|A wall hanging by Glenda Gerrard|
I was looking through old photographs recently. They stirred memories of course and I was surprised to noticed that not only the photos but my memories are in monochrome, sepia at best. There’s a story circulating about a child who, taken round a nearby castle (castles in Scotland are simply fortified houses) expressed surprise that there was so much colour in the tapestries, soft furnishings and paintings, because he thought it was ‘all in black and white in those days.’ If he had been talking about the post-war years of my childhood he wouldn’t have been far out with his imaginings.
My parents were poor but we didn’t stand out much from the rest of the village. Many people in those hard post-war years were in the same plight. What bits of furniture we had were hand-me-down from my grandmother’s home. It had never been graceful or pretty even in its heyday. It was utilitarian, made in a time of shortages. Ugly design, cheap wood overlaid with heavy, dark varnish. Two uncomfortable ‘easy’ chairs sat either side of the fireplace covered with some brownish material. There was a piano against one wall that I was supposed to be learning to play. After the Coronation there was also a television, bought by my grandmother. It stood proudly on a television table, of the simplest possible design, four legs, top, and a shelf underneath which held the legs stable and provided a resting place for the leather-coated Radio Times. (My grandson still marvels that we could bear to watch programmes in black and white!) In the tiny bedrooms orange boxes (made of cheap splintery wood in those days), covered with left-over bits of material, had become bedside tables for my parents and a toy box for me. In the kitchen there were more orange boxes, covered with lining paper, that held pots and pans. There was a rickety square table with three chairs where we ate. In a middle room there was a small gate-leg table which had to be treated with care and was only used when visitors came. A member of the family sat by the end legs in case a visitor should knock one of them accidentally, therebye plunging their meal into their lap.
I remember this well enough. The colours that tint the memories are as dinghy as the days. My mother knitted constantly when she wasn’t at work in the Post Office Stores attached to our cottage. She often unpicked old jumpers of my dad’s to knit new. She darned and ‘made good’ socks, linen, shirts. Darning was a skill all women learned at their mother’s knee. Even I learned once, but was relieved to be able to forget with the advent of tougher materials and more money.
Despite the lack of money, pride kept my mother and grandmother from getting casual about appearances. We were all three of us as properly turned out; as clean, pressed and respectable as could be. Granny Barber, who was housekeeper to a nice old gentleman recently back from India, bought my mother and I a coat every winter. My mother also had a handmade suit most years. So did I when I got older. Off the peg would have been dearer, and the nearest small town was, anyway, over ten miles away. None of these garments came in bright colours. Coats were black, ‘camel,’ or - oh dear - ‘nigger brown!’ How shaming to think of that now. (I also had a Golliwog. It seems I screamed when it was first presented to me. Anyway I always preferred the blue rabbit.) The suits were in soft tweeds of indeterminate greyish-brownish colours which is probably why I dislike tweed to this day.
I remember well the pale yellow outfit I was bought for Easter one year. It was glorious! A real colour at last.
In one of the Chalet School books by Elinor Brent-Dyer (I think) the girls were to be dressed in beautiful satin and organza dresses for a festival. A chosen few would have velvet trains of various colours and they would be decorated with flowers. I’ve probably made some of that up, but the most exciting and enduring memory was the description of the colours they were choosing: Blue delphiniums, yellow primroses, pink wild roses, orange Californian poppies, scarlet field poppies, all out of season but never mind. I dreamed of having these costumes for myself.
It is for this reason I wish I could have been a painter. Or an artist in stained glass. I love stained glass. The stained glass of Notre Dame in Paris stays with me, the tombs, architecture, and carvings have long since faded.
This longing for colour has caused me to rebel. In my seventies now, to fit in with my contemporaries I think I am supposed to wear drab - beige, greys, muted colours. I try to avoid these. They lower the spirits.
One last thought on the colour theme: A friend born in Scotland who lived a large portion of her life in California, remarked that she had to have a different wardrobe for each country. No - it wasn’t because of the weather, it was the prevailing colours. In the strong light of sunny Cal bright clothing is usual. In the softer light of the North of Scotland we wear more muted, heathery tones. We mirror the misty grey-blues and subtle purples of distant mountains, ochre stretches of sand, and the dark mystery of the forests.