Trying to Improve Things

Keeping an eye on you

I would be the first to admit that I have, from time to time, a tendency to look back at the past through rose coloured spectacles. 

The Past Can Be Unforgiving

There is much about modern society that appals me like the abandonment of third class rail travel, suede shoes for men and commercial television. On the other hand I know that the past can be a cruel and unforgiving place where more kindness might have gone a long way to create a better society.

Now before you think I have started to turn pink around the edges, let me stop you there. For the devil does not have all the best tunes although generally speaking I find Socialists fall down very badly in terms of accessorising and colour coordination. Perhaps I will develop a course on “Dressing and Deportment for the left wing lady” if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms.

If one is going to turn the country into a Soviet satellite state then one needs good foundation garments, we have only to remember the film “Ninotchka” with the divine Greta Garbo, to see what we would be up against. We will, however, cross that bridge when we come to it.  The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, is currently doing a splendid job and making some good progress in the matter of housing which can only be good news for my interior decoration business “Chez Nous”.

Not Totally Blinkered

The exclusive West End abode

Please do not think that those of us who live in Glasgow’s exclusive West End, particularly those of us fortunate to occupy a full Victorian villa, are indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate. I am fully aware that there are large areas of Glasgow that only have fruit when someone is sick.

If I want to know something about tenement life then I only have to ask my darling Jasper, who can go on for hours about one gas ring feeding a family of ten and how much the cockroaches enjoyed the flour and water paste which fixed the wallpaper. There is nothing he likes better than to mention his Granny Wylie’s oft quoted greeting when someone “chapped at the door” to ask for the “lavvie key”. With a smile and barely a care for her dickey heart, the result of childhood rheumatic fever, she would say “come away in, pull up a rat and sit down”.

The sainted Granny Wylie

Being Glasgow she would always have a pot of tar like tea on “the peep” and freshly baked pancakes cooling on an old linen sheet kept for that purpose on the box bed. Of course had this been Edinburgh there would be no tea and no “sweet bites” and the rats would have long gone west and  reached Falkirk. Granny of course was, as we hear ad nauseam, a  heroine of the famous Clydeside rent strikes and her caste iron black frying pan made many a dent in the head of a would-be collector or sheriff’s officer. Granny boasted that despite all her hardships there was never a day without a roaring fire in the grate and she had the best “corned beef legs” in the Close to prove it.

A Good Hostess

In defence of the pan bread and piano owning classes of which I confess I am one, we do care. It is not my fault I had a hand embroidered fire screen, a governess, and knew many families with ancestors executed within the confines of the Tower of London and maiden aunts who knew only the music of Bach. Many of my friends and that does include Lottie Macaulay the wife of a pre-cast concrete millionaire and Cynthia Savage, the pickle and condiment Queen, do a great deal for charity. We also try to keep pace with the latest developments. Earlier this week for example I was at the Annual Dinner of the Glasgow Central Business and Professional Women’s Club – for all us Glasgow Gals who mean business. We usually meet from 5.30 until 9.30 pm, frequently in a format we call “Tea and Talk”, where a hostess sits at every table to make sure everyone knows each other.  As you can imagine there is a virtual stampede to my table.

Goodbye to Bowdy Legs

The dinner was a more formal affair and the speaker this year the excellent Dr Norah Wattie, principal Medical Officer for maternity and child welfare in Glasgow. Her devotion to duty was obvious as was the sense of urgency she felt was needed in terms of Glasgow’s health problems. She spoke candidly about Glasgow’s “low grade housing” and the terrible congestion that is the plight of many. Too many people still live in one room, with shared toilets and no hot running water, let alone an imaginative collection of lace doilies.

Not all was doom and gloom from Norah and she was happy to report that there had been a decline in deaths from diphtheria. Rickets (or bowdy legs as we know it in Glasgow) were barely reported and whooping cough had been considerably restricted. There was one black spot still and this concerns the prevalence of TB – there are still some 200 cases a year. Indeed Glasgow has the worst record where this awful illness is concerned.  Medication has helped and she is about to begin a programme of mass X-ray in the city.

The Dangers of Dancing

As you know I have never been one to shy away from the realities of life. Beauty and health have been my watchwords. Neither have I shied away from what some might consider the more delicate aspects of “the hygiene of life.” I have long taken an interest in “The Orphans Home”, a charity chaired by Lady Pentland-Firth, who once famous as a cabaret artiste, is

Lady P-F, no stranger to sensational behaviour

no stranger to sensational human activity. In my own right I have spearheaded, sometimes in the face of opposition my own charitable undertaking, “The Home for Fallen Women”.

The women of Glasgow have for many years, particularly since the advent of steam locomotion, fallen prey to falling. This traditionally happens around New Year and Glasgow Fair Fortnight when Scottish Country Dancing is at its most energetic. Many young women having partaken of refreshment to which they are unaccustomed are birled to an insensible state in dances such as “The Lovers Knot” and readily tumble into a bale of freshly cut hay. As they say you know what dancing leads to!

Muriel Crosses a Boundary

One has to be realistic and understand that dancing is here to stay and so I have given much thought to ways of mitigating unforeseen circumstances arising from an “Orcadian” or indeed any other kind of “Strip the Willow”. You are going to have to steel yourselves now, for I am I am going to have to mention two words you may find unsavoury, so I will give you a moment to pour a glass of sherry, I recommend something sweet –  Gonzalez would be an excellent choice.

A sherry like nectar

I would suggest too that you turn your grandmamma’s portrait to the wall, steady yourself against a sideboard or in my case walnut chiffonier and take a deep breath.  The two words are “family planning”. Are you still with me or do you need a few moments to run your fingers over the harpsichord with a J. S. Bach Goldberg variation or alternatively stick your head between your knees?

No Apologies

As I say deep breaths and focus on something tranquil. I make no apologies for saying those words – it has to be said if we are to make Glasgow a healthier place as we approach the 1960s. Now I know what you are thinking, what does Muriel know about this as she has no children of her own and never had the temptation of falling because of her incarceration in a remote boarding school and an intense programme of holiday activities not to mention father’s shotgun.

Married later in life

It is true the stork has never visited moi which is a sadness I have to bare. You see Jasper and I married later in life and if truth be told Jasper had a very bad war. Nevertheless I am a woman of the world and am aware of more than you think.

Indeed I first became aware of “family planning” when my Mother,  who could change her clothes under a dressing gown and always bathed in a swimsuit if Father was around, suggested they would never be tempted to highland schottische again if they had separate beds in separate rooms in separate homes. Thus Mama lived in town and dear Papa in the country. He did have an account at Busty Betty’s which occasionally brought him to town, when  Mamma would speak to him at a safe distance through a megaphone in Kelvingrove Park, with her coat fully buttoned even in summer.

The Lack of an Empire

I was telling this story to Lady Rowallen and the other ladies of the Family Planning Association who had similar experiences indeed, as one said, it was really the purpose of the Empire. Long spells in India for men in the stewing heat with debilitating tropical diseases while one stayed in Dumfriesshire or Banffshire – a most effective form of family planning for those members of society who knew how to use consonants and were very keen on kedgeree and cold houses.

The new Commonwealth is likely to put pay to all this and other barriers to dancing will have to be considered for the young. Meanwhile her ladyship suggested I should visit their premises in Glasgow which I did on Wednesday with a few to help fundraise for improved premises. I had the taxi drop me in George Square and walked up the steep incline that is Montrose Street (near the famous Royal College, where the railway engineers came from, and the Maternity Hospital. Coincidence? I rather think not!)

It rather occurred to me that the onset of labour might be a result of any climb up Montrose Street. Eventually there, I pushed open the door and  found myself in a maelstrom of mothers and children and white coated medical volunteers.

I am pleased to report it is well staffed. There are about ten women altogether who attend to the mothers – three doctors, four trained nurses and a couple of administrators. One of the doctors told me that their aim is “to prevent misery, even tragedy”. She was anxious to explain to me that they were not there to limit families but to “allow married couples to have the children they wanted, when they wanted them”. She told me that there were many mothers of 5 or 6 children who said “if there’s another I’ll throw myself in the Clyde.”

There is clearly a desperate need for more accessible premises but Glasgow Corporation has shown little by way of response. I most certainly admire their work and it appears to moi that where women are concerned it does seem to be a lack of concern for appropriate premises.

The Reality of Ignoring Reality

I came away with mixed feelings – happy that they were able to do something about the lot of some married women yet concerned that one of the real issues was being ignored. Women do not dance alone but all too often they are left alone when the dancing stops and the clearing up begins. I have known of several young women cast out of family homes, left to find lodgings and only communicating once a week with their families in the ladies cloakroom at Central Station for a change of clothes so the neighbours do not see. My “Home for Fallen Women” has its uses.

The lucky ones, with a man who will marry them, hasten to Rothesay, Millport and other seaside resorts where the sea air will bring on a baby by at least three months. Amazing what a sea breeze can do!

All Right for Others

Well I must go. Mrs Stark-Botham is organising a Scottish Country Dance night to raise funds for the new premises for the Family Planning Association  and I must get Jasper’s kilt out. A moderate Strathspey is permissible by a certain age with minimal birling.

I do hope I can remember “The Duke of Perth” or was it Atholl; anyway some Duke or other and one the Royal Family dances. Until next week…

à bientôt

Muriel Wylie

March 1957

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3 Responses to Trying to Improve Things

  1. Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

    Chérie Muriel,

    I confess I did have to steady myself against the sideboard, whilst swigging straight from the crystal Sherry decanter. Not merely at the mention of the FP words (which are enough to unsteady any lady and her foundation garments; let us be honest), but also ‘Stripping the Willow’, imbibing, birling and tumbling into freshly cut hay; all of which have made moi come over all unnecessary! I am, as you know, blessed with a very artistic temperament, which in turn frequently verges on the very theatrical, and renders moi prone to fits of pique. I am currently on the chaise with Mimi the Shih Tzu, a pot of large leaf Assam and an assortment of iced biscuits arranged tastefully on a plate with a doily, naturellement. I shall remain thus until calm descends……….and the Sherry decanter is refilled……..”Jeeves……!”

    One is feeling particularly ‘very theatrical’ presently due to the opening of the annual Carlisle & District Music & Drama Festival tomorrow. Where one must face one’s public on a daily basis with one’s diction, deportment and Italian vowels on display for all to see (even those from the wrong side of Carlisle). As ever, one must lead from the front in all matters of elocution and public speaking. As you quite rightly say, Mu dwaaling, one should always begin with the application of firm foundation garments and mine shall be firmer than usual à demain!

    Dwaaling, do let moi know if I can advise in a terpsichorean fashion for your new course ‘Dressing and Deportment for the Left Wing Lady’. Although, I imagine many of them will be well-versed in ‘free movement’ if you get my meaning……..I fear accessorising may be a challenge for the leftie! However, you do like a challenge, dwaaling, and as always you are at the vanguard of change. Mu – a modern woman for the modern world! And, if proof were needed, which it isn’t bien sûr, you are able to enunciate the FP words without flinching or requiring support from large pieces of period furniture……..what more can one say? Power to Muriel!

    Yours in a permanent state of pre-performance nerves,
    Lulu xxxx

  2. Moira Taylor says:

    How often do we see a lady such as yourself who has ‘married down’ as it were? My own dear papa was raised in a tiny hovel with coats on the bed instead of sheets and blankets and the close proximity of his siblings for warmth and the occasional rainbow over the bedstead if you catch my drift? And yet twas mama, raised in North Kelvinside ,y a musician daddy and a mummy of independent means, who ended up with legs so bandy she declared herself unable to ‘stop a pig up a close’. And they managed to produce moi – straight of limb with an aversion to the closeness of others such as can be found on public transport.
    Reading your splendid jottings on you-know-what precautions I am rather disturbed by your reference to Jasper having had ‘ a very bad war’ as one reason for your absence of kiddiwinks. Whatever do you mean? Is Jasper not fully functioning? Is he somewhat lacking? You poor things!
    Now do be careful on the dance floor dear Muriel – not too close mind!

  3. Patty C says:

    My dear Mu,

    I an waxing all nostalgic after your post…

    Speaking of “the dangers of dancing,” here a comment from one generation (ol’ Blue Eyes) to the emerging 50s:
    “Rock and roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression — lewd, sly, in plain fact, dirty — a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac and the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.”

    – Frank Sinatra (1957)

    (This spoken by one of the crudest of males to walk the face of the earth.)

    Ah, yes. Sex, drugs and rock and roll–definitely NOT in that order.

    With its roots in African blues and gospel, rhythm and blues blossomed in northern cities but lacked the crossover to white youth. Disc jockey Alan Freed began a rhythm-and-blues show on a Cleveland radio station. Soon the audience grew and grew, and Freed coined the term “rock and roll.”

    SAM PHILLIPS, a Memphis record producer, found the answer in Elvis Presley. With a deep Southern sound, pouty lips, and gyrating hips, Elvis took an old style and made it his own.

    As they say, the rest is history. Thus the downward spiral of the morals of youth spreading far and wide! (Thanks, America)

    As a child of the 50s I bought my first record with Christmas gift money. It was Elvis’ “Hound Dog” which I played on the kiddie phonograph album which was a Christmas gift. Fortunately, and not without, possibly, a little divine intervention, I did not end up in my teen years at the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in Charlotte, NC.

    Indeed, Muriel, your well crafted comment says it all with respect to the poor dears who lost their way:

    “On the other hand I know that the past can be a cruel and unforgiving place where more kindness might have gone a long way to create a better society.”

    So true in any age. There, but for the grace of God, go I…

    To close:

    “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here To Stay.” Oh yeah!!

    (by Danny & The Juniors” )

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