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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Approaching Christmas Rationally

I’ve never been able to Do Christmas in a sensible manner and my brother used to maintain that it was because of our father electing to die so very inconveniently close to the festive season at the end of 1951. Following his own inconvenient death in April 2016 I no longer have a listening ear with which to discuss such matters. My own children, growing up in Auckland, New Zealand always felt they were trapped in a Dickensian novel at this time of year as I trawled suburbs, and more latterly the internet, for those providing geese for Yuletide eating. Let me tell you it isn’t easy to buy a goose in this part of the world but then again not completely impossible. What the kids really wanted to do, of course, was have barbecue on the beach like other people – normal people.

Now they have successfully escaped my enforced December traditions they are slightly less critical and Seamus, in Taiwan has even admitted to making his own Christmas Pudding from time to time which is courageous since the Taiwanese do not seem naturally drawn to Christmas Pudding. Sinead, in London definitely opts for a heavily decorated tree every year and is happy to admit it. Patrick still living close by in Auckland is perhaps the most traditional of the trio enjoying all the trimmings and also liking to incorporate as many German traditions as possible simply because his father was German.

For me, like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was certainly not a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. By mid November at St Botolph’s school we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement of this most important Christian festival of the year.

I loved going into the adjacent church each afternoon in order to practice the order of carols chosen for the end of term service. We sang the same pieces each year - `Once In Royal David’s City’, `The First Noel’, `It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ `Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, `Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, `While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ and `Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert also. The Christmas concert I remember best is the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’ and Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz. Both my parents were there which made me enormously proud even though my brother got bored and began to cry.

Then quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in `tiled surrounds’ for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us. Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the excitement of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time St. Botolph’s Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under thirty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O`Connor and a clutch of black-clad nuns made a fuss of me and told me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road and on one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Yuletide conversation between the attending parishioners during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack and laugh too loudly at their jokes.

Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. Usually I became the proud owner of a pile of second hand books. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began and it was certainly not present in all local families but I do know that each of my own children still follow it.

Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted chicken, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and a salty brown gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s, either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second hand bike or even a passed on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was one eventful year.

Although my relationship with my father was still fraught with difficulties, these were largely happy festive seasons during which we sensibly drew a truce. Now of course I realise how difficult I must have made his life upon his return to his family after the war when I so very much wished he would return to the Eighth Army and that The War would simply resume. I found the war years strangely reassuring and rarely felt in any danger. Life certainly changed a great deal when he returned in 1946 and was to take an even more dramatic turn following his sudden death on 12th December 1951. Our future Christmases were to be sombre affairs and treats were few. I was no longer required to go to Midnight Mass and found I missed the tradition and would sometimes insist on going alone.

I think I must have been a particularly contrary child. I certainly grew into being a particularly contrary adult and as I said previously I have never been able to approach Christmastime in a rational manner in my frantic desire to become knee deep in conventions and traditions. On the other hand maybe I’m slowly learning – I haven’t even attempted to track down a goose this year! So far anyway.....

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Out of Northfleet Long Ago

My three part memoir about Northfleet in the 1940s and 1950s is now, at long last and not before time, available from Amazon as paperback print versions. Most of us still prefer to read an actual book rather than those designed for kindles. The reminiscences below are revisited for newcomers.

Growing up in North Kent in the immediate post war years, Northfleet seemed to be a thriving town rather than a suburb of Gravesend as it appears now. My mother and I made regular trips to shop in the High Street and to visit Great Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road and a distant cousin called Edie in Stonebridge Hill not to mention yet another who lived in Huggens College and whose name I have long forgotten. Walking the area today ít’s hard to believe that this quiet place where footsteps now actually echo was once a veritable hive of industry. The shops on each side of the High Street then offered all that a local resident could possibly desire and included a grocer, greengrocer, baker, butcher, newsagent, hardware merchant, sweetshop & tobacconist and florist not to mention a post office, dentist, optician, photographer and even a cinema. I remember standing impatiently in a queue at Lincolns the chemists where the only amusement was staring at the little wooden drawers behind the counter with strange names on them which were probably Latin. We seemed to go to Rayner’s on a regular basis for things like screws, nails and sometimes huge bars of yellow soap and broom handles. The fish and chip shop was a highly exciting place because sometimes on Fridays my mother would stop by for fish and chips with vinegar. My favourite High Street shop though was Frosts, full of things like radios, bikes and even toys and I loved it when my mother decided to browse there for ten minutes or so.

One morning towards the end of the war we visited the photographer whose name is long forgotten, to have a photograph taken together to send to my father serving in North Africa. When he at last returned he visited Bareham’s the Barbers on a regular basis for a short back and sides. There were also corner shops tucked away in the side streets and of course a number of pubs including The Edinburgh Castle and the Dorset Arms. Not a supermarket in sight of course and indeed I don’t think we had heard of them although we knew from our weekly cinema visits that Americans were likely to shop in a completely different way to ourselves. At home most of us had a radio for entertainment and information but as yet no television. Without a doubt we all loved the radio and there were plenty of programmes to amuse us such as Paul Temple and Dick Barton, both serials of the Special Agent variety. We also listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show and ITMA starring Tommy Handley. His cleaning lady, Mrs. Mopp seemed to greatly amuse the studio audience simply by asking week after week, `Can I do you now Sir? I was confused by the ongoing merriment at the time. If we felt we needed to be further entertained we went out into the community, visiting the Wardona Picture House or the Astoria Dance Hall. Most local men, and some women said by my mother to be `fast’ also visited the various pubic houses. After the war I recall my father going to the Factory Club opposite the cinema and from time to time my mother and I went with him and watched what she called Variety Shows. These were organised by the local scouts I believe and at least once a year there was an extra special event, The Gang Show produced by Ralph Reader. To me the Factory Club was a fascinating place and my first introduction to live theatre. Years later when passing the building my poor mother shuddered and muttered and said the place had been the ruin of my father and I imagined that it had been in some way connected with the fights and tears that later took place between them involving mysterious fast women who were no better than they ought to have been. It would be true to say that for all his good points my father had a weakness for women. He was also a football fan and sometimes on Saturday afternoons I most unwillingly accompanied him to matches at the ground at the bottom of Stonebridge Hill. I was much keener on joining the group of local children to fight over the swings and slide in Ebbsfleet Park.

People did not travel out of the area a great deal and although there was a regular bus service linking us with Gravesend and Dartford, only important citizens like the doctor and those living close to him in London Road, whom we thought to be seriously wealthy, owned vehicles though some shop owners who made deliveries had vans. Many deliveries were still made by horse and cart and boys on bicycles, however. During the years that immediately followed the war we, like many of our neighbours, kept chickens and rabbits in our back garden to supplement our diet. Once the rabbits had been killed their skins were sold to the Rag & Bone man for six pence apiece. I was usually allowed to organise the sales and keep the proceeds just as long as I made as little fuss as possible at the slaughter which I generally found to be more than I could bear. Nobody owned a refrigerator back then, let alone a freezer and so fresh meat was kept in small wooden safes with mesh doors that were fixed high on an outside wall. During the hottest weather we kept milk and butter in a bucket of cold water in the outside lavatory which I admit now seems rather less than hygienic. Very few women went to work but stayed at home attending to home chores and children. Every Monday they rose earlier than usual to do the weekly wash and a fire would be lit under the copper boiler in the kitchen so that sheets, towels and pillow cases could end up as white and bright as possible. First of all the items were rubbed vigorously on a washboard, transferred into the copper, prodded for a while with the copper stick, rinsed in the kitchen sink and finally put through the mangle outside the kitchen door before being pegged onto the line!

Most local families had very little money and so large items like a birthday bicycle or a replacement radio would be financed on Hire Purchase offered by some local shops. The National Health Service did not exist until 1947 and as a rule we were reluctant to consult a doctor unless absolutely necessary. I remember the local doctors were Dr Crawford in Granby Place and Dr Outred in London Road. There was no appointments system and no receptionist and all you needed to do was sit and wait your turn. When I was very small there were no antibiotics so some conditions, today easily treated and minor, were very dangerous and could kill. There were a number of local schools including Lawn Road School, The Board School, St Botolph’s C of E School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School. I was initially enrolled at St Botolph’s and thought I was an Anglican but later removed by my father and told I was a Catholic. Although I years on briefly flirted with becoming a nun, on the whole I vastly preferred St Botolph’s. Gradually in those years following the war, we became accustomed to having more goods in the shops to choose from and we increasingly abandoned Northfleet High Street as the main focus of our weekly shopping to venture regularly into Gravesend where there was a Woolworth’s and a Marks & Spencer’s and of course a Saturday market. The great entertainment of the market was Sid Strong who sold his wares from the back of a lorry and always attracted a huge audience. It seems now that community life in those days moved at a slower pace and involved us all in a way that now seems completely absent. We no longer know anything about the characters behind the household items we buy and the services we use. Perhaps not a huge step forward in human progress.

More memories are within the pages of CHALK PITS & CHERRY STONES and EIGHT TEN TO CHARING CROSS. Volume 3, IN DISGRACE WITH FORTUNE concerns, as my mother would undoubtedly have said, A Fast Life and is perhaps not for the faint-hearted.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

MISCONDUCT IN DAYS OF YORE

An astonishing number of women are now coming forward and accusing powerful males of sexually molesting them in days of yore, well not exactly when knights roamed the countryside of course but in the days of early cell phones and messages sent via fax machine and even before that. It’s alarming just how many men were doing exactly what they could get away with – comforting too because it means that it definitely wasn’t only happening in my little corner of West London and North West Kent. Jimmy Savile’s name springs immediately to mind in this context of course, along with many others. Harvey Weinstein certainly doesn’t stand alone. I feel ever so slightly cautious, however, about removing all plaudits concerning the work of these men. Whatever we might think about Savile, and most of us don’t think much of him these days, he did raise one hell of a lot of money for charity and worked tirelessly at this over decades. Is Kevin Spacey overnight to be considered a grossly inferior actor because now we understand more about the dark side of his nature than we did a month ago? And are we supposed to tell ourselves that Roman Polanski is actually a mediocre film maker because there are too many accusations of sexual misconduct attached to his name? And to go back in time a little further should we chuck Chaucer into the darkest corners of obscurity because he celebrated the rape of a minor in The Reeve’s Tale? It’s tempting of course because he sounds like a Patriarchal Prat but on the other hand…..

Jokes about the casting couch have always abounded and mostly evidence truth. Household names were subjected to the practice as long ago as the 1930s. That in no way means it should have ever been condoned but it seems to me that a proportion of the quite grown up women subjected to it should have understood the implications a little more clearly than they obviously did. Why would anyone go to a powerful man’s hotel room unless they were hopeful that he might be able to help promote a career? Alternatively was his sexual magnetism so great that self control went out of the window? And whilst on the subject it should be stated that a lot of the time Harvey W seems to have been extremely pro-active and helpful with career building.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my intention to make excuses for these predators – heaven knows I stumbled across enough of them myself in the past. You’ve only got to read CHALK PITS & CHERRY STONES or 8.10 TO CHARING CROSS to realise that. And when my colleagues in and around Denmark Street were encouraging me (age 16 or 17) to inspect parts of their anatomy I had little prospect of a film part out of the deal. There was an imbalance of power certainly and they should have known better. They did it because they could get away with it, because it was a different time with different standards and different acceptable norms. And the other reason they did it was because I failed to stop them.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Assault On a Warrior Queen On The Central Line


Casual molestation of young women has been so embedded in the expectation of men with a modicum of power and influence that it hardly deserves comment. Harvey Weinstein could currently be described as unlucky rather than unusual. I very nearly feel a smidgen of compassion for him, after all it’s not as if he deviates that much from what was certainly the norm a few decades ago. Furthermore I am finding it challenging to believe those of the breathlessly shocked bystanders in the film industry, wide-mouthed and wide-eyed who now claim not to have suspected for a moment his ongoing unseemly conduct! Where have they been since they reached the age of consent?
It’s always possible that Australasia has generally speaking been been free from the predatory males under discussion in which case local readers might consider me slightly deranged. However, women of my age hailing from the UK, like our Californian Sisters will be all too familiar with the syndrome. Commuters on rush hour trains will undoubtedly recall the horrors of travel in and around London where daily investigation of the female anatomy was rampant enough to be termed de rigueur. For instance on the 8.10 from Gravesend to Charing Cross several young men in city suits seemingly intent upon reading The Times had all but perfected the unpleasant art of frottage and had regularly exposed me to it before my seventeenth birthday.
Before totally modern women completely condemn we wimpish females of the nineteen fifties and sixties, I must explain that most of us did not actually welcome the attention. In fact the more courageous among us gave our assailants frosty stares from time to time and over cups of tea on station concourses we even furtively discussed the incidents among ourselves in low voices and with cautious glances left and right. We sometimes wondered if we were Asking For It.
Later, when objection to sexual harassment had become more acceptable and was even brazenly and openly debated on daytime TV shows, we learned that it had little to do with the mini-skirts we were wearing and more to do with the unbridled sense of entitlement inherent in the males themselves. Some of us vowed we would Do Something About It. Having been the recipient of unwanted sexual attention of one kind or another from the age of twelve you can possibly understand that I was a little more cautious than my traveling companions and I thought I would wait to see how the tactic panned out. By the time I was thirty, however, and becoming involved once more in regular London commuter travel I was Ready For Action. The next unfortunate male who perpetrated an assault upon me would be confronted with a Modern Day Emmeline Pankhurst.
He was a fortyish, a well-dressed fellow in polished shoes and a jaunty yellow tie. He sat down beside me on the Central line train even though it was a half empty carriage and whilst we traveled from Holland Park to Lancaster Gate he blatantly tried to investigate what might lie beneath my knee length blue serge skirt. But on this occasion I was Prepared. Was I not descended from strong Kentish Iceni Women? like Boudicca unleashing her fury upon the Roman Invaders, I turned on him in the humming silence of the Queensway Station thirty second stop boldly, spear in hand. Visualising my long red hair flowing about my queenly shoulders I took a deep breath and demanded in ringing tones if he would Mind Not Making a Complete Nuisance of Himself.
He half rose from his seat unhurriedly, a knowing smile on his face and replied in the equally loud and clear timbre of one definitely born within the sound of Bow Bells with: I’m sorry luv but I fort you was Easy – you looked Easy! Then he walked away.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Underestimating Women Scorned

My friend from Northern Ireland, Judith, was regaling me once again with the frightening details of her brutal reaction to the infidelity of the man she had been married to for thirty years, the ordinary run-of-the-mill husband in his sixties who did not realise that he all but took his life in his hands when he betrayed her two years previously. We were Skyping because Judith likes to Skype. It was the lying about it that hurt the most she finally decided when the dust had settled somewhat on the shattered remains of their union, the lies followed closely by the unspeakable insult of him actually introducing the girl to various among their friends and family. The fact that they were all too gutless to mention it to her. She said for the third time that the behaviour of everyone involved had been totally unforgivable.
To be completely fair to Judith she had not launched into the story of his treachery completely out of the blue. It was me who half brought up the topic by telling her how much I was enjoying watching the second season of Dr Foster which was foolish of course because even whilst I watched the heroine’s demise unfold in series one, it occurred to me how closely the tale mirrored that of Judith and Bruce. Judith was saying that of course there was no question of a baby in his case even if the Taiwanese girl wanted one because whether she knew it or not, Bruce had been what she now called Sterilised years before. She spat the words out then muttered that she wished he’d been fully Castrated to completely stop his little games.
Her voice unexpectedly softening she added that she was quite certain that he had never been a man who strayed previously, for one thing there was little opportunity because they were hardly ever parted night or day for years because of working together to make that business the success it turned out to be. She still blamed herself for buying him the ticket to Wembley Stadium that cost an arm and a leg. It was the boys’ night out that followed that really did for Bruce. And what’s more she knew that there were still a number of his friends and their wives who knew more than they were prepared to admit. She could only sympathize with Dr Foster. Judith knew only too well how it felt to harbour so much hurt and anger. Nevertheless it was all in the past now. She’d put it all behind her. That’s not to say she would ever be able to forgive him of course. It was not in her nature to do so but on the other hand there were women out there who would cheerfully slaughter an errant husband.
There was a silence and the screen elongated our faces as if we were in a Hall of Mirrors. Then she added that she might have even considered a homicide herself had she for one moment felt she would get away with it, after all he’d had heart trouble on and off for years and taking Viagra was not at all good for him. I laughed nervously. She asked me sharply if I thought she was joking. I laughed again.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Falling Back On Pitmans


Although Wombwell Hall provided a very good general education in the mid 1950s it had not instilled much patience or persistence in me which was regrettable because Miss Hart always maintained that what We Girls needed more than anything else was what she called, variously, Staying Power and Stickability. She lamented those of us who dropped out of the Pitmans course expressing a foolish desire to simply be copy typists and reminded us that such attitudes would never help us Rise ThroughThe Ranks. At the time I felt smug because I was mastering Pitmans without too much effort even though I was seriously toying with becoming a Sister of Mercy rather than a secretary. Miss Hart said she understood completely but she couldn’t emphasise enough that we should all Stick At mastering the mysteries of office work because then, whatever happened, we could always Fall Back On It. Because I found it easy, I happily Stuck At It. Nevertheless a year or so later that schoolgirl Stickability was not helping me Rise ThroughThe Ranks at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter.

I had been working for exactly ten months when I decided that the job was not providing the stimulus it had originally seemed to offer. Celebrities visiting the Copyright Department remained thin on the ground and the exotic duo of shorthand typists in the Professional Department did not seem to be in any hurry to move on and vacate their glamorous positions to me. Nor was I being offered a Rise in pay and remained on what I soon came to view as a rather ungenerous five pounds per week. This dearth of Rises helped me to conclude that I should move on.

Back in those days office jobs were very easy into find and so making a change did not pose any problem and in any case I had overheard in Julie’s, the café at the end of Denmark Street, that Lawrence Wright, a rival publisher, was in need of secretarial help in his much acclaimed Light Music Department. I popped in there during my next lunch break and applied for the position. They hired me on the spot and to my great surprise were willing to pay me six pounds a week, pleasingly at once aware of my undoubted star potential. Miss Hart would be proud of me and as I occasionally saw her out on an evening walk if I got off the train at Northfleet rather than Gravesend, I resolved that at the very next opportunity I would fill her in with all the glorious details of my success. She was bound to be impressed.

I knew very little about Lawrence Wright except that he was spoken of in hushed tones in the environs of Denmark Street because he was also the famous song writer, Horatio Nicholls but then I had never heard of Horatio Nicholls either so his notoriety meant nothing to me. When I told my copyright department colleague, Pat, who I was moving on to work for she said that Horatio Nicholls had written legendary numbers like Among My Souvenirs and what’s more had founded Melody Maker magazine which I immediately put on my reading list. Later I was to learn from the Man Himself whilst serving his first cup of tea of the day that he had been born in Leicester in 1888 the son of a violin teacher so from my point of view he had had a flying start as far as making progress in the Music Business was concerned. He left school at twelve to be apprenticed to a printer but by the time he was eighteen was selling sheet music in the local market, ensuring good sales by singing the songs himself whilst playing an ancient upright piano. He was a young man of determined spirit, definitely a Go Getter, and when London Music Publishers did not show an interest in the songs he wrote, he decided to found his own publishing company!

When I arrived in the Light Music Department in 1957 Mr Wright still came to the office each morning by taxi at eight fifteen am and as I was required to start at eight thirty and my first job of the day was to make him a pot of tea we had many an early morning conversation. By this time, having researched him thoroughly via Westminster Public Library, I was grudgingly in awe of him which seemed to please him. He told me that he was infamous for a number of startling publicity stunts such as hiring a plane from Imperial Airways in 1927 with the Jack Hylton Orchestra on board playing his latest number Me & Jane In A Plane as it circled over Blackpool Tower Ballroom. He was not known as The Grand Old Man of Tin Pan Alley for nothing though there may well have been an element of exaggeration in these sagas retold for the edification of a star struck teenager. I would have told equally extravagant tales about myself given half a chance but unfortunately he always seemed much keener to talk about his life than mine so I had to save them for Delores with whom I shared an office in the illustrious Professional Department.

Delores was nearly sixty and she seemed a very old lady to me at the time. She lived in a top floor flatlet in Muswell Hill and had a cat called Jeremiah. I was now to be Secretary to Mr Eddie Schubert who was also keen to tell me all about himself and I learned that he had fled Vienna in 1938 with his violin and found himself in London via a very circuitous route. He was responsible for overseeing and promoting the company’s `Light Orchestral’ music which included some of the stirring marches of John Philip Sousa of which I became very fond.

The secretarial services of Delores were shared by Mr Ted Raymond and Mr Johnny Wise who were the senior song pluggers. Mr Raymond lived in a picturesque cottage in the village of Meopham, close to Gravesend, and he took a fast train home each evening from Victoria Station. Mr Wise on the other hand was a dedicated Londoner, originally from the East End but now resident in a Maida Vale mansion flat with wife and teenage daughter. On the ground floor of our building was the reception desk where a pretty Welsh girl called Olwen was both telephonist and receptionist and at the rear was the space where Benny and Lenny smoked and swore and sorted sheet music to be sent to various theatres and dance halls around the country. Benny was a tall and handsome eighteen year old with a motor bike and a girlfriend called Shirl and Lenny had just left school, had thick glasses and pimples and got excited and sweaty when he spoke more than a word or two.

With the new job I determined to make an entirely new start and turn over a new leaf and to this end created a novel and exciting fantasy family, venturing into the unfamiliar and thrilling world of stepmothers for the first time. I was now an only child. My father, Joshua, a small town lawyer had inadvisably and against all the advice of his friends, married Jessica an actress after the death of my mother some years previously. I did not get on with Jessica or either of her nineteen year old twin sons, who were called Brent and Stuart in honour of the Tarleton Twins in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and looked very much as they did in the film. Needless to say I had very recently read Margaret Mitchell’s book described by my mother as The Book Of The Film and over the years I had viewed the film at least three times in the company of various tearful female relatives. Three viewings proved to be rather too many and reduced the tribulations of Scarlet O’Hara to the decidedly tedious. My mythical stepmother had in fact auditioned for the part of Scarlet in the David Selznick production but it went to Vivien Leigh and she never really got over the disappointment. Joshua rather rapidly realised he had made a mistake in marrying this disappointed thespian but had resigned himself to trying to make the marriage work. I was very much in favour of the idea of couples working hard at their partnerships. Early in 1957 we had moved from our thatched cottage in Cobham village, a home much loved by my father to a very new and exclusive apartment overlooking the river in Gravesend, close to Bawley Bay. My stepmother maintained that the apartment was a great improvement on the draughty old cottage. She hated cooking and because help was very hard to find in those days, we were now able to eat out on a regular basis at the steak bar in the Royal Clarendon Hotel which was fortunately close by or even the new Chinese restaurant in the town centre.

Delores shook her head sympathetically upon hearing of the family problems and described my father as a Poor Soul and told me I should do everything in my power to be of emotional support to him. When she asked curiously whether the boys had jobs, referring to them as Those Twins, I took delight in explaining how much Jessica was opposed to the idea of them working and wanted them to have their freedom despite the fact that my father thought it would be good for them to join the work force. She shook her head again and repeated that my father was a Poor Dear Soul. All this was most gratifying and I began to plan a weekend family outing to tell her about, to a smart London restaurant, even Rules perhaps where we could celebrate the twentieth birthday of the twins and where Jessica could look utterly splendid in an ocelot coat. I had only a hazy idea of what an ocelot coat might look like but knew that Jessica would undoubtedly love one. Possibly Joshua could have given her one when they first got married. The outing to Rules might end in disaster with Jessica storming out into rainy Covent Garden and the twins going in search of her. The possibilities were delightfully endless. I might keep this satisfying newly developed family for the remainder of the year. I was beginning to become fond of them.

When I finally bumped into Miss Hart outside Northfleet Station one evening in early October she seemed eager to know how life was going for me. I would have very much enjoyed telling her about my stepmother and the twins and elaborating on situations endured by my father such as the unfortunate evening at Rules but as I couldn’t recall what I might have told her in the past, the idea had to be reluctantly set aside. Instead I quite unexpectedly found myself telling her that I had recently auditioned for the part of a governess in a TV version of Jane Eyre and had that very afternoon been made aware that I had won the role. She was overjoyed for me because Pitmans did not have to be For Ever and she thought I could always Fall Back On It. She was definitely going to watch the play and she would tell everyone at school. I walked away feeling strangely uneasy and for the first time wished fervently for a simple way to stop myself recounting such irrational and easily disproved stories.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Phone Shy!

From the moment I started work I was filled with enthusiasm for my position as a junior shorthand typist at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter of 138 Charing Cross Road, even if it was only in the Copyright Department. To be honest, for those as star-struck as myself, the only Department that might have been more boring was the Packing Department where Bill and Cyril packed sheet music to be sent to Theatres and Music Shops far and wide but the very possibility, faint though it was, that I might catch a glimpse of a celebrity was intoxicating. In the interim I was to type letters for Mr Roy and Mr Paul, advising theatres whether they could use various pieces of music in productions they were planning which in theory should have been interesting but actually wasn’t. I also did the filing which I could never quite get the hang of and therefore I did it in a most haphazard manner as was discovered whenever anyone tried to find documents after I left the Company ten months later. The Head of Department was Mr Blackburn and his secretary was called Pat and she typed more important and interesting letters than I did. Pat told me that she was engaged to someone called Norman who lived in the same street in Pinner and when she Got Married and Started a Family, if my work was acceptable I might well move into her place and actually become Secretary to Mr. Blackburn.

The Copyright Department was almost at the top of the old building, the only people working above us were the Arrangers in the tiny attic rooms, and Flo from Hackney, the lady who made the teas and coffees for us all. To get to my desk each day I had to pass by the terribly exciting Professional Department on the first floor where Stella was receptionist and Olive typed for Mr Bert Corri and Mr Tommy Sands played the piano for singers who dropped in throughout the day to practice various numbers. From time to time Stella and Olive chattered together in the Ladies Room on the ground floor and casually mentioned the Famous and Renowned, names like Frankie Vaughan and The Stargazers, they who apparently popped in and out of the place exchanging confidences with this fortunate duo. Simply to be allowed to listen in on these conversations was totally thrilling and I envied them with all my heart and wondered if they too might be considering leaving to Get Married & Start Families in the near future. However, in the meantime I reminded myself how very fortunate I was to be working for such a notable organization and pitied those squashed up against me on the fast trains who, like my poor school-friend Shirley, worked in Typing Pools for Shipping Companies. I also took care to buy copies of the New Musical Express from time to time which I read in a showy manner just so that fellow commuters might notice and be impressed.

I was in no doubt that I belonged within that heady strata of Fame and Fortune myself and to comfort and support my ego until my Big Break arrived I very soon reverted to the recently abandoned habit of invented families and to this end on my third day in the Copyright Department I changed my name from Jean which was oh so boring - to Toni which was oh so avant garde. When I was asked by Mr Blackburn, Pat presumably being too polite, how it was I came by a name that differed completely from that stated on my brand new employment record card I laughed in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner and said that my real name was Antoinette in honour of my father Antoine who had been a Resistance Fighter in France and died at the end of the war. Since his death I had usually been known by the diminutive Toni. My full baptismal name was Antoinette Jeanne-Marie, shortened to Jean at school by the nuns. Whether or not this unlikely tale was believed I have no idea. Mr. Blackburn looked as if he wished he had not asked in the first place but at once obligingly began to call me Toni. What a thrill! It would obviously not take too long to become a Household Name.

I was half considering awarding Toni a mother called Kate, a retired actress, living in a neo Georgian house overlooking the Thames just outside of Gravesend with her much younger husband called Benedict recently acquired whilst holidaying in Cannes when the Phone Shy problem inconveniently cropped up. It was a pity because I had most of the details concerning the family organized. Kate’s bedroom was to be pleasingly decorated in pink and gold as was her equally impressive en-suite bathroom and it must be realized that this was at a time when en-suite facilities were not every-day routine features. There were huge cupboards along an entire wall to hold her vast wardrobe of cocktail dresses and casual linen slacks. Even Toni had her own room and en- suite though decidedly more modest and not on the river side of the house. I think the younger brothers – twins aged twelve who were at boarding school most of the time, had to share a room and use the bathroom on the floor below. The unfortunate new husband, Benedict, was not being terribly well treated by his step-children and I visualized many a family drama that could be hesitantly discussed at morning tea time so I was naturally reluctant to relinquish this agreeable Gravesend family. But unfortunately it had to be done, and fast, simply because of the tricky dilemma of the telephone. I don’t need to elaborate on the fact that at 28 York Road there had never been any sign of a telephone ever being installed either during our tenure or that of the large Evans family who went before us. In the 1950s we were definitely not the kind of people who used telephones. And as if it was aware of this fact even the nearest phone box was at the very end of Springhead Road near the 496 bus stop.

Pat, kindly explaining the parameters of my job as a junior shorthand typist told me on my second day that Thursdays would be My Day for Lunchtime Switchboard Duty and took me downstairs to the little room where Joan the Switchboard Operator sat all day in charge of the telephone. The horror I felt as Joan tried vainly to teach me how to operate the confusing tangle of leads revisits even now as I recall it. It was clear that this was a rite of passage I had not as yet been introduced to but for a while neither of my concerned new workmates could quite understand why I seemed so paralysed with fear because as Pat pointed out, this part of my job was almost the same as using the telephone at home. I began to cry at that point and Joan looked directly at me and asked in a low but No Nonsense voice that did not encourage falsehoods, if there was in fact a telephone at home. Was I in the habit of ever using one? I shook my head and Joan put on a comforting face and said the problem was simply that I was Phone Shy. Although this was said kindly, at the same time she managed to make it sound like an unpleasant affliction that would be difficult to overcome, like being alcohol dependent or suffering from kleptomania. It was in that instant I knew without any shadow of a doubt that Kate with her pink and gold bedroom in the neo Georgian house and Benedict the well-meaning new stepfather, would both have to be abandoned. And I cried a little harder because it seemed so unfair to banish them before there had been an opportunity to develop their story.

To comfort and reassure me and to stop the cascade of tears that were now hard to switch off Pat suggested we take an illicit coffee break together, downstairs in the new Espresso Bar in Denmark Street, around the corner. She ran upstairs to get permission from Mr. Blackburn and because being Phone Shy sounded serious he agreed at once. As we sipped our coffee she asked me about my family because even as long ago as 1956 it was clearly considered just a little odd that a junior shorthand typist in central London would be quite as Phone Phobic as I appeared to be. I found myself telling her about an entirely newly constructed and more cautiously modest family living in a semi-detached interwar house in Dover Road, Northfleet, inherited by my mother from an aunt who had been killed by a V1 rocket in 1944. Fortunately for us the rocket that killed her did so at the top of the road, on the corner, whilst she was walking back from the library so there was no actual damage to the house itself. Nevertheless it needed modernising but since my father’s tragic death in France my mother, who was a nurse at Gravesend Hospital and who I decided to call Sue, had not really been in a position to attend to this. She was still having to pay my young brother Quentin’s school fees because she was reluctant to take him out of his prep school and expose him to the horrors of Hall Road Boys School. Then, realizing with dismay that the mythical Quentin’s age meant he had been born after the death of Antoine the Resistance Fighter, I added that Sue had entered into a short lived and foolish marriage after the war with James, an accountant from Brighton who had abandoned us after the birth of his child. There were many things Sue aspired to that would make our lives more comfortable. She would like a better kitchen and a fitted cocktail cabinet in the lounge. She longed for a little second hand car, so handy for when she came home late from her hospital shifts. She would dearly love to have a telephone because she certainly had not anticipated being responsible for a Phone Shy daughter, but the priority really had been to upgrade the original bathroom before anything else.

There were some aspects of the Dover Road house, I told Pat, that we would keep because they were such attractive features, like the stained glass windows in the hallway that lit the stairs when you ran up and down them. A lot of people thought Art Moderne features were ugly, I said, beginning to elaborate rather more enthusiastically, but I really liked them. Pat was not listening very attentively. She had finished her coffee and was patting her lips on a paper napkin. I pictured myself sitting on the stairs of the interwar house, totally alone early in the morning, shoulders drenched in a multitiude of colours as the rising sun infiltrated the hall window. At times, I thought, the tranquility of the house reminded me of a church. A small degree of pride was rising within me when I thought about Sue and all the problems she had faced with so much stoicism over the years. I wanted her to be proud of me. I began to feel just a little bit more confident about being Phone Shy because although it was not something anyone would choose to be afflicted with, it could be overcome. I knew that Sue’s daughter was more than capable of dealing with it!