Nov 6th 2018
I’m on the road again and this time I’ve been given a brand new red Citroen van by the hire company, which unlike my previous vans has central locking (rather useful when loading and unloading crates and all my other paraphernalia.)
Three Quaker Meeting Houses in the north of England are my destination in the first week of this significant November 2018 tour, but it’s rain and tedious first gear traffic all the way up the M6 to arrive a tad wearily at Kendal in Cumbria for the first performance.
The Meeting House there can hold about 70 folk and it’s pretty full, including two friends of mine who live in Kendal and will put me up that night.
At a critical part in the drama, when Bert Brocklesby is about to hear his death sentence read out, one of my friends in the front row starts to have a coughing fit, then stands up and as discreetly as possible makes her way out to the corridor to cough in freedom. Seeing her leaving I very nearly stop the action and cry out, ‘Not now, Clare, this is a really important bit!’ But I don’t.
She comes back in a little later and afterwards I tell her that sadly she missed some crucial details of the story. ‘No, I didn’t,’ she assures me. ‘I could hear everything from outside – you’ve got quite a loud voice, you know. Oh and I could also see through the glass panels in the door.’
Next morning I visit the Quaker Tapestries, over 40 panels of which are on show in another part of the Meeting House – they are stunningly beautiful, embroidered with fabulous needlework and vibrant colours, depicting the Quaker influence on the modern world.There are 77 in total, made by 4,000 men, women and children from 15 countries between 1981 and 1996.
Soon though it’s time to set off, heading due east now to the other side of the country – but this seems like a doddle compared to my 1,000 mile-long road trip to Iowa with the play during the US tour earlier this year. I travel via Sedbergh and today there’s no rain, just bright clear skies with all the trees displaying gorgeous autumnal colours – it’s a breath-taking drive and I arrive before dark, my heart singing, at my destination just south of Middlesborough.
I am staying in Great Ayton, a lovely large village with its High Green and Low Green for two nights – and performing here on the Saturday afternoon. I am the guest of the Quaker Dick Stainsby, whose idea it was that I come here, he having seen the play in North Yorkshire back in February, and he has been tirelessly organising and publicising it ever since – despite being in his late 80s. He has also insisted on putting me up at what he calls his ‘spare room’ at the Royal Oak Hotel, his own cottage being rather small.
The Royal Oak is an old coaching inn, full of charm, and it’s on High Green – at one end of which is the most remarkable sculpture, of a soldier marching with a rifle, all made out of willow twigs, and draped in numerous red poppies with a huge pool of red poppies circling his feet. It’s very poignant. While less than a hundred yards away at the other end of the Green stands the Quaker Meeting House – where I will perform a play about the men who refused to be soldiers.
You can almost feel it in the air – the sense of anticipation as this most important of Remembrance Days approaches. Performing during this month, and this close to such large creative displays of red poppies, my play feels edgier and more resonant than ever.
Dick Stainsby tells me that the grave of Norman Gaudie, one of the COs featured in my play, is in the burial ground of the Meeting House. I can’t believe it – I had no idea.
So on Friday morning I pay a visit. The Quaker Burial Ground is in a lovely setting with a splendid tree towering over the centre of it – and after a bit of searching I locate the graves of a number of the Gaudie family. All the gravestones in Quaker burial grounds are pretty much the same , making the point that, well, we ARE all pretty much the same. I have a quiet moment taking in the serene beauty of it all, have a quick word with Norman, thanking him for his courageous stand 100 years ago and for being part of my play, then head off to Pickering, a market town 30 miles further south, where I am playing that Friday night, once again in the local Quaker Meeting House.
Mr. Satnav wants me to go ‘over the top’ – the top of the North Yorkshire moors that is – along a winding B road, with many dips and rises, and as it’s another glorious sunny day, I do so – and once more am overwhelmed at the beauty of the British countryside. Not a single car behind me on the journey, but hundreds of sheep all around me gazing as I stop and get out to gaze back at them and at the wonderful views; the sheep when I set off again sitting in the road and taking their time to get of the way. Oh and there’s also the odd ford, filled with water, to navigate – thanks very much, Mr. Satnav. But it’s not a problem and I get to Pickering in good time.
The Meeting House there was built in 1793 and is small and charming, set back from the road down a cobbled path. Will anyone come tonight, though, I wonder? It’s cold and it’s dark now. Alison and John, the Quakers there who have organised the event, are not sure how many will turn up. ‘My mother’s definitely coming,’ Alison says. ‘Oh well, I’ll do it for her then,’ I say.
Later on, Alison tells me that someone has phoned to say they can’t make it. ‘Not your mother, I hope?’ ‘No, a lady with toothache.’ ‘Oh, you should have told them that this play is guaranteed to cure toothache,’ I suggest. ‘Well, enough to make them forget it for 75 minutes at any rate.’
I shouldn’t have worried. The room where I will perform on the opposite side of the corridor from the Meeting Room can only seat 35 – and it’s full! Nobody seems to be suffering from toothache nor from tickling coughs and they sit very attentively and afterwards heartily tuck into refreshments while I take questions.
As I say farewell after packing up, Alison gives me an apple cake to take away, made that afternoon with apples from the garden – and I mean the WHOLE cake (how lucky am I?).
It’s now 10.30 at night and Mr. Satnav says he wants me to take the B road back over the tops with water-filled fords, dips and rises, no lighting of any kind and hundreds of sleeping sheep – to which I respond, no way!
So I take the longer road round which I hadn’t realised involves the infamous 1 in 4 descent for 2 miles known as Sutton Bank. There’s no-one else attempting it in the dark at this time of night and I thank my lucky stars (all twinkling away there in the black profundity above) that there hasn’t been any frost or snow.
But finally I get back to the Royal Oak and having a little trouble getting off to sleep, I start counting sheep – hundreds of them…
Dick Stainsby, unlike other of my venue hosts is confident he knows exactly how many will turn up that Saturday afternoon. ‘I printed 100 tickets at £5 each, and they’ve all gone. Just hope we can squeeze them all in.’
He used to be a structural engineer and has drawn detailed plans of the Meeting Room showing serried ranks of benches stretching back into the adjacent partitioned space. When I actually see the room I realise sightlines for all but the first two or three rows will be tricky as there is no raised playing area. Arthur Askey used to joke, ‘Can you hear me at the back, mother?’ Today it will be more like, ‘Can you SEE me at the back, mother?’
Dick also tells me that a number of relatives of Norman Gaudie will be there to watch. So no pressure then.
Dick’s friend, Jamie Harvie, a Methodist, steps up gallantly to do sound, secreted in a corner of the room behind the immoveable grand piano and the pot plants sat on top of it – and people start to amble across High Green as 2pm approaches.
And they keep on coming. The last to turn up have to sit in the corridor outside the room with the door open. I make a short speech before starting: ‘For those that can’t see everything, please regard the experience as a little like listening to a radio play.’ And so I begin, speaking up as clearly as I can and making sure I don’t bump into the furniture – i.e. my nine wooden crates.
The response at the end is very heartfelt as is the Q and A, just one week before November 11th 2018. I meet the Gaudie relatives and I’m relieved to find that they are very positive about what they’ve seen. I joke with them that of course I would never be cast in a film as a Geordie in his late 20s – they concur. But we agree that for the purposes of this unique brand of storytelling I can get away with it.
My packing up done, Dick shakes my hand warmly, clearly glad that all his efforts have been fruitful. A very special afternoon. For my five-hour-plus drive back to London that evening (I have a performance there the next day), he gives me a local award-winning pie from Petch’s – pork and apple – and even a knife to cut it with too. And then he hands me something else. ‘These are from Marjorie Gaudie, Norman’s daughter-in-law, who you met earlier.’
‘What are they?’
‘Homemade ginger biscuits.’
You never know what to expect in life, do you? All those years ago at drama school in London, I never imagined that decades later I would be travelling round the country in a van, performing a play about WW1 conscientious objectors, at one performance of which I would be given ginger biscuits by the daughter-in-law of one of them