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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Waiting for the storm

Heavy weather predicted for tonight. Granny and Beloved bring everything that could be tossed about indoors, close all the shutters and sit in hope. Beloved is starting a cold and Granny has still got a sore back so both inclined to be snappy. Luckily noone is due to appear till Thursday. Let's hope they've recovered their tempers by then.

Meantime: debs. Ah Yes.

In Granny's family being presented at court was what you did: twice. Granny's mother and grandmother were not only presented as young women but again when they got married. Granny has photographs of both dressed in white - the grandmother rather more elaborately, with ostrich feathers on her head - and both wearing long white gloves. By the time Granny grew up this latter process had been discontinued and the earlier one was about to be. 1958, the year Granny and her twin were the appropriate age was to be the last year of any presentations to the queen whatever.

Now being a deb did not just involve being presented to the Queen. It also meant a summer of dances, cocktail parties, evening dresses, cocktail dresses, a London base, etc etc, all of it costing a lot of money and culminating in the most expensive bit of all: the dance - preferably at some big London hotel or a stately home if your parents were lucky enough to own one.

Granny's parents did not possess a stately home. A nineteen thirties suburban house twenty miles from London did not quite count. Nor did they have the money needed for such things. So most of the season's goings-on were not available to their daughters, apart from the odd dinner/dance/party, given by family friends, apart from a dance at the suburban house later in the summer - it did, luckily, have a largish garden. But given the family traditions, both her parents were determined to have their daughters presented at court.

The daughters were much less keen. Granny was already at Oxford and thinking of becoming a Marxist - if in the end she only got to be relatively left-wing, neither stance exactly fitted with bowing her knee to the queen. As for Granny's twin, she was generally bolshie - and very fed up having to go to a secretarial college near home rather than one in London; their parents couldn't afford that as well as Granny's Oxford fees. This, you can imagine, did not make for good communication between the two sisters. They were barely talking to each other in fact. That, for the parents, was an advantage. 'No way,' said both twins in their different ways and for different reasons when presentation was suggested. 'Oh,' said the parents cunningly, to each in turn. 'But you must. Your sister wants to. She'll be so disappointed, she can't be presented without you.' In the days of mobile phones and text messages, their bluff would have been called at once. Lacking them it wasn't. By the time the twins found out it was all too late.

Granny had spent her first two university terms feeling lonely, stuffing down cake provided by her mother. She was not thin and, very short-sighted, wore thick spectacles besides. The photograph still exists somewhere of her fat spectacled self clad in pale blue wild silk with a big skirt and what looked like a flowerpot on her head next to her thin un-spectacled sister wearing royal blue wild silk with a big skirt and a slightly more flattering hat, both standing outside Buckingham Palace railings alongside their parents, both of them scowling. Thereafter they queued up in an anteroom somewhere, with their contemporaries, all got up to look like their mothers, ie 40 odd rather than 18, waiting for their names to be called, and ,after the deed was done, sat on spindly golden chairs at the back, below an orchestra playing selections from Salad Days. As for the curtseys that intervened; Prince Philip was well-known for winking at the pretty girls. He winked at Granny's twin. He did not wink at her. In view of this not unexpected disappointment she ate more than she needed of the Fullers Chocolate cake provided at tea afterwards, touted as the reward for all the uncomfortable and politically incorrect deference to the Sovereign.

Granny was not the only rebel from that year. She knew - or would know - the two most notorious ones. She'd been at school with Teresa Hayter, 'Hayter of the Bourgouisie' who has spent the rest of her career slagging off the establishment, big business, the global economy, power and economic structures everywhere, very well indeed. Granny always did find her terrifying. And she was joined at university by Rose Dugdale who went even further, robbing the rich - her parents included - to give to the IRA. Granny remembers her at Oxford slouching round in a pair of black velvet trousers and with a reputation for sitting in men's colleges playing strip poker; all this, too, outside Granny's then rather more decorous life: and still more terrifying.

As for those bloody dances, the few she and her twin did get to. Granny spent most of them as the alas far from proverbial wallflower, hiding in the ladies. Even if she did come across a man she liked and who seemed to like talking to her, as soon as he asked what she was doing and she said 'I am at Oxford,' he fled. The men who went to deb dances, delightful or not, safe in taxis or not, did not like clever women. Women cleverer than Granny would pretend that they weren't: or else were pretty or witty enough to get away with it: unlike her.

She made up for all this later in her life when glasses and fat were shed. Would she want to be eighteen again? What do you think? Even now she suspects, even if eighteen year olds are no longer dressed up to look like their mothers - rather the reverse - she would not like it much. Oh the horror. The horror.

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