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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist (9)

The bus ride into Birchington was a short one, and stopped conveniently close to the home of Lorna and David Burley at number 1, Alpha Road[1]. This was an imposing bungalow, with a pathway to the front door through a manicured garden. The rooms were large, with a dedicated music room, and a large lounge that looked out onto the lawn of a classic small country garden. Lorna was a piano and drama teacher, and somewhat imposing when you first met her. David was a watercolour artist of some renown, and his paintings of Kent adorned many of the walls. I don’t think I ever asked how Drama Club began, so I do not have a sense of history; I was just glad it had. I was there and happy to be so, even if somewhat overwhelmed in the early days, particularly by their no-nonsense approach and high expectations. To be honest, even at 13 I would have gone through anything to be near Jan, though I believe she must have felt a bit ambivalent and perhaps overwhelmed by my ardour. There is a 1958 photo of the club members after winning The Kent Youth Drama Cup. I am standing up the back looking slightly overwhelmed and, sadly, dressed in my school uniform. Jan is sitting demurely on the ground at the opposite corner of the photo. Things obviously began to change, because there is another photo from 1960, after we had won the same cup for the third time, and I note that I am dressed more casually, look quite relaxed, and I am standing closely behind Jan, who looks quite happy.
Rehearsals were every Friday night and the focus was usually on developing three or four one-act plays toward a performance night in Birchington church hall, but also adjudication for the cup. We read through assigned parts, with advice on getting into the character, the intent of various passages or speeches, accent development and later on discussion of costumes and staging.
David designed the sets and backdrops, and physically did much of the building and painting, but there was an expectation for all of us to turn up at weekends and assist, particularly as performance time grew closer. The learning curve was steep, but the process of working together developed great understanding of the group, and a closeness to its members. I treasure these four years and, once again on reflection understand how important they were for my future of working with people.
I did not have an illustrious history of woodworking at that stage. I had made a very simple wooden battleship at school in about 2nd form, but I am not sure it was much more than competent. Then there was the classic toilet roll holder, which appeared to my eye to be a more complete project. It was duly presented as a gift to my parents, but I am not sure it ever was used for the purpose of holding toilet rolls.
I had attempted to do some woodwork at home in the shed (perhaps aged about 12) using my father’s tools; much to his chagrin, I suspect. Despite my skill with Airfix models, I was known to be clumsy. I am not sure what I was making, but he gave me a great piece of advice about not upholding the object, and pushing a chisel towards my hand. Sadly the advice came at the very moment that the chisel slipped and dug into the flesh between the thumb and finger of my left hand, lifting a small triangular flap. There was surprisingly little blood, and not as much pain as you might expect. I got the “I told you so!” routine, but given the lack of blood, nobody was very anxious. For me, the fascination was that I could lift the flap, and see the muscles attached to the 2nd metacarpal (I was ignorant of the name at the time, of course). Fascinating. I added that to my store of anatomical knowledge about toenails. The wound was cleansed, and wrapped up; luckily it healed without sepsis.
However, I had the recent memory of this escapade when working with David Burley, and was very happy to follow his instructions (and avoid using chisels). We worked in an old Nissan Hut next to the church hall, and not only learned the rudiments of set construction, but also began to learn the basics of stage management. An amateur stage set is somewhat flimsy, and simply made. ‘Flats’ were large and cumbersome, but designed to be lightweight. Covered in painted canvas and well lit, they were impressive from the audience point of view. I gathered considerable expertise in securing the canvas, and covering it with size, in preparation for David’s often spectacular artwork.
Of course it was a social occasion, and the girls took part in the whole process as much as we boys did. There were times when they were taken under the wing of the delightful Miss Mildred Knappman (‘Knappy’), who lived with a companion in a tiny cottage across the road. She was our designated costume designer, and seemed capable of coming up with just the right appearance for a wide array of one act plays from the classical ‘The Cherry Orchard’ by Anton Chekhov to the rather Latin ‘Red Velvet Goat’ by Josephina Niggli. Knappy was a happy ‘mother hen’, and I never remember her being flustered or angry.
So, in having an enormous amount of fun, I gained a wide array of skills. More than that, the acceptance into the group was a warm balm, compared to the competitiveness of a boy’s grammar school.
Rituals developed. One of these was related to the fact that on many evenings, particularly in the summer months, after Drama Club, we walked as a small group down Birchington High Street to the tiny fish and chip shop. From memory a small half bag of hot chips cost threepence, and we munched and talked as we continued the walk.
Of course at times, I still had that tendency to show off. Basically, any lark to prove that I was worthy of Jan’s attentions was worth the risk. One particularly dark night, we came across a temporary bus stop on the side of the road; it was little more than a round blob of concrete with a metal pole and a round sign on top. Showing my great masculine strength, I was able to lift the bus stop and move it 10 feet down the road. A deep masculine voice spoke out of the empty dark: “What do you think you are doing with that?” “Move it back immediately…” The local policeman, a gentle giant of a man, happened to be touring the dark streets on his large bicycle - just at that crucial moment. There was a warning about informing parents if there was any more ‘malarkey’, and I can remember still the surge of anxious adrenaline. Later it gave us a story to tell, and much laughter. But had I impressed anyone? You never know…. It did add to my storehouse of knowledge, that I was not likely to get away with anything… ever…

More later


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