Monday, 24 November 2014

Hue is Hue?

Number one daughter continues her journey through Vietnam - never a dull moment, clearly! 

A three and a half hour journey by train dropped us off in Hue - after a slight 
reluctance to leave Hoi An, knowing that it would be difficult to compare our 
experience there as we travelled northwards in Vietnam. The train chugged 
and hugged the coastline, giving us views of narrow inlets and pockets of 
beaches, fishermen and their boats and the scaling green hills on the other 

Hue is home to the Citadel and was the capital city of Vietnam in the 19th 
century and where Ho Chi Minh grew up. As you walk along the street into 
town, Hue is divided by a clean split down the river - the Citadel down one 
side and the town down the other. For this reason, the charm that we had 
been hit by in Hoi An, was lacking here - the people choosing not to base 
themselves around what is to tourists, the heart of Hue, and very reason 
why so many people come to visit here. You are left with an impression of 
a 'wannabe city' - modern hacked buildings, unappealing hotels and cross 
the bridge to immerse yourself in history and culture.

We felt finagled by the promise of Hue - but I promise that this disappointment 
will not linger long in this blog.

Hue's Imperial City, the Citadel, is a fortress surrounded by a moat, with 
water taken from 'The Perfume River' - which runs through the centre of 
town. Inside is the imperial enclosure to the 'Purple Forbidden City' - where 
the Emperor, his wives and his concubines lived and where all official 
business and ceremonies took place. The Citadel was bombed in the 
Vietnam war and we are told, looked very different a few years ago, but 
now all of the bomb craters have been filled up with soil and modern 
hallways provide paths to and from the original buildings that have 

Now, Alex is a typical boy in that, in laddish fashion, he spent much of his 
time looking around the Citadel and designing his own personal fortress. I 
am informed, by him, that I may live on an island in the middle of a lake and 
build my own treehouse but that I do not have permission to fish to survive 
and that if I was to disobey him, he would arrange for his servants to throw 
things at me and order the angry seabass in the moat to deprive me of 
bathing or escaping, akin to Austin Powers.

In retaliation, I spent much of the time imagining well-oiled men in loin cloths 
tending to my every whim, daily massages and a library beating the splendour 
of Codrington Library at Old Souls College, Oxford. The list goes on.

The DMZ bar hosted us as we clinked our glasses and watched the football 
and England vs New Zealand rugby in sequential fashion. The DMZ bar 
stands out due to its ceiling which is a geographical tour of the Demilitarised 
Zone which was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during 
the Indochina War which saw the Viet Cong beat the French to be 
recognised as its own government in North Vietnam. This paved the way 
towards the Vietnam War which saw Americans in South Vietnam fighting 
the 'communism of the North', or as the Vietnamese would probably say - 
barbarically depriving them of their right to independence. A tale of two sides, 
as always.

Speaking of which, those who know me well are aware of the amount of 
literature I absorb on a weekly basis. So far I have probably read about ten 
books in the past two weeks, but the one that has left me absorbed in the 
history of Vietnam is called 'Saigon' by Anthony Grey. Through the eyes of 
a young American who visits the country for the first time in 1926, hunting 
tiger in the jungles with his wealthy father and brother, the book spans fifty 
years of Vietnamese history. The young American returns, time and time 
again, haunted and beguiled by the lumbering country as it leaned harder 
and harder towards independence. Constantly torn between his patriotism 
and an innate understanding of the sacrifices Vietnam had made for 
French colonialism, you observe the battle within himself as much as he 
details the battle surrounding him. Historical fiction might be its genre, but 
the way that the author cannily and accurately portrays Saigon, Hue and 
other places around us leads me to take much of his account as truth and 
it is considerably unbiased in comparison to the other fiction and non-fiction 
I have read in understanding this country better.

In Agatha Christie fashion, we boarded the sleeper train that would carry us 
to Hanoi. The tracks lie flat to the platform and local men sit casually puffing 
away in the smoky dark until the train arrives. We found ourselves in a cabin 
with two bunk beds and a narrow table sitting in between. The door only just 
about shuts and a guard sat outside our cabin, presumably, to ward off the 
spooky and murderous ghosts of the Orient Express. The train, I had 
imagined - in typical romantic fashion, would rock me softly to sleep with 
murmurs of the 'chug-a-chug' beneath me. This was not to be. The train 
would slow down mildly before throwing down its brakes and hurtling to a 
stop - nearly throwing us out of the bunk. Occasionally, the guard felt the 
need to slide our door open and pop his head in, throwing light into the cabin. 
This was, I assume, to check that we were still there not that somebody had 
climbed over the top and murdered us in our sleep.

Next stop is Hanoi - on a brief detour before we climb the hills and the fog to 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Lavender Skies, Nine Knitted Hats and Pizza Wrangling

A very wise friend told me back in the summer, 'life goes on' and it is only lately that I have properly understood what she meant. She is much more experienced at the being ill thing than I am but now that we have been at this for five months, I realise what she was trying to tell me. Life does go on... just not for me. I am like the pooh stick in the stream that gets stuck under the bridge as all the other pooh sticks, like my friends, go rushing on towards the sea.  Leaving me, well, stuck.

The last couple of weeks have left me exhausted and although I should be dancing around - perhaps to Agadoo in my white dressing gown (only my children and the Barnsley lodger will understand that reference - sorry, but there was alcohol involved!) - because I have now had five out of six chemo sessions, the reality is that just getting through the day is as much as I can do. But I am buoyed along by some of the extraordinarily kind and sometimes very unlikely things that my friends have brought to my door and this week has been particularly wonderful on this front.

My brilliant friend, Toni Storey (name in full so you can google her) is an artist of amazing talent and if you have been in my conservatory you will have seen the mural she lovingly painted for me many years ago. During the summer and autumn whilst things were going particularly pear-shaped here, Toni was working on a painting called Lavender Skies, the inspiration for which was drawn from the lavender fields at Snowshill in Warwickshire (my home county). As she painted, she sent me regular updates of the picture so I could monitor its progress whilst she monitored mine. The painting is now perfect and complete and we saw it a few weeks ago in Warwick at the Mitchell Gallery. And on Monday, she arrived in Harrogate with a magnificent print of Lavender Skies just for me. It is wonderful and her generosity has moved me beyond words. I will look at the painting and always remember her extraordinary kindness.

The second thing, though not chronologically, was waiting for me today in a large parcel when I returned exhausted from a client meeting. (One of my clients gently asked me today when were my good days - this is it, I replied. Hmmm...). I have been a bit of a demon on the internet shopping of late so the parcel could have been any number of things. What I was not expecting were nine hand-knitted hats from Budleigh Salterton in an eclectic range of colours! Thank you, Doris, you've blown me away!

And the third thing was a phone call from my hilarious writer friend from Blackpool, Four Chairs. It would take too long to explain why she is called Four Chairs (though it features in an early blog if you really want to know) but we met on the terrifying writing course a few years ago and have stayed in touch - why? because we make each other laugh. Anyway we mostly keep in touch by email but as soon as I heard her London East End tones and the seagulls in the background, I knew. As we have only met for one week in Hebden Bridge on the writing course, what we know about each other's lives is only what we have told each other. I know that she has a partner/husband/significant other who "doesn't let me f****** smoke in my own f******* house" - hence she rang me when she was in her garden having a fag.

Over the years, I have pictured the aforementioned partner/husband/significant other whose name she has not seen fit to tell me, thus giving me free rein to make up an entire character. He is, in my head, in his fifties, perhaps a one-time pugilist and as hirsuitically-challenged as I am currently. Anyway, Four Chairs tells me that he has got a new job as a pizza wrangler. 'Pardon?' At this point, I am thinking the following (any attempt at reining in my imagination is long gone): Four Chair's p/h/s-o is on a horse in chaps (of course) attempting to lasso big margaritas with very short legs. Disappointingly, pizza wranglers turn out to be pizza delivery persons but as we live so far from any such sophistication I shall probably never know whether they wear chaps.

Riding bicycles in Hoi An

Another guest blog from number 1 daughter. Don't you just hate it when your children do things better than you?! A great read for those of us who don't get very far from home these days...

As the plane dipped beneath the clouds for the first time since leaving Ho Chi 
Minh, all one could see was a narrow brown river sliding between lush green 
hills, reminiscent of Conrad's description of the Congo River in 'Heart of 

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the 
world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An 
empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, 
thick, heavy, thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever 
from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another 
existence perhaps."

We entered the town of Hoi An via taxi, on a narrow track between acres and 
acres of rice paddies, sleepy buffalo and old women walking in conical hats. The 
ancient town of Hoi An is an old trading port, active between the 15th and 19th 
centuries. It sits 4km from the beach and was largely untouched by the Vietnam 
War which means that the preservation of the old buildings is much a part of the 
beauty of the place. Countryside Moon was our homestay down a track on the 
outskirts of the town, the house owned by a Vietnamese couple and their two 
children. The receptionist was sick and none of the family spoke much English 
but as I have come to realise more and more, much of feeling welcome in 
Vietnam has nothing to do with language. 

Bicycle is the main method of travel around Hoi An for tourists and this meant 
that me and my deaf ears would have to trundle around on the two wheels as 
well. The homestay is across the river from town and the bridge was still in 
construction which meant that one of my first challenges was to ride a bike 
alongside about twenty motorbikes going in the opposite direction on a muddy 
trail that was about two metres wide. Shit me not. 

Before Alex and I set off, we had agreed on a series of hand signals, a crude 
sign language, that would enable us to communicate whilst the wind and traffic 
rendered my hearing aids useless and in essence to keep me alive during the 
experience. Fairly simple - left, right, slow down, stop and honk - if a vehicle was 
blaring away behind us. Alex cycles to work in London and he cares about me, 
so I assumed he would be trustworthy. We had, however, received no warning 
that the green cross code here is arcane and utterly shambolic. For anybody 
who wants to blend in with the Vietnamese locals, please observe the following:

1. Honk every time you see a vehicle, person or even a bird. 
2. Feel able to cut someone off on the inside or the outside, God gave you free 
3. Do not slow down at junctions, even if turning left or right, everyone will work 
around you.
4. Traffic lights are like disco lights, they serve no purpose.
5. If you wish to take over someone, do not worry about the truck coming down 
the opposite side of the 
road, they will slow down for you. (One must remember to honk)
6. Observe no rules, make your own.

Once I had accepted all rules were out of the window and that Alex was too busy 
observing the same, singing the Sound of Music off key loudly was a must, for it 
had been many years that I had been on a bike, sober and remained upstanding. 
Given that the road into town was scattered with karaoke bars pumping base 
loudly, not too many people suffered. 

The Ancient Town is  effectively three narrow streets parallel to one another, one 
facing the river. The traditional buildings are fashioned entirely of wood, with large 
entrances facing out onto the street. Pagodas, temples and meeting houses filter 
in between shops, restaurants and tailors - the quality of hand-made clothes one 
of the attractions of the town for tourists. It is very charming and peaceful - the 
streets cut off from traffic means that there isn't a constant torrent of people 
passing through. One can spend many days simply absorbing the place and 
enjoying the atmosphere, which we did. All of the cultural landmarks - the 
Japanese Bridge, for example, are within metres of each other and blend into the 
architecture of the town. 

The food here is yet again delicious, in particular the local delicacy - Cao Lau 
which is only found in Hoi An. Yellow noodles, pork, spring onions with a sweet 
sauce. Cao Lau is something of an urban legend, it is said that you can only 
make it with water from an undisclosed ancient well nearby. The Nu Eatery, a 
restaurant only a few months old, served a delicious chicken and coconut dish 
with sticky rice. The Reaching Out Teahouse was a local social enterprise run by 
deaf people. When they bring the menus out to you, they also provide an 'order 
card' and some wooden cubes with words written on them so that we can gesture 
to things when we are trying to communicate with them. Whilst my sign language 
is a little spotty in parts, it was a pleasure to interact to the three waitresses there, 
talking about the tea they served and their lives. 

We stayed in Hoi An for the 'Legendary Night' which is celebrated on the first full 
moon of the month. Electric lights are switched off and lanterns are strung up 
everywhere you can see. Street vendors sell bright boxes with candles in them 
which you can buy to float down the river. Performances took place in the main 
square. It was, I will confess, one of those nights where you entirely submit 
yourself to being soppy and romantic - holding hands as you stroll down the 
street, staring at the full moon and then hitting yourself on the head to shake 
yourself off the mood when you get home. 

The receptionist was still sick at our homestay but we became increasingly 
friendly with the family that we were staying with, making do with very broken 
English which has become a bit of a habit. You suddenly find yourself talking to a 
tourist in the same fashion and coming across as a right berk. We made a habit 
of sitting outside on the veranda with our books and Lan, our host, would sit with 
us and drink La Rue beer saying "Yo" which would result in all of us picking up our 
drinks and saying cheers. With the Vietnamese, one doesn't sup at beer casually 
whilst talking, you say "Yo" and simultaneously everyone clinks their cans and 
drinks. It has a tendency to get one drunk quite quickly in your desire to be warm 
and friendly. He also sent his boy off to fetch some smoked squid of which its vile 
smell and taste still makes us gag in recollection of it. It makes you curse the good 
manners your family instilled in you. (I have been forced to write here that I didn't 
eat any of this, Alex took one for the team. But the smell gave it all away.)

When you visit a place, you go marching in search of the culture and the sights 
with a map, camera and guide book, determined to make your mind up of exactly 
what you think of it. You seek the truth or the heart. A city or a town is so often 
determined by its landmarks, its custom and how well it caters to tourists. The 
number of things to do or to see. Hoi An, in its simplicity, makes as strong a 
statement as any of the more famous cities of the world in its refusal to be 
dictated by the pace of modernisation. The vibrancy, elegance and laid-back 
atmosphere Hoi An treasures, enables it to simply speak for itself. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

"Saigon...shit...I'm still only in Saigon"

Guest blog from my number 1 daughter who is travelling in Vietnam and
is now my window on the world. 

From the air, Saigon was the largest metropolis I had ever seen. As the plane
dipped beneath the clouds, all I could see was city block after city block 
sprawled for miles, no ending beyond what the eye could discern. And a brown 
snake slithering through the middle of it. The Mekong River. Welcome to Ho Chi 
Minh City.

One deaf, but slightly more experienced backpacker and a map-reading
aficionado  Scouser disembarked the plane. 

We took a taxi - with the meter on at our insistence but still managed to get
ripped off by our escort adding another zero. I took several backward steps away
hastedly as Alex unleashed his scorn-ridden Liverpudlian Scouse fury upon the
driver, who scratching his forehead, was really only trying to rip us off by 2 
pounds. But Alex was having none of it. 

We were in the Pham Ngu Lao district. After having a good look around - we are
clearly in the backpacker part of the city, we trundled down a narrow lane to 
where the map reading aficionado insisted the hostel would be. I learnt very 
quickly on this trip, his navigation skills only apply when he is wearing his glasses. 

Receiving a very warm welcome at Diep Anh Guesthouse, the owner took us
through the entire history of HCMC in the space of half an hour. Quite a skill. 
Following this, he gave us very detailed itineraries of multiple tours we could go 
on. After this, we were allowed to fill in our forms and hand in our passports which 
would permit us entrance into the hostel. We dumped our bags in our room and 
headed straight out for some Ban Pho. The only thing we had really come to 
Vietnam for. 

Sitting on a street corner on colourful plastic chairs, crowded in at every angle by
local Vietnamese men slurping away, we regaled in our feast of the Vietnamese
delicacy - Ban Pho - noodle soup with beef, spring onions, beansprouts, lime and
an array of herbs I did not recognise upon taste. The languid humidity which is
such a staple of South East Asia left us sweating profusely into our soup, adding
nice level of salt to our already sumptuous feast. All around us were shops, bars 
and restaurants with fluorescent flashing lights illuminating deals and the all night ‘
Happy Hour’ and all we could hear was the loud hum of thousands of scooters
passing us by with no pause in the traffic. Vietnamese women in silk pyjamas
carrying their wares on their shoulders with a pole holding a make-shift set of
weight scales carrying bananas, pineapple and other fruit we could not put a name
to. The smell was deliciously foreign - a mix of fresh food, the stench from the
drains, the fumes from the bikes. The sights was a never-ending array of ethnic 
vibrancy so far removed from Western culture. Other backpackers hastened 
across the road, zig-zagging to and fro the constant ascent of Vietnamese on their 
scooters with face masks intended to protect them from the metropolis’s pollution. 

With coffee and tea being our staple in the mornings, the next day we encamped
in a bland cafe to plan out our route to the day’s cultural beehive of places to visit
and see. A long walk found ourselves at the War Remnants Museum which
documents (entirely one-sidedly I must warn) the devastation caused by the
Vietnam War. A sobering exhibition of Agent Orange, which was one of the
poisons that American planes dropped over the forests in Vietnam as an attempt
to defeat the never-ending guerrilla warfare which they had found themselves
fighting in. These were graphic images of first generation or second generation
children born deformed, disfigured and mentally disabled through their parents
absorbing the dioxine unleashed on them. A child enraptured by a butterfly. A
child holding his dad’s hand whilst locked in a tiny wooden cage (he could not
prevent himself from eating anything that came his way, and his dad was an
exception to these culinary habits). Children smiling as they made crafts with their
feet to sell to local tourists. One would think that this was enough, but we had
another three floors to explore which hit us at all angles at the supposed
victimisation and cruelty the Vietnamese faced upon fighting the Americans for
independence. The other three floors captured images from the war itself - a
US soldier with a toothy grin holding up the head of a local farmer who had
exploded from standing on a grenade, a well where three young boys had hidden
from the solders (two shot and one disemboweled), the haggard faces of US
solders wading through rice paddies, completely foreign to their land. The top floor
was dedicated to world photographers and journalists who had chronicled their
experiences of the war (and was a vast relief to the directness and one-sidedness
of the Vietnamese portrayal of their images on the floors below). But it left one
wondering exactly what the correct balance was in the war - which lens (none of
them rosy) by which to view Vietnamese history. The US war planes, helicopters
and tanks outside left Alex in an excited dance with his camera.

We meandered to the Independence Palace, of which I won’t say much, except
it’s not a very pretty palace and it has lots of big rooms. The best part was
probably seeing the helipad on the top floor and looking out onto the city. We
stopped in the General Post Office so that I could send a postcard home to my
family, Alex sitting patiently whilst I scribbled away. Then we stopped for lunch
at Nha Hang Ngon which offered street food in very stylish surroundings - we
sat under a domed ceiling with plants hugging the pillars around the open square.
We were surrounded by Vietnamese chefs quietly cooking various local delicacies
and we could watch them as they prepared our food. We ate more Ban Pho and
shared what was described as ‘pork chops, egg cake, shredded pork and sticky
rice’. It was all delicious and only cost us 100,000 Dong (less than £3). 

The Jade Emperor Pagoda, a 30 minute walk away, was a multi-tiered temple
created by the Cantonese congregation and contained large black macabre
statues, apparently made of paper mache. We stood in silence as several men
and women filled the air with joss sticks, chanted and stuck candles into
everything. Locals would donate a fee to light a cluster of joss sticks with their
palms clasped and shaking them reverently at all of the looming gods
surrounding us. Outside was a pond of terrapins, and I confess we spent more
time watching these - me cooing away at them and Alex taking pictures of the
biggest, the fastest or the baby.

Ben Thanh Market was a bustling street market, reminiscent of the outdoor markets
in Bangkok where there was multiple ways in and out but you would never end up
back where you were. People ate in the middle of the narrow corridors, thrust various
cloths under our noses, grabbed our hands to get us to come and see their stalls. We
emerged fairly quickly and, as always, fairly stunned at the colourful chaos that a
shopping market can provide. 

Getting my way, but realistically with little resistance from Alex, we went to the Beautiful
Saigon Spa for a massage to relieve those tight knots and bumps we had naturally
gained from our hours of walking around the city. It was a new experience, compared to
the Thai massages we both have more of a feel for (ha!) and started with the
 submerging of our feet in a cinnamon foot bath. We were also presented with a cup of
something which could only be described as smoky bacon flavoured water. New to us
indeed. The most exciting part for me, and least for Alex, is when we were asked to don
a pair of grey shorts, a short chequered dressing gown and blue crocs. We were wearing
exactly the same clothes for all of five minutes. It winds Alex up considerably. Sadly, we
did not get any photos. I won’t go into too many details about the massage because that
feels a bit like rubbing it in your faces but it was divinely indulgent. I did have a little giggle
when I peeked over and Alex was lying on his front and had his arms pulled behind his
back. He was being jerked around by the tiniest masseuse I had ever seen. If I had my
hearing aids in, I could have sworn he let out a little yelp...

Lazily, we crossed the road for a third course of Ban Pho and some BBQ pork noodles.
We read our books and fell asleep at 8.30pm, like a pair of contented dogs.

Strangely, given the size of Saigon, nearly all of the must-see sights are condensed within
a square block of a couple of miles. I have no doubt that one could probably explore
Saigon forever - soaking up the aromas, dodging the traffic and taking on an almost liquid
diet of drinks and Ban Pho. When we walked through the park from the palace, we stopped
to watch one guitarist singing soulfully in Vietnamese. A few metres further down, another
guitarist was making a complete hash of The Beatles (all corroborated by Alex and not the
deaf one). This was, in its own way, the lasting impression of the city of Saigon - a city which
aims to please its tourists through a sharp contrast of quietly celebrating its own culture
whilst loudly courting to what they believe Western travellers desire.

*Title of the blog can be attributed to one of my favourite films 'Apocalypse Now'.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Kieran and Me - Banging Heads

Today was the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Kieran Louise Sykes. I was not brave enough to be inside St Wilfrid's Church but I wrote this for Mandy and she gave her permission for me to post this in memory of her sister. Ours was a stormy relationship and I cannot claim to be any more than one friend amongst very many but this is our story - warts and all. I miss her. 

I had heard of the Sykes girls long before I met them. They were tall, blond and formidable - in my book, a bit scary. In fact, it was Mandy whom I met first - children of a similar age so our paths were bound to cross sooner or later. Kieran at this time was across the world, being a business high-flyer and living a life at total opposites to my child-rearing with cottage pr industry on the side in our North Yorkshire farmhouse. We might never have met.

The first time I did meet Kieran was at an Acorn Committee meeting at Louise's house when she had returned home to Yorkshire. Right from the off, we were at odds. I think we both knew why. Two big characters, business women, used to being listened to and our opinions valued. Of course, the only people at the table not listening to our opinions were... each other. We banged heads on nearly everything and Louise, her hand usually on a fairly steady tiller, must have been patience personified. Of course, if we agreed, we were unstoppable - but that didn't happen often.

When Kieran left the Acorn Committee, I knew she was ill but we continued to bump into each other socially. Had events not turned so dramatically, I daresay that's where we would be now.

In late spring I found I had breast cancer. The process (once you have put yourself in medical hands) does not require bravery. You just have to get on with it and I am sure that many people can do this with serenity and grace. Not me. I wailed and wept and shut myself in a box where few were permitted to enter. Kieran, in typical style and knowing so much more about my illness than I hope ever to need to know, emailed me with all sorts of helpful information. I was in lock-down. I replied with a firm email which I hope wasn't quite as blunt as some of the emails that had passed between us in our Acorn days. She persisted but I was still in my box and not ready to talk.

The day I came out of hospital after my operation, having had no sleep and feeling pretty groggy, we (Robert, me and Mavis-the-drain attached to my left underarm) met Kieran and Mandy. Kieran had had a hospital appointment and was kindly coming to visit me on the ward. I suspect I was graceless. She was not, as I recall. But she also looked very ill. That was the last time we met.

About the time that the serious stuff started for me - six rounds of chemotherapy or, as my children call it, The Chemathon, Kieran was moving into St Michael's Hospice and in our mutual distress (her's so much worse than mine, I am more than aware) we started an email correspondence. Not talking about cancer but about things that made us laugh. Now this is something we really had in common. And if I made Kieran laugh one half as much as she made me laugh, that will have been a good thing. The insuppressible bubble of laughter is like a momentary escape from illness and pain. Whoever said laughter is the best medicine was no mug. Hugs and kind words definitely have their place but laughter is the best.

I am a great believer in good coming from bad. It may not be equal or equivalent but usually there is something good to be saved from even the worst things. For me, in all this, it is that Kieran and I were friends, proper tell-it-like-it-is friends and that is something I will treasure, however brief it was.

Last week, someone made the most classically inappropriate remark about my cancer. I would have cried if I had not laughed. Afterwards the one person I wanted to tell was Kieran. She would have laughed, I think. But it was too late. I hope, reading this wherever she is, she will be laughing now.

Monday, 3 November 2014

My experiences in Call the Midwife

This is a guest blog from number 1 daughter Genevieve who will be bursting (literally) on to our screens over the festive period. A little light relief from the other stuff going on...

I'm well overdue sending out a blogpost, so I must apologise to my fans out there. Sorry mum. Currently I am reflecting on my experience of filming 'Call the Midwife' which I finished a few weeks ago.

About five days prior to Alex and my much anticipated year abroad of travel, our plans got mildly derailed by a successful audition to BBC1's popular drama series 'Call the Midwife'. After over a year of being a non-working actor, a starving artist (albeit with a paid job on the side), and quasi-serious about sacking the whole lot in, I greeted the news with a little bit of apprehension and puzzlement. A tad frustrated - 'could this not have come up in any of the other months I was not working', I was given a stern talking to by my beloved who told me to buck up and be happy that I was getting to do what I loved again. Damn right. And it is a great part!

The news was welcomed by everybody; our leaving party went ahead and another one was scheduled for a month later. The family were a little more interested in a possible sighting of Miranda Hart and potential shenanigans and/or secret liaisons with the tall lady, which had to be regretfully declined as it is not the done thing in the acting world and I am a complete professional. [Clears throat].

After some harried back-and-forth between myself, my agent and the production company, Alex and I finally managed to push our flights back a month to enable me to do this job. We were somewhat homeless, due to the unexpected delay, but were fortunate to receive offers of beds and sofas from our Hackney friends.

I became a 'June Denton' and actually stayed a 'June Denton' for some considerable time as whilst the role was not a big one, it was one that carried a lot of emotional weight - both professionally and personally. June Denton is a pregnant woman (for those of you who watch 'Call the Midwife' this will be no surprise. For those of you who don't - read the title). I am 'fully' deaf - by that I mean, I sign and do not speak except during giving birth when you might hear me grunt briefly. The emotional tangent of the part is June's fear that she will not be able to communicate with her baby when it is born. June is torn between the baby being able to hear but she not being able to speak, and the baby being deaf and therefore living in a silent world. This would certainly have been the case in the 1950's.

And I couldn't stop thinking in the audition about my mum's words - that struggling through cancer and chemo was better and easier than my being born deaf. During my grief for my mum's illness, it struck a blind nerve which in a way, I was grateful to explore through filming 'Call the Midwife'. I suppose, it also made me think about when I have children - whether I would wish or not wish the same thing upon them. (When editing this, I almost replaced 'thing' with 'burden' but I could not live with that word).

The clothes were GREAT. In spite of getting up at 5am and groggily crawling into makeup and hair to get it pinned into hot rollers, I loved every second of cajoling a flesh pregnant leotard up my body and buttoning myself into rather sassy 1950's clothes. Walking around set, which took place in an industrial warehouse, without knowing the names of anybody you work with, just feels so comfortable - like home. It's an environment where people come and go and the work is deeply respected, everybody is a perfectionist and it's an easy one for me. I miss it sorely when I don't work, almost as much as the character I have the privilege to be.

My first day involved giving birth at 8am which I did not look forward to. 'Call the Midwife' was a series of books inspired by a midwife sharing her stories in a magazine some 20 years ago. Funnily enough, the midwife who wrote those stories has now become an advisor on set for nervous actresses who confess a lack of experience in the art of popping babies. I had been reassured slightly by her experience, but not by her miming and imitation of the noises and facial expressions I was expected to convey. Genevieve wanted to look reasonably sexy on camera but it was not to be. June would be grunting and wheezing and puffing with a fake sheen of sweat all over her face. You can enjoy it.

The baby was gorgeous - a tiny weeny two month year old with jet black hair who had to be lathed in baby oil and fake blood (for the crowning of the head apparently) and inserted just below my belly and under a sheath of cloths. The baby's workload was considerably lighter - 30 minutes of work with a 15 minute rest in between. The only thing I was mildly concerned about, mainly because I had made the mistake of asking, was being peed or pooped on as this was apparently a common event with a pretend new-born baby. I'm glad to say that didn't happen.

My second day involved me doing the scene I dreaded - a page long scene of sign language which I had spent several hours learning and many hours practising whilst crying about what the baby would be like. A typical scene takes about three hours to film (whether long or short) and this was probably going to take longer. This meant I would definitely have to cry for at least three hours. Whilst I would not classify myself as a method actor, my ability to cry on camera only comes with true feeling which meant I was visiting some dark places prior to my scene.

It went great. By that I mean, I believe I did June justice and my mum justice in fully exploring the feelings behind giving birth to a baby who may well live in silence for the rest of their life. I feel more accepting of my mum's feelings about cancer being the next worst thing but more importantly, that people may see it as tragic when their child is born with deafness.

It's not an easy thing being deaf, and I know that more than most people. If it is a burden, then I carry it most times without being aware of it. If it is a burden and I am aware of it, then I carry it with pride and determination, therefore not really feeling it. But June's grace in her deafness, her delight in the small victories, her realisation that love can be conveyed without sound left me with more confidence than before - that regardless of which way my children go in the world, they will be loved and know they are loved.

One of my more glamorous outfits...before giving birth of course!