If last week saw me return to where I am most comfortable, that is the stage, this week’s appearance wrenched me straight out of my comfort zone again.
A couple of months ago our doorbell rang and there stood a neighbour of ours; not a next door neighbour or an across the street neighbour, but a gentleman who lives in a small cul-de-sac nearby and whose house overlooks our back garden. We have met him and his wife on occasion at neighbourhood events such as royal street parties etc, and of course we have been introduced to him, but on this particular evening could we remember his name? No.
He began by saying that he was the president of the local branch of the Rotarians and that he would be hosting the President’s dinner soon. He knew it was an imposition but would it be at all possible for me to be the after dinner speaker at the event? He quickly added that he didn’t expect me to do a show or give a performance, just to talk for 20 minutes or so.
After a quick check of diaries we discovered that both Liz and I would be free on that evening and it may be a fun opportunity for us to dress up in our smart togs and have an evening out.
We said yes.
Now began a terribly British thing, – British reserve one might say, for Liz and I realised that we could not actually remember our neighbour’s name. Not only that but we weren’t altogether sure as to which house he lived in. Not only that but we didn’t have a phone number or email address for him and neither did he for us. Oh well, stiff upper lip, can’t admit it, on we go. British reserve, don’t you know.
As the door shut Liz asked ‘what will you talk about?’ It was a good question for this was not a case of pulling one of the shows from my repertoire, this was a different kettle of fish altogether – after dinner speaking is not what I do and was not what I was prepared for. We chatted for a while until Liz gave voice to a thought that was also sitting somewhere in my own head: ‘why not talk about The Signalman and Staplehurst?’ This was the same week as I published my blog post on that very subject and having done the research it seemed like a good opportunity to expand it.
Over the next few weeks I created a talk based on the blog, and added much more detail about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan into the piece. On the day of the Staplehurst crash Charles Dickens was travelling with Ellen as they returned from France. It has been suggested, and it is indeed very probable, that Ellen had given birth to a baby during her time in France but it had died almost immidiately. Ellen’s mother had travelled to France, presumably to be support her daughter, and was also in the carriage on that day.
I worked, I practised, I tweaked and the speech began to take shape.
After a week or so our neighbour returned clutching a menu to ask what we would like to eat at dinner. Liz chose chicken, I chose Cod. Did we confess and say ‘we are so sorry, this is terribly rude, but we don’t actually remember your name? Would you mind giving us your phone number?’ No, we did not!
The next week passed and I worked on. I read the talk through, I sought a new quote or fact, I tried to make sure that each section ran into the next quite naturally.
Unfortunately for a day or so it looked as if Liz would not be able to make the event, and we told our host that it would only be me attending when he popped round to make arrangements for getting to the venue (very kindly he had offered to drive us so that we could enjoy a glass of champagne). I would be picked up at 6.30 on Friday.
The day of the dinner arrived and I was feeling more nervous and more twitchy about it than I usually would about a theatre show. Throughout the day I tinkered, and made changes to punctuation and phrase. I read it and timed it and read it again.
But it was during the day that circumstances changed and we realised that Liz would after all be able to join me, and now it became imperative that I not only knew the name of our host but could get in touch with him too.
I decided to see if the Abingdon Rotary Club had a website and after a brief search was delighted to discover that it did. My delight turned to confusion however when I discovered that the photo of the President was not that of the kind and smiling gentleman who lives around the corner. Even more confusing was the fact that instead of a black tie dinner in the Cosener’s House in Abingdon, the Rotary Club of Abingdon seemed to be meeting for a cheese and wine tasting evening in a nearby pub.
Maybe I was not speaking to the Abingdon branch. I widened my search and opened the page for the Oxford branch but still without success. Next on the list was North Oxford and there flashing up onto my screen came the reassuringly familiar photograph of Andrew Humphries!
But how to get in touch with him? I sent an email to another neighbour who is a leading light behind the various events in our road and she almost instantly replied with an email address for Andrew and his wife Lynda. I don’t think I have ever sighed a longer sigh of relief as I did last Friday morning.
At 6.30 Andrew rang at our door resplendent in a smart dinner jacket proudly wearing the royal blue ribbon and medal of a Rotary Past President. From the back of the car Lynda greeted us with a cheery hello too and as we drove to The Cosener’s House we chatted as old friends chat.
Abingdon is a small town on the banks of the river Thames not far from Oxford. Today nothing much happens in Abingdon but 500 years ago it was one of the most important settlements on the river. Abingdon Abbey towered over the skyline and the Benedictine monks wielded great power and influence over the surrounding countryside.
However in 1541 Henry VIII passed the disolution of the monasteries act and the Abbey was destroyed. Monastaries and abbeys throughout the nation were ransacked for their gold and treasures, all of which passed to the King. Some of the buildings, such as Glastonbury and Whitby Abbeys, were left as ruins, but those on the banks of the Thames were completely destroyed so that Henry could float the valuable stone to London where it was used to build the great Royal palaces.
All that remains of Abingdon’s glory days is a large green park with the footprint of the old edifice laid out with small paving slabs. But close to the site remain some ancient buildings that served the Abbey. The Unicorn Theatre, where I have performed a couple of times, is housed in a building which dates back to the 14th Century.
Another building with its roots in those years is the Cosener’s House hotel and restaurant (a Cosener was a Cuisinier or Kitchener and supplied the food to the abbey), which on Friday 17th May was due to play host to the North Oxford Rotarians.
As befitting his role as President Andrew had made sure that we were among the first arrivals and it was good to get the lie of the land before the other guests arrived. A welcoming glass of champagne was served in a small rotunda beneath a spiralling staircase and this space soon became very crowded with a fine crowd of people all dressed to enjoy a very special evening out.
The nerves ramped up a notch.
Andrew had asked if I would come in costume, so it was obvious that I was the turn for the evening and many people came up to me and generously told me how much they were looking forward to whatever I was going to perform for them.
The nerves ramped up another notch.
I detached myself from the main group so that I could inspect the dining room to try and judge how the acoustics and sight lines would work. My heart sank, for although it was a lovely room with windows overlooking lawns that ran to the river bank, it had originally been two rooms which had been knocked through to create a single large space. The arch that remained would trap any words uttered at the top table before they could reach the farthest tables.
I returned to the reception crowd and with Liz chatted to various people to whom we were introduced.
The proceedings were overseen by a splendidly florid master of ceremonies complete with a scarlet tail coat, white tie, white waistcoat and a gavel which he wielded with terrifying aplomb.
At 7.30 our MC called for silence and instructed us to make our way into the dining room which we all dutifully did. Liz and I took our seats at the top table along with Andrew, Lynda, the Vice President (next year’s President) and his wife, the gentleman who will be Vice President next year (President in two) and his wife, and Andrew and Lynda’s daughter Sarah.
As the lords would have watched over their guests from the high table in the abbey, so we watched on as the 70 guests found their seats. When everyone had taken their place the MC whacked the table with his gavel making many people jump and palpitate uncontrollably.
‘Pray Silence for the President of the North Oxford Rotary Club Mr Andrew Humphries’
Andrew stood to welcome his guests and to say grace and this was an important moment for me for it was the first time that I could judge how the acoustics in the room actually worked. My worst fears were realised as I could see people at the back of the room either straining to hear or just continuing their conversation unaware that anything was being said.
Once Andrew had delivered the Rotarian grace we all sat down and began our meal. I chatted to Mr and Mrs Vice President Next Year and President in Two (Mr and Mrs Shelton to give them their correct name), who were fascinating company as they own a farm nearby.
But as dinner went on I became more and more withdrawn, I scribbled notes on my speech, not because it needed it but because I needed to do someting. Conversation became more stilted not only because of my nerves but also due to my tinnitus which makes hearing anything in a noisy crowded room very difficult.
Prawn cocktail came and went, and our main courses (chicken for Liz and cod for me) were placed. The noise in the room became louder and there were guffaws of laughter every now and then.
After desert had been served, consumed and cleared the master of ceremonies brought on a few more cardiac arrests with his gavelling and announced that it was time to toast the Queen. We all stood and raised our glasses to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. After the loyal toast had been murmured a comfort break was announced and the time for speechifying came closer.
Due to the fact that the Cosesenr’s House was not well provided with loos the 20 minutes suggested drifted on towards half an hour but eventually everyone took their seats and I took a deep breath.
The first up was Paul, the Vice President, who had unfortunately left his notes at home and had to speak off the cuff. Paul decided that it would be best to speak from the half way arch, thereby taking in the whole room, and this seemed to work succesfully as everyone laughed at his jokes and joined in the toast.
After we had all sat down the MC walloped his gavel again and called silence for the Presedient, Mr Andrew Humphries.
Andrew decided to speak from the top table and this gave me the opportunity to judge how I should position myself when my turn came. As soon as he asked ‘put your hand up if you can’t hear me at the end of the room’ lots of hands rose and there was much laughter, but it was obvious that there was an issue so Andrew also decided to move to the archway. Unfortunately just a moment before Andrew made his decision a gentleman with a military bearing and of advanced years had decided that we would relocate to the top of the room so as to hear more clearly. He had just found a chair near to the top table and had stiffly settled himself into it, when he realised that Andrew had moved and in fact he would be better off in his original seat. The proud march home was heralded by cheers and claps from the rest of the crowd.
Andrew’s job was to propose a toast to the guests and he gave a superb address discussing what the word ‘guest’ actually means. He ended up by thanking all of the guests (specifically the wives of the Rotarians) for their help and assistance throughout the year. He also gave us a little information of the fundraising achieved through his year of presidency and it was a remarkable achievement indeed. The toast was given everyone sat down, and now it was my turn to make my way to the middle of the room.
I looked around the room at the sea of expectant faces and took a deep breath: ‘Mr President, Mr Vice President, Rotarians, guests…’ I have no idea if this was a correct way to address the group, but it seemed suitably formal for such an occasion. I thanked Andrew on behalf of the guests (my official duty) and then launched into my speech.
It is a strange phenomenon but put me on stage performing one of my shows in front of 1000 people and I am as happy as Larry, but stand me in a room as myself and ask me to speak intelligently and coherently, I turn to jelly. This was really out of my comfort zone and I would have been much more comfortable performing The Signalman, or reading some passages from The Pickwick Papers (which in hindsight would have been terribly apt for the group and occasion!), but Andrew had specifically asked me to give a speech and not a performance and I would do that to the best of my ability.
And here we had another bout of British reserve, for Liz told me later that in conversation with Andrew he had mentioned that he’d asked me NOT to perform because there was no fee available and he didn’t want to take advantage of my professional status, but he did confide that he was sure that the members of the club would have thoroughly enjoyed a reading. If only he’d asked I would have had a much more relaxing evening!
Back to my speech and I got off to a good start: ‘Mr President, Mr Vice President…..’ was greeted with a murmer of ‘Oh we can hear HIM’. The talk that I had prepared of course was about a rather serious and morbid subject – a rail accident that killed ten and injured forty is not the stuff of belly laughter, but I did try to introduce a few laughs along the way. By way of example when I described how Dickens went among the injured I told the story how he had tended a man with a terrible would and gave the poor fellow a drink from his hip flask but the man died in his arms, Dickens went on and found a young lady slumped by a tree, Dickens gave her a drink but she too died. I paused before saying ‘What DID Dickens have in that hip flask?’ which got a chuckle.
I rather hoped that people hadn’t expected a comedian, for if that was the best gag in my armoury it would be a long evening.
I think the talk went well and people were genuinely interested in what I was saying. Maybe it wasn’t quite the right speech for that particular evening, maybe I would have been better off talking about Dickens’ career and throwing in a few readings and characters, but this was something I wanted to do. I wanted to give myself a challenge that made me nervous, I wanted to conquer those nerves and come through it. I wanted to learn lessons from the evening so another time I can talk more confidently and with a greater sense of what is required. I am pleased with what I did.
After the speech the guests drifted away, many coming to me and shaking my hand, telling me how much they had enjoyed what I’d said. Of course one of the most repeated comments was ‘we could hear every word!’
At last it was just Andrew, Lynda, Sarah Liz and I left and we all piled into the car and drove home.
The best bit of the evening? We now properly know Andrew and Lynda and can count them as friends. Hopefully they will come to our house soon and the four of us can dine, chat, raise a glass, have a chuckle with no sign of that British reserve.
Regular readers will know of my lifelong passion for Formula One racing. I started following the sport in the 1970s and became a fully-fledged fan during the hot summer of ’76 when a dashing young Englishman called James Hunt took the fight to the clinical reigning champion Niki Lauda.
The 12 year old me saw things in black and white and I supported Hunt, meaning that Lauda was the villain, but what a perfect villain he was! At the start of the season he won as he pleased, which was all rather dull. Hunt in contrast got pole positions, crashed, retired from races, won non-championship races and courted controversy with his drinking and womanising. He even played the trumpet in the Royal Albert Hall – wearing a t shirt, trainers and no socks! He stuck two fingers up at establishment and that appealed to a young boy from a respectable household.
But in the middle of the summer Niki Lauda crashed catastrophically in Germany and for days lay upon the point of death. He fought against his injuries and only 6 weeks later started racing again. His dedication and strength was an inspiration and suddenly Niki Lauda became a real man not the pantomime baddy; the battle for the championship took on a fresh impetus to me.
Niki Lauda died this week, and with him passes the excitement of those days. He, and his like, gave me so much and I will be forever thankful.
Thank you Niki.