The Man in the Wide-Awake Hat Diary.

Rain, rain and … Cheadle!

Last week I had a very strange couple of days! Dear Reader, on the Thursday evening I watched a performance of a new play wot I wrote in the Tudor Great Barn, Basing House, Basingstoke … the audience being mainly the Basingstokracy and … me! The young people, some of them not even as old as the socks I was wearing that night, part of the Proteus Youth Theatre (the young people, not the socks) did a fabulous job, (actually the socks did a great job too)I was really proud! I stayed that night with the Director and we talked theatre for far too long into the night and then … oh, Dear Reader, I drove to Cheadle in North Staffs.

I jumped into the car; bright and early and drove as if I was in a road movie … wifebeater vest on, a cheroot hanging out of my mouth and a bottle of Bourbon in the glove compartment. All went well until … round about Newbury, the sky went dark, Oh, so dark, it was like driving into the night, the last night of the world …  and the heavens opened … oh, how they opened … the storm was biblical … raindrops as big as Gideon Bibles … bounced off the bonnet (Did I say I was wearing a bonnet?)… now, I only have a little car …. the picture below is just to prove it (taken in better weather obviously).

The rain came and came and came … on the M6 Toll road, the sky; dark and louring; a menacing, frowning sky that seemed to meet the ground just feet ahead of the bonnet (I’ve still got it on!). Puddles as big as ponds appeared across all three lanes and the hard shoulder … I skimmed across the water like a flat pebble thrown across the surface of the sea by a small schoolboy wearing shorts, sandals and an ice cream moustache. And still the rain came. And came. The mad fools that were still on the road … me, obviously … and thousands of others … slowed to a crawl … then breast-stroke, then that funny withered arm swimming that people all seem to do in public swimming baths. Headlights bounced off the sheets of precipitation that hung, like slash-curtain, across the road. The sky grew darker. Then the thunder rumbled overhead … and underseat … and betweentoes … and aroundcar … the thunder rolled and crashed … the rain came … and then the lightning … and then, through the gloom … the Toll Plaza … Plaza? Blooming heck … I’ve done a wrong turning somewhere in the gloom and ended up on the continent! I looked at the confusing signs above the Toll Booths … or Toll Bastille … they all had the same picture of a robots hand holding a card … so, which one do I go to as I haven’t got either a robot hand or, indeed, a card. One in the middle obviously. I queue up behind a truck and a car and caravan … I edge forward … the Toll Cubicle or Niche … is unmanned … there is only a slot to put a card in or one of those strange basket affairs, like a basketball hoop, to throw money into. I have a TWENTY POUND NOTE … Ah, Dear Reader … now what?

Just behind the Toll Cubbyhole or Toll Facility … there is a button that says HELP … well, the button doesn’t actually say anything but beneath the button there is a sign that says HELP … I press the button … beep, beep, beep … then a broad west midlands voice creeps out of the tinny speaker; “What?” “Oh,” I say, in my finest grovelling voice, “I have only cash” “What?” says the tinny speaker. “I haven’t got a card, I’ve only got cash,” even more grovell-ier than before. “I’m not open,” says the Tinny one, with a certain amount of finality. “I’ll stay here till you are then,” I say, aware of the queue of Toll Plaza professionals behind me. “What?” “I’ve only got cash,” I say retreating, “I haven’t got a card”, I wait.

A vision in bright yellow appears from behind the Toll Pigeonhole or Toll Apartment; it is a man … this much I can tell from the hairy chin and nobbly nose, “I’m closed. Number one and two are open”, says the voice that sounds exactly the same as it did through the tinny speaker. “So …”, before I can finish the sentence, he thrusts a big hairy hand into the car. I hand him a TWENTY POUND NOTE … he looks at it as if I’ve given him a poisonous asp … “TWENTY POUNDS?” he says … “Yes, that’s all I’ve got.”

“TWENTY POUNDS?” I was about to say “Yes, that’s all I’ve got” again, when he stomped off and disappeared behind the Toll Cloister or Toll Retreat. I waited. The rain fell. I waited a bit more. He returned, shoved fourteen pounds and fifty pence into my hand and said, “I’m closed, number one and two are open. You should have gone to the one that’s open … I’m closed.” I was about to get mildly shirty and say something like, “Well, perhaps you could make that clear by having a different picture above the one that is open to the one that is closed.” I didn’t get a chance. He disappeared behind the Toll Niche or Toll Cupboard and I never saw him again. The rain came.

I drove through the roughest sea I’ve ever come across on an A road in the West Midlands. All around me there were roads closed, flooded or just looked like the sort of road you shouldn’t go down in a little yellow car. I drove on and so did the rain. Eventually I arrived in Cheadle,  parked the car (in a huge puddle obviously as there was nowhere to park the car that wasn’t in a large puddle. Cheadle was in fact a very large puddle with a few sticky up bits) and went into The Pugin Centre.

There, I met Pugin … that’s him on the right … he was fairly quiet, which I suspect was not usually the case with AWN whilst he was alive. I also met the lovely Hannah, who I have had an e mail and telephone relationship with for a few weeks. She made me a cup of tea and offered me an Iced Fancy … oh, heaven. We talked about The Man in the Wide-Awake Hat, Cheadle, workshops, Festivals of Light, funding, other Pugin events, other people who are making things happen, other venues in the area, and … well, Dear Reader, we talked for ages and then we went for lunch and talked some more. Then she gave me a guided tour of St Giles’ Church; Pugin’s Gem. If you haven’t seen it, you really must, it is a theatrical symphony of colour, design and statuary. I say theatrical, I know that many will disagree with using so “base” a word about a place of worship but I’m sorry, it is a theatrical experience. As I entered, the church was empty and in darkness, except for the Chancel … this was lit, like a stage, from the weak and wishy-washy sun that crept through the windows high above. It was a very spiritual moment standing there in the semi-darkness and gazing onto such splendour.

Hannah turned the lights on and slowly the whole interior of the church began to glow. The colours of the painted walls and the tiles on the floor seem to battle with each other for supremacy. It is a stunning building from top to bottom, front to back.

Hannah gave me the full guided tour, explained some of the history, the battles that Pugin had, the money that was spent and the perfection of the materials that were used. We talked about Pugin’s character and his philosophy of architecture and design. At that point the door opened and in came Father Sandy Brown in a bit of a panic. “It’s coming, it is coming!” he said. “What is father?” “He came to the … but I told him … he’ll be here any second … he’ll be here.” We waited as Father Sandy walked about and very excitedly spoke of IT being there any minute.

“It’ll have to come through the doors” and so the West Doors were opened … and through the pouring rain came a delivery man, pulling a trolley with a large wooden crate precariously balanced upon it. He heaved it up the steps and the crate rocked and rolled on the trolley. “Careful, careful.” The delivery man hauled the trolly towards the doors. Hannah and I got the ramp and set it up … there was no way he was going to get his trolley up the steps. The crate of course was too wide to go through the open doors, so, with a bit of jiggling and hauling, pushing and pulling, we managed to get the crate in and up-ended it on the floor.

“What is it, Father?”, asked Hannah peering at the crate.

“It’s a statue, from Lourdes …”

We chatted to the priest for a while and then wandered back to the Pugin Centre and another cup of tea and an iced fancy. Dear Reader, it has been quite an eye opening process this researching Pugin and trying to organise productions of a play about him: I have met some of the nicest, friendliest, warmest, maddest, intelligent, excitable and committed people I have ever met. There is something about the sort of person who is going to be interested in a sort of person like Pugin that glows … I suppose they are all happy with their lot … anyway, it seems to me that the whole world of Pugin-ites is filled with cheery should and good eggs!

After a very successful and fruitful afternoon it was time to drive home … and the rain came, and came, and came … I did get home but I had almost lost the will to live by the time I pulled into Ramsgate … where the rain rained, the wind blew and the kettle was put on and tea and another iced fancy was noshed as another odd day in the life of your intrepid blogger came to an end. As I climbed into bed … the rain rained!