Happy 1957 everyone, how was it for you – Christmas and New Year that is?
Muriel Punches Above her Weight
The Wylie diary was as busy as ever. We spent Christmas in Glasgow, much of the time engaged in what Muriel calls “lubricating social intercourse”. For this read spending lots of money and large parts of the day at parties where cheap wine is heated with old spices which have not seen the light of day since last Christmas and presented as a treat called mulled wine.
Muriel of course finds it necessary to go one better in this department and has her own punch based on a Buckingham Palace Recipe which she found in the Woman’s Own Cookbook. I would be the first to admit it has something of a kick which probably explains why many of the households in Kelvinside had Christmas Day lunch closer to eleven o’clock at night as Muriel always does drinks on Christmas Morning when in town. Never have so many pairs of Rayne heels looked as unsteady as they made their way back along Winton Drive and Kirklee Terrace. As Muriel says “there is no show without punch and my shows pack a punch!”
If you think all of this sounds a little competitive, with a desire for a clear winner in the social stake,s then you would be correct and fully able to understand the interactions of those and such as those. For make no mistake, the cocktail party is like the boxing ring, but without Marquis of Queensberry rules. Behind every plate of sausages on sticks are a trail of winners and losers. No prizes for guessing who takes the champion’s belt!
Battle Hymn of the West End
Muriel embraces the festive season as if it she were Marlborough at Blenheim, Wellington at Waterloo or Nelson at Trafalgar, except considering the latter she is better protected as she has a plan of attack as well as defence and thus avoids snipers in the rigging. As the scriptures suggest putting on “the whole armour of God” so Muriel puts on the whole armour of the party hostess. This begins with an hour long soak with a Coty bath cube, Paris being a favourite as with the talc, followed by the liberal use of Pond’s Vanishing Cream much as one might prepare an Enfield rifle for the trenches.
Preparation of the mind and body then requires a short exercise programme rather as one might prime the engine of a spitfire. Muriel begins with “nice toes, naughty toes” and graduates to lady-like weight lifting involving what the ladies’ magazines call “ load bearing with two cans of baked beans”. As Muriel considers this “common”, she uses tins of asparagus tips from Ferguson’s in Union Street.
Just as the natural world uses colour to signify allure and danger so Muriel for the same reasons applies, shadow to the eyes, polish to the nails and stick to the lips. Perfect hands she says “are very unnerving to other women, they fidget at the site of my simply marvellous digits”. Foundations of good corsetry and hosiery are like the skeleton of a war ship, and Kayser Bondor is the choice of dear Muriel, laid down on an even keel and covered with some frilly slip as camouflage, but on top the cocktail dress gives an illusion of fragile beauty like the first class dining room of the Queen Mary.
Concealed weapons include a gold charm bracelet which (especially the rather sharp dachshund – a gift from the grateful people of Berlin) can get “accidentally” caught in any identical outfit and is followed by “Oh dear, I seem to have snagged my Hardy Amis boucle, I will just dash home and change”. A tasteful application of Arpège behind the ears and on the wrists provides a subtle form of chemical warfare.
Shock and Awe
On the battlefield itself Muriel deploys her loyal shock troops, Mrs Travers, our daily woman what does (but not a lot), Hilda, “zee German vuman vat does zee heavy vork”, and Highland Hairy Mary who is our nursery nurse and looks after young Gail, Sebastian’s daughter. They are issued with weapons that facilitate hand to hand fighting in the form of
cheese straws, smoked salmon on brown bread and various things either stuffed into or wrapped around prunes. Personally I prefer prunes in a bowl with custard, which apparently reveals my working class origins. At least Mu hasn’t seen me eating them out of the can…yet. Although of course I hasten to add that for cocktail party purposes ours were purchased from the fruit market at 5am from the man who supplies The Malmaison Restaurant at the Central Hotel by Mrs Travers, who said she didn’t mind the walk from Maryhill in the rain and anyway it “will help to wear in my new support stockings”.
If you are a guest the opening shots of the engagement concern arrival. Never arrive early, it suggests you are desperate and have no other friends. The trick is to seem as if you are coming from a previous engagement and are in such demand the new hosts are lucky to have got you at all.
Occasionally, when we are in the country, Muriel will get me to park the Humber Super Snipe in a passing place and give the impression that she has been for a long country walk with friends who would love to have come too but are just heading back to France as “Lucinda and Piers are doing so well on the slopes”. Festive cocktail parties in the country are always held in the daylight hours to enable those attending to find their way home. Tweeds and walking clothes are acceptable (although spare sling backs in a shoe bag show consideration) even if others are in ties and afternoon dresses when one is in the country.
One can also draw a great deal of attention to one’s self tying up barking dogs, asking for a bowl of water and dashing to the cloakroom, exclaiming, “so sorry to be late we got held up on “Tac-ma- doon” rescuing a sheep from a ditch. I’ll just put a brush through my hair and come and tell you all about it. Honestly I look like I have been pulled through a hedge backwards, it’s going to be an uphill struggle for Raymond on Tuesday.” Exercise and fresh air are, after all, the raison d’être of country life and saving “beasts” earns brownie points from farmers.
Hand to Hand Combat
Conversation or small talk is what we call hand to hand combat. Now this is where the battle is really won or lost. It is here that things can get really difficult and stretcher bearers should always be standing by. You will be told, “of course you know most people” even if you do not and those who assume a position of social superiority will say grandly “now where do you fit in?” You can always pre-empt this with, “How do you do, I know you; I am Jasper Wylie partner in Glasgow’s leading interiors business.”
Plan your conversation as if this were an examination which of course it is, as rest assured where you have been they will only done it better and what you have done they will have done too, only with bells on. If you played King Lear, at The Old Vic, the response will be “of course it’s been done before”. Christmas is always “very quiet this year”, or “very quiet, our first since, you know…father”.
If you haven’t managed to organise your own “at home” suitable excuses are “of course it’s not a good time for Marjory, you know – her mother’s anniversary, I remember we had only just put up the decorations and we had to replace the red ribbon on the wreath with a black one.” I know at least one couple who have been using this excuse since 1927.
Christmas away somewhere also provides good cover as well as extra glamour if one’s children are now successfully married and live abroad, which they usually are despite a dismal performance at boarding school. Thus, “with our first grandchild we just had to be in Nice, I know one shouldn’t interfere as a mother-in-law, but Felicity was so thrilled to see me she said she could weep, so I am afraid we just didn’t do Christmas this year. I took Angus to The Negresco for supper, he works so hard at the Marina. I just said, Felicity I will leave you to bond with Baby and take Daddy out of your hair, which incidentally is looking a bit on the lank side, I hope you are not going to let yourself go.”
When It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Leaving a party is as important as arriving and an “at home” will generally set the boundaries. For example a New Year Open House will be from 2 until 6 pm. You are not expected to arrive at 2 and depart at 6. Coffee and tea are offered as a sign that time is nearly up and as I know Muriel has told you before, if you stay after the village clock strikes, the hosts’ fallback position is to let the dogs out and usually they have been locked up for a reason.
Those who appear to be lagging behind are probably staying on for a bowl of soup after which they will get rather tipsy. Don’t forget your small gift, which is left unwrapped on the William Kent table in the hall and then your thank you letter. A printed correspondence card is, I understand, best although it is not something I recall we set much store by in Hospital Street.
Christmas Gets Out of Hand
I found Christmas more meaningful this year as young Gail is more aware of what is going on. Of course we are old enough to be her grandparents and in all honesty Sebastian takes little notice and her mother is rather keener on pursuing a career in the world of theatrical design. Fortunately Highland Hairy Mary, our nurse, is wonderful and of course Muriel spares no expense in providing the ideal childhood.
In addition to decorating the house Muriel managed to poach Santa Claus from “Lewis’s Department Store” for an afternoon and although he arrived by Corporation bus instead of a sleigh, he provided a jolly afternoon for a group of local toddlers in our morning room.
I rather thought Muriel took things a little too far when on Christmas Eve, I was interrupted while sticking stamps into my album in my study by what sounded like slates coming off the roof. Now we have the very best slates from the Isle of Luing and so I was concerned and went outside with a torch to find that Mrs Travers and Hilda were on the roof – one with a set of sleigh bells and the other with two deer legs, (which turned out to have been poached by Mrs T’s son Billy) which were being clopped along one in each hand. Dropping snow down the chimney in the form of icing sugar might have been fine had the drawing room fire not been on. Fortunately the fire brigade were here quickly and there was no damage except Mrs T was soaked to the skin and narrowly escaped hypothermia. A bath and a few wee drams helped to put things right and Hilda has a date with a fireman, when following her rescue she promised to introduce him to the joys of the Black Forest and her schnitzel.
After The After Show Party
You may be wondering why I am writing to you this week as well you might. In truth I have much to do what with being chairman of the Historical Society and a valued member of The Capodimonte Collectors’ Club not to mention the anniversary of Arras and Passchendaele on the horizon, but Muriel has not surfaced yet from her beauty sleep.
We have been at the rural bolt hole for a couple of days helping Lady Pentland-Firth with the first of her Country House Concerts. It was felt that 12th Night was a suitable starting point for a “try out”. Inevitably there was an after show party and so many of our friends and neighbours threw themselves into the festivities. Lady Pentland-Firth just threw herself in the direction of anyone who might catch her.
I will leave it to Muriel to tell you about that. I will do the rounds now with the Askit Pooders as our rural bolt hole rather resembles the Western Front. The Professor of Music from the varsity who is an expert in Italian Renaissance music is asleep in the bath clutching his mandolin. Mrs Lottie Macaulay, whose husband is in concrete, is asleep bolt upright on the sofa with young old Jock’s head resting in her lap and Mrs Travers has her head in the bottom oven of the Rayburn. Just as well we didn’t put it on yesterday. Anyway I am sure that through the fog of their revels they join me in wishing you all a very happy 1957 despite the petrol rationing.