Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Just over two weeks ago on Saturday 9th November my father, Jim Ferguson, died. He'd been in hospital after several weeks of illness but was on the mend we thought: sitting up and out of bed; doing the Mirror crossword again and asking for chocolate as his appetite was back. Everyone who'd visited said he was on good form. So it was a shock for my sister who lives in Northern Ireland when she was called by the hospital in the middle of the night and told to come right away. By the time she arrived he was dead - a heart attack. Not wishing to call her me or my other sisters in England in the middle of the night, she shared the news first with the only sister who was awake on the other side of the world in New Zealand. When the phone rang here at 720 am I knew the news wasn't good. And now back in Chester two weeks later I'm still finding it hard to believe he isn't there on the other end of the phone asking for help with tricky crossword clues.
So all five of us sisters and our families travelled back to Ballyronan for the funeral, assembling for a sad occasion this time after our last happy reunion there for Dad's 80th birthday. In Northern Ireland funerals tend to be much bigger than those I've attended in England. Before the funeral there is also the wake where people from the local community come to pay their respects. So Dad was brought home in his coffin on the Monday evening and we put him in the room which once was Ballyronan Post Office. So many people came: aunts and uncle and cousins who moved furniture and bore gifts of food and extra kettles, since it is the tradition to provide tea and buns for those who visit. And then other people from the village and the surrounding area: those we knew well; old faces from our childhood and some we didn't know at all. Older people and younger; Catholic and Protestant; members of the Orange Lodge and a local SDLP politician, whose father was an old friend of Dad's. For everyone loved Dad and he had time for everyone - the back door was always open and people would turn up in the yard to ask for a favour or just come in for a bit of craic. Many of those who came had stories tell about Dad. We found some old scrapbooks Mummy had kept: pictures cut from the Mid Ulster Mail of them at Woods Bowling Club dinners and him with his prize-winning bullocks. We talked; we cried but at times we laughed too. It did really feel like a celebration of his life.
As is the tradition the coffin was carried through the village on the day on the funeral, the local shop and post office closing as we passed as a mark of respect. Two of his older grandsons, aged 18 and 21, helped carry the coffin, and we walked behind. Kate's first funeral and now her last grandparent has gone. Little Anna aged 4, the youngest grandchild from New Zealand, came too though she didn't understand what was happening. She said as we walked, "What's in the box? It looks very heavy." She was right Dad was no lightweight, but still men were queuing up for a lift of the coffin, another way of showing respect. Later, perhaps grasping what was happening, she said so simply what we were all thinking, "I don't want Granda to be dead.'
Later in the week we began the grim task of sorting the farmhouse. Dad had lived there all his life and nothing has ever been thrown out. There are teasets which they'd received as wedding presents; unused sets of cutlery; Sunday School prize winning books belonging to my aunt. My wedding dress, Mum's wedding dress. My sisters and I approached this task in different ways. Right now I just want everything to stay as it is - for a while at least. But some of the others wanted to get on with things and that's fine with me. Whatever happens we won't fall out about it - Dad wouldn't want that.
So I came back to Chester with just one thing I wanted. On the wall when we were small was this scroll dedicated to the memory of James Ferguson, my grandfather's brother, who died aged 21 in the First World War. My father was christened James in memory of him. It always fascinated me, even before I could read the words We also found the medal commemorating him in the china cabinet among the teasets and the Whimsie animal figures we collected as children. On Remembrance weekend it seemed fitting to remember this James Ferguson too.
The big house on the corner as you go into Ballyronan is empty now we've all gone back to our own homes. The stove in the kitchen, the heart of the house, is out. We'll light it again when we return in the Christmas holidays. But home will never feel like home again.
Sunday, 3 November 2013
My daughter, Kate, turned 14 this week. In addition to most of the contents of Boots, she requested one more sensible (and warm) present - an animal onesie from Primark. I choose the giraffe, always my favourite animal from our visits to Chester Zoo when she was little. Here she is blowing out her candles on Monday, posing with the usual teenage Facebook expression. Last night, the celebrations continued with 10 of her school friends in a local Italian restaurant.
I can hardly believe she is 14, an age that I recall being very significant - a kind of limbo when you are no longer a child, but not an adult either. It doesn't seem so very long since they were wheeling me back to the ward with her in my arms and asking me her name. Kate, I said. Not Katie, too girly.. Chose the name because Shakespeare tended to use it for feisty, strong women. She's on her way to living up to it.
Sunday, 27 October 2013
Half term and we escaped the autumn wind and rain for a couple of days, taking a short break in Barcelona. In summer, Spain is too hot for us Celtic types with our fair skin; however autumn sun and temperatures of 22-25 degrees suited us fine. So we enjoyed exploring La Rambla, the Old Town and the Port area. Didn't really do museums - teenager not keen - or see any of the Gaudi buildings. But lots of eating tapas, exploring the markets and people-watching. And a guitar music concert in a building which was decorated like a wedding cake. Will let the pictures do the talking today.
|The Square near our hotel: slightly dodgy area. Husband lagging behind us with bad ankle was approached by lady offering him a good time!|
|Walked to the beach. Teenager soaked her sore feet in the sea.|
|Colourful market stalls. So many varieties of mushrooms.|
|The ornate ceiling of the concert hall.|
Tuesday, 22 October 2013
I returned to Northern Ireland at the weekend to attend a concert at the Grand Opera House in Belfast which celebrated 300 years of the Rainey, the school which I attended in
Magherafelt. My sister, other members of my extended family; and some old acquaintances from my time there in the 70's were singing in the old pupils' choir.
It was a wonderful occasion. The show was produced and directed by former pupil Ashley Fulton, a very talented young man: he also wrote four original songs for the production and came up with idea which provided a kind of story framework for what otherwise would have been a random collection of songs. Other talented ex-pupils returned to take part: actress Laura Piper read Heaney's 'Station Island '; accomplished musician Rhoda Barfoot played the violin and Ian McLernon, who has been in West End shows, performed several of the solos.
The title for the performance comes from the will of Hugh Rainey who founded the school back at the beginning of the 18th century. He wanted a school to be built to educate eight boys from the local community who would otherwise have few opportunities. Their education was to be Christian its ethos but not linked to any particular creed. (This has continued until the present day - the Rainey was an integrated school even in the 70's - there were many Catholic boys in my year, though few girls as they went to the local convent school). When the 8 boys had completed their time at the school they would be given 50 shillings and a new suit of clothes before they were sent out into the world. Ashley Fulton had seen a copy of the will displayed in the school and it gave him the ideas for the production.
The songs he wrote and those he selected to be performed by current and old pupils' choirs shared the theme of love of home along with the desire to move on and make the most of the opportunities education offers. There were a range of old favourites: 'Danny Boy', 'Bridge over Troubled Waters', 'To Feel the Rhythm of Life', 'Time to say Goodbye'. And then that rather sentimental song from Mamma Mia, 'Slipping Through my Fingers'. I wasn't so sure about the bit where current pupils in uniform sat on stage with suitcases gazing wistfully into the distance while the choir sang. Presumably they were meant to represent the boys leaving with their 50 shillings and new suit. However, they looked a little uncomfortable and I am sure were suppressing giggles.
I gatecrashed the cast after-party so I could catch up with a few people I had not seen since I left school 35 years ago. A very strange experience. Those, like my sister,who were able to take part in the performance really enjoyed it, returning to the Johnson Hall for Saturday rehearsals and renewing old friendships. A wonderful experience for all who took part and for the appreciative audience. And a fitting tribute to a great school.
Sunday, 13 October 2013
Saturday nights have been a touch dull recently. Too much watching of 'Strictly' and 'X-Factor'. 'Strictly' just about tolerable, thought the formula is a little tired now, but 'X Factor' unbearable. Especially with Nicole Schistherface. So planned an outing this week - to Liverpool for a meal out and a bit of live theatre.
Other family members not terribly keen when I told them of my plans - a trip to the cathedral in Liverpool to see a revival of the Chester Mystery Plays which we missed in the summer. It only comes round very five years and I was sorry to have missed it when it was on, because I wanted to support several of the amateur cast who I know, including the young actress who played Mary. But atheist husband and wannabe cool teenager not desperately thrilled by idea of spending Saturday evening watching Bible stories, no matter how impressive the staging. Bribed them by arranging a meal first. Very good pre-theatre menu in Bistrot Jaques. And so, full of Steak Chasseur, we headed for the cathedral.
I hadn't been in the cathedral for nearly 30 years when the grumpy one took me there when we were courting. Perhaps his atheist views not so strong then. Or was it just the architecture which impressed him? It is a beautiful building and provided a stunning backdrop for the production, with the steps and the upper level being used cleverly to show the route to heaven. The audience were seated not in pews as I expected, but in rather uncomfortable folding chairs. And I was sitting in close proximity to a man who had a rotten cold and kept sneezing revoltingly into his handkerchief. Yuck!
Despite this I enjoyed the performance. There was a huge cast of local people from Chester, from children of about five or six, to pensioners. All the musicians were amateurs too. The whole thing was put together by Mr Chester Theatre, Matt Baker, who I think also wrote the score. If I wasn't such a lazy blogger, I'd link to his Theatre in the Quarter Company and check this. But I am lazy and inept at such technicalities. He appeared on stage too on a couple of occasions, playing a piano accordion with gusto in the pub scene. A very talented man who contributes hugely to cultural life in Chester.
My favourite scene was the arrival of the animals onto Noah's Ark, with the children in masks; the crocodile looked about 5 and snapped his jaws with great enthusiasm. The children also made an excellent job of recreating the Garden of Eden, complete with bird song and animal noises. I also liked the scene where Mary, dressed as a waitress, admits to Joseph that she's in a bit of trouble. Mary sang beautifully, but unfortunately the huge space meant that we didn't hear her so well. I was surprised she didn't have an individual mic like the Angel Gabriel, dapper in white suit, who performed a Sinatra Style number when telling Mary of his plans for her. Another scene recreated the Chester Races effectively: children in racing silks riding on shoulders while hidden by the roaring crowd. And lots of girls in posh dresses rather worse for wear, just like in town after race day. No surprise then when quite a few of them end up heading for hell in the next Judgement Day scene. I was a bit bothered that Eve was led off to hell while Adam makes it to heaven. Is that what happens in the Bible? Blame the woman then.
There were also some very moving scenes, such as the one pictured above where Herod kills all the children. The tiny bundles were unfurled to show flags: a message for a world where tyrants are still killing children. I was also close to tears in the scene where Jesus's body is taken down off the cross. The music was very powerful at this point and added to the poignancy of Mary's grief.
So what was the verdict from my companions? Teenager quite impressed with the staging and she recognised a few of the cast from various drama productions she's been involved in so she was quite happy. Husband less so. But then I haven't always been that keen to stand drinking lager from a plastic glass in venues which smell of stale beer and sick to watch some of the bands he likes to see. So it's payback time.
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
Hasn't it been a glorious autumn? Spent yesterday in the garden, raking leaves, doing a final pre-winter tidy up and enjoying the late sunshine. And a long dog walk with a friend down a local road lined with old oak trees. I've never seen so many acorns - and such large ones. And berries and glorious shiny conkers. So instead of words (too weary) here are a few autumn images for the record.
This blog is turning into a kind of country diary - hard to believe I started writing about fashion in January. So it'd be Country Diary of a Poo Bag lady then as that's what I'm usually carrying on my walks.
Sunday, 29 September 2013
On Thursday evening I went with a couple of colleagues and our A Level English Literature group of 9 to see the production of of 'Othello' which was playing at the NationalTheatre in London, but also being broadcast live in cinemas around the country and abroad. We gathered at the local Vue cinema, where the usual cinema-going audience seemed to have disappeared to be replaced by a rather older, more sedate group of people. Few sales of buckets of popcorn or gallons of coke, though Ben and Jerry's did well. Our group reduced the average age of the audience significantly. (Well maybe not me!). The event was hugely popular - they sold two full screens, it seems, and we had to rush to find a seat when doors opened.
I have to admit my expectations were not high: televised theatre productions I'd seen in the past had often been disappointing - static camera pointed at the stage mostly. But this was a fantastic experience as they have improved the way they film the productions so that you can see the actors up close in some scenes but then aerial shots allowed a view of the full set. And presumably this was done in a way which did not distract the live audience. We could hear the reaction at the National and at times the cinema audience responded in a slightly different way, laughing, perhaps, because we could see a character's facial expression in more detail. One of our student's boyfriend, who is at drama school in London, was in the audience there and she felt her experience was as good as his as he was in the cheap seats, far from the stage. It didn't feel like film and the only time the illusion was shattered was when it came to the end and the audience in London reacted with applause. Some of us did too even though there was no one but the Vue ice-cream sellers there to receive it.
And the production of 'Othello' itself was excellent. It was set in a modern day army garrison with one scene showing a drunken brawl between the soldiers. I liked Rory Kinnear as Iago, sounding a bit like Phil from East Enders, in contrast to posh Cassio, who was a kind of Prince Harry figure getting into trouble by drinking with his men. The scene where Othello (Adrian Lester) overhears Cassio talking of the hankerchief is set in a toilet: he hides in a cubicle. All of this worked well and showed how the play remains relevant today. Adrian Lester was a strong Othello though I feel his descent from self-control and love for Desdemona to totally irrational behaviour and murder just happens too fast. But that's the play I suppose.
I've never seen the play before, but I had read it and taught extracts. So I knew what was coming and remained dry-eyed at Desdemona's demise. Behind us someone was sobbing: one of the grey-haired theatre buffs we'd seen queuing up, I assumed.
No - it was one of our students. You see they've only just started studying the play and they didn't know what would happen. And this 17 year old girl was deeply shocked by the way Othello treated Desdemona, from the first casual slap to the bedroom scene when he murders her despite her desperate pleas. She was still crying as we left the cinema; others in the group admitted they'd also been close to tears. Although sorry to see her so upset, in some ways I was pleased that she's been moved so much. She'd responded to the play as Shakespeare had wanted his audience to respond the first time it was shown. She'll remember this, probably the first live Shakespeare she has seen, for a long time.
All this for £10 a head. Thank you, National Theatre. I want to see their production of 'War Horse'. It's coming to The Lowry in Salford at Christmas. Tried booking tickets last week - husband Christmas present I thought. £50 a head. Too much. So I am now waiting to book tickets for the 'live' cinema performance on 27th February.