Well the Summer break is over. Fun was duly had by all. Blackwell’s ‘Writers at the Fringe’ event went well. Time to get back to work. There’s lots to do. I started last week at the Kinross Thursday group and the Westwoods Book Group. Enjoyable evenings, interesting ladies to speak to and some great questions posed. Just what I like. Luckily, there seems to be more of these events lined up over the coming months. Bring it on.
Otherwise I’ve got lots of writing to do. Book 2 has been submitted to the publisher-Comely Bank Publishing- and I expect to be doing my ‘corrections’ as they emerge from the copy editing and proof reading stages. Then there will be cover design to think about and all the various aspects of book production that readers don’t think about. I know I never did until my best selling novel ‘Our Best Attention.’
My other writing has been short stories for a certain ladies weekly story magazine published in Scotland. Guess which one? This has been a most enjoyable foray away from Murrays although the popular ‘Tea room ladies’ feature in two of them. I couldn’t help myself!
Next outing is as part of the ‘Edinburgh Tales’ series at the Edinburgh Central Library on 21st September. I’ll be talking about the book but also remembering the wonderful department store which was the inspiration for the setting of ‘Our Best Attention.’ Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look on it all the tickets were snapped up weeks ago.
Fashion was always a priority for ladies at Murrays of Edinburgh, department store of distinction. Various departments catered for different aspects of this from Lingerie and Corsetry to that holy of holies -Model Gowns with all varieties in between from Swimwear to Outdoor Clothing and even, for an unfortunate time, Furs.
In my best selling book , ‘Our Best Attention’, Mr Da Costa, the straight talking star of Model Gowns, dresses down Edinburgh ladies before dressing them up again in outfits that do them more justice than those they might have chosen for themselves. In the end the ladies actually revel in his rudeness and vie to be most insulted by him.
Of course this is just a story but reality can be surprising too. In the course of my author events I’ve enjoyed hearing ladies’ experiences of their time working or as customers in the old department stores. One lady told us all about how her grandmother was a model. This meant something different in those days: ladies didn’t try on clothes themselves, they would sit and watch as models paraded the clothes for them and those they chose would be made up for them in their sizes. No changing rooms for the ladies of old! In that particular store, the sewing rooms were located as far as possible from the kitchens to prevent contamination of the precious garments by cooking smells even those from the chocolate kitchen (yes there was one!) Those were the days!
Well who’d have thought it? Not me anyway. I just wrote the stories as stories. However, at a recent author event where the reminiscences came thick and fast from the audience, it was pointed out that ‘Our Best Attention,’ my novel set in a department store in the 1970s, was social history.
The book described a setting, a staff group and customers that are now, sadly, long gone. The loss of the whole ethos of service to customers and care for and about staff seems to have disappeared almost without trace in our modern world of minimum wage, zero hours contracts and, of course the internet.
Specific aspects of the book were pointed out to me. For example, the legion of ladies left without potential husbands after the first world war: no families, children or grandchildren for them. So sad. Miss McPherson in the chapter, “The Bequest,” is really a tribute to these often very kindly women. The concept of “Model Gowns,” the unquestioning ubiquity of a “Furs” department, and the employment of war disabled staff have all disappeared. No one starts their “wedding china” off any more with the hope of adding to it throughout a long married life. Can staff members simply arrange for a family member to be employed these days? Mrs Da Costa could in “The Square Peg” and Mr Soames did in “Operation Limelight”. Even the language has changed: no one is asked to “Come forward Miss Glover” as in “Storm in the Teacups” or even to always refer to each other so formally as always to use surnames.
Life for staff in department stores of the past was very different from now. At the time of the 1892 fire in Jenners store in Edinburgh, Scotland (one of the stores which were the inspiration for the setting of ‘Our Best Attention’ my bestselling novel), 120 staff lived on the premises. On the third and fourth floors were the bedrooms for lady assistants along with Reading and Drawing Rooms. The young men had rooms on the fifth and sixth floors with a spacious Reading Room and a splendid Smoking Room en suite. There was a manager for this accommodation who occupied a suite of apartments on the third floor. As time moved on, and space was required for expansion of the business, any staff requiring accommodation were moved to a spacious hostel purchased by the company until only a handful remained and other accommodation was found for them.
As late as the 1930s there were clear standards for staff to maintain. Dress was a matter for female staff to provide for themselves but this had to adhere to a set style and hem length. Male staff were issued with a box of 12 starched collars: six to last the week and six to be sent to the laundry. They were expected to work long hours-almost a 12 hour day in some cases but there was fun too.
Despite the hard work, staff could join a wide variety of leisure activities. There was a golf club, a tennis club and a dramatic club. Shakespearean plays were performed in the gardens of Charles Jenners’ house at Duddingston.
It’s hard to imagine the all-encompassing nature of employment in such a department store in these days of self service and automatic checkout systems and, of course, internet shopping. For staff in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, our modern way of shopping life would have been every bit as unimaginable!
(Information from ‘Jenners: A Short History 1838-1988 and from ladies attending author events)
One of the most popular chapters in the book “Our Best Attention” is set in the Tea Room of a large department store and concerns the nefarious activities of a group of Edinburgh ladies. People are always asking about the ‘Tea Room Ladies’ and whether they will reappear in book 2. Well, the short answer is that, yes, they most certainly will. This is due partly to my enjoying writing about this particular set of ladies, and partly because I love Tea Rooms! I always have.
At a recent author event, a former employee of a certain large department store brought me in all sorts of memorabilia. This included information about the restaurants and tea rooms there. Well it was a goldmine for me!
An 1895 advertisement for the “Luncheon and Tea Rooms,” a novel feature of Edinburgh life, described them as having, “everything served in first class style at moderate prices.” The elegant mezzanine floor with a gallery was treated in Alhambra style and decorated in cream and gold. A Writing Room, “fitted with every requisite for Ladies,” was immediately beside the Luncheon and Tea room and beside that a cloakroom where, “ladies may leave their wraps or have parcels addressed to them from other shops in town.”
All was clearly well for the ladies of Edinburgh. However, things weren’t too bad for the staff either. One irresistible fact I discovered was that staff could opt to have meals included as part of their pay. “Those who did ate lavishly and without restriction. A man was employed solely to carve the joints which were served to the staff. This was his only task and was a full time occupation.”
A happy staff then to provide the advertised, “refined service of the dainty and varied meals.”
Fish Suppers? In a Library? Well yes. That was the invitation from dynamic Diane Yule of Ratho library near Edinburgh Scotland. I was asked to join the ladies (and gentleman) of the ‘Book and a Blether’ group who regularly meet for a fish supper followed by a talk or a discussion about a book. This week the ‘event’ was me coming to talk about my bestselling novel, ‘Our Best Attention’. After the consumption of the fishy feast, some others joined us and I did my usual thing. This time it was enlivened by the contributions of a local lady who had brought along some memorabilia of a certain posh Edinburgh department store.
The evening went with a swing and I left feeling very optimistic about the future of libraries. If they are all such cheerful and busy parts of the community their days are not over. Phew!
The Fife Farm Women’s Club: did you ever see a picture of such a cheerful group of ladies? I actually wanted to take this picture to try to capture the lovely, friendly, happy atmosphere in the room. My photography skills are vestigial, to say the least, and the ladies to one side of the room couldn’t fit in to the picture. It was very encouraging to see such a good turn out at this time of year. Several apologies had been given by members too busy with lambing to attend this month but others had come from near and far.
I talked as usual about my book “Our Best Attention” and we had plenty of laughs throughout the course of the evening. I have to say that this has been my experience at all of the author events I’ve been involved with. There’s something about ladies/women coming together to share a good blether with a visiting speaker as a pretext. This sort of thing goes quietly on all over the country and is never remarked upon. Well I’m remarking. Its time that the general sense of well being generated by such events is recognised and celebrated. Thank you ladies. I’m looking forward to next week’s events- Howgate WI and the Gransnet conference here I come.