The Lady with a Pitchfork (who made me change my mind)

Feb. 13th 2018

Snow. Proper snow. North Yorkshire snow. Falling thick and fast and settling.
Not like our weedy London stuff, which when it can muster the strength to appear, invariably swiftly turns to sleet and slush.

Nobby Dimon of the North Country Theatre, which is hosting my performances of This Evil Thing for a week, is staring out of the window of his house, where he has kindly offered to put me up, while his wife Gill is away doing yoga in sunny Portugal. It’s Tuesday morning.

‘It is, it’s settling,’ he states somewhat gloomily. ‘Best delay our departure.’

To the small market town of Leyburn, and the Old School House, a small community arts centre. After an hour or so we can wait no longer and we set off in the large North Country Theatre van (well, it’s larger than my small Peugeot Partner hire van certainly). I have transferred my crates across to their van for the week and Nobby and I will travel together the relatively short distances to the various venues, giving me a chance to enjoy the view – the wintry dales with many a snow-covered top and the green fields now nestling in white blankets . It is rather beautiful – only how will it affect our audience tonight, I wonder? Who’ll want to come out in this cold weather, with icy roads and pavements?

We arrive at Leyburn and meet Colin (Bailey) – the NCT administrator, but this week acting as sound and lighting operator for the play – for which I am hugely indebted and grateful.

There being no stages in many of these small venues, NCT carry their own rostra to assemble a stage – but it’s currently’ knackered’, Nobby tells me – so they have hired another for the week – and it takes a bit of getting used to. A key, a type of ‘Allan key’, is critical in bolting all the bits of it together.

Do you have a spare? I ask Nobby.
Nope, he replies.
Oh, right. Hope it doesn’t get lost then, I venture.
So do I, he replies.

The hall can hold about 60 folk, and there are around 40-50 bookings – but will they turn up, I ask myself again. We are fed before the show by Jeanie and Anne, volunteers and all-round stars, with quiche and salad, and, my fave, Yorkshire tea bread – plenty of it!

Half an hour before we are due to start, people begin to pile in – it’s ‘rammed’ as they say, with 60 plus folk. House full! I needn’t have worried. After all, most of them have only come from round the corner or down the road (treading carefully).

The performance goes excellently – at times you can hear a pin drop. But what is surprising and equally gratifying is how many stay behind, most of them, indeed, for the Q and A – despite the temptations of home and hearth. Nobby joins me onstage and leads the debate -and a very lively one it is too … many people sympathise with the COs story, but there is also a strong feeling from some in favour of the military in a wartime situation. One woman says, ‘I applaud the COs’ principled stand but I thank God that we have soldiers to defend us.’

Another lady tentatively puts her hand up. ‘I wasn’t going to speak but feel I have to. I have to ask, what would you do if someone attacked your loved ones, invaded your territory?’

I answer that firstly I would try and reason with them and if that was not possible – ‘If someone invaded my territory,’ she interrupts, ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to get my pitchfork and have a right go at them!’

I try to argue that self-defence is not what the play is really about, that what the COs were protesting against was being compelled, against their principles and deeply-held beliefs, to go to war and kill – but I fail to articulate this clearly.
But nevertheless, the audience is tremendously warm towards me and the performance, and towards Nobby and Colin, who they all know well through years of NCT performances.

The stage is dismantled, the black drapes that NCT also bring with them to surround the stage are taken down and folded up, the lighting and sound equipment is unplugged and packed, and I carry my wooden crates out to the NCT van – only to find the side-door where I will put them in is frozen solid! Nothing and nobody can get that door open. Fortunately the other doors have opened, but it will be simpler if Colin takes my crates in his large car until tomorrow’s performance – so that’s what he does – while Nobby and I and the rest of the equipment head back to Richmond.

When we arrive at his house and get out of the van, it’s bracingly cold, but the sky is clear and the stars are stunningly bright. Down below us, the waterfalls of the river Swale as it winds through Richmond are raucous in the night air.

The first of my six performances has been completed and I head to bed where I sleep VERY well…until…in the middle of the night I am woken with a start – by the lady with a pitchfork!
Not the lady herself of course – she hadn’t stalked me after the performance, secretly following our van back to Richmond, no. But what she’d said. That’s what woke me.

She does have a point, I think to myself in the 4 a.m. darkness. A serious point. Wouldn’t I defend my loved ones, my home, my neighbourhood, if attackers approached – with something more than ‘reasoning’ if necessary? Not with a pitchfork maybe – (I don’t currently possess one) – but with whatever I could lay my hands on?

Fenner Brockway, inspirational founder in 1914 of the No-Conscription Fellowship, said that emotionally he was absolutely a pacifist – but that in the face of fascism, Hitler, the Nazis, he felt practically he couldn’t maintain that pacifism. He had to put it on one side.

I arrived in Yorkshire certain that I was one hundred per cent a pacifist. But now, thanks to the lady with a pitchfork, I’m not so sure … will I be leaving Yorkshire at the end of the week having changed my mind?

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