Coffee Cup Takeover

In the early 1990s there used to be an advert on television for a high street bank, where a woeful customer claimed that they had gone into their high street bank only to find that it had changed into a “trendy wine bar”.  This advert was so naff, mainly because the word “trendy” or the words “wine bar” were already obsolete and quaint by the 1990s, but it became a phrase that you could tag on to anything. “I went into the doctor’s earlier…” said Mum.  “And it had changed into a TRENDY wine bar!”  the kids would chirrup from the back seat.  “I went into the bedroom just now…and it had changed into a TRENDY WINE BAR!”.  It was supposed to articulate the sense that the UK high street was being changed beyond recognition by the first generation of booze drinking professionals, who were intent on avoiding the pie-and-pint pub and went out to get sloshed on wine instead.  Eventually, even the banks saw the silly humour and briefly resurrected the phrase in adverts not so long ago, but twenty years ago the British high street was an innocent place indeed, if the worst thing that could have happened to you when you thought you were going into Nat West was that someone would thrust a glass of chilled Chilean Rose in your hands.

Fast forward twenty years, and we can see that it was the wine bar that died.  Entertainment venues and drinking holes are closing down constantly outside the golden cocktail circle of Inner London. But the banks are everywhere.  You can’t avoid them and, God knows, I’ve tried.  They have less customer service or face-to-face communication in order to afford more branches.  The TSB used to be the “Bank that likes to say………YES!”  but having been gobbled up by Lloyds’ astute black horse, it is now the bank that likes to say “Press 1 if you want to hear your balance.  Press 2 for standing orders.  Press 3 to continue to underwrite the UK debt of this state-sponsored institution, like everyone else….”  A lot of banks liked to say YES, actually, especially in the 1980s when you could get an Enterprise Loan for funds you could then spend on fags and holidays.  It was pretty straightfoward then.  We knew the banks were the enemy, and we understood that new and imaginative means of clawing money out of them had to be found.  But now we are surrounded by chummy, sickly banks who look like they want to get into bed with us, promising Saturday opening hours in garish posters featuring leering cashiers proffering baskets of croissants, trying to be friendly by saying “Hi!”  when you ring up to complain at them, and generally winding up every single person I have ever met in this country.   The escalation of friendliness of the UK high street bank has gone hand in hand with the limitation of money, iniability to provide debts and unhelpfulness in a time of economic austerity.  I find this sinister.

The only King that can command troops enough to shove the nauseating bank out of the way is the cunning stunt of a cafe that might be called Barstucks.  Now, if the high street bank was advertising their services today it wouldn’t mention trendy wine bars.  It would be : “I went to the bank and found some Seattle bastard shoving a pint of foamed milk at me.”  A 1980s wine bar, or a UK high street financial institution is usually too fumbling and British to have dreams of global mastery or a superiority complex, but they do their jobs very efficiently. Barstrucks wants to take over the world, has a superiority complex to rival that of Naomi Campbell, knows precisely what insiduous steps to take to push itself globally forward and does all their basic jobs badly.  It’s almost as if a European has handed them a guide for how to make coffee and they have gone through it point by point and done the opposite.   They make coffee wrong.  They cannot do the only one thing a coffee shop is ethically, financially and commercially bound to do : make a decent cup of coffee.   There is little nobility in contriving to sell the British public buckets of shite in massive paper cups that contain boiling hot beverages that taste like Nescafe mixed with boiling baby milk formula.  Neither do you ricochet off the dignity scale if you hide behind a schmear of self-congratulatory “community work” involving occasionally taking coffee mugs to old age pensioner homes whilst fronting a massive global corporate shitmonster of endemic proportions.  Beans are ethically sourced, apparently, but no one mentions the people who work for slave wages to pick them.  Why the inane desire to make people drink bitter, over-roasted, scalding, unhelpful and terribly dismal beverages?  What do they think we are?  Americans?  Why say “Hello there!” chirpily and ask how my day is going?  It creeps the populace out.  Barfucks doesn’t like me.  It has no interest in how my day is going.  It likes my money.   I’m not even going to go into the bizarre grammatical lexicon of the Barfucks barista, but I can hear Samuel Johnson turning in his grave from here.

When the department stores are burnt out and even Primark can no longer function in an economic depression, some awful, aggravating barista will still be there, green uniform behind slightly sticky pale beech counter, asking if you want an extra shot with that.  Yes,  preferably with a gun too, I’d reply, before swooping over the road and ducking into a Caffe Nero – if – that is – it has survived.   Tarbucks is the most appropriate reminder of the great homogenisation of the UK high street of the last fifteen years.  Pret a Manger doesn’t begin to be quite so offensive, although their staff are a bit creepy as well.  But Garfrucks clique-y terminology, it’s crappy “Rainforest” safe wooden slats, that dubious hole into which 100 mucky wooden coffee stirrers get dumped beside the sugar and napkin stand, the old-fashioned 1990s feel of it all, these are just a few reasons why this ‘ere Bluebird is showing Sneershucks into the Room 101 of coffee emporiums.  Do you want vanilla syrup with that?

Here is this Thursday’s Bluebird pledge :  Please can all the Cartrucks be turned into trendy wine bars?  We miss those little wine bars and their air of full filofaxes, optimism and economic resurgence.  It’s just what we need.  We don’t need to go into our coffee store and be forced to read about how they’re smugly “backing youth” and random “farmers” whilst the cafe is full of out of work people keeping warm and applying for jobs online. We want to go out and have fun and giggle alot and flick our hair about and squabble over whose turn it is to buy a round of Argentinian plonk.  Then we want to take turns to re-enact Delboy’s infamous fall through the bar routine.  It’s not a night out if no one does the “falls through a bar routine”, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  We don’t want to sit about glued to some sad old laptop, with a dreary skinny muffin and a cup of coffee that tastes like gnat’s wee.  I would give 100 lattes for Cartrucks and all its poverty of grammar to be vanquished and replaced by thousands of bars called “Julie’s” or “Ginger’s” and written in pink neon swirly writing, and which would be full of robust New World wines at old style prices.  Goodbye “Hi!  How’s your day going?” and hello “My mate saw you in the corner and I know he’s had a few -right- RIGHT – but he basically really loves ya would you like to give him your number?” Yes, it would be overbearing and sexist and slightly offensive, but not nearly as offensive and vomitworthy as Warbucks on a do-gooding rampage.  Let them become trendy wine bars. Bring on the cocktail umbrellas.  We must take steps to rid ourselves of the boring glut of  Barstrucks outlets that we have allowed to trespass into our cities, nipping small businesses and independent cafes in the bud before they have had a chance to breathe.   Indeed, anything would be better – with the possible exception of more high street banks.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Audition Blues

Once upon a time, many years ago, I auditionned in front of a theatrical panel in a room that smelt of soup.  The panel looked as upset as I did.  I was upset because somehow I had got the wrong information and turned up wearing a school uniform, plaits and plimsolls.   I should have taken the plaits out in the waiting room, but instead stared at the other auditionees, smugly, thinking how I had the advantage on them as I was the only person to have truly heeded the “School girl; RP accent; High-spirited; xylophone playing an advantage” agents’ brief.  Imagine my horror to find it was actually “The Threepenny Opera”, to be performed with deep, Weimar-Germanic intent in Bury St Edmunds.  Apparently it was school-age-ish girl, and a tragic looking German one, to boot.  I realised that it was too late to change anything about my outfit.    I didn’t even have time to remove the wire from my schoolgirl plaits, which made them stand out in large arcs either side of my head.

When I went into the room to audition all the blood drained from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face.

I wasn’t even sure what he was doing there.  The thing is he wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there, either, because he was nothing to do with Bury St Edmunds. I mean,  he had heard of it.  Probably.  His Rolls may have gorgeously oozed through it on his way to Bill Kenwright’s country estate , but it was clear after ten minutes that he was in the wrong room.  The panel was headed up by a dreary, burgundy-trousered director whose face had had all the hope and protein sucked out of it, and who had a skin tone that spoke of early morning Nescafes and Berkeley Menthol fags.  At his feet was a black canvas bag on which were loudly printed the dates of a San Francisco play tour from 1986.  He may have ventured to the States but he clearly hadn’t been to Planet Fashion.  Drainpipe burgundy jeans can work in a certain setting, but the accompanying mules were very risky for February.  He gazed at my plaits intensely. 

“Hello.  What are you doing for us today?” 

Fortunately I didn’t have to do any acting.  I just had to play the xylophone and do a song.  Being a pianist, the xylophone wasn’t a problem – off I went – banging the keys masterfully, tapping away on plimsolled-feet, plaits a-flying and generally grooving away.  The petulant Artistic Director of Bury St Edmunds must have been well impressed, because he basically just sat there with his jaw hanging.  At one point, I removed my right hand from the keyboard and clicked my fingers enthusiastically to the  beat.  It was at this point that I think Andrew Lloyd Webber realised he had a previous engagement or something, because he instantly walked out of the room, whispering eerily “Sorrymydear” on his way out.  My version of Fly Me To The Moon ended with a lovely major 7th blues chord, which I punctuated with a wiggle of the politically incorrect bottom half of my uniform. 

The silence was stunning.  Then they asked what I was going to sing.  What they wanted was Don’t Tell Mama from Cabaret or similar.  Everyone was going to sing Don’t Tell Mama or something else from Cabaret, because that was the only other German-set musical anyone’s ever heard of.   But, due to the theatrical crossed wires, I only had You Can’t Get A Man with A Gun.   I knew I was about to die a grisly, appalling theatrical death, whilst watched with vicarious vigour by Mr Burgundy Trousers and his accompanying orange lipsticked costume designer.  They wanted a nubile creature, stretching 40 denier-tightclad legs over the orange plastic rehearsal room chairs, drawling Berlin vowels about the place and trying to hump the chairs like Liza Minnelli faking an orgasm.  I was bereft.  What they were going to get was a cheery upstart from the dustbowl of the American Midwest whose only conclusion about romantic love was that if you wanted someone to kiss you, it was better not to shoot them first. It had nothing of the Teutonic ennui about tawdry Berlin life. I had no bowler hat or green nail varnish or false eyelashes.  But what I did have, unfortunately, was laryngitis.  

Singing You Can’t Get  A Man With  A Gun is a business one must dive into headfirst, with fearless guts, with crisp enunciation and a look in the eye that suggests you’ve just spotted a dustbowl on the Kansas horizon.  Admittedly, it’s tricky to pull off in the Holborn pre-fab, but by golly I gave it my best.  But singing it with laryngitis was a whole different story.  It made it evil.  As soon as I began croaking and growling through the first verse, I realised I was in deep, sinister trouble.  So I pushed myself through it,  this school-plaited idiot with hands on her hips singing about being “…out in the cactus and practising all day” in a voice that sounded like Louis Armstrong’s would, if you’d had made him sing after putting his head through a blender. Looking up, I realised the director looked strange.  In fact, he looked like he had just had some sort of stroke.  Or something.  His head slumped down to one side and a little bit of dribble came out the corner of his nicotined mouth.  Oh God, I thought whilst battling uphill belting out that “I lose all my lustre, when with a Bronco Buster!” I’ve killed him.  Watching me do this is actually fatal.   Finally – after years of dreaming of killing people like that – I’ve succeeded.  I’ve actually bumped one of the bastards off.  And it’s happening when I’m high on Sudafed.   And, unlike Annie Oakley, it turns out I didn’t even need a gun. 

I had pushed my voice so aggressively that I could feel a deep burning at the base of my throat, and I had a tense jaw with the effort of it all.  Swooping down into the main philosophy of the song, the undeniable truth that, indeed, you “can’t get a hug from a mug with a slug”, the end of the song looked like a cool, wide beautiful oasis.  When I finished, I think they were relieved as I was.  I stood, listening to my career opportunities softly sifting away.  Still, at least I wasn’t dead and dribbling onto a canvas bag which advertised a touring production of My Fair Lady.  

What should you do with a dead Artistic Director anyway?  At least the Actors Church wasn’t far away. It’s handy for funerals.  And actors tend to the predictable spiritually, hovering ominously in the half light between humanism and agnosticism.  So they’ll probably just cremate him then.  You can’t prove you’ve killed someone by singing Irving Berlin songs at them until they died after they are cremated, can you?  Can you?  Perhaps this is how I shall finally get famous, I mused.  It isn’t going to be whilst taking a bow in gold tap shoes on a first night, the tired soles of my award-winning feet cushioned by a blanket of first night pink roses. It’s going to be by the headline  Actress sings as Director keels over.  “I think the authenticity of my performance devastated him,” says North London ingenue, 26″. 

No sooner had I been enjoying this reverie of red-top scandal and notoriety than the bastard woke up, sat bolt upright and said “Can you snort like a pig?”

After the audition, I did what I usually did.  I wondered what on earth I was doing and thought about how long it would take to train as a lawyer, vetinarian, train announcer, street-cleaner, or other, more dignified, forms of employ.  Then I went home and comfort ate some spaghetti carbonara, washing down my antibiotics with a generous slug of Mount Bay Rum.  I returned to diligent work in the office as a temp the next day.  I must have been unwell in the brain because I actually did the filing.   Life was stupid : this constant merry-go-round of auditions and interviews by people who demanded I impress them whilst being so relentlessly unimpressive themselves.  Two days passed, at the end of which I returned home to an ansaphone message telling me I got the job.  I mean, I actually got the job.  I GOT THE JOB.  It turned out they liked the maturity of my voice, which was alarming.  What was I going to do when I got better and my voice changed beyond recognition?  By then I thought, I would be in dire Bury St Edmunds, smack in the middle of Britain’s soggiest, dampest county and by then they wouldn’t be able to get rid of me.

The irony wasn’t lost on me though : that the best audition I ever did was one which I turned up to in inflatable plaits, dressed like a moron, appalled an impresario and sung with a fractured voice out of tune.  Such is the business of show.  There’s no other like it.  Thank God.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Camden Time Machine

Last week I had cause to spend an evening in Camden Town.  I hadn’t spent an evening in Camden Town since the late 90s. It was therefore surreal to be out in Camden Town, where it is always 1997.

Honestly, kids, it’s like a pre-internet, pre-digital television era around there.  It’s as if the cultural clock in Camden stopped ticking the day the first episode of Sex and The City was aired.  Skinny, Britpop wannabee, middle class boys with hairstyles like ferrets cluster in T-shirted, chilly groups at the door of “The Good Mixer”, nattering in mockney vowels, as if they’re waiting for Damon Albarn to rock up and sing a chorus of Country House.  Camden Town still smells of adolescent sweat and guitar idolatry.  There is a remarkable number of flat caps, worn, no doubt, in a self-conscious, aren’t-I-lampooning-working-class-culture kind of irony, by boys whose parents pay for their education.  The bonus with all this 1990s atmostphere was that I was able to forget we were spiralling towards economic disaster and could pretend we were back in the boom years, with cheap-o mortgages for all and weird uber-super degrees for nothing.  Any longer in NW1 and I would have started voting New Labour.   The world in Camden Town knows nothing of the sardonic, overly made-up eye of Adele, or the bizarre trousers of Mr Simon Cowell, or Facebook, or the fact that Ryan Giggs is a sex pest.  It smacks deliriously of adolescent innocence, for those of my generation; those  of us old enough to remember one pound notes, but not old enough to remember the winter of discontent.  They all stalk around in black jeans,  T shirts with band names on them and are partial to that low-slung, Ben Sherman, 60s retro look for the boys.  It takes all of us of our generation back, but is that a good thing?  What was it like for a woman to live through the “glory years” of Cool Britannia, as this headline above asks?

Anyone who was an adolescent in North London in the late 1990s would have known a rash of Camden boys.  The leader in the crowd nearest to me – the ones I could see from NW6 anyway – was Henry.  Henry spent three or four nights a week smoking cigarettes in Chalk Farm Road hostelries.  He wore one of those leather jackets which were in the shape of a suit jacket and looked very 60s and he lived in a constant cloud of drone and lethargy.    No one was quite sure who he was waiting for, but there he sat, drinking in the Holstein Pils and the atmostphere, nodding his head to the band composed of people from slightly earthier backgrounds from him, dreaming of going home to a warm guitar and a Nuts poster.  It was particularly important, if you were a fan of Oasis, or The Verve to pretend to be as working class as possible.  And if that didn’t work, you had to pretend to be Northern.  Suddenly, somewhere in 1995, lower middle class boys from Hitchin were striding around Firkin pubs announcing that they loved “Ooashish!” in a broad Manchester accent.  “Oashiish!” was their favourite band.  They had no idea that most of Oashiss now lived in Belsize Park.  Instead, they marched about with that odd Liam Gallagher stride – slack kneed like a monkey, knackers thrust forward – upsetting us ladyfolk with their often voiced intention to ” ‘ave it large!” ,  “‘ave a par’y!”  (which was the word “party” said like Shaun Ryder would say it) and any enquiry as to what they were actually doing whilst they were thrusting their knackers out being twats in hostelries was met with something along the lines of “We’re gonna roll wiv it, you knoawhatimeenn?” or some such cretinous tomfoolery.  “Aving it large!” was a general collective term, which featured massive consumption of Hooch and Two Dogs and then a pharmaceutical interlude, during which they aimed to disprove The Verve’s theory that the drugs didn’t work.  They drugs for them, did work, although it was only fairly mild stuff in those days.  The spliff was king, and they used to construct enormous spliffs that tended to promptly fall apart as soon as you started to smoke them, because none of these boys really knew how to roll one.  Occasionally, long monologues would appear – about smoking banana leaves, or that amazing time they once had when their mum was out and they smoked tea leaves.  Yorkshire Tea, obviously – it’s Northern.  None of that Twinings English Breakfast southern crap.  Then they’d put some Supergrass on, play Jenga and pass out.   The North was this glittering centre of mid-1990s cool.  The boys would sit in male-only groups in pubs, pointing their cigarettes in the air whilst singing “Champagne Supernova” and gazing at each other in Converse-trainered man love.   This was Britpop?  This complete non-movement whose only sartorial legacy to the nation was a revival of the Quadrophenia T shirt?  Oh, shove it.

I don’t suppose I have ever forgiven Britpop for totally destroying my sex life.   Camden is to 1995 what Seattle was to 1992, what Manchester was to 1989 and what Mr Blobby was to 1993″ smugly declared the Melody Maker.   Yeah.  Thanks for that, Melody Maker.  I should have realized that any cultural movement compared to Mr Blobby was bound to be a real sexual low patch.   Remember, dear, wet-eyed, nubile teens – these were the days before the return of the high heel as a power symbol, before vibrators were available at every corner pharmacy, and a time when feminine glamour or a make up would identify you as a disco dolly, rather than a Britpop friendly ladette.  If you wanted to hang out with the boys you had to dress like an out of work plumber.     The whole scene was highly unimaginative and very unsexy.  I had the wrong look, the wrong shape, a limited alcohol tolerance, and coming from a family of musicians I had absolutely no desire to sit about in pubs and listen to boys who couldn’t really play anything tell me how a chord was constructed.    I soon realised that if I wanted to sleep with the only 4 straight men in my year at drama school, I would have to dress like Noel Gallagher or, at a pinch, his mother Peggy. No one I knew actually wanted to have sex with a bloke who imitated a monkey in the pub on a nightly basis and wanted to pretend he’d grown up in Stretford, but we didn’t seem to have a choice.    Mainly, these fellows were lower middle class chaps from Northampton or Warwick.  Both of these towns they would, of course, stridently state were in the North.   This place, this disastrous combination of New Lads and Old Ideas, was our dating pool.  And it stank.  

This whole movement felt exclusively male.  Oddly, so did the girls these kind of Camden boys tried to sleep with.   The girls they thought sexy were almost always in possession of an asymmetrical blonde bob,no make up, small breasts, large silver chunky jewellery (why?), black jeans and a T shirt with a logo on it.  Preferably, the whole look would be topped off with some dreary Union Jack bunting stapled on it somewhere (probably on the bit where a cleavage should have been).  Sometimes these girls would wear plimsolls that looked like Green Flash from the 1980s.  It wasn’t a look that worked for short girls.  They would chat about bands.  They looked like boys.  All of these girls really fancied Damon Albarn of course, with his lovely Colchester-blue eyes.  They secretly suspected he had deep artistic depths that would make him dynamite in the sack, but they were unable to admit this to the Oasis-loving simians because Albarn was thought by them to be a soft Southerner and a middle class twat.   These women always had to have an innate talent for “‘aving it large” as well, which meant that sexual attraction was judged on how much Budweiser you could vomit up whilst listening to Suede’s “Animal Nitrate” and whether you knew anyone who had tickets for Knebworth.  Then they would have to go back to someone’s groggy flat and listen to CDs for three hours whilst drinking tea, in the hope that someone might break off from a riff about a guitar solo and actually bother to try to get off with them.  Usually, I’d fall asleep first.  But, hey, I enjoyed the tea.

As the 1990s dragged itself on in one long whining guitar solo, our generation of unusually politically apathetic guitar heroes were absorbed in the mire of Camden Town.  Camden Town was so strongly identified by this scene that it appears incapable of evolving further.  Last Sunday night, the gig I went to (which wasn’t in the least 1990s or 60s retro guitar, or featured anyone from The Verve) I was in a room full of young, 20-something shoegazers.  The women there appear to be also stuck in 1997, devoid of modernity or splendour or glamour and looking thoroughly mundane.  Somewhere in the distance, amongst the pints of cider and the black parka coats, were the older tribe, those of my generation, still hanging in there.  Perhaps Henry was amongst them, somewhere in those hordes of silently nodding, beer-clasping, pale-faced, round eyed white boys.  However, I doubt Henry was, as rumour has it he’s a quantity surveyor in Cirencester.  But perhaps, on a bank holiday weekend, he can sweep up to town on the train, hop on to the Northern Line and return to the scene of the crime, so intent on shoe-gazing that the rest of us can’t recognise him.

Frankly, I’d rather eat a bathmat than be made to live through that codswallop again.  Yes, Oasis were great – for about 18 months.  Yes – it is quite fun for a girl to pretend to be a boy who likes girls who do boys like they’re girls who like girls (or something) but if a girl has to dress like a drummer from Accrington in order to get laid whilst negating her own femininity, something’s gone very wrong in the shady arena of sexual politics.   The thrilling, teenager-y avenue of Parkway.  Lovely for an evening, but you wouldn’t want to spend a decade there.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Manners

I have been rereading the excellent The Perfect Summer : Dancing into Shadow England in 1911 by Judith Nicolson, for the second time.  Ms Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and from the fragrant confines of Sissinghurst, she is able to draw on all kinds of personal info from Great Aunt this and Great Grandmama that on all things decadent and Edwardian.  Her acknowledgements page features the kind of very grand characters who the Mitfords would have known.  This is a fine history book, mainly because it divorces itself from the canon of history books by actually being readable.  It focuses on six individuals from various slots in the strata of the English class system and tells the story of a nation at a time of a glorious, over-hot, decidedly poignant summer, cripplingly held on the brink of imminent disaster, when the world of Edwardian England is about to be blasted to smithereens by the trench warfare of the First World War.

One of the delightful debutantes towards which Ms Nicolson casts her tidy pen is Lady Diana Manners [pictured above],later Lady Diana Cooper: fashionista, cloche hat wearer, Vogue powerhouse, Slade Art School attendee and general Edwardian It Girl.  As well as being something of a modernist loon by Edwardian standards, painting her bedroom at Belvoir Castle black, practising boxing daily and sniffing ‘chloro’ (chloroform) for high jinks amongst her high class Edwardian coterie, Lady D Manners “comes out” in the book.  Now, Ms Nicolson doesn’t of course mean coming out in her grandmother Vita Sackville-West’s meaning of the phrase, because there appears to be nothing remotely Sapphic about Lady M.  She was far too busy winning costume balls and wearing double layers of crimson lipstick for any lesbian activity.  No. Lady DM was part of that unfortunate racket that was compulsory for ladies of her class and era : The Season.  During one’s first season you were pushing your marriageability if you didn’t get a proposal.  Lady DM feared that the ostrich feathers she was forced to wear for Royal presentation would make her look faintly ridiculous.  This was before she took into account that everyone wearing Edwardian high class fashion looked like a cross between a stuffed fabric cushion and a drunk giraffe.  By one’s second season, matronly eyebrows of maiden aunts were raised slightly : you were desperate for a proposal by one’s second season but had to appear not desperate.  By the third, it was India or spinsterhood, and no one ever quite agreed which was worse.  Lady M didn’t have any of that, of course.  She was too busy designing Russian-inspired dresses with fur lining whilst sitting in draughty corners of Berkeley Square dances or rocking up to the ancestral pile to get pissed with young fey chaps called Kim.  The supper menus for these Edwardian balls for the Season never varied.  They featured an alarming amount of hothouse peaches and strawberries, soup (hot and cold) and oysters and lobsters.   It was a kind of Carole Middleton-friendly menu, bereft of carbohydrates and excitement.  At one costumed ball, Lady M won 250 guineas for her fancy dress costume – which, Nicolson points out, was the equivalent of five years’ income for a labourer at the time.  Lady M planned to spend the money on books.  Devonshire House was a key site for all things Season.  It is now the home of Iran Air, as Devonshire House, including its 3 acre garden housing the Duke of Devonshire’s personal tennis court, was  mown down in Piccadilly in 1935.   Iran Air is a particularly dispiriting office featuring sloppy grey furniture with holes in and a window which appears to have never known a windowcleaner.  You would find it nigh impossible to imagine a 1911 upper class toff  rolling cherry brandy cocktails around his delightfully plummy mouth, surrounded by rose bushes filled with pink electric lights in the hazy garden and then gamely making a tremulent pass at Georgiana in the corner to whip her round the dancefloor to Alexanders Ragtime Band.  I don’t think anyone’s tried that in the offices of Iran Air.

The great thing about Nicolson is that she is a splendid storyteller as well as a well-informed historian – if only she referenced her books, we would be able to find out where she has trawled through stacks of books to find her information  – and she also has the canny eye for the personal feelings of her characters, although perhaps here she takes a liberty better suited to the writer of fiction, to state how Queen Mary was feeling at a given time, and to furnish this book with a huge amount of inner feelings of people who she cannot have met, unless she is 140 years old.  The effect of this, of zooming down through the telescope of historical context to a small, plaintive, individual detail, is smashing for the reader, and presents a series of heartbreaking snapshots that tell more about a moment than a paragraph of dry socio-economic detail could :  the choirboy’s mis-spelt name on his Coronation entry card, the smell of the Blenheim footman’s powdered hair, the luscious breakfast in the mornings at Belvoir Castle, with red flags signalling the Indian tea pot and a yellow flag for the Chinese tea, the filth and stench of Hyde Park Corner, with its combination of deisel fumes and horse manure as the motorcar takes hold and the lady of means in the back of the car pokes the neck of her driver with her parasol to indicate which route to take, the nerves of the ballet dancer Nijinski, evident in the twisting of his thumbs and fingers at Richmond tea parties, the loneliness and sexual isolation of the poet Siegfried Sassoon through the long Kentish summer and – perhaps rendered the most futile vision by the facts that followed – the garden of The Old Vicarage at Grantchester, littered all summer with books of the poetry writings of its lodger, Rupert Brooke, the pages gently fluttering in the occasional, peaceful summer breezes.  Perhaps among those books, was his poem, The Soldier, published the following year, the famous opening of which “If I should die, think only this of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England…” banging on about the nobility of being of English matter in an eternally English earth and dying for war.  It took The First World War only eight months to claim Brooke.  His was an ignoble death of sepsis from an infected mosquito wound on a lonely Greek island.  One wonders what he must have thought of England then.

I am mainly re-reading this quite gorgeous book in order to fall into Nicolson’s next : The Great Silence : 1918 – 1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War.  Now, that one is really going to be great.  It is going to thoroughly depress me.  The great sweep of Edwardian niceties destroyed by the war, the shell shock, the return home, the black-edged telegrams of notifications of death, the dead poets, and the irretrievably lost England. Goodbye To All That. Jeez.  I’ll be lucky to make it to Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties.  That’s where I am going next (if I don’t end up in Post-Great War Therapy first).  After being depressed and upset following the detritus and flotsam and jetsam left in the wake of a great catastrophe I am going to cheer myself up by reading about means testing and economic depression and Orwellian urban poverty.  Honestly,  History books rock.  And, should I survive the major onslaught of margarine, trench foot, poverty and terror that is the early twentieth century, I shall presently be rolling out the barrel with another of Gardiner’s fruitiest, The Blitz: The British Under Attack.  Whatever I do read about the twentieth century, I certainly shall not be reading anything about The Titanic.  If I read any article, view any miniseries or catch the self-satisfied smug smile of the Winslet from a national newspaper again in the next three weeks I shall scream.  I think the low point was in last Sunday’s The Observer, which, for reasons only connected to mawkish commercialism, enclosed an A1 size ship plan, replete with third class dining saloons, drawing of promenade decks, snapshots of the Captain and a picture of the iceberg.  It sank.  I get it.  Tons of ships sink because of idiots who don’t read ice warnings.  Why are we always reading about this one?  Who gives a crap whether Lady GnarFnar and Lord FnarGnar of the Ostentatious Rifles Regiment survived or whether there was apple cake for dessert in second class or whether Leonardo di Caprio shagged Kate Winslet whilst pretending to “paint her portrait”?  An entire section of my local Waterstones is devoted to Titanicism.  We have menus from the Titanic, drawings of people who may or may not once have seen the Titanic, books about people who have been seen discussing Titanic at bus stops, information on floral displays within the Titanic and instructions for Titanic cocktails which, I can only imagine, include an awful lot of ice.

Avoid the ship that wasn’t in shipshape shape.  Head for the History drawer and collect either of Judith Nicolson’s, for an intimate portrayal of country first in grandeur and then in trauma, which is made real and accessible by the articulation of personal impact on a series of real individuals.  Yes, there is an awful lot of info that Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire  and similar high born peeresses probably gifted to Nicolson over  steaming tea and Chatsworth crumpets, but this kind of verbal history dies with its speaker unless someone crystallizes it and writes it all down, and there is no one better to tell us about history than the people who made it.  Nicolson’s books are gems.  Anyone who is interested in the first twenty years of the last century and the world that shaped our grandparents will find them touching, fascinating and brilliantly written, as the effects of the national and the political are effectively distilled into the personal.  The history is in the detail.  These are wonderfully evocative books, ones I found strangely compelling.   Go and read them.

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