In a Train with Funeral Party – February 1924

I walked almost the whole length of a long train before I came to a third-class compartment that was not marked “Smoking.” There was a woman already seated in it, and she remarked as I sat down, “Although it isn’t a ‘smoking,’ this smells vilely of tobacco smoke, and look at the floor!” I then related to her an incident of my journey up that morning.

At one station there entered a little company of passengers, obviously of what are termed working-class. There were two men of middle-age, a youth and a girl in their mid teens, and a small boy of five or six. They were all dressed in black, from which I inferred that they were on their way to a funeral.

The men wore black bowler hats stuck on the back of their heads, leaving visible a well-oiled fringe of hair adorning their foreheads. The youth’s cloth cap was of black tweed, and all the males sported black ties with the exception of the wee boy, whose black tie was spotted with mauve stars. The girl, also in sombre mourning attire, was drawing on a pair of shiny black kid gloves.

I had imagined that this class of glove could not be bought in the ‘twenties of the twentieth century, but a few days later I walked beside a woman in black who was also drawing on gloves of that shiny black. These to me are strongly reminiscent of Sundays of very early childhood, when I whiled the tedium of the prayers in church by examining all the details of my mother’s veil and gloves on the book board before me, and marvelled at the tiny points on the finger tips of the lady’s gloves in the seat before us; for in those days gloves were worn so tight-fitting that frequently the fingers could not be pressed into the tips of the glove.

I never see black kid gloves but they conjure up a vivid image of that Ayrshire kirk, and the pew in which I smelt the distinctive scent of warm kid, watched the slow tear being wiped from beneath a heavy crape veil with a black-edged handkerchief, and looked up fearfully at a terrible man in a black cloak spreading himself out like John Knox, and in a loud voice, scolding us all for our sins till my childhood sobs burst forth, and I had to be taken on my mother’s lap, closer to the strange Sabbath scent of kid and crape.

Such is my black memory of the kirk of my fathers. Lugubrious as it was, I think there was something pleasurably exciting in the solemn pageant of the kirkyaird and the intimate drama of the pews. Besides, was not I wearing my best clothes? And there might be a “sweetie” if I fidgetted too much.

All these scenes passed before my mind while the girl opposite to me was pulling on her black kid gloves — none too tight for her. The only melancholy face in the company was that of the youth — and immature manhood has the privilege of sadness. His elders were distinctly merry, one of them particularly jovial. They took out their pipes and lit up. (“And you never objected?” exclaimed my travelling companion of later in the day. Well, no, why make myself disagreeable?).

Then as pipe and talk became more intimate and sociable, they spat freely on the floor, especially the jolly man in the tight black suit, and the bowler far back on his oiled head. He was evidently blessed with a chronic jollity for his face was all marked with laughing wrinkles. Next, he took out a large paper bag and handed it round to the company. In fright or shyess I held my newspaper closer to my face (I was seated in the corner opposite to the jolly mourner), and the danger passed.

But not for long. After a few more draws at his pipe, and more expectoration, he stood up, took a step forward, and held out the bag to me: “Have one, missus?” he said; “take one or two; take as many as you like.” And his face was wrinkled all over with friendly smiles. What could I do but put in my hand and clutch two or three peppermints, smiling my thanks? He nodded back, a curt but sociable gesture, and the incident was over.

“And didn’t you complain of the spitting? How disgusting! I should. It was your duty to remind them that they were in a non-smoking carriage. And they never asked if you objected! Augh!” These were the indignant comments on my little story.

Well, no doubt I would be within my rights in objecting to smoking in a non-smoking compartment, and I dislike the filthy habit of spitting on a carriage floor. But I love human beings more than I hate their objectionable habits, and I wouldn’t for any passing discomfort — and I really experienced none — have snubbed that vulgar little, jolly, kindly man; and the dear wee boy in black, and the youth with the melancholy face, and the girl drawing her black kid gloves, they were all so intensely human and interesting to me.

And this is a question I should like to put fairly: Would a “gentleman” or a “lady” — define them as you please — let us say members of the “upper” and cultivated classes, would one of these in similar circumstances have passed a chocolate box and given a friendly smile to a modest fellow traveller in the opposite corner with a newspaper in front of her face?

Life is a daily compromise. If we all insisted on putting each other right there would be constant warfare. I’d rather it were some other who put the smoker out of her compartment.

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Lady Astor’s White Gloves – February 1924

In reply to my query, “ Did you notice that the Labour women MPs prefer to sit hatless in the House?” a man asked me if I had seen in “to-day’s paper” that Lady Astor appeared with a clean pair of white kid gloves every day. Well, if they are really “white kid” clean every morning, that is a luxury possible only to a few. But probably they are washable white doeskin, and that’s not so bad since she’ll have maids to wash them.

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Faults, But Not Grave – February 1924

With all its noble opportunities of love and service and practical guidance of the social evolution of the race, we must admit that in the home life of the domestic woman lie many dangers of narrowness of mind and of heart.

Outside occupations of necessity wean the mind from personal and family obsessions. But home duties keep the mind eternally circling round thoughts and ideals of the family fortunes and too much occupied perhaps with the virtues and the faults of the individuals in the house. And the best of men, fathers and husbands and sons, are imperfect creatures — as we are ourselves. They have exasperating ways which no amount of criticism or complaint from us lessens in the least.

And it is surely a very doubtful comfort we obtain from confiding these faults to outsiders, and implicitly asking for sympathy; for that is what it comes to; we expect sympathy for having married a man who has faults which perhaps give us a little trouble.The faults complained of are usually not of a grave character. Real sins she will be silent about — anything that would bring dishonour upon the name.

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Suicide at 14 – February 1923

Most of us have been discussing the poignant tragedy of the suicide of a boy of 14 at a public school in the South of England where he was taken to task and kicked by two bigger boys because of his inattention as a linesman in a game of football. The main point was not touched upon in the evidence or the comments: it is that we may safely infer the sad incident was the culmination of persistent and daily bullying of a boy whose tastes did not lean towards games.

He would not stop himself in desperation because he had been kicked after one game reluctantly engaged in. It was because his life was made intolerable by the bullying of companions who had not the same tastes as himself. No body will ever know what the child had to suffer. The boys will not tell and the masters will not inquire.

It is part of the system that the teachers should not know. They are all quite pious about it. Nobody is to blame but the unfortunate lad who was endowed with an enquiring mind and a sensitive temperament and could not be bothered with football.

The heads of public schools write to the press assuring everybody that there is no bullying beyond what is good for small boys. But do they know? It is a point of honour with the victims not to tell.

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Complacency of Cellar Living – February 1922

Only the other day I was talking with a woman — not yet very old —who remembers when there was a considerable population living in the cellars of the town in which she lived as a child. “They are all condemned now,” she said.

I wondered if I really remembered seeing a certain cellar in a neighbouring small town and known to both of us used as a dwelling or was it that I had talked with the woman who used to live in it.

 “Oh yes,” she said. “Joe S. and his wife used to live down there and a very nice cellar it was. There is a big front place and two good pantries and a little wash house in the back; very dark they were because there is only a window from the front.”

But that was a very good cellar and Mrs S always kept it nice. There were grades in cellars in these days and no medical opinion to suggest that they were an unfit breeding ground for families and no articulate public opinion to scratch the comfortable complacency of the well to do.

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Birds on a Foggy Morning – January 1925

It is a foggy morning and still the smoke goes up largely from chimneys of factories and houses. The starlings wheel in small flocks over the chimneys towards the shoulder of a rounded hill which is the landward side of a sea cliff. They perch singly on the chimney tops and the water spouts and chatter unceasingly.

From another window I see them preening themselves on the bare branches of a tall ash tree, and whistling melodiously as if coaxing the sun to come from behind its grey curtain.

But a little while ago there was a fresh note. At first I thought it was merely a starling imitating the thrush, but there was no whistle so characteristic of the former, and as it went on steadily for quite a long time I was forced to the conclusion that it was the thrush in the flesh practising for spring.

It is less than a month till the birds’ great festival of 14th February, which we have fixed arbitrarily for them, and they may well be taking advantage of a mild winter’s day.

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Potatoes a La Hotel Cecil – January 1925

There can be no question that in the labourer’s cottage and in the Scottish farm kitchen the potato is cooked, served and eaten with a relish unknown to the Hotel Cecil. A maid of ours drifted into a big London hotel as vegetable maid, and in describing the dishes she helped to prepare, she made my mouth water, especially at the mention of the potato balls and rissoles and cakes She ended up prosaically, however, with the remark that the chef always had his potatoes for his own eating plain boiled in their jackets.

I have seen potatoes turned out of a pan in perfect form, smoking hot, their silvery granules shining through the cracks, and tempting one with their appetising powder. Let the pot be a round three-legged one hanging high over a wide open fire, and let the potatoes have been “poor’t” long enough for all the moisture to have evaporated, there will be a few stuck to the bottom or the side of the hot iron.

They crackle as you lift them out and there is a delicious brown flat “bristle” on the sides tempting you irresistibly to set your own good teeth into it.

It chanced some years ago that I arrived at a Scottish farm house before the kitchen dinner was cleared away, and I was asked, “Wull ye hae a tattie?” Now, if I had accepted, I should have got the last perfect one or two sticking to the pan.

In imagination I can still see them in their homely beauty, but for some reason I declined. It was — as far as I see at present — my last opportunity. “I should have said, “Yes, please!” Twa tatties, a piece of cheese, and a drink of milk.” A most perfect meal, as some of my readers may be willing to testify.

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Old Age and Being a Burden – January 1925

Of late I have been pondering much on the word “home” and what it stands for in our thoughts and language. We have the Nursing Home, Home for Cripples, Home for the Incurable, Maternity Home, Home for the Blind, Home for Destitute Children, and so on. I think the term used as in the foregoing is more descriptive of its real significance than the home we think of as the family unit.

For, if we search to the root of the idea, we shall find that a home is a set of conditions specially created for the protection and preservation and continuation of life, and as necessary for all living things as for the human being.

We are familiar with that instinct among domesticated animals. The drooping fowl is pecked by her fellows, and wanders apart. The cow or horse which is sick shuns the companionship of the herd, knowing that, instead of sympathy and help, it will be attacked and driven away. .

Old people are often trying. Often because they will not or cannot suppress their individuality. They want their own way — as we all do —- when they are no longer able to take the responsibility of themselves or of their lives. One often has occasion to observe an imperious irritability of manner in an aged parent towards the daughter who is doing her best to please; the elder resenting the reversing of roles.

She or he who for almost a lifetime has held the position of authority and control of a household or a family does not resign it easily into the hands of the younger generation.

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Christmas in a Hospital Ward – January 1925

Christmas decorations are a great feature in all hospitals at this season (those in England at any rate). Discussion and preparations begin weeks in advance and there is rivalry between the different wards as to which should achieve the most novel and striking effects.

The expense is covered by donations from friends with raffles of a number of gifts useful or ornamental such as a Christmas cake, a dressing jacket, tea cloths etc. The patients are not asked to purchase tickets.

It is their visitors who are fleeced for the good objects and all seem to hand over their threepenny and sixpenny pieces with smiling faces and unreluctant fingers. Who would refuse sixpence towards a Christmas tree for the kiddies suffering from superfluous appendices, burns, ruptures, hairlips and other painful defects of their small frames.

The Christmas tree is erected in the children’s ward but the ceremony of lighting it up and distributing the gifts with which it is hung does not take place until half way between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The children are not impatient of this however as they have their stockings, or it may be a pillow slip, well stuffed on Christmas Eve.

All patients who can be discharged with safety are sent home and all but emergency cases are refused so that numbers may be reduced and one room at least in each ward or suite of wards be cleared for the entertainment and dance to which the main subscribers and all connected with the infirmary are invited.

Days in advance I was told I would be moved into the larger ward so that the patients might be all together for the Christmas dinner and when the series of entertainments was over I should be wheeled back to my old place.

Accordingly, from a quiet corner in the big ward I watched the long tables being decorated with flowers, crackers, coloured serviettes, the electric lights covered with shades of crepe paper in red with big black bows. It was all interesting enough but very tiring to a weakly person and I was glad when the lights were lowered and we might, if we could, compose ourselves to sleep.

It seems as if we had hardly fallen into a dose when we were wakened at 3.30 am to get washed. In reply to a sleepy protest or two we were told that there was so much to be done that morning that the patients and their beds had to be straightened and disposed of as it were before day light.

I had dreaded very much this Christmas dinner but found to my pleasant surprise that I could eat a slice of tender beef with a spoonful of Brussels Sprouts and there was no need for me to do more than look from a distance at the smoking portions of plum pudding served out to the others. It is amazing to note what hearty meals most bed ridden patients can take — especially the appendix cases —- once they are convalescent.

It isn’t often that one hopes and prays, as Christmas Day draws near, that the post may bring no more parcels, cards or letters but that was my state of mind for a few days. The pleasure of being remembered by numerous friends was turned over almost into distress by the difficulty of knowing what to do with them not to speak of the preliminary difficulty of opening them — one lying flat on a narrow bed with no table but the tiniest of “ lockers” (wholly full to over flowing) on which to place paper, string, envelopes and the miscellaneous articles unfolded.

One’s friends naturally have no idea what very limited storing space is allotted to each patient They do not exactly think about it but at the back of their minds they picture a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a table. Hence my apprehension when several parcels — however small — and a bundle of letters would be laid on my bed.

A friend called one afternoon and found myself and my coverlet half hidden by my share of the postman’s pack.

“ Oh,” she cried, with characteristic candour, “I didn’t know you were so much loved. Because you know you are charming to people only when you are in the mood. You are not always nice.” (From which you are to infer that she and I on occasion have had words.)

“But,” I replied, “it isn’t a question of being loving at all.  It is the generous goodness of our hearts which is moved by my lonely situation stricken like this hundreds of miles from my nearest kin.”

While I was pondering this, the post brought me more. To-day one more parcel which contained a knitted shoulder bed wrap. It was exactly what I needed.

The hospital jackets are red but I have, of course, bed jackets of my own. A friend sent me one of ample dimensions which she had made herself in soft woollen material of a deep shade of rosy pink. I was to wear it on Christmas Day and at 9.30 am — she would never dream that I was to breakfast before five am that morning.

I decided to wear it over my plainer jacket of mauve and black striped Jaeger as one can do with several garments on the upper part of the body if the bedding is folded down. Red ribbon was distributed wherewith to tie up our two pig tails that we might have a festive look in keeping with the red electric shades.

I was loath to sleep in this bed jacket or even to wear it every day when it was certain to get quickly soiled. It must be kept for visiting days. Next day I was pondering on what I should have in its place to keep my shoulders and arms sufficiently warm while they are exposed to the wintry atmosphere when I am writing for an hour or more at a stretch.

While I was pondering this, the post brought me on Boxing Day one more parcel — a knitted shoulder bed wrap. These were popular for a while and are useful for slipping over the shoulder but apt to leave the chest exposed.

However it was exactly what I needed: covered my shoulders and my arms to the elbows and —- best of all — not too large for me to take off and on without assistance. Curious that it should supply evidence of that most impressive generosity of which I had spoken to my candid friend, for the donor is a lady whom I have not met half a dozen times.

Meanwhile a violent gale is blowing which surely will end in blowing down a chimney stack at least. Draughts come in from every door and window and the nurses say how cold it was through the night. Their fingers are like ice when they touch us.

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T. L. Peacock’s Views on Burns – January 1924

In a passage in T.L. Peacock’s Gryll Grange he exalts Robert Burns as the “faithful interpreter of nature.” No poet, he says is “truer to nature than Burns” and no one less so than Moore. Again, “Shakespeare never makes a flower bloom out of season” and he compares unfavourably with the poetry of these two great sons of nature such classics as Milton’s Lycidas and Keats’ ode to a nightingale.

This is not to belittle the loftiness of the blind puritanical poet but to draw attention to the fact that he is less in touch with this fair earth than his worldly minded brothers, equally great in entirely different spheres. Some one may write to me protesting at my classification of Burns alongside such great names as Milton and Shakespeare. I merely claim that he is equally great in his own restricted sphere which was that of the humble Scottish peasantry of his day. And he died heart broken at 37 (puir Rabbie).

Thomas Love Peacock has another word to say: Let me end with it: “Burns was not a scholar but he was always a master of his subject. All the scholarship of the world would not have produced Tam O Shanter; but in the whole of that poem, there is not a false image nor a mis-used word.

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