Thursday 18th August
As you know I had been quite impressed by the wallpaper in Adrian’s little flat. He told me that it came from Biba, a new shop I had started to notice popping up in magazine articles and had even been mentioned in the Evening News a couple of times. The wallpaper was a rich dark chocolate brown with large swirls of fine gold lines running through it in great loops and arcs and, the effect was amazing. It was like nothing I had ever seen; completely contemporary yet with an almost antique feel at the same time. I was intrigued; I had heard that the shop had some brilliant new fashions, but was completely unaware that it sold wallpaper and paint too. We decided to visit and took a couple of buses to Kensington. The shop was almost opposite Derry and Toms that I had been taken to year after year to buy my clothes in as a child. But Kensington was fast changing from the staid Edwardian shops I had been accustomed to; it was now a hodgepodge of sixties psychadelia and full of tie-die T shirts, and tiny shops with joss-sticks burning in profusion. Oh, and loud music too, lots of it blaring from every doorway. It was quite intimidating, but Adrian felt quite at home here, as if this was his milieu, his spiritual home. Across the street the large department stores were still catering to the upper and upper middle-class ladies that Grandma purported to be, and right opposite and almost squeezing them out was all of this, well, hippie stuff I suppose; a very disconcerting mix.
The shop itself was amazing, it was on about four floors with a sweeping staircase like some cornucopia literally spilling clothes and hats and coats along its banisters. The walls and the ceiling were all painted in loud colours; bright yellows and greens and sky blues, and there was some sort of bubble machine too, making huge wobbly bubbles that floated in the smoky air, because almost everyone was smoking, hopefully just tobacco. I was too star-struck to really look at the clothes, but they were again a strange mix of the very modern, bias-cut and outrageous hard colours, along with floaty-drifting silks and chiffons and full-length dresses that shouted out “thirties cocktail bars” at you. And all the assistants were stick-thin and elegant and had masses of make-up on, especially eye make-up, looking like smudged panda’s with sharp cheekbones. It was really the most amazing shop I had ever been in, and I would return many times just to marvel at the ever changing scene but I don’t remember actually ever buying a thing there.
Wednesday 17th August
And a strange quiescent mood has settled on me. I got quite animated writing about Aunt Maud’s house, it brought back with it so many memories I thought I really had consigned to bed ages ago. And also memories of Grandma; Grandma as she used to be, before she got old and crotchety, before we fell out – well, drifted apart really, as there was no falling out at all. Well, not until the end, until we were so far apart, that, as Humpty-Dumpty found out, there was no putting us together again. Grandma used to even be fun at one time, quite jolly when I was a little girl, despite, what I had no real understanding of at the time, our slightly straightened circumstances. She was always pleased to see me when I would come home from school; always interested in me, intrigued to find out how school had been, what I had learned. And I would tell her everything, all about this or that teacher, or about Jennie and her perfect looks, or chubby little Gwennie and her boyish ways. And we would sit and she would help me with my homework, or what passed for it back then. Not that she was that much help really, but she would always correct my English grammar, and was bright as a button when it came to maths. Right to the end she could do mental arithmetic far faster than most people. Nowadays even I have gotten used to using a calculator, and even back in my hotel days working in Accounts we had adding machines, with rows of digits you had to press, and a big handle you pulled down and the machine would whirr and clunk and the answer would be printed out on a two inch wide ribbon of paper. Oh what a godsend those machines were when you had a hundred entries to add up in a ledger, because this was way before computers and Excel spreadsheets were in common usage. A computer was unheard of, we had seen them on the television and they were the size of a room, with big spools of tape that spun around as the mighty machine did its thing. Exactly what it was doing nobody seemed to know, of course, but in awed silence we were mightily impressed. And now they are everywhere, in every little gadget, in every household appliance, and even the delivery man, who has just delivered my latest book from Amazon has a handheld computer which I am even supposed to sign with a little plastic stick on the two inch wide screen. Quite amazing; one wonders where it will all end.
Tuesday 16th August
The train chugged its’ way slowly through the west London suburbs, and more and more fields appeared between the houses, and then it was all fields, neat little pocket handkerchiefs of fields lined with high hedges, and copses, lots of copses everywhere. And in no time we had arrived in Cheltenham, with its’ white Georgian houses and narrow little streets. And the sun was shining where we had left the rain behind in London. The taxi drew up at Aunt Maud’s house; it was not Georgian at all, but Edwardian though still rather grand with a long drive and there must have been at least five bedrooms. Aunt Maud was terribly proper, and formal, and far more old-fashioned than Grandma herself. Her husband had died many years ago and her children all grown up and gone too. She lived with a lady’s companion, a sort of housekeeper and general servant, but who was on an almost equal standing to Aunt Maud. I was told to call her Miss Nicholls, but my aunt called her Mary. Mary (Miss Nicholls to me) accompanied Aunt Maud everywhere, and nowadays I suppose one would suspect them of some Sapphic connection, but I really don’t think that was the case at all. They weren’t even particularly friendly to each other, Miss Nichols rarely seemed to join in the conversation, so that although the pretence was otherwise, the relationship was quite clear; Miss Nicholls was a servant after all.
Aunt Maud’s house was even more of a time capsule than ours; real Persian carpets, where ours was an expensive copy, the sofas were straight backed, horse-hair filled and the sides were lashed to the back with gold braided ropes. The bedrooms were freezing, no heating at all, and we all had stone hot water bottles which were too hot to put your feet on, but at least warmed up the musty and damp sheets. I had to be on my best behaviour in front of Aunt Maud, not a particular difficult task, but I was lectured constantly by Grandma on what to say and how to behave at table. Despite all of this I really enjoyed our trips to Cheltenham, and it always seemed a special treat whenever Aunt Maud’s was mentioned. I suppose it was the acting, the putting on of a performance that I enjoyed the most, the complicity as we all conspired to pretend that life could really still be lived like this. I sometimes wonder if Aunt Maud was aware that she was acting too.
Catherine’s blog – day sixteen
Monday August 15th
I have occasionally been accused of being a snob, not the nicest of accusations, I must admit, but I think that often people mistake reserve or diffidence for some sort of elevated snootiness. I am, as almost everyone seems to be nowadays, middle class. I was born into the middle classes, unlike many who now seem to have acquired their middleclass-ness, much as one might acquire the habit of wearing sensible shoes; it just seems to fit better that way. And this classlessness, or middleclass-ness, is by far preferable to the awful class restrictions I grew up with; the aristocracy, the county set, the professional and the lower managerial middle classes, the white collar and the blue collar workers, and the unashamedly working classes, and all gradations in-between. Now; apart from a few who consider themselves upper class at the top, and those that do not want to be known as, but undoubtedly are, ‘chavs’, at the bottom, the majority of us are middle class. We are just as comfortable buying ciabatta as white sliced, we holiday all over the place without looking down on those who stay in Britain, we buy ready meals from M. & S, we are quite at home in any ethnic restaurant and we watch less and less television, and spend more and more time on the internet. I like the anonymity this brings, the sense of unquestioning where you came from or who your parents were, that we all enjoy. So call me a snob at your peril. Discerning, slightly reserved, outwardly comfortable in myself- yes, but in no way do I consider myself superior, far from it – if you only knew how inferior I feel to almost everyone else. That is why I try to hide it with my old-fashioned looks, and my sometimes pre-occupied air. So despite my own declaration you should not always judge a book by its cover. But I sincerely hope you do mine, and decide to buy it.
Catherine’s blog – day fifteen
Sunday August 14th
And here is one of those little snippets of memory:
It is 1959 and I am 13, we are all living happily (or so I supposed back then) in Putney, the memories of sunny days in Cyprus far behind me, and getting harder to remember by the day, stuck here in this pale and rainy city. We are off to visit Aunt Maud in Cheltenham, we only go about once every two or three years; so at my age each visit seems like a little adventure. We take a taxi to Paddington, heaven knows how we could have managed it all on the tube, as Grandma has insisted in taking not only clothes for every contingency, including tropical sunshine and monsoon rain, but also a whole suitcase of shoes, and one for towels too. (as Aunt Maud is not known for her generosity in that department) We are only going for a week but we seem to have enough luggage for at least a month. Added to that my mother disappears at busy-bustling Paddington , and catches up with the porter pushing our haphazardly loaded trolley just as our train is announced, clutching a veritable stack of periodicals and magazines and even a couple of paperback books. As soon as she spots a W. H. Smith she turns into some demented reader who simply must empty the shelves of all the shop possesses. Grandma is fussing with the two or three large hold-alls perched on the trolley, trying to locate the thermos and sandwiches, if only to reassure herself that, yes indeed, she had packed them. “At least we don’t have to rely on the Buffet car.” She chirps. I am lost in admiring the latticework struts and pillars which seem to disappear, high-high up above us amidst a whole cathedral’s worth of smutty green and black glass. I am turning and turning slowly round and round lost in the kaleidoscope of engineering, and wondering how on earth they ever managed it. Grandma is busy instructing the porter which carriage we are in, and my mother is already surreptitiously flicking through some gardening book. We are just settled into our compartment, with Grandma’s assortment of Gladstone bags and hold-alls safely in the overhead string-woven luggage racks; my mother deep into one of her paperback books in the opposite corner, and me, testing out the bounciness of the long upholstered seat. I rub a space out of the yellowed grimy window by spitting on a hanky and rubbing, the whistle blows three high pitched blasts, the guard’s flag is raised and slowly we lurch forwards and out of Isombard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece of iron and glass, out past the dirty blackened brick rows of London houses, and away.
Enough for now, but I will finish this piece later. (Promise)
Thursday11th August 2011
And London seems to be back to its’ normal hustle and bustle. Nothing seems to halt its’ avaricious progress or growth. The masses of tourists keep on flocking here; the economic migrants from Eastern Europe and Russia; more and more Chinese everywhere you look, and of course, the Wealthy, who never seem to tire of the fashionable restaurants of Mayfair and the shops of Bond Street. I can remember when Bond Street was so different back in the early seventies. It was still trendy, but it was almost a secret world, discovered only by the lucky few cognoscenti. It was still predominated by fashion, but not by the big names; the Christian Diors, the Guccis and the like. It was a much more higgledy-piggledy affair, with tiny boutiques and hairdressers and shoe shops – always new ones opening or closing. And the clothes were really original too, not seeming to be mass-produced as are today’s “Designer Items”. Nobody called them designers either back then; it wasn’t cool to parade a name on the outside of clothes or be decked out in Burberry check. And I really think it was friendlier too, although I couldn’t afford to actually shop there that often, I used to pop into one or two favourites and the girls there all seemed to know me, and were quite happy for me to browse, all of us knowing I had no real intention of buying. Now, you go into a clothes shop and are either deliberately ignored, so that even if you like something, there is no chance of finding it in your size, or a different shade – or are descended on by vultures of sales assistants, who hover dangerously close, so that you are instantly intimidated and don’t even want to stay another minute in their wretched shop. Or maybe it is just that I was young then, and now I am just another old woman who should really have known better than to have wandered into the territory of the new and fearless. Ah, well.
Wednesday10th August 2011
Well, apologies for yesterday. As you can see, it made my blood boil – just somewhat!! The waste, I suppose, and the pointlessness of it all. And yes I do remember living there. They say that love is blind, well I must have been truly besotted not to have taken stock and refused to return night after night to Amhurst Road and those nightmarish mansion blocks. Where on earth was my reason, where was my self-respect? Or was I so in love that I was incapable of seeing around me – the desolation, the despair and the waste of human potential. Or was I as trapped as all the other residents; Adrian by his previous homelessness and need for a roof over his head and I by my stubborn refusal to let Grandma see she had won, that she had beaten me. More fool me, you may be thinking.
But no, maybe I had to go through all of that in order to emerge the other side. And it also, of course, taught me a lesson. And that was that I would never end up there again, or anywhere like it. I worked hard and took my opportunity, when it appeared, to make sure I was financially secure. And I make no apologies for that at all. None whatsoever.
We all in our own ways have to learn to survive.
Tuesday 9th August 2011
And now on top of potential financial meltdown and European countries in massive debt, we have riots in London. As if that will solve anything. The helicopter pictures are showing the very same dreary streets in Hackney, and the same wretched prison-like blocks of flats I lived in with Adrian all those years ago. And nothing seems to have changed at all; the same hopelessness on the faces; the same desperation; the same squalor. And people are still having to live there like that. I know because I had to live there, and it was depressing, then, in 1972. Everywhere else people’s living standards have risen out of all contrast to those dark days. Why on earth are those mansion blocks still standing, they were decrepit and ripe for demolition in the seventies. .
It seems as if the Police and the Courts and all the Social Workers are just perpetuating the misery; simply processing a problem rather than attempting to solve it. God, I sound like a Socialist. Heaven forbid!! And New Labour with all its’ false promises failed to do anything either, so it is no use pointing the finger at just one political party.
And I can safely predict that in twenty years time we will have young people out on the streets rioting again. As Marlene Dietrich used to sing in that strangely hypnotic husky voice, “When will they ever learn, When will they eeeee-vurrr learn?