Ducks in the Trevi Fountain: What Covid-19 Can Teach Us About Life, Love and the World Around Us

If you want to see some of the brighter sides of this situation, thoughtfully done, try this:

Leigh Hecking

Ducks in the trevvi fountain

We’ve all seen posts griping about long lines at the grocery store, hand-sanitizer and toilet paper shortages, resource hoarding and general lack of empathy and understanding. The news is no better. It’s a constant stream of anxiety-inducing updates on confirmed cases of COVID-19, death tolls, the plunging stock market and temporary closures or suspended services.

But perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of this – something the disaster movies missed the mark on – is the human ability to seek levity in the face of imminent disaster.

Warning: Long, picture-heavy post behind the cut.

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Sometimes finding a meaning needs time

For the UK, it was the first day of spring last Friday. That means equinox-poetry-day on my favourite radio station, BBC radio 4. Throughout the schedule, some of our best UK actors (national treasures?) were invited to read poems on a Spring theme.

Christopher Eccleston was on the 7.45 a.m. breakfast-news programme, reading A Northern Morning, by Alistair Elliot.

A Northern Morning

It rained from dawn. The fire died in the night.
I poured hot water on some foreign leaves;
I brought the fire to life. Comfort
spread from the kitchen like a taste of chocolate
through the head-waters of a body,
accompanied by that little-water-music.
The knotted veins of the old house tremble and carry
a louder burden: the audience joining in.

People are peaceful in a world so lavish
with the ingredients of life:
the world of breakfast easy as Tahiti.
But we must leave. Head down in my new coat
I dodge to the High Street conscious of my fellows
damp and sad in their vegetable fibres.
But by the bus-stop I look up: the spring trees
exult in the downpour, radiant, clean for hours:
This is the life! This is the only life!
George Henry Frederick Bell

Afterwards, there was a short interview. The presenter, Justin Webb, wondered whether learning a poem by heart might be something we could all do while self-isolating. ‘You need time, to do it, and as an actor, who’s used to learning lines, it is something that can really change your life.’

Christopher agreed. ‘All the great thinkers around poetry believe that in order to understand a poem you have to learn it by heart,’ he said.

‘I’m interested in that,’ said Justin. ‘What is it about committing it to memory that adds to it, in a persons psyche and understanding?’

Christopher said, ‘The poet, John Cooper Clark said quite recently, that it was fine to teach children poems by rote, even when they don’t understand them, because the poem stays with them, and as they mature, their understanding expands. As you get older, you’ll re-examine them.’

I’d like to add that a similar approach works with stories. While I wouldn’t advocate memorising one, to read, then re-read, and then to read a story again brings similar benefits.

As to learning a poem, I think I might start with A Northern Morning. I may not live in the north, but the details Alistair Elliot sets together are familiar to me, too.

Plus, so far, every time I’ve reread it, I’ve found myself focusing on something new. This is not a collection of words, it is a three dimensional space in my head.

A Northern Morning is included in the 2004 anthology, Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe Books.

Taking time for art

I’ve just caught up with a report created last year, by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn, that confirmed something I’ve long-believed: we should all be actively participating in arts activities. I’ve not read the whole one hundred and thirty-three pages of the WHO (World Health Organisation) publication, the summaries have been enough.

Results from over 3000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan. 

At the moment, as isolation becomes a watchword for so many of us, this might be even more relevant than it seemed when it was researched and written. After all, if we’re going to get confined to homes, we’ll need to find things to do.

‘I’m going to catch up on a lot of reading,’ Judy says, echoing my own initial thoughts.

Anna wants to try an embroidery kit she was given a couple of Christmases ago. ‘I’ll be able to concentrate without interruptions,’ she tells us.

Here in the UK, we’re still free to move about unless we show symptoms. That doesn’t mean everyone is continuing as usual. A lot of people who are vulnerable, or in close contact with someone vulnerable, are already opting to limit their contact with the general public.

The majority of the rest of us have adopted a Lady Macbeth approach to hygiene, and are practicing safe distances as we wait for the next development. Journalists looking for a fresh angle for discussion are beginning to consider the perils of isolation, as if it’s a new thing.

I suppose it will be for many of us. On tv, I watch shots of empty streets in other countries. Our Government Advisers warn that when the time comes, we will be ‘locked-down’ for months, not weeks.

As a tutor in Further Education, I’m used to providing a possible solution to loneliness. My colleagues and I offer a massive range of subjects, and draw students from a variety of backgrounds and situations. People sign up firstly, because they want to learn, but the social aspect soon becomes important, too.

As our classes are delivered in hired halls, we tutors meet only rarely. Our students create links between us, drawing references with other classes, often opening new angles of investigation to discussions.

Adult education classes are friendly places. Shared interests draw together people who might never have met in any other way. In the break, over coffee, the conversations extend and new friendships blossom.

Humans are, I believe, a social species, deny it as we sometimes try. This week has been brightened, for me, by the video-clips from Italy of quarantined people sharing music and song, often from their balconies.

This seems to chime with that WHO report about what ‘the arts’ mean to us, and maybe offers a clue to that question of how we cope with isolation. After all, here I am, discussing the situation with you on-line. Maybe this is a moment when technology comes into its own.

Lessons learned from Edna O’Brien’s short story, The Connor Girls.

It begins with a hook. The kind of line that is simple, yet resonant with promise: To know them would be to enter an exalted world.

The second line begins with another ‘To’, and lets it echo, twice more. This is a lesson in how to use, rather than misuse, repetition. It might be called playful, it creates a lyrical effect, but this is also devious.

That ‘it’ draws me in. I share with the narrator an imagined idea of moving, step by step, closer to ‘them‘. ‘To open the stiff green iron gate, to go up their shaded avenue, and to knock on their white hall door…’ She yearns to make that journey, while I am additionally intrigued by her desire. Who is this ‘I’?

It’s not just the rhythm of her writing that draws me, those few precise details are enough for me to hold an image of that house. Despite the importance of this place and these people, to the narrator, and the concrete precision of the images she supplies, the details are sparing.

What she gives me is a flower garden with fountains, a water-lily pond, and monkey-puzzle trees. The quantity implied in these three features suggest wealth and land, but the narrator allows us to arrange them.

I’m certain that if Edna O’Brien and I sat at opposite ends of a table with crayons and paper, we would produce very different images of the setting, even while we included the given details. Hers might be the origin of this story, but while I read, the picture is as I see it.

I am transported to Ireland, in the first place, because I know Edna O’Brien is an Irish writer. If I hadn’t at the least suspected that, my version of this house and garden may have hovered above a number of countries, as I gathered clues. Luckily, this is only the first story in a large collection published under the title, A Fanatic Heart. The back cover promises me:

Love and loss, the villages and countryside of western Ireland…

Had The Connor Girls been presented in a cosmopolitan anthology, following stories by, for instance, Margaret Attwood, or Carmel Bird, I don’t think I’d have made a confident guess about nationality until near the end of the first paragraph. That’s after I’ve been given the gossip about the major, and how his son died.

Not even their tragedy brought them closer to the people in the town, partly because they were aloof, but being Protestants, the Catholics could not attend the service in the church or go to the Protestant graveyard, where they had a vault with steps leading down to it, just like a house.

Is that, or is that not, a beautifully balanced sentence? It’s distinctive, confiding, gossipy and laden with social and political colour.

If you liked that one, try this:

The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished, and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.

We’re in the second paragraph, near the bottom of the first page, and the narrator has mentioned friends from Dublin. I can set my house down in southern-Ireland. I have no named district, but if I hadn’t known before how to colour this setting, I do now.

I’m drawing from memories of a too-brief stay that took in glimpses of the country between the ferry port at Rosslare, and a birthday party in Meath. What struck me was the quality of the light, reflected from the verdant landscape. At last I understood why Ireland was always referred to as green.

Add to that scenes from films and tv shows; images from paintings and photographs, and imaginings raised by other Irish and Anglo Irish writers. Behind O’Brien I seemed to see William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen, particularly, The Last September.

Am I thinking all of this as I read? Of course not, I’m submerged in story, and the flashes of connection are fleeting. I compare it to moments in my real life, when despite apparently total involvement in an event, my mind draws links with parallel experiences.

I’m not sure if it is either possible or desirable to write without connecting to previous fictions. There are people who aspire to, but I wonder about what kind of writing that could be.

A Farmstead by John Luke, 1928

Reading Gronw’s Stone, for Dewithon 2020

Welsh Flag

The 2020 Wales Readathon, the Dewithon, started yesterday. Paula, at Bookjotter, invites us to join in a month of reading all things Welsh. It’s a good prompt to explore new authors, it’s also a chance to remind myself of the Welsh writing I already own.

Last year, I discussed a short story anthology. This year I offer you a 1997 poetry collection: Gronw’s Stone, Voices from the Mabinogion, by Ann Gray and Edmund Cusick.

I’ve two lines of thought on this, and so begin with the subject matter. Gronw’s Stone is one of the eleven tales of The Mabinogion, a collection of early Welsh mythology first written down in a fourteenth century manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest.

The stories belong to the oral tradition, meaning they are far more ancient than that. They’d been passed along previous generations of wandering bards.

Until Hergest fixed them on the page, the tales would have been revised and adapted by each teller, to suit each audience. The key events were unchangeable, but interpretation and emphasis belonged with the bard.

My second thought is about the poems, which are not individually attributed to either author.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? It made me wonder how the writing process worked.

I didn’t find out until 2008, when a collection of Edmund’s poems was published posthumously. In, Between Fields and Stars, Ann Gray provided an introduction to the Gronw’s Stone section. There she described the genesis of their Gronw book, and the working process she and Edmund evolved.

I first met Edmund 13 years ago, on a story telling course at Ty Newydd, the National Writer’s Centre in North Wales, during which we visited historic sites and learned the stories of The Mabinogion…

Next Spring we met again at Avebury and told stories amongst the stones. Edmund confessed that he had written a poem for Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. As he read it, it became clear that Edmund’s Pwyll was an honourable man, above reproach…

I was upset. I pointed out to him that Pwyll was not totally wonderful… As we argued this back and forth, I started to write [the Queen of Annwn’s] reply. I wrote into the night, reading aloud to Edmund at every pause for breath. Edmund later changed the tone of his poem to include Pwyll’s gentle regret. This is how it started: Gronw’s Stone.

Collaborative writing projects intrigue me. They seem to hover on the edges of our ideals. Tradition presents us with the poet and the novelist scribbling in solitude. Only if we look closer do we discover the degree to which many great writers discussed their work, in general and specific terms, with their peers.

Move across the writing categories to tv and film, and the advantages of collaboration are obvious. Many loved and admired shows and films have come from writing-teams. Reports say that when these work well, they are exhilarating experiences, in the manner that Ann Gray describes:

We lived in the stories, in each other’s work. Edmund wrote poems in the male voices and I in the female voices. We edited and revised together. When we were asked, but you don’t say who wrote which poems in the book, we honestly replied that it had not occurred to us to do so.

It seems to me that collaborating on a writing project requires not just a shared vision, there must be confidence, both in yourself, and in the partnering writer. Ann Gray says, I would know a poem of Edmund’s anywhere, even if it were found in an attic years from now. He would have said the same of mine.

I’m not sure I would know Edmund’s poems so well, despite having several of his other collections, and while reading this it wasn’t a question I thought to ask. Surely, that says something about the quality of these poems. Maybe they mirror the tradition of the story taking prominence over the bards, who may have had local and temporal significance, but held it only for the space of the telling.

While neither Cusick nor Gray is Welsh, both have taught in Wales.

Edmund was lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wales, before he moved to Liverpool John Moore’s University, to build-up and lead the Imaginative Writing programme. His joy in all things Celtic drew him back to Wales, on trips (especially some memorable course-field-trips), then, on his marriage, to make his home.

Ann Gray lives and works in Cornwall. She has several collections of poetry, the most recent is, I Wish I had More Mothers. She is co-founder and director of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, and has taught at Ty Newydd -The National Writers centre for Wales, and on several Arvon courses.

I’d like to recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Stories.

Please don’t be put off by the title. This is not a straight forward selection.

About four years ago, as I was rushing out of the library, dangerously close to my time limit for car parking, I saw this cover on a display stand. I paused to pick it up only because I wanted to be convinced I didn’t need to read it.

What led me to take a deeper look was the contents list. It was divided into four categories:

  1. Front
  2. Spies and intelligence
  3. At home
  4. In retrospect

I skimmed down the authors within them. Alongside the ones I might have expected, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, for instance, were some unexpected ones: Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy and Radclyffe Hall. There were also plenty that I’d never heard of: Stacy Aumonier, ‘Sapper’ (Herman Cyril McNeile), C.E. Montague…

With one eye on my watch, I paused to skim through the introduction. The traffic wardens at Tewkesbury have a fearsome reputation for diligence, let me tell you.

These were mostly historic authors, should I bother? Then my eye was caught:

While high-street booksellers offer a wide selection of material for the general reader, and academic interest in the war and its literature is also high, the short story is curiously overlooked.’

Curiously overlooked is exactly the way I feel about short stories.

Barbara Korte’s introduction is the kind of writing that I hope to find opening up an anthology. It is beautifully concise. Her description of how the First World War impacted on short fiction is backed up by quotes like this one from Edmund Blunden, in 1930: ‘The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without a conclusion.’

I’d read enough to convince me. I booked out the book and high-tailed it down the stairs and across the road. As always, when returning to the car park in the-nick-of-time, there was no sign of a traffic warden. How is it they always seem to be in the area when I’m a minute or two late?

Over the next four weeks I kept dipping into those four sections, and finding story-gems. As Korte says:

Few stories written during the war and its aftermath were radically experimental or self-consciously modern, but many depart from conventional plot-orientated narration, resist closure and use forms like the impressionistic sketch, the dramatic monologue or the dialogue scene.

I bought my own copy and returned the library one. Since then I’ve shared this anthology with one or two reading groups.

The subject of war is not to the taste of everyone, but the range and comment of this selection is diverse, and far from predictable, and instigates some fascinating discussions. At their heart, most of these stories are subtle and complex studies in character, and draw me back to re-read again and again.

Thoughts about my reading.

After an accident with the bookcase in the hall, this week, we spent several days walking round hastily stacked heaps (note to self: it’s about time you stopped living in a hazardous muddle!), and wondering if visitors would assume my hording was heading for the kind of proportions that appear on reality tv shows. On Sunday, what began as tidying my main TBR (aka overflow) area, became a stocktaking revelation.

For a start, the collections I had been making of Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, and Iris Murdoch novels, were much more extensive than I’d realised. Luckily, I’d only doubled up on one Heyer.

But hey, wasn’t this an ideal opportunity to make spaces for future bargains, or miraculous ‘finds’? After all, I’ve got at least six tatty old dictionaries.

Why so many?

Well, the first was an eighteenth birthday gift from a family friend, the second is the ‘Midget’ dictionary mum gave me when I started secondary school. It was designed to fit inside an average sized pencil case, alongside the pencils.

The third was dad’s old school dictionary, complete with ink stains and blots; the fourth was my aunt Judith’s school dictionary; the fifth was a 1932 Christmas present given by my Great Uncle Bill to my Great Aunty Jo, which means all of them are family heirlooms.

Damn it, I’m sentimental. How am I ever going to achieve minimalism?

As for dictionary number six, it’s a Collins Westminster Dictionary with illustrations. I couldn’t possibly ditch a resource that not only lists motor-cars, bi-planes and airships as if they’re the latest technological development, but also has this wonderful illustration for the Robot entry.

There’s no date, but it’s got to belong to the 1920s or 1930s. Imagine if it ended up pulped, or in landfill… I’ve put it back beside my 1901 copy of A History Of Police in England. These, I tell myself, will be invaluable writing resources, at some point.

Then, yippee, I’d forgotten about those two scandi detective novels I picked up. Ditto the Dorothy Whipple novel, Someone at a Distance. She’s been high up on my reading-radar for a while now. As has Gore Vidal, so I’m glad to find I’ve bought Messiah, at some point.

The surprises kept coming. I did distantly remember buying the two William Trevor novels, and Helen Dunmore’s short story collection Love of Fat Men. I’d regretted getting rid of my original copy almost as soon as I gave it away.

John Cowper Powys? Brilliant, and Marina Warner’s, Murderers I Have Known. I’m looking forward to trying her short stories. My copies of her books on myths, fairy-tales and legends have been useful for research as well as entertaining reads.

After such a reluctant start, I was finding the dusting and replacing not only rewarding, but uplifting. There was, it turned out, nothing on those shelves but promises of time-to-be-spent-profitably.

Will this comprise a reading list for this year? No.

Though it has encouraged me to face up to the two large dusty bookcases in my office.

It’s also made me think about some of the blogging discussions I’ve been reading on whether to plan, or not plan, a TBR list.

Sorting books has reminded me that part of the pleasure I get from reading, is picking out a title or author because it resonates with what I’m feeling. I might be influenced by the way sunlight is slanting on the cover, or the style and size of the font, it may be that I’m reminded of something else. The tactile elements are part of it too: the weight of the volume, the texture of the paper, and the smell of the pages, old or new.

The best simile I can come up with, is that it’s like walking past a restaurant where the wonderful aromas cause you to turn, and step back to gaze through the window, and read the menu, and check your purse, and then your watch, to see if this might be a good moment to treat yourself.

Discovering: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

What I liked first about this novel, was the opening paragraph.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

This is the voice of Briseis, a captured Queen, who ‘heard him before I saw him’, because she and the rest of the women from Lyrnessus were shut in the citadel as Achilles attacked their city.

We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields…

The story of the battle for Troy has been told many times. I can’t remember whether I first met Helen, Paris, Agamemnon and the rest of them in a book or a film, or when. Maybe it was textual references in different genres… So many writers have used Helen, Hector or Paris as a reference point for their characters that it’s probable I first heard of them intertextually.

A gauge I use for judging the popularity of an icon is when it turns up in comedy. In his 1948 novel, Uncle Dynamite, PG Wodehouse gave us Lord Ickenham. At one point, he tells his niece, Sally, ‘You look like Helen of Troy after a really good facial.

Perhaps I’ve always known these characters. They could be part of that collective unconscious identified by Carl Jung. It would explain why they feel so familiar, and it excuses me for having lazily accepting the romantic version of what the characters stood for, and therefore, who they were.

On the other hand, the story has too often been served up in segments that present the point of view of a single key character, or event. In those tellings, secondary characters like Briseis were necessary, but disposable components: moments of pathos interspersed between the big dramatic scenes. When the atrocities happened, the focus was too often on the emotions and actions of the key witnesses, rather than the victims.

After all, the women of this time were passive. Values were different. To judge the events around Troy as a love story (as we understand the meaning) is to apply alien motives to the way society was structured.

In presenting this novel largely from a female perspective, Barker re-sets the story.

We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel… Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace…

The blood and confusion of battles are not ignored, or reduced. They’re vivid and bloody, but either off-stage, or witnessed from a distance.

…hearing the crash and splinter of wood breaking, I ran up on to the roof, leant over the parapet and saw Greek fighters spilling through a breach in the gates. directly below me, a knot of writhing arms and shoulders advanced an then retreated…

The main part of this story is set in the Greek camp, after Lyrnessus has been sacked. Briseis, restricted by her gender and her tenuous position as the ‘prize’ of the fight, awarded to Achilles, puts a fresh slant on the Greek heroes, even as she accepts her role.

What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even… Something in me died that night.

I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. that’s what he did to me. He tried me out.

Nineteen year old Briseis had been married, at fourteen, to a man she had never met. This is not a story of love. It is about necessity, and survival. Her gender may have placed her in a passive role, but she is an impressively active narrator.

For me, the heart of this story is about levels and layers of bravery. The women of Lyrnessus are slaves, without autonomy. Their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have been slaughtered. How do they cope? Take Tecmessa, has lived with Ajax for four years.

Ajax had killed her father and her brothers and that same night raped her, and yet she’d grow to love him – or so she said. I wasn’t sure I believed her. Admittedly, I didn’t want to believe her. I found her adjustment to life in the camp threatening – and shameful. But then, she did have a son, and her whole life revolved around the child.

In passages like this, Briseis foregrounds the parts of the Troy story that have fleetingly unsettled me, and made me think about the significance of just who gets to tell any story. No wonder I’ve found myself thinking back and back to it in the four weeks since I read it.

Fragment of a tapestry probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier of Tournai

Date: ca. 1470–90 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

It seems that I should begin a new blogging category called, Things I’ve only just caught up on. Am I the last person to discover this on-line dictionary, that attempts to ‘fill a hole in the language‘? Maybe not, there are an awful lot of ideas getting threaded into the web.

According to Wikipedia, John Koenig began his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows in 2006, when he was trying to write poetry, and couldn’t find a precise word for the emotion he wanted to convey. I’ve been there, convinced that there should be a single, perfect word for some feeling or idea I’ve got, if only I could figure out the correct search terms for the Thesaurus.

Eventually I generally conclude that there are two solutions to my problem:

  1. I’m in the early stages of dementia.
  2. There never was such a word and the truth is:
    1. I’ve confused another word with it that sounds like it might mean what I want, but actually conveys something opposite, or lateral. This means that:
      1. I don’t read enough
      2. I don’t think about what I read, often enough
  3. Which leads me to realise that I can’t count, even when I use the alphabet in more than one form, so:
    1. It is possible I’m experiencing the early stages of dementia.
    2. I’m obsessing about a common phenomena that I’ve experienced throughout my life and I should ‘get over it’ and move on.

All of which doesn’t stop me from being haunted by the existence of that word I was looking for in the first place, and that’s where John Koenig’s dictionary comes into play. By the simple fact of it’s existence, it offers reassurance.

Firstly, because clearly I’m not alone.

Secondly, because a lexicographer is busy creating some of the words that I might need. For instance I think this comes close to my lost-vocabulary problem:

fitzcarraldo an image that somehow becomes lodged deep in your brain—maybe washed there by a dream, or smuggled inside a book, or planted during a casual conversation—which then grows into a wild and impractical vision that keeps scrambling back and forth in your head like a dog stuck in a car that’s about to arrive home, just itching for a chance to leap headlong into reality.

In case this seems too wordy, Koenig has also created some visual definitions that could be used to fill in the gaps in my vocabulary.

Why do I love words? Because they’re playful, like us, and continually evolving.

All My Sons, by Arthur Miller

The Bacon Theatre is in Cheltenham, in the grounds of a school. It’s a lovely airy building, with comfortable seating, and I’ve seen some fine live shows there. Still, it’s not quite the space where you might expect to find Sally Field, Bill Pulman, Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan on stage.

These, though, are the days of ‘live recordings’ being broadcast in cinemas and theatres across the country. Some of the top plays, operas and ballets from top theatres are now available in tiny local venues at affordable prices.

I’d be happy to shake the hand of the person who brought this dream to life, because the effect is that I get a best seat in the house. I wish I’d seen more but I’m generally slow off the mark, and those shows sell out fast in the provinces, too. This one was booked by my friend Claire. She’d not tried theatre on the screen before.

‘That was amazing,’ she said, as the lights came up at the end of act I, ‘nothing like I expected. It really is almost like you’re there.’

I nodded. ‘Despite being projected onto a screen.’

‘And this play finished in London, last spring, but it feels as if it’s all happening right now.’ We looked up at the screen, where the National Theatre audience were milling about the auditorium, eating popcorn and ice-creams, chatting and taking photographs. ‘I wonder if they realised they were being filmed…’ said Claire, sipping her cup of tea.

The timer in the corner of the screen counted the seconds down, and I heard the bell by our door being rung, then the light in our auditorium went down, and the on-screen stage began to brighten. In a moment I had slipped back into my place as interloper in the garden outside the Keller’s house, just in time to witness Chris Keller sawing through the trunk of the fallen apple-tree.

It was a beautifully produced and acted production. I believed in all of the characters and nearly everything I saw. I forgot that I was sitting on a cushioned bench and that the talk came from lines that had been learned. I felt joy and pain and fear, and believed in the interior of the house, and that when someone went out of sight they were doing what they said they would.

The only thing that jarred me out of my belief probably says more about me than the production. It was that fallen apple-tree, which was surrounded by apples of at least two varieties.

Half looked like either Red Delicious, or Jonathans, and the others looked like Braeburns or Jonagolds. I tried to ignore it, but at moments when the action centred on the tree I began to speculate. Maybe it had two or three varieties grafted onto its trunk. Since the tree was symbolic, could the mixed apples be of obscure visual significance?

Luckily, before I became fixated on this, Chris and his dad cleared the evidence away. I slipped back into the human action.

An hour or so later, when the curtain calls had been taken, Claire said, ‘I’ve always loved Sally Field, but I never realised she could act like that. Wasn’t it amazing?’

‘It was. They all were.’

‘Yes. How do they do it, night after night?’ said Claire, ‘Not just saying a few lines, picking up laughs. This was emotion, real emotion. You could still see it in their eyes when they took the curtain call.’

Claire’s in a band. I knew she was comparing the way she feels after a gig. We’ve talked a few times about the buzz of being on stage, and how she feels in the hours afterwards.

Do I need to add that if you haven’t tried out ‘live broadcasts’ yet, you should give them a try? Too late, I have.