Monday, 17 February 2014

(.... till I end my song)


            ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) was an imposing building on the Embankment, halfway between the Tate Gallery and the Houses of Parliament. It was a very different place from J.A. Allen.  Thousands of people worked here, scientists of every kind, statisticians, draftsmen and women, right down to the lowly secretaries, tea ladies and cleaners.

         A lift took me up to the second floor.  There was an atmosphere of quiet activity, soberly dressed men and girls neatly dressed in skirts and sweaters or blouses.  I felt very nervous.  I was sharing an office with Peggy Woodin.  She greeted me warmly.

         “Hello Daphne, how are you?  Let me take your coat.  This is your desk, opposite mine.  There are just the two of us, as you see.”

         She bustled around, settling me in.

         “I’ll take you along to meet your boss, Mr. Nonhebel.  You’ll find he’s a very nice gentleman, very easy to work for.”

         She smiled and put me at my ease.

         Mr. Nonhebel was the head of the Fuel Economy Section in ICI, one of the backroom boys, a boffin.  He was tall and thin, rather bent, with long, ungainly arms and legs.  His face was round and nobbly and he wore a pair of rimless spectacles on his nose.  He always made me think of some kind of insect.

         His room was filled with glass cases from floor to ceiling exhibiting every type of coal and smokeless fuel.  His chief concern lay in examining the effects of pollution on the environment.  His work, along with that of many others, led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956.

         This made very little impression on me at the time.  I was aware of London smog, and I was in London when Londoners experienced one of the worst smogs of the century in 1952.  I remembered it vividly.  The thick, yellow viscous fog entered every pore of your body, you could not see your hand in front of your face, the traffic crawled, everybody crawled.  Underwear took on a permanent grey tinge.  All that changed after the Clean Air Act.

         The work was very monotonous.  Day after day I came in to the office, typed papers which had very little meaning for me.  Mr. Nonhebel was a reserved man and probably as shy as I was.  There was little communication between us.  Apparently he once asked Peggy if I had a boyfriend.

 The one redeeming feature of the office was Peggy herself.  She had a deformity, a hump on her back, she was quite large and, I think, walked with some difficulty.  She had a broad face with a high complexion;  there was a slight hint of a mustache and possibly a beard.  Her eyes were a warm brown. She also had, and I know this to be a cliché, a heart of gold. She took a genuine interest in everyone who came into the office, and they all shared their problems with her.  She was an excellent secretary.  Her boss received many visitors and she fielded them all with great tact.  Similarly, on the phone, she seemed to know exactly the right words to say.  Her secretarial skills were equally good, and she had a great sense of responsibility.  The office was a lively one and, as usual, I found myself taking a back seat and observing the scene. I felt I was watching a masterclass.

         They say that behind every great man there lies a good woman.  I think that behind every successful businessman there is a good secretary.

         Naturally, Peggy put me at my ease and I was soon sharing bits of my life with her.  To our surprise we discovered that Peggy had previously worked for Frank Hulme, Head of Paints Division, in Slough and he had been married to, of all people, my dear friend, Kate Hulme, whom I had met in Mousehole.  Peggy was thrilled.  She had known Kate from afar, and she represented for her all that was glamorous.  This created a bond between us.

         My heart was not then an organ that was well developed or perhaps I had simply put it in a box and locked it away.  I had little sense of responsibility.  I got into the bad habit of arriving late.  For a long time Peggy said nothing, and then one day she told me off severely.  Because I liked and respected her so much,  I was upset and I did my best to arrive on time after that.

         One grey day I was looking out of the window at the slate coloured river, a pall seemed to hang over the city.  In my mind I heard the words:  “Be still and know that I am God.”  I was startled.  I did not go to Church nor had I any interest in anything of a spiritual nature.  Where had the words come from?  I did not forget them.  I believe that I experienced a moment of consciousness, as it might be described now.

         I made casual friendships with one or two of the younger secretaries, I still visited Alina, and Jean Buchanan reciprocated by inviting me to a meal in her little flat in Hampstead.  She had an attic flat in the house of a friend of hers, Dorothy Simpson, a well known actress on the wireless, as we called it in those days.  She was known as the Edith Evans of the air waves.  Jean’s flat was small and simple.  There were sloping ceilings and wooden beams.  Jean had painted all the woodwork in a deep, vivid blue, and the walls were stark white,  There were cheap, bright rugs on the stained black floorboards, and colorful spreads on the beds. She had one spare bedroom, a living and dining room separated from the kitchen by a screen, and she used her friend’s bathroom on the lower floor.

         I used to love visiting her, it all seemed so artistic to me.  (Nowadays we would call it ‘cool’).  I met Dorothy and her two children.  Dorothy was not glamorous or even pretty.  She seemed like a sensible, middleclass housewife.  Her elder son, David, had had polio as a child and was now in a wheelchair.  He was a lawyer and a clever one.  Her younger daughter, also a Daphne, was an art student who did not live in the house.  Jean adored her and praised her to the skies, which made me feel apprehensive about meeting her.  Daphne had once maneuvered herself into the room of Leonard Cohen in his hotel and they had talked the whole night.

         The whole family was brilliant.  The father, Evan John, was a historical writer who had written the best selling novel Crippled Splendour.  He had committed suicide, which of course had cast a shadow over the family.  I did meet Daphne, I found her a strange girl with intense eyes, and difficult to like.  I felt intimidated by her.  She was a talented artist and some of her paintings were on the walls. Jean was very much her confidante. She was having therapy, but, as Jean said, she ran rings round all of them. I could see why she would not want to talk to her mother.

         Jean always prepared the same meal, lamb stew with vegetables, fresh fruit salad and a bottle of cheap red wine.  She did all the talking, so all I had to do was make appropriate noises.  She was a voracious reader and talked, with great enthusiasm, about the books she was reading. One of her favourites was the series called Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell.  Over time my listening became automatic and my mind would wander.

 She was also an ardent socialist.  I had no interest in politics, but listened patiently to her views, expounded with great passion.  Occasionally, she would talk about her lost love and her eyes would fill with tears and her voice would break.  She must have found me the ideal listener.

         I saw Kate from time to time, when she was in London.  At one time she was working at Harrods as a saleslady in the dress department;  she also modeled the clothes, as she was tall and slim.  I once met her daughter, Juliet, who was about twenty one and completely different from Kate, small and dark.  She had just become engaged to the son of a lord.  Kate was thrilled about it.

She began to work abroad, in Bermuda, France or Spain, working as a cook housekeeper for well to do families, and I saw her less and less, until finally we lost touch altogether.

My mother and I had moved from our flat in Clapham Common to a rented room in a large and comfortable flat in Hampstead, belonging to a Jewish couple.  We were to share the kitchen and bathroom facilities.  This arrangement seemed to work quite well, even though we were sharing a bed sitting room.  We enjoyed the location and being near the Heath.

As I had an Aliens Certificate, I still had to report to the local Police Station whenever I moved to a new address.  I had become used to this and took it as a matter of course.  Nothing could be done, it seemed, and it was only a slight inconvenience.  I told Peggy, of course, and I confided in one other friend in ICI.  She was older and a draftswoman, and a sympathetic listener.

Now that we were living in Hampstead I started going to the Everyman cinema, which showed unusual and classic films.  I always went on my own.  I saw all the early Ingmar Bergman films, I was fascinated by their imaginative scope and lunar qualities;  I saw Russian films:  their romanticism and soul quality filled some void in me;  I saw French films:  here again their realism and clarity and wit appealed to another side of me.  I did not have a friend with whom I could share these interests.

My mother took a keen interest in politics and we both joined the Conservative Party.  I had none at all, but I was content to accompany her to their meetings, as it gave her an opportunity to meet people.  One of the members gave a Garden Party in their home to which we went.  It was summertime, my mother was dressed in one of her homemade dresses and wore a large picture hat.  She looked very elegant, with her upright bearing, and her slim ankles. Beside her, I probably appeared quite nondescript, I tended to slouch, with my head down and forward.  I had quite sturdy legs, which I was quite conscious of.  My chief feeling on these occasions was to be invisible.

A small lady, neat and businesslike, darted forward.

“Oh, are you the Duchess of -----?”  she breathed excitedly.

 I don’t know who was the more disappointed among us.  However, in the cloud of celebrity generated by this mistake, my mother had the whale of a time.  I enjoyed it too, as an onlooker.

I felt I had to volunteer my services to the Party.  There was an election coming up and I was asked to do some canvassing.  This did not entail much more than ringing doorbells and asking people which way they were voting.  To my horror, at one place I was asked to come inside and talk. On taking the lift I emerged into a roomful of people, obviously a dinner party.  There was no escape.  They sat me down on a chair and flung questions at me, none of which I could answer.  I sat in misery until they eventually tired of the game, and I was allowed to leave.  That marked the end of my involvement in politics.

We had a small manual sewing machine on which my mother made all our clothes.  We often spent Saturdays scouring the stores for materials.  We would go to Liberty’s in Regent Street, Dickens and Jones, John Lewis in Oxford Street, and sometimes Harrods in Knightsbridge.  I trailed round after my mother, feeling mostly bored, but giving an opinion from time to time.  All the stores displayed pattern books, by Vogue, Butterwick and others.  We would pore over them before buying a pattern.  Many people in those days made their own clothes.  It was before mass production and cheap clothing.

I was no good at dressmaking whatsoever.  My mother spent hours at the machine.  As I took little interest in my appearance, she mostly took charge of my clothes, some of which I liked, others not so much.  I would have preferred to buy my own, but we could not afford them.

Thinking back, there was little communication between us.  I think this was due partly to my mother’s increasing deafness, so there was little casual conversation.  My mother’s age made her seem more like a grandmother, so there was a generation gap.  Our interests were very different too.  I was engrossed in my intellectual inner world.  My mother had a much greater interest in what was going on in the world:  she read the Daily Telegraph, she read thrillers and romances, she had her cookery and her sewing, and she did all the shopping for food.

I was idly looking at the Jobs Vacant section of the Daily Telegraph one day when I saw that NATO in Paris were looking for secretaries.  I became very excited.  To work in Paris!  That appealed to me.  The Paris which I had passed through on the 14th July on my twenty first birthday had lodged itself in my heart and my memory.  I had never wanted to be a secretary. My typing was adequate, my shorthand inadequate, and I had had no secretarial training whatsoever.  On the other hand, I had no idea of anything else I wanted to do, and I did have French, which must surely be an advantage.

“Mummy, look at this.  Should I apply?”

She looked at it.

“Why not?” she said.

Her spirit of adventure and love of travel tipped the balance.


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

(..... till I end my song)

                                    ODDS AND BOBS

My mother continued to find small jobs:   cooking an evening meal for an elderly couple, or creating delicacies for an invalid lady.  At one time she cooked lunch in a small Montessori School, which was located in the grounds of the Brompton Oratory, a church in South Kensington.  I used to visit her there and became interested in Dr. Montessori’s philosophy.  I liked the idea that children should be allowed to gravitate to those things that appealed to them.

  My mother was always collecting recipes, and she had several folders of them by now. Why should she not write a cookery book for schools, she thought.  I pooh-poohed the idea, but my mother persevered.  She spent hours sorting out all her recipes into different categories, and then into chapters.  I wrote to several publishers and finally one of them, Dennis Dobson,  agreed to publish it.

 I reluctantly set to and typed the whole book.  My mother wrote to Miss Barrows, who wrote a glowing Preface in return..  She wrote:

“’The Principal’s chief pre-occupation is the food.’  …Not until Mrs Radenhurst loomed on the school’s horizon did this ‘chief pre-occupation’ of mine give me any sort of satisfaction, but at end of her first week in the kitchen I began to realize that with the same food bills we were getting really exciting meals.”

The book was published in 1955!  It was nicely presented, with a cream
binding, and an attractively designed jacket in blue, white and yellow.  It was called Better Cooking for Large Numbers.  To our surprise, it sold quite well, and my mother received royalties.

This helped to augment our income.  I was earning £6 a week at the time, not a great deal, and I began to take on extra work in the evenings.  I did all kinds of work, as an usherette in the cinema and the theatre, serving out food in a Bridge Club.  I quite enjoyed this, as I saw free film shows and several performances of Camino Reale by Tennessee Williams.

Through a secretarial agency in Sloane Square I found some very interesting jobs.  One of them was working for Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s daughter. I was very excited about this.  I knew that she had been married to Vic Oliver, and was divorced, and that she was an aspiring actress.

  She was warm and friendly when I arrived, sat me down at a large table and produced a large cardboard box containing piles of bills.  My job was to write out cheques which she then signed.  Whilst I was doing this, she would walk round the room with a glass of whiskey in her hand, talking into the phone, sometimes quoting her father’s speeches.  It was obvious there was no-one at the other end.  Sometimes she would come over to me, ask me if had a boyfriend, retire disappointed when I said ‘no.’  At the end of the evening she escorted me fondly to the door, swaying on her stockinged feet.  I was deeply affected by her.  Though not religious, I found myself sending up little prayers for her.

Completely different, and again famous, was Father Trevor Huddleston.  He had spent several years in Africa supporting the black people. He was recalled to England by his religious Order because his activities were creating political problems.  On his return he had written his best selling book “Naught for your Comfort”.

Now he needed help to answer the deluge of correspondence that he was receiving.  He was tall and gaunt, with a jutting chin, and I was very much in awe of him.  I was deeply impressed by the force of his commitment and his spiritual integrity. I would take piles of letters home with me and type the replies on my little Olivetti portable.   In fact. after working for him, I sent him a donation almost equal to the money he had paid me.  I received a thank you letter which I still I have to this day.

All these extra earnings meant we could go away on holiday.  We went several times to Spain, which was probably the cheapest country at that time.  We visited Madrid and Avila.  We went up into the mountains, where I experienced one of those moments which we would now describe as ‘bliss’.  The beauty of the mountains, the clear air, the stillness, all gave me one of those moments of clarity and of expansion.

We visited Majorca, where I completely fell in love with flamenco dancing.  The passion and the drama resonated with something deep inside me.  I experienced what is known as ‘duende’, the intense emotional state – part ecstasy, part desperation – that is the essence of flamenco.  I never shared these thoughts with my mother.

I remember arriving at our pension in Majorca, I was busy putting clothes away in our room, when my mother said:  “You’re just an old maid really.”  I was deeply hurt, it was my heart’s desire to get married and have children.  At the end of the holiday I commented on our Spanish guide’s lovely long eyelashes.  My mother said:  “I didn’t think you’d noticed.”

Another time we stayed in Deya, in a guest house run by Robert Graves’ son.  It was set high on a hill, surrounded by lush vegetation.  I had lugged all my painting gear with me, though I did very little painting.

 These visits abroad were exciting, giving us a glimpse into another way of life and another cuisine.  My mother was never happier than when she was traveling.

Ever since I had produced my sketches in Mousehole, I had been going to evening art classes in London, which in those days were free.  I remember going to St. Martin’s School of Art.  I was always disappointed with my work, I never seemed to be able to reproduce the free, spontaneous  drawings I had achieved in Cornwall.  My drawings seemed to me to be wooden and lifeless.  Nevertheless, my interest in art had been awoken and in my free time I visited all the galleries in London, the National Gallery, the Tate and Courtaulds and all the exhibitions going.  In this way I was slowly educating myself and learning about what made a good painting.

I also loved the cinema and the theatre.  My mother would sometimes come with me to the cinema, but because of her increasing deafness she would never go the theatre.  I remember going to see Laurence Olivier as Othello.  He was my hero at that time, and I waited at the Stage Door to get his autograph.  I saw many other good plays, Waiting for Godot  by Beckett was one.  Another play was called Five Finger Exercise by Peter Shaffer, who later went on to write Amadeus.  I was enthralled by this play and wrote an enthusiastic fan letter to him.  I had a very nice reply from him and I still have this letter too.  What appealed to me in this play was the character who followed his own bent, and not what he was supposed to do.  It was my first introduction to the idea of following your bliss.

I used to go to dances at Chelsea Town Hall with a girl I had known in Liverpool who was a vet.  On Saturday nights we dressed ourselves up and off we went.  I never enjoyed them.  I always felt like a wallflower.  Glenys was an easygoing girl and got on well.  I was not a good dancer and had no small talk.  I did meet a young man called John, he was Welsh and he asked me for another dance.  Afterwards we sat on a bench in the Square and talked for hours.  He told me at first he thought I was cold, but then changed his mind.  This was probably due to my insecurity.  He later sent me a card telling me he was going to the States.  I felt quite sad.

I found my mother worried to death when I got home that night, and had to assure her we had just been talking.  After the Michael episode she was never going to trust me.

Through Glenys I made another friend.  She was Polish and  a semi-invalid.  She had studied architecture at Liverpool and had asked Glenys if she knew of anyone who would like to visit her at home.  I said I would go and began to visit Alina.  I felt sorry for her and so we became friends of a sort.  She was very autocratic and very conscious of her social status when she lived in Poland.  Her illness had made her painfully thin, with dark shadows under her eyes.

 Alina’s father was a Polish colonel;  he had fought with the British in the war, had been injured and now kept permanently to his bed.  I never met him, but Mrs. Boheim was a sweet, pretty, and homely woman who always cooked us some Polish meal, and sometimes borscht.  They lived frugally, but with great dignity, having known a much more splendid life in Poland. I did not always enjoy my visits to them, as they were sometimes strained, with Alina snapping at her mother and Mrs Boheim smiling patiently.  My mother was sometimes invited, and she and Mrs. Boheim got on well together.

The novelty of Allen’s was wearing off.  I had a long bus journey every day.  I began to think about making more money.  I was still applying for jobs with publishers, but without success.  I remember one interview, with Weidenfeld and Nicholson, where I was seen by a very pretty and assured young woman, who must have been my age.  Her name was Antonia Sanford, later to become the historical writer and wife of Harold Pinter.  I did not get the job, of course.

I saw an advertisement for a secretarial job in ICI, with much higher pay.   It seemed more important to have a better paid job than to continue with my dreams of work in publishing.  I applied and got the job.

The Horseman's Bookshop

                                   THE HORSEMAN'S BOOKSHOP

            I had not been in my new job for more than a week before I began to realize
that I had made a mistake.  The small publishing firm where I was now working consisted of two people, my boss and myself.  The office was located on the second floor of an apartment block.  There were two rooms, with wall to wall carpeting, tastefully furnished in beige and off white colours.  It was very quiet.  My new boss
was a pleasant but rather reserved man.  There seemed to be little for me to do.

         I missed the noise and the scruffiness, the bustle and activity, the arguments and disorganization of my old job in the bookshop.  I began to feel bored, and, what was worse, lonely.  At the end of a month I gave in my notice.

         At that time jobs were plentiful and it did not take me long to find another one.  I was going to be working for J.A.Allen, The Horseman’s Bookshop.  Although I knew nothing about horses, it was still part of the world of books.  The shop was located down in Victoria, opposite the Royal Mews.

         Joseph Allen was a small, energetic, bustling man.  He made up in bounce and enterprise what he lacked in height.  His father had published Sporting Luck.  When he was sixteen his father died, leaving him a collection of equestrian books.  He became a runner for publishers and a bookseller.  He used his father’s books and his equestrian connections to learn the publishing trade.  In 1938 he took out a lease on No. 1 Lower Grosvenor Place.  His bookshop was devoted entirely to books about horses and covered every aspect of the equestrian world.

         I was to work upstairs in the same office with Mr. Allen.  It was a long, narrow room;  he had a large roll top desk strewn with papers and books, and I had a small desk opposite him. Also sitting with us in this small room was Lord Spenser, there, I presumed, because of his title.  He had a long lugubrious face and spent most of his time drinking tea and dribbling biscuits down his stained waistcoat.  He took very little notice of me, except when Mr. Allen was getting particularly worked up, to chuckle and give me a large wink.

Mr. Allen, in his way, was as eccentric as Mr. Coles had been.  He took great pride in his aristocratic connections, arising out of his extensive knowledge of the horse world and of equestrian books.   Many interesting people used to visit his shop.

         Somewhere along the way, Mr. Allen had met and married a Frenchwoman.  She was called Pierrette.  She was as tall and thin as he was short and stout.  She used to wear a tubular, tight fitting dress with black and yellow stripes which, to my mind, made her look like a wasp and somehow suited her character.  She worked very hard downstairs dispatching the books:  there was never any time for small talk.  She had a shrill and penetrating voice which she used to shout up to her husband, who would hurry out to her on the landing.  Somehow it never seemed a very happy marriage, and I believe that some years later she returned to Paris.

         Downstairs the front of the shop was run by Felicity Gwynne, the sister of Elizabeth David, the well known cookery writer.  She was extremely efficient and very neurotic.  She kept herself going on cups of black coffee, I never saw her eat.   She was rather beautiful, with bobbed glossy black hair and dark eyes;  she wore pencil slim skirts and fine wool jumpers.  I never got to know her, even when we had a coffee at the Italian trattoria next door.  She was aloof and sophisticated, whereas I was awkward and shy.   I imagined she must have had some great tragedy in her life.

         I did become friends with Jean Buchanan, who acted as a kind of general dogsbody, charging up the stairs with some query for Mr. Allen, carrying the books around, getting up on the ladder to pick out a book from one of the upper shelves, talking to the customers.  She was full of energy, extrovert and outgoing, and I soon learnt the history of her life.

         She was a Scots and had been an actress, though her talent had run more to stage management.  She had worked for ENSA during the war. This was an organization which had been set up to entertain the troops.  She must have been in her fifties when I met her and was still was an attractive woman, with white hair swept back, an aquiline nose and piercing ice blue eyes.  She was slim with very elegant legs, which I always envied, and she moved beautifully.

         She was dramatic and intense.  She told me about her ex-lover, Handyside, an antiquarian bookseller, and how her best friend, Molly, had ousted her in his affections.  Her eyes would fill with tears and her mouth would quiver.  She would often spit as she talked.  I was fascinated by her stories and full of sympathy.  She would often say how hungry she was, so I invited her home for a meal.  My mother would produce a delicious meal, which Jean devoured with appreciation.   Like Kate, she was slightly larger than life.  My mother was slightly more sceptical than I was, but I drank in her words.  I think her passion filled some void in my own life.

I soon settled down into this new world, observing it all with an amused eye.  The work was not demanding, consisting mainly of repetitive letters and answering the phone.  There was little opportunity for any initiative. The system for incoming and outgoing books, which were both kept in piles on the stairs, was rather confusing.  They sometimes got mixed up, and I was frequently writing letters to customers apologizing when they got the wrong book.

Around this time Maureen and Dulcie, my old friends from Blackdown, returned to London from New Zealand.  Maureen had trained as a nurse and Dulcie was working as a shop assistant.  She used sometimes to come into the shop to see me.  The days when we used to run wild in the orchard at Blackdown were long gone, and I felt embarrassed by her.  She was a sweet, kind girl but not very bright, Jean noticed this and would tease me about it.  Dulcie was and remained a loyal friend, but I did not appreciate this at the time.

There was one other person in this strange set-up, and that was Hedda Woodford.  She was the accountant and she lived on the second floor.  She was a large, middle aged and cheerful woman.  I used sometimes to go up and share my lunch with her, or a cup of coffee.  One day she asked me if I had ever thought of leaving my mother and having a life of my own.  I reflected on this and replied that I could not abandon her like an ‘old shoe.’ 

“You are right” she said.

The real truth was that neither my mother nor I would have been able to live on our own, financially or otherwise.