Friday, February 27, 2009

You Learn Something New Every Day


I don’t often find myself in over my head - but when I do it always leads me to an important life lesson. Take yesterday evening for instance, when the 21st Century Husband, Teenager and I found ourselves in the gallery of Foyles, a wonderful bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London, awaiting the start of a reading of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940”.

This is not the sort of place you would generally find me. I mean, you might find me in a bookstore, particularly one like Foyle’s, but you probably would not have found me at a book reading quite like this one. I love books and reading, but I hardly consider myself to be an academic - and this book is definitely the sort favoured by those of a very academic disposition indeed.

So how did we come to be sitting in such an unlikely setting? Well, a few weeks ago, the 21st Century Husband received an invitation through his university alumni to a reception to celebrate the publication of the aforementioned book. I was about to discard it when I saw that this celebration included a reading of some of the letters in the book by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan.

I have to confess that at this point I had absolutely no idea who Samuel Beckett was. The only famous Beckett I was even aware of was Thomas à Becket and not only was his name spelled differently, but he lived some centuries before Samuel. However, I am a huge theatre buff and I was very keen to attend a reading by two such distinguished actors - as were the 21st Century Husband and Teenager. So, we booked our tickets and put the date in our diaries.

It was not until the day before that I remembered I still had absolutely no idea who Samuel Beckett was. Concerned I might find myself in a rather awkward position due to this lack of knowledge, I did some last minute research. Thank heavens for Google!

It turns out Samuel Beckett was a very important twentieth century writer, poet and playwright who led quite an interesting life. As an avid reader, I’m very surprised I have not come across him before. It did not take me long to discover that the connection between him, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan was that the latter two were about to open in one of Beckett’s most famous plays, Waiting for Godot. The book of letters itself was - in circles far removed from my own - a long awaited first volume of an anticipated collection of four. And here I was just going along to see the actors. Gulp.

On our arrival at Foyle’s, we had managed to get seats in the second row of chairs. I had purchased a copy of the book and, in a desperate attempt to look like I belonged, had my nose firmly in it. When I looked up as the panel and the actors arrived, I noticed no one had sat in the chairs reserved for guests in the front row, and that because of this we were effectively front row centre. The gallery is a relatively small room and in such an intimate setting this placed us less than a couple of yards away from the slightly raised stage area. I do like to sit close to the front when I go to the theatre as it means I can see the actors at close range. However, perhaps rather unfairly, because of the stage lights they cannot see you. This was not the case last night. I was little more than an arm’s length away from two actors I have admired for years and not only could I see them, they could very clearly see me. (Why had I worn that fuschia blazer??) Gulp again.

However, before long I was feeling very relaxed as it was clear that everyone involved loved their subject and were determined to make it come alive. In fact, the readings were so entertaining that I found myself wanting to know more about the writer I had been virtually ignorant of until the day before. Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan and director Sian Mathias all read various letters written by Beckett - and the context of these letters was made clear by Dan Gunn and George Craig, two of the editors of the book. It was brilliant. I was so absorbed that when Ian McKellan read a letter Beckett had written about the death of his father, I was embarrassed to find myself brushing away tears. I was reassured to see Patrick Stewart was doing the same thing. On a happier note, his readings of some of Beckett’s more humourous letters were the highlight of the evening. It was one of the most interesting presentations I have been to in quite some time, and one I will remember for a long time to come.

It was an amazing opportunity, not only to see two much admired actors perform in such an intimate setting and to learn something new, but for another reason as well. On the train journey home I found myself pondering what I would have missed had I discarded the invitation to the reading as I so nearly did. My rushed sifting through of our post could have meant that I would have missed out on something I not only thoroughly enjoyed, but that we will be talking about for years to come. It has really made me think. What other opportunities have I thrown away? How many do I miss as I rush through my life? Would slowing down a little and being more aware of the present moment benefit me in ways I could only begin to imagine?

I’m pretty sure I already know the answer to that question - and I intend to find out if what I suspect is true by making a concerted effort to slow down and be more mindful. I’m also going to remember to keep stepping out of my comfort zone. After all I would never have thought I would find the letters of an author I was not even vaguely familiar with so interesting. In that spirit, although Waiting for Godot does not really sound like my kind of play, I have booked tickets for us to go and see it - something I would never have done before. If it is anything like last night, I’m going to love it.

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