31 December 2010

Coughs, Quizzes and the New Year

Since Christmas Day I have been bedridden and unconscious with an awful, cruel holiday bug.

As such, I have failed, Dear Reader, to share with you the highs and lows of this festive season, so very special in Barford. Though I promise in due course to re-cap soon the past year, a year that was and wasn’t in so many ways.

When the clock strikes 12 tonight I will shed a few tears in this year’s passing. Sad one and happy ones: the loss of Lucy, the gaining of my life-giving monthly column…and, etc.

I am looking hopefully forward to the coming year, a double-digit year, that the Chinese believe will be exceedingly lucky for us all.

Tonight should be amazing, I shall be living out one of my fantasies, and spinning the tunes at a massive New Year’s gathering. Finally, I am the DJ.

I'm also the Quiz Mistress for Tonight’s Big Party Quiz. So, dreams do come true!

Highs and lows, for me as ever: I shall be DJ-ing tonight, strung out on cough syrup and antibiotics. I have no voice at all, but have thankfully re-gained my will to live.

Happy New Year, one and all!

29 November 2010

There are moments...

Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the new auditorium

There are moments that change your lives dramatically, and then there are moments of sheer bliss that reveal: "Ah, yes, girl, you got it right." I had such a moment -- several of them in fact -- last Tuesday.

"I want to go big on the theatre re-opening," my wonderfully commanding editor chirped down the phone. She had secured places for both of us at the Press Preview Day, the day before the new theatre's official opening.

Jane is every inch an editor. She is exactly what one would imagine a "lady editor" to look and be. She is tall (of course, everyone is tall compared to me, but Jane could actually be described as statuesque). She is elegant, and not afraid of bold fashion statements: flawless houndstooth jackets in black and lime green. Her dark hair is cut neatly into soft, flattering bob. She exudes a warmth that is coupled with clarity and shrewdness -- this is a woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly.

When I arrive -- a miniature mod hipster, in a (gorgeous) pair Dolce & Gabbana culottes (Thank you, Ella at Corina Corina in Warwick!), knee-high black patent leather boots, and teal and cream cashmere, turtle jumper, I could see her giving me an unconscious smiling nod of approval. We were quite a team, and we had a super day!

A day which began with that  blissful "Aha!" feeling as I drove to Stratford in the brisk chill of a late autumn morning. Warwickshire was being Warwickshire in the background, mist was still rising off the dark green fields. A bright, blue November sky was peppered with soft, grey clouds. I thought to myself as I drove, "Yes, yes. This is it. This is the life I imagined!"

I have long been inspired by that wonderful quote from Thoreau: 

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you imagine!"

Living the life 'you imagine' ain't easy. It takes daring, risk, tears and guts, but I think I'm there, and getting there more each day.

Other highlights of the day were: meeting RSC Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and him acknowledging  my book on the RSC's former studio theatre, The Other Place. This was topped by the opportunity to meet the utterly fantastic, Lady Susie Sainsbury. 

I allowed myself to become a complete groupie when I met Lady Sainsbury. I declared my undying love for Sainsbury's, as my favourite retail outlet. Absolutely true! Love it, love it!

Lady Susie Sainsbury, Deputy Chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company

New beginnings at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The year was 1987. I sat perched in one of the top rows of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Despite the great chasm between “the gods” and the proscenium, I was utterly rapt by the tiny, mesmerizing figures on stage: Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Alan Rickman.

The play was As You Like It. The experience of that production, in that theatre, changed my life. My chums and I had come to the RST as part of a university study tour. They left with souvenirs and postcards, I left with the certainty I had found my raison d'etre.

However, even as a loyal RSC devotee, I found the old building dark, pokey and foreboding. I never knew the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place, in its original configuration, though I have chronicled its history extensively.

That space placed spectator and actor on equal footing, and in equal levels of comfort and discomfort. Simon Russell Beale recalled The Other Place affectionately as “a shared experience of camping out.” It is little wonder than that the world fell in love with The Swan, when it opened in 1982. Warm, cosy and cheery, it was a space that seemed to embrace you.

Good news then that Michael Boyd and his team have succeeded in retaining aspects of all three Stratford houses in the Company’s new theatre. The new auditorium owes much to both the flaws of the old proscenium stage, and the lessons learned and cherished in The Other Place and The Swan.

In designing the new auditorium and theatre complex, Boyd has, literally and metaphorically, kept a firm grasp of the best of the Company’s stellar past, with an eye to moving forward for the future. For example, the wooden planks of the old stage provide the flooring for the upstairs lobby, so everyone has a chance to tread those famous boards.

Without being “Disney-ified”, the new complex speaks clearly to the next generation of theatre-goers and Shakespeare lovers on their own terms. It is a bright, welcoming and inviting space where visitors are encouraged to encounter Shakespeare in variety of media, and in truly evocative ways – whether one sets foot inside the auditorium, or not.

Throughout the building there are exhibition spaces, creative installations (to which visitors can contribute) and interactive displays, such as “The Insults Chair”, that bring Shakespeare’s language to life in ways that are instantaneous, engaging and hilarious. 

There are at last the much-needed creature comforts that audiences have lamented for decades: lifts, improved toilet facilities, more extensive catering outlets and shared access between the main house and The Swan. There is also wireless internet access available throughout the building, a feature that suggests the Company’s desire for this to become a place where visitors enjoy themselves throughout the day, and not exclusively as a theatre-going space.

With a nod to Brecht, and his philosophy that the mechanics of theatre should always be visible, Boyd has positioned the “load-in” dock through the main lobby so visitors, particularly the young, can see how theatre is made.

The much-debated Tower is truly the icing on the cake. The stunning views it offers are simply breathtaking. The tower, too, is a reclaimed piece of the theatre’s history, a re-imagining of the original tower that was destroyed by fire.

There is a moment, while experiencing this bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s world, when all the pieces come together quite magically. Shakespeare: the man, his town, his birthplace, his school, his home, his final resting place, his words and works. And, now, he finally has the theatre he deserves.

22 November 2010

A funny old day...

In bed, feeling rotten.
We had a barnstorming first weekend at the Music Hall. No surprise that Sunday morning tidy up found most of the cast exhausted, coughing and sneezing.
The old wive's tale is true, once you stop moving that's when the sniffles catch you!

I, too, have finally succumbed to the dreaded 'Dressing Room Lurgie (cold)'.
Sore throat, mild cough, achy, etc...
I've kept myself tucked up in bed all day, hoping to feel better for the busy week ahead.

Tomorrow is the big Press Preview day of the new theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Another 'Big pearls and cashmere' day, at long last!) I'm delighted to have been invited along to have a nose round the new theatre. I just want to feel better, brighter, etc.

So, my plan was to take it easy today. I cancelled a coffee meeting I had (re)scheduled for this afternoon, and didn't make it to the gym for Aquafit. :(

A bit of surprise then, when the phone rang this afternoon and it was a producer from BBC Radio Coventry & Warwickshire wanting me to come and "talk Shakespeare" on the Mark Powlett show. At first, I thought it was a prank, but then, couldn't think who would do such a thing...

As a lead-up to the opening of the new theatre this week, Mark Powlett wanted to talk about Shakespeare's language and what Shakespeare means today. In a hazy of cough syrup and Ibuprofen, I gathered my thoughts about Shakespeare and prepped for our chat.

It turned out to be a really super conversation. Mark Powlett is a very clever and witty guy. And, I really enjoyed myself. Not least because I was able to do it sat in bed in my pyjamas! It really brightened my day, and lifted my spirits.

The DEB is bringing home a Chinese take away for dinner, so that neither of us will have to cook tonight. We both need a bit of comfort food and sleep.

And, I received a lovely message from the radio show's producer:
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world." - Merchant of Venice
Thank you very much for your time Alycia - it was a really enjoyablepiece of radio. Hope you get back to top health quickly! Kindest regards.

I hope so, too!

19 November 2010

There's no business like show business!

I am finally surfacing from my “euphoria hang-over”…

Last night was opening night for the Music Hall. It was fantastic! We had a super audience, who all seemed to being really enjoying themselves. Their positive energy really inspired us to do our best. Lovely when that happens!

There’s an old superstition in the theatre, if you have a stellar opening night, the rest of the run is fated for disaster, I hope this time the legend doesn’t prove true. I actually think we will continue to settle into our parts, really relax into them, and enjoy them.

The entire run of the show (this weekend and next weekend) sold out weeks ago, as the Music Hall has a faithful and dedicated audience. It’s incredible to witness and experience that level of support. And, honestly, you can feel the good will in the air. You can feel the audience willing you, wanting you to succeed.

Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that every audience, or even every person in it feels that way. There’s always at least one “Incredibly Unimpressed Sour-puss” in every bunch. Thankfully, for us, the sour puss didn’t materialise last night!

I have said before that Barford seems an incredibly talented village, and maybe every village feels that way. Nevertheless, I am staggered by the level of skill and ability. Especially the gift of comedy. English humour, even the so called ‘low variety’, is an art form.

A few weeks ago, some very dear friends of mine from my old parish in New York came to London to celebrate their honeymoon. The DEB and I went down to London and took them for lunch in Covent Garden.

That was an incredible day, actually. Perfect weather and London being London in the background. Our favourite café in Covent Garden is the one where the performers busk while you’re eating. We’ve seen some very good acts there, mostly classical instrumentalists and singers. On the other side of Covent Garden, there is a courtyard that often plays host to jugglers, dancers and comics. On the day we were there, there was a guy juggling chainsaws … whilst riding a unicycle … wearing only a pair of fuchsia underpants. “The height of British culture,” my friend, John, said with a mighty guffaw. “More than you realise!” I chirped.

After our lunch at Covent Garden, we took a tour of The Banqueting House in Whitehall (designed by Inigo Jones, remarkable ceiling by Rubens) and rounded the day off by attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral – beautiful.

All that seems ages ago now, and I don’t know how we had time for it with rehearsal taking over our lives as they have! It has been worth it though. It was a joy to be on stage last night. And, to feel proud of the hard work I’ve put in. Especially these days when I have been feeling a bit low (after Lucy) and a bit down about my (relatively non-existent) career/work prospects.

The Music Hall has given me a real focus over the past few weeks. It’s been nice to have something to “get on with”. And get on, we have. Rehearsals have been quite full on, and hopefully that shows in our performances. We’re all really exhausted, but during the show it’s an amazing feeling, an incredible high, like nothing else in the world!

The DEB has really come into his own, and it has been so wonderful to watch him flourish as a comic actor and music leader. And, although I have a bit of a reputation for being fearless, I must confess I am very, very proud of myself for having the guts to face down “Don’t Tell Mama”. Greater performers than lowly me have flinched and wilted at the prospect!

Taking a leaf out of Beyonce Knowles’ book, I have to have a quiet word with myself in the loo before each performance. Though I haven’t gone as far as creating a ‘stage persona’ to assume to accomplish the brassy task.

Backstage at Wembley, Beyonce channels her alter ego, Sasha Fierce to steel her courage for her amazingly provocative performances. By contrast, I stand, freezing, in the dimly lit dressing room loo of the Barford Village Hall, sipping a cup of hot lemon water. I look myself in the eye, and call myself up short: “Look. Just go do it.”

Beyonce was also a source of inspiration for my costume. A more modest (?) version of this:

06 November 2010

More than a bit of sparkle

“Remember, remember the Fifth of November!”

Bonfire Weekend is always a big weekend in Barford. Tonight, we’re going to the village Bonfire Night celebrations with a few of our friends. Guy Fawkes Day was actually yesterday, but most towns and villages hold their bonfires on the Saturday nearest the 5th of November.

Last year, I was laid low by a nasty flu, so I missed all the fun. I was tucked up in bed, not even able to see the fireworks, though I could hear them. I’m really looking forward to tonight.

Thankfully, it rained last night, and this morning is crisp and clear, with bright sunshine, so - fingers crossed – we should be okay for fireworks, cider, sausages and merriment tonight!

There’s a small Christmas market in the village hall today, in aid of Home Farm Trust. I want to try and go up later and show my support, but I have one or two things I need to get done around here first.

Tomorrow is the big Music Hall “Audition Day”. I have spent the better part of this week hunting and gathering costumes for the DEB and myself. How did we all live before eBay? It is such an incredible resource for the kind of stuff you need for a village variety show!

I found an incredible seller that I must praise, called “Superstar UK”. They are simply great! We’re supposed to be fully costumed for the auditions tomorrow, and I was desperate to get an item I needed. The gals at Superstar UK were incredibly helpfully and they got my stuff here first thing this morning!

Praise, and a warning … be careful searching for cabaret accessories on eBay UK. While conducting a completely innocent search for “stockings and suspenders”, I came across some vendors whose presentation was right on the edge of the very fine line between advertising and “Readers’ Wives” styled pornography! Yikes!

So wrong, on so many levels, not least for the fact that surely no one is in the market for tights that have been worn by someone else?! …Double Yikes!

Marks & Spencer is a much better alternative in this regard! Speaking of M&S, while ordering stockings, I had a sneak peek at their champagne and wines. They are currently running quite a few pre-Christmas specials on champers. So – time to stock up!

Now that I think about it, Bonfire Night, is really the last “hurrah” before Christmas here in the UK. These days, I am really torn about Thanksgiving. Of course, I love the concept, the colors, the foods, etc. But, in a way, it really is a just sort of very sincere “Dress Rehearsal” for Christmas.

I don’t mean to belittle Thanksgiving in any way, but I must say it does seem a little redundant. Although, there is clearly a need to have some sort of festivity between Halloween and Christmas, at the very least just to keep shopkeepers from putting up Christmas decorations in August!

Speaking of decorations, I must go and make sure the DEB has everything he needs for his costumes for tomorrow. And, I have a few “arts and crafts“ projects to get our props ready as well. Then, off to the Bonfire and hopefully, an early night. I’ve got a stint on the radio tomorrow morning – as if I needed another challenge.

It’s for a sort of “Week in Review” show. The host, another guest and I will read through and discuss the Sunday papers. I was flattered to be asked. I’m really looking forward to it, if somewhat nervous about it.

So, the theme for tomorrow is nerves and hopefully, a bit of sparkle!

31 October 2010

Ghoulies and ghosties

"A sad tale's best for winter: I have one,
of sprites and goblins."

- Winter’s Tale, (II.i. 25-26)

It seems that Hallowe'en is slowly taking hold on the British cultural landscape. Reports suggest this holiday has already eclipsed Mother’s Day and Bonfire Night, and has even begun to give Valentine’s Day a run for its money.

I have fond memories of Hallowe'en: trick-or-treating, and parties, where we bobbed for apples, and did "The Monster Mash." Of course, much has changed in these days of protective caution, but in some sectors, I’m sure Halloween remains the joyous play-day it was when I was a child. This is certainly the case in NYC, where Halloween is celebrated in grande style. Lower Manhattan comes to a standstill for the annual costume parade, and the Upper East Side hosts masquerade balls that would be the envy of Marie-Antoinette!

Being a woman of the theatre, the high jinks of Halloween are second nature to me. As such, I was staggered to find it had not caught on here, especially given the British inclination for fun and fancy dress. So, last Hallowe'en, I went on a crusade. I donned a cat costume, complete with pointy ears and fluffy tail, and surprised my DEB at work with a platter of festive treats. There was much speculation as to who, or what I might be: Birthday kiss-o-gram? Kinky, fetish stripper? (Oh, my!)

That evening, we met some friends at the pub. For this gathering, I tried a more subtle approach: black, leather cat ears, instead of the full-face mask, and no tail. Bemused looks greeted our arrival. I explained: "Tomorrow's Hallowe'en."

I daren’t even recall the incident that happened the next day, on Halloween night, when I unintentionally frightened away the sole trick-or-treaters in Barford, who ran away shrieking when I came to the door dressed as a witch. I made matters worse by chasing them down the drive trying to give them sweets.

Clearly, it was time to seek advice. Most Britons, I was told, only became interested in celebrating Hallowe'en after seeing it depicted in the film E.T. A sage friend explained: "It's hard to sell Hallowe'en to a nation of people who actually believe in fairies and goblins, and have houses full of 400 year old ghosts."

The DEB would probably agree with this assessment. He recalls, as a tiny lad, once seeing a man sitting on the stairs. The DEB began to cry as his mother brushed the stairs, inadvertently striking the apparition with her broom. The man was dressed in military regalia, and the little boy DEB described him in great detail.

From the description, his mother deduced that the man he saw was a Cavalier. The DEB’s mother grew pale with the realisation their home, in the wee Warwickshire hamlet of Compton Wynyates, was just six miles from the battlefield of Edgehill. Now, that is a far cry from chocolates and cat ears!

From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties

And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us!

- Cornish prayer

27 October 2010

Hurt feelings

One of the things I admire most about my Darling English Boy is his graciousness. He is able to take criticism, rejection and light-hearted ridicule with incredible grace and good-humour.

I am not so blessed. And, I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’m a woman, an American ... or both.

Either way, I have slowly come to realize that even in the most friendly, affirming and cosy of villages, there exist quiet enclaves of hurt feelings, however unintended.

On a walk in the bright sunshine of a crisp Autumn morning, I ran into my friend, Sally, walking her dog Poppy on the playfield. We haven’t seen each other for ages and took this opportunity to catch up.

Sally’s not been feeling well, so she missed our first Pageant rehearsal at church on Sunday. The “Nativity Pageant” is performed here in our village every five years, and it is a major undertaking. A huge, platform set is erected over the altar, and locals from nearby villages are invited to participate just to swell the ranks.

As with most “traditions”, there is a certain way of doing things. Of course, that is at the heart of what the word “tradition” means. Doing something repeatedly, in a particular way, at a particular time.

And this tradition is no exception. The major roles in the play (i.e., Mary, Herod, The Wise Men, etc.) all have a history. Once cast in one of these roles, the person playing it is ironclad to the role for life. Only death, relocation, or self-imposed retirement can release the role for someone else.

This year, with the sad demise of dear Chris Hayward, the role of Isaiah has a new occupant for the first time in over 25 years. This change has facilitated a shift for many of the male performers, and freed a new space in the role of Joseph. The D.E.B. has been asked to take on that role. Not bad for a “newbie”!

The selection process was very simple. Anyone interested in taking part turned up to the church and indicated their interest on a sign-up sheet. The directors then decide who goes where.

Knowing a longstanding tradition when I see one, I kept my expectations realistically low: women’s chorus/crowd. Sally, on the other hand, had her heart set on playing Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth.

Her disappointment and upset were palpable as we walked along the playing field. “I was told they wanted me for Elizabeth,” she said, sadly.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. Here was Sally, a former professional stage actress, who has acted her way around the globe (several times) being passed over for a speaking part in the village Pageant.

On one hand, it’s laughable, and the other, heart-achingly sad. And, my heart did ache for Sally. I tried to console her by reassuring her that this turn of events surely had nothing to do with her, but rather everything to do with longstanding traditions, and the fact that there has probably been someone waiting in the wings, clomping at the bit, to play Elizabeth for the past 45 years!

I tried to soothe her by theorising that she, like us, has not been in the village for very long; and perhaps this is the curse of been a newbie, you’re left at the bottom of the artistic food chain.

But, if I’m honest, I share Sally’s pain. I was recently asked if I would consider directing a one-act play for the drama group. I said, yes, of course. And, then dutifully began racking my brain and spent hours upon hours scouring the library for a decent play to propose.

Probably not a surprise, given my professional background and tastes, I opted for a classic. Noel Coward, in fact. I found a little gem of a play called Ways and Means, and absolutely fell in love with it!

I submitted it to the ‘play selection committee’, and after just a few days deliberation, it was shot down like a turkey before Thanksgiving!

My selection was deemed ‘too old-fashioned’. I would be lying if I did not say my pride was more than slightly wounded. Like Sally, I have spent the better part of my life in the theatre, and have worked my way around the world doing so. Selecting plays and directing them was the way I lived my life.

So, a rejection like as this hits squarely, and rather foolishly, in a deeply personal place. Without a doubt, rejection is something artists live with everyday, and is nothing new to neither Sally or myself. As such, it does make me wonder why we have each taken these turns of events so much to heart?

Perhaps for me it is a bit of 'premeditated misery', as we have auditions for the Music Hall at the end of next week. Now, there’s a thing. My goodness, if I fail to be selected for the Music Hall, perhaps that would a sort of karmic pay back for all the scores of actors whose hearts I’ve broken over the years…

No discussion of hurt feelings would be complete without this clip from that fantastic musical comedy/ parody duo from New Zealand, "Flight of the Conchords":

22 October 2010

Not so little things

Lancashire hotpot


2 tablespoons olive oil

800 g lamb neck fillet, cut into 5-cm pieces

1 onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

4 celery sticks

2 leeks, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons plain flour

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

800 g potatoes, unpeeled

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

serves 4-6

Heat the olive oil in a large, flameproof casserole dish, add the lamb and brown all over. Transfer to a plate. Reduce the heat under the casserole, add all the vegetables, then sauté for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove the casserole from the heat, add the meat, then sprinkle in the flour and mix well. Pour in just enough hot water to cover the meat and vegetables, stir well and return to the heat.

Preheat oven t 180° C (350° F) Gas 4.

Bring the casserole to the boil, stirring frequently as the gravy thickens. Season and add the Worcestershire sauce. Remove from the heat.

Slice the potatoes thinly by hand or with a mandolin. Layer them carefully over the meat and vegetables, covering them completely. Place in the oven and cook for 2 hours. The potatoes should be golden on top and the gravy bubbling up around the sides.


Cooking success is so good for the soul. I made this recipe last night, and it was fantastic! The end result looked JUST like the picture in my Easy British Cooking cookbook. For me, that is real achievement!

(Note: I replaced the Lancashire lamb with Warwickshire Hogget, fresh from Charlecote Park. Hogget is is an age of sheep. It falls between lamb and mutton. I thought had something to do with pigs/hogs, initially. I also added parsnips and more leeks.)

My Warwickshire Hotpot was a delicious victory. A small victory, but a victory all the same.

As much as I love Autumn, it is a time that prompts reflection and introspection - the last things I need any encouragement to do! And, perhaps as residue from my years of teaching and lecturing, my sense of Autumn as the start of a new academic year still plays upon my mind. As I find myself no longer on the academic treadmill, I feel a little at sea without the purpose and drive of the academy. But, I‘m trying to find the purpose and drive in myself.

Having an editorial deadline for my column in Warwickshire Life each month certainly helps. Had a funny experience with that recently. Not so much funny “ha, ha”; but, rather, “you’ve got to be kidding me, oh my god, what am I going to!” funny…

Following Lucy’s demise, I languished (still am, though getting much better...) and struggled to find motivation for most things. My editor graciously offered me an extra week for my November deadline. I took every bit of it.

When I finally pulled myself together enough to write something, I submitted it, only to find that I had inadvertently traversed the same terrain as the magazine’s other columnist.

I mean, what are the chances that he and I would hit upon the very same topic – from very different vantage points, of course – at the same time? Since he got his in first, could I be a darling, write something else, and save this piece for later?

I was floored. It had taken everything I had within me to muster up the original piece, and now I was being sent back to the drawing board. Oy vey!

Oh, and it was needed ASAP...

I’m struggling now to recall the person who once said that we are each capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for, or imagine possible. I certainly felt that to be true.

I had a not-so-quiet word with myself, grabbed my laptop, put away the tissues, and typed as if my life depended on it. Sure, this wasn’t life or death, but a commitment is a commitment.

In the end, the piece that I came up under duress was much better than the original one. Perhaps, the pressure even helped the creative process?

I believe that every opportunity no matter how seemingly small to others, is a gift, and not to be squandered or taken lightly. I approach my column with sincerity and seriousness, and try to put my heart and soul into it every month.

A few days ago, two sweet rewards arrived. First, an unexpected parcel from a dear friend in New England. The contents were a treasure trove of goodies from one of my favourite shops in Northampton, Massachusetts. The present reminded me of golden autumns, beautiful fall foliage, and days spent indulging in a wonderful Earl Grey and lavender flavoured ice cream called “Hearts and Flowers”…

And, a kind message from a reader, sent to me via my editor. The reader expressed her sympathy at news of Lucy, and commented that she looks forward to reading my column each month. My page is the first one that she turns to every time. Nice. That really meant a lot.

Lancashire Hotpot. A special parcel from a faraway friend. And, a fan letter. Sometimes, it is the little things that mean the most.

17 October 2010

A certain slant of light

There is something about Autumn.

Writing about her native and beloved New England, Emily Dickinson mused upon the “certain slant of light” that exists in Autumn. Like her, that is what I love most about this time of year.

The morning air, as crisp and chilled as biting into a Granny Smith apple. The leaves turning shades of copper, amber and gold. This season is as blissful in olde England as it is in the New one.

I love this time year! The calm before the delightful Christmas holiday storm.

Barford is a hive of activity in Autumn, as the very serious preparations for Advent slowly get under way. My November Thanksgiving Dinners have now given way to October Harvest Suppers these days, and the main thrust of this November for me will be the annual Barford Music Hall.

The annual “Music Hall” truly launches our festive season into high spirits every year. Tickets for the “Music Hall” are hard to come by. Our first year here, we were unable to obtain tickets for neither love nor money!

‘Music Hall Ticket Day’ is no joke. Would-be punters form a lengthy, but orderly, queue outside Jane and Rod Scott’s home, with lawn chairs and coffee, at 7 a.m.! A normal enough sight for such acts as the Rolling Stones, or The Who, but perhaps a bit of a surprise for the likes of “Terry the Viking” and “The Great Baroloni” - Barford’s very own magician. (Surely, every English village has its own magician?)

To insure we have any chance of actually seeing the Music Hall this year, the DEB and I are auditioning to be in it.

The set-up is rather wacky, if I’m honest. We’ve been planning and rehearsing for about two weeks already. Music items on Tuesdays, Sketches/Acts on Thursdays. The pressure is on to get things memorized and costumes gathered. But, and here’s the kicker – auditions happen in early November.

Yes, it’s a sort of retroactive process. Essentially, one could work for weeks and weeks on an item (or items) gather the people-power, rustle up the garb and funny noses, only to find that your services, your acts, don’t make the cut and are, in fact, not needed at all, thank you very much!

Apparently, the Audition Panel is a bit fierce. It’s said they make the Simon Cowell look like the Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother! I’m not looking forward to this part of the proceedings…

The DEB and I have found a funny (well, we think it’s funny) sketch about a Dog and a Cat, that seems to have become a kind of humorous homage to our lives with Lucy and Lily.

We have also both been roped into a few musical numbers, and I have clearly lost my mind completely, and am attempting to lead a song-and-dance number from Cabaret. (Heaven help us!)

If we don’t make the grade, I shall be deeply disappointed, but there’s always next year. But who knows, it could be a case of “first time lucky”! Still, we have put so much time into already. And time always feels at a premium to me. If fact, we’ve got folks coming round this afternoon to work on a “Queen” Medley...All I can say is we’ll need to be done before Antiques Roadshow and Downton Abbey come on!

I shouldn’t complain, really, although this is a new holiday challenge for us, to be sure, it is also an incredible learning experience for me in the art of British comedy and the skills of the variety show (singing, dancing, comic sketches, &etc.). It is also a rare and intimate insight into a bygone, English art form.

In his play, The Entertainer, John Osbourne lamented to demise of the English music hall:

The music hall is dying, and with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.

- The Entertainer (1957)

Osbourne’s words were certainly prophetic, however, in my small corner of this green and pleasant land, the music hall tradition is still very much alive and well. And, it has become an integral part of what now makes this festive season so enjoyable and special to me.

04 October 2010

Feast Day - Francis of Assisi

"All praise to you, O Lord, for all these our brother and sister creatures." - Canticle of the Creatures, Francis of Assisi

We are burying sweet Lucy's ashes today. It seems most fitting to do so today, on the feast day of my patron saint, that great lover of animals, St. Francis of Assisi.

Every year at my old parish in New York, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis with a Service of Blessing the Animals. It was always such a loving and joyous occasion.

When Faith feels like Work

Earlier this week, I attended Parish Council meeting. These are epic sessions that last at least two and a half hours. I’m honoured to have been elected to serve the church in this way; but I must confess, that I do walk away from these sorts of encounters often wondering how on earth churches have survived as long as they have!

That’s the funny thing about Christianity. It has evolved into so many different/differing permutations over time, that while the basic tenets are fairly consistent, the expressions of this faith as varied as the people who express them.

So, it can be difficult when diverse Christians find themselves lumped together (lumbered with each other?) in one place, trying to make it work. When we each have our own individual views of how and why things should be done.

For us, as in most places I presume, a key issue is attracting a wider cross-section of the community and new members. (And somehow, less liturgy and more contemporary music is always the answer?)

The minute that the conversation takes this turn, I feel my mind glazing over, as it all begins to sound like work.

My job with the National Trust at Charlecote Park is centred on audience development, i.e., attracting a more diverse audience for the National Trust. I find myself pondering, often on a daily basis, how—and maybe even why--this is best achieved.

For me it’s a philosophical question.

I think it’s almost a contradiction in terms to say, ‘Let’s make this more accessible.’ If something has to be made more accessible, are you not essentially altering it and changing it into something else? A ‘something else’ that, if we’re being completely honest, it is not fundamentally.

I have seen this is every line of work/activity I’ve been in, this drive to make something, whether it’s Shakespeare, church or whatever, more accessible, appealing to a wider populace.

And my point, if I have one, is that there are instances in life where this push to accessibility isn’t a mandate, and I think I might admire that.

My first thought is Math/Maths. No one seemed to give a toss, when I was in school, whether I understood math or not. It was there for me to learn. Either I did or I didn't. Period/full stop.

Sure, I remember Physics classes where we did fun things with music, flames and Bunsen burners, but! You still had to wade through the periodic table and all the standard stuff first.

For a more pertinent example, last week as part of my community outreach efforts for the National Trust, I arranged for a party of staff, volunteers, family and friends from Charlecote to have a tour of new Gurdwara Sahib (Sikh temple) in Leamington Spa.

Our group of 25 were hosted by three members of the Gurdwara Sahib community who served as our volunteer tour guides for the evening.

After a short introductory talk on the Sikh faith, our hosts gave us a tour of the building, and led us to one of Diwans (prayer halls). As we all sat on the beautifully carpeted floor, our hosts invited us into conversation: "We are here for you. This is your moment to ask any questions you would like to ask about Sikhism." - our hostess, Harjinder, said.

Harjinder, Suni, and Jaspal shared their personal experiences and beliefs with our group, and led us in a frank discussion about Sikhism. Members of our group politely asked numerous well-informed and engaging questions, and this section of our visit lasted a good while. The openness and the give-and-take of this discourse was quite amazing.

"This is so important. The chief source of strife in this world is ignorance. This kind of dialogue changes that." - Suni said.

"This group is fantastic, you've helped me learn a few new things tonight!" - our second leader, Jaspal commented with a broad smile.

Following the discussion, our tour continued, and we were allowed to listen and observe a group young music pupils learning and performing traditional instruments.

We were then offered the opportunity to join in the hearing of the reading of the sacred text in the main prayer hall.

That was a truly amazing experience. Of course, I had no idea what was being said, but the doleful, incessant intonations of the leader had a familiar hypnotic quality not unlike Gregorian chant.

My point: During our visit, there was an exploration, a welcome, an openness and a willingness to share; but there was no overstated attempt to make the surrounds, the environment , etc. “more accessible” to me our any of our party.

It was, what it was.

No translation of the sacred text was offered, so that I could understand what was being said. I was merely offered an opportunityto appreciate it for and as an experience. And of course, there was no proselytizing.

To be sure, there were several white/non-Asian Sikhs in the community, so it is a faith open to anyone, yet, during our visit no one felt compelled to “push” their ideas upon us.

As a result, I am wondering if one would probably be more likely to go back for a repeat visit because of this lack of promotion?

I have been plagued by this thought since the visit. Perhaps, I’m beginning to wonder, if the “recruiting” aspects of worlds I inhabit in my work life and faith life are somewhat misguided, however well-intentioned?

Our chat session at the Gurdwara Sahib