Muriel’s Musings – Special Highland Edition

 Organisation and Problem solving

Many months ago, come to think of it – just after Sir Anthony Eden resigned following the Suez crisis I received a request from Ruth Coulthard, who lives on the Welsh borders, (someone has to) on behalf of a Dr Bevan and his committee of the A.H.I. (The Association for Heritage Interpretation). This was in connection with a conference in Inverness. Dear Ruth, despite the confusion of living near a border, is very good at organising things, even when people are asking her a thousand conflicting questions at once, some of them from abroad and some vegetarians. There are even occasions when both problems are combined into one person.

Helping You to Understand Things

These heritage interpreters are people who help us to understand all about what has been going on in the past, and how we should see it from our viewpoint of the present. Fortunately I am married to Jasper who lives in the past so knows very well what has been going on.

Jasper and his beloved shed

Jasper’s knows a great deal about the heritage of the First World War and as I may have told you has an exhibition of his treasures in his shed which is open to the public two afternoons a week. All proceeds from the entry money and the sale of Jasper’s book go to the Hysterical  (Historical) Society, of which he is chairman.

Part of Jasper’s World War I Exhibition

Of course I also have the somewhat limited services of Mrs Travers, our daily woman what does but not a lot. While Mrs Travers has difficulty coming to grips with the damp dusting of my stair runner and Persian rugs she certainly knows what has been going on past, present and future. She has a reputation of having a touch of “the second sight” and of being a “spooky wife”. Not that I would let her lose on my Minton, without supervision.

The Glamour of Nature

the glamour of nature portrayed by James Paterson

A large number of these people work in the countryside and therefore, do not approve of sling backs or nail polish. I for one cannot understand why nature cannot be glamorous, indeed an artist and friend of my late Grandfather Lochhead, the nuts and bolts king of Glasgow, a James Paterson wrote of the “glamour of nature”. Mr Paterson knew how to arrange himself picturesquely in the countryside with a fetching smock and a jaunty beret worn to one side. I think much could be done with rucksacks for example to make them more stylish.

I myself would go for something in a Sanderson or perhaps for evening strolls, a slubbed dupion as it would catch the fading light. I notice also that when I mention the subject of a Mackintosh Square there are often barely suppressed giggles from these outdoorsy types.

note the mackintosh square

I know it must be terribly amusing to sit on a damp log in a forest or a mossy boulder by a babbling brook, but there is a price to pay for prolonged damp. All I can say to you, within the bounds of decency, are two words “ointment” and “Timothy Whites”, well that’s three but let us not be pedantic.

No Digression  and a Good Clasp

Anyway I am in danger of digressing which Jasper says makes A.H.I. people wince. Ruth and Dr Bevan (who is incidentally not related to the socialist Mr Bevan or Mr Bevin, at least as far as I know) pleaded with me to help them with their little conversazione in the Highlands by providing one of my lecturettes and would I write a conference report of 500 words, as “Muriel who else can we trust not to split an infinitive or who has a pre-war Royal typewriter with all the essential keys”.

Well that’s a tall order I must say! Now I know they like brevity and layered text, but frankly one is hard pressed to write 500 words on one’s bag (never handbag, what else would it be a foot bag?)  let alone about a four day gathering of professionals. In case you are interested, and who wouldn’t be – it was black morocco leather, suede lined with integral mirror and notebook and propelling pencil, oh yes and a good clasp. I do not like a half hearted bag-clasp, it makes one look weak.

The bag – note the clasp

A clasp needs to shut with authority. It was a gift from Jasper following an incident at the Club with a waitress and one too many amontillados. A man’s weakness is often a woman’s gain or at least you should make sure it is. Guilt is wonderful for accessories.

Help is needed –  Muriel is here

Of course I said I was able to help, after all as my Mamma always said, “I shall pass this way but once and if there is any help I can offer let me do it now for I shall not pass this way again.” Mother was full of wise words and these would often be wringing in the ears of many a departing tradesman as they adjusted their aprons when leaving our home. Sometimes I wonder if father realised how good Mamma was with tradesmen when he was away on business. She was particularly good with plumbers and could give a pretty good description of a ball cock as well as in extremis being unafraid to grab a plunger and have a go herself.

Having written on the subject for the “Inverness Courier” (described last week) I decided to take as my lecturette subject the minefield that is an invitation to suppa in the Scottish countryside. You would be surprised at the terror an invitation holds for many people unused to the ways of those and such as those. As I said in a simple way with headlines, key information and a more expansive piece for those from private schools – “delegates if you are to make any headway interpreting the heritage of Scotland these are the people one must cultivate as they are the key to objects and stories in the glens and besides they tell everyone else what to do including how and for whom to vote”.

Pontificating on manners associated with suppa (image courtesy of Sabrina Willekens)

I think we can safely say the highlights of my masterclass included getting in and out of a car, drinking from a class without getting lipstick on it and most importantly what to say and how to say it using short clipped sentences and very few consonants.

How to use a glass – the moment captured by my new pupil Sabrina

I think it was a revelation and comforted many. Perhaps those from abroad were a little confused, which is understandable as being from abroad is confusing. 

The Time for Turnip is Coming

Now education is a two way process and as you know I have a hunger for knowledge in the same way that Jasper has a hunger for,  well anything you can eat.

I am always ready to learn and I went to a wonderful master class on olive oil in the Adriatic where people have been encouraged to take pride in the history of olive cultivation in their region. I am wondering if we might do the same for the turnip in Scotland. This is one crop that has an image problem. I am already thinking of a turnip festival and the possibilities of new products such as wine and confectionary.  The olive oil talk has convinced me that I must get Jasper onto this sophisticated product and perhaps purchase a wooden bowl and ceramic salad servers, not to mention matching bottles for oil and vinegar.

No doubt this will have to wait until we go to somewhere in the Mediterranean. I want to move Jasper away from salad cream. I did ask if they had any olive oil in Boots the Chemists, but they said only small bottles for earache and looked puzzled when I said it was for Jasper’s radishes not his lugs.

Leadership with Lampshades and Tassels

Trimmings for lampshades from “Chez Nous” for the discerning client

Something I have noticed about modern people is that they like to know when they have done something if you have enjoyed it, have they done a good job and could they do anything else to make things better another time. Well all very good and earnest, but will there be a next time?

Surely if you have been employed to do a job, you should know if you are doing it well. I know full well that at my emporium “Chez Nous”, my taste in lampshades is sans pareil or I would be out of business. Also if one asks a hundred people for opinions you will get a hundred opinions most of which you cannot satisfy having just raised expectations that you will.

If one were, for example, in the position of asking Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo what improvements he might make in future Battles of Waterloo, he might have had many ideas none of which he might put into practice due to him dying of the poisoned wallpaper. No, as I said to that young research chemist I keep meeting – you know – I forget her name but she wants to be a politician, have the courage of your convictions and just do it, that is leadership. This has always been my policy with curtain treatments at “Chez Nous”. If I think swags and tails will do the job I say so and stand by it. I certainly do not say, “Well they would have been better with a double interlining and lead weights”.

No regrets Dahlings just pull the cords, smile, glide and move on. After all those of us in the suppa class just take what is thrown at us, never moaning never complaining, how else could we have run an Empire?

In the Soup

Having said all that I am going to say something that  rather contradicts my “no complaints” rule, only because dear reader I am thinking of you. I am also a woman and contradictions are my stock in trade. It keeps Jasper on his toes.

There is one area of my conference experience where I think there might be room for future improvement and “re-imagining” and that is in the disputed and vexed area of  “The Soup and Sandwich Lunch – a  Celtic Cultural  Phenomenon”.  For some reason not explained to me by the organisers (perhaps we were a niche audience)  this lecture and tasting opportunity did not appear in the programme and took place in a cupboard under the stairs – but was I can tell you seminal. This is mainly because I asked many incisive and thought provoking questions about stock and steeping.

Proper Scottish soup – with bits!

Regarding the tasting opportunities,  as Jasper will tell you, while smooth sieved soups have their place in town and the polite parts of rural society “soups with bits” are essential for what are known collectively in the country as “the men”. You cannot lamb, shear or dip on a creamed soup in our climate. We are talking broth here. Jasper is of course an expert in this area as his Granny Wylie brought up 10 weans on sheep’s heid broth made on one gas ring in a Gorbals’ tenement. As Jasper said, in the bar afterwards, “at least they had the sense not to produce vichyssoise or cold cucumber soup which to the Scots are culinary horrors.”

Garnish is Everything

For my part the number of possibilities regarding “Sandwich fillings for Foreigners” (lecture restricted to 6 due to capacity in the broom cupboard) was fascinating. I did take issue with the presenter over one particular aspect of sandwich making for mass tourism as I suggested removing the crusts!  As I said and she wasn’t pleased. “We are trying to encourage foreign visitors, not feed chain gangs” I remarked.

the cucumber sandwiches sans crusts – always!

Now while I appreciate that brown bread, in addition to white, provides variety and indicates that Britain is becoming more multicultural, a little parsley would not go amiss. We eat with our eyes as well as our teeth and looks are important. A sandwich can be so much more with some game chips, a lemon basket decoration or some radish roses.

simply marvellous radish roses

Remember in future dear conference organisers my award winning “Go Gay with Garnish”, presentation workshop is just a telephone call and a cheque away and I have waived the patent on my perfect sandwich template. Incidentally since you ask the perfect length is 4 inches, with two diagonal cuts – size does matter.

The Dangers of Cosmic Rays

Now I must go. I am on my own in the shop this week. Just when one thinks the conference season has ended Jasper has taken himself off to the Labour Party. They are discussing “the colonies as economic slums”. Well one will see how things turn out when they are no longer colonies. I know I know, but what can one do. He is very keen on a red head, a Mrs Castle, and this Mr Wilson, the shadow chancellor who is attacking the government about the rise in interest rates. He does have a point I suppose as if one has borrowed £2,000 pounds to buy a house one is now paying £12 more a month in interest. Jasper also says that under Mr MacMillan the cost of living has gone up, mind you that did not stop him travelling first class to the conference. As I said, rather provocatively – it keeps a marriage fresh – “Jasper I wonder if the comrades have first class, in Russia?”

Talking of the comrades, as you will be aware they successfully put a satellite into space last week, beating the Americans. Mrs Travers is using this as an excuse for a go slow, (encouraged I fear by “Workers riots” in Warsaw and the Labour Party conference in Brighton)  as it seems she is much affected by the  “cosmic rays”. I notice she has cut out an advertisement from Jasper’s socialist rag The Daily Herald (you know the kind –  full of sensational articles about broken noses and classified adverts for vast quantities of spring bulbs endorsed by radio personalities, sheds, reconditioned army boots and hernia belts) which says Aspro can help with Asian Flu.

I confidently predict that Asian Flu will hit our little corner of Glasgow just in time for cleaning the silver next week.

à bientôt

Muriel Wylie

October 1957

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Muriel’s Musings: Suppa Masterclass

Time to Catch Up

The Glass Clown

“Is that you Mrs Travers? You can clear now.”

Very good m’lady and by the way thank you for the glass clown.”

“My pleasure Mrs T I knew its innate gaudiness would have an appeal, it should have been a fruit bowl but there was an accident with that and it ended up in a canal.”

“Just to tell you the mattress has come back from Stoddarts, remade as spring from hair and they have recovered the quilt in corded taffeta, which comes in at £5 9s 6d.”

“It’s a tough life Mrs T; any messages?”

“Yes Mr Wylie says he has gone to the St Andrews’ Halls for tickets for the Strauss and two for me to see Frankie Vaughan at The Pavilion and the Russians have won the space race.”

“Yes I knew about that.”

“What. Frankie Vaughan being in Glasgow?”

“No; the Russians being the first to put a rocket in space.”

“How did you know that?”

“Let’s just say I had it on good authority from a gondolier repair man.”

A Request from Inverness

The old royal

“Oh yes the editor of the Inverness Courier said if you could do a piece for tomorrow’s edition he would be grateful – the usual woman’s page contributor has gone to sing at the Gaelic Mod and left him high and dry.”

“Any suggestions?”

“Yes; he said lots of agitated ladies have been in touch saying they have been invited to stay in the Highlands in October as their husbands are shooting and could you please give them some guidance about Suppa.”

“Yes of course; that old chestnut that keeps rearing its head – people do get rather worked up, they must be nouveau-riche like Mrs Macaulay.”

“Well for us humble working classes with feelings for innately gaudy and vulgar ornaments and unacquainted with Nancy Mitford, supper is usually a wee spam sandwich, or toasted cheese and a cup of tea before bedtime.”

“I take your point. Bring my old royal please. I might as well sit in front of the fire if I am to toil at a keyboard and then if you wouldn’t mind, the stairs could do with damp dusting?”

Mrs T mutters “Tote that barge, lift that bale.”

“I feel I am going over old ground, but I suppose revision is sometimes necessary and perhaps indeed there are some to whom I can fulfil the role of missionary bringing the message of gracious living.”

Unexpected Invitations from the Locals

“Shingles”, hidden in the glen

If one moves into the Scottish countryside for an extended stay or even perhaps relocates from our busy cities, sooner or later your arrival will come to the attention of those who inhabit the more substantial homes tucked away in our glens and straths. Change and “the new” unnerve them, they like what they know. So at the village shop, at church or drinks’ parties they will anxiously say to one another of your arrival “Do we know them?” This is of course a code conveying a number of hidden anxieties such as “Are they our sort?” A test will come in the form of an invitation to suppa. Now this is the rural equivalent of the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examination and therefore requires tuition.

Accidentally Meeting on Purpose in the Post Office

Proof that you own one

The invitation will come in the form of a pre-warning, perhaps an ‘accidental’ meeting at the Post Office, “you must come to suppa and meet some people”. Some days later this will be followed by the arrival of a correspondence card in the post in the name of the hostess which is printed or embossed at the top and in fountain pen it will say.  “Do come to Suppa on the 14th, 7.30pm R.S.V.P..” The expected reply, sooner rather than later given that the date you are invited for is less than a week, away is by telephone. This confirms two things – you are the sort of people the Postmaster General considers suitable to have a telephone and from the way you speak they will be able to make some preliminary judgements.

Keep it short

Keep it short – everyone is too busy for idle gossip or chit-chat, after all if it is a sunny day one has to get outside to work with one’s gardener or ‘dash orff’ to a country dancing class while the splendid woman from the village, who only comes once a week now, does the brasses.

It’s All About the Meaning in the Message

Dressed for dinner

The next hurdle is what exactly is meant by suppa. Now this and let us be very clear is not dinner. That is a formal meal with a distinct protocol around dress etc., often for a specific occasion or event such as fund raising, an anniversary or a regimental reunion. Suppa is the more usual and is a less formal and apparently, at least on the surface, more relaxed affair.

It is not a bowl of cereal or a sausage roll with a hot drink – it is a full scale meal so do not eat beforehand even although you are used to what Mrs Travers calls “wur tea” at 5.30.

The problem is there are two types of suppa kitchen suppa or suppa which is taken in the dining room and you have to work out to which you have been invited.  If they are not sure of your social status, or perceive it as lesser, you will be invited firstly to kitchen suppa and then if you cut the mustard, future invitations will be to dining room suppa. Of course you may never make the leap.

If they are certain of your social status you will be fast tracked to suppa proper, but you really need to be on your metal here as there is no going back. The clue as to which of these events you have been invited to is on the card, for at the bottom it will say casually, “come to the back door, (kitchen suppa) or “front door, mind the moss” (dining room suppa). All rather nerve wracking I know, but get this right and you will ensure your entrée into Scottish rural society. Of course I am always fast tracked myself.

To Gift or Not to Gift?

do take a basket

“Should one take a gift?”, I am often asked – well yes. No wine they have cellars and might think you think they do not. Flowers certainly for the hostess, if you live locally something fragrant from your garden, preferably a rare surviving old fashioned rose planted by Flora MacDonald but certainly nothing flashy and never begonias.

Something purchased at a sale of work is ideal. This suggests you have a charitable nature and care about “the village and the cottagers”, “they do marvellous things with damsons”. So jars of homemade marmalade, lemon curd, jam or some tablet which will be “nice with coffee”. Take them in a basket. Baskets are a key country accessory. For your information, basket management is available in my advanced programme.

Arrival

Jasper’s car does nicely

Do not be too early – this is unfair on your hostess who is exhausted having judged the local horse show or some such affair all afternoon. As she and her husband share the bathwater, what with the back boiler playing up, you are quite likely to find them in the buff especially if it is a warm evening. So if you are early, don’t look up as the sills are low and you might see more than you bargained for. It is not unknown to find them setting the table as God intended and this may colour your evening in a negative way.

A bit flash for the country set

Walking to suppa is good but so is arriving in an elderly car. Flash new cars are not part of country living.  Ladies make sure you know how to enter and exit a car correctly especially as he will be watching from the window.

The bells won’t work and the door will be ajar, the dogs will alert them to your arrival. He will greet you and if he is ex-military will remove your coat with an exaggerated flourish. Make sure you are ready to move forward quickly as his hand will follow your spine, remember he is a sheep farmer and used to checking the size of gigot chops.

Whether you are shown into the drawing room or kitchen, she will arrive moments later, well groomed but with flour in her hair for dramatic effect. She will enter the room perfectly never turning her back, after all she was a model before the last Unpleasantness. You will be shown where to sit; this is not about comfort, just imagine you are on a horse at Waterloo.

Kitchen Suppa

Kitchen suppa as the name suggests is at the kitchen table, near the Aga or Rayburn for warmth and the conceit is that you are having just what the family is having (not true that is usually sardines on toast) that night perhaps a shepherd’s pie or if they have been in the military a sausage casserole as this “brought me closer to the men in the desert you know”. As many are hill farmers they like lamb but always say “of course we never eat our own”.

Do not be surprised if the kitchen looks, well to put it bluntly, like a tip. These are people who, while they no longer have them, were brought up with servants which they allude to from time to time and they have no experience of cleaning or tidying up. You may even find your shoes are convenient hurdles for the odd frog or toad to jump over (they live behind the dresser) and they will not even be aware of the bats that fly around the single 40 watt light bulb in the summer. Do not expect to see any Formica or modern appliances.

Dining Room Suppa

The blazing fire

Dining room supper will involve foregathering in the drawing room for sherry and a few nibbles. Spirits are not offered as one never mixes the grape with the grain and gin is something one drinks in the morning while pottering in the shed or outbuildings. In any case they never have ice or lemon. There will be a blazing fire in the grate sufficient to worry any local fire brigade. One has of course cut the wood oneself from the five acres that came with the house.

The furniture will not be modern – having to buy one’s own furniture is seen as evidence that one is an arriviste or at the very least is morally questionable! Everything is old, worn and has a story. It is quite acceptable to say “what a lovely room” or admire a chest, (they always contain a moth eaten tiger skin) but do not go overboard, that would be vulgar. One does not notice what other people have. However a polite acknowledgement of an obvious historic piece, allows one’s host to talk about ancestors in China or India.

A Laughing Matter

If it is dining room suppa, they will eat quite late so it may well be 8.30 or 9.00pm by the time you go through to the dining room. The hostess will seat you saying “oh gosh I have no seating plan”, but of course she does, that is what she does best. For you will not be alone. There will be, rest assured, other guests, perhaps other new arrivals into the community and most certainly another couple of old trusted friends with whom you can be discussed later in the week.

You will sit at a Georgian table with good silver often monogrammed although needing a clean. Copper saucepans are often plonked on the table, with “honestly who can be bothered with casserole dishes”. The Spode “came from Hugh’s side” and is “a bit chipped, like Hugh’s side”. This is followed by snorts and shrieks of laughter from the hostess, to which you join in – but not too much.

Nothing Vegetarian

As to food – just as in kitchen suppa – there will be no starter. To be frank the food in country houses is often pretty terrible. If you are lucky it will be a hearty stew or casserole, often of locally shot game. Fish pie is popular. Do not be surprised if this is served with two forks, fish knives and forks are considered a middleclass affectation. There will be no choice, you eat what is put in front of you. Stoicism even in matters culinary is part of the game.

Now I understand some of you may be vegetarians. Under no circumstances mention this as they are likely to summon what they still call the Lunacy Board and one of them is likely to be chairman anyway. Some enlightened households might offer an “onion tart”, but you will be considered more trouble than you are worth or even perhaps a socialist!

Receipt cut from the newspaper and kept for cook

One thing they are very fond of are war time recipes and a corned beef pie is very popular. When you compliment this they will say “oh it’s a family favourite it is Granny’s.” Now what they actually mean by that is it was her cook’s, although Granny will have it in her recipe book, which was largely a work of fiction.  By the way, they pronounce recipes as receipts as in the piece of paper you are given when buying your shopping.

Pudding

There may not be a first course, but there is usually pudding, never sweet or desert, such terms will be a life sentence for kitchen suppa. These will be stodgy and will be to placate the host who didn’t want you to come in the first place, especially if your husband has a beard or suede shoes. Favourites are rice pudding with skin to which the host will add jam and cream and allude to more unpleasant substances, jam sponge pudding, syrup pudding, railway pudding and so forth. They are designed to remind him of happy days in the nursery of nanny or one of the least unbearable parts of boarding school. All are served with lashings of custard, Birds is fine, “who makes their own these days darling?”

crumble with custard, a favourite of Jasper’s

If the food can be indifferent then rest assured the wine will be of the highest quality and will come from the cellar. Again every bottle has a story and there is inevitably a son called Toby who is working in a château in France.

 What to Say and How to Say It

Conversation can be a worry, firstly because how you speak and what you say is a minefield that may soon have you in a crater. They like short clipped sentences, after all it is very windy on those moors and too many consonants make them wince. Never ask to go to the toilet, it is the loo or lavatory.

They don’t like things disguised as something else. It is writing paper not notepaper, a chimneypiece not a mantelpiece and frock not dress. Suitable subjects are country matters, firewood (cherry is best) dogs, drainage and the new minister (providing he is not a guest) who will not be a patch on the old one, “they say he plays the guitar”. Of course one never talks about religion that is something one does on a Sunday morning and it is taken for granted that you are a member of the Church of Scotland or preferably an Episcopalian for real class or you come from Edinburgh. Politics is a definite no-no. You must be a Conservative or why would Rosemary have invited you in the first place.

Never talk about illness or infirmity, one just puts up with all that is thrown at one. Never talk about one’s children, you don’t see much of them anyway. It is acceptable to allude to which school they go to and to suggest you hate sending them to boarding school and blame your husband, “it was Hugh’s Idea, St Beatings was where he went and his father and grandfather and I suppose Hugh is right, they must learn to be men”. Do not talk overmuch about yourself and your family, although it is quite all right to allude to ancestors who were executed within the confines of The Tower of London, this absolutely screams class and suggests romantic Jacobites are one’s ancestors.

Do Not Overdo It

Sensible attire for arrival for suppa

What should you wear? Understatement and careless abandon are the name of the game, but in a controlled sort of way after all we wouldn’t want to appear hysterical. Kitchen suppas are, as I have said, informal affairs. If you arrive in a dinner jacket or white tie and medals, you will be thought a fool especially if you are a lady. No only joking, but the same thing goes for the ladies – a ball gown or evening dress would be totally out of place.

Ladies country tweeds are fine or a nice smart frock, tartan is always acceptable. A cardigan worn on the shoulders gives you a relaxed look as does a slightly worn but very good bag. Never handbag, what else would it be, a foot bag?

Grandmama’s brooch

It would be totally inappropriate to wear jewellery that made one look like a Christmas tree. Pearls at the neck are always good, never bought by your husband for that is unlucky, you know what they say “pearls for tears, but a 21st birthday gift from your father or godfather, a brooch or bracelet that belonged to your grandmother (you must come from good stock), a good watch, an engagement ring with a stone brought back from the Empire is ideal. Leave the tiara in the bank.

Men – What Can One Say?

Jasper

“The men” as they are always referred to are expected to look much as they have through the day except it’s a good idea if they have a bath – never a shower (“so plebeian, Mummy”). Their outfit is a variation of cords or twill trousers, tweed jacket or blazer, cravat or regimental tie, gold cufflinks, signet ring (never a wedding ring) and often a stained v-necked jumper or waistcoat straining at the buttons; good brogues of course for footwear. In both cases, it is wise to wear warm underwear as despite the blazing fires there is no background heating and the cold is bone chilling.

Time to Say Goodbye

Finally how does one know when it is time to leave?

Simple – in summer the lights are never put on, for these people are as mean as anything and you leave once you can no longer see your hosts. In winter if you are in the dining room supper you will have repaired to the drawing room where the hostess will signal the end of the evening by saying “delicious coffee before you go”. You can be assured it will not be delicious. The ladies will say “yes” and the men will decline expecting the next question, “whisky for the road gentlemen” (never scotch). That is the one exception to the grape and grain rule. The final indication that you must rise and leave is that the blazing fire will die down and no fresh logs are put on.

For those in the kitchen, the end of suppa is indicated when the host jumps up and says “time to let those damned dogs out, walk you to the path”.

There are extra brownie points for walking the three miles home especially in the snow and bringing your own gum boots and torch.  You might even hear them say as they close the door, “Why Hugh, I think they may be our sort, I almost feel we know them.”

Muriel Wylie

October 1957

P.S. Repay the invitation as soon as possible or you may as well emigrate

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The Holiday That Wasn’t

 

Inside the Doge’s Palace

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,

A Palace and a Prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:

A thousand years their cloudy wings expand

Around me, and a dying Glory smiles

O’er the far times, when many a subject land

Looked to the winged Lion’s marble piles,

Where Venice sate in state, throned on a hundred isles.

(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, George Gordon Lord Byron 1788-1824)

It is with the words of Byron, who was a well known poet called George Gordon Lord Byron, writing in the late 18th century that Muriel Wylie, etiquette consultant and interior decorator (later the crossbencher Baroness Wylie of Waterside) began her secret account of her visit to Venice in September 1957.

A Book Sale

This was only discovered recently when a collection of books belonging to the late Baroness were sold to a dealer by Gayle Wylie Fox, the daughter of Britain’s most famous and beloved Shakespearean actor, Sir Sebastian.

Sir Sebastian

Gayle, who has enduring power of attorney over her father’s estate, wants to reduce her father’s possessions to minimise any future clearing out when the theatrical knight goes to the Great Agent in the Sky.

There is also the matter of Sebastian’s insistence on hiring extra storage space in the basement of the Home for the Terminally Overdressed, (a unique themed retirement facility for thespians, lorded by the Select Committee – “Dementia can be Fun”, on the Slough Trading Estate) which adds a considerably hefty sum to the “extras column” in the actor’s already substantial monthly bill.

Mrs Esme Travers

In the words of his aunt’s woman what did, the late Mrs Esme Travers, Sebastian has always “spent money like a man wi’ nae arms”. However, as Gayle knows even a knight’s resources do not last forever, especially with a glass of champagne at every meal and his insistence on employing husband and wife Pearl and Dean Travers, as secretary and driver.

Mrs Travers Knew Everything

Sebastian was particularly close to Mrs Travers who despite the fact she “did not a lot” understood him, or so she thought, more than his aunt and uncle and being a woman of the world originally from the mean streets of Warrington realised very early on that he was “quite theatrical”.

The exclusive West End abode

When he arrived at the Wylies’ Glasgow home (an oft sought but rarely found full villa in the West End) one evening with Dimitri, a ballet dancer who had run away from the Bolshoi, Mrs Travers quickly jaloosed that he was indeed not just quite, but “very theatrical”. She knew this by the enormity of Dimitri’s grande battement en cloche, the sight of which regularly brought tears to her eyes.

Books that Represent Sebastian’s Stage Milestones

As quickly as Gayle removed the books from the boxes and placed them in a pile for the specialist dealer, Sebastian reclaimed as many or decided to reminisce about the part certain volumes had played in his life. The whole process, therefore, occupied several days as Sebastian held forth about his uncle’s collection of First World War histories or his guides to capodimonte collecting.

Thoughts in a woodland glade – a prize piece of Jasper’s capodimonte collection

In the Baroness’s collection were a number of first editions of many of the plays her nephew had been in, a sign the elderly gent felt of their affection for him. The Oscar Wilde marked his debut in the all male The Importance of Being Ernest in which he played Lady Bracknell, heavily influenced it was said by his family connections with the extraordinary Lady Pentland-Firth.

Lay P-F’s resemblance to Lady Bracknell

A signed copy of Separate Tables by Terrance Rattigan marked a little known, at the time but now considered seminal, production of Joan Greenwood’s version of the play in which Sebastian and some of his more left wing avant-garde friends played the tables. Each tablecloth was of a different fabric representing the different inhabitants of the Hotel in which they had come to live out their lives. Sebastian’s portrayal of Dunfermline Damask was said to have been heartbreaking.

All of these would raise a substantial sum to support Sebastian for goodness knows how long, but none more so than a first folio of Shakespeare’s King Richard which is a play by the well known Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, called Richard III and was probably written in 1592 which is quite a long time ago. It is all about a Machiavellian rise to power which often happens today, as you will know if you live in foreign parts so it is quite relevant. In the famous opening lines Sebastian is said to have brought a new lyricism to his utterance of the word “bosom”, lifting it to new heights to something beyond the usual schoolboy tittering. As a critic said after the first performance in the Ayr Gaiety, “Bosoms are safe in the hands of Sebastian Wylie Fox.”

“Lady Chatterley’s Liver” for the Bin

Sebastian was happy to part with all these volumes, but he drew the line at a battered and stained old volume covered in brown paper. “Really Daddy”, said a frustrated Gayle “what on earth do you want to keep this for? I can only just make out what it says, “Lady Chatterley’s Liver – A Guide for first year medical students”. Oh really! I suppose this is – yes just as I thought, it is Uncle Jasper’s copy of D.H. Lawrence. Oh look Aunty Mu has written on the fly leave “confiscated September 1957”. I suppose she must have found it in his shed.

Jasper’s shed

The old devil, she must have taken it from him. I often wondered what he got up to in there, after all there were only so may First World War battlefields in papier-mâché one man could make. Really Daddy you don’t need this; bin it. I can get you a new copy if you really want it.”

“Lady Chatterley’s Liver” 

“I know that Gayle, but please don’t rush me, ah yes now I remember. Look inside. Aunt Muriel has used it to hide her private musings. Although if you take time to study the pages, a Venetian hotel’s writing paper is pasted on to the most descriptive pages of Mr Lawrence’s book; you will see they are not just private memories but a top secret account of a visit she made to Venice for the Government in 1957.

An al fresco hairdresser’s near San Marco

It was the height of the Cold War and the Americans and Russians were desperately trying to be the first in Space. The Handsome Stranger and Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes (Professor of Music at the varsity in Glasgow and a specialist on Stravinsky) who were  Aunt Muriel’s handlers, had it on good authority from those who work in the shadows that a top level meeting was taking place in a hairdresser’s down a back street in St Marco where the date of the launch of a Soviet rocket into outer space would be set.”

Connections

“How do you know all this?”

“Cousin Lulubelle told me, when I was living in New York in the 1950’s and attending drama school there; she had connections in the political élite.”

“Do you mean?”

“Yes John and Jackie; it was Cousin Lulubelle who suggested Jack should run for President in 1960 and of course some years later Aunt Muriel remembered a letter she had from Jackie asking advice about a wedding dress.”

“Surely this cannot have been public knowledge at the time? What on earth did people think they were doing?”

the perfect couple

“Well Gayle, of course it was not public knowledge at the time. It is only in recent years that the public have learnt about Muriel and Jasper’s role in post Unpleasantness Britain. They were the best of spies – a devoted, slightly eccentric couple going about their business as interior decorators and fashion icons. It was widely assumed that they were in Venice in ̓57 because of the Biennale and of course to buy for their shop ‘Chez Nous’. Aunt Muriel knew that Venetian taste appealed to the Glaswegian who was less keen on Scandinavian ‘sticky oot’ legs etc. So she was keen to buy up Venetian fabrics and glass wear. It was a wonderful ruse for also working in the shadows and there are plenty of shadowy places in La Serenissima.

“Can we look at the book? Gosh funny to see her writing after all these years. I remember the letters she used to write to school on headed paper. ‘Dear Miss Paton, Please excuse Gayle from lacrosse today, I am taking her to have lunch with Princess Margaret.’ Tell you what – you read it Daddy. You can dramatise it as if it were a play.”

Hotel X, Venice September 1957 – Top Secret 60 year Closure

Things Are Not Always As They Seem

Arrival at our hotel

“I am quite sure I must have Italian ancestors as soon as I am through the Alps as I feel at home. The Orient Express, if truth be told, is not all it once was. I only hope that in the future someone takes it back to its former glory. I imagine, however, that air travel will be the way we come to Italy in the future. That is all well and good but lacks the sense of adventure one has when travelling by rail and I do not mean British Rail either.

We arrived on time at Santa Lucia Station and were pleased to be met by our guide Stefano, a handsome Italian who works in the shadows and his mother a Sig.ra Traverso who is rather large and casts her own shadow but would assist me throughout our stay. I had expected to travel by water taxi, but Stefano said that the Professor said it would only attract attention as and I quote the foreign office permanent secretary, “Mrs Wylie looks a million dollars in a water taxi”. A backhanded compliment I am sure but the Vaporetto is rather busy and a bit of a crush when one has valises and a not inconsiderable number of hat boxes. Still one was on a mission not on holiday and one did have dear Stefano, which was just as well as Jasper was just transfixed by the architecture.

Just Tourists

A splendid Murano Chandelier – I can see it in Lottie’s

We were booked into a very pleasant hotel, several hundred years old I believe, and I was fascinated by the fabrics covering the walls and the glass chandeliers hanging from the ceilings. One could not help wondering how golden damask would look on the walls of a bungalow in Ralston or cut velvet on a three piece suite in Dennistoun. I am quite sure I could make it look simply marvellous. Sig.ra Traverso unpacked my various suitcases which took a mere 3 hours and then she said that our instructions were to act like tourists, and that our back stories were being taken care of with invitations to films, meeting Maria Callas who is a famous opera singer and Peggy Guggenheim who is a famous rich person with money to spend on modern art.

Muriel, just being a tourist

Our instructions were further to see as many Madonnas as possible as the comrades don’t like that sort of thing and would soon get bored. I asked Stefano if the comrades had any idea we were here in Venice. “Oh yes Sig.ra Wylie they know; look out of the window.” “Oh” I said “that is just a gondolier.”

No ordinary gondolier

“Unfortunately he is also an agent, so you will have to be careful. They are very nervous about the launch and your life may well be in danger, so be careful.”

Espionage By Art

Jasper keeping a look out

Always true to my mission we spent the day in a vast number of chiesas.  We were also being tailed.

There was always someone on a gondola..watching

At the Church of St Moise, Moses received the tablets kneeling which made me wonder why we in the Church of Scotland never kneel and I came to the conclusion it is the damp! I am not sure if the Church of Scotland is suited to the baroque, it seems to me to require too much dusting, although it’s not something they seem to bother themselves too much about here.  I slipped into the confessional and a priest handed me a piece of paper which said ‘Street of the Assassins and now visit the Plague Church.’

The Salute

St Maria de Salute is the last church built in the grand manner before Venice went into decline. Its stone is now grey with fungus, might I suggest some Vim and a bit of elbow grease? It is said to be built on a million wooden pilings, which is a lesson Mr Macaulay, the millionaire bungalow builder, might well consider as I have heard there are one or two issues with his foundations in Canniesburn Road.

ever watchful

Here a nun asked me to contribute to the fund for the poor and whispered “wear a disguise of appropriate costume, now go to the museum of the 18th century and the subject will be revealed”. A schoolmaster leading his bored pupils bumped into Jasper and said “sorry, next time dress as if for a carnival and you will be more noticeable”.

In need of a sit down – note the mackintosh square

I must say this espionage by art is very exhausting, I may ask for a larger fee or at the very least a box of Fuller’s Earth for a footbath.

Dressed for Venice

My selected mask for the occasion

That evening suitably masked and dressed we were collected by gondola and went along the canals of San Marco and out into the Grand Canal.  We were dropped at an unknown point and told to follow the music. In a piazza we came across a group of Tango dancers and joined in. I was asked to dance by a small bald headed man wearing a mask who said “were you followed?” “No” I replied. “Good,” he said “think you must have bored them with the wall to wall Madonnas. May I suggest the Campo San Trovaso tomorrow at 4.30pm and by the way your molinete Sig.ra Wylie is perfection itself.” “What should I do now?” “Oh just look marvellous, enjoy the dancing, eat some food – enjoy yourself. The comrades, if they are still here, will go. They can’t abide fun.”

So we did! Jasper and I, on official business, danced, under the stars and took the last Vaporetto back from San Stae to our hotel passing under the Rialto Bridge which always reminds me of Catherine of Aragon’s hat!

Rialto Bridge at night

Next morning we went to San Giorgio Maggiore by way of being good tourists and I must say the view from the tower is out of this world.

Enjoying the view from the bell tower

We had cappuccino and I asked a waiter who looked as if he was from the shadows if he had any messages for us from a Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes regarding a secret rendezvous.” “You mean the world famous expert on Vivaldi?” “Yes”  “No Sig.ra Wylie, but I have a message from a Mrs Esme Travers who says should she get the chimney swept or would you rather wait until you got back from your cold war activities so that there is no soot on the washed Chinese as you know what you can be like”. I suggested with gay abandon that she go ahead, but then that’s what holidays do for you.

 A Rendezvous with Boat Repairers

Enjoying a glass of wine

After lunch we walked across the Accademia bridge and into the Dorsoduro, such a pretty part of Venice and arrived at the Campo San Trovaso just as it was closing. “Sig.ra Wylie?” asked the caretaker”. “Yes.” “Go to the Gondola repair shop and they will help you.”

The gondola repair shop

We walked there and went in to find the gondola craftsman sanding and planeing a gondola, but he whispered to moi “The comrades will launch their rocket on Friday 4th October. It will travel at a speed of 28,000 ft a second or 18,000 miles an hour, which I believe Mrs Wylie is almost as fast as you going through Anniesland Cross in the Humber Super Snipe. It will carry a satellite which has cost £4 million. Don’t look now I think we have been spotted. Go…. before you accidentally fall into the canal.”

Saved by Maria Callas

lost down dark alleys

Jasper and I rushed back across the Accademia Bridge and got hopelessly lost down all manner of dark alleys and sinister byways constantly thinking that shadows were following us.

Behind La Fenice

We knew where we were once we had got to the back of the opera house and thought we were safe and then suddenly a figure in a mask and bright red cloak jumped out and threatened us with a knife. We were being backed into the canal when suddenly a top window opened and there was Maria Callas “Yoohoo Muriel, it is Maria; come on up.”

The prow of the gondola did its job

The would-be assassin also looked up and Jasper hit him in the stomach with the Murano glass fruit bowl he had bought for Mrs T. He gasped for air, fell backwards and was sliced in two by a newly repaired gondola prow which had just come around the corner. Fortunately the harmonised sounds of Maria and the gondolier sensing his moment of glory in the murder scene from Tosca had come just in time to cut out any cries from the assassin in the red cape.

And the gondola was gone in a flash

Just goes to show if you are an interrupted assassin your watchword should be “don’t look now.” 

Timing

“Sir Sebastian” interpreted a nurse “it is time for your lunch, will your daughter be joining you? By the way those two cultural ladies have arrived wanting to know if you would like to meet them for coffee.”

“Oh no not those two again, although they might be interested in a new story I have for them. I see it as a film perhaps with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.”

“It’s been done father, well done too. Different story but similarities enough, in fact Aunty’ friend wrote it, you know Agatha Christie.”

“What sinister and lots of red?”

“Oh yes lots.”

“Oh well, fancy lunch and then we can see what we can get out of Hilary Dee and Vivienne? Might even get a few more months rent on this place.”

Always keeping an eye on us

“Sometimes Daddy I feel that even although Muriel and Jasper are not here they are, they seem to watch over us.”

“I know exactly what you mean I can even hear them some days.”

“Perhaps that is just an aspect of dementia Daddy?”

“No! I know hallucinations when I have them, but I can also smell Muriel’s perfume and hear the swish of her skirts. By the way I am glad you came, suppose this afternoon we do something different and sort out my books?”

 

Sebastian Wylie  Fox

September 2017

 

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La Serenissima

A Glass of Aperol

Aperol – a habit acquired by Jasper while in Venice

Bonjourno as they say in Italy. Although to be perfectly honest I really don’t have a lot of time to chat in any language today. As Mrs Travers, our daily woman what does but not a lot, would say “I am up to my oxters in alligators” as they say in Maryhill. The trouble with being not only simply marvellous but also an international woman of business is that there are just not enough hours in the day. I suppose that is what happens when one is a woman who has just come back from a glamorous European destination and still has a household and husband to run as well as a stylish business specialising in interiors for the discerning Glaswegian. Thank goodness there are so few of us at home or I would be run off my feet. Jasper, on the other hand, is in his shed apparently taking cuttings but, as Mrs T has reported, he is fast asleep in a Lloyd Loom chair with a glass of aperol beside him.

Dinner Dance Master Class

The simply marvellous Assembly Rooms in George Street

This of course means he will be in no fit state to practice the cha-cha-cha with me later. He has two left feet and no sense of rhythm or direction and I want him to help me demonstrate this dance in Edinburgh at the weekend when I shall be giving one of my master classes at the Assembly Rooms in George Square. This is not a master class in dance, I wouldn’t presume, but rather in how those who are new to business might make the most of the opportunities afforded by that most popular of events, the firm’s annual dinner dance. After all the nights are drawing in and the winter season fast approaches so one’s thoughts should be turning to preparation for this event.

Many of the men who luckily returned from the last Unpleasantness now find themselves climbing up the ladder of business in Glasgow or Edinburgh. They are in all manner of business activities in our cities for example in wholesale ironmongers, or bungalow building firms or perhaps have just been invited to become partners in an accountancy or law firm or have recently been promoted in that well respected shipping agency, leather manufactures or in our great textile firms such as Coats and Clarkes, or even in our new industries like Ferranti. Business and social success go hand in hand and one is just as likely to become a partner with a good golf handicap or Palais Glide as one is with a mastery of double entry bookkeeping or quality control.

Navigating Your Way Out of Trouble

For many young men the social side of business is a minefield. A night out with the managing director can be more stressful than one’s monthly sales figures report. What should one say to avoid blotting one’s copybook; does one mix the grape with the grain; are patent shoes too much? It is to be frank a jungle and that is before we get to the person that will make or break the evening or indeed your career in automatic door closers, the lady wife! Rest assured you can be certain that your advancement to the management dining room, a company car and the role of Father Christmas at the pensioners’ party depends on how your wife (or indeed intended) looks and behaves at the firm’s dinner dance.

Never fear, as ever I am here for you and on Saturday at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh I am making sure my master class allays your fears and begins your training for you big night out later in the year.

a sherry party

Follow my advice and I can promise you, ladies, soon your husband will be on the fast track to the boardroom and his dreams of an executive chair with arms, a secretary with legs and a rubber plant in the corner of the office will soon become reality. Of course, ladies his success will be your success too and in no time you will have that new top loader, food mixer and electric floor polisher, not to mention invitations to sherry parties and the occasional indulgence of a small Cinzano for those you like something herby or a G&T for the more conventional.

Success is Within Reach

So ladies and gentlemen, business success in 1950’s Scotland is very dependent on success at the firm’s dinner dance. Who knows you may find yourselves moving house to be near me in Glasgow’s West End   and hopefully decorating your new home with furnishings from my shop ‘Chez Nous’, the gateway to gracious and stylish living. You might even find that you are travelling abroad for the business or even for pleasure.

I am firmly of the belief that more and more people will be travelling abroad to Europe in the second half of this century. I also think Europe will become more of a place with which to do business, especially since the signing of the Treaty of Rome this year and the new European Economic Community. Of course the UK is not part of this yet as we want to see how things are going and I suppose we would only take over as, let’s face it, we do know how to run things well.

Always Trying to Keep Ahead in Soft Furnishings

As you may have gathered from my opening remarks I not only have a firm grasp of the essentials of the Italian language but have in fact been in Italy this past week on business myself. As something of a trendsetter in the world of fashion and stylish interiors, I have to be one step ahead of the game. Being a leader in the business of furnishings and trimmings is not dissimilar from the world of the film actor, one minute one is the talk of the town regarding one’s tassels or ruched cushions and the next one has a glut of sheepskin rugs as a more fashionable emporium has opened along the road.

I am known for my tassels

I am sure you have all seen “All About Eve” and sometimes I feel like the Bette Davis of the lampshade world. One must always have something fresh and exciting for one’s customers or tap into their current interests to develop your displays and move your stock. Now I know that the current vogue is for all things Scandinavian. That is for practicality, but sometimes the Glaswegian just wants a little bit of gilt and glamour in the home and who is more glamorous and stylish than the Italians? They have sharp tailoring, wonderful leather and beautiful shoes. There is an elegance in all that they do with their printed skirts, large sunhats, crisp white blouses and gold tassel earrings. Jasper just adores Sophia Loren almost as much as he does the staff at Harry’s Bar. They do indeed know how to create ‘La Dolce Vita’.

 A Tiara of Proud Towers and a Nicked Tiara

Venice

For me Venice is my city of inspiration. I love its decayed beauty and fragility and the wearing of age like a badge of honour. I wish I could do the same.

The decayed beauty of Venice

Like so many of you, Venice is part of my imagination and let’s face it we have all been there with Mr Turner’s paintings and in Mr Ruskin’s stones as well as with Shakespeare not to mention with Voltaire in Candide, Henry James in the Aspen Papers and The Wings of a Dove, Wilkie Collins in the Haunted Hotel and Across the River and Into the Trees with Ernest Hemmingway.

Of course Jasper’s  experience is limited to the descriptions of Lady Constance in that book he has covered in brown wrapping paper from the Post Office, which he keeps in the shed and thinks I don’t know about and onto which he has scrawled the renamed title for security purposes – “Lady Chatterley’s Liver – A beginners guide for first year medical students”, by Dr Lawrence. He thinks I came up the Clyde on a Garibaldi biscuit! Our nephew Sebastian, the actor, finds his Venice in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Mrs Travers has a glass clown, over and above her son Billy. My Venice is in Lord Byron’s Childe Harold:

She looks like a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,

Rising with her tiara of proud towers

At airy distance, with majestic motion,

A ruler of the waters and their powers:

And such she was – her daughters had their dowers

From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East

Poured in her lap all gems in sparkling showers:

In purple was she robed, and of her feast

Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased. 

The missing tiara

Of course I should not be mentioning Billy Travers and tiaras in the same paragraph what with him suspected of having been involved in the theft of Lady Pentland-Firth’s jewels using Jasper’s Humber Super Snipe. I digress but such is the fault of the multi talented individual.

Your First Time

the rialto bridge

One might have one’s picture of Venice from art or literature but take it from me one only ever sails up the Grand Canal for the first time, once. So do it from the Piazzale Roma to St Mark’s sitting as near the front of the Vapporetto as you can. Your breath will be taken away as you sail under the Rialto Bridge and past The Ca’ d’Oro, The Accademia,  the Salute and the Doge’s Palace.

The Salute

You will of course be reminded of how many of the princes of Glasgow’s industrialisation took their architectural inspiration from these buildings and some will seem oddly familiar if you know Union Street or Templeton’s carpet factory or indeed the interior of Wylie and Lochhead’s in Buchannan Street. The merchants of Glasgow saw themselves as successors to the merchants of Venice.

Everyone Knows When Muriel is in Town

I had rather hoped to keep my visit a secret. Well you know what it is like when one visits an old haunt, old friends expect a call. I had no sooner settled Jasper into a café with a book and an aperol and myself into our hotel than the telephone started to ring. Maria Callas, who is a well known singer of the operatic type, said my arrival had been the talk of the “Café Florian” that morning and could she pop in on her way to rehearsals at La Fenice.

La Fenice, Venice’s opera house

She looks wonderful and I wish I could get my eyeliner to look so perfect. I asked why she had left the Edinburgh Festival and Lady Pentland-Firth’s Classic Country House Concert early. “No particular reason” she said, “it is expected of a diva. Who is going to pay attention to a singer who behaves themselves?” adding that staying in Lady P-F’s guest bedroom was no treat. I asked if that was the tartan room where Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept on his way north. Maria said it was and she would have thought they might have changed the sheets. I knew exactly what she meant as Jasper and I have had that room too and we found his wig under the bolster.

Peggy Guggenheim’s Table is Too Small

at Peggy’s Palace

No sooner had Maria departed to warm up her voice than the telephone rang again and this time it was Peggy Guggenheim from the Palazzo on the other side of the Grand Canal between The Salute and the Accademia. Peggy asked if we had anything planned for the evening if not would we come over for suppa as she had one or two new pictures she would rather like us to see. As she reputedly buys one a day this can be hard work. Of course having inherited 2.9 million dollars in 1919 she can well afford the odd daube or two.

Her taste runs to the avant-guarde and the bohemian and she is an old friend of Patience Pentland-Firth as they hung about together in Paris in the 20s with Man Ray and Duchamp. I must say she has far better taste than Patience, but then like so many of us with good taste she lost family on The Titanic; as she said over suppa “Tragic Muriel, but character building.”

She divorced artist Max Ernst about 10 years ago and bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the canal and began to promote American artists. Jasper rather likes her and she likes him but then she she is rather keen on anything in a linen suit – even Jasper. She has suggested that Jasper’s shed might become a rather unusual venue for modern art and says if he would like it, he can borrow one of the Picassos as she has quite a few. One wag says she collects as many men as pictures. She had a short affair with Beckett, who was a famous Irish playwright called Samuel Beckett. Perhaps if it had been a longer affair she might have helped him to write a play someone could understand. I must say she is very hospitable but she has the oddest dining room – the table is so small and narrow, it is such a crush sitting around it. As Jasper says it is all elbows and spaghetti.

Film Festivals are Such Hard Work

We were invited back the following evening to meet some of her artist friends but as Jasper says one can be overloaded with surrealism, cubism, abstractionism and he was himself more interested in finding a pizza-ism as he calls the restaurants. Fortunately we had an invitation to the Film Festival so were able to make our excuses. I say fortunately but then the film choices were not exactly, and I quote my husband, “a bundle of laughs” as we had to sit through a A Hatful of Rain, a film about a young man with a secret morphine addiction, (one was reminded of Lady P-F and the Armontilado problemo)

Lady Pentland-Firth#s problemo

made bearable said Jasper by Eva Marie Saint and a score by Bernard Hermann. Nice to be invited. However, light it was not and then there was Le Notti Bianche an Italian film by “the neo realist” Visconti based on a Dostoevsky novel White Nights with Maria Schell and Marcello Mastrioni. You get the drift! The film which seems most popular was an Indian film called Aparajito, there is a general feeling among the cognoscenti that Indian films are the coming thing. There certainly was a wonderful scene with a train, although one quite ached for an Ealing comedy.

Nothing is Too Good for “Chez Nous” Clients

luxurious Venetian fabric

I was not in Venice, however, just to party and watch films there was after all some serious shopping to be done for Chez Nous and I managed to pick up some wonderful Fortuny fabrics and lights which I think will have an appeal to some of my special clients who like a little bit of luxury.

Venice has always been well placed for the importation of wonderful fabrics such as velvets, silks and damasks and designers like Fortuny knew how to use them. I am sure you are all familiar with his Delphos dresses with the pleats that were so fine no one can replicate them. Just as well really – they were a little unforgiving on the mature figure.

the dragonfly vase designed by Zecchin in the 20s

Glass, however, is always my downfall and I was unable to resist some pieces by that master Vittorio Zecchin who also designed graphics and furniture as well as ceramics. It is his dragonfly vases of the 1920s that I love most and the colours are wonderful. Although he died in 1947, the Venini Factory for which he was the artistic director still produce his designs, thank goodness.

I cannot wait to reorganise ‘Chez Nous’ and prompted by a beautiful image of Mary Magdalene at the Accademia, I have suggested to Lady Pentland-Firth that she and I host an Italian Night to raise funds for the Home for Fallen Women. September is always one of our busiest months. Such a lot of falling takes place in Glasgow during Christmas and New Year.

Anyway must dash I need Jasper to practice his hip movements for Edinburgh and then I am going to the shop to see if my windows might look good in Tintoretto red.

Arrivederchi

il Semplicemente meraviglioso

Sig.ra Muriel Wylie

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There’s a Price to Pay for Everything

Food Controls

“Mrs T didn’t you hear me ring?”

“Sorry Ma’am; I am up to my oxters in brambles and apples. I have taken the liberty of preparing a bramble and apple crumble for wur tea, sorry I mean suppa, and I thought that since there is an R in the month we might have custard as it always puts a smile on Mr Wylie’s face.”

Apple and bramble crumble

“Most puddings put a smile on Mr Wylie’s face and quite a few pounds on his waistline. Still my dear Grandmamma always said the best way to control a man was to fill him up and keep him close to death, or was it sleep? I cannot quite remember.”

“I am afraid it never worked wi’ ma man. I kept him filled up wi’ blackpudd’n’, fried bried, fried eggs, fried bacon, fried sausages – pork links and flat beef lorn, fried white pudd’n’, fried tattie scones, fried mushrooms…”

“And fried tomatoes?”

“No Mrs Wylie I grilled them. I didn’ae want tae over dae the greese. And he still carried on wi’ other women down at Busty Betty’s Unnecessary Lingerie Shop down by the canal.”

Any News of Mr Travers or for that matter Billy Travers?

“Is there any news of him? I don’t like to ask. Is he still living in the Sailors’ Refuge after the police raid on Busty Betty’s down by the canal and his escape and subsequent trip on a slow boat to China, where he bought you a stuffed lizard, which was made into an occasional lamp for your new radiogram, bought on the HP?”

“On he’s fine. His sort always come up smelling of roses. I can’t have him back in my hoose though, even if he did get me 10% off some inappropriate foundation garments.”

“What do you mean inappropriate?”

“Well have you tried vinegar washing a skirting board in a “roll on” trimmed with swansdown?”

“Umm. I suppose it must have ticked his fancy.”

“No Ma’am it most certainly did not, fancy tickling is off his menu.”

“I suppose there is a price to pay for everything.”

Mr Wylie’s car, The beloved “Super Snipe”

“Yes and I always seem to pay over the odds! Now I have oor Billy’s trial to face. How could he be so stupid as to ‘borrow’ Mr Wylie’s car to provide “the wheels” for a robbery in Glasgow?”

“I am sure your ship will come in one day and Mr Wylie has tried to do what he can at the Fiscal’s office; they play golf together.”

Sisterhood?

“I appreciate that Mrs Wylie, Mr Wylie is very thoughtful.”

“Perhaps things wouldn’t have been so bad if they had not broken into Lady Pentland-Firth’s Glasgow house and stolen the famous “Minch Tiara”, which came from her mother-in-law’s family. Lady Pentland-Firth is not as forgiving as Mr Wylie.”

“No; not at all.”

“I am afraid Mrs T that in her own way Lady P-F’s experiences with men have been just as catastrophic as yours. Despite a huge cultural, economic and social divide you have much in common.”

Back in the Berlin Days

“We have everything in common except money. And perhaps we are forgetting her Ladyship was not born to the purple but once a cabaret singer in interwar Europe with by all accounts a routine that would have made Busty Betty look like a mother superior.”

“You are right Mrs T, life is not fair or Mrs Lottie Macaulay, wife of the millionaire bungalow builder, would have been born with good taste and I would have one first prize in the flower show. Incidentally, where is Mr Wylie?”

A Hectic Half Day Ahead

Off to the golf club

“Oh yes he went out straight after breakfast and said to tell you that he had an exhausting half day ahead of him with golf before lunching at the Club as they have Peterhead herring in oatmeal on special and apple and bramble crumble with custard.”

“But I thought we were having that for suppa?”

“We are, and he said you would raise the matter and he said to tell you that as it would be the first in the season he wanted to check that after such a gap he was not allergic to it. That is exactly the look he said you would receive this news with so I was to follow it up by

Muriel is not amused

telling you that he has gone to the Cosmo to pick up tickets for a Robert Bresson film which has been at the festival, called Un condamné à mort s’est échappé – it’s about an officer of the French Resistance caught by the Germans who is awaiting his death sentence in a Lyons Prison. He said there are few laughs but that given you were in the S.O.E. you would appreciate it, plus the recurring symbolism of a whistle from a nearby train representing flagging spirits and then escape. The whole thing is accompanied by music from Mozart which was composed by the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was apparently once quite popular, despite being foreign, but recently overtaken by Elvis.”

“I see Mrs T anything else?”

“Oh yes he is also picking up the prospectus for “The SNO” winter season of concerts. There is apparently to be lots of Elgar and Benjamin Britten who are almost as famous as Mozart despite being British and there will be a concert performance of Aida with the Glasgow Choral Union. Many of the concerts will be conducted by the new boy, Alexander Gibson, others by visiting conductors for “rostrum variety”.  What else does it say here? Oh yes remember to collect winnings on Canebière, winner of the Silver Bell at the Lanark races, but do not mention this to Mrs Wylie. Oops! Sorry.”

“The gee-gees! I thought as much! I will need to have words with Mr Wylie. Now before you re-enter the world of autumnal produce might I have some coffee while I peruse the paper. By the way Mrs T, I am expecting some visitors shortly.”

Coffee and the Papers

the R.S.A.C., Jasper’s club

Now what is going on in the world, the usual doom and gloom I suppose? Well not entirely, Peterhead has just had its highest one day catch of herring which explains lunch at the R.S.A.C., but it does not explain Jasper’s enthusiasm as he does not really like fish. He says he finds it difficult to eat things that taste of harbours. I suppose that is what comes of marrying into the working class they tend to have their fixations. I blame his indulgent granny.

The sainted Granny Wylie

I see there is to be a 4th draw of the new Premium Bonds. I am glad I bought Mrs Travers one, it gives her hope. The T.U.C. conference is going on and on. As my father used to say if they are so keen on the Comrades why do they not go and live there.

Talking of the Comrades, I see Mr Duncan Sandys, our Defence Minister, has made a speech in Sidney saying that if the Comrades started a war it would inevitably result in the wholesale destruction of their own cities, and apparently most of the world now depends on America. I for one do not think it is a good idea to rely on anyone.

Sometimes I do wonder if Jasper might be right when he says that nuclear weapons are immoral especially as it seems the manned bomb, in the sense of being dropped by an aeroplane. is about to be replaced by long-range ballistic rockets. At least with airplanes one could see the result of what one had done. Britain is it seems according to the defence secretary “quite ahead in this matter”. Pity we are not ahead in other matters but then the comrades are he says becoming more and more involved in the middle east. As Jasper would say sarcastically, “unlike us who have never been involved in anyone else’s affairs.”

Art is a Very Personal Thing

Well it seems as if we humans are falling behind in the civilisation business and our relatives, the chimps, are making great strides for culture and the arts. An exhibition in London organised by Mr Desmond Morris features the paintings of Betsey, a middle aged chimp from Baltimore, and Congo, a young but gifted chimp who lives in London. Betsey it seems paints in the primitive style and uses her fingers whereas Congo is more typically British and something of a traditionalist and uses a brush. According to Mr Morris, the work of the British chimp is so distinct he “can spot a fake Congo anywhere”.  I wonder if I should take up painting again, my old headmistress always said she could see a lot of Angelica Kauffman in my work.

Arrivals

“Mrs Wylie two shifty looking men are here, one to measure up for a  new fireplace, and it is news to me that there is anything wrong with the Robert Adam one already in existence, and the other to tune the piano which I seem to recall was only tuned last month.”

“Show them in Mrs Travers and make sure they take their shoes off and issue them with hand towels so that they can slide across my parquet flooring without making a noise or any scratches.”

“Oh jings there’s the door again, it’s like running a bawdy house during the General Assembly.”

Lady P-F arrives

“The Lady Pentland-Firth.”

Patience is Not Always a Virtue

“Darling Muriel; my you look awful, so tired but then brown has never been your colour. I hope that husband of yours is home.”

“Do come in Patience and take a seat are you quite well? That blotchy skin can be so ageing? How did the Country House Concert go?”

Patience makes herself comfortable

“It went very well, of course we missed you, but I managed even with the Callas women flouncing out at the last minute, performers are so unreliable at times. Fortunately it turned out that Doris who works in the Pentland-Firth Dairy can do “The Queen of the Night” and for my money she was much better than Maria. Of course I had to make do with my second best tiara so wasn’t best pleased. I hope they send that Billy Travers down for good and throw away the key.”

“I know Patience, but he has had a very difficult upbringing, with that father as an example. Who can wonder he has gone to the bad? It’s his mother I feel sorry for and those children. I suppose there is no sign of the jewellery or the other gang members?”

“No Muriel; my late mother-in-law would be turning in her grave if she had not been buried at sea.”

“Anyway thank you for coming. Would you care for some coffee?”

Enjoying her coffee

“I am desperate Darling. And why are you having the piano tuned again and why are two legs sticking out of your chimney piece?”

“Oh there’s the door again; Mrs Travers, door.”

Someone Else at the Door

As if I haven’t enought to do!

(Muttering to herself) “Tote that barge, lift that bale… yes I heard the door bell and believe it or not, despite my class inadequacies, I can differentiate between a door bell and the noise of that wretched piano. I wonder if he would play some proper classical music before he goes something by that Winifred Atwell, who must herself have been trained by the famous composer Mozart.

Mrs Wylie, it’s Mrs Bunty Haystack – the impossibly smug and celebrated crime writer and author of rural mysteries such as “The Ploughman Poisonings”, “Haymaking Hussies” (not for readers of a sensitive disposition as it contains many lurid details about the preservation of winter feed), “The Sheepshearers Redemption”, and “The Great Crotchet Smothering.” Furthermore champion of champions at the historic F.A.F.S.as a result of having swept the board in every flower arranging category including “Sunny Days” in which Mrs Wylie came second, baking, chutney and jam making.”

“Thank you Mrs Travers you are beginning to sound like a broken record; now do bring a cup  for Bunty please, and some scones too if that is at all possible, despite your feeling you are over worked on a plantation. I have very good hearing despite the piano and the man up the chimney.”

Three Women

“Do sit down Bunty, yes on this Mackintosh square; I am assuming you have not had time to change since coming up from the country and if you wouldn’t mind placing your feet in this upholstered but washable box, I do feel T-bar sandals with white socks are rather inappropriate for September and unbecoming for a woman over 50, clearly you don’t agree.”

“I have brought you both a jar each of my prize winning lemon curd and also my marrow chutney.”

Muriel and Lady P-F graciously accept the gifts with a thank you and a forced smile quickly accompanied with a splayed hand to the chest, sucked in cheeks and heads thrown slightly forward as if they might be sick. Both women know this is a meeting about national security but neither can they forget that this woman in damp tweeds and  inappropriate sandals took what was rightfully theirs at the Flower Show. Britain may be in the middle of a cold war but it is nothing compared with vegetable wars, jam skirmishes and flower battles.

“Coffee Mrs Wylie, should I bring field dressings?”

“Thank you Mrs T, that will not be necessary.”

Bunty Spills the Beans

“It is so very kind of you to invite me here today Muriel and as always a delight to meet you again your Ladyship” said Bunty having recovered her breath and composure. “You have both been so gracious about my success at the Flower and Produce Show. Let me say it was unexpected and I feel undeserved.” Both ladies nod in agreement. “I am, however, not here to talk about my success in your little rural conspiracy although I have earmarked it as a future plot, but rather to give you advanced warning that my Christmas book will be an exposure on the strange death of the late and hardly lamented Admiral Lord Pentland-Firth, hero of Jutland. His demise while eating a rissole supplied by your cousin, the American lady, is hardly coincidence.

The late Lord Pentland-Firth

Thanks to the intelligence of the medium Madame Voyant, I know he was, for 40 years, a double agent passing secrets to both the comrades and the other side. It is also something of a coincidence that having spilled the beans to a prominent and bestselling author the medium dies mysteriously at a bus stop while shopping in Oxford Street in That London. My book which will be of the “True Crime” genre promises to be the book of the century and my publisher is already talking film rights. Of course as much of the cover up centres around the Flower Show, this ancient institution will be ruined forever and I am sure the authorities will want to further investigate you both.”

All is Not As It Seems

“Oh I don’t think so” said the piano tuner who swivelled around on his stool.

“Why not?” asked Bunty looking surprised and cross.

“Because” said the legs emerging from the chimney “we are the Authorities and let us assure you we require no investigation as your proposed exposure threatens our squeaky clean war record and our current proposals to join the Common Market. We cannot allow the Comrades the satisfaction of creating disunity in Europe by making hay, if you will pardon the pun, with the truth about a British Naval hero second only to Lord Nelson.”

“And what will you do if I go ahead?” replied Bunty. “I am already at the proof reading stage.”

Hoisted by Her Own Petard

“Well apart from the fact I was at school with your publisher I think you will find these ladies have something to say.”

Lady P-F does not mince her words

“Yes, Miss Haystack indeed we do” replied Lady Pentland-Firth. “You see I am the hereditary life President of Presidents of F.A.F.S., an institution half as old as time and in the view of our community even more important, so I am afraid nothing will get in the way of our traditions of 3 hour presentations of cups by very late people and dioramas of Scottish history interpreted in vegetables on a sand tray and an afternoon where the rustics eat their own weight in Victoria sponges.”

“And how your Ladyship do you propose to stop me?”

“and so Bunty, It’s like this…..”

“Oh my dear Mrs Haywain” replied Lady P-F “you have stopped yourself. Isn’t that right Mrs Wylie?”

“Yes, Lady Pentland-Firth. You see Bunty, by sweeping the board and becoming champion of champions, a position held by no incomer since the great suffragette invasion of 1908, you have triggered an ancient right.”

“And what pray would that be?”

“You have, by winning all those prizes, automatically earned the right to be Honorary Vice President for Life with a non executive seat on the committee and instant elevation to the secret Conclave of Puddings and Petunias.”

“So what?”

“Membership of the C.P.P. means you must never speak or write about F.A.F.S. or you will be brought before your peers and following trial by tray bake, should there be a guilty verdict you will be debarred from every Flower Show and Rural Women’s organisation in the country, your lemon curd will never reach the dizzy heights again.”

“Oh I see, it’s a conspiracy; it’s like the masons or the inquisition.”

“Where” said Lady P-F “do you think they got their ideas from?”

“I am afraid” said the fireplace measuring man, “everything comes at a price.”

Later Over Tea and Toast

“Well ladies that was well done”, said the fire place specialist who was none other than the Handsome Stranger. “I don’t think she will be any more trouble and we have promised her a book deal on a ‘History of Rural Crime in Scotland’ which should keep her busy for years. By the way this lemon curd is not very good.”

“I agree” said the piano tuner who is really Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes Muriel’s handler from the varsity in Glasgow. “Not good at all. And now Muriel we have another mission for you. Pack a suitcase and get your passport, we have it on good authority that the comrades are planning to send a dog into space in November we need confirmation.”

“A dog in space, how ghastly has anyone told the R.S.P.C.A.? Where am I going Professor and what do I need?”

“Just a mask!”

 

Muriel Wylie

September 1957

 

Posted in Talk of the Town | 5 Comments

Too Much Tartan?

 Just Exhausting

Recovering from a busy weekend

I know this is going to sound ungrateful, even if one, and I mean moi, is “deserving”, but sometimes having a rural bolthole is exhausting.

Born to Cope

Country life is not for the fainthearted. Apart from the wind and the rain, even in late summer, there are all manner of activities into which one is expected to throw oneself, especially if one is a woman of the simply marvellous kind.

Last weekend for example was like a marathon with an exhibition of watercolours in the Village Hall, the Flower and Produce Show and, as ever cashing in on likely ticket sales. one of Lady Pentland-Firth’s Country House Concerts.

The prize winners revealed

Visiting city dwellers who think Scottish Country life is nothing but turnip thinning with the occasional excitement of a beetle drive are usually left reeling. “Muriel”, one of my guests said to me this weekend as she was having a between events pedicure from Mrs Travers, our daily woman what does but not a lot, “how do you do it and manage to have a chicken casserole and apple and bramble crumble in the Rayburn?” “It is” I explained “partly that je ne sais quoi which is given only to a handful in a generation; naturally good bone structure, a health and beauty regime sans pareil, good shoes and old fashioned corsetry.” Being well boned is the key to a successful day no matter what the demands on the modern woman may be.

The Coty talc – Paris

As well as this heady mixture of self help I give myself a good talking to each morning before immersing myself in a bath softened with Yardley bath cubes and powdering with Paris. “Muriel” I say to myself “something marvellous is going to happen today” and then as I catch sight of myself in the hall mirror be-duster coated and embarking on my business about town, I realise that it already has.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

This is not to say that daily life is not without its slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and I have to say that last week I was not as successful in the Flower and Produce Show as in former years. Jasper, who is an honest soul says this is because I did not strictly speaking abide by the rules laid down during the reign of the Emperor Constantine and that some of my entries were, how shall I put it, enhanced by the help of others. Somehow even although the rustics could prove nothing, they always know. They have a sixth sense regarding these matters. I suppose it comes from lifetimes of making ends meet and the type of brain required to undertake Country dancing. You only have to try “Posties Jig” to realise the connections in the synapses one has to make would train anyone for undercover work.

So my shop bought gladioli received nothing, but the judges pointed remark that “in future years try staking with canes” and my Victoria sponge was dismissed as having “used eggs from a neighbouring and inferior Parish”. I might have got somewhere with my marmalade if Mrs Travers had not left the paper “golly” under the gingham top.

Second prize at the Flower Show – sunny days

Having said that my floral arrangement for the section, “Sunny Days”, came second and this was entirely my own work. So you see, one must look for the simply marvellous in every day.

In case you are wondering, as I know you do, I was beaten by Bunty Haystack, the crime writer who swept the board even taking the late Lady Persephone Pentland-Firth Trophy for “Suppa Table Arrangement, with Candle”. She is thrilled especially as she has never entered before and simply wants to soak up the atmosphere for her forthcoming book which is said to feature a character based on the late Admiral Lord Pentland-Firth who died in mysterious circumstances several Flower Shows ago.

Jasper’s Waterloo

Jasper, who cares not for the glittering prizes in anything, came first in the section “Pageant of History in Vegetables”. His “Waterloo On A Tea Tray” used turnips to represent the British forces and a variety of dubious foreign vegetables such as garlic and green peppers (which had to be specially ordered) for the French. An aubergine and a marrow each represented Napoleon and Wellington with the skilful addition of bits from a box of Mr Potato Head which belongs to one of Mrs Travers’ grandchildren. An accompanying piece, “The Waterloo Ball On a Tea Tray” was less successful. While Jasper’s ingenuity resulted in a tremendous backdrop of the reported “trellis wallpaper” pasted onto empty cornflake packets he found it very difficult to pin thick tartan kilts onto the carrots representing the Gordon Highlanders and the piece of sprigged muslin which came from my Great Great Grandmother’s wedding dress was ruined when Jasper tried to create a Jane Austen Empire line frock on half a cucumber, which was supposed to be the Duchess of Richmond. Cucumbers are rather wet although I have to admit the wig made from sphagnum moss and decorated with tiny flowers and broken beads were a triumph. Dried fruit, however, does not give one good eyes. Jasper’s World War One activity in the swing park centred around espionage was on the other hand highly successful and the homing pigeon and secret ink activities delighted the children and Jasper. 

Never Expected in Glasgow, Really!

All this activity meant I was delighted to get back to town at the start of the week.  I have left Jasper there with Mrs T to attend to one or two chores before the winter. Mrs T is going to attend to the lum (chimney) with a holly brush and hopefully, if it stays dry, cement some holes in the path. She can also keep an eye on Jasper who  is following the T.U.C. and their 77 resolutions at Blackpool – you can see why I left him in the country. He also plans a spot of fishing, which is a country gentleman’s code for doing nothing.

I, on the other hand, have had a very busy week which is why I am speaking to you from Daly’s which is the department store in Sauchiehall Street.

Treasured Beyond Compare?

Perhaps this was a mistake. I looked in Karter’s the fur shop on my way to Daly’s and what a wonderful advert in their window: What lovelier complement can you pay your lady… than the gift of a mink stole? This precious fur assures her that she is treasured beyond compare; we are now showing the largest selection of mink wraps and stoles. This includes Ranch Mink, wild mink, and Mutation mink in a range of colours – Diadem, Champagne, Royal Pastel, Topaz, Sapphire etc.

Oh so many, no I must not go in despite the deep pile carpets and the smell of luxury. The trouble is Jasper does not think I need any more fur coats.

Lunch Time Rendez-Vous

Rogano’s, my favourite haunt

I have just had my hair and nails done prior to meeting Sir Roger, the Handsome Stranger, for lunch. I had hoped for Rogano’s where, as there is now an R in the month, their speciality lunch is oysters. Sir Roger, however, wants to meet at “The Copacobana”, in Bath Street which is odd as it advertises itself as the place for “eves-dropping” and “the place to be seen”, and is “well beyond comparison with anything on the continent.” According to 6 captains of the “mercantile fleet” as reported in The Glasgow Herald, “we never expected this in Glasgow”. Honestly sometimes I think the world thinks we have heather growing out of our ears and spend the entire day covered in tartan, devouring entrails. Sir Roger does nothing without thought and I imagine he wants to be seen hidden in plain sight.

Taking Things Too Far

Morning coffee

Talking of matters tartan – “and yes I will have another cup of your delicious coffee and a slice of your fly cemetery if you please”, having  my hair shampooed and set always makes me hungry –  as I was saying talking of matters tartan, one of the reasons I had to come back to Glasgow is it is “Scottish Weekend”. In fact this is not about a torrent of tartan or a parade of kilts but an attempt to encourage people to buy locally produced goods. There seems to be a belief that expensive foreign goods are always better but I think in matters of food and dress and, of course, interior design Scotland can compete with the most cosmopolitan of producers.

I am not so keen on the current idea that buildings should, for the sake of “national confidence”, be awash with Saltires and Lion Rampants. I always think flags are rather divisive.  Anyway I think the Lord Lyon may have something to say about the willy-nilly use of the Lion Rampant. A witty columnist in today’s Herald suggests a more striking means of marketing our national products would be to take a leaf out of the Bank of Texas which uses a “pretty receptionist” on roller skates to greet their customers. I am not sure that this would work in our branch of The British Linen Bank as “Big Bertha”, the senior cashier, would need to be mounted on the wheels of a train carriage simply to move between ledgers and the overseas division. When Jasper sees her he usually says “she could have stayed at home”. Mind you with Jasper’s overdraft that is not surprising.

First Class Scottish Textiles

Threads from Paisley

No, I personally – and I try to reflect this in my shop “Chez Nous the destination of choice for the discerning in all matters interior – believe many of our textile products are first class. We produce or have produced table linen in Dunfermline, silk in Lochwinnoch and of course in our Paisley manufactures we have produced woven shawls and of course the thread which completes the world’s garments.

Jasper in his favourite tweed suit

Our tweed is outstanding, as frequently demonstrated by my own “man of tweed, with its natural colours and ability to withstand the weather. I notice too the Queen, who has been at Balmoral, was in an oatmeal tweed suit this week when she attended a sale of work at Crathie Church’s Women’s Guild. Of course H.M., who never puts a foot wrong, added her own personal statement with toning hat trimmed with café au lait straw and brown accessories. Incidentally her generous donations included a cake and a tea set. I wonder if she made them herself? The Queen Mother was in powder blue, like moi she favours the swing back coat. She gave a linen table cloth, a clock and a set of teaspoons. She also made several purchases including a lemon wool evening wrap, a white matinee jacket, an apron and a box of toffee. The sale raised over £300.

Viewing and Not Viewing Scottish Television in 1957

Muriel at the Gala evening

With Jasper in the country I had to undertake several engagements alone. I can well imagine how Her Majesty feels when Prince Phillip is out of the country. I attended the gala opening of Scottish Television at what used to be the Theatre Royal in Hope Street. I must confess ‘twas I who suggested to Roy Thomson the Chairman that this would be an ideal venue for independent television in Scotland. I was one of 700 invited guests at the Theatre to watch the televised performance of “This is Scotland”. I have to say theatres are always warm but I began to wonder if I had done the right thing as the addition of the television lights made the heat oppressive and fur wraps were removed very early on.

There were speeches from the Lord Provost, Mr Andrew Hood, and the Secretary of State, Mr John S. Maclay. The Provost said he hoped the new television programmes would “not be parochial and kailyard” and that while “nationalism was important, internationalism was so much more important”. Sir Kenneth Clark, who knows a thing or two, said he hoped the new service would produce more dramatists like James Barrie and James Bridie and not too many “foolish and vulgar” variety programmes. He does not believe that television should “drift on the tide of popular preference”. His anxieties may be prophetic as the opening show was and I quote The Herald critic, a “sentimental performance” involving “yards of tartan”.

I for one am not sure I like the idea of adverts. Raelbrook advertised a Poplin shirt which requires no ironing. Now there it seems to me is the beginning of the end of civilisation, I am sure Sir Kenneth Clark was not told about that. We were also informed that the washing powder OMO “adds brightness” but not in Ayr, Kilmarnock, Perth, St Andrews and Dundee who had no picture at all, only something resembling a snowstorm on their screens, although perhaps the snowstorm was quite bright. At least there was a local advert for Duncan’s chocolate which I am rather partial to. Oh I should be heading for the Copacabana, it’s not far I shall walk. “Miss the bill please.”

With the Handsome Stranger, Sir Roger, in the Hottest Spot in Bath Street

“Hello Mu, sorry I am late. Got a bit held up with the P.M. at Balmoral this morning and almost missed the flight.”

“Lovely to see you Roger, how is Harold?”

“Oh busy telling everyone they have never had it so good and trying to second guess the T.U.C, and their 77 resolutions which is a lot of second guessing. Would you care for some champagne? Flying is thirsty work. By the way I met a Steward Lee who knows you. He says to tell you the baby is doing well apart from an incident with a teapot and some bicarbonate of soda.”

James Lee, BEA Steward

“Oh yes, thank you. I know his wife too she was a marvellous stewardess but, had to leave when she became enceinte – such is the fate of women. I wonder what happened with a teapot? The child must be about the same age as Gayle our ward. Yes. champagne would be lovely, pity it is not with oysters. Still this makes a change and 6 mercantile marine captains cannot be wrong.”

“Now as to our friend the crime novelist did everything work out as planned?”

“Yes indeed in fact better she won best in show for winning so many late people’s bits of silverware and the President’s Cup.”

“Good show, I am sorry you had to lose and in such a shabby way, but she had to win and your perfection in all categories including most edible necklace stood in her way.”

“I may, of course, now and forever be branded or at least thought of as being a cheat. You have no idea Sir Roger how one’s reputation in the rural bolt hole stands or falls on the lightness of a Victoria sponge or the tastiness of a jar of pickled walnuts.”

“I know, dear lady, but such is the fate of those of us who live in the shadows, you have done it pro patria.”

“Yes I suppose so but sometimes I wonder if patriotism is enough and it would just be better to have a gleaming trophy on the chimney piece. You see in our little corner of the world an iced gingerbread counts for so much more than an unknown attempt to save the negotiations for our entry into Europe in the face of the comrades attempts to stop it going through.”

“I am aware of the sacrifices you have made and so is H.M.. Indeed she has asked me to pass on this lemon woollen shawl as a token of her appreciation, apparently her mother has piles of them. Now I need to talk to you about the next stage of the mission. A little top up?”

Later in the Wylie Bedroom

“Jasper it’s nice to have you home.”

“Nice to be home, Mrs Travers made me mix cement and trim hedges. Sometimes I wonder who employs who. I blame non iron shirts and commercial television.”

“At least Jasper there is some television coverage of the T.U.C. conference. How are they getting on with their 77 resolutions and those fascinating demarcation disputes in the shipbuilding industry?”

“Well now I am wide awake Muriel, it is not like you to be interested in the affairs of the working man. I am impressed.”

“Yes Jasper I am most interested in the struggle for effective leadership between Mr Gaitskell and his obedient lieutenant Mr Bevan. Not to mention the fascinating Mr Frank Cousins.”

What do you want Muriel?

“Muriel what do you want? By the way I forgot I ordered a whole heap of flags and upholstery grade tartan fabric for the “Chez Nous” windows.”

“Really dear? How lovely, how thoughtful, how very clever of you Jasper ….tell me Jasper, am I treasured beyond compare……?”

Muriel Wylie

September 1957

Posted in Talk of the Town | 3 Comments

Going For Gold

 To the Shed

Jasper and his beloved shed

If you are wondering where Muriel is then join the club!

There are times when she is so busy being marvellous that it is hard to keep up with the whirlwind and to be frank it is best not to bother and to repair to one’s club or to the shed which is one’s club with garden implements for companions and a wee refreshment. Although I am sure that you are also aware that as supreme leader of the Historical Society, or as Muriel calls it “the Hysterical”, I have given over my shed to an exhibition about the First World War. It is now over 40 years since the first Unpleasantness and I am anxious that we do not forget, although I am sure that in 60 years time when to quote Mrs Travers (our daily woman what does but not a lot) “we will all be pushing up daisies”, it will be long forgotten and the same mistakes will be being made.

Gambling on Investments

Mrs Travers, our daily woman

I am concentrating this autumn on espionage in the war and in collaboration with the local “doomen”, or pigeon fanciers to you, we will be holding a demonstration of Secret Communications in the park during the village flower show. Alongside this Mrs Travers has organised on my behalf a “wee book” for those who fancy a flutter if you pardon the pun, but please do not tell Muriel. Muriel disapproves of gambling, which is odd considering much of her grandfather’s fortune was made in speculative investments. For example in railway debentures in lines that ran to the top of hills and nowhere else, ship loads of guano and I am not even going to mention the investments on her mother’s side. You see the MacCavitys, famous for their sweets and fast boiling, were firm believers in that fundamental economic principle of  vertical and horizontal integration. Thus their success was based on the dubious acquisition of Caribbean sugar plantations by “Old Black Jack MacCavity” in the 18th century, where oddly enough, those who have been on holiday there say many of the islanders resemble Muriel.

On the other side of things the MacCavitys who were said to be responsible for most of the tooth loss in Edinburgh invested heavily in a series of “Painless Dentistry” surgeries and cornered the market in false teeth. Many paid a high price for gobstoppers, aniseed balls and pan drops.  According to Muriel, however, the MacCavitys were not without a sense of social responsibility and points to their special 21st Birthday Gift Voucher, as evidence of this. The voucher with a colourful drawing of a silver key and a gaping hole entitled the birthday boy or girl to have all their teeth removed at once thus saving time and money. A separate voucher could be purchased for a matching set of false teeth, this was often the gift of choice for grandparents.

Is Rubber Bouncing

Muriel suggested I should keep you up to date with her comings and goings by referring to her desk diary. Now for someone who had a most expensive education this is in itself rather like a code breaking training session for MI5. I think that says – 10a.m. Tuesday S.T.V., which will be a reference to her advising the new Scottish television channel which is due to open on 31st August. Of course she is very friendly with its founder Roy Thompson the Canadian Newspaper chap and suggested he should buy the old Theatre Royal in Glasgow from Howard and Wyndam Ltd to use as a headquarters. She is urging him to go for quality –  we shall see.

What else has she written oh yes, Federation of Malaya becomes Independent from Britain, with a note beside it “N.B. buy rubber bands in case price goes up” and “speak to Lord Wolfenden about likely impact on similar products”.  I think, and I really should not be divulging this, but this must be a reference to her secret membership on the committee which is going to introduce sex into Britain, but not for another decade. This is perhaps just as well as with commercial television one does not want too much excitement all at once. Especially if there might be a shortage of rubber.

Book Signings in Edinburgh

Cousin Lulubelle and her book

Today she has gone to Edinburgh as Cousin Lulubelle is signing copies of her book “Get Rich Quick” in James Thin’s book shop in Infirmary Street. This firm dates back to 1848 and is very handy for the college which as Muriel says is “a very good varsity”. James Thin knew many of the leading figures of the literary world, Macaulay, Christopher North, Thomas Carlyle and my favourite Robert Louis Stevenson. Thin also knew Muriel’s grandfather, who wrote under the nom de plume, Sidney Sherbet and helped him to get his magnum opus “A History of Black Stripped Balls” onto the shelves.

Also signing books will be one of our neighbours Bunty Haystack author of the famous rural mysteries, you have probably read “Demon of the Dairy” or perhaps “Larch Tree Lynch” or even the rather trashy “Tractor Tramp”. Today she is autographing “Screams from a Shearing”. She is also promoting her next book aimed at the Christmas market which is based on a true story connected with our own village and that is the strange death of Admiral Lord Pentland-Firth, hero of Jutland, a few years ago at the Flower Show. This threatens to bring many things to the surface which would be best buried along with Salty Pentland-Firth. There are figures who work in the nation’s shadows who are worried.

Generations of Cottaging

Worried is also an adjective that might well describe the state of mind of the residents of our rural bolthole at the moment. For this is the week leading up to the aforementioned flower and produce sale. Of course in recent times the unexplained death of Lord Pentland-Firth, one of the major landowners in the area, has cast something of a shadow over the proceedings. It has to be said, however, that it is not a very long shadow because the villagers, or cottagers as they are known to their betters, are a stoic lot who have been cottaging for generations.

The late Lord Pentland-Firth

The demise of Lord Pentland-Firth if one was being honest simply removed a competitor whom it was widely known had won the sweet pea category for 17 years in a row by all means of jiggery-pokery. What bothers the cottagers more is that they will be ridiculed in Bunty’s forthcoming tale of rustic goings on and, worse, outsiders might be attracted on some sort of literary tour and destroy the delicate balance of rural life.

Preparation is Everything

Despite the concerns the rural bolt hole has gone into a sort of lockdown as the well oiled machine that is F.A.F.S. (Flower and Fête Show) has sprung into action. The glittering prizes have been removed from the window sills where they have stood proudly for the past year alongside fruit bowels and plaster Alsatians and returned to the committee. The polishing committee is now hard at work in a secret location which is young old Jock’s shed, where gallons of silver polish and yards of fluff less cloth are being employed to bring the trophies to presentation standard.

Winnie’s winning courgette, 1953

In an attic room by the light of a storm lantern Mrs Raeburn-Reynolds who once studied art in Glasgow, is leading a team of calligraphers who are carefully using pen and ink it write “First”  “Second”, “Commended” etc. onto pieces of parchment as if they were inviting guests to a Royal Garden Party. There are even one or two in red ink saying “disqualified” in case anyone has the temerity to enter a shop bought preserve as their own or flowers from Tony Campbell as home grown. On the rare occasions this has happened cottagers have done the equivalent of falling on their swords or moving to Glasgow.

So Late, So Very Late

One the most stressful parts of the day is the presentation of prizes which takes place after the judges have “opened the doors” or in this case opened the flaps of the marquee. As the society is older than time itself many, well actually all,  the prizes are in memory of former residents whose cottaging days are over and they have passed to be with the great Gardener in the sky.

Thus as each prize is presented by the President the secretary will announce something along the lines of “The late Lady Margery Mckenzie-Machbanks of Middlebank Muir, cup for an arrangement of garden blooms in a thimble etc , etc.. This takes a considerable number of hours as I have explained previously, so it is easy to understand why the present president is resting quietly in her boudoir with a retired actor practising “her looks” and the secretary is working hard with a voice coach in order that her tone does not express surprise or disappointment as the results are revealed. There are four presidential looks which say, “at last”  “oh dear” “well deserved”, and “how dare you”.

Incidentally this is not a competition for those with an eye to profit as the rewards are still paid in groats and bawbees and it is the custom to return the prize money to the committee. With the remark, “here have this back, we don’t need the money put it to a good cause.” You do this even if you have just spent the last of the family allowance and the children need new shoes.

The Calm before the Storm

A competition where size matters

In the week leading up to F.A.F.S., a strange quietness descends on the bolt hole. No one seems to be about and yet the exhibition marquee is erected and so is the tea tent and yet no one seems to have seen it happen. Is it all happening under cover of darkness? Walls are whitewashed, fences creosoted, and windows glossed. In the garden’s gladioli are tied to stakes as if waiting to be shot and in raised beds leeks stand to attention in rows like a battalion on parade.

Practice runs are made with plates of onions on sand to the car just in case it rains and in buckets flowers are getting “a good drink of water”, prior to being arranged in the forms laid down since the ancient Egyptian’s first arranged flowers around the departed, which is probably where our committee got the idea of prizes presented in the name of the late Mr or Mrs So and So from. The Egyptians are now very late themselves. One is aware of children slipping out of cottages at night with buckets and spade to collect sheep droppings (sorry for the indelicacy, but that’s farming in the raw) which they bring back and add water and stir with a stick and then pour into the leeks as a final feed. It is said in these parts that sheep droppings make the best leek and potato soup.

Not Always Written Down

a winning selection

Meanwhile in kitchens the ladies are busy with well greased baking tins and flour and eggs and ginger and cocoa for F.A.F.S. is not just about the skills of the grower but about the skills of the baker and preservers for in late August we begin to think about the winter ahead when cold and wet days are enlivened by scone with jam and gingerbreads and fairy cakes. We look forward to cold cuts brought life with pickled onions and pears and rhubarb chutney.

If you were to visit the rural bolthole this week you would notice that blinds remain down net curtains are closed tight and everywhere there is the smell of cake as we go for “one more attempt to get this Victoria sponge just right”. You may admire the recipe but you will never get it, for this is the currency of the countryside, conferring worth and status. Indeed for many no recipe exists it is all done from memory and the hand measurements of cottagers. It has been well documented by ethnographers that cottaging requires certain hand movements. Where they exist recipe books tend to emanate from the cooks of the landed or gentry sections of Scottish rural communities. Annotated recipes have the name of the house where the product was consumed and sometimes in pencil it will say “good” or “not very good” beside a treacle scone not considered up to the mark. This may well amount to social death.

Muriel is back with Mrs T –  All is Duplicity and Subterfuge

Muriel is returned

“Jasper I am back, thank goodness. I am exhausted.”

“Hello Darling I have just been swotting up on Mata Hari and Morse Code in the shed, where were you?”

“Edinburgh, do you never listen?”

Darling I hang on your every word, how was it?”

“Oh Edinburgh in the festival how can anyone be bothered, my feet are killing me, although it was nice to see Moira Shearer again and I did manage to see Shona at the Assembly rooms, she is  looking marvellous , poor thing must be exhausted. So much work at this time of year, what with the Festival Club as well. One can hardly move along Princes Street.”

“Was the book thing you went for good?”

“The book signing went very well. Lulubelle is delighted with sales and so was Bunty, although I am concerned about that next book, you know the one she wants to base on here. The Handsome Stranger wants to see me about it again. By the way I picked up Mrs Travers, since she is feeling a bit down about Billy and the robbery.”

“So she should be, what is she doing?”

“She is planting some gladioli blooms in jam jars of water outside in the herbaceous border. They just look as if they had grown there. I bought them on the way home from a nursery garden so we can pick them in the morning. Here, come and help me decant this chutney into a new jar or cut out some gingham tops. Mrs T has done me a Victoria Sponge or at any rate bought one in Fergusson’s.”

“Muriel how could you? This is cheating””

“No Jasper, this is war. And no war was ever one by playing fair.”

“Muriel you never cease to surprise me!”

“Jasper, the modern woman of business does not have time to pickle walnuts and rhubarb, but I am going to pretend I can do both; it’s all right for you. Men have to do only one thing at a time and you cannot even do that half the time.”

“Mrs Travers might let on, you could open yourself up to blackmail.”

“No she won’t – her marmalade is Robertson’s, we are going for gold, it’s a jungle out there Jasper and I don’t intend to be eaten.”

Toodle pip

Jasper Wylie

August 1957

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Aunt Muriel and the Summer of Love 1967: Part 2

Last time, or as our friends across the Pond say “previously”, in Sebastian’s World”:

Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox, the much beloved British Shakespearean actor, is currently “resting”, at the Home for The Terminally Overdressed, a retirement facility for thespians hidden on the Slough Trading Estate, “so handy for Elstree and Pinewood Studios”.

A Now to Remember

Sebastian rehearses for “Richard III”

Sebastian who has inherited the mantle of Irving, Gielgud etc., will never be forgotten for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Richard which is a play by well known play write William Shakespeare in which he played Richard III, the much loathed English monarch, at least by the Tudors. Sebastian had spent some years in America studying with Stanislavsky and other “method” greats. He was always able to inhabit roles to such an extent that delusions of grandeur have always been part of his oeuvre.

The young Sebastian in the definitive performance as Richard III at the Gaiety theatre, Ayr

Those who saw him at his first performance in the Ayr Gaiety Theatre in the early 1950s say his extended “Nooooow” at the beginning of “Now is the Winter of our discontent”, was a spine chilling moment of theatrical intensity that few who were sheltering from the rain on Ayr beach that day could forget. As many a now elderly Saltcoats’ mother will say “Aye it wis wan fur the weans tae remember an’ nae mistake , fair nearly put me aff ma fish supper.” (Translation – Yes indeed it was a memory our children will long treasure and the emotion was such that I was barely able to eat my platter of local fruits de mer.)

Back to the Britain We Loved

A thrusting sort of woman, Vivienne Valhalla

In truth Sebastian is more than resting, for his memory is not what it was and he cannot, therefore, any longer cope with lines. Jakub, the Home’s Activities’ Director from Warsaw – at least until those from abroad in our caring professions have to leave because Britain is going back to be the country it once was, i.e., longer working hours in the mills, mining disasters. endless choruses of “Knees up Mother Brown” and good old fashioned British diseases like rickets and consumption – has noticed he is depressed.

Hilary Dee Range – Always on the lookout for a story

So he has called upon ace reporter Hilary Dee Range from “The Daily Slouch” and her collaborator Vivienne Valhalla, the uber curator. They are desperate to make money, and their reputation, from exploiting Sebastian’s memories and memorabilia in articles, exhibitions and those all important TV programmes for people who did not study history at school. Jakub, who knows their sort well, has suggested that a suitcase belonging to Sebastian’s famous Aunt Muriel labelled 1967 may hold some interesting stories for them.

La Dolce Vita

The pair, who are modern ladies of the thrusting sort, joined Sebastian for an Italian evening at the Home. Despite the lasagne made with cheap tinned tomatoes they enjoyed the evening in which the more vocally gifted residents entertained each other with operatic highlights and little vignettes from post war Italian cinema, which were they had to admit quite moving although Vivienne did slightly blanch when her Jimmy Choos got a soaking, because her that was in The Forsyth Saga, did the fountain scene from La Dolce Vita in a paddling pool, with an offstage fire hose. Mind you as Hilary whispered to Vivienne, “You gotta admire a woman who can do that with those bingo wings and no shame.. “Don’t be ageist”, said a voice from behind which came from a woman who was a researcher on the consumer affairs programme That’s Life in the 1970s.

The promised evening going through the suitcase after the panna cotta did not materialise as Sebastian fell asleep after one Chianti too many. The media ladies have noticed that he has a knack of stringing things out as long as possible. “I suppose” said Hilary “it come from years of milking applause.” They failed to see one of Sebastian’s eyes opening and roving around the room before shutting with a glimmer of a smile on his face and thinking to himself “you can’t outfox the Fox ladies.”

Too tired to return to London they booked into one of the guest rooms in the Home which in keeping with the Home’s policies resembles the accommodation of The Bentinck Hotel in The Duchess of Duke Street where many residents had pivotal roles as arriving or departing hotel guests in Edwardian London.

The Morning After the Cheap Tinned Tomatoes the Night Before

lasagne – with cheap tinned tomatoes

“Good Morning Ladies. I trust you slept well and did not suffer any ill effects from the lasagne. Did I tell you they are using cheap tinned tomatoes?” said Sebastian, who was sitting at a table, by the window, in a skilfully reproduced corner of the Wool Pack Pub from Emmerdale. “Do come and sit down beside me, can I order some coffee. Are you Emmerdale fans? I once played an auctioneer at a livestock sale in it.” “Did you use your inner Lear?” asked Vivienne rather spitefully, but then she had not slept well due to all the goings on in the next room between Edward VII and Lilly Langtry. “Not at all!” said the knight, rather tetchily “nothing wrong with my inner ear, I have them regularly syringed. Mind you the programme has changed since my day, there used to be more cooking and that Annie Sugden knew how to bring an ironing board to life.”  “Yes we remember your role so well, Sir,” replied Hilary trying to calm Sebastian, “you made that podium your own and the auctioneer speak was as unintelligible as reality. You were marvellous Darling; those cows were never sold more knowingly. Now what about 1967?”

 1967 a Year like No Other

1967

“Oooooh 1967 that was year! Indeed one might call it a pivotal year, a watershed year, a year of change or I suppose just another year, but it wasn’t. Aunt Muriel got her C.B.E. in the New Year’s Honours List along with Alf Ramsey getting his knighthood and Bobby Moore his O.B.E., after the World Cup Win of the previous year.

It was another big year for  football as Celtic won the European Cup, not that I was into things celtic although I had some rather nice cufflinks from the Aunt and Uncle with knotted designs. It was also the year of the Torrey Canyon oil spill and the first North Sea Gas was piped ashore. Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton By-election. That pleased Mrs Travers my Aunt’s daily woman, what did but not a lot, for despite being born in Warrington she had become more Scots than the Scots. British Steel was nationalised and the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre was completed. Ford phased out the Anglia and brought in the Escort. Aunt Muriel was never keen on those cars she thought the Escort was a seedy name and a seedy car. Talking of cars poor Donald Campbell was killed on Coniston Water.

Muriel Advises Charlie Chaplin

It was also an important year in the Arts. The BBC had the first scheduled colour TV broadcast as well as new radio stations. The Forsyth Saga was a huge costume drama hit with dear Susan Hampshire. Alan Ayckbourn came to the fore and Tom Stoppard was on the road to success after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead had been performed for the first time the previous year at “The Edinburgh Festival”. Aunt Muriel, who was now an internationally famous stylist, advised Charlie Chaplin on the costume, décor and dancing in A Countess from Hong Kong. Uncle Jasper adored Sophia Loren not to mention Tippi Hedren. Aunt Muriel also helped to direct the scene where Brando is being taught unsuccessfully how to shimmy. If there was one thing the Wylies could always do it was shimmy. Of course Chaplin said secretly at the time that he wrote the film’s theme tune Love this is my Song for Aunt Muriel. It was a huge hit for Petula Clark, one of my favourite singers.

To the United States with the Great Queens

All aboard

As you will see from the contents of this suitcase it was the year in which Aunt Muriel and Uncle Jasper came to America to see me on Broadway. It was the time of the last voyages of the great Cunard liners the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth.

A few mementoes from cunard

Aunt Muriel had been at the launch of both at Clydebank and was determined to be there at the end. Her father had been involved with some of the fitting out, as many Glasgow company directors were.

Things to do on board

They took Mrs Travers and my daughter Gayle as they wanted to take her to see Expo 67 in Canada and of course to stay with me her father.

Souvenir of expo 67

Mrs T came because Aunt Muriel was marvellous and knew Mrs T had a secret soft spot for me. In New York they stayed with Cousin Lulubelle in her 5th Avenue Apartment before going to California where their arrival in San Francisco coincided with the “Summer of Love”.

Aunt Muriel was entranced by the site of some 100,000 people gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood with flowers in their hair. While the aunt and uncle were more Judith Durham than Jimmy Hendrix, The Who or Jefferson Airplane, they realised that change was in the air and that anti-Vietnam war protests and albums like Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn were going to be influential on fashion and domestic design.

Muriel had become something of an inspirational female entrepreneur by this time, a leading light of the Glasgow Women who Mean Business. And of course, unwittingly, Aunt Muriel had been a key figure in the meeting of two of The Beetles and so All you need is love was to some extent her doing.  Frankie Vaughn may have been Talk of the Town and Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton, a top attraction in Meet the Wife on television, but Muriel knew this anti-establishment movement was important and that A whiter Shade of Pale was the new colour.

New Colours, New Ideas, New Shops

New patterns for the 60s

Muriel soaked up the other colours of San Francisco and came back to London where she was no stranger to the UFO Club and was at the premiere of Bedazzelled with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cousin Lulubelle was widely regarded as the model for “Lust” in this modern version of Faust. Uncle Jasper was, if truth be told and it should be within reason, was a little bemused by it all. He thought joss sticks were illegal drugs and was concerned when Mrs Travers seemed to be developing a menthol and eucalyptus boiled sweet habit.

The 60s have arrived

Aunt Muriel realised that there was money in macramé and psychedelic patterns and so she and Cousin Lulubelle started up a series of retail outlets aimed at the self expressing hippie generation with “Lulubelle Takes a Trip” opening in Carnaby Street in the autumn of ̓67 with its long skirts flat, sandals, old – what you call vintage – uniforms and big earrings. It was an instant success and was followed quickly by “Muriel’s Magic Carpet”, a ground breaking shop which pandered to the huge demand for the exotic and the oriental. Her revival of the Paisley pattern was a great success although it has to be said Uncle Jasper had never quite relinquished it in the first place. The shops were soon full of trendy people Sandy Shaw, who had won the Eurovision Song Contest with Puppet on a String that year, Twiggy – everyone who was anyone in the swinging sixties really.

The Genius that was Muriel Wylie

“Sebastian”, interrupted Vivienne “this is an amazing collection of material, but how was it possible that one minute Lady Waterside as she would become is advising on the stylish outfits and sets for the fabulous Sophia Loren and the next she is selling kilims in the Kings Road?”

Muriel’s Magic Carpet shop of the 60s

“Well Miss Vallhalla, that was the genius of the woman, one minute it was miniskirts and ponchos and the next a tailored two piece. She did not believe in making herself a prisoner of the past although she appreciated its influence. Others like her neighbours Lottie Macaulay the Bungalow Builders wife and Cynthia Savage whose fortune was in Pickles and Preserves found the changes difficult and became miserable and old all too soon. Aunt Muriel following the example of Cousin Lulubelle and her old sparring partner Lady Pentland-Firth embraced the new and remembered, rather than mourned, the past. And they was better for it.”

“Tell us Sir did your Aunt embrace the fashions and furnishings herself?”

“Well yes she could often be seen in one of her shops speaking to a customer wearing a kaftan, she loved kaftans and she had always had a love of turbans. However, I think it is fair to say she loved her old duster coats more. When I think about her I realise that she was in many ways always playing a part; in reality she has been my greatest influence.”

The Wily Fox

The ruthless Cousin Lulubelle with her award winning book

“How fascinating – a woman for all seasons! Would you consider letting us make a film about this period, with accompanying exhibition, lavish book etc.? We have the title “Hey there, Muriel Girl”, a bit of an “homage” to Georgie Girl and the emancipated woman.”

“Well ladies, let me think – are you toying with the idea of me recreating the journey in 1967 with luxury accommodation and a reasonable emolument?”

“Oh we were thinking as it is television you would do it for the love of it.”

“I bet you were” said Sebastian, glancing at his copy of “Get Rich” by Cousin Lulubelle”. “I bet you were, but if you want to make me another offer, I might be able to fend off the others.”

“What others?” they asked in unison”.

“Oh just an American Production Company that has suggested  an actress takes a wrong turning during a shopping session in Cumbernauld and finds herself in 1960’s Britain, where she meets Aunt Muriel and manages to bring back a whole load of 1960’s designs to recreate the exhibition of the century. They want the rights to the contents of the suitcase and the other 6 trunks in my storage facility.”

Later that evening

“Well Jakub I have had a most enjoyable day.”

“Good Sir Sebastian I am pleased. Those ladies certainly left looking rather flushed, now swallow your galantamine, it’s made from daffodil bulbs you know. I didn’t realise another production company was interested in your Aunt’s story.”

“Well they are not, but Aunt Muriel always said if you give things to people too easily they don’t value them and I don’t just want to be another brick in the wall for those two. I’m old and forgetful, not daft.”

August  2017

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Aunt Muriel & the Summer of Love 1967, Part 1

Muriel Wylie

Time: The present

Place: The Home for the Terminally Overdressed

Act I, Scene I, Italian Night

Fractious Guests

It has been a fractious summer at the Home for the Terminally Overdressed, a retirement facility for thespians hidden deep in a corner of the Slough Trading Estate.

Ever Hopeful of a Pension Top Up

It is, as the residents often coo to one another. “so handy for Pinewood and the set of EastEnders” as they are ever hopeful of a call from their agents and a role propping up the bar of the Queen Vic; or as a shifty property developer determined to turn the square into a must visit tourist location of vintage shops and up cyclists, or is it cyclers? They long for lines like “Ooh what would Ethel say?” as they imagine gazing upon a rusty bath magically turned into a log burner by a hunky young man with a beard, turned up jeans and checked shirt. Or “How will Dot cope with 32 types of botanical gins instead of a sweet sherry?”

For it would be handy as a means of topping up the pension which, heaven knows, would come in handy as the costs of the Home continually rise in the face of the twin plagues, more usually known as getting old and austerity.

There Had Once Been Hope

In truth ageing they can cope with as they are used to playing older or younger depending on the job. It comes with the territory. Austerity they can cope with too as many were children in the War or post war period and there are quite a few who can turn an envelope inside out or sew sheets ends to middle. The thing is that post war austerity came to an end. Then it was the 60s (except for Scotland where they had to wait until the 70s for the 60s). Also even although things were tight and a fridge was a luxury, there was at least hope.

Outsourcing

There was Beveridge and free teeth, Concorde and that Tower Wedgie Benn organised. There were plenty of job opportunities, what with Z Cars, Crossroads and Play for Today. “Oh” they muse to one another “the opportunities that were offered to us by kitchen sink drama, now the BBC has to outsource an ironing board.” “I quite agree” says another who was in The Newcomers. “Can you imagine them doing Abigail’s Party now? The teak room divider would have to go out to tender and the cheesy nibbles would be replaced by something with nutritional value sourced from an organic woman in a barn in Sussex who is married to a hedge fund investor they never mention.”

All is Not Well

There can be little doubt that the bad tempered atmosphere is not only caused by worries about financing the future but has been exacerbated by what is generally described by some as “bloody Brexit and by others as “getting our country back”. The referendum has brought division to the Home, as it has to homes throughout the land. Old enmities and political beliefs have been re-awakened and re-sharpened as, one by one, the old thespians are invited to give their views on air or present awards at ceremonies giving them the opportunity for pithy and memorable lines in that  weary Vanessa Redgrave sort of way.

Wellbeing by Distraction

Italian Night in the Home

The Management, aware of this, has taken steps to provide distractions, (tonight for example is Italian Night), for the last thing they want is more work caused by overexcited residents going into defibrillation or having asthmatic attacks, not with the staff rota pared down as it is. For they too have their worries. The weekly food bills are rising and the stars of yester year are as able as anyone else to tell when a tin of 12p tomatoes from a discount supermarket has been used in the lasagne. They worry too about where future staff will come from, once anyone who does any work has been sent home, for they have discovered that “foreigners” often like old people far more than British people do.

“Thank goodness” as Matron has said “for the 50th anniversary marking the introduction of sex into Britain, for this has given a great deal of air time to the old darlings on Newsnight and Saturday Live  and they can go into detail about how they were mistakenly arrested for saying good evening to well known Members of Parliament in St James’ Park when they were only doing a survey of London’s Plane Trees.”

Worry Over Sebastian

sir Sebastian not looking so good

All agree, however, that Sebastian Wylie Fox continues to be “showing signs of depression which they fear will only hasten the already diagnosed dementia. “I think we can handle this” said Jakub from Warsaw, the new head of activities, “for I have been in touch with those two women who like to talk to him about the past.” “Surely” replied Matron “there can be little more he can say about his aunt and the 1950s? And those two pushy women are frightful, so thrusting.” “That is true” said Jakub “but, suppose we fast forward to the 1960s, because I have noticed that in the storage room which Sebastian thinks of as his museum there is a trunk labelled Muriel Wylie 1967.” “And what” asked Matron “was so special about 1967?” “You’ll see.” said Jakub. “Oh well all right” replied Matron “but make sure you update the care plan; I don’t want any come backs. The CQC is all over us like a rash these days, and we need to keep him; he is the nation’s most loved luvvie and our best paying patient, I mean guest.”

Like Moths to a Flame

Hilary Dee Range, ace reporter

A telephone call from the activities’ organiser to the offices of Hilary Dee Range, thrusting ace investigative reporter with “The Daily Slouch” and her collaborator the even more thrusting uber curator, Vivienne Valhalla, is redirected to Majorca where the dynamic duo, who miss nothing but blows, are on the set of “Lovey Dovey Island” doing some preparatory work for a documentary on the portrayal of class stereotypes in reality television and its impact on holiday destinations.

Vivienne Valhalla

If the pair had not already dropped everything they would have done so right away and in no time they were at Palma Airport and on a return flight to the UK for Sir Sebastian Wylie Fox had already proved to be a gold mine for them both, in terms of programme hours. The recent “Mosey in the Footsteps of Muriel’s Slingbacks” in which celebrities search out Muriel Wylie’s favourite antique shops and try to purchase bijouterie or bibelots at 1950’s prices from dealers caught in the glare of portable lighting – has been a “simply marvellous” success on daytime television.

Muriel’s slingbacks

They are currently in negotiations about a sister programme, “Past Perfect” in which stunning architect designed properties are refurbished backwards to styles of the post-war era incorporating many of the “Chez Nous” trademark designs. One householder has already said that blocking out the light of their German plate glass windows with interlined bobble fringed, trimmed cut velvet curtains and a pelmet means they no longer have to clean the windows every week with a robot and are rediscovering the joys of living in underpants unseen by neighbours.

Sebastian Has Said It All?

“Sir Sebastian there are two young ladies of the modern thrusting sort to see you?”

“Oh good morning, I am afraid you have had a wasted journey. I am sorry, but I have nothing more to tell you about my life in the 1950s. I have said it all and Channel 4 have asked me not to talk about the danger posed to National Security in 1957 by Bunty Haystack, the rural crime writer who threatened to expose one of our greatest navel heroes as a traitor or indeed the story behind Uncle Jasper and the robbery of Lady Pentland-Firth’s jewels.”.

“No, Sir Sebastain” said Hilary Dee “we have not come to talk about the 1950s; and you have been most generous to us in the past with your memories. We were wondering if you would consider going forward a decade to 1967? We are thinking about a documentary about that year and your aunt’s place in one of the watersheds of British cultural history.” “Will it pay, ladies?” “We think so we are confident that the Americans will be interested as looking backwards will help to take their minds off the present.”

Enjoying a cake

“Oh I imagine you are talking about what’s his name, the chap with the overlong ties who has more staff changes than Alma Cogan had dresses.” “Indeed we are.” “I thought so; in that case I will help. I am very fond of America and Americans. I spent many years there; it was so exciting in the post unpleasantness years. Of course Britain was more exciting then too, more forward looking or at least more hopeful, what has happened to us?” “Let’s not dwell on the negative Sir, what about 1967?” “Jakub would you go to my museum and fetch Aunt Muriel’s blue Airport suitcase marked 1967 and while he is doing that perhaps we will have some coffee and a French Fancy?”

The Summer of Love Really Began a Decade Earlier in 1957

Sebastian begins his tale

“You see” began the theatrical knight “1967 began a lot earlier than 1967, in fact it probably started in 1957 when my Aunt was secretly engaged on the report that would introduce sex into Britain for the first time. This would result in the legislation of July 1967 which for the first time allowed men to ask each other the time, have open necked shirts, not eat a fried breakfast, sport beards and knitted ties, sometimes even knitting them themselves.

Jasper’s beloved car

I said that I could not mention the jewellery heist of August 1957. Well I cannot go into details but there is a connection with 1967 in that Uncle Jasper’s Humber Super Snipe was used in the robbery on Lady Pentland-Firth’s town house in Glasgow. Fortunately during the event Uncle Jasper was out to lunch and had an alibi, although the police still wondered if he was not connected in some way. At any rate the car was gone when Jasper came home and the police arrived to question him which annoyed Aunt Muriel as she had had a busy day in Dundee. Furthermore she had an appointment at the hairdressers next day and realised she would have to travel by bus. Mackintosh Squares and travelling antimacassars had to be located.

A Visit to Liverpool

Lulubelle’s pink Cadillac shipped over from the States

To cut a short story long – is that right? – and not to go into details which would ruin the Channel 4 programme, the car was traced quite quickly to Liverpool. Aunt Muriel, Uncle Jasper and Mrs Travers set off with Cousin Lulubelle in her pink cadillac to collect the car from its location in Scotland Road. Mrs Travers went because her son Billy was suspected of involvement and Aunt Muriel thought she should keep abreast of things.

ready for the trip

On arrival at Liverpool after meeting police on the Mersey beat, Mrs Travers was given the job of wiping the inside of the Humber Super snipe down with Dettol infused cotton wool and brushing talcum powder into the carpets (Yardley Paris, if you must know). Aunt Muriel was persuaded that a re-spray could if necessary be dealt with back in Glasgow. It has to be said she never felt quite the same about the Humber Super Snipe after that.

There Are Places I Remember All My Life….

The wiping down of the car took a while and the car needed to dry out so they had to find something to do. As it was a weekend, it was suggested they go to a church fête at St Peters in Woolton. It was a rather nice warm afternoon with all the usual things, ice cream, fancy dress, a demonstration of local police dogs in action and music from a band called “The Quarrymen”. Needless to say Cousin Lulubelle was soon bopping about to Railroad Bill, Cumberland Gap and Be-Bop-a-Lu-la.

Cousin Lulubelle was in her element

Aunt Muriel, who had begun to let her hair down a little in recent times, enjoyed it too and got talking to a young man in a white suit who told her he was also a musician and was at the famous Liverpool Institute.  “I think you should introduce yourselves to those Quarrymen” said Aunt Muriel, “perhaps you might play with them? I am Muriel Wylie, what’s your name young man?” “It’s Paul, Paul McCartney.” “Well” said Aunt Muriel, “let me see if my Cousin Lulubelle knows them; she is an American from the very Deep South and knows everything and everyone, including some chap called Elvis who also sings a bit.  She is less good with husbands; they tend to disappear in mysterious circumstances. Uhoo Cousin Lulubelle…”, “What is it cousin woman y’all?” “Do you know the name of the young man in the band in the checked shirt?”. “No honey lamb but give me a second, here hold

cousin Lulubelle slinks off to the band

ma niney-nine as the senator said to the actress and I will just slink over to the band.”

A Young Musician Tells Muriel to Get in the Groove

“What sort of music do you like Paul?” asked my aunt, “Oh I like skiffle although increasingly rock’n’roll.” “My husband Jasper likes skiffle too, Lonnie Donegan, he’s skiffle isn’t he?” “Yes that’s right; Mrs Wylie who do you like?” “Oh I am rather partial to a bit of Mantovani myself and that Frank Sinatra is rather good.” “Yes both are very popular but I am sure a queen like you could be a bit more with it.” “I am generally described as marvellous you know Paul, although today I am tired. We travelled down from Glasgow and it has been a hard day’s night if you know what I mean”. “Yeah, yeah, yeah I do. And I am not surprised you are marvellous; we don’t often get that quality of bone structure here in Liverpool.” “Oh Paul you are making moi blush. Perhaps you are right one can become a prisoner of the past and the places, some of which are good and some are bad, at least they have been in my life. Now here she is.”

Muriel blushes

“Cousin Muriel let me introduce John Lennon, and this young man is?”  Hi I’m Paul, Paul McCartney.” “Well Muriel if I might have my ice cream back I think it is time we went looking for Jasper and Mrs T.” “Oh here you are cousin but I am afraid a beetle seems to have landed on it, I’ll buy you another.”  “Goodbye boys, good luck I am sure you will do well. Don’t forget us and after you have come together remember us when we get older losing our hair many years from now.” “Bye Mrs Wylie, and remember don’t believe too much in yesterday, we can work it out.” “Well Cousin Lulubelle what do you think? What interesting young men, a big future ahead of them perhaps?” “No honey, pleasant enough, however, I don’t think they have a ticket to ride – Elvis is what it’s all about now.”

 A Thoroughly Modern Muriel Begins to Emerge

The culture vultures were momentarily speechless and then said “shut up – wow!  The Beatles came about because your Aunt introduced them because she accidentally went to a fête in Liverpool, after Uncle Jasper’s car was stolen following a robbery at Lady Pentland-Firth’s house because he was too lazy to wash the car.” “I suppose so. Of course in the years to come Cousin Lulubelle, who had promoted Elvis before that man with the dancing chickens, could have kicked herself. She was always described as “the Brian Epstein who wasn’t.” “What about Aunt Muriel, did she see them again?”

At the Club with the boys

“Oh yes; she really took to them. When she saw them she always said “here comes the sun”. She got back in touch with the boys through a friend of Mrs Travers who worked in the cloakroom of the Cavern Club.” “Shut up! No don’t tell us; it was Cilla?”  “No not Cilla, a woman called Madge but you can’t win them all.” “Did they influence your aunt in the longer term?”

“Well yes I think that conversation was the beginning of a new more modern Muriel Wylie, but then remember she had accepted sticky out legs and whirling ashtrays on stands so she was half way there and she had begun to see commercial opportunities in the youth market. Cousin Lulubelle was a good influence in that direction. Although of course like many Scots Aunt Muriel could occupy two characters in the same body at once, at once holding contrary views and the more traditional.  Muriel would come to the fore from time to time. The idea that she could be a bit more hip and happening appealed to her as you will see from some of her memorabilia from the Summer of Love in 1967, but perhaps if you care to stay to suppa we can have a look later.

lasagne

It’s lasagne followed by an Italian Night. I am afraid they are using watered down tomatoes but it is not bad.” The culture vultures were beside themselves whispering to each other, while Sebastian was changing for suppa into his Garibaldi outfit. “This could be bigger than the Pink Floyd Exhibition at the V&A.” “Umm” said the other “we could make The Beatles bigger than The Beatles.”

Ready For The Theme Night

“Well ladies that’s me all Versace and Risorgimento – shall we go? Do you know the Italian National Anthem? It’s called Brothers of Italy, frightfully operatic. Or alternatively we could sing a Beatles melody? I pay the most here so that Matron will do anything I want. By the way the lasagne uses watered down tomatoes but we just have to make the best of it.”

Sebastian Wylie  Fox

August 2017

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