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Notebook

Penelope Lively’s notebook: Coal holes and pub opera

Plus: Seasonal Shakespeare with six-year-olds

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

I have been having my vault done over. Not, as you might think, the family strong room, but the place beneath the pavement — the former coal cellar — pertaining to an early 19th-century London house. The vault opens onto the area — mine is the last generation to know that that is what you call the open sunken space between the basement and the pavement — and has been given the latest damp-proof treatment, plus shelving and smart lighting, so that I can use it for storage. Others use their vault more creatively: a couple next door had theirs excavated several feet and made into a troglodyte bedroom. No, they said, they couldn’t hear feet overhead, but wheeled suitcases could be tiresome. A far cry from the original purpose which, again, I am old enough to remember — at my grandmother’s house in Harley Street in 1947 — coal being shot down through the pavement hole, counted in lump by lump: rationed, black gold.

One advantage of old age is that you no longer do Christmas. I dealt with my 40th and last turkey some years ago, stepping gratefully aside for my daughter to become the one expiring in the kitchen while everyone else is sipping champagne. Never mind, her day will come: she has two daughters herself. This sounds as though only women can cook Christmas dinner. Not so, I’m sure, but it does seem to turn out that way in many households. The retirement role is to appreciate, be thankful, and make an offer (which will be refused) to help with the washing up.


I shall be handing out a CD as one of my main Christmas presents: the Marian Consort’s Christmas with the Shepherds. The Marian Consort is considered one of this country’s leading young vocal ensembles — six singers who specialise in Renaissance sacred music. Their repertoire ranges from the 15th to the 17th centuries, with a focus on neglected early composers, and every time I go to one of their concerts and listen to this exquisite, complex — and scholarly — singing, I feel that there’s hope for the human race yet: six young people devoting their energies to something difficult, highly skilled and valuable. They have been going from strength to strength, performing in Europe as well as around the UK, featured on Radio 3, garnering lots of enthusiastic reviews. I suppose I have to declare an interest: the consort’s director, Rory McCleery, is engaged to my granddaughter Rachel but, that said, I would be rooting for them anyway, as an advocate of esoteric and challenging activities.

My seasonal treat will be a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not by the RSC or the National Theatre but in the kitchen of my friend and neighbour Jean Seaton, best known as director of the Orwell Prize and historian of the BBC, but starring here as producer of a cast of a dozen or so children from five up in a Shakespeare play. She has been doing this for years; children are delivered at 10 a.m., and at 6 p.m. parents arrive and become the audience. Throughout the day, overexcited children hurtle around Jean’s house, painting scenery, painting themselves, helping to construct costumes, clutching the pieces of paper on which their lines are written. Jean will have made an adroit précis of the play, a young relative who is a theatre director helps, and somehow, by six, everything falls into place. The result is often hilarious — last year’s six-year-old Macbeth witches were unforgettable, exuberantly stirring up toil and trouble in a Le Creuset cauldron. I have supplied four grandchildren, over time; apart from being tremendous fun for all concerned, the kitchen Shakespeare means that children get an idea of a Shakespeare play — the story, the characters, the language. ‘Oh, I know Hamlet,’ one of mine used to say, ‘I’ve been in that.’

From Shakespeare in the kitchen to Mozart in the pub — we are nicely versatile here in Islington. The King’s Head in Upper Street has been host to the productions of OperaUpClose for some while now, though the company will move soon to King’s Place. We revelled in The Marriage of Figaro recently — a cast of superb young singers, a cleverly staged production, and the experience of opera in an intimate venue (the pub theatre seats around 100) so that you catch every expression, every gesture; you feel closely involved in the action. The price of this, it has to be said, is that you are somewhat uncomfortable; squeezing 100 people into the back room of a pub means that nobody is going to have much leg room. And it gets hot; glowing somewhat myself, I had every sympathy with the Count, clad in some sort of padded dressing-gown, his face glistening. But the compensation is an absorbing experience — the opera sung in an excellent colloquial English translation, and somehow funnier than I have ever found it before, an effect of the proximity of audience and players, maybe, and the absence of surtitles. You are laughing at the right moment, instead of a few seconds later; you are face to face with what is going on. Conventional big-stage opera will seem disturbingly different after this: grand spectacle, but without that invigorating sense of involvement. In the interval, you wander back into the pub for a drink, or take it out onto the pavement for a draught of cool air and reality before plunging back into that superb re-creation of an 18th-century masterpiece behind the bar of a 21st-century pub.

Penelope Lively’s latest book is Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. Her 17 novels include the Booker-winning Moon Tiger.


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