This is Michael’s story. A counter to our recent visit to Aldeburgh to celebrate the Great Escape and life of my Uncle. Indeed this was his life. As a theatrical agent, he inherited, as it were, the Noel Coward portfolio, and it entertained and profited him him and continues to do to his successor, Alan. He just missed meeting Coward, his predecessor promising next time, but there was no next time, for Coward died in his home in Jamaica, that would have been 1973. On the train journey down, Michal describes some of the background:
Exactly 35 years ago Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother came to Westminster Abbey to unveil a memorial to her old friend Noel Coward and Alan Brodie, my successor as the agent representing his work, has arranged a little ceremony in the Abbey to mark the occasion. Rachel and I are invited and she appears on my doorstep bright and early to catch the 9.41 train. The ceremony is in the evening but we have decided to make a day of it.
We are going in advance. The fingers of the horse chestnut leaves are breaking through their sticky buds in London town. In Halesworth they are not even sticky.
Michael is a natural at making a day of it. Of course he has a plan, and it is a joy to surrender to, says one who is usually the planner, who can now relax. Via the no 28 bus we rock up at St Pauls, where a ceremony must have just ended and men in their fur and gowns are walking from St Pauls to their next venue. We turn our backs to the Wren cathedral and walk across the Millennium footbridge to the Tate Modern in glorious spring sunshine.
Lunch naturally is top of the agenda and we dine in simple style on the 9th floor of the Tate, their light bites menu of pork shoulder, potatoes with goat cheese, washed down with fruity Portuguese wine.
The colours of Bonnard were immediately attractive – light, airy, bright, echoing the day. A painters painter I assume. Domestic scenes, checked tables cloths and views through windows, cats and his beloved sausage dog. Many were of his beloved wife Marthe de Méligny (1869-1942) with whom he had a touching intimate relationship. M tells me later there is one of wife and mistress in the same frame. My favourite was the half naked woman looking in her mirror, we view her half body though a doorway. He liked odd view points and compositions, sometimes cutting off heads, perhaps the Japanese influence.
A boat, naturally, to Westminster, where after disembarking we emerged from our tunnel into a flag waving pro Brexit demonstration. That was unexpected. So many Union Jacks and so many men. Would they know we were from the other side? Three separate God advocating men on boxes linking into brexit: Britain needs the gospel of Christ not the European. A bicyclist carried a European flag bravely entered the square.
‘Plonker’ an older woman exhaled with mirth. ‘Put your trousers on!’ her friend joined in the joke.
After finding a cup of tea and still arriving early for evensong I went back into the March. Tired people sat on the useful wall around Parliament Square. Men mostly and at one point I felt daunted, uneasy with such unusual concentration, and nervous of being fond out. There were no children and few women. The March felt empty of good humour and not surprising, I considered later, for they had come into the den of the enemy the remainders London, and we’re watching the exiting process disintegrate before their eyes on this day that Brexit was to be delivered, as Government and Parliament descended into a farce. They were angry and tired. A somewhat potent mixture. As it happened they were waiting for the result of the latest Brexit debate. (The Brexit deal was defeated first by a record 230 votes on Jan 15 and then by 149 votes on March 12.). Later John Snow would be asked to apologise for this observation remark that he had ‘never seen so many white people’. The Guardian asks why? ‘That Snow’s remarks caused such a fuss is a perfect display of how race inequality works. It is a reflection of white privilege that white people like me are so rarely defined by race that being referred to by our own skin colour is perceived as a personal affront.’
Michael had the advantage of comparing the rally directly with the march he was on a week before:
It has a totally different atmosphere from the ‘Remain’ march, which I joined a week ago. That was made up of friendly groups of believers in a common cause. Their views were argued on placards, often wittily – ‘Even Baldrick had a plan’. Here both Oliver Cromwell and Guy Fawkes are invoked to aid their cause. We wonder apprehensively if we are easily identifiable as Remainers from our voices or our dress. We take to the back streets for a restorative cup of tea.
Returning to where M sat waiting, a Brexiter sat beside snacking on a large white roll.
‘You do smell beautiful” he turned to me and said.
‘Thank you you’ve made my day’, I said grateful for his olive branch
‘ And you mine’, he said, as if he knew I’d shopped in Waitrose and voted Remain.
So he bridged that great divide with a kindness that nourished both of us.
We entered the great West Door and took our seats in the choir stalls for evensong. The daily ritual began, the choristers arrived led by the hierarchy of men. Their young and old lives circumscribed by circumstance, conditioned by privilege, talented and ambitious. Among them an oriental and African black. Just as I was feeling once again the singular dominance of men, the high Commissioner of Bangalesh was announced as the reader, and turned out to be most unexpectedly a woman. Small as Bangladesh people often are, she was elevated by high healed shoes that I hoped would not get caught in her beautiful sari, which was overlapped with a taupe chiffon shawl lined with a soft fur. She read beautifully Corinthians 10 23: All things are lawful, but not all laws are helpful.
The reason we are here finally arrived: we gather in the chancel of Poets corner, beside the floor marking to Noel Coward.
While Richard Attenburgh gave the speech then, his son Michael, the spitting image of his father, gave the speech today. (As he arrived, Patricia Hodge put her hand on his shoulder saying ‘As if you haven’t had enough to suffer’ so we knew something sad had happened and indeed he did not dally after his reading)
Simon Green sang a few of Cowards songs including Cowards version of the Keats poem When I have fears
When I have fears, as Keats had fears,
Of the moment I’ll cease to be
I console myself with vanished years
Remembered laughter, remembered tears,
And the peace of the changing sea.
Flowers are laid by a young woman, recipient of a Coward Foundation Bursary and another recipient, Tim Southgate, recites ‘If Love were All’. Simon Green sings sweetly, unaccompanied,‘The Wild, Wild Weather’ and ‘London Pride’. Michael Attenborough, bearded and the image of his father, reads some of what Richard said about Coward at the original dedication. Lindsay Duncan and Patricia Hodge deliver stellar versions of ‘When I have Fears’ and ‘Marvellous Party’. They all deserve loud applause but the presence of the officiating clergy and the ambiance of the Abbey hold us back. I sneak some pictures on my phone
I too missed the applause, it was church subdued. Throughout we could hear the crowds outside the Abbey chanting their rituals, including finally God Save the Queen. The Vicar referenced the Brexit revolt outside at the end with some benign analogy.
Over a glass or two of wine, I met Alan, his wife and various other of Michael’s colleagues. He and Alan were probably the only people there who had been at the original ceremony.
At the party I am reunited with some of the figures from my past and take the opportunity to introduce them to Rachel. Apart from Alan and his wife Ali (it takes me a while to recognize her) there are the producer Joe Abrams, Vivienne (?) from Samuel French and Alison Lee who worked for me and is still in Alan’s office. Most of the rest of the people that I don’t know; current members of the Coward Society and board members of the Foundation. We take the opportunity to see if either Simon or Tim, who both perform Coward programmes, might come to the Halesworth Festival. Both seem interested. Finally we make our farewells. I will see Alan for lunch in a couple of weeks’ time.
Ah but Michael has forgotten the last person to see is his Bete Noir, both of us struggling to find an exit out of Westminister. Exhausted, we use the facilities of Uber and are driven all the way to Twickeham. Arriving, however, we find we are not too exhausted to find a tasty Italian restaurant, where we relax over some wine and food before retiring to our Air bnb.
After Chatwin in Twickenham, a cup of tea, delivering luggage to Candy, we set off on our morning walk, through the spring glorious Marble Hill Park, over Bridge Street into Richmond where we found a delicious breakfast of egg Hollandaise, watching the runners and mobile phone readers passing by, Via Waterstones to find a book for Candy, into Richmond Green, paying homage to the Richmond Theatre and the Orange Tree Theatre where Michael will return to see Where the the Sun Shines. I am in one of the rich jig saw pieces of Michael and Tamsyn’s life, passing Michael and Tamsyns’s home, and passing under the bridge where Tom died. We went back on Twickenham road, over the bridge to Candy’s and Edwards, where the ballons were out and Lebanese food freshly delivered for Candy’s 60th birthday celebrations. After a very fruitful and fulfilling conversation with two early visitors and friends of Candy, X and X about, you’ve guessed it, Brexit, I left early for the 4 hour journey home. Michael would have the same long journey a few hours later.