Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters
Madonna & Child, Chapelle de la Trinite, Belpuig, Canigou, France, October 1999


Dear Friends

Well, it's us again. Each time we send out these duplicated but well-intended missives, we imagine that we couldn't pack any more into the next year than we have into the one that's just gone; and each year proves otherwise. 1999 was no exception...

So where to start? Well, our theatrical activities have continued apace - watching, directing and performing. Cassie started the new year by going into rehearsals for Charlotte Keatley's My mother said I never should at Richmond Shakespeare Society - a very enjoyable, unusual piece, involving four generations of women in the same family - so she had to play Margaret between the age of 9 (sleeping under the piano during the air raids) and in her fifties. Hard work, fairly intense and very satisfying.

January also saw a splendid Chimes concert - the group that Cassie has been working with for some years now, producing good-quality concerts to raise money for charity. This was a four-hander, with Selwyn at the piano, of the music of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello; our other three performers (Leon, Stephen & Alison) all being professionals. This took place in St Mary's church, and was a very lovely show, with splendid renditions of the best of both composers.

Selwyn has, in the course of the year, finally resigned from the committee - and chairmanship - of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, with which he has been involved for nearly twenty years. However, they didn't let him go lightly. He co-ordinated, wrote CD notes for and musically advised on the production of a CD of Sullivan's Kenilworth, which was very successful. Cassie had to get in somewhere - she designed the CD cover.

Chimes re-convened in March for a concert for the Surrey Women's Institute - traditional G&S shows for about half the performance, and two contemporary pieces (The Rose of Persia and The Lucky Star). At the end of this concert, Cassie announced that two members of the cast were particularly busy at that time... Stephen & Joanna were married the following week. Two of our most loyal Chimes members, we were delighted to attend their wonderful wedding.

The PROs - St Mary's Play Reading Organisation - had enjoyed presenting a staged, costumed version of Blithe Spirit at the end of 1998, and followed this in May 1999 with The Importance of Being Ernest. We won't give you too many guesses who played Jack & Gwendolen. Jo - from Chimes - was seconded to St Mary's congregation to play Cecily, and the whole cast was excellent - a good time was had by all, and suitable sums of money raised for church funds.

One of Chimes' most successful shows in recent years has been our meander through the last eleven decades of musical comedy, Something Appealing - Something Appalling. We were delighted to be asked to perform this show at Sheffield Park, a lovely concert venue in a National Trust property in Sussex. This, too, was highly successful; our host, Melvyn Tarran, runs these fund-raising concerts to an eager audience, and succeeded in passing £1000 to a local hospice as a result of our entertainment and his hospitality.

A more unusual assignment for us both was a "background lecture-demo" on the Music Halls in the 1930s. This was requested by Cassie's sometime boss and forever friend and colleague, Maggie, whose directing debut was to be Noel Coward's Red Peppers at Richmond Shakespeare Society. Not only did we give information and demonstrations of the work of Harry Lauder, Vesta Tilley and the like, but also lesser-known performers of the day, such as a certain Ben Selwyn - AKA Ben Tillett... Ben was raised on the Halls, and with his father and two sisters made a living from his art for many years. We used a tape of some of his reminiscences ("Dance, and exit to tumultuous applause"), photographs of the family in their amazing costumes, and we re-enacted one of the quick-patter routines that Ben would have been the "straight man" for. We think he'd have approved.

In summer, we were back to Chimes for an assortment of concerts, concluding with a Harvest Supper entertainment before Selwyn took leave of St Mary's for three months... yes, we'll get back to that in a minute. Before that, however, we spent some time in August at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival at Buxton, with Selwyn accompanying and Cassie page-turning for three separate shows: an afternoon of the music of George Grossmith, a production of Sullivan's mini-show Cox & Box, and (in defiance of the Festival) Life without G&S - the years at the Savoy after the great men had quarrelled and parted. For this, we were fortunate to welcome a highly professional group of young musicians, who did a superb job on music that was sometimes arcane, sometimes surprisingly good, but always fascinating. (It included, by the way, selections from Jane Annie - which was a collaborative effort between J M Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle...)

And if all that wasn't enough, we were variously delighted, amazed, dismayed and entertained by others doing the work! The professional shows included Ace of Clubs (Noel Coward), another viewing of Chicago (with its new cast); a misguided attempt to stage The Ladykillers, with Dulcie Gray (as the landlady) outshining everybody else; a simply magnificent Hay Fever with Geraldine McEwan as Judith - bizarre and unforgettable; Semi-Detached at Chichester, which included a fine performance by the granddaughter of one of St Mary's congregation; the weird and wonderful Nymph Errant by Cole Porter, and a completely rumbustuous Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare's Globe. The energy of that cast could run the National Grid. Finally, Richard Griffiths was larger than life (in every sense) and very enjoyable in The Man who came to Dinner in Chichester.

We were also delighted to see our friend Alison Roddy in an "opera showcase" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; her Violetta in the last act of La Traviata was stunningly powerful and emotional. We were very proud to be there. Incidentally, Ali married John in the summer in her native Ireland, and at the London party (theme: black & white) a certain rector went dressed as a dalmatian - and played the piano like that…

Wallington Operatic provided a superb Sweet Charity; RSS' Don Juan and Richard III were much acclaimed, and deservedly so; Barnes & Richmond OS presented a grand scale Fiddler on the Roof in Richmond Theatre; and our friends Pam & Ian Akhurst excelled in Mistress of Novices, The Anniversary, Rumours and When we are married.

And there's more…

Our genealogical studies continue apace. Selwyn has been in touch, over the last couple of years, with some of the descendants of Ben Tillett, MP, who was Selwyn's great-uncle; and provided information for a TV programme, due to be shown in February on BBC2, which traces some of that side of the family.

Cassie's Skingley work took a new slant this year. As a result of working with and for Geoff Ford, a Canadian ex-pat who wanted to know more about his natural father (he was born out of wedlock), Geoff's visit to England at the end of August precipitated A Skingley Weekend.

So on the Saturday, we took Geoff and his wife Eleanor to Slade Green, in Kent, to meet Geoff's newly discovered first cousins, John Skingley and his sister Joyce Crutchfield; on Sunday we met up with Geoff's second cousin Ray (whose wife Joan belongs to one of the operatic societies of Cassie's acquaintance...), together with Ray's cousin Sylvie, his children Ben & Laura, and Laura's gorgeous little son James. and took a trip round the various sites in Essex that the Skingleys come from - Rawreth, Hockley, and the very beautiful Northey Island. We were fortunate enough to enjoy superb weather; to be hosted for an idyllic garden lunch under the trees by our dear friend Beryl in Stow Maries; and to manage to see the grave of Ray and Geoff's great-grandparents, John & Emma, in East Ham churchyard.

Finally, on Bank Holiday Monday, we welcomed to the Rectory fifty-nine Skingleys (or descended-from-Skingleys) and their spouses and offspring. The sun shone all day (which was just as well - it would have been terribly crowded in the house!); photos were taken, addresses exchanged, huge printouts of family trees examined (one of which was twenty-five feet long) - and a good time was had by all. It was a very, very special event for us, and wonderful to meet Geoff and Eleanor, who were delightful guests and helpers in all the complex arrangements. It'll need to be the Albert Hall next time - or perhaps the millennium dome...

Cassie's freelancing work continued for most of the year, covering a wide variety of assignments. Working for Managing Development, helping them with their new computer system (which turned out to be one of the most stressful tasks ever - acting as translator between the techies and the office staff); various aspects of secretarial work and leaflet design; genealogy (yes, she gets paid for it occasionally - taking her variously to the heart of the London record offices and up to the wilds of Yorkshire); and some consultancy for new computer users.

This was interspersed with periods of temping, and finally a return to so-called "normal" employment. Freelancing is highly enjoyable, but the periods without work started to get a bit hard on the nerves - and the bank account - so when a position was advertised at Epsom & Ewell Borough Council for somebody to work in the IT department as a troubleshooter, it seemed like a good idea.

Having got to second interview stage, they gave the job to somebody else, but then telephoned to say "we've something else we want you to look at"... Since November 1st, Cassie has been working as "Administrative Consultant" - for which read maverick - in Central Services of the Town Clerk & Chief Executive's department. Organisation and troubleshooting, including sorting out the machinations of the new Data Protection Act - thrilling stuff! The job, however, is very enjoyable, and the people are lovely. Not to mention the fact that this is being typed on the laptop they've lent her for the weekend to make best use of a very long train journey (of which more later) - can't be bad. Oh, and whilst we're taking on new jobs - she's also started selling clothes. Weekenders is a rather nice range of co-ordinated pieces which she's been buying for ages for herself - and now is selling to other people at evening parties!

So what about the rest of the family? Cassie's sister (who you may remember was not a little surprised by Cassie's visit to Spain last year) is very happy with Carl and baby Jack, who is now just over a year old. According to friends who have visited recently, he's "an edible baby"...

Sadly, Cassie's father has yet to meet his grandson. Dad doesn't travel in aeroplanes - it's his one real phobia - and because of difficulties and delays over registering Jack with his dual nationality, the baby doesn't at the time of writing have his own passport - therefore can't yet visit England.

Dad has had a pretty poor year of it in any case; he paid to have one hip replaced privately back in May, but has to rely on the NHS for the other one, which is now just as bad - and is still waiting. He's unlikely to get a hospital bed before Spring 2000, so is still on crutches. However, he keeps amazingly cheerful and busy, works around the house on various projects - and continues to make his amazing wine... Mum is in good health, but life is rather difficult with Dad's incapacity, especially since Mum doesn't drive. (Fortunately, driving is one thing that Dad can do comfortably.) They're coming to the Rectory for Christmas, which is great - Dad's being brave and says he'll make it upstairs if it's only for one night!

We enjoyed a week in January in a rather eccentric self-catering cottage in Winsford, Exmoor; and a delightful break in a hotel in Llanwrtyd Wells after Easter (not surprisingly, in mid-Wales). Our summer break was somewhat haphazard, with some of our time in Buxton counting as holiday, but much being work on the concerts previously mentioned.

So what about the Tilletts deserting St Mary's in September? Well...

Selwyn has been in full-time ministry for over eighteen years. It's not the most restful of jobs at the best of times; he takes one day off a week, and makes sure he takes all his holidays, but it's not the sort of job that one can leave behind at 6pm. After three very busy incumbencies, he was starting to feel more than a little tired; so we were delighted when the Bishop approved him to take three months' sabbatical to recharge.

We began in September. Having performed the Chimes Harvest Supper concert on the Saturday, he presided at the Sunday morning Eucharist, and came off duty. Our first call was to see the excellent final result of Maggie's aforementioned production of Red Peppers that same afternoon; we then started nine days' clearance of the Rectory. Filing cabinets cleared, music sorted, books rearranged - all very therapeutic.

At the end of the month, we travelled to Plymouth, from where we took the 25-hour boat to Santander. Great way to travel when the weather's calm - but it wasn't. We stayed lying flat in a darkened cabin for the majority of the journey.

However, this inauspicious start led on to one of our best ever holidays - glorious weather for about 80% of the time, travels through some amazing scenery, and a very restful time spent in the beautiful holiday home, south of Perpignan, which belongs to our fellow parishioners Chris & Jill Holmes. To give chapter and verse on the holiday would take this already-long letter to the proportions of a "three-volume novel"; if anybody's really interested, the article written for the Parish magazine is readily available!

After a few days at home to sort ourselves out, it was back to Devon again. This time, Selwyn was staying there - for the next seven weeks - at the Society of Mary & Martha, a beautiful retreat house a few miles outside Exeter, particularly intended for exhausted clergy. His delightful little one-up two-down flat enjoys a wonderful view of the Devonshire countryside, and he has been working on a rather unusual writing project. Incidentally, this is being written as his wife takes yet another Friday evening train journey from London to visit him, returning to sunny Croydon on Sunday.

The writing project centres around the life of a man who was Selwyn's unofficial godfather. He was born in Axminster in 1890, gassed in the trenches in 1917, joined the RAF on day one, spent twenty years serving with them in the Middle East, came out of the RAF with a vocation to be a Roman Catholic monk (are you keeping up?) and spent most of World War 2 and immediately after showing British troops around the holy places in Jerusalem and Galilee. Selwyn's parents encountered him when they were working in an RAF hospital outside Jerusalem in 1944, and stayed firm friends until he died in 1978. He went then by the name of Brother Bede, and was the best known of all the guides doing similar work.

He had two goes at writing his own life story, which Selwyn's dad took around London publishers in the 1960s, but it was not accepted. When he died Selwyn's dad inherited the manuscript, and his albums of photos taken all over the Middle East from the mid-20s onwards, and they said for years that they really ought to try to edit the material and publish something. Since Selwyn's dad died a few years ago, and S now has all this stuff, it's felt like a debt he owes them both to try and work on it. Hence seven weeks not too far away from his part of Devon researching, learning to use the laptop and its speech programme, and writing.

The rest has done him a power of good, as they say; the writing project is progressing well; and he is due back "in the saddle" at Christmas. We will spend a few days together at a hotel in Dorset to bridge the gap between retreat house and Rectory, to catch up after far too long a separation (the weekends really aren't enough) - and then it's back to Croydon for Christmas preparations, and for Selwyn to write six sermons for use over Christmas and the New Year.

Oh, and one more thing. We finished last year's missive with a car story (Cassie pranged the old Nissan rustbucket, so invested in a "real" car for the first time - which runs beautifully, and has covered 13,000 miles in the last year) - so we'll have one this year.

Selwyn had driven to Exeter to do some research in the County Record Office. He returned to the Cathedral & Quay car park about six hours later - only to find his little white Renault was no longer where he'd left it. Tedious reporting to police and insurance company, hiring of a car (the retreat house is in the middle of nowhere) for a week in order to finish his research (he finished up with an enormous two-litre Ford Mondeo, which he hated), and depressing plans to buy whatever we could afford with whatever the insurance company would give us. Not to mention the fact that the Renault was of great sentimental value - it was our courting car...

Then about ten days later, a message was left on Cassie's phone at the Rectory. "This is Exeter police station; we have located Revd. Tillett's car, if he could contact us for details." Obviously, our fear was that it would have been damaged in some way.

When Cassie phoned the police to confirm receipt of message, she said "Oh, out of interest - where was it?" "A car park in Exeter." "Not the Cathedral and Quay, by any chance?" "Yes..." No, he hadn't just forgotten where he'd put it. The car was parked two floors below where he'd left it; the seat and mirrors had been adjusted; half a packet of peppermints had been eaten; and it appeared to have been put through the car wash before being returned... one theory we have is that, in looking through the glove compartment, "they" had found the "Priest on Call" card that he uses when visiting hospitals, and had a fit of conscience!

So here we are again - happy, healthy and busy, and preparing for Christmas and the New Year. Both will be quiet, but with important people around; and we're looking forward to whatever our seventh year together will bring. May your own New Year bring you all you wish for yourselves; the time to dream, and the energy to make the dreams reality.

With our love -

Selwyn & Cassie