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 cafĂ© 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!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Not A Great Deal In Common

As we girls who were not considered exam material prepared with both excitement and trepidation to leave Wombwell Hall, the mechanics of actually getting a place in the workforce were debated anxiously. Although initially it appeared to be daunting, the entire process was effected surprisingly smoothly, primarily I believe because in those days the kind of jobs we had been trained for were plentiful. Miss Hart spoke to us at some length about the sort of office we each thought we might enjoy working in and set up the interview processes with local businesses. It could hardly have been more streamlined. Pamela and Pauline were going to work side by side in Henley’s Typing Pool, the two Margarets and their cohorts were heading for upstairs offices in Queen and Windmill Streets and both Florence and Mavis were to give up shorthand altogether and become copy typists at Bowater Paper Mills. Miss Hart observed us at the end of that final term with an air of contentment and satisfaction. We were a job well done! She was therefore unprepared when the small sub-group of Joyce and Shirley led by me as spokesperson, told her that we were determined to work in London.

London, she told us could only be reliably reached by train and she managed to make the twenty miles that lay between us and the city I was so anxious to bear down upon, sound insurmountable. But when we insisted she asked for Miss Fuller’s permission to make a Toll Call and kindly arranged for us to have interviews with a large employment agency near Charing Cross Station. At around that point Joyce’s father turned up at the last shorthand class of the day and firmly explained that His Girl would be staying in Gravesend and preferably as close to Istead Rise as possible. It eventuated that he had already found her a position with a local builder. So in the end only two of us went together on the Eight Ten to Charing Cross during the last week of term, and I was in the fortunate position of having my expenses for the day funded by the mysterious Benefactors of Orphaned Schoolgirls. Shirley had to pay her own way.

Our excitement was intense as we waited for the Fast Train, stopping only at Dartford and Woolwich Dockyard before reaching the unbearably exotic London Bridge on that Tuesday morning. We were dressed in our best which for me was a black slimline skirt that was rather too tight and had been borrowed from my Posh Cousin Margaret. It didn’t really gel with the hand knitted grey sweater, feverishly finished by my mother the evening before and reluctantly worn under my somewhat shabby and now hated school raincoat which I intended to remove and hang nonchalantly over my arm as we approached our destination. Shirley’s mother had bought her a smart brown boucle suit especially for the occasion with bobble ties at the neck and waist, worn with a small brown felt hat. She looked every inch the office worker and inspected me critically and wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing make up. Not being prepared to tell her that I did not own any I simply shrugged and allowed myself to be persuaded to try hers with the aid of the Ladies Waiting Room mirror. When I did so I rather liked the effect and decided that a full range of my own should be put on my first wage earner’s shopping list.

I felt sick with the sheer exhilaration of being on a fast train heading towards the city of my dreams and with money for morning coffee and lunch in my pocket. With very little difficulty I persuaded Shirley that once we had Got Our Jobs we should spend the remainder of the day exploring even though it seemed that she was rather more in the habit of obeying parental instructions than I was and we had in fact been told to Come Straight Back. We found the agency in The Strand very easily and took the lift to the second floor to a huge room at the back of the building, overlooking the river where we were ushered into separate cubicles to be interviewed by separate middle aged women who both looked a bit like Miss Hart and had the same kind of jolly booming voices.

Mine asked me what my interests were which took me completely by surprise but I explained in great detail that working in an office was merely a stop gap idea for me because before very long I was intending to train as an actress, or failing that, become a writer. I felt after some consideration it would not be pertinent to mention that furthermore, I was also still seriously considering Entering a Nunnery. I had read quite recently somewhere that there was a splendid Silent Order at Marble Arch, which I now understood was almost in the heart of Central London and I intended to check it out at some stage.

The Miss Hart Look Alike listened politely with a small and patient smile upon her face and suggested that I might like to work as a junior shorthand typist in one of the nearby newspaper offices where I would rapidly become familiar with journalistic writing and what it entailed. As newspapers were considered a most unnecessary expense by my mother, I was not in the habit of reading them and so greeted this idea that sounded reminiscent of A Pool, with some alarm. I explained once more that I wanted something much more exciting than that. The Miss Hart Look Alike spent a lot of time trying to find a theatre or a theatrical agent in need of typing help but was not able to. However, we were both delighted when at last she came up with the idea of a Music Publishing Office. She had a niece it appeared who worked in the Music Publishing Industry and that lucky young person was in the habit of tripping over pop stars on a regular basis. I was more than anxious to meet celebrities so I set off up Charing Cross Road towards number 138 and the offices of Francis, Day & Hunter without further delay.

As I strode towards the Music Industry Enterprise I lamented the fate of poor Shirley who was, rather horrifyingly, heading towards the Typing Pool of a shipping company near Cannon Street. However, I knew full well that not all of we Wombwell Hall Girls were Cut Out For Fame and Fortune. I began to rather regret the fact that I had persuaded her to meet up later in order that we explore London together. Shirley was not someone I found easy to share confidences with. She had a boyfriend who was in the Merchant Navy and she wanted to Become Engaged and start saving to Get Married. Maybe we didn’t have a great deal in common after all.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Folly Of Fake Families

From the relatively tender age of eight or nine I began to throw myself enthusiastically into the exciting biosphere of Fake Families, inventing a variety of unlikely maternal replacements for my own mother who continued to fall far short of my youthful expectations, and a diverse range of phony siblings. Thus many happy hours were spent making notes of names and ages and details of the varied and very pleasing homes in which we lived. At times I simply moved us from 28 York Road to a six room eighteenth century weatherboard cottage on the outskirts of Gravesend such as the pleasant, rural communities of Shorne or Cliffe, first taking care to install a totally modern bathroom at great cost on the first floor landing. On other occasions we settled happily into a late nineteenth century house in Darnley Road with Art Nouveau stained glass in the ground floor windows and black and white tiling in the entrance hall. For a brief month or two, recalling a trip to Upnor on the pillion of my father’s motor bike, a newly created family took up residence in an ancient cottage in the High Street and enjoyed the envious gaze of Sunday afternoon visitors on coach outings to Places of Interest.

I usually gave myself a new and more acceptably middle class name like Penelope – but was affectionately known as Penny to my friends. Penny’s particular mother for some months was Julia, a famous pianist. Her stepfather Nick gambled, a habit that was tolerated by Julia with good humour because she earned so much money on her overseas tours that it didn’t really matter. There was also a younger brother called Sebastian who played the violin and was something of a prodigy causing Penny a lot of resentment which I happily discussed at school at some length at morning playtime. This Faux Family was loosely based on the characters in a Noel Streatfield book and soon bored my classmates at St Botolph’s because even the keen readers found Enid Blyton more to their taste.

When I tired of Penelope I became Stephanie (known as Stevie) living with a film actress mother, Fiona and an ubiquitous stepfather who hovered in the background, who went by the name of Cameron and was largely absent. He drove a white sports car, was a lawyer and spent most of his time in London but often flew to New York for reasons that I could not adequately explain except that the idea appealed to me.

When Stevie failed to deliver suitable stimulus I became the even more exotic Carlotta, secret daughter of King Juan Carlos of Spain, conceived with a maidservant. By this time I was a little older and becoming more familiar with irregular conceptions as one by one my older cousins began to encounter obstacles in life which my mother described as Getting Into Trouble if she sympathized with them or Taking Trouble Home to her Poor Mother if she did not. In Carlotta’s case, quite unlike the suiters of my unfortunate relatives, the generous Juan Carlos purchased a dog breeding business for his illegitimate daughter. It was situated at High Halstow and the breeds ranged from tiny toy terriers to giant wolfhounds. Carlotta lived there in a thatched cottage with two Spanish serving maids who helped with the daily exercise on the sheep levels. Every few months Juan Carlos visited and took Carlotta to afternoon tea in the village of Cobham, greatly impressing the villagers who somehow or other all realized at once that he had an aristocratic background.

By the time I had spent two years at Northfleet Secondary School for Girls and was about to go on to Wombwell Hall, I was living quite a number of fictional lives and in order not to become confused with regard to the various events taking place within them, I was forced to keep ever more extensive and meticulous notes on the detail of each. I was beginning to realise that being a committed fantasist was not straightforward and took more time and energy than most girls of my age would have been prepared to give to such a project. Homework became an irritating interruption and was frequently left uncompleted. On the other hand, whilst others were rebelling about early bedtimes I was more than happy to have early nights, particularly in winter, in order to give enough time to what I called Thinks, which was more accurately the hours of invention and planning concerning the progress through life of my many alter-egos.

My friend Molly from number 31 York Road, had initially wholeheartedly gone along with the idea of fantasy families but her own inventions did not change as frequently as mine did and generally involved Doris Day in one way or another, either as a mother or an older sister. As my own creations grew ever more complicated I could not help noticing that her enthusiasm began to wane which I thought was a pity. As for my confused classmates, I neither knew nor cared what they thought of the rapidly revolving characters I claimed were my closest relatives. My prime concern with regard to school was to ensure that my mother did not turn up to any of the Meet The Teachers evenings which fortunately were not organized terribly often in those days.

From time to time I casually made mention of my mythical stepfathers to my teachers and as I was not completely naive I was keen to avoid the possibility of them coming face to face with a woman they would at once realise was not likely to be married to Nick the Gambler or Cameron the Lawyer. To complicate matters even further I had made each mother a mere thirty years old, having conceived Penny or Stevie and their like as a teenager. The Real Fathers had usually perished in air accidents in the latter year or two of the war. Sometimes I cut out glamorous magazine photographs and claimed they were my mother, regardless of the unlikely possibility of her ever actually owning a mink coat or attending a film premiere in Leicester Square.

In my first year at Northfleet Girls’Secondary School, Sylvia Mason jabbed her forefinger at the woman in the latest picture (who was shaking hands with Princess Margaret I seem to recall) and asked me to explain how it was, if that was my Mum that we were living in York Road. This was an unfortunate question and I had to explain that we didn’t live there all the time but that my Mother liked to spend time there because she had been left the house by my real father’s childhood Nanny. My reading material had by that time greatly extended, and involved Edwardian family sagas of wronged women and lost fortunes. Sylvia’s obvious distrust of my story did not unduly bother me since she had herself told most unlikely tales about being an Identical Twin whose sister, Susan, was Brainy and now attended The Girls’Grammar and furthermore there were two other sets of twins in her family, boys of four and six. That seemed most unlikely to be true. My part time friend Shirley Munro said that Sylvia was known for her lies and it was because her family had recently been rehoused into a brand new Council House on the spanking new, wide avenued Singlewell Estate. It had gone to her head, she thought. Undeterred Sylvia continued to distrust my own stories and said that she thought I talked a Load of Bully Beef. Her Aunt used to live in York Road and had said for years that those houses ought to be condemned because there were no bathrooms and you had to walk up the back yard to go to the lav.

I told her she could think what she liked and that her ignorant thoughts did not bother me but I walked away with a thumping heart because this particular exchange had been witnessed by at least half a dozen interested Form One girls. On the other hand many of us at that time lived in houses that should be condemned, all without running hot water and bathrooms. However, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it would be prudent to stop producing magazine photographs of my mother.

Decades later I was startled when my brother admitted that he had indulged in very similar family replacement fictions. We each then claimed to wonder how and why the fabrications had come about, and asked each other what on earth could have prompted such gross deceptions and falsehoods. But even as we professed to analyse the matter we were both totally aware that the answer was straightforward and simple and that no mystery was attached to it. Unlike our friends and neighbours we each, even at a very tender age became wholly discontented with what appeared to be Our Lot.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017


As our time at Wombwell Hall drew to a close we Girls Of 2SC were all given Important Letters to take home to our parents. Miss Eatch clutched the slim white envelopes to her person, just beneath her ample and somewhat wobbly bosom that we were inclined rather unkindly, to snigger at. She had some concerns about the following year, she explained, and wanted to tell us what the letters contained. We learned that the majority of parents were informed that their daughter had been an enthusiastic and pleasant class member who would do well in the workplace, and positively thrive in a nice clean, well run Typing Pool. They were daughters any parent could be proud of. Several students were cautiously nominated for possibly enrolling for a further year because with focus and commitment they might well find themselves able to pass the new-fangled GCSE Ordinary Level Examination and that would undoubtedly lead on to an even bigger and brighter Typing Pool. A select few of the white envelopes generously praised the intellectual potential of the girl named within and strongly recommended the extra school year as there was little doubt that she was made of the stuff that passed exams. Such girls might well become Personal Assistants to Managing Directors in far flung places like Maidstone.

But most exciting of all - one of us was actually considered to be capable of Getting A Proper Degree at some stage in the future. She shouldn’t really be one of us at all because she belonged in a Grammar School. Valerie was University Material Without A Shadow Of A Doubt. When Yvonne who had once been my friend and was now Valerie’s friend heard this she turned and gave the whole class the kind of smile that almost blinded us with its radiance, then bowed her head just a little. Valerie’s success was also her success. I couldn’t help thinking just a little regretfully that it was a good thing she had shed my friendship whilst we were in the early stages of that first Wombwell Hall year as I would never have been capable of instilling such pride in her teenage breast.

Miss Eatch was encouraging us to applaud Valerie’s success and whilst we did so I wondered what A Degree might be and how one went about getting one because judging by Yvonne’s reaction the idea should bring any normal person close to ecstasy and indeed the unusually deferential manner of Miss Eatch herself indicated it was clearly something worth striving for. Valerie, cheeks flushed with pleasure was talking about the relative benefits of Oxford because that’s where Daddy had wanted to go before his education had been interrupted, and Cambridge which her mother favoured. I wondered what form the interruption that she was managing to make sound like a tragedy of gigantic proportion, had taken. And what was to happen to Yvonne whilst Valerie was involved in furthering her education in places that sounded even further from Gravesend than either Maidstone or London?

After school, walking down the driveway, past the badger setts in the bankside and into Hall Road itself, Joyce Williams who had recently become a half-hearted Close Friend, asked what I thought the attitude of Those At Home might be at the thought of me enrolling in the Exam Year. We had both been included in Miss Eatch’s second category and so were cautious nominees for exam passing. This was all very flattering in that it plucked us just a little from The Herd, but it had to be borne in mind that when handing over the envelopes Miss Eatch had hesitated before both of us and said that in our case the suggestion carried with it some concern as to our Actual Ability To Apply Ourselves and we should talk it through with our families very thoroughly, Remembering these words and the tone in which they had been uttered I shrugged and said to Joyce that I Couldn’t Care Less which was the 1956 equivalent of Do I Look Bovvered? Joyce said well she cared because she was very keen to get a job. I was still contemplating the various forms a Degree might take and why it couldn’t be taken for example, in London which, had I been Valerie, would have made all the difference in the world.

When I got home with my white envelope it seemed somehow inevitable that my Grandmother would be at the kitchen table with my mother. The large brown teapot covered by the crochet crinoline lady sat between them. Old Nan sniffed and folded her arms across her chest which indicated that she was even more anxious than my mother to know what was inside the envelope and when the contents were read aloud to her there was a silence whilst I looked from one to the other with almost a tinge of excitement. To fill the silence I advised with as much authority I could muster that a lot of the girls were definitely staying on for an extra year and that Valerie had even been told she was University Material and could get a Degree. She might be going to Oxford or even Cambridge but apparently not London.

Old Nan sniffed again and said she wasn’t partial to either of them places. In fact she could never bring herself to trust any place to do with boats and water and it stood to reason. My mother looked uncertain, shaking her head from side to side and suddenly dropping the letter on the table almost as if it was no longer safe to touch it. She said that more school at my age seemed all wrong to her. I was nearly sixteen after all. But my Grandmother, dragging the crinoline lady from the pot so savagely that she almost decapitated her and pouring herself a very full cup, had no doubts whatsoever. She thought that the whole lot of them schoolteachers must be Stark Bleeding Mad and they wanted shooting for even suggesting such a Damn Fool Idea. If she had her way she’d line up the whole lot of them outside that school and Shoot Them soon as look at them. More Schooling? More? For a great girl like me? The only thing I needed in her opinion, and she wasn’t one to give opinions where they wasn’t asked for, was to get up off my Fat Arse and bring in some money.

I softly but courageously asked if that money might be made in the pea fields and she responded with the fact that beans and taters were starting soon and gave me the kind of look that crushed the possibility of further daring comment. What was wrong with me and a fair number of my cousins was that we’d been Molly-coddled, Spoilt Rotten and had too much schooling to put fool ideas into our noddles. She’d never had a day of schooling and yet nobody could say the lack of it had held her back. My mother said little but glanced at the kitchen clock from time to time.

When she left for the 480 bus back to Crayford, me walking beside her to the bus stop and carrying the newspaper parcel of flounder and shrimps that had been purchased during the afternoon, my Grandmother looked sideways at me from time to time, lips pursed and saying nothing. Back at York Road there was a little more sluggish discussion on the benefits of examinations that would ensure a bigger typing pool. In general terms, however, it was decided that at the end of that term I would join the majority of girls in my class and head towards the workplace. To be fair I was not completely against the idea because the thought of becoming a regular wage earner and able to buy a blue Orlon twin set from Marks & Spencer’s if I so wished, greatly appealed to me. And it wasn’t even as if it would be for long because there were of course plans to be made about my Glorious Future. Evaluations to be considered, important decisions weighed up concerning the correct path towards stardom on stage and screen for instance and how I would be able to find enough time to write the best-selling novels I already had planned. Glittering futures needed an enormous amount of forward planning.