A Little Reminder
Just to remind you in case you have been either an ex- serviceman hiding out on a deserted Pacific Island in the belief that the last Unpleasantness is still in full swing, or living a rural part of Scotland, where that is possibly still the future.
It is spring 1958.
The British Empire – Clinging On
Britain still rules the world or at least thinks it does. There have, however, been one or two shocks like the Suez Crisis and the advent of commercial television, which have suggested that this is no longer perhaps the case, but we will ignore that on the grounds that it is bad for morale and the bowler hat and umbrella business. The young Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for 6 years and her bobby dazzler of a husband, Prince Phillip, has just opened the London Planetarium which saves one going out at night to look at the stars.
The Prime Minister is Harold Macmillan, who is a Conservative, which suits our heroine Mrs Muriel Wylie, but not our hero Mr Jasper Wylie who is a Socialist when he is not at the golf club.
The C.N.D. has just been established with a march to Aldermaston, demonstrating that people are fed up living with the threat of not living. Work has begun on our first motorway, which of course is in England. Some parts of Scotland have only just got “the electricity” so there is no rush here. The de Havilland Comet has made its first flight and My Fair Lady has opened in Drury Lane.
Hancock’s Half Hour has just been broadcast on B.B.C. Radio with an episode entitled Sunday Afternoon at Home. Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey is in rehearsal at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Church of England has given its moral backing to family planning. These two events show that we are heading for the 1960’s and heaven knows what will happen there.
Career Opportunities at Home and Abroad
The lasting impact of two Unpleasantnesses in half a century define all that we British think about ourselves and all that we do. In many a shed and garage you will find the blackout shutters are retained and blackout curtains are always to hand in the attic. After all one never knows, does one? Meanwhile the effects of the cold war are everywhere and have created another career for Oxbridge graduates, that of the spy.
Nevertheless as a nation we remain optimistic and have encouraged nice people from the Caribbean to come and help us do the things we find we are unsuited to for long hours, poor pay and below standard housing. This seems only fair as we encouraged them to leave their own countries in the first place to “seek other opportunities” in the cotton, tobacco and sugar industries and one has “a continuing sense of responsibility you know”.
By the same token we are encouraging some of our own people, especially those who might become “delinquents”, to take up opportunities of their own in countries that are as far away as possible. To make sure they settle we avoid telling them anything about their own families which might prove unsettling – such as they are still alive. It’s “for the best” you know.
There is, however, a sense of optimism despite the fact that socially we still seem to be in the 1930s. There is a desire for the new – new experiences, new kitchens and new patterns in dress and design. Atoms are everywhere – in the sky, in Brussels and are defining the shape of our coffee tables and dishes for peanuts.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley are challenging our ears with Great Balls of Fire and Jailhouse Rock. Some of course prefer the more traditional sounds of Perry Como with Magic Moments or Vic Damone with On the street where you live.
Such are the choices of our main characters Muriel and Jasper Wylie citizens of that great, if somewhat sooty, city Glasgow. They live in Glasgow’s exclusive and much sort after West End and also have a rural bolt hole on South West Scotland, a place untouched by explorers or ethnographers due to the rumours of cannibalism or at the very least inadvisable bed races.
A Stable Family in an Unstable World?
The Wylies have an interior decorating business, “Chez Nous”, which clings to the old, but tries for the new. They are fortunate to have the help of a daily woman Mrs Travers, who does but not a lot, and a new West Indian lady called Grace for “the heavy work”. Their household also consists of their ward young Gayle and her nurse Hairy Mary from Inveraray.
Much to their sadness their nephew Sebastian who is a thespian (famous for his Shakespearean role of Richard III, which was a play written by the famous Shakespearean author William Shakespeare) now lives in New York. He had to leave Britain under a cloud following some rumours that he was very theatrical. Theatrical enough, it has to be said, to have been seen taking tea at the Ivanhoe Hotel in Buchannan Street with a man who was neither his uncle nor a scoutmaster. Or perhaps he was a scout master, anyway he was very keen on camping.
Old and New Threats to Human Life
“Chez Nous” is something of a front for the fact that Muriel, having being in the S.O.E. over 10 years previously, is still active “in the shadows” and has recently been in Geneva, which is in Switzerland, undercover at a Conference on the Seas. Here she kept her eye on things at cocktail parties and as a teacher of crochet, running classes for the wives of delegates who, because they are women, are not allowed to do delegate sorts of things and require to be entertained. Muriel was replacing Winnie an old friend from S.O.E. days who had disappeared with her paramour, Mr Chan of the Govan Road Chinese Restaurant with dinners A- D a speciality.
Unfortunately Winnie and Mr Chan have been poisoned to death – yes really! A strategic crocheted map containing details of the coastal waters between Japan and the comrades has gone missing and more importantly so have some international heritage recipes for fish dishes which Winnie was compiling for a book.
Muriel and Jasper’s lives are in danger so their handler the Handsome Stranger has sent them back to Blightly. All are quite fatigued, but have thrown themselves into that task which is even more important than national security and that is spring cleaning. There may be the threat of nuclear Armageddon, but that is as nothing compared with the treat of the moth and women who neglect damp dusting and vinegar washing the skirting boards. Why that is just one step away from hanging out a washing in one’s dressing gown, or going to the doctors with your Willie and a case of impetigo – or as we call it social death!
To the Country
Muriel and Jasper have gone down to the rural bolt hole with Grace and little Gayle to open up the house and investigate the reports of carpet moth. Not that Muriel will investigate herself. She will take on a temporary workforce of local girls, desperate for employment until the summer opportunities open up at the local aerated water factory, not to mention the potato picking, so we won’t – as it is rather hard on the back.
The spring breezes of the countryside will do Gayle the world of good and stop her missing Hairy Mary who has gone home for a month to help with the fishing. This has left Mrs Travers home alone in the Glasgow house.
Mrs T in Charge
Mrs Travers is rather enjoying the responsibility and the novelty of having a large villa to herself, so very different from her own two apartment tenement flat in Maryhill with shared lavatory on the landing and a weekly slot on the clothes line.
We join her as she retires for the night having helped herself to a not inconsiderable amount of Jasper’s single malt from the cocktail cabinet. She owes it to herself; after all she has had a busy day bristle brushing the hand knotted oriental rugs and separating the fringes with a moustache comb that belonged to Muriel’s father.
A Bedtime Routine is so Important
Getting ready for bed is a time consuming business at the best of times. With the Wylies it follows a well worn ritual that begins with the setting for breakfast, the washing up of the Ovaltine beakers, or perhaps crystal glasses if there has been a nightcap, the cat is then put out and the locking up begins. This is almost as complicated as that which takes place at the Tower of London as the Wylies firmly believe that behind any “unsnibbed” door or window lies a “jakey” in waiting behind the privet with beady eyes on Mrs Wylie’s chinoiserie or Mr Wylie’s capodimonte.
As far as Mrs Travers is concerned their disappearance in the hands of a cat burglar would be a step in the right direction as their weekly dusting and monthly washes under museum conditions are a nightmare of the first order and anyway what is wrong with a nice set of flying ducks or a giant plaster Alsatian in the window?
Water and Fire – so Dangerous
Mr Wylie insists that the kettle is filled ready for the morning. This is unnecessary but goes back to his childhood in The Gorbals when water supplies were apt to be interrupted by bursts at a moment’s notice. This would mean that Granny Wylie would not get her morning cuppa or indeed her hot water and lemon “tae clean ma insides oot”. The fear of water disasters overnight is nothing as to the fear of fire. All electrical plugs must be pulled out and any lit fire damped down with dross or as Hairy Mary would say in the translation of the Gaelic “smored” often breaking into her famous peat smoring song if little Gayle is fractious.
The Long Goodnight
After final dishes have been “put past” and cushions have been plumped (and none must be left unplumped, that would be slovenly) it is up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire.
There is great excitement if little Gayle has been up late and is given a fireman’s carry by Jasper, singing Wee Willie Winkie, although this often means more wakefulness for her. Jasper does not have to deal with this.
Jasper always falls asleep quickly. His snoring, resembling a full artillery attack on the western front, does however make sure no one else gets to sleep as quickly. Mrs Travers has often been awake watching her dentures clatter together in the jar as Mr Travers goes in for the final assault, over the top, from the room below.
A Phased Goodnight
Mrs Wylie has usually disappeared two hours previously having begun her “phased nighty-night routine” which begins with removing most jewellery, changing into her dressing gown, putting on the fluffy mules and removing some, but not all, of the maquillage. At which point Muriel is totally divested of artificial beauty aids no one is entirely sure as no one living has ever seen that. Not even Jasper. As Muriel herself says quoting Bagehot “one must not let daylight into magic”.
Even in the morning Jasper is not allowed to look at Muriel until she has put on her lipstick, earrings and chiffon pussy bow, “the neck you know reveals one’s age and I am certainly not doing that.”
For Mrs Travers the routine is less poetic but equally time consuming. It begins with her stubbing out her Capstan full strength into the ashtray on the bedside table, collapsing onto the candlewick bedspread and bending down to remove her built up shoes. These were supplied by Mrs Wylie (and thus not on the National Health) to correct two different leg lengths which result in ungainly “hurpling” which is very noisy on the parquet floor in the conservatory. It also makes the annual polishing of the wooden floors with halved coconuts tied to Mrs T’s “Gutties” (plimsolls if you are from south of the border) less painful. Support stockings and elasticised bandages are then removed revealing “ma various veins” which are soothed with a generous application of wintergreen.
Perhaps the most ceremonial part of the evenings ritual, bordering on the spiritual, is the removal of the all encompassing cross over apron or if guests have been in a hostess apron. This is discarded for steeping and washing. Arran style cardigan and blouse are then removed followed by a static infused dress from ‘The Bargain Fashion House’. Even although Mr Travers is in the seamen’s mission now, Mrs Travers still attends to her modesty by putting on her dressing gown over her foundation garments (a process she learned, early on in her marriage, poured cold water onto men’s passions if they happened to be gazing into the wardrobe mirror at the time while pretending to be keeping an eye on the damp patch in the corner of the ceiling).
With skills that might be the envy of the great Houdini she then unlaces the corsets leaving her free to remove what she calls her “breweries” and the underlying woollen vest. This allows for ample time for general scratching. If a coughing fit ensues then she might relight the ciggie for a few drags to settle her throat. Finally “ma directories wi’ the reinforced double gusset”, are removed and replaced with a winceyette nightie, bed socks and an old cardigan to keep the shoulders warm. When Mr Travers lived with her it was at this point she felt pleased with herself thinking, Field Marshall Rommel and a Panzer division couldn’t get through those defences.
If it has been a particularly trying day and she feels like spoiling herself Mrs T enthrones herself on an old Lloyd Loom chair and soaks her feet in a bowl of warm water with Epsom Salts. There is generally a copy of The People’s Friend to hand by way of reading material. A pumice stone or a bit of sandpaper sees to hard skin on the heels and some sheep’s wool round the toes helps with any rubbing. On special nights there might be a bath with a dash of Squeezy washing up liquid in the water, for Hollywood glamour. Then it is time for the curlers to go into the hair with some setting lotion and to cover the lot with a net from a bag of oranges from Malcolm Campbell’s, “waste not want not that’s ma motto”.
Although she has few of her own teeth now Mrs Travers is not one for letting herself go and gives the remaining gnashers and her plates a good going over with Vim for extra sparkle. Then it’s time for a wee Askit pooder to help her sleep and lights oot.
Intruder in the night
This particular evening, however, the sleep of the just is disturbed by a banging and clattering from downstairs. Mrs T wakes with a startle and reaches for a pewter candlestick, kept beside the bed for emergencies just like this one. Creeping downstairs Mrs T goes into the morning room and sees the window to the back garden is wide open and the draught excluder made from one of the late Winnie’s award winning Sanquhar Pattern Socks, containing the hidden rolled up crocheted map of the coast of Japan. “Oh no” though Mrs T to herself as there was no one else at home to share a thought with, “what will I do? Hide the map in plain sight was the instruction Winnie left me in a musical box before she died. I must have left that window unsecured. The Wylies will not be pleased.”
Later, with Mustard
“Well” said the Handsome Stranger “here’s a how-de-do and no mistake. Just as well you called me Mrs Travers and not the police; that would only complicate matters. And what was it you said you found in the pot of seasonal pansies outside the morning room window?”
“Here Sir, a packet of frankfurter sausages and a ticket to something in a foreign language. What can that be?”
“Generally speaking it is a language other than English.”
“Can you translate?”
“No Mrs T, I am afraid it is more the cyrillic languages that are my bag, but I will get Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes on to it; he is bound to have colleagues at the very good Glasgow varsity who can help. I may be mistaken, but that looks like the horns of a bull in that torn off corner. Perhaps as it is indecipherable it has something to do with a fat-stock sale in Aberdeenshire.”
“What about the packet of frankfurters Sir?”
“ Umm tricky one, if I were you I’d put them in a pan of boiling water. Have you any rolls Mrs T? I am somewhat peckish, spot of mustard would be nice; I prefer the French, Auld alliance and all that.”