Monday, 22 August 2016

Living in Sin

‘When the Bough Breaks’ (1947) stars Patricia Roc and Bill Owen. A strange combination at a cursory glance – especially as they end up married – but it works!  I thought that this was the best new-to-me film that I had seen in a long time. I don’t know if this is because it just caught me in the right mood, or if it is a half-forgotten treasure. It is an all-out weepy and I felt much better for getting into the spirit of the thing.

The storyline can be roughly sketched out as follows. Patricia’s character (Lily) has a baby and immediately discovers that her husband is a bigamist. She tries to bring her baby up alone but she struggles – as you would in those days. A posh lady at the nursery takes a shine to her son and at a particularly low point, Lily allows her to informally adopt him. Fast forward a few years and Lily has a good job in a department store. She goes on holiday to Butlin’s and meets the adoring and persistent Bill (Bill Owen). I was gratified to see that they met in the typical 1940s matchmaking dance, also used to good advantage in ‘Millions Like Us’. All the women form a circle, all the men form a circle facing them, and they do a big opposite directions ring-a-ring-a-roses until the music stops (‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’). A quaint way of meeting new people that I regret the loss of. Also gratifying is the presence of Leslie Dwyer at the holiday camp – he went on to become the grumpy Punch and Judy man in ‘Hi-di-Hi’.

Lily says that she can’t marry Bill but won’t tell him why (Oh the melodrama! I lapped this up!). Eventually, he prises her past out of her, and being a thoroughly good egg he still wants to marry her and at last she becomes chatelaine of his corner shop in Streatham. Settled – but with no babies forthcoming from Bill – she seeks out her son, now eight years old. She gets him back – but it is no good, she and her son are strangers. She hands him back to his adoptive parents.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I identified so much with this film is because I identified with Lily’s struggles with her new born baby. Being alone in the world and refusing to receive any support from her bigamist husband meant that she had to go to work. After a period of standing at a perfume counter all day and pacing up and down with a crying baby all night, she finally collapses. This is rather melodramatic to our eyes perhaps – but to be a working mother was much more unusual and therefore open to interpretation in the late 1940s. Women were expected to give up jobs to returning servicemen and dedicate their existences to delivering the baby boom. Yet even in wartime, mothers of young children were not conscripted into jobs.

I found myself going back to work too soon after the birth of my first child. Financial need dictated this. I had a traumatic caesarean in October and was back at work after Christmas, my daughter going to a day nursery. She was a difficult baby – I called her Lucifer because she screamed all night and slept all day and it seemed that nothing would persuade her to review her hours of business. I have a vivid memory of sitting at the top of the stairs weeping in utter misery because she’d cried all night and I had to be at work in three hours. Yet the nursery staff thought she was a delight – just like in the film. I fantasised about running away…and I sometimes worry that if I did not have support from others then I might have done something regrettable.

What is identified as being suitable melodrama material here is now normal everyday life for most of us. My story is not unusual, there are thousands of others out there with similar experiences. But I wonder, do we choose to live like this or has it been forced upon us? Mothers of babies are now expected to work, both by society and the government.  The cost of living is such that one wage per household is not enough – recent statistics showed that a large proportion of households claiming Housing Benefit do have a member in employment. To have to live on one wage leads to reliance on expensive credit and potentially damages the life chances of the children. Some mothers enjoy working though and are glad to keep an identity other than ‘Mummy’. Some hate and it and resent how it exhausts them and means that they cannot be there when their babies are learning to walk and talk.  Personally I felt a mixture of both. And as I said above, not even Winston Churchill expected young mothers to go to work in Britain’s darkest hour. What a conundrum this is.

But at least we are not in fear of being morally judged when we have been left in the lurch by the fathers of our babies (not to say that people don’t judge – but we are more able to ignore it). For this reason alone, perhaps we have made some progress. It just doesn’t feel like it at times.


Monday, 1 August 2016

Joyce to the World

My new book, ‘Joyce to the World’ – a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Joyce Grenfell, is now available on Amazon. Here’s the introduction and a taste of the stories:

Cover artwork by Howard Taylor - @aitchteee on Twitter - commissions taken!

Joyce Grenfell died in 1979, just before she was due to become Dame Joyce Grenfell. But she is by no means forgotten, indeed she is thought of fondly by many of us who are too young to have been aware of her during her lifetime. It is interesting to think about the reasons for this, when many of her contemporaries are becoming more obscure as time passes.

The two roles that she is most fondly remembered for are Policewoman Ruby Gates in the St Trinian’s films; and the harassed nursery school teacher as portrayed in her monologues.  Mention Joyce’s name to a lot of people and they will smile and reply “George, don’t do that!” These characters have similarities – at first glance they are failures. Ruby fails to secure marriage with her long-term fiancĂ© Sammy and she is hopeless at controlling the school girls while masquerading as a games mistress. The nursery school teacher loves children but it is not returned in the fashion that she probably envisaged. But, we British love an underdog, especially one that perseveres to the point of insanity. Of course it helps when they have a hilarious turn of phrase too. We adore Joyce as a character that has been lost to progress, to dumbing down and mass boorishness. She represents an England that we feel we have left behind.

But Joyce herself was half American and she was no underdog. The world that she represents to many of us did not exist in the pure form that we sometimes imagine either.

In my blog, The History Usherette, I look at nostalgic films and try to pick out pieces of real history. This history is often not as rose-tinted as we would like it to be. I have applied this thought to this collection of short stories. Each is inspired by a piece of Joyce’s work, they run in chronological order from the 1930s to the 1970s. I hope – and I think that Joyce might approve of this – that this might encourage the reader to appreciate some the progress that we have made in more recent decades. It is fun to look back and think that maybe things were better. But they weren’t. Not always.

Natures Gifts:
The original speaker of ‘Useful and Acceptable Gifts’, first performed by Joyce in revue in the 1930s, is horrified to see herself being parodied on stage.
Many women remained single into middle and old age at this point in time due to the mass slaughter of young men in World War One.  Yet to be married and a mother was still looked upon as a woman’s only natural calling. Those that tried to make themselves useful in other ways were sometimes turned into figures of fun.

The Demi-Angel:
Upper class teenager Julia volunteers to help care for wounded soldiers in 1943, going against her mother’s wishes. She is inspired after watching Joyce in the film ‘The Demi Paradise’.
A rigid class system and narrow constraints for women was to some extent broken down by World War Two. This is a look at how it took death and injury on a mass scale to liberate those trapped at home as well as those in the occupied territories.

Dear Miss Grenfell:
Old soldier Robert writes to Joyce to thank her for cheering him up while she was touring with ENSA.
Like so many household names, it was this wartime work that really helped to shape Joyce into the performer we so loved. It took war to allow talent to shine through, and to introduce people to different forms of culture.

Red Letter Day:
Old bachelor Jim is haunted by Joyce’s song ‘I’m Going to See You Today.’
These 1940s lyrics paint a picture of a nation being reunited again with loved ones. It might refer to short leaves from the fighting, or to the post war homecoming. But the war took a huge toll on British relationships. Divorce rates were hitherto unheard of, and this is only the official picture. Some promised marriages didn’t happen; while some unhappy marriages limped on to save face.

Oh Ruby!:
Billy’s mother discusses his decision to join the police force.
We all love St Trinian’s, although I think it does colour our perception of all-girl schools. Do we let what we see on screen influence our lives too much? Are we losing the capability to make decisions for ourselves?

New husband Bob struggles to reconcile his views of marriage with a society where women are newly liberated. He tries to take back control, implementing a hare-brained scheme inspired by Joyce’s ‘forgetful woman in church’ monologue.
The laws are in place, but male attitudes are too often trailing behind. Even now, I wonder if we’ll ever get true equality.

Some Ladies Have to Dance Together:
A woman reflects on how she first hated, then loved Joyce’s song ‘Stately as a Galleon.’
Another look at how girls are at the mercy of men’s expectations, often rooted in their own base desires.

Retirement Time:
Joyce’s nursery teacher dedicated her life to her job (although she often thought about a change of career, she could never quite break away). But when she reaches a certain age she is forced to retire with no other life to fill her days.

Extract from ‘Red Letter Day’:
He heard the song performed again about a year later. He had listened to Bob Turner whistle it continually as he pinned photographs of his trio of girlfriends onto the wall above his bunk. And then it had played on the radio while he drunk his first beer on English soil. So, from boarding the train to London on that day he remembered too well, the song had been bumping around in his brain. The rhythm altered itself to fit the dominant noise of the moment, whether it was the sound of the train wheels, or the creaking of the carriage body as it pulled away from a platform. He caught a tube train from Kings Cross to Waterloo. He thought he could hear the tune in the wind as it rushed through the tunnels. She would be waiting for him at Waterloo, under the clock, of course. He had told her every time that they had met that this would be the place where it would all begin for them.
“We’ll put our name down for a prefab, then get the marriage licence. When we’ve had our cup of tea and rock cake in the buffet. First thing’s first.”

This refreshment had become their ritual – at the beginning and end of each wartime liaison; a talisman. If they didn’t have it, then perhaps one of them wouldn’t return for next time. It was silly, they knew. But once the suggestion had been made it was difficult to let the idea go. He had smiled about it as he climbed the stairs up from the tube station onto the main concourse at Waterloo. This would be the last time. Now he was home, it would be all house hunting and picnics by the Serpentine.