Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters


Dear Friends

Here we are again, exactly a year since the last missive. It's been peaceful, quiet, uneventful, and I'm a liar...

We started the year with a repeat visit to Somerset for our "post-Christmas escape" - The George in Castle Cary, which is always a good place to be. Five days roaming teashops, bookshops, winebars and NT properties - wonderful.

The theatrical activities started up pretty promptly, too. I auditioned in January for Showboat ("Can't Help Loving That Man", "Only Make Believe", "Ol' Man River", etc.) with Wallington Operatic (who produced Stepping Out last year) - and to my amazement, was cast as the lead, Magnolia, who ages from 18 to 58 in the course of the show. The ringlets and pink lace dress had to be seen to be believed. The show was on for a week at the Secombe Centre in Sutton in May, and was a wonderful, successful experience - they're a lovely company to work with, and we had excellent reviews. In preparation, I spent some weeks working with a very good singing teacher, who helped me to adapt my usual torch-song style to suit an 18 year old soubrette.

At the same time, the next Chimes extravaganza was underway - an intimate little evening for a group of clergy wives, celebrating Lent & St Valentine, entitled Provender, Passion and Penance. Lots of roses and slushy songs - great fun. We then followed this up with a further concert in May, on a larger scale, as part of the church Flower Festival - eight performers, including clarinet, French Horn and a Victorian Magic Lantern (early slide projector) - raising money for St Mary's funds, and also for the Christian Children's Fund (of which more anon).

January and February (trying to retain some form of chronology) saw Selwyn working with an assortment of students from the Royal College of Music, including some of the Chimes cast, on a recording (not yet finalised) of highlights from several 1890s comic operas. This resulted in the Rectory being taken over for several weekends, much consumption of bread, cheese and tea, and a spaghetti junction of recording equipment all over the living room. Selwyn then continued his work as chairman of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society by giving a talk to the Wallington Gramaphone Society in January, using musical extracts as illustrations, on the work of Sir Arthur (as separate from Mr Gilbert).

In February, I started a fascinating course - NeuroLinguistic Programming. This high-falutin title simply refers to a study of human subjective response - what makes us tick, what influence past experiences may have on our present, what resources are available to us, and how to make use of such understanding. It occupied a full four days once a month for five months, and it's proved invaluable ever since - on a personal level, at work, in certain counselling situations with friends and parishioners, and in other developments later in the year. That's to make sure you keep reading!

A one-off performance in February with Epsom Players involved my performance (displaying the usual subtlety) of the song Cabaret. March brought a visit to Yorkshire for the memorial service for Jim Wild, who had conducted the Bretton Singers - the choir of my college years. A very moving, fitting tribute to somebody who had given so much musically to so many people. March also saw Selwyn performing for the Gilbert & Sullivan Society in Bath, accompanying an evening of songs of George Grossmith for our friend Leon, an excellent baritone - they've done recordings together too.

By the middle of March, with rehearsals for Showboat moving on apace, my boss found a beautiful new office for the company to move to. Within two weeks, Managing Development had upped and gone from Wimbledon to a wonderful location by the river at Barnes, near Richmond - french windows opening onto a balcony with the towpath beyond. After a few weeks of chaos, punctuated by arguments with phone companies, security systems and IKEA, we settled into our new environment very happily. We marked our move by holding a party in the office on the Saturday of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, which finishes just round the next bend in the river from the new office. Terribly civilised.

Easter, and we made good our escape after Holy Week; this year to a beautiful hotel called Easton Court in Chagford, Devon. We were blessed with the weather - a sunny Spring on Dartmoor is a gift. In June, we spent another wonderful week away - this time in Cornwall; a lovely self-catering cottage near Camelford, in real King Arthur country.

It was around this time that a curious obsession took hold of us both: Family Trees. (Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if the idea bores you senseless). We'd both done some work on our respective trees in the past, but now the bug really caught us, and leisure time started to be given to wanderings through Essex churchyards, long hours gazing at census and Parish records on microfiche, and a database to house this eccentric detective story.

Selwyn's tree is relatively modest - his clan are based in Bristol, and he hasn't been able to visit the area for information - but said database for the Skingley family (my mother's father) holds about 800 names, and traces 11 generations - from the one below me (my cousins' children) back to my gt-gt-gt-gt-gt-gt-gt grandfather (yes, that's seven 'greats') James Skingley, married in 1694 in Margaret Roothing, Essex. It's a bizarre hobby - absorbing, fascinating, infuriating and, ultimately, completely pointless - but great fun! The resulting chart now spans 2 pages deep by 14 pages long, and wallpapers one of the Rectory bedrooms.

Our theatre visits are as many and varied as always. This year, the professional performances have included a repeat visit to Riverdance (wonderful - lives up to all the hype), Once a Catholic, Lady in the Dark (with Maria Friedman - an excellent performer), Blithe Spirit (with a desperately miscast Twiggy as Elvira, and Dora Bryan forgetting her words all over the place), Lady Windermere's Fan (Stephanie Beacham excellent as the femme fatale), Charley's Aunt in the open air at Cannizaro Park (it rained so hard that the cast applauded the audience for staying), Chekhov (a one man show with Michael Pennington - superb), Divorce Me, Darling (Tim Flavin totally irresistible), Oliver! (can you imagine Dame Edna [Barrie Humphries] playing Fagin? We really witnessed this phenomenon, and it was as frightening as the idea implies), The Provok'd Wife (hilarious)... The "amateur" evenings (often as good or better) included A Winter's Tale, Dames at Sea, Singin' in the Rain (complete with rain on stage), and The Second Mrs Tanqueray with my friend/boss Maggie superb in the lead.

In May, we both were enrolled as (wait for it) members of the Mothers' Union. No, you don't have to be a mother to join! The enrolment took place at a service at Southwark Cathedral, and there was a great deal of sniggering at the question Will you involve prayer and bible reading in your daily life? to which Selwyn's reply, with straight face and clerical collar, was With the help of God, I will...

In June, Selwyn returned to his Essex roots for a poetry reading evening at a festival in Tillingham. This was under the direction of our friend Beryl, who had put together several such evenings during his Essex incumbency. A delightful evening (I love the definition of cricket as "organised loafing"...)

St Mary's continues with many enterprising fund-raising events. One of these - a Dog Show in June - was particularly successful. Somebody had the bright idea that a volunteer dressed in a dog costume should wander up and down the Croydon Road giving out leaflets to publicise the event on the day; a tall skinny Dalmatian was therefore to be seen, but not recognised by many without his (dog) collar... Another such event was the Pudding & Plonk evening in July - come along after your own dinner for fancy desserts and alcohol, a raffle and entertainment. We'll give you three guesses who the entertainment was! One item which went down particularly well was the adapted I have been to a marvellous party, including the lines "Still, we knew some excitement was bound to begin/When Eileen got blind on Dubonnet & gin/And said "I'm the raffle - who's going to win?" - I couldn't have liked it more..."

Our Summer holiday this year was spent between two self-catering cottages: one in Yorkshire, the other in Northumberland. Both were absolutely beautiful places, and we spent a highly enjoyable 2½ weeks wandering the North-East. Admittedly, we had rather wintery weather - while a heatwave was taking care of Croydon! Our holiday was also memorable for the strange events of the end of August. We woke to the news of Princess Diana's death on our first day in Northumberland, and passed the cortège driving North on the M1 as we motored home - through deserted towns, and under motorway bridges full of hundreds of people.

We were visited by the Play-House Musick in October, a group of musicians who play the music of seventeenth century London. This was organised by Mike Withers, a musical colleague of ours. Unfortunately, the group arrived on the day with long faces - their soprano had gone sick that morning - so Pam, one of the congregation who's a music teacher and a very fine singer, was hauled in at three hours' notice - together with a certain rector's wife - to fill in. The things we do for art.

In October, we spent a few days away in order to visit Selwyn's one remaining aunt and uncle, who were celebrating their Diamond wedding anniversary. This time we were fortunate enough to have glorious weather, and Scotland in a sunny Autumn is simply heavenly. We were also delighted to be able to visit Diane, a school friend of mine, with her husband and five children in Aberdeen.

November saw a reunion of the team who produced a poetry reading evening at the church two years ago; this time the theme was Remembrance Sunday - first and second half were the two World Wars, complete with musical interludes. It was a very successful, moving evening - hard to know whether to feel guilty for the emotional responses of the audience, or glad that our performances were effective. And there were many cold shivers at the sound of the air-raid siren.

Selwyn has in the last few weeks been helping a film company with information for a film which is being created by Mike Leigh (Abigail's Party, etc.) about the creative relationship between Gilbert & Sullivan, which should be interesting. Watch this space!

The church is as busy and troublesome and rewarding and frustrating and delightful and time-consuming as ever. And what about my career? Well... As many recipients of these annual diatribes will know, I started to work for my friend Maggie some four years ago, and I was responsible for the administrative creation of the company, Managing Development. However, it was becoming clear as time went on that the basically secretarial capacity of the job just wasn't enough for me, and I want to do more than organise other people's time for the rest of my working life.

So, after a lot of heartsearching, I went to Maggie in July, to say that a rethink of career was necessary, and I needed to find another job - since financially it wasn't viable to take time off. Imagine my astonishment when Maggie (who had already second guessed what was happening) effectively gave me enough money to do just that - to take time to review all the possibilities. And since July, that's what I've been doing. I now have plans to move into some combination of office/time management consultancy and counselling (using the NLP skills mentioned earlier).

And while I was at it... I've just come back (last Saturday) from spending three weeks in Romania, working with two of the NGO (non-governmental) groups in the north-west who provide a channel for western aid for children in that country, affiliated to the Christian Children's Fund mentioned earlier (who arrange sponsorship of individual children). The opportunity arose because we started last December to sponsor a Romanian child through CCF, and having decided that some time taken out of suburban Surrey to see how life operates elsewhere might be a good thing, Romania therefore seemed a logical place to go. (I also used my office management skills to give practical help and consultancy wherever possible.)

It was a fascinating, moving, enlightening, harrowing experience. Ioana (our sponsored child) is a bright, happy, healthy 11 year old, living in adequate circumstances in a children's home. However, adequate is all that can be said. I also visited a "helping school" (what we would call a "special school") where the beds were pushed so tightly together that children would have to climb across five beds to reach their own; the teachers have too many children and not enough training in social work to act in loco parentis; heating is insufficient; sanitation is dreadful. And an English woman handing out lollipops was probably the event of the month - or of the year.

Romania doesn't currently have a crisis in the shape of war, revolution or famine, so the West seems to pay little attention. What it does have is a state of economy that beggars the imagination; a staggering population of children as a result of Ceau escu's rulings (contraception and abortion were banned for every woman under 45 without at least 5 children - single people and smaller families were penalised), resulting in "superfluous" children who have been abandoned, or orphaned, or whose parents cannot afford to feed them; 50 years of Communism behind them, and therefore total reliance on the State to provide, with little sense of efficiency, personal responsibility or charity; a virtually worthless currency (in 1995, there were 3,000 Lei to the £ - now there are 12,500); and a cost of living which we can't imagine. Salaries are about 5-10% of their British equivalents. A doctor and an office manager are both earning in the region of £1,800 per annum; but food costs for basics are about 50% of our equivalents, and luxuries (such as imported chocolate, clothing etc.) cost about the same as they would in London. The roads are appalling, and many scenes of horsedrawn carts, oxen and mud were straight out of the closing scene of Fiddler on the Roof. Slowly, but very slowly, the Romanians are starting to find the possibilities of improving their lives; but at present many are totally reliant on Western support, and the changes will take many years.

So here we are - Christmas again. My mum & dad are well and busy, and spending this festive season with my sister, Jenny, in Spain, where she has been very happily living with her boyfriend and running a bar for the last 16 months; so (especially after three weeks' separation) Selwyn & I will be perfectly happy to hide in the Rectory with too much food and drink, turn on the answerphone, and recuperate in preparation for 1998.

This all makes exhausting reading - did we really do that much in one year? Goodness knows what next year might hold. Whatever it might be, it's unlikely to be dull; and we'll keep you posted. But we're excited, happy and full of plans to absolutely make the most of every opportunity - whether it's in the theatre, the church, genealogy, counselling, charities - or whatever. Oh, and by the way - my weight has stayed at about the 9st 12lb that it was last year. Given all the activity, perhaps that's not too surprising!

Here's to a happy, healthy and successful 1998 for us all!

With our love -

Selwyn & Cassie