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There is an air of perfect calm today.

From where I’m sitting, reading, the back door–open to the terrace–frames the day.

A still life–cloudless blue sky with trees.

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Young Ben…

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comes in through the door, pauses, purrips a greeting, looks towards the food bowls, then strides passed them–apparently affording me preference.

His black coat is warm from the sun as I stroke him.

He continues on, jumps up on the table under the window to the courtyard–looks out briefly and exits through the grill.

Eating will keep and there are lizards to chase.

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I go back to my book.

As I finish a chapter Ben appears again at the back door, pauses, sniffs the floor just inside the door, where a few pellets of dry food have fallen.

He cracks a couple with his teeth and moves off–no greeting this time.

He walks across the entrance hall into the dining room, stops suddenly, sits and throwing his right hind leg in the air starts cleaning the underside ferociously. He changes legs and licks the left one stretched out in front of him–paying special attention to the toes.

He moves off again and disappears in the direction of the garage.

Five minutes later he comes in through the front door with a loud greeting “meow” and pauses.

I get ready for a friendly approach; instead he turns away and mounts the staircase.

I write the last sentence and then hear “pad-pad-pad-pad” down the stairs and here he is again– head pointing towards the front door and out he goes–into the sunshine.

After a couple of minutes I become aware of a whirring sound–thrump, thrump–getting louder–THRUMP, THRUMP–begging investigation.

Some sort of flying machine? Helicopter? Ultra-light?

I go out through the courtyard to investigate just in time to see the rear end of a vast combine harvester disappearing down the field opposite–shattering the quiet calm of a perfect day.

No sign of Ben.

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Yesterday  (September 1st and officially the first day of autumn for the Met office) our neighbour Alice–beekeeping teacher–arrived with a basket of summertime goodies.

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She and Meredith had been collecting honey from her many hives and our ONE in the garden.

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There has been precious little “summertime” this year, so the honey harvest is modest

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and the basket a reminder of what might have been–peches de vignes, tomatoes and delightful looking little red chilis, the last–“tres forts–attention!” warned  Alice.

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This year our tomatoes were “carried off“–as they used to say about people who caught the plague–by mildew.

According to Alice, this has happened to many gardeners–but not to her tomatoes because she saw the signs and acted to stop the rot.

The unusually wet weather with little drying sunshine is the cause.

Result–in our case–a quick demise of the entire crop; we were away when the plague struck.

Alice advised keeping a few seeds from the largest tomato, for planting next year which we’ve done, but not before a bit of coarse “look at the size of it!” acting.

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It’s now in the fridge–a tasty sauce waiting its turn in the limelight, which maybe tonight as part of the stuffing for one of its cousins.

 

 

 

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Ask any actor who has done time in repertory theatre what is the most frequently asked question by keen theatre-goers and I’d wager the answer would be:

“How do you learn the lines?”

I might have answered “with difficulty“, after drying on my first line (saying “Grace”) as the Vicar in Murder at the Vicarage on opening night at Salisbury Playhouse in the mid-60s .

It’s the nuts and bolts of the job–but never gets any easier.

Telly Savalas as Kojak had his lines taped all over the set and even–hard to believe–to the other actors’ foreheads!

Even if I’d been able to read them without my glasses, I couldn’t be shamed into that!

Samuel West‘s contribution to this article in The Guardian recently–actors’ advice to fellow actors–reminded me of the run-up to filming my two short scenes in the new adaptation of POLDARK*.

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To anyone learning lines for a day’s filming where there is NO rehearsal, he says:

Learn your lines with a friend the night before filming. Say them looking into your friend’s eyes. Your friend will be distracting you. You will think you know the scene because you can do it looking at the floor, but human contact is distracting – and you want there to be human contact when you film the scene.

Learning the night before? I’ve always needed time for lines to settle and stick (slow study it’s called in the trade)–but I know what he means.

Meredith volunteered  to hear my lines weeks before my first day’s shoot for POLDARK and eventually I took up her offer.

I’d been pounding them into my reluctant brain on my daily walk for weeks.

She suggested, like Samuel West, that I aimed them directly at her.

But for a while I was unwilling to engage with her spirited rendition of Captain Poldark–and continued doing exactly what Samuel West warns against–saying the lines, very convincingly, to nowhere in particular–sometimes to the floor.

In the end, I did engage. It was, as Sam says, usefully distracting–good preparation for when I had to project them across the chasm of the crowded, noisy courtroom.

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Meredith watched the shooting of the trial of Jim Carter [Me-lud presiding!] on a monitor in a freezing anti-room of the medieval hall where we were filming.

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In a pause while they were re-setting the lights she popped outside for a coffee to warm herself up.

There was Aidan Turner (aka Ross Poldark)…

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…pacing up and down, going through his lines.

They hadn’t formally met at this point.

So as not distract him, she discreetly tucked herself into a corner with her coffee.

Suddenly, becoming aware that there was just the two of them, he confided:

“This scene is important and I want to get it right!”

“I know it well,”  she said.  “I rehearsed the lines over and over with Robin–playing YOU!”

Aidan roared with laughter.

Meredith sensibly didn’t offer to hear his lines….

 

*The new adaptation of Winston Graham’s  POLDARK saga is being produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC and PBS’ Masterpiece in the USA, to be broadcast next year.

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It was a normal day at the Edinburgh Festival (The biggest arts festival in the world)–sitting for seven hours imbibing the creative juices of others.

Time it takes to fly to New York–with breaks.

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In-between shows coffee break at Spoon Café Bistro–the laid back café, where J K Rowling sat for hours conjuring up Harry Potter.

Starting at 10am at the Traverse Theatre and finishing at 11pm at the Festival Theatre.

We saw four remarkable shows and walked home happy.

Mark Thomas–who combines stand-up comedy with political activism–started our day with a sad tale entitled Cuckooed.

Comedian Mark Thomas, whose new show Cuckooed will debut at the Edinburgh festival in August.

In a brilliantly funny display of controlled anger–he tells the true story of how he and a small group of friends, members of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) were betrayed by someone they thought of as a trusted comrade and friend, who was in fact an undercover spy for BAE–the UK’s leading arms manufacturer.

The fellow had been warning his paymasters of every move planned by the protest group.

Some of the people affected have had mental health issues as a direct consequence,” Mark says. ” I want audiences to understand the emotional turmoil something like this kicks off.”

Doesn’t sound like a barrel of early morning laughs but Thomas managed to send us out of the theatre an hour later in a merry mood of indignation–keen to take on our next audience challenge.

A taxi ride across the medieval old town of Edinburgh

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took us to the Festival Theatre and the prospect of seeing The James Plays;

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Left to right and King James I, II and III–actors James McArdle, Andrew Rothney, and Jamie Sives.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s new three play saga written by Rona Munro, set in medieval Scotland.

No coincidence of course that there is a referendum coming up on the 18th of September–a vote for or against independence for Scotland.

“YES” and “NO” signs high and low across town–signaled a campaign in full swing.

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We were in the Upper Circle for James I and II and in the Stalls for James III.

From on high we could make out the faint markings of the Scottish flag on the stage floor–white cross on blue background; the plays tell the story of a nation emerging through the 15th century.

James I was at Agincourt (1415) as long time prisoner of England’s Henry V. 

James II was on the throne when Leonardo da Vinci was born, April 15 1452–five hundred years to the day before the birth of Meredith Wheeler!

Towards the end of the reign of Scotland’s James III, England’s hunchback Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485).

Not a whiff of Shakespeare, more Stratford East than Stratford upon Avon, with a rude boy Henry bullying his captive–future James I of Scotland–with Saturday-night-out language that our taxi driver would recognise.

An exhilarating experience and destined for The National Theatre down south.

Sweet William’s way with words would describe one common theme in the plays.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown“.

Twenty- four hours later, we were back in the Tarn.

While the audience was arriving for the final performance at the Festival Theatre…

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…we sat outside, eating our pasta, watching the cows.

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We were on top of the world Saturday afternoon in the high hills of les Monts de Lacaune to the east of Lautrec–waiting with an expectant crowd…

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…for four French paratroopers to fall from the sky.

Both the crowd on the ground and the “angels” about to descend, were–perhaps unknowingly–re-enacting events that happened here, in an occupied wartime France, 70 years ago.

In early August 1944 the Allies organized several parachute missions to deliver weapons, supplies and soldiers to the resistance fighters in the Tarn. The German occupation forces got wind of one of these midnight drops and on the night of August 8th, they attacked the drop zone killing seven young maquis fighters. Their sacrifice was being remembered and honored at Saturday’s event.

In 1944 Guy de Rouville (below) was commander of the Maquis of Vabre–the Resistance group in charge of the secret drop zone. He was 29 years old.

At 99 his memory of these events is remarkable and his enthusiasm to communicate it, undiminished.

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Guy de Rouville laying  flowers in honor of the slain young men whom he had once commanded.

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Guy, in full flood, telling his story.

Guy and his wife, Odile (96), still live in the hill village of Vabre, where they once welcomed a young English major and two French officers from the Jedburgh mission who had parachuted onto this hillside on the night of the 8th August 1944.

The previous night they had taken in an American soldier who had broken his leg landing in the same drop zone with 14 comrades. They were an OSS commando unit sent from a base in North Africa to support local partisans and disrupt the German supply lines before the still little-known southern D-Day landings near St. Tropez on 15th August 1944.

All the parachute drops, made under cover of darkness and in a remote place, put the local population in peril on a day to day basis from the Nazi occupation forces.

The drop zone is on the opposite side of the valley from Vabre near the village of Viane.

Viane is en fete this weekend and murmurs were heard about the commemoration stealing its thunder.

Small murmerings–most of the crowd, like us, were looking forward to the parachute jump by the 8th RPIM (8e régiment de parachutistes d’infanterie de marine) based in nearby Castres.

We were not disappointed.

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Despite an unpredictable wind making it more difficult…

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…three hit the orange target…

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…and the fourth was within twenty feet or so.

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Meredith and “an angel that fell from the sky”!

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Guy stands with today’s “angels”, 70 years after he welcomed the war-time flights.

Meredith is an American porte drapeau, carrying the American flag at ceremonies of remembrance in the region.

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It was at one of these ceremonies where she heard the story of the American OSS team’s landing and their vital contribution to the liberation of the south Tarn two weeks after their arrival.

She received a Fulbright grant to document the history of that mission, interviewing most of the surviving members of the maquis group involved with the OSS mission. Two of the OSS men were killed in action in the Tarn. Their sacrifice and the memory of their deeds are honored by French veterans every year here–sometimes in the presence of American family members who come to see where their loved ones served.

Unlike the French paratroopers we watched Saturday, the OSS and the Jedburgh teams parachuted at night, laden with heavy equipment, into occupied France–with little idea what awaited them.

Their courage has never been forgotten here.

 

 

 

 

 

Bye, Bye, Dr Halse!

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A week today at roughly 5.05 pm the Reverend Dr Halse walked out of the card room on the ground floor of George Warleggan’s impressive mansion and disappeared.

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It had been a bruising encounter.

That pest, Poldark–more than a pest–a ruffian and a rogue–had challenged him and indeed any of his esteemed colleagues on the bench to “meet” him at any convenient time.

An outrage.

As he headed for the door he was heard muttering:

He is a traitor to his class and he WILL get his come-uppance–such men are dangerous and must not be tolerated!

Next meeting of the justices…!

If it were up to me alone, he’d be following Jim Carter to Bodmin Gaol or better still–the Antipodes.

And then he was gone–in a puff of self-righteous, sulfurous smoke.

*          *          *

In truth, he popped in a unit car and with Meredith by his side was driven the short distance to the unit camp.

There he was relieved of the wig and the costume and–Jekyll and Hyde-like–resumed his everyday guise as Robin.

In a trice the car was off again, speeding towards Bath and the London train.

All that was left of the Reverend Dr. Halse was a name on the dressing room door–

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a pile of sombre 18th century clerical clothes, a beautifully woven wig and a faint smell of sulfur in the air….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…no, we’ll never tell them:

We spent our pay in some cafe, And fought wild women night and day, ‘Twas the cushiest job we ever had”.

And when they ask us, and they’re certainly going to ask us, The reason why we didn’t win the Croix de Guerre,

Oh, we’ll never tell them, oh, we’ll never tell them

There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

~Oh What a Lovely War

When we returned from UK there was a small package waiting for me from my cousin Geoffrey Andrews.

I was expecting it.

It contained the First World War medals of our grandfather–James P. Weakford and a sheet of paper with photographs of the medals and a photo of Geoffrey’s father, my uncle, the gloriously-named Merlin Andrews.

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Uncle Merlin served on the Western Front at Ypres, the Somme and at Passchendaele as a Lewis machine gunner.

He survived to continue in business with his brother Fred in their butchers shop in the Fulham Road, West London.

He died aged over a hundred after receiving the Legion d’Honneur (with the red ribbon) from the French government.

Imprinted on the back of one of our grandfather’s two medals are the words: The Great War for Civilisation.

Geoffrey says Merlin never talked about the war.

This seems to be a common factor–few who survived were willing to revisit the horrors they’d seen and lived with.

Harry Patch–one of the last survivors–told no one, not even his wife, he said in a BBC Radio 4 interview, until he was persuaded to write a book about it when he was well over one hundred.

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Understandable reticence but regrettable….

Telling it like it was would have helped counter the myth-making intentions behind the phrase imprinted on the reverse of Grandfather Weakford’s medal.

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The “Great” War?

The Catastrophic War of Unintended Consequences” more like.

 

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