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.


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