When I got to the age where I was able to toddle around, I and my sister Sarah were sent each week for dancing lessons at Miss Ballantine’s in a red brick house in Hans Place near Harrods. All I remember was that there was someone playing a piano in the corner of the first floor room and we were given stars on our shoes and two or three smarties if we did well. Of course, I seem to remember I had more stars than Sarah although she may dispute such a recollection.
We all enjoyed the dancing lessons given to us later on at school, whilst at St Andrews University I helped run the Scottish Reeling Club. In turn this led to my Burns Nights held here at the Castle which is always one of my happiest weekends in the most the wintery of months. I tend to be light on information when I ask people to come, simply saying that will be a little dancing but that it is just a great party.
We always have the most tremendously eclectic group of friends, quite a few of whom have never reeled before. In fact, a wonderful French friend of mine is still talking bemusedly about it two years later. Dancing and song, very simply, bring people together.
On the Heroes at Highclere weekend, the Gatsby Girls are once again coming to teach us all how to dance on both the Saturday and Sunday. It is such fun both learning the routine and watching all those taking part, and impossible not to laugh and smile. It is, I suppose, our own version of “Strictly Come Dancing” at “Downton”. There are other bands who will entertain us and, of course, on Sunday, a bagpiper: the Pipe Major of the Queen’s Royal Hussars, which was the 6th Earl of Carnarvon’s Regiment, and who has been very kindly organised by the officers of that regiment.
In her book “Fighting on the Home Front”, one of our speakers, war journalist Kate Adie, looks at the impact of music and theatre on the morale of first world troops by telling the story of Lena Ashwell. Lena was another extraordinary woman: a suffragette and theatre impresario, she took on the War Office and, with the help of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the YWCA and its royal Patron, Princess Helena Victoria, bought shows and concerts to troops in France, Malta and Egypt.
At first the War Office did not feel any need to entertain the troops who were simply expected to amuse themselves in the breaks between fighting. However, boredom soon led to bawdy skit and song routines being staged by soldiers in drag, something definitely not approved of at the time. The Princess, Lena and, eventually, the War Office decided something a little more morally uplifting was needed and the first concert tour got underway in January 1915. Over the course of the war more than 600 artists, including nearly 350 women, gave endless performances in derelict sheds, railway stations, ships and deserts. Tens of thousands of troops attended and there is a particularly poignant description of a performance by Ivor Novello, who had just written “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, performing his song with the refrain echoing back from over the entire army camp.
The Dowager Countess of Carnarvon too organised choirs for the soldiers returning from the Front – she thought it would help them “travel through” their stress since it requires breath and concentration as well as bringing people together.
Veterans from all countries face the same challenges as their forbears. Singing and choirs are one form of therapy for them and their families thus we are delighted that the Military Wives’ Choir is also joining us on the Sunday. However, I am also aware that, in some cases, more is needed. One of the challenges of distress in mental health is that it is not visible like a broken leg. It may not become apparent until several years after the initial trauma and it needs a practical approach.
I know that therapy centres help enormously and so one of the charities we are supporting in the UK across the weekend is Combat Stress. It was a delight and an honour to meet one of the veterans they have helped and I look forward to learning more about their work in the coming month.