Ok,I’m back. In fact I got back some time ago but February filled up so quickly and here we are, St David’s Day upon us and nothing posted since the autumn – shameful! Nothing short of a disgrace! So where have you been, I hear you ask. What, pray, kept you from blogging these several months? Well dammit, Carruthers, it was the heat, the heat and those confounded drums…
Oh all right there weren’t many drums, but I was in New Zealand and it was the start of their summer, sharing festivities with my amazing friends the Townsends, and there were parties and sightseeing and swimming, and there was cricket and football and Shakespeare to be watched.
And then there was the pedal-power vineyard touring. And the dolphins.
I was there for five weeks. And to be honest I needed to unwind after a tricky start to December. Suddenly it was time to move on from Walthamstow. A chance has arisen to move to a lovely spot by the River Thames, a spiffing flat coming available in the spring sometime after my scheduled return from the Antipodes. So my worldly goods – beds, books, chairs, the lot – had to be marshalled into storage in Surrey, and arrangements made for me to stay with my sister in Hampshire until such time as the new place is ready. So this, dear reader, is the Interim Hampshire Blog. The next edition, rather than Words from Waterside will be Thoughts from the Riverbank. If there are any of you left out there, please stay tuned.
As well as moving there were was work to be sorted, shows to be seen, theatre essays to be marked, private students to be coached ahead of the Christmas break. And then another old friend died. Andrew Burt was suddenly diagnosed with advanced cancer in late November, and was gone within three weeks. His passing was dignified and gentle, eased with loving care especially by our mutual friend Joanna Munro, someone with a heart as big and warm as her wondrous talent as a performer. Jo led our farewells to Andrew at Mortlake, with great skill and sensitivity . Obituaries appeared – there was a good one in The Telegraph – but if you’d like to see some notes on Andrew’s career – from Jack Sugden in “Emmerdale Farm” to the rousing voice heralding “News at Ten” – I’ve put some on a link at the end of this post.
So I rushed from the crematorium back to Walthamstow to see my goods off to storage in a van steered by two cheery Russians, shoved some summer clothes and a toothbrush into my one remaining empty suitcase and headed for Heathrow. Moving house and long-distance travel have to be coped with in similar ways – in my case by slipping into a low-tempo, almost Zen state, dozing as often as possible.
I dozed my way first to Los Angeles, where in the few hours’ wait before my connecting flight I purchased a beer, a burger and some joke presents from the Donald Trump Store.
You can buy speaking Christmas cards with greetings in Donald’s very own voice, and packs of “Trump small hand soap”. Also you can buy loo-roll with his face on every sheet….
My plane from LA to Auckland arrived late, so I had a bit of a wait for the connection to Wellington where my pals live. But hey, suddenly it was summer and there was hot sunshine and pohutukawa trees in full bloom. These are the local “Christmas trees” with gorgeous scarlet flowers, and they’re abundant – at the roadside, at the cricket ground, in people’s gardens, and of course standing guard by those endless, empty beaches. An early treat was to watch New Zealand play Sri Lanka at the Wellington Basin Reserve – just think, a Hull City supporter blinking at a sun-splashed cricket field but two days after leaving the gathering gloom of a British December:
To trace the start of this adventure you must go back, back many decades to a black and white, windswept East Yorkshire school playing field. The race was on, the field flanked either side by a Brylcreemed, Marty Wilde lookalike to the left, and a lean, tousle-headed streak to the right.
These two outriders went on to glory. Well, up to point. Some months later we came first and second in the Hull inter-schools half mile, and were picked to represent the City in the All Yorkshire School Sports. At which we didn’t get past the “heats” stage, and thus the Townsend-Jones brand pales somewhat in sporting history alongside the likes of Bannister, Coe and Farrah. However, from thence we set off on two separate winding roads, often bumpy – even more often very muddy – but managing to wave to each other and stay in touch, most of the time anyway, Townsend threading through minefields of politics, social services and journalism, Jones bobbing on the fickle waters of showbiz and the arts.
Our birthdays are either side of Christmas, and this year we were marking (whisper it) a combined century and a half on the planet, and Valérie – the amazing Mrs Townsend – insisted on flying me out so we could share a Special Yuletide. And boy was it special. First off was a party out on the decking in their Wellington garden, with some very distinguished guests. Townsend, courtesy of a replacement limb or two, is still something of a demon on the tennis court – note the admiring glance from the guest on his right – and his political wisdom inevitably attracts requests for guidance from Jacinda, the current NZ Prime Minister…
The party was a gas – then there was Test Match cricket at the Basin, a wonderfully democratic place where at lunch-break the pitch (apart from the current wicket) is opened up for practice by all the local enthusiasts. See below: Felix – the youngest member of the clan Townsend – on lunch-break fielding alert.
Kiwi passions seem to split more or less evenly between the sports field and the vineyard, so having sampled the one I was whisked off to explore the other. The winemakers around Martinborough, north of Wellington, offer five-dollars-a-head tasting sessions, but this being a socially responsible society motorised tasting tours are discouraged. However – and here’s the cunning marketing twist – pedal-power vehicles are readily and cheaply available for hire. There were six of us in our party, and we chose a 4-seater 4 wheeler, plus a tandem. I do recommend this – a merry form of transport for an even merrier pastime….
(Townsend briefly commandeered a Maserati as an alternative – fortunately it had no engine…)
We had so much fun during all those five weeks – so many lovely interesting people and places, terrific food and memorable wines, dolphins you can swim with, seals on the beaches – and mostly no people on the beaches – the weird cries of tui birds and birds of prey in the air, ferns, palm trees lakes and rivers in huge landscapes.
It’s the land of the Long White Cloud, and there’s no wonder the film industry has taken root there, following Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings/Hobbit epics. This trip we were always in the North Island – the fjords and glaciers are in the South – but each excursion brought a different set of vistas, from stark rocks shielding the seal colonies at Cape Palliser, to the busy paddle-steamer plying the wide river at Whanganui, to the sub-tropical splendour of the Bay of Islands, rich in Maori and colonial history.
But hold! comes the cry – wildlife and scenery are all very fine, but is not this blog to with The Theatre? Indeed it is, and yes NZ has a thriving live performance scene, with some terrific theatres to complement the shiny restored art-deco cinemas reflecting the country’s film renaissance. We were proudly shown Whanganui’s refurbished Edwardian opera house, and caught a spirited production of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Third” by the race-course at Auckland.
This was in the “Pop-Up Globe” – no, not a toy cardboard whimsy, but a full-scale “temporary” building of sheet metal and scaffold, holding almost as many punters as its namesake on London’s Bankside. This structure started life in a car-park in the city, and now lives amongst the trees beside the race-track, where you can sip your pre-performance pinot-gris beneath portraits evoking the spirit of the Bard. After all, his and Richard Burbage’s own building was a mobile structure, by all accounts carried at night from Shoreditch to Southwark after a fall-out with their London ground-landlord.
These wondrous memories have left no space this time for London or indeed for Hampshire, where currently I dwell in Austen-land. The next gap will be much shorter, I promise. I’ve just got to nip over to India, and from thence to Egypt – watch this space. To what did the second half of this entry’s title refer? Well chaps it’s personal. Like many an ageing being, I sometimes have what are delicately termed “plumbing issues”. On returning from the Antipodes, I took myself into Charing Cross Hospital, where our beloved NHS folk introduced me to a brand-new treatment, which has proved wondrously helpful. And all it took was a kettle-full of steam, and a tap on the knee…
Shepherd’s hut with snowdrops last week at Chawton House Hampshire
Here’s the link about Andrew B: