The start of the idea. It was a matter of making a choice. We were living in Northampton, Linda working as a senior lecturer at the University and me working at the Brooke Weston Academy in Corby as Head of the Modern Languages Department.
We were very nicely installed. Our house was nothing special, a traditional three bedroomed, Victorian terraced house, but it suited us well. The garden, when we
bought the place, was a scruffy walled yard that was clearly of little interest to the previous owner, but which, with a bit of TLC and judicious use of our plastic card, we transformed into a rural retreat in the middle of town, complete with trees, a raised vegetable bed, water butts and enough pot plants to sink the proverbial battleship.
It was our little green haven where, weather allowing, we could eat al fresco while the bees explored the petunias or we could just sit out exploring the odd glass of wine on a summer’s evening, watching the night gradually envelop the sky.
Our social life was not too riotous. It revolved mainly around two main activities, the wine bar at the end of the road, where we ate tapas, drank too much expensive wine, listening to the resident piano player and the Royal and Derngate Theatres, where we worked most weekends as volunteer stewards.
The latter was a great wheeze! Most Fridays and Saturdays we would turn up an hour before the performance to be briefed by the duty manager, who would tell us running times, the size of the house, and any other instructions pertaining to the performance concerned.
One such instruction came from the manager of the Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, who had decreed that anyone leaving the auditorium during his act should not be allowed back in.
Now, Boyle is a comedian who likes to shock his audience by the depths of the vulgarity that he is prepared to plumb. His followers are a heavy drinking bunch and many of them had started drinking long before they came to the theatre. Within minutes of the start of his act, some of the audience needed to take a short break. We steadfastly ignored the instruction to deny them re-entry!
Boyle’s act was probably the most tedious night I have ever spent in the theatre, with the possible exception of Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. Most of the well-known stand-up comedians are very clever people whose acts are apparently random streams of consciousness but are in fact well-crafted pieces of work that have been well thought out in advance. Boyle’s wasn’t. He stood on the stage for two hours trying to shock us by saying ‘rude’ things.
I had just spent nearly fifteen years teaching Year 9. I wasn’t shocked, but I was mightily bored. Anyway, I digress.
Overall, however, working at the theatre was great fun and we saw shows that we would never have paid money to go and see, but many of which were nevertheless well worth seeing. Everything from the unbridled joie-de-vivre of Abba Night to the bizarre cult following that accompanied the Rocky Horror Show; from the Northampton Schools’ Music Service Annual Concert to the extraordinary Nigel Kennedy, de-stultifying classical music with the otherwise fairly stodgy Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; from Shakespeare’s Othello, set in a gang-land billiard hall, to a musical play about the last five weeks in the life of Judy Garland, which still ranks as one of the best pieces of live theatre I have ever seen.
Professionally, we were both doing well in our careers and were highly regarded in our respective institutions. We both worked hard and were virtuously tired at the end of each day and the end of each week. Weekends took on a particular importance as limped through Fridays and were grateful for the opportunity to draw breath and adjust with relief to a change of rhythm. Sundays, for me,
were spent in our cellar room, dubbed the ‘pokey hole’ by Linda, getting myself organised to take on the week that followed.
So, to quote one of the German language training videos that I used to show my students, “Alles unter Kontrolle.” We had another three or four years to go before retirement and could have just kept on keeping on, doing jobs that we were good at and earning good salaries.
But then, an idea, that had been buzzing around in the backs of our minds for many years, started to push itself forward and demand our attention.
It concerned Voluntary Service Overseas and life was about to change.