The Last Day of Term

This is a true story from a Drama lesson that took place several years ago, when I taught theatre in a secondary school. I loved my job and it enabled me to do something I really believed in and to have great fun at the same time. I have so many fond memories of so many wonderful people.

I send my best wishes and respect to teachers and students everywhere.

(All names of real people have been changed…)

It was December 21st, the last day of term. The hard bite of the air and the hunched backs against the cold foreshadowed Christmas, as did a few of the dull, beer-fuzzed heads in the staff room, and the broadening grins of the students.

I was teaching Hamlet to a GCSE group; I knew the themes of death and revenge would spark a lively response in the enthusiastic sixteen-year-old students, who had a strong sense of moral justice and loyalty.

The students put on costumes and set the space in the classroom for ‘The Mousetrap,’ the play Hamlet stages in order to expose his Uncle’s guilt. This is the big scene, where Claudius reveals that he has killed Hamlet’s father.

Claudius, played by Danny McCormick, was seated by the full-length window next to his new wife, Gertrude, Cheryl Egan, who gazed at him with disgust – he wasn’t her favourite choice of husband. Danny, however, was kingly material, spreading out his legs and stretching his arms behind his head in a triangle, a perfect praying mantis. Hamlet, Gertrude’s moody son, was Gary Gornall, cast because he displayed a natural condescension in his facial expression. ‘Do I get to kill Danny in this scene, eh, Miss? I mean, I am the boss, like.’

I explained that Hamlet would expose the king’s guilt in front of the entire court and Gary was even happier when I said that he could flirt with Louise Jackson as Ophelia: the idea brought an immediate expression of manly pride to his scowl.

There was a scuffling above us, from the library on the first floor. Friday period one always meant that Gordon Fishwick, tall, bearded and erudite, was teaching 5C in the library. I was used to the noises which occurred during their study time, usually accompanied by a regular booming demand for ‘Silence in my library’. To cover the noise, I used Queen’s song, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ as backing music for the mimed ‘dumb show’. The rest of the class, in role as courtiers in the audience, cheered and applauded as the villain killed the player-king and the player-queen’s histrionic gesture sent her falling to the floor in a faint, the villain brandishing a ruler as a prop.

Gary launched loudly into an improvised verbal attack on King Claudius. ‘Hey Uncle -.yer big meff – is there anything you wanna tell me? I know you been wit’ me ma – is there anything’ else you wanna confess though, pal?’

The king rises,’ yelled Ophelia, word-perfect, bang on cue. The class caught its breath as one. Then the singing started above us.

          ‘While shepherds washed their socks at night in front of the TV…’

‘Oh, Miss!’ the entire class sighed and rolled their eyes upwards as the carol singing from the library increased to the volume of a football chant.

‘Shall I go and tell them to shut up?’ offered Hamlet graciously, waving a fist.

The play’s the thing…’ I prompted with a grin, and the action recommenced.

Hamlet leapt towards the indignant Claudius, his face furious.

 ‘Who’s guilty now then, pal?’ he asked, his brows knitted in filial obligation, ready to revenge his father’s foul and most unnatural murder. 

‘Leave your uncle alone, Hamlet.’ screeched Gertrude, suddenly protective. ‘Or I’ll give you a good talking to!’

As if to foreshadow the next piece of action, a loud rumbling sound like thunder came from the library above. We all turned in unison to see books flying past the window, and an erupting groan from 5C above signalled their unanimous disapproval.

‘Hey, Miss – they are ruining our play. We can’t work in conditions like this.’ moaned Hamlet, gesturing in the air with despair.

‘Go and sort them out, Miss.’ Gertrude suggested, folding her arms in annoyance.

‘Let’s carry on,’ suggested Ophelia. ‘The King rises!

What? Frighted with false fire?’ grunted Gary Gornall, now embodying Hamlet in all but school uniform.

‘Oh, no – look at that!’ gasped the loyal Horatio, Billy Beer, as we all saw the library curtains descending from the skies in a flourish of flames.

Lights! Lights! Lights!’ yelled Polonius, his glasses reflecting the leaping conflagration. The class applauded; the spectacle of Shakespearian theatre was alive in the room.

Hamlet was whirling around, full of antic disposition, his face shining.  ‘Marry, this means mischief.’ he told the audience with a wide grin.

At this point, Mr Fishwick himself made his entrance behind the widow, head first. His glasses slipping down to his brow, his mouth a spherical silent scream, he was being lowered from the gallery to the stalls by his ankles, quickly whisked back up into the air and lowered again, screaming.

The class cheered in unison; Act 3 Scene 2 could not have ended with a better fanfare.

The bell rang. The cast of ‘The Mousetrap’ went off to Geography and I went up to the library to make Gordon Fishwick a cup of chamomile tea and remind him that the Christmas holidays were just a few lessons away.

Plant-based roast with stuffing: recipe and serving ideas

I’ve never been a great fan of ‘imitation meat’, so when I heard about a turkey-style roast, I thought it wouldn’t be something I’d want to make. I’m not keen on the fibrous meaty texture of many plant-based meat replacements, but working with vital wheat gluten means that you can add a variety of flavours to the dish by including savoury and tasty ingredients to the wet mix below, such as brandy, marmite and a variety of mushrooms. 

So last weekend, as an experiment, I made a prototype vital wheat gluten roast and it went down well for Sunday dinner, served with crunchy roasted potatoes, lots of veg and some unctuous mushroom gravy. It wasn’t hard to make either and, although it’s a bit time consuming, it is worth the trouble: the roast is quite big and it lasts for three days. It can be eaten cold in sandwiches and hot, fried and coated in breadcrumbs with mushrooms for breakfast, so it’s versatile and useful. Make it at least a day before you want to eat it.

To make the roast: 

You need to blitz the following wet ingredients in a blender:

1 cup drained chickpeas (half a tin)

Half a cup of dried mushrooms such as  porcini,

Half a cup of white wine.

2 tbsp miso 

2 tbsp maple syrup

One cup plant milk of your choice – I use oat

1 sauteed onion or shallot and 3 sauteed garlic cloves

Half a pack of silken tofu (about 4oz)

Thyme, rosemary, sage. Any herbs you like – onion salt, if you wish, even tarragon or paprika.

Seasoning, as you wish – I use pink salt and white pepper…

Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ones below and mix to a dough:

Two and a half cups of vital wheat gluten

One cup of gram flour

2 tbsp of nutritional yeast.

Method.

Knead the mixture by hand for at least  twelve minutes or put it in a machine with a dough hook. Don’t under-knead or it will cook into a piece of rubber. The dough should be just firm and stretchy. If it’s too wet to handle, add a little more gram flour.

Roll it out on a gram-floured surface by whacking it with a rolling pin, until it’s a half-inch-thick rectangle and then let it rest. Stretch it by hand if it springs back. 

Now make the stuffing – 

Saute a large onion and some garlic, and add to it half a tin of chickpeas, a couple of handfuls of chestnuts, a handful of blitzed breadcrumbs, a handful of chopped dried apricots, cranberries, chopped hazelnuts, a cooked mashed sweet potato, some cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper and a good pinch of thyme. Mash it all up to form the stuffing so that it’s still a bit chunky. Use some white wine if you need it to make it a little softer. Place the stuffing mixture in a  line down the centre of the ‘roast’ rectangle and roll the dough over lengthways so it makes a single roll. Close the ends. Then rub olive oil on the outside and then roll it all in some dried herbs – I use a mixture of parsley, thyme, onion salt and a pinch of cayenne or paprika. If the roast’s too big, you can cut it in half and make two smaller roasts and freeze one after it’s cooked, which is what I did.Wrap the roast in cheesecloth and tie it up with cooking string.

Put the roast in a baking tray containing liquid: some water, white wine, (make it all up to 6 -7 cups,) a bayleaf, rosemary, thyme, sage, some dried mushrooms, a chopped onion, garlic, a bit of celery, carrot, and bake it for two hours, turning after an hour. The liquid will need to be topped up regularly during the cooking process as the roast needs to be steamed and kept moist, or it will burn.

After two hours, take it out of the oven and let the roast cool, then strip off the cheesecloth. 

I rub the surface of the roast with oil and then brush it with maple syrup to glaze it, and maybe sprinkle on more herbs. You can keep the roast, wrapped in foil, in the fridge for a few days.

To cook the roast, put it in a medium oven for 30 minutes. I used a baking tray with a little white wine and water on the bottom and laid it on a few chopped onions so it wouldn’t burn.

It goes really well (cut into not-too-thick slices) served with onion or mushroom gravy, lots of seasonal veg, roast potatoes, red cabbage and plant-based yorkshires. 

Serving ideas.

If you have some roast left over, it’s nice cold in sandwiches with salad, mayo and slices of tomatoes,or fried, coated in breadcrumbs, for breakfast with spinach, tomatoes and a huge chestnut mushroom.

I’ve also used leftover roast to stuff a round, home-baked loaf, with the top cut off and the crumbs hollowed out, then the inside is layered with slices of roast, cranberry sauce, plant-based mozzarella, walnuts, beetroot, a little plant-based mayo, a few breadcrumbs and some home-made pickle.Stuff the inside of the loaf with the layers, replace the lid and wrap it. Later, you can cut it into wedges as an alternative to sandwiches or for a Christmas buffet.

Casting Heading over the Hill as a film

Of all my novels, this one is the easiest to cast as a film. The characters jumped out at me, from the moment I thought ‘now who would play Billy and Dawnie?’ Once you’ve read the book, think about the casting for yourself – you may come up with much better ideas than I have but, for me, the following actors work perfectly.

Dawnie Smith is a really strong character; in her wigs and colourful clothes, she is outgoing, determined and vociferous, with a kind heart. Julie Walters would play her perfectly – Dawnie can’t be suppressed, she is incorrigible and fun but she’s also sensitive, kind to others. Julie Walters would capture her mischief and she’d have a wonderful rapport with Billy, as they are both inseparable and interdependent.

Billy Murphy is Brendan Gleeson: tall, big-hearted, sociable yet his fun-loving character hides a shadowy past, which he rarely mentions. He adores Dawnie. He has a sense of humour and he is a gentle giant who keeps his Harley Davidson in the hallway and plays the drums in the spare bedroom. He is the perfect man for Dawnie; romantic, a good cook, and with a heart of gold, Brendan Gleeson would be a wonderful Billy.

Dilly Stocker is the older woman who lives across the road with her son; she is mischievous, full of fun and she adores action movies. It would be wrong to play this character merely for her stereotypical ‘older woman living disgracefully’ qualities without accentuating her loneliness, her love for her son and her sense of loyalty. Bring out Maureen Lipman here, who’d need good make-up to enable her to look older, but she is absolutely the right actor to capture Dilly’s sense of fun.

Vinnie Stocker is in his fifties, handsome and vulnerable, looking for love, having had his heart broken. Colin Farrell could do this role perfectly; handsome, naive, trusting and kind, Vinnie’s journey from lonely heart to happy man would be wonderfully played by Colin Farrell.

Malcolm from next door. Malcolm doesn’t have many friends. He is a gossip, he’s judgmental, negative and an all-round- unpleasant neighbour. He’d be played by Jim Broadbent. He has the ability to appear sorry for himself but he can be quite petty and difficult. I’d imagine he’d do a fabulous job as Malcolm, enabling an audience to feel pathos as well as animosity towards the character.

Gillian, Malcolm’s long-suffering wife is sad and lonely in an empty marriage; we feel sorry for her and, as is often the case for many characters in this novel, there is more to her than initially meets the eye. I’d choose Imelda Staunton to play Gillian. She’d have to be made to appear dowdy, but she’s such a strong performer and she’d embody the character so well.

Lester Wainwright becomes Billy’s biker friend; he’s an entomologist and an all-round nice guy. He’d be played by Tom Courtney who’d be perfect in the role of the kind man who adores his wonderful wife.

Ursula Wainwright is so warm, friendly and thoughtful, a completely generous person. I struggled to cast this one; I was looking for a German actor who would be in the right age bracket and I couldn’t find one. In the end, I settled for an American who would have the kindly face and potential to appear gentle and magnanimous, so Ursula would be played by Laura Linney.

The seaside setting would add to the British feel of the movie, on location in west Devon, where Billy riding on his Harley along the coast and across the moors would offer a great opportunity for the sense of freedom. The fresh summer sunshine and moonlit nights set the scene  for second chances and new beginnings. I can just imagine Billy and Dawnie’s story being a poignant and joyously feel-good movie.

My novel Heading over the Hill and the three stages of marriage.

When I wrote Heading over the Hill, I decided that my main protagonists would be a married couple who arrive in West Devon. Having left their children behind in their former house in Lancashire, they are now looking for a new life, an opportunity to start again.

My protagonists Billy and Dawnie are retired and in their early seventies. They have inherited some money  from Billy’s father and they want to buy a new home. Their children have grown, they have grandchild, great grandchildren, so the opportunity to start again is exciting. They have shared fond memories and they have different views on their newly empty nest, but they are both convinced that they have an ideal opportunity to concentrate on themselves.

Dawnie and Billy’s marriage hasn’t been an easy one. It’s been filled with children and laughter but, for some of the time, Billy has been an absent father. Although loyal to his wife, Billy is far from the perfect husband and Dawnie has had to shoulder much of the responsibility for day-to-day living over the years. Their marriage hasn’t been easy.

Billy and Dawnie aren’t a conventional couple. He keeps his Harley Davidson in the hall and she is outspoken and bold, wearing bright wigs and clothes. Not all the neighbours like them immediately but, as a couple, they are inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other.

Many people will recognise the stages of Billy and Dawnie’s marriage and, although I wanted to focus on the ‘third’ stage, a succinct history of the first two stages was important to establish in order to create a background to their story.

They met in their early twenties, besotted with each other, quickly recognizing their soul mate in the other and, without any careful thought for the future, they married and began a family. The first stage of marriage can be, in many cases, a whirlwind of strong emotions, a belief that the relationship will last forever, that it is idyllic and that true love is everything. Love conquers all! Of course, this doesn’t describe everyone’s first stage of a long-term partnership, but  Dawnie and Billy hurled themselves into marriage believing that it was going to be perfect forever, and much easier than they thought.

The second stage of their marriage was the treadmill stage, the mayhem of bringing up children that Emma Murray writes about so wittily in Time Out. For couples who don’t have children, perhaps it’s a more settled stage although external demands like careers and mortgages usually rear their heads for us all. But when Billy and Dawnie’s two children, Lindy Lou and Buddy, arrive they dominate their parents’ daily existence. With Billy not always present, or with frequent changes unsettling the family regime, life is not easy for Dawnie and, in fairness, Billy has a history which remains with him in the present. The love-conquers-all dream becomes simply about day-to-day survival.

Billy and Dawnie decide it’s time to move to Devon and find the perfect house by the sea. The third stage of their marriage is ‘their time’. The children are no longer dependent and Dawnie and Billy have the opportunity to follow their own path and to choose the life they would prefer. They rent a house in Margot Street, immediately termed ‘Maggot Street’ by Dawnie, in order to search for the dream house.

This third stage of marriage should be the most settled, arguably the easiest and the most deservedly selfish. Billy and Dawnie have earned it. They have come a long way together. Instead, they find themselves in a neighbourhood where not everyone likes each other. They make new friends, an enemy or two, and they discover that the empty nest is still a real issue and that they have to rethink a lot of their settled  beliefs about life and marriage.

Heading over the Hill is Billy and Dawnie’s story, focusing on the stage of marriage after the children have grown, but it is also the story of others’ relationships. There are other characters whose stories may resonate: a widow, a lonely man searching for love; two people stuck in a miserable relationship; a blissfully happy couple or two. It is about people reaching out to each other, about fun, sharing, communities and kindness, but also it is about life being lived at its fullest, enjoying each day as a blessing.