Look Back with Love
The leaves may not have
turned but autumn is in the air here at Slightly Foxed
s that time of the quarter again when we begin to look forward to the new issue and books, all made rather more real by the arrival of Don and Tracey from Smith Settle last week in a van packed to the gills with early copies of the new Foxed Cubs and SF Paperback. After countless trips up and down the stairs at No. 53 the office is once more stuffed with neat rows of binders’ parcels,
all full of good books ready to be released to readers come September. What’s more, Smith Settle will be making the journey down from Yorkshire again next week with the new SF Edition, Issue 43 of Slightly Foxed and, rather excitingly, the new Slightly Foxed Notebooks (coming soon!). We’re slightly worried about fitting everything in but we wily foxes will find a way.
Whilst we take a break from moving boxes and preparing address labels for the new season, let us go to town with the author of our forthcoming paperback, Look Back with Love. Although not really published until September, we can’t help but share an extract of this wonderfully funny book with you now. Perhaps we’ll even tempt you to order a copy and help us to clear some of those binders’ parcels!
All the memories I have so far described are crystal clear in my mind; I see them almost like scenes on the stage, each one lit by its own particular light: sunlight, twilight, flickering firelight, charmless gaslight or the, to me, dramatic light of a carried taper. But I am sometimes vague as to the chronological order of the incidents. I know instinctively which ones are from very far back; then the years merge into each other, only becoming clean cut from when I reached the age of seven – which turned out to be a far more important age for me than my much-fancied age of eight, for it was while I was seven that three particularly interesting things happened to me: I was bridesmaid at the weddings of my two aunts, I went to London for the first time, and I started school.
As Nan and Auntie Bertha wanted to be married about the same time it was suggested that a double wedding would save expense but, despite the family’s usual shortage of money, my grandmother would not hear of it. There must be two elaborate weddings within a month, Auntie Bertha’s first although she was the younger daughter – I cannot think why she took precedence unless it was because Uncle Bertie was approved of by everyone, whereas there were two opinions about Nan’s fiancé, but he was certainly a cheerful man and Nan and I liked him well enough.
For many months my aunts had each had a cupboard in the golden-oak sideboard in which they kept their ‘bottom drawers’ and they would often unwrap their carefully tissue-papered treasures for me to admire. In rivalry I started a bottom drawer, but it petered out after I had squirrelled one tea-cosy and a penwiper. Nan and Auntie Bertha had a handsome collection of oddly-shaped vases and many crochet-edged doilies and traycloths – they both crocheted like fiends for the last months of their engagements. But the contents of the bottom drawers paled into insignificance beside the wedding presents, which began to arrive in the late spring. Auntie Bertha had a particular longing for silver salt cellars and pepper-castors, which she always spoke of as ‘my salts and peppers’. Her salts, shaped like cockle shells and nestling in a blue velvet-lined leather case, came early; but her peppers hung fire, and when it looked as if she would not get them her longing became almost an obsession. If any large parcel came she would sigh heavily and say ‘too big for peppers’. I am thankful to say that two sets arrived a few days before the wedding; she was delighted with them but I don’t think they ever came up to her imagined peppers.
I used to hear friends inquire, ‘Have you got your bronzes?’ and, ‘Have you got your Maude Goodman?’ Chimney-piece bronzes seemed to be a necessity for Edwardian brides, and a picture ‘after’ Maude Goodman was expected to smile down on all newly-married ‘at home’ days. Auntie Bertha got her bronzes and Nan her Maude Goodman – coy children running away from a tiger-skin rug. Nan was distressed at having to marry without bronzes. She achieved them quite soon, but Auntie Bertha had been married some time before she opened her drawing-room door when the family was visiting her and said, ‘Look – my Maude Goodman at last!’ Uncle Bertie had inherited some fine oil paintings, but Maude Goodman queened it over them all.
My grandmother made the wedding cakes, superb three-tiered affairs though the bottom tier, I was disillusioned to find, was a dummy hired from a confectioner. The second tier was for the wedding party, the top tier for the bride. On the day my grandmother iced the first wedding cake she said no one must speak to her all day and her manner was so grim that I drew away from her; but she called me back and said I could come with her if I promised not to talk at all. We then locked ourselves in the butler’s pantry with the wedding cake and I was so impressed by the gravity of the occasion that I would not even answer her when she spoke to me. I believe I prayed that the icing would be a success. It looked exquisite to me for my grandmother made the most beautiful sugar roses, but again and again she destroyed her work and began anew.
She let it stand at last, but she was never really satisfied and looked sad when we finally emerged from the butler’s pantry. My poor grandmother, even I knew that she was desperately worried about the expense of two weddings; also she hated losing her daughters. She was fond of Uncle Bertie and composed a polka in his honour, but she just did not wish any of her children to marry . . .
. . . Nan had promised I should be chief bridesmaid at her wedding, which took place soon after Auntie Bertha got back from her honeymoon. The other bridesmaid, who was in her teens – Nan had been her governess – obligingly agreed that I should carry the bouquet and she the gloves. But, in case the bouquet was too heavy, I was told to hand it over after a while, when I was to receive the gloves in return. I did not find the bouquet heavy, but felt it would be mean to keep it all the time so, after a few minutes, I gave it to the other bridesmaid. Much to my indignation, she did not give me the gloves, so I nudged her. As she took no notice I nudged her again, much harder, and said ‘The gloves!’ in a hoarse whisper, but still no gloves were forthcoming; so once again I was left holding nothing and feeling convicted of youth by the entire congregation. She explained afterwards that the gloves got caught in the wire of the bouquet and she couldn’t get them free, but I went on feeling bitter about it.
I wore white for this wedding; my mother made the dress and was happy about it. She herself wore pearl grey and the nicest hat I ever remember her in; it was made of pleated black chiffon with one pink rose under the brim. Unfortunately, Auntie Laura of the Brewery House asked to try it on and was so pleased with herself in it that my mother – who had received many kindnesses from her and Uncle Tyrrel – instantly gave it to her. I wept when I heard this and my mother looked near tears herself; it is the incident I remember best of any connected with the two weddings. On the whole, they were not as exciting as I had expected, though I well remember their curious mixture of gaiety and sadness; I have experienced this at every wedding I ever attended.
My mother was sad when her much-loved sisters left us for their new little houses, and she must have been all the more so because she was then exchanging one fiancé (of whom she was fond) for another (for whom she seemed to care less). The retiring fiancé, a representative of a famous electrical engineering firm, had recently been transferred back to London, so my mother kept him on for the two weeks we spent there with Auntie Blanche; we returned with her soon after Nan’s wedding.
I was astonished at the smelly old underground train which bore us through smoke-filled tunnels to Notting Hill and, from then onwards, I considered London old-fashioned. Certainly the horse-drawn buses were, compared with Manchester trams (now electric), and I was surprised to see so many old cream-painted houses; most Old Trafford houses were of good solid red brick. Much as I enjoyed my visit it was not until much later that London became for me what it has ever since remained: my most loved of all cities.
Auntie Blanche had a maisonette in Campden Hill Square – I was astonished that she did not own the whole house and even more astonished that she had to share the Square garden with other people. The maisonette was pleasant, but there was no hot water laid on to the bedrooms; had I heard of the dark ages I should have felt I was back in them. (Even when my mother and I, later, lived in an up-to-date London flat we still felt there was more solid comfort in Manchester suburbs.)
Auntie Blanche was a splendid hostess and took us to see all the sights; the one that impressed me most was Hampton Court, but this may have been not so much for its romantic associations as because I lost a valued bath-toy there, a small celluloid doll, nude except for painted boots and possessing a very obtrusive stomach. My mother considered this doll indecent and begged me not to wave it at gentlemen on buses.
We went to four theatres. First, to the St James’s, to see Willard in The Cardinal
. I was shocked that such a high kind of clergyman should disport himself in bright red. Then we saw Quality Street
at the Vaudeville, which was expected to please me because of the children in the Misses Throssel’s school; I liked it well enough but it wasn’t exciting. Next came a musical comedy, The Schoolgirl
at the Prince of Wales, which I liked for an astonishing reason: in the last act the cast hung up curtains and changed the look of the scene in full view of the audience. I could not get over the cleverness of this and it still seems to me surprising for the theatre of 1903.
Our fourth and most impressive theatre was Covent Garden where we had a box for Faust
, a last gift from the departing fiancé. It was a glorious evening though I did not like the prima donna who played Marguerite and said she looked like a fat cook. My hero was Mephistopheles
– which might have been expected from a child who, in Red Riding Hood, had backed the wolf.
On the last day of our visit I was told to walk round Campden Hill Square Gardens with the dismissed fiancé and be very nice to him. He was in a low state and I comforted him as best I could, assuring him I felt sure everything would come right.
This must have been one of my first tactful lies for I had no feelings whatever about the matter, but he treasured my words and reminded me of them seven years later, when my mother at last married him; but in view of the way things then turned out, they couldn’t have been said to come right . . .
Also now available to order . . .