lady painting


Nov 2009 Journal

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Not Safe in Taxis

NST was the acronym commonly used among the mothers of debutantes to label young men who couldn’t be trusted to deliver their precious daughters home after the ball without danger to the goods in transit. While the business of presenting debutantes, the display of family jewels, the clothes, the round of balls, was highly competitive, there was at the same time the grapevine of the closed shop to ensure that their little darlings arrived intact on the marriage market.

NST was just one of many pieces of information gathered. The important ones were recorded on what today would be called spreadsheets, with the names of eligible young men down one side and, across the top, a series of headings such as Title, Father, Location of Country Estate, Acreage, Number of Servants, down to such detail as grouse shooting and salmon fishing. Points were allocated and it was a subtle judge who knew how to weigh up a second son of a baronet with £12,000 a year against the eldest son of a viscount whose town house was on the wrong side of the Park.

My name appeared on no such list. For one thing, I was the wrong age, but my mother knew a wealthy landowner, an old-style Labour MP who hunted at least three times a week when the House wasn’t sitting and whose daughter ‘T’ was doing the Season. The invitation to her coming-out ball couldn’t have come at a better time for me. At 17, I had been in England for just about a year and saw this as another stepping stone to seamless absorption into English society. There was no romantic link to T. She too was 17, we were friends, and I had enjoyed her family’s hospitality both in their Mayfair apartment and their country estate, which included several villages. I hadn’t met anyone who owned a village before, but all this was grist to the mill of assimilation.

My confidence was bolstered by having just passed my ‘matric’, I suppose equivalent to A-Levels today. This had frankly been a doddle. Having emerged from a lycée in Paris, I was about three years ahead of my fellow students in every subject. All I had to do was to acquire enough English to put pen to paper, plus some familiarity with what were known as set books consisting, in my particular year, of a Shakespeare play, an anthology of poetry, and a collection of undistinguished prose by C. E. Montague.

For the dance I had kitted myself out with a dinner jacket from a men’s outfitters trading as ‘Fifty Shilling Tailors’. For £2/10/- I acquired a perfectly acceptable ‘soup-and-fish’ which served me for a quarter of a century – not surprising really, since there was little call for formal wear in internment and subsequent jungle warfare.

There were two huge marquees, one with enough tables for some 200 guests seating 12 at a time, with every place marked by a hand-lettered card corresponding to one’s name on a huge board at each end of the tent. The food had been brought from London in large vans, as had toilets placed discreetly behind bushes but with coyly gendered arrows pointing the way. An omnibus had earlier disgorged some 40 cooks and waiters to supplement the ample domestic staff: there were at least three to a table serving the standard English pre-war five-course dinner of soup, fish, meat, pudding, savoury. Not yet having had it explained to me how bad English food was, I thought it all wonderful. So much so that when offered a second helping of roast beef, I eagerly accepted and then discovered that I was the only one at my table to do so. I wolfed it down in solitary embarrassment - a proper Bateman situation.

Dancing to a live orchestra in the other marquee started rather formally, one’s choice of partners being confined to table companions. As the evening progressed, introductions widened the field and, later still, some of the bolder spirits, such as I, dispensed with introductions and just went for it – not always successfully. When I approached the undisputed Belle of the Ball, she looked me up and down and asked: ‘Does my mother know you?’ She didn’t bother to wait for an answer.

Like all good things, the fun had to come to an end, and the serfs from the villages took over as transport marshals. As the cars lined up, family names or numbers were called out. My young hostess, who looked as pretty as youth, money and a good hairdresser could make her, had given up her bedroom in the main house to some important adult, so she, her brother and I were boarded out to a cousin, a few miles down the road. T got into the car first, then I, then her brother. As we bumped along the dark country lanes, I suddenly felt a friendly hand coming to rest between my knees. Slowly but deliberately, the hand moved north, indicating that friendship was ripening into affection. And indeed a further advance suggested the depth of that affection. I thought it churlish not to respond, so I placed my hand on top of the explorer’s. It was then that I discovered it was the brother who granted me such obvious signs of his favour. I tucked this away in my mind as another important step of familiarisation with English ritual. NST had acquired a new dimension.

Victor Ross

previous article:The Kindertransport Seventy Years On
next article:Art notes (review)