Archive | February 2014

Thumbnail sketches – 1950: Hebrew, motzas and ‘Brown Boots’

Banned from my boy-friend’s flat wasn’t good news…So, what happened next? Once I’d recovered from the shock, I mulled things over. Not having committed any crime I was aware of – except for casting covetous eyes on my ‘significant other’ – I tried putting things into perspective. It wasn’t easy, but being young, besotted and optimistic, we continued enjoying each others company, despite overheard whispers like: “It‘s doomed – she’s a shiksa!” and “Mixed marriages never work…” Of course, not everyone thought that way, and a dear lady: Clara Fresco (her son Ruben was Eric’s friend) welcomed us to their fold. ‘Clara’ was a good cook and introduced me to chopped chicken livers, egg and onion, matzo-brown, chicken soup (a must!), salt beef, fishy dishes, plava and apple strudel – Yummy! (Must have a drop of Jewish blood as I love food!)

Meanwhile, there were livings to be earned. In 1949, I ‘pounded the keys’ for ABC (Associated British Cinemas) in Golden Square, London – best friend Sheila Devo worked there and suggested the interview. I became junior secretary to a Mr. Spalding: an attractive, egotistical man at least twice my age. At the grand Christmas ‘Ball’ he danced with me: holding me too close – I held my ground – as, next danced with the new, very shy actor Richard Todd. Imagine! Wow! Heady stuff for a teenager. Back in the office, the next day, my boss manoeuvred me into a broom cupboard and tried to get his hand in my knickers and worse… You, you…cad! I yelled, battling with a mop and bucket to escape from his clutches: crimson, but with my virginity intact. I left in disgust (no law-suits then!) and secured a post as a junior s/t with a well established firm of solicitors Wilde Sapte in the city. I recall it with affection, for Mr Sapte was a dear man.. Vertically challenged, genial, and balding, he had a penchant for sucking an empty pipe. When speaking, he would stand and rock backwards and forwards: stretching on the forward roll to elevate his height. (Shades of newspaper cartoon character Mr. Bristow). His manner was friendly, unlike male secretary, Mr Marvin’s – whom I grew to dislike intensely. Physically, he was small-boned: scrawny-necked as a vulture, fair-haired, with bum-fluff on his chin. When summoned to attend Mr Sapte, he appeared with the speed of a rocket, rubbed his hands in an ingratiating manner like Dickens’ Uriah Heap, and sometimes fell over his own feet in his eagerness to open doors for his boss. I, however, was treated like something on the bottom of his shoe…He was an obnoxious little man; while Miss Pigg (truly) – Mr Sapte’s female secretary – a confirmed Ms – tall, angular and rather unfeminine – was patient and pleasant. I ‘deciphered’ and typed up court notes and Wills – fascinating stuff. However, having grown weary of Mr Marvin’s disdain and attitude, I left to work temporarily for an agency; eventually plumping for a secretarial role for the American Philip Morris cigarette company in Soho. What an eye opener!! At seventeen, I peeped into the dingy window of prostitution. In Soho and down to Piccadilly, they came out of the woodwork! Their mode of dress varied: ‘tarty’ or ‘mock-lady-like elegance.’ Fascinated, I ear-wigged their ‘chat-up’ lines on my way home from work: “’Allo darlin’, fancy a good time!” was popular, or “’Allo ‘andsome, not in a ‘urry are yer?”(The high-class ones were in Mayfair!) Many a bowler-hatted, pin–stripe-suited man, peered furtively around before succumbing to an offer….It was somehow decadent and exciting at the same time. Low-life lessons writ large!

Meanwhile, I had a future mother-in-law to humour?! Not easy…She suggested in a ramblng letter that I was a gold-digger (?!) …and commented that my dear father probably wore ‘brown boots’ (an insult!) His succinct reply had her flummoxed…But then: malleable and idealistic, I started learning Hebrew (parrot fashion) and attending synagogue – and gradually – she thawed.

 More to follow…  

Thumbnail sketches – 1950: a ‘shiksa’ in the family!*

Much of consequence happened in 1950…On the ‘world stage’ the Empire started breaking up (30% of the globe) including India, Pakistan and Rhodesia. Great strides were made in communication and medicine. The first Credit Card was introduced, and more importantly: the first organ transplant carried out. South Korea attacked North Korea; China moved into Tibet (didn’t anyone want to play in their own back yards any more?!).

More relevant to me – being a typical, selfish teenager – the West End of London was more alluring: bright lights, theatrical shows and dance halls beckoned (welcome after the war blackout ) and FOOD, although still rationed, was more plentiful and varied, and boy did I enjoy eating it!

When Spring arrived (my favourite season: rebirth and all that), our garden was golden with daffodils, narcissi and forsythia in bloom. I visited the Café de Paris in London (a first with a friend), and who should I see striding towards me but Eric! Surprised and elevated, I felt his firm hand under my elbow as he led me to a table. “I’m not letting you escape this time!” he said; I had no intention of doing so.

During that year, we strolled along the Embankment (stopping to ‘smooch’ now and then in the nearby gardens); explored Petticoat Lane, eating bagels stuffed with cream cheese and smoked salmon (oh the luxury); and nearly expired with ecstasy consuming salt beef sandwiches in a small café. (Having to eat mainly Spam, ropey sausages, ‘awful offal’ and only one shilling and two pence-worth of meat a week for years, you can understand why!) The café was opposite ‘The Windmill’ theatre: “we never close!” It was amusing watching from our stools men sidling into the Windmill; Within, ‘semi-nude-women’ stood around like statues, and were not – by law – allowed to move. We window-shopped, for once earlier near empty, damaged (or absent!) windows displayed more ‘goodies’. Life was rosier after the utilitarian years! Excitement mounted at sight of the fashions: full, rustling skirts with generous petticoats, pretty peplumed tops and dresses (many made their clothes out of old curtains in the war.) Yep, it was a time for celebration.

Apart from ‘cuttin’ a rug’ in the Lyceum, Hammersmith Palace, The 100 Club, etc., we went to the cartoon theatre, and the ‘pictures’, frequented ‘Musical Coffee! Cafés’ (new, American and desirable) and visited each other’s homes. My mother also fell for Eric’s charms – as I guessed she might – and decades later, after she died – he said: “Meeting your Mum clinched it for me you know. I thought if you grow old to be like her, I’ll be more than happy.” That really choked me up. My father’s reaction to my new beau was more muted but they got along well enough, and my three brothers eyed him with suspicion until he bought them sweets, chocolates, and comics for my youngest brother Royce. Having heard that “Jews are mean and money grabbing!” Eric’s kindness and generosity knocked that assumption for six. I had never met anyone as thoughtful and romantic (decades later, he still is!) Before you stick your fingers down your throats, he’s no ‘push-over’ and doesn’t suffer fools gladly; but then I always liked strong men.

But – isn’t there, too often, a but – although I was at first greeted with friendly smiles by Eric’s two sisters: Kitty the eldest, jolly and equable; Laura the youngest: pretty as a picture, and sweet natured; and Eric’s mother Jennie, it didn’t last when our relationship grew serious. His sisters were fine, but his mother had different ideas for her only son! Out of respect, I will only say that I was banned from their flat for six months (in no uncertain manner!)…After all, what Jewish mother would want a ‘shiksa’ in the family?!

* Shiksa – a rather disparaging yiddish term applied to a non-Jewish girl or woman