Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Last year at Liverpool


            My mother had a new job working in a hotel at Stratford-on-Avon.   She must have had another row with Miss Barrows.  So that is where I went on my return from Spain.

            The Arden Hotel was a very pleasant, old fashioned hotel right opposite the theatre, down by the river.  It belonged to Miss Watney, a somewhat vague and elderly spinster in her seventies. Miss Watney was a lesbian and it was her partner, called Swoff, who was several years younger, who really ran the place.  Miss Watney liked to have what she called ‘lady’ staff.  All the waitresses were ‘lady waitresses’ and my mother was the ‘lady cook housekeeper.’  I do not think this policy extended to the chambermaids.

            I was going to earn my keep by working part time as a waitress.  I was quite used to doing holiday work.   Like most of the university students I had found jobs working at the till in a restaurant, making cardboard boxes in an ice cream factory, or slicing vast quantities of bread in a mental home.

            Waiting was rather more fun.  I enjoyed the work, which was varied and active and I soon got to know the other waitresses, who were a disparate group of middle aged women, mostly on their uppers, who had taken on the work as a temporary measure.  They were all known  by their surnames:  Snow, Beck, Kent,  Dixon and Fraser.  Fraser, whose name was also Daphne, was only three years older than I was, so we became friends and I know her to this day.

            There were many interesting guests.  One or two of the actors stayed there:  Leon Quartermaine, well known then, no longer so today;  Tanya Moiseiwitsch, a stage designer and her assistant;   theatre critics and University professors came for two or three nights.  The actors John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft often came over for lunch.  I remember the thrill of handing Gielgud his coffee.  They became the focus of much gossip amongst us and we lived vicariously in the light of their celebrity. 

Fraser developed a crush on Gielgud and fantasized that it was reciprocated.  We did not know then of his sexual orientation, of course.  Fraser was very proud of the fact that she was a descendant of Sarah Siddons, the 18th century actress, painted by Thomas Gainsborough and many others.  She did, in fact, bear a resemblance to her and was a striking looking girl, with dark brows, an aquiline nose and a cupid’s bow mouth.  She  had also inherited her acting skills as she was a very  good mimic, and often made us laugh repeating the conversations she overheard.

            Another guest for a short while was Christopher Fry, the poet and playwright.  I was fascinated to hear him say, at breakfast one morning, that he could never work when his mother was around.  All these things fed into my growing aspirations.

            My mother was not enjoying her job very much.  The work was demanding, and she did not get on well with her assistant, a rather sour faced woman with a Domestic Science degree who did everything by the book.  They often clashed, and my mother would become very upset.  I hated these occasions as they made me feel very uncomfortable and I never knew what to say to her.  Fortunately, Miss Watney appreciated my mother’s cooking, as she received many compliments about the food and so she usually took her side.

            Another of the perks we received for working at the Arden was free tickets to the theatre productions, and  I saw John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft  several times in King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew. Another play I remember was Measure for Measure, with Barbara Jefford.           
I had not liked Shakespeare much when I was at school, but seeing these great actors really made me appreciate him.


            The summer was over and it was time to go back to Liverpool for our final year.

            I did not believe in a God or in any religion.  My philosophy at this time was that life was all about developing oneself and whatever talents one had to their full extent.

 I was still trying to write:  I had embarked on a short story correspondence course for magazines, but found this did not fire my imagination and I gave it up. I had thoughts about journalism, but realized I did not have the confidence to succeed in that cut throat profession.  I was still writing poetry.  It was round this time that I wrote an introspective poem:

                        I?  What am I?
                        A net of nerves, joints, sinews,
                        Bound in a framework of bone and skin,
                        A mouth to swallow meat and swill down slops -
                        An eye to see and not perceive
                        An ear to hear and to forget -
                        In short a body - an object movable and
                        Visible in space  - breathing and expelling air,
                        Endowed with senses and with sensibilities -
                        Ah – there’s the rub.  For you seem to have learnt
                        The secret of living - but I
                        Slip up against the sores of the world.
                        Yet there’s something in me, elusive
                        And feather light - unseen  - unfelt – unknowable
                        Tender as a green shoot and shrinking
                        As a snail without a shell - ready to die
                        At will and always being born again -
                        An insubstantial - inconsequential - timid, moody thing,
                        That I would be willingly be rid of
                        And yet might tell me what I am.

            I never showed this to anybody.  Who was ‘you?’  I think I was probably thinking of Jean, who was going through life so light heartedly.  Her attitude to life was creative and imaginative.

            During all the years at Liverpool I had scarcely had any contact with any of the men, apart from our tutors.  I remember a bearded, intellectual looking man trying to get into conversation by
asking me what I was reading, but after my monosyllabic replies he soon gave up and retreated. Men almost seemed to come from another planet.   I still felt very self conscious and unsure, which made me very uptight and stiff, and totally unable to have a relaxed conversation.  I was only at ease when I was by myself.  I could always write what I was feeling, but talk about it, never.  Probably, to most people, I appeared very standoffish and unfriendly, but it was entirely due to fear.  Our knowledge of psychology is so much greater nowadays.   I must have used an enormous amount of energy to keep up this front, but it was a matter of self preservation and the only way I knew.

            The year sped by and it was time to take our final exams.  After all the hard work we could relax.  Both Mair and Jean had decided to be teachers and were going to do a teacher training course.  I knew I did not want to teach, I was quite sure I would never be able to keep order in class.  I remembered some of my own teachers, those who could and who could not keep order.  For those who could not it was a joyless task.  Apart from teaching, there were very few alternatives other than taking a secretarial course.   There was no Careers advisor in those days and very little help of any kind.

            The word went round like wildfire:  “Results are up.”  We all raced down to the main college Hall where the results were posted on a large board.  There at the top of the board I saw my name, the only one:  Daphne Radenhurst – First class General Honours BA degree.  I think I was as surprised as everyone else.

 Then came Second class, 1 and 2.  Mair got a 2.1 and Jean had a 2.2.  We were all relieved and delighted to have got through.  I felt that Jean should have got a higher grade, as she had real originality, but that didn’t necessarily give you good exam results.

I wrote at once to my mother who, naturally, was thrilled and very proud.  She came up to Liverpool to see me receive my degree, dressed in a hired black robe and a mortarboard.  It was a proud moment.

It  really seemed now that the world was my oyster.  How little did I know!