I was terribly proud of my sword. But I was utterly ashamed of my costume. The first had been made though admittedly under the gruff tutelage of Mr. Lole, the carpentry master by my own hand.
All of us who were to carry swords in our belts spent a considerable amount of time in Carpentry Shop spokeshaving our trusty blades. "Honed" wasn't the word. Metalwork was not on the curriculum, so the swords were made of wood, then painted silver. Perfectly adequate for theatrical purposes.
Two historical extravaganzas were staged at this school during my time there as a pupil. They were performed in the open air, on Parents' Day. The one I remember now was about Queen Elizabeth I. My yet-to-bud talents as an acting enthusiast cannot be said to have been much recognized at this time, and I was cast as a nameless member of the lesser yeomanry. I did, however, have one line to say, and it was accompanied by a histrionic gesture I greatly relished and over-rehearsed the sudden and threatening drawing of my gleaming steel.
Since that time I have disturbed the afternoons and evenings of many an audience with parts both large and small and speeches short and long, but this one line in the service of The Virgin Queen (whose role was considered so exacting that it was played by two actors) sticks in my mind, somehow. The line was: "Have at you for a foul traitor!" I never did manage to say these noble words with the ferocious degree of indignation required by Mr. Snape, author and director. He tried his hardest with me, but in the end he concluded I was hopeless. I don't know: Maybe I just couldn't grasp why I was so instantly and briefly in fight mode. Neither Mr. Snape nor I, perhaps, was particularly familiar with The Method.
I did my poor best. But that costume was no help. Looking back now, I don't know why I objected to it so heartily. I hated it. This must have been tough, parentally speaking, because it was my mother who had designed and made it. When I was to try it on, I sulked and squirmed and refused and fussed and had to be bullied and cajoled. Eventually I stood in it on the landing at home I was on holiday feeling very ... silly. I was sure the other boys would tease me to distraction when they saw me. It wasn't at all my idea of a dashing yeoman. My poor mum didn't deserve my reaction, I'm sure, but she had contrived a funny little hat like an overturned paper boat, with a pheasant feather, and below it a pixyish outfit in green that made me look like a cross between a wee elf and Robin Hood as a small boy. As the grown-ups were more intent on not offending my mother than on indulging my delicate sensibilities,
I there and then inwardly vowed that I would never, ever smile again.
Oddly, I don't think I disliked dressing up as such. My brother had once painted me red all over and presented me (presumably clad at least in a swishily devilish cloak) to the stunned members of the household. I rather enjoyed being Mephistopheles. And I had, anyway, been flaunting my prowess as a Theatrical Manager and Leading Actor more or less continuously since infanthood. I had also starred in an ill-fated home production of Hiawatha on the front lawn, interrupted by a real storm.
But I have no recollection of being subjected to fancy dress. Dressing up for fun, or just to be funny, was not something we did. Unlike some other children. The twin sisters I meet today as we exercise our various hounds along the local avenues tell how one time, when they were 7, their nanny dressed them up as a chicken and a cat for a fancy-dress party. Since in real life they even now dress pretty much identically, I imagine Nanny (they had a privileged upbringing, their father owning a string of theaters) was trying to encourage individuality. Once they were ready, they were to be driven in the Rolls-Royce to the party. But, they tell me, they did not like being chauffeur-driven. So they ran out of the house, down the long avenue, to the bus stop. Nanny and the chauffeur were in hot pursuit, however, and just as the hen placed her first foot on the running board of the bus, they were caught, yanked off, walked home, and then driven to the party in the shameful Rolls.
I sense they now recall their almost-getaway with a certain glee. And it may be that their keenness on all forms of campaign and organization for the protection of all creatures was sparked that very day as they made their young bid for animal rights. Nevertheless, it takes a stretch of the imagination to picture these two sartorially unadventurous characters in their erstwhile disguises. I suppose they have become sensible.
I, on the other hand, have become infinitely less sensible. These days, I would raise little objection to being dressed up in anything, daft or solemn, exotic or preposterous, just for the heck of it. Even a green hat like an overturned paper boat with a pheasant feather in it.
All that's needed is opportunity. And a wooden sword.