Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters

1998

Dear Friends

We've just been re-reading the Round Robins you've been subjected to for the last few years. Each year seems to increase in pace and amount of activity, and we always seem to conclude with something along the lines of "goodness knows what the next year might hold". Well, here goes…

We started off by spending our post-Christmas break in sunny Walthamstow. (Mum & Dad, you may remember, were basking on Spanish patios with my sister and various members of the family.) So we house-sat, caught up with other friends and relations left in cold, wet England, and prepared for the year ahead.

We finally made it back to Paris, and had a splendid time (although more than a little damp) to celebrate our wedding anniversary after Easter. June/July saw us back in Ireland; this time, having gone "round the edges" two years ago, we proceeded in a westerly direction straight across the centre of the country. From Dublin to Mountrath (bang in the centre) where we stayed in a very wonderful, friendly, no-sign-of-a-TV, converted Palladian mansion; moved on to self-cater in a lovely cottage in the Burren, with views across an inlet from Galway Bay (and an open fire, which was well used!); and back to further north-of-centre to a converted redundant railway station in Kilmessan. Lastly, September found us in Pembrokeshire, the scene of our first summer together, but this time with our good friend Beryl, who introduced us to a favourite family-run guest-house of hers, with glorious views across the bay, near Dinas Cross.

The year has been liberally sprinkled with Chimes concerts [for those of you new to this particular soap-opera, it's the group of enthusiastic amateur/young professional singers and musicians who perform for charity - Cassie has been co-ordinating various casts under this banner for nearly 12 years now]. We've excelled ourselves in 1998: starting with two performances of a Wassail! programme, in Dorking and in Sutton; two performances of a "Music of 1898" programme, for the Sir Arthur Sullivan and the Gilbert & Sullivan Societies (very different organisations!); an evening of Victorian parlour-song for a local old people's home; and our proudest achievement, two performances of a romp through eleven decades (1890s-1990s) of musical comedy (called Something Appealing, Something Appalling) which we've just been asked to perform for the third time at a National Trust property next year. In addition, 1999 will (so far) also see an evening of Coward & Novello in January at St Mary's; ditto a Harvest programme; a Gilbert & Sullivan evening for the Surrey Women's Institute… etc. etc.

Cassie managed otherwise to stay away from the amateur stage for the first few months of the year. However, in September she enjoyed playing Laura in Wallington Operatic Society's production of Still Life - the Celia Johnson part in the film Brief Encounter - very tense, British-stiff-upper-lip emotion. Speaking of Mr Coward, we also were both instrumental in putting together a rehearsed, staged, dressed play-reading of Blithe Spirit, drawing the rest of the cast from our congregation, and had a highly enjoyable and successful evening (you'll of course be surprised to know that we cast ourselves as Charles and Elvira). Finally, Cassie has just been cast to play Margaret, one of the four women across four generations in Charlotte Keatley's My Mother Said I Never Should with Richmond Shakespeare Society, in March 1999. See - she couldn't stay away for long!

Selwyn has had his own moments of theatrical glory. One of the more arcane was the filming of a recent series of The Hello Girls - about the staff of a 1960s telephone exchange - starring Letitia Dean - remember it? There was a wedding in the last episode, and we'll give you three guesses which church played host - and who played the vicar… Nothing to say, but for the sake of authenticity the whiskers had to come off, the short-back-and-sides performed courtesy of the makeup department, and as for that Brylcreem… Nonetheless, he was paid for his work as an extra, and St Mary's received a pleasing cheque for hosting the filming for a couple of days - and there was much hilarity at the finished result. (That's NEVER Selwyn - you're having me on…) We also had great fun with two other performers, Laurence and Margaret, providing a variety evening for our latest parish social (concluding with Flanders & Swann's Hippo).

When we've had the chance to watch others doing the work on stage, the variety has been as wide as ever. Excellent amateur (so-called) performances have included South Pacific, The Marriage of Figaro, Salad Days (one of the silliest storylines of any show we've ever seen), Company, Fiddler on the Roof, Princess Ida (not, as one of my friends once [seriously] referred to it, Princess Aida), Crazy for You and Shadowlands. (The latter was recently filmed with Anthony Hopkins in the role of C S Lewis - a wonderful and moving play. The part here was played by one of our parishioners, Ian Akhurst, who receives our annual award for the best-delivered one-liner…) We also were delighted, and sad, to be present at the last ever Siddons performance - the "adult panto" company that Cassie performed with for a few years. Their unique humour, utter professionalism and glorious sense of the ridiculous will be sadly missed.

On the professional stage, we've seen some superb and memorable performances. Cassie's birthday treat was to see the stunning revival of Chicago, with Ute Lemper and Ruthie Henshall; and having recently learned that the new cast includes Maria Friedman as Roxie, we'll just have to see it again! Crocodiles in Cream was a fascinating and touching one-man-show about Lewis Carroll, sensitive and beautifully done. Back to Shakespeare's Globe, this time for a perfectly outrageous performance of A Mad World, My Masters; and our joint birthday-cum-Christmas treat from Heather (ex-churchwarden, general parish factotum and universal aunt) was the excellent West End revival of Showboat (which you may remember has particular associations for Cassie from 1997). Most recently, we took a spur-of-the-moment Thursday decision to go to the National Theatre, and saw a simply brilliant evening's entertainment, based on the Carry On characters: Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle & Dick. This featured actors and actresses who were not only working with a superb script, both hilarious and touching, but who turned in performances so uncanny that one wondered if Sid James and Kenneth Williams had come back to life; and as for the girl playing Barbara Windsor, it must have been a positively disturbing experience for the real Barbara Windsor to watch it. If you get the chance to catch this show - and you enjoy behind-the-bike-sheds humour, with a serious dash of pathos - do.

We've seen a few concerts (other than our own productions!) and these, too, have been rather special. The aforementioned Sir Arthur Sullivan Society was responsible for a particularly splendid show in the Buxton International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival (Anoraks Anonymous) in August; the concert consisted of one number from every show Sir Arthur was involved in writing, and yielded some gems. St Mary's was visited by the St Petersburg Ensemble in October - a travelling chamber choir which performs Russian folksongs and orthodox church music - stunning, unusual and very enjoyable (not forgetting their extraordinary version (in broken English) of When I'm Sixty-Four…) and, more recently, a performance by the Bach Choir of David Fanshawe's African Sanctus - one of the most exciting pieces of choral music we've ever heard.

Life in St Mary's continues busy, and the regular congregation is slowly increasing - it's especially good to see many younger people, often as a result of the Mums' & Toddlers' groups, taking part in life here. We had a busy Confirmation service at the beginning of the year; usually, the Bishop will do a "job lot" (if you'll forgive the expression) from three or four local churches; but St Mary's had 24 candidates this time (20 of them being adults), so they were all "playing at home". Better still, several of these new church members went on to become part of the new PCC (church council) at the elections in April, and are now taking a very active part in the running of the church. We are still fighting hard to keep abreast of our "mortgage" (on the new church centre), but, thanks to consistent and generous giving and fund-raising, are making a much better fist of paying our bills these days. It will be a long time before we're out of these particular woods, however. (A small postscript to this item - a certain Rector's wife, having resisted PCC membership for some time, has suddenly found herself as the new treasurer… can't think how that happened.)

By the way, many of you will remember the excursion that Cassie made to Romania last year. She was asked by CCF (the charity that organises child sponsorship) to write an article about the visit as a PR exercise for the charity; and the result (much sentimentalised) has since appeared in print - once in Woman's Own, and once (honestly) in the War Cry. It's done the trick, however, and generated much new interest in sponsorship, which is great news.

Family tree research (yes, feel free to switch off at this point) continues sporadically. The trees on Cassie's study wall now cover most of two sides of the room. However, for those of you with little interest in such things, a separate note will be on its way in the New Year to those of you who are involved with this eccentric hobby! However, we must just add that, on Selwyn's side, it's introduced us to a delightful new assortment of relatives, who now live on the south coast - we spent a particularly uproarious Saturday with them recently. Selwyn's grandfather was the much younger half-brother of Ben Tillett MP, an early Trades Union leader and organiser of the great London Dock Strike of 1889 - these guys (discovered through a chance obituary notice in The Times) are his grandchildren. There had been no contact between the two sides of the family since at least the 1920s, when Ben MP refused to go to his stepmother's funeral… On Cassie's side, she now has contacts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, as well as the UK. Some of them have visited, some are planning to do so. And all courtesy of the Internet!

These new toys (computer, Internet, scanner, colour printer) open up a whole world - principally for family tree research and for Cassie's business. So that's the next topic… Working Order (as it's been named) started as a freelance venture in organisation, the first real job happening in late January 1998. Since then, with the inevitable peaks and troughs, it's been moving along at a steady pace - actually, it's currently frenetic. The business tag line is Sharing the skills of organisation, which is effectively what I do - helping people to make friends with computer, filing system, paperwork - especially successful consultants who have previously had the support of office staff, but now need to deal with their own administration. Oddly enough, I've been brought full circle, and am presently helping Maggie, my old boss at Managing Development, to review the administrative needs of her business (which, like Topsy, has just grow'd and grow'd).

Speaking of Managing Development, their farewell gift to me when I left the company in summer 1997 was a voucher for a champagne balloon flight for two. In July this year, we finally took the plunge (if that's the right expression), and spent an indescribably lovely couple of hours drifting over the Sussex countryside on a serene evening. It's an experience we'd recommend to anybody - certainly gives you a whole new perspective on the world.

Hasn't this woman finished rattling on yet? you may be asking yourself. Well - no. In the last three weeks we've performed a concert (Chimes) and the Blithe Spirit play reading (mentioned above); rehearsed for two more (a Chimes concert later this week, and the Coward/Novello show for January); Cassie has pranged her car, bought another one, and been to Spain.

Okay, I'll explain. Let's take Spain first. As you may remember, sister Jenny fell in love with an English lad who was helping to run his mum's bar, just up the road to our mum's brother's villa… are you with me so far? Well, Jenny gave birth to Jack just a month ago. Our mum decided to go over to Spain to spend Christmas and New Year with Jenny, and to give her some practical grandmotherly assistance. What she didn't know was that I'd planned to go out with her, on the same flight, without telling either her or Jenny - but enlisting the help of various members of the family with my conspiracy. Fortunately, all went as planned, and my mum's face when she saw me walking down the aisle of the plane would have been worthy of You've Been Framed - as would Jenny's likewise when we got to Malaga airport. I left East Croydon station at 06:17 on Saturday, was collected from Hackbridge station at 17:35 on Monday - and I'm typing this at 22:25 the same evening!! Whilst in Spain, I was dressed as for a warm late Spring day, sitting on the patio in my dressing-gown for breakfast, eating tangerines picked from the garden, and supping lager on sunny hotel balconies… you didn't really want to know all that, did you?

My new nephew, by the way, is only four weeks old as I write, but is a splendid small person, all set to be spoilt rotten by his adoring public; and my sister is obviously very happy with her lot. Her boyfriend, Carl, is an excellent and adoring father; and it was lovely to see all this for myself.

Now, what about this car? Well… I was driving (in the old and rusty Datsun Cherry, £350 bargain 2½ years ago) back from a day's work, stopped to post some letters just before the left-hand turning to take me home. Back into the car, seatbelt on, pull out to the right. Try to turn wheel to the left to straighten up - only it wouldn't turn. First thought - that the wire on the "hands-free" kit of the mobile had got caught, give it a good tug, no problem. Next thought - that's not working. Third thought - well, there wasn't one, really, as the brain freezes under those circumstances. Fortunately (very fortunately) the car at the head of the oncoming traffic realised that all was not well as I continued across to the right hand side of the road, pulling on the wheel all the while. It was only when I'd been forcibly stopped by the iron fence outside the infants' school that my foot found the brake (too late), and I sat there, gibbering.

The driver of the oncoming car, Karen (who, as it turns out, lives next door to one of our regular senior parishioners), was a brilliant good Samaritan - came round - made sure I was OK - made me stay where I was. And only then did I work out what the problem had been. As I'd got back into the car after posting the letters, the buckle of my raincoat belt (which I was wearing undone) had caught in the steering wheel; as I'd tried to pull the wheel to the left, it had effectively acted as an anchor, my own weight preventing it from moving. Hard to believe, really.

It sounds more dramatic than it actually was to say that "I wrote the car off" - she would have been worth repairing, I believe, if she'd been worth more than £350 in the first place. As it was, with the headlight wrapped round the side of the car, a dislodged grill and no lights - nor would she start - she was a pretty sorry sight. While Karen calmed me down, the chap in the next car went round the corner to get Selwyn; the chap who'd stopped on the other side drove us round the corner home, and said that if I needed a vehicle claims adjuster, that's what he did for a living; and the passing AA man who had stopped behind him moved the poor old car off the road! One way or another, I was being well looked after.

And so… within a week, I'd sorted out the appropriate loans (from various understanding friends) and retainer invoices (from two understanding clients), and financed my new car. I am now being quite unbearable, driving around in a little, bright red, P registration, Nissan Micra, whom I fell in love with on sight. The old one was scrapped a few days ago - I'm glad I wasn't here to see her go.

So, dear friends, here we are again. In one piece (just); busier, more involved, happier than ever; looking forward to whatever 1999 will bring (or throw at us); we hope it's the same for you.

With our love -

Selwyn & Cassie

#