OK. Is this any better? Biography #2

Bugger me, I’m not just getting it from Radgie, but from my friends as well! Look at what Helen wrote on my last blog entry. “You are giving us what you are, not who you are,” she says. “You and your highly amusing alter ego seem to be telling us that you are your own well-kept secret.”

OK, so let’s get really personal.

Me. Aged 5, starting Sunday School in the Beginners department at Thompson Memorial Hall Methodist Church in Dundas Street. My parents had been members at TMH most of their lives and had been married there so, even though by this time were living on the other side of the town, they still went there.

Actually my mother even did her grocery shopping just along the road at Moore’s in North Bridge Street. I remember the big counter and the massive block of butter which sat on a marble slab. And, like Arkwright’s shop in Open All Hours, there was always something written on the windows.

I remember it so well because the bus (in the earlier days, the tram) I got to go home stopped outside.

 You’re doing it again! Another list of facts! I’m surprised you’re not telling us what colour your shirt was!

Easy. White for Sunday best; grey for the rest of the week.

For fuck’s sake! It’s not about facts. It’s about you, what you experienced, how you felt.

Right then…

Sunday School Anniversary…

We went into the church for morning service and sat on a platform which raised us up so the congregation could see us. We sat on those little chairs made for children. In the Seymour series of Last of the Summer Wine Seymour had them in his house and Compo and Clegg used to…

Not interested! Boring! Get back to the Anniversary.

We had to stand up one by one and “say our piece.” That was something biblical, a couple of verses from the Bible, perhaps, or even a short poem which we had to recite. It was a pretty frightening thing to do for a kid that age, but after the first time I loved it!

You see, most were shy, even petrified, and mumbled or rushed through their pieces. Some even cried and refused to speak, but  it turned out I had a loud voice and could be heard all over the church, even on the balcony. So grown-ups came and congratulated me afterwards, told me how well I’d done.

And how did that make you feel?

Great! I loved it. I think I might have been the only one in the Sunday School who enjoyed the anniversaries. Being complimented by adults – including the Minister! – was wonderful. My parents weren’t great on compliments. I learned many years later, when I was an adult, that that was deliberate policy. They didn’t want me to grow up to be big-headed, so compliments were rarer than hen’s teeth.

And how did that make you feel?

I don’t know. I know how I feel now, but then…?

I suppose… I tried to do as well as I could at everything. Perhaps I was hoping for recognition? I don’t know. People occasionally said to me, “Your parents must be very proud” but if they were, they never said so.

But now I think the Sunday School Anniversary might be where my love of theatre originated. It made me a little performer!

We certainly weren’t theatregoers. I only remember two theatre visits in my childhood. One was to a play at the Little Theatre in the town centre (now long gone). It was before I was found to be short-sighted and all I could see was a blur in the distance. It made no impression at all. The other time was a variety show at the Sunderland Empire and there I fell in love!

I think I enjoyed most of the show but there was this singer… She was dressed in green, in a skirt long at the back and the sides but very short at the front – beautiful!

We were up in the gods so she was just a tiny figure in the distance. To me she was gorgeous and glamorous but we were so far away I couldn’t really see her properly. She might have been 17 – or could even have been 70 for all I could see! – but the 10-year old me fell head over heels in love.

“O brave new world, that has such people in it!”

I didn’t come across Miranda’s speech until many years later but I that’s how I felt on that day!

I never went to a panto (as far as I can remember – and I’m sure I would if I had) and primary schools didn’t do Nativity Plays in those days (or at least mine didn’t), so they were my only contacts with theatre of any kind until I got to secondary school and yet, when I saw my first school production and joined the Drama Club, I felt as though I’d come home.

I know it sounds pretentious, even twee, but I felt I was where I belonged.

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Me, my life: a biography

Those who follow this blog will know that I have been told by my pain of an alter ego that there’s nothing of me in it, that I hide behind my love of literature and that I’m afraid of saying anything personal.
Well, this is to prove him wrong!

This is me!

I was born in Sunderland during the Second World War. My mother didn’t work; married women didn’t in those days. In fact she had never worked, even before she got married. She was the oldest daughter and her mother suffered from a chronic illness so she had to stay at home to look after her and after her father when my grandmother died.

My father was a shipyard worker. After the War he, to use the local expression, went down the pit. He was a fitter, a mechanic, a skilled man. His father had been a railwayman but both his parents died when he was young and so from the age of 15 he was supporting his brother and sister. He should have become a teacher; that’s what the school wanted for him but circumstances meant there was no chance of that.

My mother’s father George Dent (1884 – 1958) was also a pitman and ended his career as Fore Overman, the highest rank below management. I have a drawing of him, done in the 80s, which has the title “A most frightening sight for any new lad – Owld Geordie Dent.” And it really does look how I remember him.

He had three daughters and two sons. A third son had died before reaching 20. The older son, Jack, left the area during the depression and settled in Sunbury-on-Thames, but George followed his dad down the pit and his three sons followed him. The three daughters, my mother and her sisters, all had sons but none of us followed in the family mining tradition.

In fact, my dad said to me when I was about 13 or 14, “I don’t care what you do when you leave school, but you’re not going down the pit.”

When I was a kid we lived in Pallion, a very working class area of Sunderland and, while I was still at primary school, we moved to Chester Road where we bought a house. A step, I suppose, towards becoming lower middle class.

It was very middle class; one neighbour had a live-in housekeeper  (as I got older I wondered about that) and there was one household in the street which had both a car and a television! On Coronation Day they invited the entire street in to watch the event on that very small screen with the thick magnifying lens in front, a lens which distorted the picture if you weren’t sitting directly in front. But I suspect that impressing the neighbours rather than enjoying the event was the motivation.

I went to a grammar school, Bede Grammar School for Boys, which had a fine academic tradition, sending a number of people to Oxbridge, but it had pretensions; it liked to think of itself as a public school.

On arrival at Bede you didn’t go into First Year but into the Third Form, followed by the Lower and then the Upper Fourth, then the Lower and Upper Fifth. Only if we “stayed on”, did we follow what happened in every other school, going into the Lower and then the Upper Sixth.

However, if you didn’t do well at O Level and needed to re-sit but weren’t doing any A Levels, you couldn’t be a sixth-former: you went into The Remove. A bit Greyfriars and Billy Bunter! And there was a period of time when prefects, as well as having white braid around their blazers to indicate their status, also, during the summer term, wore straw boaters with a hat band in the school colours.

This in a town famous for shipbuilding and mining! Not exactly Eton or Harrow, although I do remember that we sang the Eton Boating Song in Music lessons…

I was quite academic and liked languages in particular. We began French in Third Form and in the Lower Fourth had to choose between Latin and German. I chose Latin because the idea of learning the language out of which others, including our own, had grown interested me.

Then in the Upper Fourth those who did Latin were offered the chance to do Greek, which meant dropping Biology and Chemistry. As I found Science really boring – in Science lessons I was a bit like the Two Bored Girls in Our Day Out – “It’s borin’. It’s really, really borin’.” There really was really no choice at all.

I was, however, stuck with Physics until O Level.

When I went into the Sixth Form I opted to do Classics at A and S Level and was also able to do French A Level at the end of Lower Sixth.

Have you any idea how totally and completely boring this is? “It’s really, really borin’.” For once I can see the point of one of your poncy quotations!

Well, you were the one who told me I should get more personal, write about myself.

Personal? This isn’t personal. There’s nothing in this you couldn’t find in public records.

But it’s all true!

Of course it’s all bloody true but it’s all bloody boring. For God’s sake, if you wrote plays as exciting as this you’d never had had anything performed, ever.

Now…

Macbeth is the Thane of Fife. A Thane is an Earl and Fife is an area of Scotland, a county. We’re not sure about Macbeth’s age but he is married and his wife has borne at least one child which we assume was his, although no child actually appears in the play and is only mentioned in one speech. He is a good soldier, a fighting man…

What are you going on about? What’s Macbeth got to do with anything?

Was that a good character sketch? Does it sum Macbeth up?

Of course not. It tells us nothing about him, nothing that will help us understand why he acts as he does. From that point of view it’s useless.

I rest my case…

Who am I?

I’m Jean Valjean!

Yes. Really. That’s what comes into my mind when I see the question “Who am I?”

Here I am, remembering a song from a musical before thinking about myself. How weird is that?

But then music often triggers memories and those memories trigger emotions.

A tinkling piano in the next apartment
Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground’s painted swings
These foolish things remind me of you.

And I think of Noël Coward’s words in Private Lives, that it’s “extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Music, cheap or not, can summon memories, colour them, even make us look at them in a different way. Just like poetry. Remember Wordsworth: poetry is “strong emotion recollected in tranquillity.”

… Oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Here we go again. Same old same old.

Oh, you again.

Oh yes, me again.

Come on then. What do you mean, “same old same old”?

That you’re doing what you always do. Avoiding.

Oo! And what am I avoiding, Mr Enigmatic?

Avoiding facing up to reality, Mr A-Quote-for-Every-Occasion. Just when you’re on the verge, when you’re oh so close to looking clearly at yourself, you veer off with a line from a poem or a song or a play. Or you go all intellectual.

You haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

Of course I have. I’m you, aren’t I? We’re the same person. I’m just the part that tells the truth while you hide behind all that learning and literature and stuff.

Rubbish!

Rubbish, is it? Right. I’ll prove it. You wrote a piece in that blog thing about how people project an image of themselves on Facebook. Right?

And?

And that made you start to think about the image you project. Right?

Yes, but…

And this… what you’re working on now, was going to be about who you are, who the real person behind the image is.  Wasn’t it?

Well…

Wasn’t it?

Alright. Yes.

But that’s not how it ended up, is it? Because, as always, you started quoting songs and poems and plays and even literary criticism for fuck’s sake, and there’s nowt, nowt at all, about you in there. Is there? So what’s the matter? Are you scared?

Scared? What do you mean, scared? What could I possibly be scared of?

Having to abandon your intellectual smokescreen…

Oh, don’t be silly!

… and realising there’s actually nothing behind it, perhaps?

This is rubbish.

Is it now?

Of course it is. I just got a bit carried away, that’s all. An idea occurred that I found interesting and I just wanted to follow it, to see where it led. It’s like when you’re writing a play and you have to do a bit of research and that takes over because it goes off in an unexpected direction and…

I see. So you’re an undisciplined thinker, is that it?

No! That’s not… I mean, I can see why you might… But no…

Or is it that you’re scared of taking a good, hard, honest look at yourself because you might just realise something that you don’t like?

I honestly don’t understand why you should think that. I’m perfectly happy with myself. As for the poetry and the music, they’ve been such a part of my life for so long…

That you think they’re you when really they’re just stuff you know.

Rubbish!

Then prove it. Do what you set out to do: write about you.

Well…

Or are you too scared?

Of course I’m not scared.

Then do it. And I shall look forward to it.

I Won. Didn’t I?

A few days ago there was a conversation on a friend’s Facebook page which mentioned John Keats. With my typical penchant for bad jokes I contributed this rather flip comment: “By the time he was my age, Keats had been dead fifty years. I win, I think.”

(Actually it’s 49 years but that doesn’t sound quite as good, does it? It’s not as rounded. It suggests that perhaps I should have waited another year before saying it. Anniversaries are always that bit more compelling.)

On reflection, though, I’m not so sure that I did win. I mean, which is best, 74 years of being pretty ordinary or 25 years of brilliance?

Keats’ first extant poem was written when he was 19 and he wrote the great odes, at least one of which is among the greatest poems in the English Language, in 1819 when he was 23. By the time he died, aged 25 years and four months, he had produced so many poems – sonnets, lyrics, odes, narratives and (less successfully, it has to be said, although at least one was performed) plays – of such quality that, almost 200 years after his death, they have firmly set him among the all-time greats of English Literature.

For me – a personal belief for which I make no apology – he is, after Shakespeare, the greatest poet in the English language, for many reasons, not least his imagery, but, in particular, his use of words – their sound, rhythm, associations, emotional resonances. It’s poetry which demands to be read aloud, to be experienced in the mouth.

But his life certainly wasn’t wonderful. Dogged by shortage of money and poor health, with the threat of the tuberculosis which ran in the family and finally killed him hanging over him; unable, because of his financial situation, to enter into a formal engagement with the love of his life, Fanny Brawne; his work damned by the critics – Endymion was described as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy” and he, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt were lumped together contemptuously as “The Cockney Poets” because they didn’t go to Eton, Harrow or Oxbridge, and finally dying, coughing up blood, in a rented room in Rome with only his friend Joseph Severn with him, with the epitaph (which he chose himself) carved on his headstone being “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.”

A brilliant legacy of poetry and a guaranteed place among the immortals of literature but a life which was unhappy, short and, at the end, painful.

Yes. Perhaps I did win, not just because of those extra 49 years (and, I hope, counting) but because I can enjoy all that wonderful poetry that Keats left behind.

Yes.

But then…

To have actually created that legacy… I wonder…

People Watching on Facebook

I’m a playwright so I need to people watch. After all, people are what my plays are about, so if I’m people watching, I’m doing research.

Right?

Of course I am.

Therefore people watching online is research too, obviously. Which is how I justify the amount of time I spend on Facebook. I am researching, not time-wasting, for on Facebook we see some people in the raw and others in the way they want us to see them. Reality and fantasy, the writer’s stock-in-trade.

Research again.

Obviously.

Some people treat that keyboard like a confessional, pouring out their souls, and they seem not to realise that they have revealed their deepest thoughts and feelings to so many people, even those they barely know, for how many of their Facebook “friends” are really genuine friends? Or even acquaintances?

But then, perhaps they do realise and this meets some need in them.

Some spew vitriol at friends, partners, family or just humanity at large…

(Often at the government, although whether one can really include them in the ‘Humanity’ category is open to discussion.)

(Sorry! Hobbyhorse time.)

…whilst others chronicle their entire emotional lives, the ups and downs, begging, even if just implicitly, for understanding and support. They all want us to reply with love, support and sympathy.

Then there are those who drop hints – “I never thought that would happen to me”, “How can people treat others like that?”, “I can never trust you again!” (whilst not saying who “you” is). Is this to create some kind of mystique around themselves or to garner some attention which they can’t get in any other way? Who knows? But it’s an interesting trait for a writer to ponder.

And of course there are those whose online lives are almost entirely fictitious, but that, too, is all grist to the writer’s mill, to coin a cliché.

And saying “to coin a cliché” is itself a cliché. Is any originality possible nowadays?

Let’s not wander down that route, eh?

Then there’s me (and others like me). I always post a link when I upload a news story or a review to the British Theatre Guide. I do it, obviously, to get page views but there’s no denying that warm feeling when people “like” the post.

In the same area, there’s one type of Facebook post which really interests me for what it says about the poster; it’s the one which says “such and such a film / play / book / TV show / piece of music is total rubbish (usually the term used is “shit”, which is itself, I think, significant) and therefore should not be shown / performed / published / aired / played.”

It’s the “I don’t like it so it’s bad and no one should be allowed to experience it” syndrome and its corollary is “I like it so it is brilliant and anyone who doesn’t agree is a brain-dead moron.”

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things” (Ah, the tattered scraps of a classical education!) but for these people “I am the measure of all things” or, more simply, “The world was made for me.” (With, of course, the unspoken “Not you, so you can fuck off.”)

Behind these two sides of the same coin lies a total lack of self-worth. To accept the validity of an opposing point of view would be to destroy the individual’s already fragile self-image.

This can manifest itself in so many ways. In a post in a group devoted to the past and present of a particular Geordie town recently someone remarked that a famous sporting son of that town who now appears on the BBC occasionally has lost his local accent so, the poster said, he obviously thinks he’s “too good for us”. That led to a flood of variations on “I’ve lived in London for the last 35 years and I haven’t lost my accent.” Hmmm…

So many complexities of motivation and emotion!

What fertile ground Facebook is for a writer!

I Get It (Don’t I?)

Alright. I get it.

And?

It’s an avoidance strategy, isn’t it?

Is it?

Everybody does it, don’t they? People talk about the past, when they were kids. Or even about their parent’s time. And they all say the same thing, don’t they? “Happy days!” Rose-tinted spectacles and that. They like the music from their childhood and youth, films that they saw, just because it was their youth. It’s nostalgia, isn’t it?

No.

What do you mean, no?

No means no.

Don’t start getting all enigmatic on me. What does that mean, that no? No what?

Right, I’ll make it easier for you. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with nostalgia.

Then what?

Think! Am I the only one who can use the brain we live in?

But if it’s not nostalgia, then what is it, eh?

It’s the same thing that stops you being able to answer the question you’ve just asked.

You what? I don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.

Of course you do. If I do, you do. You just can’t face it.

OK! I’m thick! I’m stupid! You’re obviously using all the brain and there’s none left for me. I give up!

That’s the trouble. You have, haven’t you?

What?

Given up.

I’ve just said so, haven’t I? I give up. Can’t answer your little riddle. You’ll have to explain because I’m a bear of very little brain.

And that’s not what I meant. You. Have. Given. Up. Not just given up on answering my little riddles, as you call it, but on anything challenging. You watch TV series you’ve watched before. Even the comedy series you watch you’ve seen God knows how many times. I bet you’re laughing before you ever get to the punchline.

There’s no punchline. It’s not jokes. The comedy comes from the characters, the situations…

But you know how it’s going to turn out. Here’s nothing new. There’s no challenge.

It’s relaxing.

Yes, it’s relaxing. And that’s what you want, isn’t it? Relaxing. Comfortable. Nothing to challenge you. Nothing to disturb you. Nothing to make you think.

‘Get rid of the writer’s block’ – isn’t that what you said you were trying to do?

Bollocks! If you come within half a mile of it you run away, switch on the tele and watch Gold or Dave, Alibi or Drama. Or read a ‘classic’ – i.e. undemanding – whodunit. Have a wander around Facebook and so some silly quizzes: “Only someone with an IQ of five million can spell these ten hard words correctly.” Or look at someone’s pics of the food they’re eating or the cocktails they’re drinking. Or even look at photos of fucking cats.

You’re pathetic! You’ll do anything to avoid having to think or get your brain working. So stop calling yourself a playwright because you’re not one. You’ve given up.

I haven’t given up!

You had two projects on the go. One’s nearly finished and you’d just made a start on the other. Isn’t that right?

Yes, that is right. I’ve got two projects on the go at once. I don’t see how you can say that I’m not a playwright.

So when did you last do any work on either of them?

Well…

Come on. When?

Well, it would be… Well, early June… Or thereabouts.

And now it’s September. Three months. Quarter of a year. It’s a good job you’ve got your pension because if we relied on the income from your writing, we’d fucking starve.

Well…

Right?

Well…

Right?

Well… Yes. I suppose so.

Right! Think on.

Didn’t work, did it?

I started this blog back in July hoping it would demolish the sort of writer’s block thing I was experiencing. I would get my creative juices flowing again by updating twice a week, exploring new ideas and generally making my brain work properly. It was to be a kind of gym for the brain.

Failed!

Few updates, no new ideas getting beyond the “That might be interesting. Possibly” stage, and as for the brain working properly…

Then get off your fat arse and do something about it, you lazy git. You just sit there saying “Oo, I must do this. Oo, I must do that. Oo, I must do the other.” You’re all talk.

Oh man Radgie, shut up! All you ever do is criticise. You have no idea how hard it can be to write.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This is where he gets all sorry for himself. Poor little lamb, trying so hard. Aw, diddums hasn’t got the energy, you know. The little pet’s getting on, you know. He’s just a poor old man. Ahhh! There, there petal. Let daddy give you a little pat on your little head.

It’s not funny! I’m not getting anywhere. I just can’t concentrate. Not on anything.

Why not?

Why not? I don’t know, do I? How could I know?

Because it’s you, isn’t it? You should know what’s going on in your own fucking mind.

It just shows how much you know. Look. I start working on something, get thinking about it, and my mind just starts to wander.

Wander? No, it doesn’t bloody wander; you take it for a walk.

“I’ll just a quick glance at Facebook” or “I’ll just see what’s happening on Twitter” or “Time to check my email. Oh look! A press release. Must write that up, get it online.”

“Right. Now. I’ll get on with that play. But I’ll just make a cup of tea first.”

Look, if you’ve got nothing helpful to say, shut up.

You mean that’s not helpful? Telling you where you’re going wrong?

No it’s not. It’s not helpful at all.

You want helpful? Right. What do you watch on the tele?

What’s that got to do with anything?

Just answer the bloody question. What do you watch on the tele?

You know what I watch on the tele.

So say it. Go on. Say it.

Well, recently…

Aye, go on. Recently…

…I’ve been watching Buffy. They’ve been rerunning it on Syfy. It’s a sort of nostalgia trip, I suppose.

Carry on.

I still enjoy Last of the Summer Wine, no matter how many times I see it. I think I know all the episodes by heart. And Open All Hours as well. I still find that funny.

Aye. Carry on.

Well, I’ve got to admit, I like Midsomer Murders. I know it’s undemanding and a bit twee, but it’s entertaining.

And?

Well, the Drama channel is rerunning The Bill from the beginning. I really used to enjoy it when it first started. I didn’t like the way it developed into a soap but the original is great. It’s enjoyable revisiting that.

So, not watching anything new then?

Yes I am. I’ve been watching Neil Oliver’s series on the Ness of Brodgar. Fascinating stuff.

Oh right. Orkney in 3,500 BC. How new and forward looking can you get? Wow, wow and thrice wow!

What about Game of Thrones then? I watch Game of Thrones. I love Game of Thrones. That’s new.

Yeah, it is. And how long is it since you read the books?

Well, a year or so, I suppose.

Bollocks. A lot more than that, sunshine. A helluva lot more than that. And while we’re on that subject, what have you been reading recently, eh?

Look, why are you going on about this? What’s what I’m reading got to do with anything?

Marjorie Allingham. Gladys Mitchell. Ngaio Marsh. Dorothy L Sayers.  20s and 30s detective novels, that’s what you’ve been reading. Bloody ancient stuff.

So?

Oh man! Are you thick or what? Work it out, Mr Moron. Get that brain you’re supposed to have into gear. I’ve assembled all the evidence for you. Now you interpret it. Right?

Right?

Singing Hymns in Welsh

In the 70s we spent a number of Augusts working at the St David’s Arts Festival. It was a long journey; it would take about nine hours to drive from Sunderland to this westernmost part of Wales. The motorway driving wasn’t bad but once we got to Ross-on-Wye, oh dear! The A40 through Abergavenny, Brecon and Carmarthen to Haverfordwest was only dual-carriageway for very short stretches, and the rest of the time…

Well, let’s say that if Dai wasn’t out in the tractor, Blodwyn was off in the car to do the shopping, both travelling at 20 miles an hour (max!) in the middle of the road. That stretch took almost as long as the journey from Sunderland to Ross.

Once we arrived in St David’s, we would head straight for the digs. We always stayed with Mrs Beer – and it was always “Mrs Beer”, never “Elizabeth.” Oh no! She might have called us Irene and Peter, but for us it had to be “Mrs Beer”.

The ritual was always the same. She’d greet us at the door – “Lovely to see you. I’ve put you in your usual room” – and we’d go up and unpack. A little while later we’d go downstairs and she’d be there, waiting.

“Kettle’s boiling. Cup of tea?”

“Thank you. Yes,” was the only acceptable answer, so, tea and biscuits served, she’d enquire about our health and hope we’d have lovely weather for Festival. Then she’d tell us about her son, John, and about how much more of St David’s her brother David has bought up since last year, and finally the – inevitable – climax of the conversation: “Cymanfa ganu on Saturday night. You will be coming, won’t you?”

Cymanfa ganu – that’s “Kuh-man-va ga-ny” – means “singing festival” and, specifically for Mrs Beer, it meant community hymn-singing at Tabernacl (that’s the right spelling; it’s Welsh), the chapel in Goat Street. And even more specifically it meant community hymn-singing in Welsh.

In St David’s in the seventies you were either chapel or pub. They were the places you found your entertainment and never the twain would meet – at least, not as far as the chapel folk were concerned, for alcohol was evil, a veritable tool of the devil.

By this time the pubs were open on Sunday in Pembrokeshire and there was a bit of an influx of “arty types” (Hippies!) but otherwise St David’s was very old fashioned Welsh. For a significant proportion of the population Welsh was still their first language and Mr Morgan the milkman was still, even by English speakers, referred to as “Morgan the milk.”

Anyway, as we were staying in a chapel household, we were “invited” to go to the Cymanfa Ganu on our first Saturday, an invitation that was hard to refuse for Festival hadn’t yet started and we didn’t rehearse on Saturday nights.

So that’s what we did, every first Saturday night of Festival, Irene and I; we went to Tabernacl to sing Welsh hymns! When we first went the only Welsh words I knew were bore da (good day), nos da (good night) and Croeso i Gymru (welcome to Wales) – oh, and the words of the Sospan Fach chorus, which I’d learned from Irene’s involvement in a production of Emlyn Williams’ How Green Was My Valley.

Isn’t theatre educational?

They allowed for our ignorance – they announced the hymn numbers in English as well as Welsh – and so we sang, among many more, Calon Lân, Marchog Iesu, Diolch i’r Iôr and, of course, Cwm RhonddaArglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch.

At the end, after a long extempore Welsh prayer, the congregation would spill out onto Goat Street and everyone seemed to want to greet us. “Nice to see you!” “Hope you have a good Festival.” After about ten minutes or so of good wishes, they were all gone, off to their homes and, when the last figures vanished from sight, we walked down the street to the Farmer’s Arms for yet more singing – of a different kind generally, although Calon Lân often made its appearance, as it does when any Welsh singers get together – and “Welsh singers” tends to mean anyone from Wales!

I remember singing it with a Welsh actor in a restaurant in Islington (we were a little the worse for wear but the waiters applauded us at the end!) and with a teacher in a school dining-room in South Shields. And Michael Bogdanov used it (in four-part harmony) in his excellent – well it would be; it was Bodger after all – Wales Theatre Company production of Under Milk Wood which toured all over the UK.

And of course everyone sang Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, as fervently as any chapel congregation singing their hymns!

So, the Cymanfa Ganu made a big impression on me and to this day I still enjoy hearing – and joining in! – Welsh hymns. I’m not religious – far from it! – but I was brought up a Methodist and Methodism, the hymn book tells us, “was born in song.” So we, as the Calon Lân chorus says, “Canu’r dydd a canu’r nos” – sing by day and sing by night!

Theatre really does give you a wide – and sometimes quite odd – range of experiences!

Nevermore

You leave Threlkeld and head up to Gategill (where the Blencathra foxhounds used to be kennelled – and might still be, for all I know; it’s been a long time). You keep going till you reach the last drystone wall, with a sheepfold on the left. At this point you bear right up the fairly steep slope of Halls Fell. Suddenly the path veers to the left and heads towards a narrow rocky ridge with a steep drop down to Gate Gill on the left and Doddick Gill on the right. Now it’s an exhilarating walk – at times a bit of a scramble, but nothing taxing and certainly not scary – straight towards Blencathra summit, with impressive close up views of the gills and enclosing ridges to right and left and a wide vista of Lakeland behind.

Once we walked that route through thick cloud – when you’ve only got a week you cram in as much as you can, regardless of the weather – and picked our way very carefully along the wet and slippery rocky ridge.

Suddenly we were out of the cloud and in bright sunshine, the sky a brilliant blue from horizon to horizon. We turned, looked back the way we’d come and below us lay a white carpet of cloud, totally unlike the grey, clinging, soaking fog we’d been walking through.

We sat down to take it all in. There to the south east across all of this whiteness was Helvellyn, and as we scanned westwards we could see Bowfell and Scafell Pike, then Gable, all just emerging from the cloud. We walked the remaining few hundred yards to the cairn on Blencathra top and, as far as we could see, we were the only people on the hill that morning. We certainly didn’t see a soul as we dropped down to the Glenderaterra valley via Roughten Gill and walked back to Threlkeld, then drove along to The White Horse in Scales. There were, however, quite a few people in the pub shaking their heads and saying, “Oh no. Not going on the hill in this.”

A wonderful memory, the most outstanding among many from the Lakes, the Highlands, the Isle of Arran, Preseli in West Wales, Northumberland, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorks Moors. Memories, because COPD (the legacy of 55 years of smoking), knackered legs and – quite simply – age mean that I will never be able to walk the hills again and my battered and stained by frequent dampness, annotated copies of Wainwright’s invaluable Guides to the Lake District’s mountains – bought in the sixties, so now more than fifty years old – are just armchair reading.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Aye, all very romantic and sweet and sad and Wordsworthy, but why don’t you tell them about the time you decided to break in a new pair of boots by traversing Blencathra up Blease Fell and down Scales Fell and ended up walking back to Threlkeld in your stocking feet with blisters on your blisters? Whimpering, you were, like a bairn.

Radgie! Shut up!

Or the time you froze up when you were climbing that crack on an exposed slab at Crag Lough and it was only when your second started hoying rocks at you that you got moving again?

Radgie! Watch it!

Or…

Radgie! Foxtrot Oscar!

Meet My Alter Ego

When 12 year old Billy Batson saw a crime being committed and knew his alter ego would be needed, he merely had to say the magic word “Shazam” and lightning would flash, thunder would crash and he would turn into Captain Marvel.

In Metropolis when mild-mannered reporter Clarke Kent saw Superman was needed he would make for the nearest phone box or similar location where he would rip off his clothes, revealing the Superman outfit beneath.

Actually, there are a few things about that I’ve always found puzzling, like how could he wear his cape under his everyday clothes? The rest I can see, but the cape? Wouldn’t it give him a bit of a Richard III look? And what happened to his clothes when he ripped them off? Did he just leave them and have to go back for them once the emergency was over? Wouldn’t someone nick them occasionally? Did he intend to abandon them? But that would mean he’d have to have a huge number of identical outfits. Massive wardrobe needed! Or perhaps he had some way of carrying them with him, some sort of concealed pocket? But for suit, shirt, tie, socks, shoes, trilby hat, glasses? Or perhaps he had an additional superpower, the power to make clothes invisible. If so, it’s a good job he was highly moral or poor old Lois Lane might have had a few nasty moments!

And in Gotham City, when the batphone rang or the batsignal lit up the sky, Bruce Wayne had to run down into the batcave beneath his mansion, change into his Batman outfit, start the batmobile and drive off to where he was needed. And if he was somewhere other than his mansion, well… Hardly what you’d call rapid response!

So now let me tell you about my alter ego.

“And who is that?” you may ask.

Radgie Gadgie, that’s who that is. And he doesn’t need any magic words or ripping off of clothes or running into underground caverns; he just appears instantaneously when… well, when he feels like it, I suppose. I might be driving, watching TV (especially the News or whenever politicians are speaking), shopping, reading Facebook statuses – at almost any time at all Radgie Gadgie can appear out of the blue, in full flow with, as Noël Coward sang in Señorita Nina from Argentina, “language profane and obscene”!

For those who don’t know, “radgie” is derived from the word “rage” and a “gadgie” is an old man, so it roughly translates as “extremely bad tempered old git.”

He could quite easily take over a blog entry at any time without notice, so – be prepared! But he will, he says, try not to be too offensive.

I didn’t say that! Does he think he’s a journalist, making up quotes like that? Twat! I’ll be as offensive as I like.
RG