s imagination you can write things in a very direct manner. You don’t have to explain everything.”
He said sometimes he would be introduced to children with the words: “Here’s David Almond. He can tell you what Skellig is.”
“But I always say I don’t know. Skellig is a mystery.”
Skellig, the winged creature with a fondness for Chinese takeaways (the takeaway that inspired the author, it seems, is still on Chillngham Road, Heaton ), proved the making of David Almond.
Success, though, was a long time coming. He said his first attempt at a novel took seven years to write and was rejected by every publisher.
Always busy now, he has written one of the 10 books to be available for £1 on World Book Day, March 2. It is called Island and is suitable for readers aged 11 to 14.
Another book, The Tale of Angelino Brown, aimed at younger children, will be out in May.
Meanwhile he is working on a stage version for Northern Stage of his 2014 novel for young adults, A Song for Ella Grey.
As for Alexander, the classically trained baritone said he was starting work this week on a new album to follow his debut, A Year of Songs, and last year’s Upon a Different Shore.
“Music label Warner have come back with an offer for a third album and I’m working this time with some people I’ve known forever, old friends and extremely good record producers.
“I don’t know exactly what it’ll be yet. We’ve still got to decide what our focus will be.
“Pointless (the BBC One game show) only takes up about four months of my year so it’s really nice that music can use up the time left over.”
With thanks to The Chronicle for use of this video