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

02 October 2010

Slowly, but surely

Three weeks later.

Trying to get myself back together. I cry a little less each day. I feel things starting to come back into colour.

Bereavement, of whatever kind, is difficult; but I sometimes find it hard to be patient with myself.

Work helps. Friends help. Love helps.