Feed the birds. Me and Dewey.

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A single image can bring back so many memories…………………

This simple little photo, probably taken in 1963, is me feeding my pet throstle Dewey. Even the word throstle, which I was taught, is unusual now- it is a word from old English which was still common usage for a song thrush or a mistle thrush in the East Riding of Yorkshire back then. Feeding Dewey was a regular event. We had a large garden where my grandfather, a retired farmer, used to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. There was a small orchard of apple trees and it was good hunting ground for birds, especially when he was digging. They regularly became quite tame as he would throw them worms. There were plenty of insects for them too as he gardened organically without necessarily even knowing the word. I had a very close relationship with everything that I saw in it.

This photograph was taken in the days before people recorded their every special moment at the touch of a button and it would have been quite carefully planned. Dewey used to come to the back door, but not always, and someone needed to be ready. Waiting for a photograph to be developed was quite nerve wracking. You had no idea whether it had actually come out or not until you opened the packet. No second chances as film and developing was expensive. There would have been some satisfaction when this one turned up. My generation generally has a very fragmented record of their early past- it’s a very different story now.

I used to have a special trip into York to get a pair of those cut out Clarks sandals at the beginning of every summer- just one pair and they were expected to last. I liked having my feet measured on the special gauge because it didn’t hurt and it made me feel special. I had wide feet and I was quite proud of that for some reason. Even though each pair of new summer sandals looked exactly like the ones that I am wearing in the photo shoe shops were still exciting because you had to wait to see the shoes taken out of a box, fetched down from high up on the wall by an assistant who had to climb a ladder or disappear into a storeroom at the back. I usually chose red and I was always allowed to walk out of the shop wearing them. I loved that.

In those days little girls always wore dresses, even when they were racketing around making dens between the apple trees and our high privet hedge. I still have my favourite one from this period, bright turquoise with rows of little white daisies sewn on and vertical stripes. That was my best dress and this one is a more everyday one but they were always in the same style. We weren’t princesses- more like mini Alma Cogans. Only the material changed.

The cardigan would have been hand knitted by either my Auntie Jean or my mum’s cousin Joyce. Knitting wasn’t something that you made a fuss about- it was quite an ordinary thing to do- but every family had one or two women who were particularly good at it and they were kept very busy. You didn’t buy jumpers.

Just behind the door there is a small rag rug. These rugs were handmade by my gran and my Aunty Edie from old cut up winter clothes and they were laid all over the house behind doors, next to beds and in front of fireplaces. The pieces of rag were pulled through a piece of loose weave, strong backing material with a special hook and they made simple colour combinations and patterns. Nothing was wasted- ever. I might well have walked on fragments of a frock worn by my great grandma. In her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Jeanette Winterson describes rugs like this as lying around the house like damp dogs and I know exactly what she means. The big ones were very heavy and took a long while to make. Worn out summer clothes were made into patchwork quilts.

The step that I am standing on is the back door step which led into the kitchen- we rarely used the front door. My gran used to put down a rubber mat in front of it and scrub it regularly. She wore a cross over pinny and I had to keep out of the way. When she cleaned the back kitchen she used to make a train of chairs for me and sit me in one of the middle ones. I was quite happy on my own sitting there shouting choo choo while I could hear her bustling about in the next room.

Growing up in a household which was run by a couple born in Victorian times gives me a link to the past which someone of my age is lucky to have and I have always valued it. It might have been the swinging sixties but not in our house…….. or at least only on our tiny black and white television.

So near and yet so far.

Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time?

A polystyrene tray of fingers, smell of cold chip fat still lingers.

A wounded kite hangs in a tree, crying out to the wind.
An empty plastic bottle begs to share a drink with someone.
A sodden sock lies still and helpless, abandoned by its faithless partner.
Dirty sweets lie strewn on soft sand, the last of a forbidden sugar rush.
A shining white carrier bag escapes across a clear blue sky.

A polystyrene tray of fingers, smell of cold chip fat still lingers.

A crumpled can leaks its last drop of lager into a dried out pool.
A lime green tennis ball sits lost and beaten, its gaping belly torn apart.
A folding chair is collapsed in a heap, broken legs held out in submission.
A half eaten sandwich sinks into salt sand, remembering an argument.
The severed handle of a plastic spade sails out into the North sea.

A polystyrene tray of fingers, smell of cold chip fat still lingers.

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Sleight & Hand. Live streaming from the Edinburgh festival fringe. 20-08-14

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At this time of year I long to be in Edinburgh, if I am not there, and so I was grateful for this BBC afternoon live streaming of Sleight & Hand, one of the shows from the fringe. We are promised a “whip smart slice of Victoriana” and that is pretty much what we get. It is a tale of two magicians, Sleight and Hand and two splendidly Victorian characters, the detective Gaslight Jackson and the master criminal Lady Electra. We meet plenty of other characters along the way, all played, alongside their main roles as Edwin Sleight and Iphigenia Hand, with great speed and energy by Sam Collings and Natalie Wallace. The story hustles along with perhaps more style than substance but there is a lot of pleasure to be gained from watching how cleverly it is told. It is not easy to maintain clarity at this kind of pace and with so many characters. Both performances are strongly defined, allowing us to see a character quickly when we need to. Sometimes it is perhaps a little too frantic, I would have welcomed a moment of gothic silence and chilly atmosphere now and again, but it is clever and funny and charming so I’ll settle for that. It’s the kind of show where a director really can earn their keep and Marieke Audsley has certainly done that here. That clarity which I mentioned comes from the performances but it also comes from the eye of a director who is able to look in from the outside and see what what works. Sometimes a split second in the timing or a slight change of position on stage can make all the difference and this was a really accurate, well rehearsed piece- as it had to be.
This is typical Edinburgh fare, an entertaining way to pass an hour or so as part of a busy day on the fringe and it delivers exactly what it intends to.

Miss Skelton.

My first teacher was called Miss Skelton. My school was small so I was in her class for two years. She was close to retirement, large and round, strict and kind and sometimes I saw her put someone over her knee and smack them. I loved her to bits. She liked me because I learned to read easily and I was a good girl. A bit odd perhaps but a good girl. I used to help the slow readers for her. She liked to call up the top group of readers to stand around her desk, each with our Wide Range reader open at the same page. We used to chant the words very fast…………. dog won’t eat cat, cat won’t eat mouse, mouse won’t eat spider, spider won’t eat fly……….. It was very exciting- we were an elite crew and we knew it. I also liked reading a tiny book called Little Black Sambo. Evidently that was wrong but I had no idea. It just seemed exotic and strange to me.

Miss Skelton had a classroom assistant, a dog who lived in the classroom with her. He was a pekingese called Chang and he used to sit under her desk every day. This was another reason why I liked being called up to read. In fact it was probably the only reason that I settled into school straight away without crying. That could have been a problem otherwise, as I was quite otherworldly in some ways. I once walked home at morning playtime because I thought it was time to have my dinner even though there were older children at the gate, the big girls who liked to look after me because I was tiny, trying to stop me. I was given a drink of lemonade and sent back before anyone started to worry. When I left Miss Skelton’s class she gave me a hardback copy of Alice in Wonderland with Tenniel’s illustrations. It was a great gift and she must have known me very well to choose it.

I don’t remember much about what else I did other than bash wooden pegs into a box like contraption with a hammer. They went in at one end and came out of the other in a way that was very satisfying to me. There was a dressing up box too, with a green cloak in it that I used to like to wear. When the top class did Robin Hood for us Robin wore it and I was very proud because it was “my” cloak and Robin Hood was one of my heroes- my only human hero in fact. The rest of my heroes were all dogs and horses.

We had writing books that I really liked, with a blank space for a picture done in wax crayons and lines to write on filling the bottom half of the page. When you could fill more than one page- or even several- you could have a book with whole pages full of lines but the lines spoiled your pictures.You also had a diary book which you wrote in on Monday mornings so that I could tell Miss Skelton about our terrier Trixie and our cat Judy and sometimes even describe special days like going to Scarborough on a village coach trip.

The best part of school was story time at the end of every day. We had two favourite stories which we asked for over and over again. They were both recorded on 45RPM singles and Miss Skelton played them on a little square Dansette record player. The first was The Three Billy Goats Gruff and we liked to chant along with the troll. “Who’s that trip trapping over MY bridge?” Best of all though was a copy of Billy J Kramer’s hit single Little Children. I thought of it as a song in praise of us- he wanted to give us candy after all- rather than a song asking us to get lost because he wanted to get up to something with an older sister. He had such a gentle smooth voice and we used to sway and join in.

Later in my school life I came across some teachers who didn’t understand me at all and I will always feel very thankful that fifty years ago my first teacher gave me good memories and worked with what I was best at rather than pointing out my shortcomings (that would have been PE and number work in case you were wondering) as some of the others did. If you tried hard you would not get smacked- it was fair and simple to understand. I never forgot her understanding when things got tough. My mum always used to tell everybody how much I liked school but that was only really true for those first two years- and it was all thanks to Miss Skelton.

Titus Andronicus. A Visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. 13-07-14

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Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia and William Houston as Titus Andronicus. Production photograph by Nigel Norrington.

It took me a long time to get to see my first production at the Globe theatre on London’s South Bank. Since it first opened in 1997 and I am a regular theatregoer who loves Shakespeare this is is surprising- even though I live a long way from London. The final night of the 2014 revival of Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus was a good place to start. Red roses were thrown at the curtain call and there was an end of term feeling in the air. There were some fine performances in the grand style, particularly from Indira Varma as Tamora, Obi Abili as Aaron and William Houston as Titus. The production had gathered a lot of publicity from the fact that over 100 audience members had fainted, unable to cope with the violence. There are graphic murders, severed hands and a chopped off tongue. It was a full on production, unafraid of the link between this extreme violence and black comedy- one which took risks. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia had to carry the brunt of this and the numbers keeling over or being led out were a real tribute to a convincing and heartfelt performance. The audience were fully involved throughout as actors moved among them, were pushed through the crowd on high towers or spoke directly to them and their response was both visible and immediate. Their attention had to be earned and sustained by the hard work of the actors. It was played, as it would have been originally, in daylight and there was no way of avoiding the fact, as is sometimes said, that they were fifty per cent of the show.

The Globe seats 857 with an additional 700 standing “groundlings”. This is about half the audience capacity of the original Globe, built in 1599. It lasted for only a short while before it burnt down on 29th June 1613. I was sitting up in one of the gentlemen’s rooms stage left with seven other people and it was still a surprisingly intimate experience given the size of the space. I was looking out over the standing area as well as the stage and the whole experience became one of watching the audience as well as that of watching the play. Normally this would be quite a damning comment on any production but it isn’t in this case. It is a comment on how a staging of this kind is a communal experience between actors and audience in a shared space. At one point a whole group left their seats to move down into the standing area and one of the cast asked them where they were going without it seeming in the least bit odd. I have no doubt at all that the original performances would have had the same fluidity and direct communication. It isn’t a choice made by the production- it is dictated by the space. I’m also sure that the original Titus audiences would have appreciated the black comedy, although I doubt that many of them would have fainted given that they were well used to seeing violence, both on the street and sanctioned by the state. They would possibly have been far more engaged with the action than some of today’s groundlings as even the standing room was expensive compared to the £5 tickets of today, which allow people to wander in for the price of a couple of mugs of coffee and wander out again when they have seen what it is like. Back then all strata of society went along to the plays and they went often.

Going to the Globe was a strange experience, a mixture of a very good production, people watching, and enjoying being a tiny part of tourist London. What I wouldn’t give to have an evening at the original Globe in the early 1600’s………… now that would be something.