Sunday, 25 May 2014

As one door closes...

Like so many women of her generation, my mother had been sold marriage as “the roseate end to every home girl’s dream” (to quote Ronald Searle in “The Terror of St Trinian’s”). At her school, girls were groomed to create immaculate floral displays, converse knowledgably with princes to presidents on all manner of subjects, and cook like all three Roux brothers put together. Cleaning was not mentioned: future staff were assumed. It was all about devoting yourself to your husband, creating a beautiful home, producing an heir, and throwing marvellous dinner parties for his friends and colleagues.  

All this my mother had done, so “the Ronder business” as it was always referred to in our house, hit her hard. The rows at home got louder, more violent, and more frequent. My brother and I shut ourselves in our respective rooms and let them get on with it. The matter was actually settled when my father had a heart attack. Always a very neat and groomed man, he had insisted on dragging himself to the bathroom to wash and shave (- and add a splash of Trumper’s Spanish Leather) before the ambulance arrived. Mummy knew it was pointless to argue. She helped him as best she could, and went with him to the hospital. She left my brother in charge, and I slept through the entire thing.

With my father in intensive care at the Middlesex Hospital, all bets were off. We all prayed in the little chapel below the ward, and he pulled through. As soon as he was out of hospital, Mummy booked them both on a holiday to Silvaplana – where we had stayed when I was filming Heidi. He loved that part of the world almost as much as she did. They came home determined to give their marriage another go.

It didn’t work. He moved into the spare room. Much as she tried to, my mother just couldn’t forgive his betrayal, and she couldn’t stop herself from bringing up “The Ronder Business” time and again. Unable to take the constant barracking, my father finally packed his case and left home on 8 September 1977. He had said that trying to argue with my mother when she was in full “QC” mode was like trying to win a case against George Carman. With her extraordinary brain for facts, and inconsistencies, she would pounce on any vulnerable utterance, and hammer it mercilessly. My father, being an “anything for a quiet life” kind of a guy, plead guilty to everything, and moved out. On my 13th birthday.

I watched him go. Suitcase in hand. He was going to stay with a friend, Michael Bartlett. Two weeks later, he moved in with Jill Gascoine, who he had directed in The Onedin Line and The Gentle Touch. Their affair started that same night, and lasted until she met Alfred Molina five years later, who kicked my father out. He landed up in a room at The White House, Albany Street. Walking distance from Hanover Gate.

Things started to calm down. Despite going ahead with their divorce, my parents became friends. A routine was established, and Daddy would come over every Saturday morning for coffee. Sometimes dinner too. Often preceded by a video on the box. I got back into my childhood habit of sitting on the floor at his feet, leaned against his legs like a labrador, with my arm hooked around his knee. Our cats continued to adore him, and would sit on him too.

During these years, my mother had hurled herself into the vanguard of resistance against the closure of my brother’s school, St Marylebone Grammar School. One of the finest state schools in the country, only the brightest young brains got in, past the impossibly suave Head, Patrick Hutton. My brother clinched his place by announcing he wanted to be a palaeontologist. 
St Marylebone Grammar School - Marylebone Road, London
The ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) however, hated the school. Even though it was free, these were the heady days of the “Looney Left”, and it was considered ‘elitist’. Dame Shirley Williams (in her Ferragamo shoes – as my mother noted), was pushing homogenised, dumbed down comprehensive school education with everything she had – which was a lot. Head Honcho of the ILEA, (Westminster and Canford School educated) Sir Ashley Brammall was also implacable in his determination to get it closed down. Even though many of the top brass within the ILEA and local Labour councils at the time sent their own children to private schools, it was ‘unfair’ they said.

Marylebone Grammar School was however, much loved by the local community. Providing free education of a calibre for which private schools charged £thousands per term, it offered a chance to bright local boys of the sort of opportunities they might not otherwise ever see. University, contacts, careers. Working with other parents, my mother went to meeting after meeting, working on notes through the night, and working up a petition to try to keep the school open and prevent the proposed merger with the neighbouring, poorly performing comprehensive, Rutherford. She canvassed opinion on the local council estates. Lisson Grove being the largest. She said that mothers were grabbing the petition out of her hands and saying “where do I sign? That school is the only chance my boy has got.”

She promised them she would do all she could.

After one particularly harrowing council meeting at which she demolished the entire panel, leaving them silently opening and closing their mouths like a line of mute sea bass, the Legal Officer for the ILEA collared her as she lit a cigarette outside.

“Mrs Blake,” he said, “forgive me, but may I enquire as to your profession before you were married?”

“Actress,” she said. “Why?”

The officer apparently laughed in astonishment.

“To be frank, Mrs Blake, I thought you must have been a barrister.” He said.

It was all to no avail however. Without the money, power and muscle to back up her formidable brain, my mother and the other parents lost. The school was closed in 1981.

So my mother had to find another interest. Luckily for her, my aunt was working at Granada in Soho at the time, and the two sisters would often meet for lunch. It was following one of these lunch-time meets that wandering back along Wardour Street, my mother happened upon an old-fashioned chemist and got talking to the owner. She mentioned her interest in scent, and as her jaw fell, old Mr Dwek (as was his name) began producing treasure after treasure from the stock-room. Discontinued masterpieces by Caron, Chanel, Muguet, Houbigant and others arrived on the counter for her to inspect. With what little she had on her at the time, she bought as much as she could, leaving her number for him to call her if he found any more.

As she opened them one by one at the kitchen table, and the fabulous forgotten scents filled the air, the old passion stirred once more, and she began to write...

Emma Blake
May 2014

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