Bet Your Bottom Dollar

Money’s tight right now and when school budgets get squeezed something has to give. And what gives tends to be non-core activities like music, dance and drama. It’s understandable but short-sighted. British performing arts are (still) world-class and contribute big bucks to our economy. Cutting off the supply at source is like serving up the golden goose for Christmas.

And so community-based youth theatre is as important as ever, providing the opportunity for kids to get stuck in – everyone welcome, no one excluded. It takes guts and bravado to step on a stage and strut your stuff in front of a bunch of strangers, especially for the first time. But the rewards – building confidence and learning new skills – can last a lifetime. And, once in a while, a star is born.

That’s why we love a bit of am dram and, if it involves people we know, we love it more. That’s as it was when we took our seats for Annie, performed by the Fisher Youth Theatre Group based at the rather cute Fisher Theatre in pretty little Bungay. Well done to fledgling starlets Eva and Jas; your elegant armography was good enough for Strictly Come Dancing. I was teary-eyed at the end.

The Older the Fiddle, the Sweeter the Tune

Once upon a time a long time ago, a pretty girl was swept off her feet by a dashing young corporal in a smart uniform and a devilish twinkle in his eye. Plucked from a small town in Ireland, she began army life on the move. Babies landed here and there – Northern Ireland, Germany, Malaysia, England and Malaysia again. My mother lapped it up, throwing herself in at the deep end as the perfect army wife. She loved the friendships and the sense of belonging, and she really loved the parties – especially the posh frocks.

After demob, my parents ran a backstreet shop – selling booze and bread and all things in between. It was a good little earner. Even during the dark days of the 1974 three-day week, they kept the lights on with candles from the cash and carry. And for the late Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations, Mum helped throw a street party. The till rang non-stop as the bunting fluttered in the summer breeze.

After a few happy and fruitful years on Civvy Street, Dad died, quite suddenly. Mum lost her husband, her living and her home – all at once. What did she do? She picked herself up, dusted herself down and soldiered on alone as a single mother.

After Dad died, Mum remained resolutely single for the rest of her long life. In fact, she was a widow for much longer than she was a wife. She called herself ‘the only virgin in London’, without the slightest hint of bitterness or irony. Liam called her ‘One hell of a woman’. He wasn’t wrong.

Mum was a grafter too. Not many people would catch a night bus into London’s West End five days a week to clean offices – something she did well into her seventies.

At 81 years young, she came to Turkey for my surprise 50th birthday party. She was the belle of the ball, a big flirt in a long blonde nylon wig, dragging up the fellas for a turn around the floor. But flirt was all she ever did, preferring to share her bed with a mug of tea, her puzzle books and a pack of cigarettes. ‘Keeps my brain active,’ she said. The puzzles that is, not the fags.

And she loved nothing more than recalling the stories of her flirty days of old when her dashing corporal fought for her affections with Alec, a Scotsman of some considerable means.

But Mum married for love.

When she turned 90 we threw her a bit of a do – a full house to honour our grand old dame. Despite being a bit mutton and increasingly frail, she was in fine fettle, loving all the fuss and fun, surrounded by family. The big pile of scratch cards went down well too.

Mum’s boogie nights may have been well behind her but she and I still shared a slow smooch at the end of play.

Truth be told, my mother was a bit of a fraud. How so? Well, a while back, I ordered her birth certificate. Turns out Mum was registered in the name of Dora, not Doreen. Who knew? Certainly not Doreen.

How can I describe Dora? Stubborn and contrary? Fiery and maddening? Or maybe feisty and canny, loyal and wise? Truth is, she was all these things and much, much more. An extraordinary woman, who lived an extraordinary life. A life lived in technicolor; the last of her siblings.

One thing I can say with absolute certainty: our old girl was never boring.

She would have loved her send-off – the service, the tributes, the tears and, in particular, the boozy do afterwards.

As they say on the Emerald Isle…

‘The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune.’

Doreen Fenwick

1929 – 2022

Catch Me If You Can

Nearly three years down the line, we really thought we’d dodged the COVID bullet. But then our luck ran out. While in Bulgaria, we both started to develop a cough – nothing too onerous, just a tickly irritant. Better safe than sorry, we took a lateral flow test when we got home. And, yes, you guessed it, the dreaded lurgy had finally caught up with us.

We don’t know if we caught COVID before, on the way to or during our brief getaway but we were relieved that our Bulgarian hosts proved to be negative. We didn’t fancy blood on our hands.

Our symptoms were fairly mild – more man-flu than death-bed – and, for me, didn’t last long. After a few feet-up duvet days watching mind-numbing daytime telly, I was feeling much better. Sadly, for Liam, it still lingers like an unwelcome guest who won’t leave.

During our confinement, our neighbours were marvellous, with offers of help and home deliveries. Thankfully, we already had a supermarket shop booked – otherwise we might have run out of wine. Now that would have been a real emergency. Special thanks to our local innkeeper’s missus who popped by with pick-me-up McDonald’s milkshakes. You know who you are!

Bulgaria Beckons

We’re parachuting into Bulgaria for a few days to catch up with a couple of former Bodrum Belles from our Turkey days. They upped sticks and left Turkey soon after we did. Whereas we washed up in Norfolk, they continued their foreign escapades by pitching their tent in old Bulgaria. It’s pastures new for us – though I did make it as far as Transylvania on a school trip back in the day – so we can’t wait. We’re expecting hot gossip washed down with copious amounts of cheap, full-bodied Bulgarian plonk. We were asked ‘red, white or any alcohol?’ We replied, ‘yes.’

So, until normal service resumes, here are some random summer images from the village.

Наздраве (naz-drah-veh). That’s ‘cheers’ in Bulgarian.

Go West, Young Man

We have old friends in Torquay, a palm tree-lined seaside resort in Devon. We hadn’t seen them in ages because of the pandemic, so a catch-up was well overdue. All roads lead to London, and we didn’t fancy the hassle of crossing the sprawling metropolis only to come out the other side, so we flew from Norwich International airstrip to Exeter International airstrip on a little jet – like Z-listers without the paps.

Old Exeter – Roman Isca Dumnoniorum, Saxon Execeaster – has been around a while, though at first glance you’d never know it. The Luftwaffe did a great job flattening the city in the Second World War, so you have to look closely to find ancient treasures.

Mercifully, the magnificent cathedral, founded in 1050, was spared the hellfire that destroyed pretty much everything else – a little odd considering it sticks out like a bullseye at the heart of the city. Although I’m not religious in the slightest, I do so love a gander round a holy pile.

Most of what the visitor sees is thirteenth century, and what impresses first is the awe-inspiring ceiling that soars towards the heavens. At 96 metres, it’s the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. It surely convinced the hovel-dwelling, unwashed illiterati of old that it was made with divine intervention – and so helped keep them on their knees.

And then there are all the elaborate tombs – mostly containing the old bones of long-dead bishops.

And the stained glass windows aren’t bad either.

While Norwich hosted T-Rexes and steppe mammoths for the summer, Exeter went for giant cutesy street dogs.

After Exeter, we spent the next couple of days hitting the sherry and chewing the cud with our old muckers at their palatial digs in Torquay. And fantastic it was too. Our hosts are a little camera shy so, instead, here’s an elegant bust of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunnit and the best-selling fiction writer of all time, who was born in the town.