Many moooons ago I was in a touring theatre group. From here to there we drove with our revolutionary fervour and a van full of costumes and ideals. We never made the Home Counties though. Our type of political agitprop did not go down well with the comely folk of Tunbridge Wells or Bury St.Edmunds who banned one of our plays in the Theatre Royal citing male nudity – on the stage that is not in the auditorium. Thus given the puritanical nature of Sussex and Suffolk we mostly travelled north of Rickmansworth.
The Watford Gap service station was a regular pit stop; my favourite filler was thee sausages, baked beans, generously sprinkled in black pepper, sitting on two slices of very buttery toast with a side portion of chips all washed down with a mug of hot sweet tea, devoured hastily at around 3.00a.m. Sleep was not on the menu. We were young, we were fit and our mission to bring down the establishment meant an unremitting itinerary. Sleeping on blow-up beds in the sitting rooms of generous punters or tossing and turning under crackling nylon sheets in Grimsby made me the wreck I am today.
On one tour we visited Darwen ‘A quintessential Lancastrian town.’ Surrounded by the West Pennine Moors. Darwen was as far away from my roots as you could get. The River Darwen joined the River Ribble with farms, fields and fences for as far as the eye could see. A relative of our Guitarist lived amongst the Lancastrian greenery, so our group of wild travelling troubadours were welcome guests on their small holding.
I was a stranger to this kind of rugged countryside, waking up to hills and dales sent me into a mild panic, darkness, vast skies, and hooting owls were as foreign to me as a night in a Beduin tent in the Saharan Desert. London’s cobbles and boozers were more my terrain. But over the years I got used to Welsh mountains, Irish coves and Scottish braes. Darwen, though bleak when we arrived, offered up the smell of dark earth and grazing cows. After sauntering through the farm we were introduced to a new batch of bovine beauties, their warm noses and huge eyes irresistible. Botanists have flowers named after them, astronomers, stars. Me, well I had a small brown cow named after me. Jennifer Joy with her long eyelashes and big belly – probably dead now – enjoyed the Darwenian dales and for many years Jennifer Joy chewed the cud and offered up her creamy milk.
Inevitably youth and freedom gave way to the end of life as we knew it. Thatcher became PM, the theatre group disbanded and I was lured into television. Staring down the barrel of a camera became a way of life. For years and years and years I stuck an earpiece into my right ear, damaging my ear canal, braved the makeup chair, read the autocue, argued with management and rolled with good, bad and indifferent reviews. Not to mention audience research – the tool of weak management – endless tinkering to find the winning formula by asking a group of amateur gogglebox watchers their opinions. As if an old geezer in Ashby-de-la-Zouch knows the secret of making a good programme. It’s like asking Boris’ johnson the secret of making a good Prime Minister.
And then, in the blinking of an eye, I was three scores and ten and then some. And before you could say, ‘Varifocals’, Corona struck and studio doors slammed shut from here to Pitlochry. So what does an old thespian do when they can’t Thesp? Well they do what is now commonly known as ‘paying it forward’. They visit the elderly, they coach disgruntled millennials, they play piano with infants and take coffee with their grateful parents.
If I leave my cottage drive down the hill, over the roundabout, left on a single track road, slowly over the brook, back up the hill and then swing a hard right into a farm I am confronted with sheep and lambs and one of those grateful parents. Just for a split second I could be in Darwen, only the landscape is softer and I’m just seven minutes from my own bed. For the past six weeks I have visited this lovely family, taken coffee and chewed the fat. The exciting news, I was told this morning, is that they have just taken ownership of three cows and their calves all of which have to be named and registered. So after a fifty year hiatus I am now back where I belong; grazing on lush green grass and chewing the cud, surprisingly one of those little brown calves has been named after me.
Yup, that cow Jeni Barnett is finally at peace filling her four stomachs and smelling the sweet smell of excess.