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"DIDN'T WE HAVE SOME WONDERFUL TIMES": An Immersive Collection

IS HE MUSICAL is inspired by a rich array of documentaries, articles and archives shining light on this rich and often forgotten era of history. To celebrate this and dive deeper into the era, we're thrilled to present "Didn't We Have Some Wonderful Times?": a immersive creative and historical digital programme packed with events, performances and stories including:

The Divine by Jessica Wood

Inspired by Real Events

1934. 16.

Roland always hated the walk the most. He tucked himself away into the shadows of the looming buildings, sidestepped into alleys even though it made his route even longer, his canvas backpack weighing heavy on his shoulders all the while. Where he was forced to walk on the main streets, he kept his gaze down; sure he could feel eyes burning on him. Sure someone was about to stop him at any moment and say they could make out the shape protruding from his bag. Scorn him, ridicule him.

He wished with all his heart that everybody knew; that he could live freely.

But it was only once he entered the studio that the weight seemed to lift. The windows were partially boarded, the wallpaper peeling, but he felt as if he had stepped into a palace. Some of the girls smiled their greetings as they noticed him. He shrugged the bag from his shoulders and slipped out the satin ballet shoes. For a short moment, he allowed his fingers to grace the lush silk. Then he was on his toes, falling in line, feeling the familiar burn with each leap and turn and pushing through it. Gliding.

All too soon the lesson was over. He lingered in the doorway, knowing he wouldn’t be able to practice for weeks. Not even a hint of a leap in case the floorboards creaked or somebody noticed his silhouette through the window. Reluctantly, he cast a wave over his shoulder and headed back out onto the street. This time though, his step was light and he fought to mute a glorious smile.

 

1936. 18.

He melted into the material of the seat, the dimmed lights bathing him, music washing over him in indulging waves. And there he was, on the stage. The divine Ivor Novello. Dark hair slicked back and reflecting the hot lights. Stare hypnotising. Voice mesmerising.

Roland marvelled at the precise, yet elegant movements and could only begin to imagine himself on such a stage, beneath the lights, so many enamoured eyes on him.

He felt his heartbeat quicken and his eyes begin to burn as he refused even to blink, to miss one moment of the lavish performance.  He was certain he would scarcely recover for days.

 

1940. 22.

The teacup hovered, poised between Morley’s fingers as his gaze turned to the newspaper. He flicked it open and the cover image unfurled: a carpet of bricks and glass succeeded by only two barely standing walls. All Aid Rushed to Coventry the headline stated.

‘What’s happening?’ his mother asked, hobbling over from the sink.

‘Bombings. The worst we’ve ever seen, just days ago.’

He thought back and remembered an orange glow in the air which now haunted his mind. What had seemed like a glorious turn of nature all the way from Bembridge Street had really been the sky aflame with war.

He began to speak again, but his words were swallowed by a harsh wail quickly followed by cries from the street. An air raid.

His porcelain cup shattered on the ground as he reached for his mother and the world spun in a blur of sirens and screams until they were sat, as safe as they could be, in the depths of a shelter. A few metres away somebody murmured an endless prayer. To the other side, a child clutched a ragged doll. With every sickeningly close blast, rattling the walls, Morley’s stomach churned. He couldn’t keep the faces of his friends from his mind, the black and white posters of soldiers and pilots fighting for freedom while all he could do was huddle away in the darkness, not even capable of consoling his own mother as she sat, shaking, beside him.

It felt like an eternity before the all clear sounded, and even longer before his mind stilled long enough for him to snatch some sleep.

In the daylight, he walked to the bombsite, driven by some morbid need to see the damage first hand.  Rutland Street was unrecognisable beneath the littering of rubble and flame ravaged scars. Children sat, silent amidst the remains of their bedrooms. Over 100 dead, a warden told him in a sombre tone.

‘Still,’ Morley smiled fleetingly on return to his mother. ‘We can be grateful, at least, that they didn’t hit our street. That we’re even alive.’

 

1948. 30.

The applauding crowd left Morley breathless, the thought of so many dozens of anonymous figures looking up at him draining his face of blood. The vacuum of echoes and attentive silence was finally filled with sound and the sudden stark contrast made it seem all the louder.

Either side of him, the other actors gripped his arms, slapped his back, grasped his clothes, and together they bowed again and again until they were stumbling, giddy, backstage. They were barely past the curtain before drinks were in their hands and the buzz of voices continued to grow.

‘Outstanding performance gentleman!’ one cried, lifting his glass. ‘To the society!’ a cheer arose and a playful chant of ‘LADS, LADS, LADS!’ broke out. Morley joined the cry with fond mockery, allowing himself to be jostled amongst the small crowd.

‘Morley,’

He felt a firm grip ease him from the throng.

‘There’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is Roland Spence, he was in the audience today and he just might become our newest member.’

Morley turned to the slightly shorter man and reached out a hand.

‘Divine performance,’ Roland beamed. ‘I would so love to be a part of it; I’ve always adored theatre and dreamed of being on stage.’

His words were near indistinguishable between the elation of the group.

‘Well,’ Morley laughed. ‘Welcome to the Leicester Amateur Dramatic Society-’

‘Morley!’ A yell emerged from the tangle of bodies. ‘We’re heading to the Dover, come on!’

‘Well then.’ Morley turned to address Roland promptly. ‘It was good to meet you…’

‘Roland Spence. With any fortune, I’ll be seeing you again soon.’

‘Yes, yes.’ Morley, preoccupied, was half turned on his heel, but something about his counterparts words, maybe his tone, his determination, maybe that knowing curl at the corner of his mouth, made Morley pause. ‘Say, would you like to come along?’ he offered openly.

‘Why not, I suppose,’

The procession of men unfurled, spilling from the back door of the Little Theatre out across the street and was drawn in again by the Dover Castle just across the road.

Inside the tucked away corner of the world, the booths were cushioned and the lights were dimmed. Drinks flowed and arms rested casually around shoulders and waists.

‘Why is it that you want to join our society?’

‘Well I’d love to be able to perform, just to be on stage. I-‘ Roland hesitated, glanced around. The darkness obscured the faces and the causal laughter and stray skin loosened his qualms.

‘I used to learn ballet,’

‘Oh!’ Roland held his breath, ready for ridicule. ‘So did our very own Eddie over there! Yes, him with those fabulous, slender legs.’

Roland’s sweaty palms began to calm.

‘Really I love the freedom of the stage, somewhere to be anyone where nobody can tell and nobody can tell you it’s wrong. And too, just for this.’ He gestured around at the frolicking huddle of loose limbs. ‘Just for this community. This little corner of the world.’

Morley smiled. ‘I think we will be seeing a lot more of you, Mr Spence.’

 

1955. 37.

Early winter darkness crept into the room. Roland sat, folded into a wooden chair behind the front desk of his store. His eyes hovered across the page and glazed over. He held his tongue between his teeth and stood, strode to the nearest bookshelf and scanned the spines, trailing his finger along the new and the worn bindings. Austen, Dickens, Mitchell. Longing and heartache, love and loss; men and women.

Roland sighed and returned to his chair. He glanced at the clock – the entry bell hadn’t rung in at least an hour. He had barely moved in just as long. The endless walls of books, all shelves and spines and compressed pages, seemed to draw ever closer like cell walls and he struggled to breathe through the thick, musty stench.

Across the street, a warm glow seeped out from the window of the tailor shop, hazily lighting up the sign above: HM Clarke, Ladies and Gents Tailor. His gaze snuck again to the clock. There hadn’t been a customer in hours, really. Finally, he stood and tucked the chair away decisively. He turned the window sign to closed, flicked the lights off and stepped out onto Hotel Street. Then, he straightened his shirt, ran a hand over his hair and marched towards the humming light.

An open sign similar to his own hung in the doorway and as he pushed the door open, the familiar bell sound tinkled.

Inside, the air was sweet and every surface was lacquered to perfection. Rich mahogany was visible between the displays of black and grey fabrics, jackets and trousers and hats.

Morley emerged from the next room jovially with his relaxed jaw and his soft, slight curls. His eyes glimmered at the sight of Roland in the doorway. He threw an arm around Roland’s shoulder and ushered him into the backroom where hundreds or thousands of reams of dazzling materials swamped the floor and draped every piece of furniture.

‘I’m almost done with this piece for Murray Walker, just a second.’ Morley murmured around the darning needle held in the corner of his mouth.

‘Oh yes, a darling chap,’ Roland nodded as he watched Morley return to the intricacies of his work, a calm but uplifting piano melody floating from the record player. 

‘Done! What do you think?’ Roland swept the material from the desk, drawing it up to its full, glorious height and swirling it in a circle. The emerald folds of the flowing skirt came to life.

‘It’s divine,’

Morley smiled with satisfaction at his work, and promptly began to fold it away.

‘Can I get you anything?’ he glanced up. ‘Perhaps some ballet shoes. I know how you adore your old ones, holes and all.’

‘You know too that I’m years past all that.’

‘I know. But it still saddens me that you couldn’t have anything more lavish back then. Let me make you something. If only to appease me.’

‘Well then,’ Roland teased lightly. ‘Have you another of those ball gowns?’

 

1959. 41.

It seemed to Roland, that less and less light forced its way in with each passing day. That the fortitudes of books grew heavier and denser and ever more impenetrable. Ever more inescapable. there seemed to be no end to the problem, one’s own mind closing one in, a tightening cell of its own making.

Morley approached the counter and handed over a cup steaming with tea. Roland fought tired eyes and Morley reached out to touch his shoulder tenderly. Roland jerked away from the touch, gaze snapping up to scan their surroundings.

‘You mustn’t act so carelessly,’ Roland reprimanded.

‘Calm down, Roland. There’s nobody around. And nobody ever pays us any attention anyway.’

‘And I’d rather it stayed that way. I’m sick of having to mill around in this- this black pit of secrecy!’

‘We have, for the most part, been fortunate,’ Morley persisted calculatedly.

‘We haven’t!’ Roland insisted. ‘Maybe we’ve made the most of what we have, but that hardly means we’ve had more than our measure.’

Morley shook his head. ‘Well,’ he replied calmly. ‘Don’t you think we could be free of scrutiny soon enough?’

‘If you let us!’ Roland baulked. But he knew he could only dream of the freedom of privacy. He could only dream of Morley leaving his mother’s house; choosing him. He could dream, but he could never ask for it.

‘That’s cruel,’ Morley retorted quietly. ‘You can’t blame me for not wanting to abandon my own mother. And I am not to blame for the world’s hatred of us. But please, try to find some gladness that we haven’t already been incarcerated, or worse! Be grateful that we’ve had as much as we have.’

 

1971. 53.

‘I still can’t believe this is all ours,’ Morley gestured to the humble collection of rooms, the small landing, the arrangement of bricks that was their home. Music filled every corner and stumbling characters filtered through each doorway.

‘I can’t believe how quickly we shared it with so many…’ Roland raised his eyebrows and Morley rolled his eyes.

‘Glad you did,’ Eddie smirked, sauntering past. ‘Notorious, this place is. Nowhere better. Cheers to you finally leaving your mother’s!’

‘Yes Eddie, cheers to my mother for dying and finally leaving us in peace. Thank you.’ a ripple of laughter peeled out and Eddie, reddening, sheepishly merged into the crowd.

‘Look now, you’ve embarrassed him,’ Roland laughed.

‘He’ll get over it.’ Morley replied, a smile tugging at his lips. ‘Don’t you agree though? Can you really believe that this all belongs to us?’

‘Yes, I know what you mean,’ Roland conceded.

‘Even when everybody is gone, this is all still just ours,’ Morley continued, breathy with amazement.

‘When everyone is gone?...’ Roland repeated, eyebrows raised.

Morley laughed and pulled him closer, letting his hands linger on Roland’s waist, feeling his breath on his ear.

‘Steady on,’ Murray called from across the room.

‘I think you’ll find nothing untoward is happening here, by law, we’re now perfectly within our rights here in our own private residence!’ Morley replied, shifting his hand to Roland’s back.

‘I don’t know why we can’t say the same in public,’ Roland interjected.

‘Hear, hear,’ Murray shouted.

‘Well that’s a matter for another time, haven’t you noticed this is a party?’ Morley teased. ‘I think more drinks will solve the problem for now,’ he giggled, triggering a round of cheers. ‘It is, after all, what we are notorious for!’

 

1982. 64.

Roland smoothed the unfamiliar bedspread over his outstretched legs, the starchy crinkle of the fresh sheets calming him. The faint jostle of matrons and slight squeak of wheels and metal frames made him almost dreary.

‘Are you alright?’ Morley asked from the stiff hospital chair beside the bed. Roland nodded.

‘Have you seen my razor?’ he pondered.

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘Never mind, it’ll be here somewhere. Oh, and remind me to pay Mother’s bills. Honestly, she’d never survive on her own.’

‘Lucky she has you then, isn’t it. Even better once you can get out of here.’

‘I’ll be glad to be home,’ Roland agreed. Morley smiled and reached out to place a hand on his arm, where the hospital pyjamas ended.

‘Not your most fashionable moment is it?’ he teased.

‘Hardly a ball gown.’ Roland returned warmly.

‘Sorry you have to be trapped up here for so long, almost prison like isn’t it,’ Morley added, laughter fading. 

Roland’s mind flew to the entrapment he’d felt having to sneak away to the ballet studio, the imprisonment of the bookshop that told a thousand stories but not his, the confinement of his own mind as he struggled, every second, not to let on that he was different, and he almost laughed.

‘On the contrary,’ he mused. ‘It feels like I’ve finally been let free.’

Inspired By:

Lovers in Leicester: A Twentieth-Century Gay Couple by Jo Somerset

https://notchesblog.com/2021/07/01/lovers-in-leicester-a-twentieth-century-gay-couple/

 

OUTing the Past – The Festival of LGBT History by Jo Somerset

https://www.outingthepast.com/outing-the-past-2021-videos/leicester-lgbt-centre

 

Mirrors, Coins & Identities by Lena Tosenberger

Mirrors, Coins, Identities

 

She’s a little early, she admits,

Click-clacking her sensible heels against

The polished could-be marble.

It’s a nice place, and all the waiters

Carry a napkin over their forearms.

June orders pinot, mid-tier,

Just in case the man decides to pay.

Not that she expects him to.

Outside is dark,

and Thomas follows streetlights

On his way from work. Nods to neighbours,

Mostly strangers, but it’s good to be seen.

Gives an alibi. “I definitely came home tonight,”

If you spell out ‘home’ in dim red lights,

If it smells like homemade booze

And if it touches you as gently as a lover

That you can have for just

 

A minute

late, June thinks, is not too shabby.

A tall, long-nosed man approaches her table

With a nervous jitter to him. She smiles.

He smiles back. Looks at her. Truly looks,

Then compliments her on her choice of dress

And of wine. She praises his choice of venue.

Polite, inviting, one toe in to test out the water

Temperature

drops on the outside, but Thomas

Has reached his destination. The password is,

As always, hush. The unofficial name of the establishment.

Then Thomas sees him. Already at the bar.

Two glasses in front of him.

They’ll spend the night

Talking about their day

is a safe topic.

June defaults to those.

Surface-level. Just in case.

Distance is kept up for her own safety. But halfway

Through their appetisers, the man leans in,

Conspiratorially, and says, “It’s okay. My

Brother’s trans, too. I don’t mind.”

June excuses herself from the table and

Beelines towards

The bathroom

is his favourite place. His

Secret inside a secret. Where he is free

To kiss the sounds out of his lover’s mouth

Along with the taste of cigarettes, to drag

A greedy finger against the collar of the

White work shirt, fit for lawyers, fit for rich

 

Men

don’t say things like that to June.

Men ask what’s in her pants, men ask

What her kinks are, if her boobs are fake,

Men are not this kind, despite June’s hoping

Otherwise. This could be it, she thinks.

This could be the way she learns.

 

                               And June thinks

And Thomas thinks                                      

It’s

my kind of     love,         kind of


 

Love that doesn’t hide                              

                                          Love that doesn’t ask

Love that accepts                              

                                          Love that prevails

A love you can take home with you                              

                                          That you lock in your heart

Show off to your parents                              

                                          Or keep to yourself

To keep you warm

To keep you sane

 
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