Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Practical Woman

No matter how many times you caught them at it, and yelled, and clapped hands, and chased them out of the dining room, successive generations of cats had literally shredded my mother’s beautiful Chesterfield sofa.

She decided to get it recovered, but when she discovered how much this was likely to cost, she pulled out her old Reader’s Digest book on how to do just about everything, and reupholstered it herself. It took her about a week or so.

She found some brocade and got to work. It was transformed. Magnificent. A professional upholsterer could not have done a better job.
Me on the famous Chesterfield. Hanover Gate, c.1988 - Pic Gerald Blake

But it was not the sort of covering the sofa had been expecting. It was supposed to be leather. It was supposed to live in a stately home, or at a Gentlemen’s Club in St James’. Instead, it was covered in a capricious dark green and blue brocade, bulleted with buttons meticulously covered in the same fabric, and found itself next to a space-age 1970s white formica and glass ‘occasional’ table piled high with copies of 1950s Vogue. Our gracious Edwardian flat was a mass of contradictions. In the drawing room, the mantelpiece was covered in the sort of antique fripperies one might find in a Victorian parlour: two domed bisque figures (a gentleman and lady in Regency garb) at either end, a Meissen dog figurine snuggled with a cheap sixpenny china puppy with glittering green eyes (that I had bought at the seaside so Meissen Dog could have a friend), shoved up next to an early 19th Century black French slate clock, beneath a gold leafed Victorian fish-eye mirror crowned by the figure of an eagle with a ball suspended from its beak. The original ball had long since dropped off, but a little toy ball from my dolls’ house, painted gold with some of my brother’s Airfix enamels did the job just as well. It was “alright from the front”, as my mother was fond of saying, echoing a phrase from the theatre that meant that a prop or a set looked fine if you didn’t get closer than the front stalls.

This magnificent display presided over a scene that included a knackered gas fire (circa 1972), a cheap denim covered 3-piece suite, a violent pink Casa Pupo rug with half the tassels torn off by successive cats playing “the carpet game”, a Heal’s coffee table, and what had been a top of the range television for its time (a gift to my father from the BBC), that had since decided that whatever button pushed would bear no relation whatsoever to which channel actually showed up on the screen.

In the entrance hall, a gigantic mahogany and mirrored overmantle was somehow bolted to the wall above the telephone bookstand on which stood a vase full of mummy’s enormous, crazy, tissue paper poppies, whilst a harmonium with collapsed bellowes stood in the corner. You could pull out the stops and bash away like mad, but all you would get was a long, low E flat. It provided a handy surface for books and hats, however, and had a little compartment above the keyboard in which to store gloves.

I learned early on however, that this was not a house into which I should take anyone whom I did not completely trust, and certainly nobody from a ‘normal’ background.

When I invited a gaggle of the girls from my class at school over for tea, they wandered from room to room in gaping awe. I felt less like a host than a tour guide. My two best school friends at the time, Jenny and Gillian were polite and respectful, and delighted in it all, but others in the group went back to school the next day full of scorn, sneering that “Emma lives in an old junk yard.” Not for these modern misses antiquities, curios, or “old furniture” like a recovered Chesterfield or a perfectly round Walnut table “how do you have dinner at it?” (you don’t, you play cards...). The dust was also mentioned. Living sandwiched been the busy Park Road, the mouth of the main artery to the North, and Marylebone Station, it was a labour of Hercules to keep on top of the dust. It got everywhere. As did cat hair.

Later on, I introduced my first serious boyfriend into all this. He was a respectable young businessman I had met when I was working at Charbonnel et Walker. Sadly allergic to dust and cats, he tried his best to muck in with it all, but ended up simply fetching and depositing me for our jollies together.  

When I was 17, Mummy had given me a bottle of Caron’s Tabac Blond. It became absolutely my signature scent. My boyfriend however loathed it. “That old woman’s smell” he called it. This was the scent that had sent my father into paroxysms of rapture when he had woken up wondering what film star he was in bed with having been sprayed by my mother with some on one of his visits. A glorious scent, created by Ernest Daltroff in 1919 and worn by screen legend Mary Morris before me.
Mary Morris. Tabac Blond was good enough for her anyway...

My usually laid-back, don’t-interfere, and mind-you-own brother was appalled. “If you smelled of Dettol, he should love it because it would be YOUR smell” he told me (a wise 27 he was at the time).

In spite of this, I changed my scent. I started to experiment with others more to my then fiancĂ©’s taste. He bought me a bottle of YSL’s Paris when we were in the South of France, following up with Opium for the evening. They were lovely scents, but there was a part of me that hated wearing something I knew millions of other women wore.  The exclusivity of wearing an old Caron or Chanel was something I never ceased to crave.

Somewhere around this time, Mummy had made friends with a young Persian boy called Shah who ran a vintage stall in Alfie’s Antiques Market on Lisson Grove, and he had found her a three bottle Chanel sampler from the 1950s. It contained 15ml bottles of Cuir de Russie, Gardenia and Bois des Isles. I fell madly in love with Gardenia, so when my Godmother passed away and left me some money, Mummy and I glammed up, and went to the Chanel boutique on Old Bond Street to buy some.
Not a bad consolation prize. Chanel 22...

We were devastated to find they had altered the recipe into something completely unrecognisable. Not only as Chanel’s Gardenia, but as any sort of Gardenia. What had been an utter song of a scent was now a clanging cacophony of synthetic and stomach turning stink. Desperately disappointed, I settled on a 30ml bottle of No 22 parfum instead. We retired to Richoux for tea, cheering ourselves up with some scones and Darjeeling, and a dab on our respective wrists of the 22, before getting on the number 13 bus back to Hanover Gate.

We didn’t realise it then, but it would be one of the last of such outings for us.

Emma Blake
October 2014 

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