I went to Maidenhead; it was probably safe, not far from London, and Ivor Novello lived there.
Since autumn 1937, when he opened in London with his third Drury Lane musical Crest of the Wave, I had seen him at least once a week from the (2/-) gallery and waited for him at the stage door every evening I could. I was not alone, but lived conveniently near, in New Row off St. Martin’s Lane, so it was easy. I was established as a fan by now and he knew my name. He was most kind and considerate to his fans and really seemed to like us. I wanted to change my surname of Cox, and after some searching elsewhere went through all the names in his plays. In Crest of the Wave he was Don Gantry, Duke of Cheviot. Muriel Gantry sounded right, and in late 1938, I wrote to him to ask permission to use it. I received a telegram: “Love and good wishes to Muriel Gantry from Cheviot.” That was the kind of nice thing he often did. With other fans I said a sad farewell to him on the last night before war was inevitable.
I was offered a job in Maidenhead within hours in the Milk Bar in the High Street. I took it as I was going to need money quickly — I had six pounds in the Post Office. Mother, of course, was horrified; now she was all for the Land Army. I was determined to keep out of the Forces and munitions; I was not only repelled but frightened. What I did want to do was to help to keep the theatre going; it had boomed during World War I and, I hoped, might do so again. As we now know, it did.
I say now that from leaving home in 1937 till my parents’ deaths in 1956 and 1970 I never asked them for financial help. Father seemed to expect — on principle — a small share at least of my Weldy’s £2.10.; but with my father now back in good employment I saw no real reason. Had things been otherwise I would have done my best. I had to save a little and I deserved some pleasure. I saw many shows (from the gallery), often merely to study the costumes and learn how to use the right colors. Because I was no genius as a designer, I had to try that much harder, and the gods know I did.
My godmother, now in America, was the wife, and sometime around now the widow, of a wealthy American businessman. (She died two years ago, two months short of her hundredth birthday, and her story is a book in itself.) Now she deduced, from my letters, that I needed a rest, and gave me £2. per week until April, “solely for resting in the country.” I left the Milk Bar and lived in a pleasant little attic in the Bath Road (9/- per week). I decided after Christmas to find another job for a time and — if all went well — have some leisure again in the spring. The expected raids had not come, but one was always a little afraid (though most of us left our gas-masks at home), and when registration for war work took shape, the dread of what might fall through the letter-box was, for some of us, always there. This may not show me in a very admirable light, but it is true.
At the Berlei Corset Factory in Slough I made overalls for the Royal Veterinary Corps; easy work, but a 7.45. a.m. start and uncongenial company. When the overalls were done we were tried out on corsets, at piece-work rates — impossible unless one had experience. When the bare branch outside the window broke into leaf, I decided enough was enough, and got out.
I used to pick jobs I knew I would not care about so as to have no regrets about leaving them, or getting the sack. While I was in Maidenhead, the excellent library advertised for a trainee “with a GLC certificate of education.” I asked the head if it was any use my applying (I felt no fear of not being up to whatever the GLC lot could come up with). He said that if it rested with him, I could have the job that moment — “You already know the way around; you’re never out of here; all you would need is to learn the index” — but his superiors would insist on what they stipulated. I might have spent my life as a librarian in that pleasant country town; nowadays the idea has great appeal.
Ivor was the first to take out a show in wartime; a light comedy with a small cast. I went to see it open in Southport and stayed a week, seeing every performance, Ivor found out — through his valet — how much my trip had cost, and on the last night sent me an envelope containing my exact expenses: three pounds. Exactly like him — kind, but sensible and thrifty. Now in late summer, 1940, he was at his lovely house in Littlewick Green. He planned a short tour of his Thirties play I Lived with You and a long one of his musical whose run at “The Lane” had been ended by the war: The Dancing Years.
One should never work, at least in a minor capacity, for a person with whom one is emotionally involved. It is too dreadful if things go wrong. Many people say this and I was one of them. I had no nonsense in my head about having an “affair” with Ivor; I had never troubled about such things, and as a girl “boys” meant nothing to me. I wanted an affectionate friendship and to be able to talk to him intelligently, at decent length. I loved him indeed, in my own way; and had a clearer idea of the real Ivor than many of his fans. Now, when The Love bellows from every rooftop, it is odd to remember how innocent we were. Most fans saw Ivor as they wished to see him; I knew what he was, and unfortunately he knew that I knew, as eventually I realized. Those concerned have an instinct about such things. It would all go into the best work of my life — but not yet.
One evening when I walked, as often, on Littlewick Green he showed me round Red Roofs and its garden. We had some real talk and he asked me about my work. I said I wished I could come on tour and help in some way; he said he was “just thinking about it.” I admit that a personal, and I still think very justifiable jealousy, which I do not propose to enlarge on here, played a great part in my change of view.
He could not fit me into I Lived with You’s seven-week tour; so I became one of the first twelve Thames Valley “lady bus conductors.” It could have been worse. Ivor then engaged me as assistant wardrobe mistress of The Dancing Years — at four pounds a week, more than I had hoped for. I told him over the telephone, “You don’t need to give me all that, Mr. Novello!” and I remember how he laughed. But I still got my four pounds, Ivor being the person he was,
He wanted me also to dress one of the leading ladies and — impossibly — to do “walk-ons” in the show – “if there was time.” There could not possibly be. I had even to give up the dressing.
The “get-out” was from His Majesty’s Theatre in London; the Blitz was just beginning as we worked. Owing to my deferring to Ivor, who thought it “only courteous” for me to give the ‘buses a week’s notice (I could have left at once) I joined the show on Friday the 13th. Triskaidekaphobia had never worried me, but since then I have wondered . . .
The head wardrobe mistress, Mrs. W. was a neat thirty-something; the rest of them then were elderly and dowdy. I was pleased. She received me coolly, said little, asked me no questions about experience. I did as I was told.
I had seen the show several times a week from March ’39 till the War closed it. I knew every dress and prop and the timing too. Next day it emerged that I was the only one who knew it, and I was asked by the other two workers, “Why didn’t you come sooner? Mrs. W., you’re in luck; she knows the show and has seen it (I forget how many) times.” Mrs. W. said nothing but “Indeed?” She said nothing all the way from London to Manchester in the train; next morning as we awaited the pantechnicon she asked questions at last, and did not like the answers. I knew the leading man; I had not worked backstage before. . . . She had to be civil as we unpacked, but her hostility was evident. Not having worked backstage did not trouble me, as I knew so much about the theatre that it all came easily.
Through all the ten months’ tour she maintained her attitude, save once when I spoke up for her, to save her being blamed unfairly, and she was quite kind for some days. She and her husband were ardent Trade Unionists, like so many backstage staff; they did not think how helpful they could be in such difficult days, but of what they were entitled to refuse and when they could Walk Out. She was convinced I was after her job, which was untrue. I dislike being “in charge.”
Ivor did not really understand, although he did send word at first to tell me not to worry. Mrs. W. set herself to “get rid of me,” as I heard her say to a Mrs. T. who came to help us at Newcastle; one of the hardest people I ever met; I think she was incapable of sympathy. I overheard them planning and Mrs. W. promising Mrs. T. my job. I said nothing, as it would have precipitated the inevitable. She complained about me incessantly, and Ivor began to think I was a difficult person. I was certainly becoming bewildered and very apprehensive.
Tom Arnold, the producer, was an incredibly mean man and decided that on the next tour we should not travel a wardrobe assistant, but engage locals as and when needed — to save a rail fare. I went over the stage director’s head and spoke to Ivor; what he did, if anything, I do not know. The S.D. was furious and gave me pure hell in his office for three days, till I blacked out and collapsed and his wife made him stop. He had taken me into Ivor’s room, where Ivor lost his temper and called me “ungrateful.” I had grown tactless with fright and had been getting under his feet, but by now I was past clear thinking.
I got my notice, and Mrs. W. got what she wanted. We returned to London on the 13th July 1941. As I left the train at Maidenhead the entire company leaned out of the windows, waving and wishing me luck. I shall never forget it. Some of them had wanted to speak for me and ask for me to stay, but I had told them it was useless. I wish now I had let them do it.
I found “digs” and cried for weeks, and a great patch of my hair went grey. But I did go to the exhibition of work by the local Art School, and through commenting on the fat elderly model to someone who turned out to be the headmaster, I found myself posing for the Life Class in Maidenhead and High Wycombe. Two-and-six an hour: what do they pay now, I wonder? I was nine stone three and had no weight problems then. I needed to earn more money; someone told me of evening work at the All Services Club near the river. I had never worked in a club and never thought I would be lucky. I became a barmaid in the “dispense bar” — I who never cared about drink and knew little about it. I could fit in my weakly modelling.
The first night there was the first time my heartache eased a little. It was an attractive place, respectable but fun; Colonel Tickler of Tickler’s Jams had opened it to give Service people and/or civilians a chance of a good evening for only five shillings, though they could spend more and did. The manager and his wife were dears, everyone was pleasant, and I was almost happy there. Mother, of course, was outraged, and I never to her last day told her what I actually did.
Mrs. W. had gone on strike at the last moment before The Dancing Years’ second tour, and infiltrated Mrs. T. as her assistant. Seven weeks later Mrs. T. denounced her to the stage director for falsifying the wardrobe accounts, got her sacked, and took over her job. Months later, two days before the end of the last week of the tour, Mrs. W. died in the wardrobe of the Opera House, Blackpool, killed by the fumes of (forbidden) benzine.
I heard all this news from my friends in the show. I had some good ones, and several friendships lasted till death.
I had seen Ivor once at Windsor, between the tours; he was grave but kind, certainly not angry as the stage director had represented him to be.
In my bedsitting-room in Furze Platt, and in quiet moments at the Club, I began my second novel. I still found love scenes difficult, and did not feel like trying to describe the raw unhappiness I now felt. I wanted to escape it. I began to write a school story like those I had enjoyed years ago. The basic idea was not exactly original: a poor girl, just old enough to work in “t’mill,” taken out of it by a rich relative and sent to a good boarding school, but I felt as I wrote that I had come a good way since the earlier Restoration-period effort. I still have The Schoolgirl from the Mills. After 50 years it might be turned into a fair period-piece. It was to take me till 1947 to finish, when other matters took over. Its later development surprised and rather pleased me; the theatre got into it.
I stayed seven months at the Club, during which time I decided to find an unfurnished room and make myself a home. An elegant, genteel lady who frequented the same cafe as myself lived on the top floor of a large house nearby and had attics above which she wanted to let. The largest seemed ideal when I saw it, at £1 per week. I moved in, with a chair, a table, a few books, and the base of a divan.
One used to see advertisements in certain magazines: “Gentlewoman offers inexpensive room to refined lady willing to assist with light household duties.” There was no verbal or other commitment to anything like that, but somehow I found myself involved. I had been promised reductions in my rent in return for renovating Mrs. B’s soft furnishings, but after spending two weeks over them I was told it was “merely friendly help” and I had to pay the two pounds. Mrs. B.’s husband had recently left her (for a C and A shop-girl); I thought I could understand why.
The Club was taken over by new people; the staff were told they could remain but must sign on “for the duration.” The sensible manager thought I should get back to the theatre while I could, and I agreed with him. There were plenty of shows running, and a great fashion for reviving old ones. As I sat in a cafe near the Adelphi Theatre, where The Dancing Years was playing, two of my chorus-boy friends rushed in, hoping to find me, told me there was a job going at the Stoll Theatre, and literally propelled me in the direction of Kingsway. I became a dresser in Rose Marie as the half-hour was being called.
* * *
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