Muriel to the Rescue
It is the interval at the first Country House Concert of the Season at Pentland Firth Hall. The promised stars Fonteyn, Markova, Sutherland and Gielgud have all found excuses not to appear and Maria Callas and Guiseppe de Stephano have a tummy bug and are unable to leave New York. Muriel Wylie has stepped in at the last minute unwilling to be upstaged by her cousin and acting in the national interest, but we cannot say too much about that. Her Cosi fan Tutte will go down in history.
The Road to No Where
Pentland Firth Hall, a not so stately pile, lies a heap of clashing architectural styles said to have given Pevsner, “the boke” deep within South West Scotland guarding the entrance to many a secretive glen. This is not so much a forgotten part of the country, but one not much thought about in the first place. Beneath Powell and Pressburger skies sagles soar and streams flow over the landscape like the veins on a body. If you have the right guide with you one can even experience the exact spot where the last Wild Boar in Scotland was killed. Possibly last Tuesday. It is on the road to nowhere, but then most places here are on the road to no-where or what the locals refer to as “there and back”, when they are asked directions by an innocent abroad. It is not only the case that most people know one another, they are also related to one another. Some in fact more closely than they would care to know, the term aunt is a very fluid one in the village.
More Important Things than Nuclear Annihilation
Change is generally unwelcome, the favourite response when the new is proposed is “Naw – it’s aye bin”. Or “thanks, but no thanks”. World events take place, political leaders come and go and indeed Glasgow folk stay at the weekend, but the rhythm of country life continues. It is the modern era, the 1950s and the world faces nuclear destruction. However, here the important things are ploughing matches, sheep dog trials, the flower show and the annual bed race. There used to be a river raft race, but since to the astonishment of the hardy locals the army declared it dangerous the Parish Council has withdrawn its support.
There may be non-proliferation treaties and marches to Aldermaston and new furniture with sticky out legs, it is, however, the tray bake and the number of items one can get into a matchbox which excite passions here. When the curtain is pulled across the tables for the monthly S.W.R.I. meeting and the guest is taken behind to find the best gooseberry marmalade in the Parish, this is when one realises what it is to be alive. Suffice to say that when the long resisted steam train made its first appearance here, other parts of Caledonia “stern and wild” were already getting used to the competition provided by road freight and the Wright Brothers had taken to the skies.
Change? Seen It All Before
There are some who realise that resistance is futile and that sooner or later there must be change and indeed progress. Time does not stand still and people must make their livings in the modern world even if that means replacing Tartar, the milk round horse, with an electric float. The old guard have of course seen it all before and the covenanters’ graves in the Kirkyard are testament to the difficulty even kings “in that London” had in trying to implement their foreign notions of bishops and prayer books. This was in the 17th century, which just seems like yesterday, which when you can trace your family back 300 years living in the same cottage often without redecorating, is exactly what it is. Somethin’s do get through – dykes for example are far more popular than they used to be.
The Pentland-Firths – Always Improving
Landowners have of course brought change or “improvements” to the landscape. These are generally improvements of great financial benefit to themselves which are sought in order that they might send their children to good schools south of the border where they learn confidence, Greek dancing and how to speak using as few consonants as possible. For the peasants this has generally meant more work at the very least and for some unforeseen opportunities to travel abroad with only a wooden kist and a bible to their names.
The Pentland-Firths have, generally speaking, always been the most improving of landlords and were quick to adopt the ha-ha, the turnip, three crop rotation and the shell grotto. Some developments have, it is true, been a disaster and the previous late Lord Pentland-Firth, a socialist, must have deeply regretted his idea of turning the estate into a safari park as he and his wife, who was a vegetarian and wove her own cloth (need I say more), were eaten by their own lions.
The present incumbent Lady Patience Charity Pentland-Firth, widow of Admiral Lord Pentland-Firth, hero of Jutland, faced with crippling taxation and debt has also been forced to be innovative in her approach to improving estate management. She has embarked on a venture which will, she imagines, make the estate into a concert venue like Glyndebourne or Aldeburgh. She not only knows Ben and Peter well, she also knows that Mozart is a key to getting the right sort of people in and that they only have one stronger preference and that is Bach, but he goes on a bit and it is hard to get an organ in a walled garden.
Patience By Name Only
Unfortunately Patience, a former dancer and Cabaret artiste who peaked in the interwar period – most days according to gossip, has little administrative expertise and is easily diverted by anything in trousers capable of putting one foot in front of another, especially if they are seen to have a bulge in their pockets in the form of a full wallet.
Muriel and Jasper having rescued her from an over-reliance on cheap sherry have come to her rescue as Muriel is simply marvellous at organising everything. What Lady P-F does not know is that her late husband was far from being a hero and was indeed a spy passing naval secrets to the enemy. As Britain is thinking about trying to join the new European Economic Community, the government wants no embarrassing stories about the past as the French would like any excuse to veto membership.
The comrades would love to see a disunited Europe. The collapse of a British country estate and the inevitable unmasking of its secret past would make them as happy as a new five year plan and a bottle of vodka. The Establishment is determined that the concerts will be a success despite the handicap of Lady P-F herself. Muriel’s role is central to this, but she faces a number of loose cannons in the form of unpredictable events and an unforeseen element in the form of a crime writer Bunty Haystack who seeks to use the story of the poisoning of the Admiral in her forthcoming book. In her research she is aided by a psychic medium. Unwittingly they pose a grave danger to Patience and the nation. Tonight, however, plans seem to be falling apart from the very start, with the promised concert stars failing to turn up and a pack of journalists, who make hyenas look like nuns at compline, now circling for the kill.
In the Press Room
The Trafalgar Room at Pentland Firth Hall has been turned into the Concert Press Room. One can tell that by the number of unshaven men in belted raincoats with soft hats and cigarettes in the corners of their mouths and glasses of whisky in their hands. They are bashing out their copy on portables or dictating down the line when they can get to the telephone. These are the theatre critics of our great newspapers, hardened by years of dodgy Lears and painful Portias.
They are unanimous in their view of the first half of the evening with its bizarre Così as an “unmitigated disaster” and “a cultural catastrophe” which is “the equivalent of the eruption of Krakatau, or the Lisbon earthquake”. The use of adjectives is remarkably similar and we can read over their shoulders “I found the opening very mediocre”; “she made no connection with audience”; “a chichi of 18th century fashion”; “insufficient rehearsal” “the conductor was introspective to the point of incomprehension”; “in the duet his limited range of expression verged on the desperate”; “restraint was not the characteristic of Mrs Wylie’s Così Fan Tutte where she was surly asking too much of the audience to believe she was one of two young maidens”; “what on earth was Mr Wylie doing?; “it might have been good if he had succeeded in strangling her and saved us all.”
The same was being said of the two women in the washing scene in the woodland glade of Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd. “This seminal piece of Scottish literature was rendered utterly ridiculous by the parts of Jeanie and Meg, being played by an Esme Travers and a German vuman vat normally does not act, but does zee heavy vork in zee tasteful vest end house”; “does not, and should not, act. would be my guess” said one critic; “In addition” he said “this mildly erotic rustic scene was rendered pointless by the large expanses of elasticated support stockings and an overpowering smell of wintergreen”. Furthermore that having washed their clothes in the pool the two maidens were about to wash themselves, “is the stuff of nightmares”.
Nemo Me Impune Lacessit
Of course none of this could possibly find its way to the pages of our daily newspapers. There is a question of national security and a question about our future in Europe. More importantly there is the matter of what one might call urban élites coming down to make fools of those who live in the country and somehow seem to be lesser beings for lives lived without or at least with far less affectation, very few copies of Elizabeth David cookbooks and indeed much poorer television reception. The locals may fight like cat and dog among themselves, but an onslaught of outsiders, brings a unity rarely seen outside, a battle formation in the Roman Legions. To this end the hacks have been so pre-occupied they have failed to notice that around the room are several individuals all circling their prey. These include those who operate in the shadows like The Handsome Stranger and those who operate in village espionage like Young Auld Jock, the schoolmaster, the postmistress and the shock troops of the Women’s Guild used to circling a church hall at soup and sandwich lunches ever on the lookout for those who would sneak in without paying for a bowl of leek and potato soup and some millionaire’s shortbread.
At a signal from a Miss Lulubelle, an American lady about to give a medley of Appalachian songs inspired by 18th century Scottish tunes, the guardians move in and whisper into the ears of the surprised journalists a little individually tailored message guaranteed to bring about a re-write for first editions and then handing over a slip of paper with some helpful suggestions and suitable quotes. Messages like “does your editor know how much of his petty cash goes to bookies at Epsom Race Course?”; and “was that really you in the back row of the Gaumont watching Silk Stockings with the business correspondent of The Scotsman? Handsome lad, wife at her sisters was she?”; “we were searching through the cash book that came from “Busty Betty’s” and we came across your name, seems you saw quite a lot of Pauline from Partick”; “that exposé you did of Gang Warfare in the East End of Glasgow – is it true you write under a pseudo name? We hear that some of the members would very much like to know your real name.”
Yes influence with the press is a wonderful thing.
The Morning after the night before – Breakfast at the Wylie’s
Muriel is already up and in her housecoat reading yesterday’s Herald Jasper comes down for breakfast prepared by Mrs T.
“ Morning, Precious”
“Good morning Mrs Travers – that was some night.”
“Aye it was! I am fair scunnered wi’ tiredness, three or four sausages Mr Wylie?”
“Just the four Mrs T. I am having lunch at The Pentland Firth Arms. Is that today’s Herald, Darling?”
“No yesterdays, seems I have missed the “Festival of Women” where according to Jean Kelvin they had a stand where one could make up one’s face, try on a hat and costumed jewellery and then be photographed in colour, having already been photographed at the start. A panel of judges would then decide which women “had made the most of themselves” with prizes. Sorry I missed that, so much time taken up with the concert.”
“Oh darling you have nothing which needs to be improved, you would have been a judge surely.”
Mrs Travers raises her eyes heavenwards
“My thoughts exactly Jasper – oh there’s the paper boy now, quick my white cotton gloves. One never knows where paper boy’s hands have been.”
“I thought it was milk boys hands Mrs W?”
“Umm they’re all in it together Mrs T…. thank you young man, I hope you have not been smudging the Duke of Edinburgh – he’s 36 you know, heer’s 6d. Mind you invest it in National Savings Stamps.”
The Critics Speak
“Well hurry up Muriel what do the critics say”.
“Let me see … oh yes here it is. Jasper it is simply marvellous. I’ll read it to you, it says:
The first Country House Concert of the season at the Pentland-Firth Hall was an outstanding success. The evening flowed effortlessly with a conductor who provided a superlative interpretation. The garden setting for “Cosi” was inspired and Mrs Wylie’s character combined a mastery of the technicalities with “charm and restraint”. The comedic interpretation of Allan’s “Gentle Shepherd” was sophisticated and witty; the ingénue, Mrs Esme Travers, is surely a rising star on our stage, the Audrey Hepburn of the laundry world. In the extract from “Humphrey Clinker”, Mr Travers captured perfectly the fear and trepidation of the 18th century Englishman about to venture into Scotland while nervously buying provisions at the border to avoid the dreaded sheep’s heid broth. Miss Lulubelle took us to a new place as we accompanied her on a journey through the Appalachians tracing the legacy of Scots’ song through the wanderings of the immigrants from our own glens. The spiritual and ethereal quality of her voice is in sharp contrast to her reputation as a tough business lady with a rissole in a bread roll empire. (These are known as burgers).
The Herald goes on to say, that “with her country house concerts Lady Pentland-Firth has ensured the post war survival of the country house.”
“Well that is good isn’t it Muriel?”
“Indeed it is Jasper provided no one else upsets the applecart, now what about some more tea Mrs Travers? Unless of course being a star has gone to your head and you are going to go all Bette Davis on me.”
“Why ask for the moon Mrs W when we have the stars.”