Well, I was all set to resume normal service (or as normal as it ever gets), when I had to dash off to Mum, because she hurt her shoulder, and was in a great deal of pain, and even more muddled than usual. The carers, who visit her four times a day, are wonderful – we would not manage without them -but she obviously needed some full-time TLC, so I had a lovely (but stressful) week with her, and we looked at old photos, and she talked about her childhood, and we both sat and read, with plenty of breaks for tea and cake!
Highlight of the week was Noel Steatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, which we’ve both read and re-read numerous times, even though it’s a children’s book. Mum, who is happiest with old favourites that she knows almost by heart, was nine when this published in 1936, and remembers reading it by the light of the fire and an oil lamp (they had no electricity in their cottage). The print in her old edition is too small for her these days, so I curled up with that after buying her a nice, new copy (with the wonderful original drawings by Streatfeild’s sister Ruth Gervis). It is, as Mum says, a ‘Feel Good’ book, with a Happy Ending, which is what she likes. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes it pretty perfect for the troubled times we are living through – and anything which lifts the spirits has to be a Good Thing.
Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are babies when they are ‘collected’ by Great-Uncle Matthew as he travels the world hunting for fossils (it wouldn’t happen today, observes my mother). Pauline, the eldest, is found floating on a lifebelt when a ship hits an iceberg. Petrova is rescued a couple of years later, because her Russian parents are dead and there is no-one to look after her. And a couple of years after that Gum (Great Uncle Matthew) takes Posy on, as her widowed ballet dancer mother has no time for a baby. The three girls live at Gum’s house in the Cromwell Road where they are cared for by his great-niece Sylvia ( Garnie, short for Guardian), her old nurse Nana, Cook, and Ellen the housemaid.
The years pass, Gum fails to return from his travels, and the money is running out, so Garnie takes in lodgers – and the girls’ lives change forever. Retired teachers Dr Jakes and Dr Smith (the ‘lady doctors’) provide lessons, while dance teacher Miss Theo Dane arranges for them to attend the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training free of charge. Pauline turns out to be a talented actress, while Posy has the potential to be an outstanding ballet dancer. Petrova is a competent dancer, but hates the stage, and is only interested in engines, cars and planes. She is befriended by Mr Simpson, the third lodger, whose fascination with all things mechanical matches her own, and he lets her help at his garage (in case you wonder, he has a wife, but she doesn’t do or say a lot, although she seems happy to help with picnics and treats for the girls).
Central to the book is the dance and stage school run by Madame Fidolia, once a world-famous ballerina in Tsarist Russia. Streatfeild gives us some lovely accounts of the school, the lessons, performances and auditions. The girls are anxious to contribute to the household’s shaky finances, but in order to work on stage (from the age of 12) they must undergo the trauma of applying to London County Council for licences, and there are strict conditions governing hours of work, and the amount of time that must be spent on their normal education. At 14, children could leave school for full time work, which seems incredibly young.
The book also has some fabulous descriptions of clothes – their ordinary garments, the outfits required by the dance and stage school, the struggle to find something suitable for auditions, and the garments worn for performances.
The list of stage school clothes includes: ‘rompers, two each, black-patent ankle strap shoes, and white tarlatan dresss, two each, with white sandal shoes, and white knickers, two pairs, all frills’, all made by Nana apart, of course, from the shoes. In addition they must each two double-breasted, high-collared, black sateen ‘overalls’ – a kind of belted shirt, adapted from a Russian design. And on top of all that, they also needed two rough face-towels, clearly marked.
For Pauline’s first audition, for Alice in Wonderland, the girls borrow £5 from Mr Simpson for a black chiffon velvet dress with white collar and cuffs (from Harrods), because her old velvet is too tight and darned on the elbow, her kilted skirt and jumper is not suitable, and she cannot wear her white organdie dress with a blue ribbon at 11 o’clock on a November morning! She is very good, and gets the part – but knows the dress, and her blond hair and pretty face carried her through at the expense of fellow pupil Winifred, who is the best all-round student the school has ever had, but is plain and badly dressed.
Mum loves the details of clothes and ballet costumes: they spark memories of things she made for me when I was a child, and the ballet outfits she ran up on her Singer sewing machine for my weekly lessons, summer shows and pantomimes. There were short, blue cotton tunics, with matching knickers (with elastic round the legs – very handy for storing a hankie!), and white tutus, with tight-fitting satin bodices, and yards and yards and yards of layered, gathered net forming a ‘sticky-outy’ short skirt. And for performances on stage she made wings and head dresses from wire coat hangers and tinsel. and brightly coloured net, chiffon or taffeta skirts that tied over the tutu, and little, elasticated puff sleeves in the same materials, that we pushed to the top of our arms, and they were horribly scratchy and itchy, and made my arms red and sore! According to Mum. most of the fabrics were a nightmare to stitch, because they were slippery, and some frayed really, really badly, but she enjoyed making them – and I loved wearing them, even though they weren’t always very comfortable! We ended up looking through a box of old photos, which was a nice way to round things off.
Having got a little side-tracked, I suppose I should really return to Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Alongside their academic lessons and stage work they learn that having a name with no family can be an adventure. They can make of the name – and their lives – anything they want. They also learn that freedom and independence carry responsibility. That may make them sound priggish, but they’re not – they can be as naughty and stroppy as any other children. Streatfeild is, as ever, really good at expressing what it feels like to be a child. She leaves us with a lovely, happy ending, but I shall leave you with a bit of a cliff-hanger. Even with help from the boarders, there is no longer enough cash, so Garnie is forced to sell the house… At the same time Posy is offered a place to train with the great ballet master Manoff, in Czechoslovakia, but where will they get the money from, and who will go with her to look after her? Will Petrova ever make her dream come true and learn to fly a plane? Will Pauline sign a lucrative Hollywood contract, or pursue her ambition to be a serious stage actress? And what about Gum? What has happened to him, and where is he…