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A Lost Way of Life?

1930s shopLife 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)

Tea Rooms -Fact and Fiction!

 

Tea RoomOne 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.”

Those were the days!

 

Fish Suppers? In a Library?

Ratho Library 1

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!

Our Best Attention in Fife!

Fife Farm Women 1

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.

Our Best Attention- Bestseller!

Hunter at Blackwells

A young fan indicates his favourite book!

It is absolutely incredible to me that my little book, ‘Our Best Attention,’ about the people who work and shop in an old fashioned Edinburgh department store in the 1970s should be a Scottish bestseller!  Yet it is. It still is now three months after its launch. We’re just about to go into its third reprint. A big thanks to all the readers who have made this possible and whose continuing interest spurs me on to complete Book 2.

Anyone wanting a copy is particularly advised to buy it from Blackwells Bookshop whose  interest and support has been much appreciated. ‘Our Best Attention’ can, of course, be obtained via any good bookshop, directly from  the wonderful Comely Bank Publishing  or from Amazon.

A Look to the Future?

BinocularsIts all go at Murray’s -department store of distinction. Book 2 is well under way. For readers keen to find out how our various friends among the staff and customers are getting on here’s a wee peep into the future.

Miss Murray and Mrs Pegram go on holiday: will it turn out to be a busman’s one?  Difficult  Mr Da Costa from Model Gowns finds a fine romance. The Tea Room ladies get up to more (barely legal) tricks and Barry Hughes, head of security, continues much as usual and struggles to get to the bottom of another crime potentially affecting the entire future of the shop.

Some new characters turn up in different departments and we meet the first winner of the “Margaret Murray Prize for Staff Initiative.” There’s an afternoon at the staff garden party at Rosehill and a few surprising arrivals- not all two legged ones.

The store itself is under scrutiny by a documentary crew. The final outcome is a surprise for someone: Murrays serves a good helping of ‘come uppance’ for one deserving person.

Until Book 2 is published there will be the occasional short story here to keep people up to date with developments in the best store in Edinburgh.

Jock’s Instant Sunshine

 There was no doubt about it. It had been a miserable start to the year. The city had been swathed in clouds for months and a thin miserable drizzle had kept people indoors unless they really had to go out. Takings were down at Murrays –department store of distinction in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Now things were even worse as a late fall of snow had taken everyone by their annual surprise. This heavy wet covering of snow gave no indication of clearing and gradually the glass roof of the Grand Hall in Murrays was encased in a thick blanket of the icy stuff. This cast a pall of gloom over the galleries and departments under the usually beautiful stained glass arc.

This pall of gloom enveloped Mr McElvey in Accounts too. He bemoaned the loss of revenue from sales but also the increased expense incurred by the reduction in natural light and increased heating costs. He groaned to Miss Murray,

“We can’t sustain this level of overheads for much longer. Staff sickness levels have increased too. I think they just can’t be bothered to turn up to stand about all day.”

Miss Murray ignored his doom laden prognostications as she usually tried to but couldn’t help worrying a little herself. It certainly was a depressing Spring.

In the Canteen, Barry, the head of Security, was entertaining his (sole) friend Jock the lift operator with the only poem he had ever managed to retain in his head:

“The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.

I wonder where the boidie is.

They say the boidie’s on the wing.

But that’s absoid. The wing is on the boid.”

Jock nodded politely as he always did when Barry recited this. He had heard it time and again as Barry liked to parade his imagined erudition.

Jock usually managed to present a cheerful face to his passengers, as he thought of the ladies who used his lift. They almost invariably ignored him though which, as ever, he accepted with a quiet smile. This year was different somehow. Everybody seemed to be so miserable. The noticeably fewer customers, the dimmer quality of light, the sneezes and coughs that echoed around the galleries from staff and customers alike had managed to penetrate even his good humour.

As Barry droned on about some imagined slight, Jock let his thoughts wander to how he could try to cheer everyone up. It would have to be simple, inexpensive and permitted by the Management. He looked up with a sudden smile. He had had an idea. Mumbling his excuses to Barry he stood up and made his way out of the crowded canteen. Barry paused in full flow to look at the disappearing back of his friend as he left via the rear entrance which led to the management corridor.

Mrs Pegram from Personnel listened to Jock’s request in amusement then declared that his idea was sound. Better than sound really and authorised that he proceed to carry out his plans as soon as possible.

The next morning when the lift door opened on the ground floor to admit four depressed looking ladies, there were gasps of surprise.

“Oh my!” one lady couldn’t help saying, “Look at this! Just look at it!”

Listening staff in Menswear looked up too late as the lift doors closed.

Inside the ladies smiled broadly as they regarded the bright yellow, crepe paper decked walls, the cerulean blue ceiling and the little row of plastic daffodils neatly pinned all around the walls at floor level. When the door opened on the second floor the bright flash of yellow caught the attention of staff all round the gallery. Smiles lit up as the ladies left the lift and infectiously cheered staff as the customers moved around the various departments. The lift moved onwards and upwards bearing its now cheery cargo. As the door opened at each floor it was as if there was a bright burst of sunlight. Everyone was talking about it. Strangers in the lift smiled to each other as they entered and there was a marked increase in general chat throughout the store. The sudden elevation in mood throughout the building over the next few days translated itself into increased sales thus improving even Mr McElvey’s finance focused state of mind.

In the Canteen at Barry was at first rather resentful of Jock’s sudden popularity. As staff members from various departments passed their table they made positive comments to Jock, some just patting him on the back others thanking him for cheering them up. Jock nodded modestly. Eventually, Barry came round and deciding to somehow grab some credit intoned loudly to anyone in earshot,

“Well the boidies may not be on the wing but Spring has certainly sprung at Murrays!”

 

Animal Crackers?

Crackers about animals? Well yes I am. Just as I can’t imagine life without them, I couldn’t imagine not writing some animal characters into the book: “Our Best Attention.”

In Chapter 1 Bluebell, Miss Murray’s cat, already displays behaviour familiar to all cat lovers: affection and dignity, as well as a determination to outwit Mrs Glen the housekeeper (not a cat fan!)

Sabre, the diminutive security dog , written about in Chapter 8 is a particular favourite.He’s an uneasy mixture of Dachshund and Corgi who happily accompanies his timid master through the dark of night at Murray’s. He doesn’t mind Stan having to sing hymns loudly to stave off terrors. Undoubtedly he’s that poor man’s best friend.

Meanwhile in Chapter 15, Henry the Mynah bird, while not strictly speaking an animal, is a big personality. He delights in whistling and singing “Scotland the Brave” while also terrifying pensioners by his extremely accurate impressions of an elderly person swearing floridly. A bird in a million.

Of the other animals I’ll say no more but will leave them for readers to discover for themselves.

Already in Book 2 currently in production, I have included several animals: a little Birman cat called Yum Yum and a black and white collie with depression. More will undoubtedly follow.

Down Memory Lane

Teacups

Over the past few weeks since the launch of “Our Best Attention” a number of things have happened. A guest blog on Gransnet (www.gransnet.com) led to a huge response and lots of, presumably, grans wrote in with reminiscences of department stores all over the UK. In addition, I’ve been talking at a number of author events and have met lots of really interesting people who also had tales to tell.

Among the stories, I heard of an elderly lady observed in a large, posh store in London (Harrods? Maybe) ordering a single kipper -and having it delivered! Another lady told of her aunt who used to live in the ladies dormitory in the attics of their local department store. One can only imagine the sort of life she must have led there. So many untold stories.

One person’s mother worker pre WW1 in the ribbon department of a large Edinburgh emporium. Its hard to imagine a whole department devoted to the sale of ribbons but hats and costumes needed trimming in those days and matching ribbons were a matter of tremendous importance.

World War 2 was another theme that arose in our discussions. A Gransnet member had memories of their large department store being bombed out and all the departments being dispersed among local big houses and nissen huts. How must that all have been organised? Moving the stock, informing staff where to report, keeping a grip on the financial side as well as the sheer admin around paying the staff not to mention the problem of coupons. In a time before the internet and with telephones relatively few and far between its so hard to see how it was all managed- yet it was. Full marks to British bulldog spirit. Ladies shall shop!

General sadness was remarked by many at the marked reduction in variety of china and glass. People remembered going to their local department store to choose their ‘wedding china’ and how they built it up over their married lives. No more it would seem. We buy our china now in chain stores and plain white reigns supreme. Ah well. You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone!

I have a feeling that as I go along to the various events I will hear more stories of departed department stores and their staff and customers. Can hardly wait!

A Word from the Readers

letterOur Best Attention has been fortunate in receiving positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads which is very reassuring. However, many readers don’t actually get round to writing formal reviews. Its hard to know why this might be.  Some of them might feel intimidated and aren’t confident enough to put their views in print, others may not be very computer savvy and are unsure how to go about this. However, it has been gratifying to receive a number of emails and letters from people who have enjoyed the book. Here is a selection of their comments. Some brought a tear to my eye! Here’s a selection:

“I absolutely love your book!  Almost finished and, yes, I recognized X right away! You have captured the essence, atmosphere and intricacies of the department store we knew perfectly! I adore your prose, your descriptive words are just that…..I can “see” who I am reading about, the place I am reading about, hear the person speaking. Well done you! In to second print already,  wow!”

“I have read the book and broke my own rule of only reading a chapter at bedtime. I struggled to put it down. In many ways I feel that this book is similar to some of Maeve Binchy books. The chapters introduce a new character that I hope will be re introduced in later books as with Maeve’s characters. I especially loved the visit to the footwear department!!! That could have been me as a youngster. Keep writing – I await the swift publication of the next book.”

“I really enjoyed the book. It had great characters in it and you felt as if you really knew them well. I loved the style, with the common thread running throughout it. I guess because I know X, I know how well you described it. My Nana worked there as a young girl as a model, in the days when ladies did not try on their own clothes, the ‘Third Miss Patterson’ would have loved that! Think she was my favourite character, although I loved Martin too and think that I can easily identify with his critical eye for others clothes”

“I love the book when I heard it had no violence and sex I thought this is not for me but it has transported me back to when I first came to Scotland. I would catch the bus from Currie and visit all those wonderful department stores. I had a friend who worked in one of them and her stories are all there. She died several years ago but your book makes me feel as if I am having a conversation with her. Thank you”

 

Of course not everyone enjoyed the book. The rather sour comments from a student reviewer were found to be incomprehensible by people who had read the book. Phew!!