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Back at the Theatre

Throughout Lockdown, I’ve been occasionally checking the Malvern Theatres website to see how they were getting on. It’s mostly been a long and sorry catalogue of shows cancelled or postponed. I could see that the cinema had re-opened a number of weeks ago, but it wasn’t showing anything I was interested in seeing. When I clicked on the site this week, however, I was very pleased to see that they actually had live theatre on, for the first time since March. And, even better, there was a Saturday matinée performance planned. I‘d never heard of the play, Mooney and his Caravans, but I want to support the theatre, so I decided I’d treat myself to a ticket, and see what the experience was like.

The “new normal”, Covid-secure way of going to the theatre is going to take a bit of getting used to. In order to ensure social distancing, the theatre seating has been split into well-spaced “bubbles” of between one and four seats. You have to book all the seats in a bubble, and there are no paper tickets anymore – just e-tickets that you can either print at home or show on your mobile. You have to pre-book, there’s no on-the-day or standby tickets. There’s no programmes, nor any ice-cream in the interval (in fact, there wasn’t even an interval) and of course the audience have to wear masks. At today’s matinée, the entire audience in the stalls numbered in the very low twenties, and there would have been even fewer than that upstairs in the Circle. Clearly, that’s not going to be a sustainable business model in the long term. Nor probably even in the medium term.

The play is apparently an old Repertory Company standby. Big, touring productions with famous (i.e. expensive) actors are quite clearly off the agenda for the foreseeable future, but a lower-cost Repertory model with a limited cast (this was a two-hander) is much more affordable. The actors were both former members of the Malvern Youth Theatre, who have recently turned professional – and were presumably back home in Malvern. The play was directed by the Theatre’s Chief Executive, so keeping it all in-house.

The performance itself wasn’t socially-distanced. The two actors were not wearing masks, and occasionally actually touched each other. The fact that is comment-worthy in itself says something about how strange things are at the moment! The play was about a young working-class couple, recently married, who want to better themselves by moving out of Selly Oak to the Cotswolds countryside. They move into a static caravan on a caravan park, but are ruthlessly bullied and exploited by the owner. It’s not an uplifting play, by any means, but I suppose that is very suited to our current times.

I was very pleased that the theatre had reopened, and hope that they will be able to survive this enforced “new normal” and come out the other side able to put on the big London-bound shows once again. But if there is a period of smaller, Repertory-style productions first, while the arts sector painfully rebuilds, then so be it. Today’s performance was well acted, thought provoking and interesting – and the ticket price was much more affordable than before Lockdown. And I felt very safe – the Theatre Management is clearly taking thoughtful and serious anti-virus measures, even though it must be crippling them economically.

Ladies Wot Lunch

I had a really enjoyable day off on Friday, meeting up with one of my oldest friends for lunch. I first met P when I was seven, when my family moved into the house three doors down from her. We’ve remained in contact ever since, though of latter years it’s been more by email and Christmas cards than in person. So meeting up for lunch and a good gossip was long overdue, and the recent relaxing of Covid restrictions gave us the kick we needed to stop procrastinating and actually meet up.

We decided to meet for lunch in Oxford – it’s about half way between Malvern and where she lives, north of London. I suggested we book a table at Brown’s restaurant, which is a fairly large bistro-style place – big enough that they have enough space to remove tables to allow for social distancing. The food isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s reliable.

I was astonished at how quiet Oxford was. Granted, it was before term had started, but I was a graduate student there for long enough to know that it is usually still pretty busy over the summer. What really struck me was the complete lack of large parties of tourists – one got so used to seeing crocodiles of Chinese/Japanese/French/American tourists following their tour leader and blocking the pavements. But not this time. Also, I was astonished at how much on-street parking there was available. My friend P was easily able to park really close to the restaurant, when normally it’s a struggle to find anywhere suitable to park. There were a lot of shops that were boarded up, and lots of the restaurants were still closed. The council was obviously trying to help the local economy, because at least one of the streets had been closed to vehicles, with tables and chairs set out into the road, so some of those restaurants that were open could offer outside seating. Though how enticing that will be as we move into autumn is an open question!

We had a really good catch up over lunch. We were both horrified to realise that the last time we had met up was eleven years ago, but Christopher was there so it must have been that long ago. Which meant that we had over a decade of news and gossip to catch up on. We’ve both decided that we really mustn’t leave it anywhere near so long next time!

A “New Normal” hotel stay

Hook was a convenient place to meet, and relatively straightforward to drive home from. But it is not particularly easy to get to from Malvern by train – you have to change at Reading and Basingstoke. The trains aren’t running to a full timetable yet, the changes are awkward, and it is actually impossible to get from Malvern to Hook by mid-morning on a Saturday, when I needed to meet J&P. So I needed to set off on Friday afternoon and break my journey overnight.

I decided to stay overnight in Reading, as there are several hotels within just a few minutes walk of the railway station. I’ve stayed at the Ibis before on business, but it’s a bit basic at the best of times. In the midst of a pandemic, I thought it would be a bit too austere. So I splashed out an extra £20 to stay at the Novotel next door – same chain, but more up-market.

It was a very odd, and somewhat unsettling experience. You couldn’t walk in off the street, but had to knock on the door and a receptionist would let you in. There were boxes of disposable face-masks by Reception, and bottles of hand-sanitiser wherever you looked. You were strongly encouraged to use the sanitiser before touching any of the lift buttons, and to wear a mask in communal areas such as corridors. Only one person (or I suppose one family group) was allowed in the lift at any time.

The receptionist couldn’t find my booking at first, which really worried me, but she made up for that slip by upgrading me to an Executive room. The room had really been stripped back due to taking precautions against Covid. There were no cups or tea & coffee – though you could get a sealed plastic bag from Reception with paper cups, tea bags, milk etc. All the toiletries had been removed from the bathroom – so there were no little bottles of shampoo, or bars of soap. Fortunately, I had several in my sponge bag that I had “liberated” from previous hotels, so that was fine.

The biggest difference was with breakfast. The breakfast buffet is a complete no-no at the moment. So instead the hotel offered a breakfast bag to be ordered the night before, then collected from Reception, either to eat in your room or takeaway. To order it, you either had to dial 0 on the in-room phone to speak to Room Service, or contact them on WhatsApp. Except that the in-room phone had also been removed, presumably because it was too difficult to keep clean. So I had to order my breakfast bag through WhatsApp – definitely a new experience for me!

They were a bit disorganised, and my breakfast wasn’t ready when I went down to collect it the next morning, which was a bit annoying as I had a train to catch that I really didn’t want to miss. But in the end, there was so much of it that I ended up taking a lot of it with me. For £12 I was given two cups of tea, plus a brown paper bag with

  • a hot ciabatta-style roll filled with sausages and egg
  • a warm croissant with butter and a pot of strawberry jam
  • a warm pain au chocolat
  • a small bottle of orange juice
  • a small carton of milk
  • a pot of instant porridge with a small jar of honey, I just needed to add boiling water from the kettle in my room
  • a yoghurt
  • a banana

That little lot did me for both breakfast and lunch, which after all is what one hopes for from a breakfast buffet at a hotel.

Overall, I think I was right to upgrade myself to a more comfortable hotel in the current circumstances. Travel is awkward enough at the moment, without adding unnecessary austerity as well!

A Covid-compliant car collection

After my mother died in February, it was decided amongst the family that it made most sense for me to inherit her car, as my mini is now 17 years old and on its last legs. With hindsight, I should have driven it home straight after the funeral, but at that point my father, sister and I weren’t really in the frame of mind to make too many decisions, and we hadn’t finally decided what to do with it. Instead, we SORN’d it, and then subsequently agreed that I’d call in at my father’s on the way back from my holiday in France in April, and pick it up then,

Then, of course, Lockdown happened, the holiday was cancelled, and I couldn’t pick up the car as arranged. Months later, it was still in my father’s garage, and I was no closer to being able to collect it. My father is in a “bubble” with my sister, who has been visiting him at least weekly, and we are all clear that there is no way we are prepared to endanger him by breaking that bubble. But he lives too far away for me to be able to get there by public transport and then drive straight home in a strange car. I’d have to stay overnight and that would put him at risk.

Fortunately, we’re quite a resourceful family, and came up with a solution that avoided any risk of me unwittingly passing the Virus on to my father, either directly or indirectly via my sister. I put my sister and her husband on the insurance for the car, and they drove it back to their place after their regular weekend visit. We then agreed to meet up at Hook railway station – chosen because it’s a fairly straightforward drive back to Malvern from there, doesn’t require navigating a tricky town centre one-way system in a strange car, and was fairly easy for my sister to get home again by train from there.

Hook is a commuter town, but at the weekend in the midst of a pandemic the station car park was deserted. So I was able to meet up with my sister and brother in law, and take possession of the car whilst maintaining a good social distance at all times. I was also able to drive up and down the car park a few times to get the hang of the car and be sure I had the seat etc in the right position before I drove home.

It was fine in the station car park, but I did have a bit of a scare once I ventured out into Hook to start my journey home. Suddenly the car “bonged” at me as I went round a roundabout. Then it did it again. I was really concerned that there was something seriously wrong, and very nearly turned round and went back to the station, as I knew J&P would still be there waiting for the train home. But then the car “bonged” a third time as I went around a corner, and I caught sight of a light briefly flashing on the dashboard. It was complaining about a seatbelt not being fastened! Of course, I didn’t have a passenger, but I had put a bag on the front passenger seat, and that must have shifted enough as I went around the corner to set off the pressure sensors in the seat. I pushed my bag onto the floor, and that seemed to do the trick and shut it up. I got home with no further incident.

If it hadn’t have been for the pandemic, it would have been really nice to sit down with J&P in a coffee shop, or better yet for lunch, before heading home. I’m sure there must be somewhere suitable in Hook. But that would have run the risk of breaking the “bubble”. Having spent the past five months stringently shielding my father, we didn’t want to risk all that for the sake of a coffee. So a brief, socially distanced handover in a windy, rainy station carpark was the most responsible way of doing it.

Ten Years

Christopher died ten years ago today. That’s hard to grasp. Time is such a fluid thing. Sometimes it seems ages ago, other times it still feels remarkably recent.

Over the past ten years I have scattered his ashes in interesting and tranquil places on three continents. But I haven’t made it to China – he wanted some of his ashes scattered on or near the Great Wall. That remains to be done; and given the current situation with international travel in general, let alone to China, I think it may well be several years yet before I can contemplate fulfilling that particular wish.

I always find this time of year very sad. But I’m keeping myself very busy with work. I’m running a socially-distanced equipment integration trial at the moment, mostly coordinated from my dining room table, so I don’t have time to mope.

Socially Distanced Throwing

Like all “non-essential” customer-facing businesses, Eastnor Pottery was closed to the public for the duration of the lockdown. I’ve been keeping an eye on their website and was very pleased to see that they re-opened a couple of weeks ago, in line with the general relaxing of the lockdown restrictions. I contacted Jon the Potter to see if he had any availability for a throwing session, and as luck would have it he had a short-notice cancellation for last Saturday.

The pottery has really expanded over the years (well, more like decades) I’ve been going there, and they’ve got lots of space both indoors and outdoors. Which is very convenient now that social distancing is called for. The main throwing class took place with just five well-spaced potters wheels in the main workshop, and I had the small front studio all to myself. I had a potters wheel, a bucket of water, and a large bag of clay, and just enjoyed getting back into the swing of throwing again.

In more normal times, Jon and Sarah provide non-stop tea, coffee and biscuits, and a ploughman’s lunch. All of that is infeasible with the current regulations, so I took a flask of coffee, a bottle of water and a packed lunch. They are clearly taking anti-Covid precautions very seriously, so we were all asked to wear masks indoors, and had our individual socially-distanced picnics in the garden. It’s a strange feeling to think that was the first time since March that I’ve left the house for something non-essential, and I really enjoyed myself.

There are going to be so many casualties in the business world. So even though the “new normal” felt odd, it was really good to see that the business had survived lockdown and was finding a way to get back on its feet again afterwards.

Defences Breached!

The mice are back! And this time they’re not just in the loft but in my bedroom!!

Its unusual for me to notice rodent incursions during the summer – it’s usually only as the nights draw in and the weather turns colder that they move into the loft. And in general they stay in the loft, rather then invading the main part of the house. But I’ve been sleeping with my bedroom window open during the recent warm spell, and I suspect that they have got in that way.

Anyhow, last night I was woken up by loud “clunks” from the radiator on my bedroom. It sometimes makes that noise as it cools down and the metal contracts. But I’ve not had my heating on for several months, so it couldn’t be that. I turned on my light and put on my glasses – and saw an unmistakable rodent tail hanging down from the bottom of the radiator! Then I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye, and there was a second mouse running along the picture rail!

There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep – I’d be tense all night waiting for a mouse to run over my pillow! So I took myself off to the spare bedroom for the night. This morning when I got up I saw another uninvited visitor in the hall. I got a good if fleeting look at it, and it was definitely a mouse. It bolted at the sight of me and ran under a bookcase. I’m hoping it was one of the same ones from last night, otherwise there’s at least three of the little sods.

I was very impressed with the pest control company that I have on an annual retainer. I sent an text message to them over breakfast, requesting urgent help, and the owner was here by lunch time to lay down bait. He’s put some under the bed, and more under the bookcase where it was last seen.

I shall be sleeping in the spare room though for several nights yet, until the poison has had a chance to take effect!

Broadband Woes

I’ve not been posting for a while, as my broadband has been down. It went off suddenly and completely, in the middle of a huge thunderstorm about ten days ago. Strangely, my phone line still worked, albeit rather noisily, but no internet. I phoned my ISP from my mobile, they ran some tests, and said there was a “battery fault” on the line. I would need to report it to BT and they would send an Openreach engineer to have a look.

It’s surprisingly difficult to report a fault on the line to BT if you don’t have an internet connection. I had to look up Customer Services in an old fashioned phone book, which was filed away at the bottom of a cupboard and half forgotten about. I’ve now stored the number in my mobile for future use! BT agreed there was a fault on my line, and raised a ticket for an engineer to fix it. This was on a Wednesday, and I was assured that it would be fixed by the following Monday.

That deadline came and went, so I phoned on Tuesday, to be told that Thursday would be the new deadline. The customer service agent, to give credit where it’s due, did recognise that being without broadband during lockdown is extremely challenging, particularly if one is working from home. He gave me a £20 credit on my bill for the missed appointment which I promptly spent on mobile data to use my mobile as a hotspot so I could get back on line. Shockingly, the 4G hotspot is noticeably faster than I expect from my broadband! I managed a couple of video conferences with work with far fewer problems than I’m used to.

Thursday also came and went without any fix. I phoned again, and was told it was more complicated than they first thought, they’d probably need to close the main road, that would need permission from the council, and the new deadline was next Tuesday! I was not impressed!

But on Friday lunch time a very pleasant young Openreach engineer turned up to see for himself. He knew nothing about any potential road closures, but said the “battery fault” was 1100m from my house, and drove off in his van to see if he could find it. While tracing the line, he found a green roadside BT cabinet about a kilometre away. He opened it, and a load of water gushed out! It must have got flooded in the thunderstorm, as the downpour really was of biblical proportions.

No wonder my line was shorting out and was too noisy for a broadband connection. It’s marginal at the best of times, let alone when the phone line is under water! But he dried it out and I now have the internet back. A big relief. But one good thing has come out of the saga – I’ve been issued a work mobile to use as a 4G hotspot to make remote working easier. So at least I’ll be able to retain the benefits of having enough bandwidth to use a videoconference service, without costing a fortune in personal mobile data charges.

Christopher’s Tree 2020

In previous years, Christopher’s stepfather Peter has made a point of meeting up with me for lunch on his way home from his annual summer holiday with friends in Wales. Like so much else, that looks like it’s just not going to happen this year. Both Peter and his friends are of an age where they are are particularly vulnerable to Covid, so even when lockdown is lifted, I doubt it would be wise to him to stay with them this August.

In previous years, I’ve taken the opportunity over a pub lunch to catch up on the progress of Christopher’s Tree, which Peter had planted in a Woodland Trust site near him. It’s coming up to the tenth anniversary this year, so the tree is getting quite large now. Peter kindly sent me a recent photo, and it certainly looks healthy.

Christopher’s Tree in late Spring 2020

Badly in need of a haircut

Lockdown isn’t going too badly here, on the whole. I’ve not been furloughed and am managing to work from home ok, notwithstanding my lousy “broadband” which keeps dropping out. My freezer and larder are well stocked with food (thanks Hugh for the tips about local places with short queues), and I’m not about to run out of loo roll any time soon. My regular gardener hasn’t been here since lockdown started, even though social distancing would be easy outdoors. However, the window-cleaner is still doing his rounds and was quite happy to mow the lawn as well, so that’s taken care of for now.

Probably my biggest problem is that I’m absolutely desperate for a haircut. I was just working up to my quarterly trim when I had to go into self-isolation, and then lockdown was announced the following week. I don’t think my hair has ever been this long. Every week I look more and more like Prof Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classics don off the telly, just a slightly lighter shade of grey! And even when the hairdressers do reopen, I bet it will be virtually impossible to get an appointment, since everyone is going to be equally desperate. Oh well, I’ll just have to brush up my Classical Greek to sustain the Prof Beard impersonation…..