A month in the sub­urbs

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

MY coun­try life has been re­versed. I am the op­po­site of rus­ti­cated, ex­iled for 10 weeks to the sub­urbs, where I’m sur­rounded by pros­per­ous au­toma­tons, shop­ping re­lent­lessly. (How did my own lyric put it? ‘Buy­ing stuff that we don’t need, with the money we don’t have, to im­press a load of peo­ple we don’t like’).

Por­ridge, made on the Aga at home for 10p, costs £4 here, in a brown cafe that’s like all the other brown cafes. The car park be­side the the­atre, which Granny took me to watch be­ing built, is grid­locked by huge new cars driven by venge­ful women squan­der­ing their hus­bands’ salaries.

‘Why does pan­tomime not have its own Old Mas­ter to record it?

Be­fore Guild­ford’s ur­ban­i­sa­tion, this had been my ma­ter­nal fam­ily’s patch. Now, all that re­mains of their land is the cricket pitch. Wasn’t that some­thing to do with Great-un­cle Hec­tor? Did he not do­nate it to the rapidly grow­ing town? If he hadn’t, per­haps I wouldn’t be in panto. ‘Crick­eter’s View’ is what the ex­pen­sive commuter flats be­ing built on its bound­aries are call­ing them­selves.

Then, from my dress­ing-room win­dow, I no­tice some­thing mag­i­cal: a mys­te­ri­ous Gothic tower crown­ing the op­po­site hill­side (ac­tu­ally the east­ern es­carp­ment of the Hog’s Back). It is all but lost among beeches and comes and goes with the river mists. It’s not a shiny, se­duc­tive bou­tique —it doesn’t ex­ist solely for the pur­poses of ex­tract­ing money. I re­mem­ber Grand­fa­ther say­ing that, in the days be­fore Starbucks, there was a chantry up there so, one evening be­tween shows, I be­come Childe Roland—he who to the Dark Tower came.

It is a stone oc­tagon, 70ft tall, set in the grave­yard that also con­tains the fi­nal rest­ing place of Charles Dodg­son, Alice’s cre­ator. The chantry, which once had bat­tle­ments, was built by an early-19th-cen­tury mayor, Charles Booker, for a heart-wrench­ing rea­son. He wanted to com­mem­o­rate both his teenaged sons, one dy­ing from small­pox, the other through drown­ing in the River Wey (along which Aunt Carol used to swim, in the days be­fore the bor­ough banned such ru­ral pas­times).

Booker’s for­tune de­rived, like that of Great-grand­fa­ther, from Guild­ford’s wharves and tim­ber yards—th­ese days sani­tised into Wether­spoons. One could see St Paul’s Cathe­dral from the top of his mag­i­cal tower; early ex­per­i­ments in elec­tric­ity were con­ducted; Queen Vic­to­ria’s mar­riage was cel­e­brated with fire­works and the build­ing of the Wok­ing rail­way su­per­vised, un­til the views of the Sur­rey Hills be­came blan­keted by the very pros­per­ity he cre­ated.

Booker’s Tower is un­vis­ited now, his name for­got­ten. Guild­ford, which boasts the high­est in­come per capita in the UK, is too pre­oc­cu­pied with half-price re­duc­tions at Deben­hams to con­sider what lies through its own look­ing glass.

Ipass Great-un­cle Hec­tor’s House on my way to the the­atre. Here, I re­mem­ber, his golden wedding cel­e­bra­tions were in­ter­rupted by Aunt Joy—the one we didn’t men­tion. She’d been a cho­rus girl in the 1920s and had her own May­fair flat in the days when that could mean only one thing.

She’d roared up the gravel in a pur­ple MG Mid­get, de­scend­ing the gar­den steps in a Biba maxidress which—un­til she drew close—dis­guised the fact that she was in her rav­aged seven­ties. There was no dis­guis­ing, how­ever, the con­tempt with which this be­di­zened Cara­bosse sang For He’s A Jolly Good Fel­low to the host, whom she cor­dially loathed.

I, a 10-year-old cho­ris­ter, was en­tranced. Hav­ing changed her name to Vera, she had fled to Mus­solini’s Italy and sang Norma, Vi­o­letta and Tosca be­fore the war ended a ca­reer that would have been du­bi­ous but for one de­tail: she had starred in the Char­lot Re­vue of 1933, the one with the score by Noël Coward.

De­spite the fam­ily’s dis­ap­proval, Aunt Joy has my unswerv­ing de­vo­tion. She was the first woman to sing Mad About The Boy.

Bal­let had its De­gas to im­mor­talise it in pas­tels; rac­ing, Mun­nings, in oil; the Folies, Toulouse-lautrec with his poster paints. The wings, where I wait in Abanazer’s bro­cade cloak, are a lofty won­der­land of misty glit­ter, tin­selled props, babes in tu­tus, drag queens, dwarves, clowns, sud­den shafts of gar­ish light from the stage and, yes, even a Gothic tower.

It is unique, at­mo­spheric, beau­ti­ful. This was Aunt Joy’s king­dom, even Charles Booker’s. Why does pan­tomime not have its own Old Mas­ter to record it? Here’s a magic that even the sub­urbs might yet re­claim.

Kit Hes­keth-har­vey is a So­ci­ety cabaret en­ter­tainer, lyri­cist, opera trans­la­tor and reg­u­lar broad­caster for the BBC. He lives in Nor­folk

Next week: Ja­son Good­win

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