Saturday, 11 February 2017

After long pause I'm back and thinking about musicals...

After watching Neil Brand’s excellent Sound of Musicals on BBC4 (episodes 2 and 3 are still on BBC iPlayer, if you’re quick), I got to thinking about when my interest in musicals started. My parents weren’t theatregoers, although we did go to the cinema. I remember going to see Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), first-run roadshows in cinema palaces with intermissions and glossy souvenir booklets, those were the days. But that came later after my first exposure to musicals.

My dad bought a stereo/radio when I was quite young, maybe about 7 or 8, one of those mahogany-boxed pieces of actual furniture with a lift-up top. It came with an LP that explained the magic of stereo, with sound effects of a tennis ball being volleyed from one side to the other. You could sit with your back to the middle section of the unit, between the speaker fronts, and be amazed that tennis was being played right in your living room, in your ears.

We must have had some sort of record player before that, as we had a wire rack for 45rpm discs, but I don’t remember it. Pride of place in the rack was a cardboard booklet with slots for the discs within the pages, the soundtrack to the film South Pacific (1958). This must have been purchased by my 14 years’ older sister, who probably went to see the film. I loved it, as an object, for the colour photos, and for the songs on the 3 discs. Some were less interesting than others, but the ones I loved the most were sung by Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie Forbush. I can still do a pretty good impression of her curious pronunciation of “yell-o-oh” in Cockeyed Optimist. And the “I’m in love” repeats at the end of I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy thrilled me no end, I would twirl and hug myself when I sang them. At this point I had no idea that the songs represented different characters telling a coherent story, but I would sing along with the record and act out a character based on what I thought the song was about.

There was a neighbourhood cinema near where my mother’s sister lived in South Philadelphia. At some sort of family gathering the younger members decided to see a film. The only option was The Music Man (1962), not much enthusiasm from the others but no choice so in we went. This was before we heard the Beatles perform Till There Was You. “How was the movie?”, the adults asked. “The story was OK”, said one cousin, “But they sang all the time”. What? I loved the singing, the dancing, the costumes, everything. How could people so miss the point?

Then the Beatles made A Hard Day’s Night (1964). As a young (11 years old) but huge fan, I would never have been able to go to a live performance, but seeing the film, at my own neighbourhood cinema, was a necessity. There were some obligatory screams from bits of the audience and an older girl, quite beautiful, with a Jane Asher-like long-straight-fringe-bump-on-the-crown hairdo (not envious, really…) watched the whole film through binoculars. Did I recognise the film as a musical? I don’t remember, so entranced at seeing actual Beatles walking and talking.

Seeing Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music came along about this time, event films that you waited in line for and had a ticket with a numbered seat. We had to stand in the cold for so long to get into The Sound of Music that I developed the mother of all colds the week after and stayed home from school. My actual mother, thinking I was faking it, kept asking me didn’t I want to tell my school friends about the film, but I just moaned weakly, rolled over, and tried to sleep my way back to health.

And then…The Monkees (1966-1968). I know, the Pre-Fab Four and all, but, in retrospect, the guys were a talented bunch. I was particularly taken with Davy Jones having played the Artful Dodger on Broadway in Oliver!, and after seeing the film version (1968), I bought the original stage cast recording (though Davy wasn’t on it). It became a prized possession. I longed to play Nancy. I can still give As Long As He Needs Me a right good go at any karaoke evening. (About 4 years later a friend borrowed it. He was carrying it around at his college when a cute girl squealed “Oh, Oliver!”, and he gave it to her. Friends…)

One of the forgotten gems of southern New Jersey was the Camden County Music Fair, part of a tent theatre circuit that included venues in Valley Forge, PA, Lambertville, NJ, and in New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington DC. They presented music concerts and, more importantly, musicals performed in the round and featuring some quite big-name stars. I saw West Side Story with Richard Chamberlin, having recently finished his run as Dr. Kildare and looking for new opportunities, starring as Tony (he was considered too old for the part in the film at age 26). John Raitt, Broadway legend and father of singer Bonnie, played Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man. At the end of the performance Raitt came onstage, leaned on the prop bridge and told stories of tent shows past, including hurricanes and power outages, and then started singing Try to Remember, from The Fantasticks. The 3000 members of the audience sat hushed and entranced. Halfway through, my mother’s friend (the designated driver) decided that to beat the traffic in the carpark it would be a good idea to be the first to leave the theatre. 2997 theatregoers and John Raitt watched us get up, push our way to the end of the aisle and leave. I was mortified but I was only 13 and wasn’t in charge of transportation. Since then I watch every film to the end of the credits and never leave my seat in a theatre until the orchestra stops.

19 year old me in Man of la Mancha, 1973
My first real date, age 15, was to yet another roadshow musical at a cinema palace in Philadelphia. The film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and it continued a love affair with Tommy Steele, who I didn’t even know had been the UK’s sort-of answer to Elvis Presley. I’d really been waiting to see Half a Sixpence (1967), but that hadn’t come out in the US yet, so Finian had to do. It did. And a few months later Sixpence put the lock on that little love fest. I can still sing the full scores to both.

After high school I performed in musicals with a theatre group at a Unitarian Church in Cherry Hill, NJ. And went to see any musical show I could: tent theatres, amateur groups, high schools, touring companies in Philly, whatever I could get to with my limited resources. (I never saw a show on Broadway until after I’d moved to Germany, on a visit back to the US when I was nearing 40 years old.)

Last week my husband and I went to the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in London for the delightful revival of She Loves Me. All because my dad bought a stereo in the early 1960s and my sister had seen South Pacific at the cinema.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

While I was sleeping...

Not really. More like...
While I was dashing back and forth from Leamington Spa to York in the process of becoming a Master (of something or other)...

The Guardian published my account of my mother's classic Spaghetti and Eggs.

You can read all about it here.

I've been thinking a lot lately about travel and my grandmothers. More on this soon...

It looks like dog food but tastes divine...

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Down to the sea...

Sometimes the things that you do in the daily toil bring you back to the things that you like to do when not in the daily toil. Recently, as part of my job, I accompanied an elderly lady to a veteran’s event at a school. Every year people who served in any of the Forces are invited to the school, speeches and presentations are made, there is a lunch, an exhibit of war documentation and memorabilia, and the students talk with the veterans about their experiences.

A volunteer was unable to be there in the morning, so, not wanting to disappoint, I stepped in. I’m so glad I did! I got to march in the parade behind a 40 piece military band, meet the Lord and Lady Mayor and the local MP, snarf as many sandwiches, pieces of Victoria sponge, scones and strawberries as I could manage, and talk to a really interesting group of women veterans as you are ever likely to meet (average age about 82).

Something that caused great excitement among the veterans was the presenting of the first Arctic Stars, given to Royal Navy veterans, merchant sailors, airmen and soldiers who served on the convoys delivering aid to Russia between 1941 and 1945. Over 3000 personnel and 100 ships, both civilian and military were lost. It’s reckoned that between 200 and 400 sailors, now in their late 80s, survive from the campaign. The medals were struck for the first time in March of 2013.

A very interesting document that I own is my father’s complete Navy record. He joined up in Boston, Massachusetts on September 8th, 1927. It never ceases to amuse me that my father was in the Navy before there were talking pictures. I can follow his progress from ship to ship, from one port to another, sometimes travelling overland across the US to get to his next posting. Some clever people on Wikipedia have posted the history of every ship in the US Navy, so I know when each ship was built, commissioned, decommissioned, where it went, what action it saw. Just amazing.

He even served on the USS Constitution, a wooden sailing frigate, originally launched in 1797, (you can still visit it in Boston, and it’s still in active service).

Where does this connect to the Arctic Stars? From 1939 to 1944 he was a Storekeeper on the USS Ellis, a Wickes-class destroyer built slightly too late to be involved in World War I. In September 1941 he was based in Reykjavic, Iceland. A check of the Ellis’s record shows the ship being a part of a large number of “screens” in Task Force 19, one of the Neutrality Patrols escorting transports of Marines from Newfoundland for the occupation of Iceland prior to America’s involvement in World War II, replacing British troops on the island. The American warships also assisted the Royal Navy in protecting merchant shipping across the Atlantic after war was declared.

Was my dad’s service considered to be part of the Arctic campaign? Or at least the western leg of it? His record doesn’t indicate if he was awarded a ribbon for this, though he did have a respectable collection of medals for his time in the Navy (he retired when I was four years old, with 30 completed years).

The ladies at the veteran’s day seemed to think that he would be eligible for the Arctic Star, but as yet I haven’t pursued this. We know our parents as older people (in my case quite a bit older), it’s hard to imagine them young and vigorous and dashing about the world having adventures. But there it all is in black and white in a little green folder. Our history makes us bigger than we are and takes us places we never imagined we could go.

(Music and tea rooms will return soon…!)

File:USS Constitution underway, August 19, 2012 by Castle Island cropped.jpg
The USS Constitution, beautifully restored, in 2012. My dad served on this ship in Boston through most of 1937. The sailors kept it in perfect condition then, but when we visited it when I was small it was in a shockingly bad state, rot everywhere. I saw it again in 2009 a year before the current restoration was completed. The young sailor who conducted the tour didn't quite believe me when I said my father had been on the crew.

 My dad's Naval record, found in a box of papers after my mother died in 1979.

Dad on the USS Ellis during the time of the Neutrality Patrols.

 My dad, Joseph Leo Arseneau, in uniform on one of his ships.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

We go to Cheltenham and many musical things happen...

In June 2012 I got my degree in Speech and Language Therapy, which was fantastic in many ways. I’ve started several degrees but, for a number of reasons (usually financial) was not able finish them. They all seemed to lead to speech therapy somehow, the key word is communication. That said, the job opportunities with the NHS have been dire for a number of years, you are discouraged to set up your own practice as a newly qualified, I’m not able to dash off to other parts of the country just like that, and I prefer working with adults, not children, so schools are out. So…no perfect therapist job for me. (It’s all worked out fine, really, don’t despair!)

While I was doing my degree I learned to play the autoharp and the ukulele and one of my schemes was this – if there were still no therapist jobs by the time I graduated (check), I would learn to play well enough to be a fully-fledged busker. A licenced speech therapist/busker! How cool would that be? Well…that didn’t happen either, as a science degree turned out to be a bit more demanding than it seemed at first, and I found that I really didn’t have enough brain capacity to memorize lyrics, melodies and chords on top of all the management, assessment and therapy information I needed to retain to graduate.

However, by summer the degree was mine and I could devote some quality time to music, so in August I joined a ukulele band, the SpaStrummers. A genial fellow named Dave started the group in October 2011, playing their first gig in May 2012. The membership has grown to 50+, but not everyone attends practices at the same time and there is a core group of about 15 or 20 who do most of the gigs. The group is about having fun, not virtuoso playing, which suits me fine. I’m a fearless singer, but I’d never really mastered an instrument well enough to feel really comfortable playing in public.

I played my first gig with the group on a lovely day in September at a Ukulele Day in Presto Classical, a local music shop. Absolutely hooked.

The group gets more and more popular, we were invited to support a choir at a Christmas concert where the Lord Mayor of Warwick wondered where we had been all his life. We play weddings and birthday parties and fetes and festivals. We are hosting Leamington Spa’s first ever Ukulele Festival on the 20th of July. And we're playing at the Warwick Folk Festival on the 25th and 27th of July.

I have calloused fingers, despite the nylon strings. My playing has improved to the point that chords which seemed impossible are now just sort of tricky. I’ve done solos at band practices and even got to lead the band at a gig. I may even have a go at picking, who knows. My busking days are closer than ever could be imagined.

On the 23rd of June, Dave organised a coach that took a passel of us to the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain in Cheltenham. Besides the booked acts there is endless opportunity for the amateur uke-ist to play there. We arrived in time to set up for the Big Busk, hundreds of players in the pedestrian zone led through a 20 song list. We had downloaded and practiced this the week before, as many of the songs were new to us, one known only to me, so I got to lead it (I’ll Fly Away – it’s on the Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack that woke us up every morning for months on the CD clock/radio). There was also a curious emphasis on cowboy songs – Rawhide, Ghost Riders in the Sky.

Truly, I can say that the Big Busk was possibly the most fun I ever had with other people (clothed or not) ever. More was to come…

The rest of Sunday’s events were at The Exmouth Arms pub, with an open mic and stalls. Dave didn’t put our name down to perform, however we all ended up in the pub itself and led a jolly sing/playalong with anyone who joined in. We discovered that there were groups quite nearby us that we’d never heard of (the brilliantly named Moselele, from Moseley in Birmingham, for example), so we could do a bit of publicity for our uke festival as well. And the general consensus was that the Spa Strummers know a heck of a lot of songs and that they are darn good at starting and ending together. For a fun band this is about as good as it gets.

What I’ve learned: I can actually play an instrument in public without embarrassing myself too much; it’s more fun to play with other people; I could still achieve my dream of being a busker, and there could even be a busking partner to do it with; nothing is too silly; I have the best husband in the world – he carries my music stand, gets me coffee, takes photos, rejoices in my silliness, and encourages me to do things that I want to even if sometimes they scare the heck out of me…

First gig with the Spa Strummers at Presto Classical

I'm in the front row, second from right, bobbing about. Who can sit still when you're playing the ukulele? And who would want to??

Leading the band at the Dunchurch Fete

If you look quickly near the end you can see a glimpse of me in my red hat and Alun with two gigantic coffees (one for me)...

Beverley and me doing a kazoo duo (me on my fantastic Frankazoo)

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Tending the family tree...

Families, past and present, are interesting concepts. Many of us define ourselves by our nationality, by our culture, by the configuration of our immediate families – number of siblings, birth sequence, presence or absence of extended generations. For me family was a pretty tight little island – two much older half-sisters (one gone now), only one grandparent alive during my very young childhood, parents gone much too early, and then I left America nearly 30 years ago and haven’t been back to visit very often since.

Things I regret: Not asking my parents more questions about their backgrounds – though I have the feeling that there were some topics they really didn’t want to discuss; not staying in better touch with cousins, aunts, uncles – though many of them died when I was quite young. We were not a family of letter writers. Well, I was in my day but with penfriends, not family members. And I’ve moved house so many times in the past 40 years that I’ve discarded or lost papers and mementos along the way.

In 2008 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas Day for my non-UK readers) we were in a café in Kenilworth after watching a duck race (that’s another story…) and started talking about family history. My sisters had a different father who I never met – the family story I had heard was that when they were very small he was struck by lightning in a rowboat on a lake at a church picnic. Was this true? I wanted to find out more. I also knew very little about my grandparents and no knowledge of any of my family beyond my parents parents. On New Year’s Day 2009, still in our pyjamas, we sat on the sofa, fired up the laptop and discovered the joys of’s free two week subscription.

Things I learned: It’s good to have an unusual name with multiple spellings; Canadians are mad about genealogy; old census records are a fascinating read; California is much better than other states at putting up its birth and death records (more on this in a moment). When you find an interesting document or bit of data you react just like the people on the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are, except no one is filming you (thank goodness, considering the pyjama aspect) and you’re not famous.

I’d forgotten my father’s mother’s maiden name, but I found a Californian death record of his sister Rita. She had been a country music performer with her husband, who I remembered had an Italian name. The death record pulled all this together and also pointed me to two birth records, a daughter and son. The son was born the same year as me, I’d never heard of him. A search of his name revealed that he was also a musician. I contacted him through his MySpace page and discovered that not only had he played with Johnny Cash for a number of years, he also occasionally toured the UK with a singer, Eve Selis.

Eve visited the UK in 2010, but without her full band. We met her in a little village hall in Tingewick, Buckinghamshire. She is a powerhouse singer, a real force of nature. She is also one of the most outgoing, positive people I’ve met. If you haven’t heard her, you must do so now.

Finally last year in July my cousin Jim was on the tour and one of the gigs was in Oxford, near enough for us to go. And the band had an evening off in Stratford upon Avon, just down the road from us. We joined them for an Indian meal with lots of chat. I brought some papers and info about my father, the uncle Jim never met. Eve took a photo. Having so little close family, I’m not used to looking like other people. The resemblance is striking (see below).

Eve and band were in the UK this month and we got to see them again at The Stables in Milton Keynes (super venue, you must go there sometime). It was great to have the opportunity to chat with Jim again and the band was astounding, as usual.

Things that amaze: One of Alun’s early jobs in the 1980s was with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which took the area from countryside and villages to a modern urban centre. He hadn’t seen it years and we were agog at the huge-ness and “American-ness” of it; the amount of genealogy information available now on the internet – not only was the lightning story that started this search true (on-line newspaper archives, bless), but eventually I was able to go back through even more generations and the number of people I’m related to has increased exponentially. 

Does an interest or ability come from nature or nurture? I would have thought the latter, but my parents were not especially musical (OK, they would burst into song now and then, but neither ever played an instrument or performed), and I've flitted around the edges of the music world most of my life. We people are complex little pumpkins, aren't we?

Eve Selis and me, Tingewick Village Hall 2010
Title song from "Family Tree"

Cousin Jim Soldi and me, July 2012

We were at this gig in  2012 in Oxford...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

"Wouldn't it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn't have tea?" - Noël Coward

There is a running joke in my world that whenever someone mentions a place my usual comment is “There’s a really nice tearoom there…”. It’s a joke that contains a grain of truth. I’ve been lots of places (not all, obviously!) and have enjoyed many a beverage and meal in a number of charming tearooms. And coffee shops. Not to mention cafeterias, restaurants, bistros, diners, mobile coffee wagons, and…you get the picture.

But tearooms, yes. They’re lovely when done right. We took a trip to America in 2009 to visit family and friends. Before we went I trawled the internet for interesting tea-drinking establishments along our route from New Jersey to Connecticut to Boston to New York and discovered something strange – in the States “tearoom” doesn’t mean an attractive, possibly retro-decorated, room serving sandwiches, cakes, scones, perhaps the odd hot dish or two along with hot and cold beverages. It means a tearoom “experience” for which you have to book a group in advance and is usually connected with an event of some sort: a little (or big) girl’s birthday or an engagement do, sometimes with hats and dresses supplied. It was not possible to rock up and just drink tea and eat cake. One promising sounding place got a poor rating on a review site because it did not offer tea leaf readings! Oh my goodness, I remember them from my tiny-hood at my mother’s favourite after-shopping lunch place, Kelly’s in Philadelphia. Is this still a big thing? I was gobsmacked.

So we ate at the Reading Terminal Market, Pat’s King of Steaks, the Sycamore Drive-in Restaurant, Rein’s New York Style Deli, and some other places that will remain nameless because they were nice but unmemorable, good but I've forgotten their names, or not all that good. But no tearooms, not a single one, with or without tea leaf readings.

The very good news is that all over the UK there are delightful tearooms, most of which you can simply walk into without a reservation and eat delicious things.

This is one of them…

Alun and I recently took a short break in Durham, in the north, because we had been saying for a long time that we wanted to have a look at it, and we wanted to take a train trip to somewhere where we didn’t have to change trains (so a return to the Rye of our honeymoon was out). While we found that dinner in Durham was a bit of dilemma (lots of chain places or restaurants that looked like they hadn’t changed their menus or décor since the 1970s), the town is packed with nice tearooms and cafés. The best of what we tried was Tealicious. Funny name, super tearoom.

The room is painted in light colours and “girly” without being too twee, the food was very nice, indeed (photos below), the owner charming. And while the house speciality is proper leaf tea (we had a Miner’s Brew for two, guaranteed to put hair on your chest – strong but didn’t), no one offered to read our leaves, thank goodness. For heaven’s sake, what more would you want? 

About 10 years ago I started a tearoom sketchbook that I kept up sporadically, and have recently revived. Of course I didn’t have it with me that day in Tealicious. But I did take photos and promised myself that this blog would, at least some of the time, talk about tearoom experiences.

If you’re travelling around the UK and want to visit tearooms, ask me. I don’t wear this mantel of Tearoom Queen lightly.

PS: "High tea" is a sort of dinner. It's "afternoon tea" that you want, and don't let anyone tell you differently...

Very inviting...

Tea and scones of the finest (and please no discussion about the correct pronunciation of "scones").

A recent page from the Tearoom Tales.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

What is it? You know you want one...

You may or may not know that I play music enthusiastically if not particularly skilfully. It’s important to do things you like with no thought for the result. I remember reading a story a long time ago about a therapist who helped a gentleman get over his perfectionism. The gentleman wanted to paint pictures but felt he wasn’t good enough so he didn’t. After he completed his therapy he began to paint for pleasure, lots of paintings. The therapist had one of the paintings in his office, it was terrible, but on handing it over the gentleman said “I present you with…not my best”. It was hung in pride of place.

I took piano lessons for six years when I was little, gave it up at 13 because I really wasn’t getting much of anywhere, though switching from classical to jazz did help a bit. Then I had a go at guitar for a long time and even managed to play actual chords in an actual bluegrass band on actual stages in my late 20s. Then my musical engagement went underground for a long time, nearly 25 years. (I still have the guitar, it’s a really nice Yamaha that I got for a good price because the guy in the music store thought it was a less expensive model than it really was – but that’s another story).

Singing without accompaniment can sound a bit naff, unless you’re a very fine singer, indeed, and even then it can sound a bit naff. After watching the film “Walk the Line” about six years ago I became fixed on the idea of having an autoharp, like June Carter Cash played. And being an old 60s sort of person I admired The Lovin’ Spoonful, the only rock band with embedded autoharp player (and I always thought John Sebastian was really cute).

On with the quest. A quick internet search tossed up lots of autoharp sites and a lot of autoharps, some looking pretty cheap and cheerful and others, custom jobbies, rather expensive. What to do? A gentleman in Hereford was the ticket – Mike Fenton. Mike not only sells the very respectable Oscar Schmidt autoharps (and will replace broken strings if needed), he also conducts workshops and master classes, performs in schools and is a full inductee in the – wait for it – Autoharp Hall of Fame.
We contacted him, discussed my autoharping needs and for Christmas 2007 Alun bought me a very fine Schmidt 21-chord Centurion in a spiffy padded case. It has a lovely rich sound that less well-made harps don’t have.

It also came with an instruction book, “It’s an Autoharp” by Cathy Britell, named that because it was the answer to the question she was most often asked. (This eventually was my experience as well.)
If you play guitar you can get the measure of an autoharp in about 5 minutes. If you don’t play guitar it might take 10 or 15 minutes or so longer. Never was there an instrument that could provide such musical joy in such a short amount of time. 

Naturally, it takes a bit more time to play well, but even a beginner player can create recognizable music quickly. Anyone can strum, but it’s the picking that makes the most beautiful sounds.

It can go all technical, with chromatic models or diatonic models, you can even have left-handed harps made, but you don’t need to deal with that at first. 

Consider the autoharp. Once you play one you want one. Trust me.

It was a ukulele day at a local music shop, but I brought the autoharp as well. The shop manager had never seen one closeup before...

 John Sebastian himself will teach you to play!

Jo Ann Smith is a brilliant player.

Mother Maybelle Carter (June Carter Cash's mother) who was the inspiration for Mike Fenton and many other autoharpists.

Put "autoharp" into a YouTube search and prepare to be overwhelmed...