A month in the suburbs
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