“UNLESS ye become as a little child . . .” has taken on a particular resonance for me at this time. I have acquired a piano that needed a home. The only place to put it was in the corner by the front window; passers-by, glimpsing me seated at the keyboard, might imagine I was playing a little Rachmaninov, perhaps, or a prelude or two from Chopin.
This being a clever, digital piano, I could of course foster that illusion. I have only to press a button and it will play something classical while my fingers imitate rippling across the keys. Truth is that I am plodding through Sammy the Snail before progressing to Scenes from the Farm, these remnants of infant studies being at present the only resource in the house.
The books are plastered with gold stars, awarded as small hands progressed. I am humbled by my exposed ignorance of the bass line, and the mystery of co-ordinating two hands. But, if all goes well, I may progress to The Milkmaid’s Song: “Down the lane a voice is ringing, Blithe and gay all the way. ’Tis the merry milkmaid singing, Welcome to the day.”
All together now
I HAVE also acquired the distinguished title of Associate Pack Leader for Bertie, the whippet puppy who has arrived in my daughter’s household, for whom I will be a second home. We have previously had only rescue dogs — charming ruffians, who came to us hopelessly set in their wicked ways. So we are studying Steve Mann’s Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy, a light-hearted and rather sensible training manual, which will ensure that we are all singing from the same hymn-sheet when it comes to discipline and routine.
Whippets like to exercise vigorously but then sprawl on the sofa with a good book, which should suit us both. Bertie likes Bob Marley, apparently, and was mesmerised by Julie Andrews singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music”. I hope to introduce him to Byrd and Tallis, and perhaps — who knows? — to The Milkmaid’s Song.
Change of perspective
IT’S hard to be writing for theatre just now, though I am fortunate in that most of what I do is site-specific, for performance in community spaces or on heritage sites. But, as social distancing is likely to apply to audiences and cast for some time to come, it’s a whole new world. With no common props and no close encounters, a throwaway direction — “Swift marriage tableau”, or “Exchange of blows” — tests the powers of dumb show to the full.
As the house is so abnormally quiet, I’m sharing it with my characters more closely than usual. The villain of A Reverend’s Revenge is a mid-19th century cleric, the Revd Joseph Shooter, who was given the living of Attenborough-with-Bramcote and displayed a withering contempt for his sacked and elderly curate, the Revd Thomas Wilkinson. God willing, we will be performing it this summer to an audience seated just yards from the good Mr Wilkinson’s grave.
My sympathies, from the writer’s perspective, lie with him. But an unearthed Yorkshire Courant newspaper article from 13 January 1842, six years after the events of the play, tells, under the banner headline, “Melancholy Catastrophe — Three Lives Lost”, the tragedy of what subsequently happened in the Shooter family.
Joseph and Elizabeth Shooter had six sons and three daughters. Another daughter, Betsy, had died three years earlier. On an icy January day in Bishop Wilton, where Mr Shooter also held the living, James (16), George (14), and Henry (12) were “amusing themselves with sliding upon a fish pond, behind their father’s house”, which they were in the act of leaving, when the ice gave way, plunging them into the water.
Each “made noble efforts” to save the others. The blacksmith was sent for, a rope was thrown, “but they had become so exhausted that it was completely useless, and whilst the blacksmith ran for a ladder they all sank”. It was half an hour before the bodies could be recovered. “Mr Allanson, the surgeon, was instantly sent for, and great efforts were used for an hour and a quarter to restore animation, but without avail, as the vital spark had fled.”
The coroner returned a verdict of Accidentally Drowned. In June, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Sophia. The child lived until the following May. All this has no bearing on the substance of the play, but I cannot think about my man in quite the same way. The pity of it.
THIS is the second Mothering Sunday that we haven’t been able to mark by distributing to everyone in the congregation the beribboned bunches of daffodils, lovingly assembled the day before by a team of volunteers. It’s all part of that loss of the cycle of the Church’s year, and we long for its return as we long to do everything face-to-face again.
Zoom, though, turns out to be a great leveller. I’ve been a frequent visitor, over the years, at Chatsworth House, to interview Devonshire family members when there’s been a milestone to celebrate, or when something of special interest has been happening at the nation’s favourite stately home. I confess that I love arriving at the Lodge and being conducted through a maze of passages that the public don’t see.
This time, it’s had to be via Zoom — and the head of one of the most noble families in the land is “waiting to be admitted” to my study. I brand myself an egalitarian. But it really doesn’t seem right.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.