Thursday, 21 August 2014

Buck House...

“Make the most of that toast!” My brother Adam winked and poked me in the arm as I stood with a sagging piece of granary loaf in my hand and listened to my mother frantically dialling telephone numbers.

Dad had had another heart attack and was laid up in Charing Cross Hospital. When my mother had called his agent, Roger Carey, to tell him the news and try to play it down, she had been told that my father’s brother had already been on the ‘phone to him to instruct him to stop any more maintenance payments to her.

Schooled in the brutal ways of showbusiness, my mother had been to great pains to minimise any panic among my father’s colleagues about his condition. My father literally lived for his work as a television director, and any sign of weakness could have ended his career on the spot. My uncle Eric, married to a woman who freely admitted in conversation that she didn’t care how my uncle got money as long as he got it, was not au fait with “the business”. My uncle used to love to visit us at Hanover Gate. He would walk around, turning my mother’s wonderful collection of objets, antiques and heirlooms over in his hands with what could only be described as yearning. A talented valuer, he had been one of a team of loss adjusters sent out to Bangkok to assess the Grand Palace’s war damage. As Eric had wandered the gold-leafed corridors of the Siamese royal residence, he realised he literally could not put a price on any of it. His wife, however, for whom he had fallen as a pretty little thing on a cosmetics counter in a department store, didn’t like “dusty old things”, so he wasn’t allowed any.

I had been told that between them, June and Eric had convinced my ailing grandmother Frances to cut my father and his family out of her Will. Family legend had it that she had signed the document whilst in extremis in her hospice, with whispers in her ears asking her just what my father had ever done for her. Her entire estate went to the already well-off Eric and June, and their three children. Having been expecting a lump sum, my father had been forced to sell his beloved Vauxhall Avenger – the only new car he’d ever owned, to pay the bills. Now it seemed his brother was finally trying to help - in all the wrong ways.

Only when Carey went up to the hospital, and was told by my father (despite the morphine) in no uncertain terms, that my uncle had no jurisdiction, that payments were to continue, and that my mother should be provided for before any other considerations, was the ban lifted. 

"A Western, did you say? Well, I assume I will be playing the Sheriff..."
The late Sir Ralph Richardson

Dad actually had a pretty good time on the opiates. All his best fantasies were blurted out daily - as fact. “Mrs Blake” one of the nurses approached shyly when next mummy and I were visiting. “Did your husband really direct ‘Gandhi’...?”

Not only had my father claimed that he, and not Sir Richard Attenborough had directed the 1982 blockbuster, he also told them he was in pre-production for a Western that was going to star Sir Ralph Richardson. I must say, it did sound great. Family friend, actor Peter Egan, went to see Dad and was told that he would have a part in the film. Peter said that even though he knew it was the drugs talking, the die-hard actor in him couldn’t help but get a little bit excited at the prospect. 
"As long as I get to play the Deputy..."
Peter Egan

In time, Dad was discharged, and came to convalesce with us – although not before he had removed all his tubes one night, calmly taken the lift to the ground floor, walked through Reception, and finally been brought down in a rugby tackle by hospital security, stark bollock naked on the Fulham Road, looking for an Off-License. Adam had moved out to a flat with his girlfriend, Catherine, so it was just the three of us.
"That nice American girl" - Madonna, c.1984

Around that time, I was working freelance as a music journalist. I had just interviewed someone called Madonna over the telephone. She was fun, and we had a lot of laughs, but I hadn’t a clue what her music sounded like. She was terribly nice about it, and had some stuff sent to me. A couple of magazine articles and a copy of her new single, “Lucky Star”. She said she would drop over to see me at the magazine offices when she was next in London and we would go for coffee. I assumed she was just being polite. Next time I went in to the office for an editorial meeting, I was told “Oh, Madonna was looking for you.” Nobody had thought to call me.

“What, that nice American girl?” Clarified my mother. “Shame.”

Following a spat with Bananarama, but not before I’d had some fun times ligging with Boy George, Hazy Fantayzee, Marilyn, Simple Minds, and ZZ-Top at Wembley, the freelance writing work dried up, I went on to work as a shop assistant in Chinatown, where I picked up passable if rather heavily Hong Kong accented Cantonese, then on to Charbonnel et Walker, the ‘By Appointment’ Chocolate shop in Old Bond Street, where I worked in the office and behind the counter serving chocolates. With my showbiz background, it was deemed unlikely I would be fazed by our customers, who included Julie Christie, Warren Beatty, and most of the coroneted heads of England. I used to enjoy processing cheques from the then Duke of Devonshire when he ordered his choccies. I loved his signature. Just “Devonshire” right across the page. One of my many jobs was to process orders from the Palace. Bespoke, naturally. Princess Diana would request special boxes into which I would tip our special chocolate covered jelly babies for the young princes William and Harry, tie on big ribbon bows, and send them to Buckingham Palace.

My mother went rather more one-up, and actually got a job there.

Nailing the job came at a price, though. At first, she failed the security check. She was angry and mystified. She wrote letters of outrage. She came from a RAF family and her uncle was a WW2 hero, earning a double DFC with bar, and the Freedom of the City of London for his record as a Squadron Leader in Bomber Command. What exactly was the problem? She questioned me and my brother. What had we been up to? My brother ended up tearfully confessing to having been arrested (but not charged) for attempted shoplifting of a 7” single from Woolworths as a schoolboy. It was pathetic. It was also completely unrelated. He confessed for nothing, as it seemed that I was probably the real culprit. When the IRA bombed the bandstand in Regent’s Park and massacred Cavalry and horses in Hyde Park, I had gone out to do my own research on the Provvies, frequenting underground rebel bookshops in Camden and Kilburn, learning all about Long Kesh, and IRA martyrs Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes. I had amassed quite a bit of Sinn Fein literature in a cache under my bed.

One evening, we received a visit from the Terrorist Squad who politely rang our doorbell and informed us they had authority to search the place as they were acting on a “tip-off” that we were an IRA bomb-making cell.

“Holy Mary Mother of God!” Exclaimed my mother at the door.

There was a pause. “Are you Irish, Mrs Blake?” Asked one of the officers, mildly.

“My great grandmother was, but I am Welsh, actually.”

We had retained strong Irish Catholic-isms (like blurting the name of the Holy Virgin) long after the family had lapsed en masse and gravitated towards the Church of England thanks to the Welsh influence and love of singing hymns. We all still crossed ourselves, genuflected and said the Hail Mary at times of stress, though. We all still had rosaries too. Mine was beautiful: a present from my grandmother - transparent blue glass beads (I still have it). My grandmother actually wore hers, along with a Miraculous Medal fastened to it with a safety pin. It had been given to her by the nuns at her convent before she was expelled for decking one of them in 1915. This was my fairy-like grandmother, Despina, my mother’s mother, the ballerina who never tipped the scales at more than 7 stone, even when pregnant. One of the nuns had jabbed her in the soft, sensitive top of her arm, so she had wheeled around and punched her out. There was a dreadful fuss, and my great grandfather had gone up to the school to present the Mother Superior with a box of chocolates and his apologies. My grandmother was thrown out anyway, so she never forgave him for grovelling to them.

With two burly policemen in the hall, and me looking ashen at the end of the corridor, my mother had to think fast.

“I am so sorry, I think you’ve been sent on a wild goose chase.” She said smoothly. “You’re more than welcome to search the place. Would you like some tea?”

“Er, no thank you, Mrs Blake,” said one, whilst the other looked like he would actually have loved a cup.

“Just one thing though...” My mother continued with a glance down the corridor at me, still rooted to the spot at the end of it. “I think my daughter would be most grateful if you left her room out of it. I am afraid it’s the subject of much aggravation around here, and we’re constantly fighting about the state of it. It’s a tip. Always has been. I have never been able to get her to tidy it.”

The two policemen looked at each other, then at my mother’s affably charming, smiling, pretty face.

“So sorry to have troubled you, Mrs Blake. It’s pretty clear we’ve been given some false information.”

Then, with a few more apologies, they took their leave, and disappeared off into the night again.

Mummy closed the door, then turned to me.

“I want every item of Irish Republican literature, every leaflet, every book, every newspaper, out of this house NOW!”

As she worked to uncover the reason as to why she had failed her Palace security check, it became apparent that this incident had never been erased from our records. She was furious. Letters were written to the Police High Commissioner, to Her Majesty the Queen, even, if I recall rightly, to His Grace the Duke of Wellington – who she had befriended, at least on paper, when she was fighting to save St Marylebone Grammar School. 

The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Eventually, their resistance crumbled, and she was rewarded with a job. One day a week, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. She was to sell catalogues to the public, and work the till in the shop when they were short-staffed. Of course, she did more than was her remit, explaining the pictures to visitors, talking knowledgeably and engagingly about Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Dyke and all the other great masters on display -  disjointing several noses among the Wardens, uniformed showmen who considered this to be their perk and their duty. My mother though, did the job better. For a start, she pronounced the name of the Vermeer painting “Lady at the Virginals” correctly, and not like a gynaecological term...

She won them all over in the end though, and she became one of the most loved members of staff. She made many friends among the young staff members, including with her boss, the lovely Julie Grist, who was the same age as me. She even got me to chum up with Julie, and we had some brilliantly girly times together for a while, but marriage and babies eventually took her away... as it did so many of my friends, as life took them forwards, whilst mine remained at Hanover Gate...

Emma Blake
August 2014

Monday, 4 August 2014

Youth Dew

The beginning of the end... "Youth Dew" by Estée Lauder. Launched 1953.

The coming of Youth Dew in 1953 put paid to perfume as we knew it. It was the end of subtlety, the death-knell of artistry and discretion. It was cheap, loud and vulgar and it blazed the trail for every cheap, loud and vulgar “fragrance” that churned through the open flood-gates for the next 30 years.

Van Ameringen, President of Ameringen-Haebler, later merged with International Flavours and Fragrances (I.F.F.) gave the formula to Estée as a present. He had been allowing her almost unlimited credit with the company, knowing she had not the money to buy for some time, and felt she needed a helping hand.

Van Ameringen kept Estée company for a while during her separation from her husband, Joe, but when Van wouldn’t leave his wife, and she subsequently re-married Joe, they remained friends.

Youth Dew was said to have been developed at I.F.F. by Ernest Shiftan known as “Mr Nose USA”, and by presenting her with this fragrance, Van Ameringen ensured Esther from Brooklyn’s future multi-million dollar empire, and the decline of subsequent modern perfumery into mediocrity.

Youth Dew, surely the most ‘icky’ name ever to be bestowed upon a fragrance (although I don’t know, White Shoulders, and Baby Soft take a bit of beating...) began life as a bath oil, and some might argue that is where it stayed, heavy, cloying, clinging to the bath and whoever was in it. That it was oil-based was significant.

The cognoscenti of the trade called it “vulgar, brassy, cloying and nauseating”. “I hate it, it’s vulgar: I wish I had a piece of it” commented Harry Doyle of Revson Inc.

No combination of carnation and patchouli has ever been known to fail, but Youth Dew went further; it removed the top and middle notes and went straight to the base. What you smelled first off was all you ever smelled. There was no ‘development’.

Just fine if it passed you by; God help you if it stopped to chat.

Americans are known for wanting everything “yesterday”, not the most patient of nations, why wait for a base to emerge? Let’s have it right off.

So it was with Youth Dew.

And Mrs Joe Public loved it.

There was a fly-spray available at the time that smelled exactly the same and which cost 7½ pence a can. Nevertheless, there was no point in wearing your ‘best French’ to a party if someone was wearing Youth Dew – you’d be sunk without trace.

Today, whole streets can smell of Opium, and Giorgio can be banned in restaurants, but in the ‘50’s it was Youth Dew.

Youth Dew which blazed the trail and hammered the last nail in the coffin.

Soft Youth Dew was practically on the stands when Yves St Laurent launched Opium. No-one could prevail against his choice of name, the Chinese in particular were deeply offended. YSL could not be budged. Opium it was, and Opium it remained, and as Opium it took off like a forest fire (inevitable – it was another carnation/patchouli combo).

Estée Lauder had 40 fits: “It’s Youth Dew with a tassel!” She yelped and renamed Soft Youth Dew so fast that some actually made the stands with the name unchanged. Most however were renamed Cinnabar and put out with a tassel.

Cinnabar was originally intended as a make-up range, a colour concept for an overall look, and the department stores were kept waiting while a frantic rejig took place.

However, at less than half the price of Opium, Cinnabar more than broke even on the stands.

The actual ingredients of Opium cost pennies rather than pounds, it is always the hard-sell publicity that bumps up the price and the launch cost so much that it is still spoken of in the trade in hushed tones.

Maja by Spanish firm Myrurgia, the prototype for both Youth Dew and Opium still comes in at a fraction of the price.

But at some time over the past 30 years, someone tumbled to the fact that a certain section of society buys perfume not for how it smells, but for what it costs.

Soon, I feel we will be back to the Romans who sold perfume for its equivalent weight in gold. And nobody can deny we’re going backwards with scents flecked with gold-dust and diamonds suspended in bottles so your money shows.

Sally Blake
Date unknown