Thursday, 29 November 2012

How it all started!

Imagine the scene: it’s an evening in late December and Markbeech village hall is decorated for Christmas. A tree sparkles in one corner, silver stars tumble from the ceiling. Flowers and candles adorn large round tables squeezed tightly together in the tiny hall. At the end of the hall is a small stage, the red velvet curtains hanging a little crookedly. Laughter fills the room.
Around the tables sit men and women of all ages, chatting animatedly. Everyone in the village is here and all are looking splendid. The men wear dinner jackets and bow ties; the women are in evening gowns and good jewellery. This is not fancy dress. This is just what we did ten years ago in Markbeech. Give us an excuse for a party and out would come the glad rags.

In the tiny kitchen across the corridor there's a slightly frantic air as Nicky and her team, in full length evening gowns and pearls topped by slightly crumpled aprons, manhandle giant casserole dishes or tip steaming potatoes out of enormous saucepans.

Nicky, wife of Charles, heir to the aristocratic family who founded Markbeech almost two hundred years ago, had spent the previous month organising the women in the village in preparing the feast about to be served. And only half an hour earlier the food had arrived, still hot from home kitchens, borne in enormous bowls and pans by beautifully-spoken women desperately trying not to trip over in long dresses and high heels.

In an ante-room off the main hall five or six people are waiting nervously. All wear large, outlandish hats topping off their evening dress. One woman has a model of Blackpool Tower on her head, another has a crescent moon, suspended from a wire coat-hanger. Paul and Andro are there, smart in dinner jackets, scripts in their hands. I’m there too.

I peer through the door to the main hall, look back at Paul and Andro: “They’re ready, let’s go!”

On the stage a piano strikes up a triumphal tune as the curtains open rather crankily. Charles, in slightly rumpled white tuxedo and unruly hair, is at the piano, thumping out the tune with gusto. The audience erupts in cheers as Paul and Andro stride out onto the stage.

The first-ever Markbeech Christmas Cabaret is underway!

Blackpool Tower appears. It's Ann, the Parish Clerk, reciting a witty Blackpool monologue. And the crescent moon is another Ann, our 80 year old ex-SOE operative, with a poem about an oyster singing to the moon. And as the evening continues, more crazily be-hatted villagers take the stage. Some of the poems and monologues are well known, but in amongst the party pieces are wonderful songs and stories telling of the rich cast of characters living in Markbeech. The audience are in raptures, shouting and cheering their friends on.

Then a hush descends. The stage is empty. Sinuous middle eastern music starts up. A character appears on stage entirely covered in a red veil. It glides around and quiet voices are heard asking who it could be.  Suddenly the music changes to an up tempo bellydance piece, the character throws the veil off and shimmies and undulates around the stage, ending with a drop to the floor. There's a slight gasp, followed by cheers and whistles from the audience.

Now, I need to explain a couple of things. Firstly you need to know that even though it's only a tiny hamlet of thirty houses, Markbeech is full of creative people. Some might even say there’s an air of eccentricity here. Despite being slap bang in the middle of the UK’s stockbroker belt, where million pound houses are ten a penny, we are a village of writers, artists, musicians, photographers, designers and, yes, a secret bellydancer.

Secret, because in those days no-one knew I was a bellydancer. You see, Markbeech is posh. Proper posh. Much posher than I am. I might sound a bit upmarket, but I’m not really - I’m the daughter of a vacuum-cleaner salesman and a primary school teacher. I just managed to pick up a nice accent somewhere along the line. Whereas Markbeech is a village of gently aristocratic and well-connected families who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. And when Paul and I moved there we were worried enough about the fact that we weren’t married - we didn’t dare let on that I used to be a bellydancer!

No, in those days I was known as a singer. I had actually given up dancing fifteen years previously and had concentrated all my artistic efforts on singing. I was a pretty good classically trained mezzo-soprano soloist, performing in oratorios and recitals, booked for weddings, funerals and all celebrations in between.

But as time went on Paul and I realised just how creative and unusual this tiny village is. Charles and Nicky would put on an opera every other year in the grounds of their ancestral home and Charles’ sister Joanna and her family were deeply involved in the opera and theatre worlds as well as running a gallery and library of historic photographs.

I’ve already mentioned our writer and photographer friends Andro and Marie-Lou, but Markbeech also boasts a wonderfully creative embroidery artist, two superb garden designers, a once-famous jeweller and a fine artist who paints gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite-style oil paintings and whose wife is portrayed, clad only in her long hair and a mermaid’s tail, on the sign for local pub, The Rock.

Ten years ago Paul, Andro, Marie-Lou and myself felt it was about time we harnessed some of the village creativity and decided to put on a cabaret between Christmas and New Year. We sent out an invitation to anyone who wanted to do a party piece and then Paul and Andro started writing amusing songs and monologues about the village and its characters. And I’m not being partisan when I say their comic writing is brilliant.

Embroidery artist Jacqi came up with the idea of the crazy hats as a way of ‘dressing’ the performers and the Christmas holiday was put aside for ten days of full-on rehearsals and preparations. In the meantime Nicky put together a menu and sent the ladies of Markbeech recipes and cooking instructions while Marie-Lou sourced curtains for the stage and decorations for the hall.

But what was I going to do? Everyone was used to hearing me sing. I was kind of a Markbeech staple act, wheeled out for Harvest Suppers or parties, singing anything from opera to Ivor Novello and usually accompanied by Charles on piano. But those who know me know I don’t like to rest on my laurels or take the easy route. I like to keep things moving, push my boundaries.

I knew it was time to dust off the sequins and come out to my neighbours and friends. But I have to tell you, the last time I bellydanced I was 26, slim and as fit as I was ever going to be. Now I was a 43 year old pre-menopausal matron with far too much weight and no dancing experience for 15 years.

I kept the secret until the very last minute. I even sang some silky cabaret numbers with Charles to put people off the scent. And as I changed in the loos I seriously wondered what on earth I thought I was doing, baring a very large amount of middle-aged flesh to the whole village!

In the event it was the older audience members who were the most open and enthusiastic in response to my unveiling; apparently some of the thirty year olds were horribly shocked. And honestly, it wasn’t the best bellydance I’ve ever done. I was very out of practice and my costume was pretty cheap and cheesy by the standards of what I wear these days. But I did it.

And it’s how it all began.

This is part of my life story, sections of which I'm publishing on my blog. You can read the next part here.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Welcome to my world

Come with me. Let me take your hand and we’ll walk together. Past the pond where the moorhens nest and the trees are so tall; past the doctor’s house and the big new house we’re really not sure about. Just a few yards along the blackberried lane and here we are at the heart of the village.

See how low the cottages sit, how tall and foolishly fancy the chimneys are. Look how proudly the year 1879 is carved on the front. Mind you, that’s not so old to boast about - at least not for round here. Hever, not so far away, has a castle with a proper drawbridge and moat. Where poor Anne Boleyn was first courted by Henry VIII all the way back in 1526.

But still these houses feel old. And quaint. The whole village feels quaint. See the old school house in golden stone with its dedication to Queen Victoria’s jubilee on the front? They say it’s haunted by the ghost of Miss Brown, the schoolmistress. Geraldine and Jamie swear things flew through the air unaided when they lived there. Lights turned themselves on and off and footsteps were heard when they were alone in the house.

Next door is Zandra’s tiny home. She moved into this little house after her husband Oscar died. Outrageous, marvellous Oscar, who, on his first day working at the Stock Exchange put half a client’s inheritance he’d been entrusted with on a single horse at Ascot. Which lost.

At the little crossroads, with the tree and the cast iron sign that my husband Paul designed for the millenium celebrations, is the pub, The Kentish Horse. Kentish, rather than ‘of Kent’, because it’s west of the river Medway and because things like that matter round here. The pub is low slung like the houses. Low and whitewashed and welcoming. An open fire in the winter and a magical view across the Weald from the willow shaded garden in summer.

What do we have next to the pub? The church of course. And here in the churchyard, arranged side by side are Mike Roberts, Robin DP and Peter Bellamy. Old friends lying together, just as they once drank together and brought their children up together in the village.

If we turn the corner, we’re in Cow Lane, tiny Cow Lane, winding its way down towards Horseshoe Green. Walking down Cow Lane always makes me feel nostalgic for some reason. Maybe it's the way the hedgerows, softened by honeysuckle and hawthorn, make the lane seem slightly misty. Or is it the way the lane slopes gently downwards towards a half hidden pond and then opens out to a glorious view across the county border into Sussex? Whatever the reason, I always feel that I'm being drawn backwards in time - a time of baskets and bonnets and East End families coming down for the hop picking.

Along Cow Lane, the vicarage is as grand as Victorian vicarages can ever be. Michael, the city trader, who lives there now with his warm-hearted wife Jayne and their family, rises at 5am to take the train from our tiny unmanned station up to the City. In the past, before the cuts, the station master would often call round the wives in the village: “Mrs Roberts? Just to let you know, the down train is delayed tonight, so don’t come to pick up Mr Roberts until 6.15.”

Before Michael, the vicarage was home to Jane - one of many redoubtable elderly women round here who worked for the Special Operations Executive during World War 2. Desperate to do her bit for the war effort, Ann managed to talk her way into this secret organisation of British spies by pretending she spoke Chinese.

Posted, aged 21, to Shanghai, her adventures included being billeted overnight in a Chinese brothel (her honour protected by a group of young British officers) and hiding thousands of pounds of government money in her handbag to exchange it on street corners at vastly inflated rates. This unofficial money laundering resulted in the Shanghai office of the SOE making a remarkable £77 million pounds profit - money which went to provide assistance to Allied prisoners of war.

As I continue along Cow Lane I always pause at Old Farm. To admire its crazily steep cat-slide roof, to peer through at the rich tangle of roses and clematis in the beautiful old garden but also to imagine my dear friends inside. Alexander upstairs writing - his mind soaring across centuries and oceans as he writes his stories of the founding of nations. His wife Silvia cooking in her big country kitchen or working on her beautiful food photographs.

This is the village I’ve lived in and loved for the past sixteen years. A tiny hamlet on the highest ridge of the beautiful High Weald of Kent. A hidden corner of what’s known as The Garden of England; rich in history, even richer in community. A place where we can still leave our doors unlocked and where the social life revolves around laughter-filled suppers with neighbours who have become true friends. Where Harvest Supper or the annual New Year’s Day booze-fuelled lunch are attended by almost everyone. Because they are great, joyous, heart-filling affairs.

I’ll never forget my first Parish lunch - an annual summer event held in Alexander and Silvia’s magical garden. In one corner the two hosts wrestled chickens and burgers over a bank of blazing barbecues; in the other, tables groaned with salads and puddings which had arrived in bowls and tupperware from every home in the village.

I stood at the top of the garden and looked out at the deep old-fashioned double borders, flanked by shaded lawns rolling down to a magnificent view over fields populated by lazy cattle.  Around 70 people sat chatting on the lawns; beer, wine or Pimms in one hand, a filled paper plate in the other. Everyone was talking, all were sitting with friends.

And as I gazed around I realised, with a real sense of wonder, that I knew more than 60 of these people well enough to sit down and be welcomed into their group. Paul and I had lived in this tiny village for less than a year, but already we knew over 60 people - had been invited to their homes, had shared food and laughter with them and could strike up conversation with any one of them at any time.

How different from urban Croydon where we had previously lived. Please don’t get me wrong, I love Croydon, indeed I’m a town girl at heart. But a quick ‘hiya, how are you doing’ is all that is expected in terms of neighbourliness there. And the strangest thing was that, after less than a year, this tiny place with its slightly eccentric characters and its long sense of history felt more like home than anywhere I had ever lived.