My mother’s nickname was Willie, and you can imagine the confusion in small minds when my children referred to ‘Granny Willie’ – but that’s our family way.
Willie was one of those who constantly find themselves in alien situations, mostly because of a determination to right wrongs – a sort of latter day, female Don Quixote. Before WW1, she left Deal and went to London to work as a bookkeeper. She worked for Simpson’s or a similar chain of restaurants in London; establishments where middle-class people would dine on special occasions, and while not in the top echelon, they were in their day considered more than acceptable to all but the very wealthy. Once, between the wars, Willie took me there I found it very dull, the dark, deep-piled, patterned carpet, the heavy dark mahogany and the hushed atmosphere were all too sombre for me at that time – it was a wasted expense, I preferred the Brasserie of the Lyons Corner House where it was bright with a lively orchestra competing with the clatter of plates and the chatter of conversation.; just what a young person looked forward to on his next birthday.
Willie was housed at the top of one of the restaurants in a sort of dormitory under the roof, where the company maintained lodgings which the female staff were obliged to occupy unless they lived at home. Situated on the borders of Soho, she sometimes heard screams from outside which made her hide under the bedclothes. I asked the obvious question, ‘what caused the screams?’ but she said it was better not to know.
At some point she was promoted to stock taker as well as bookkeeper and went round the restaurants checking stocks. This included the stocks in the kitchens and as the implements would be part of the stock, the chef had to be on hand. On one such occasion she watched with horror while the chef nonchalantly dug a boiled rat out of a cauldron of congealed fat that had been set on the floor overnight to cool. He then proceeded to place the fat on the stove to reheat for use through the day. This incident, related to me when I was about ten years old, had a profound effect on my enjoyment from then on. Blessed with a highly developed visual imagination I could see the whole scene and never forgot it, but it was not the idea of the dead rat nor the casual attitude of the chef to common hygiene which affected me so markedly, it was the way these considerations had affected my mother all her adult life; she would never again be able to sit in a restaurant without being confronted in her mind by that incident in her past.
She was not the only one affected in a material sense, as a result of her almost, irrational, and certainly singular views on restaurants and the catering industry. She introduced the ‘dreaded suitcase’, an article I loathed every time an expedition was muted. The suitcase was an albatross I had to bear, not around my neck, but it turned an outing into a drudge. I was envious of my friends, and added to this, toward the end of a long day round Hampton Court Palace, when the shins were complaining at the battering from the suitcase and the arms were tired from my turns at carrying it, there was a deep, heartfelt resentment. My specification for a day out, consisted primarily of being taken to a restaurant for a celebration lunch, the odd ice cream, sweets and maybe another meal later. My school friends would regularly relate visits to places like the Zoo, describing how they had lunched in the open air at the restaurant, what they had eaten and drunk. I could see it all, and envied them. For me, however, the disgusting chef had scotched this level of debauchery.
On the rare occasions Willie and I set out by train or bus to visit such places as the Tower of London, full of anticipation in some respects, I was burdened by a suitcase containing a ham salad for two, complete with plates, ironmongery, salt, pepper, salad cream, indeed all a person could possibly need for a picnic out of a suitcase, including tea, milk, cups and sugar. The whole procedure was ludicrous, especially as other members of the family would take me to cafes and restaurants. Willie’s sister, Josie, would think nothing of eating winkles from a stall on any promenade you care to mention.
There has been one plus to this unusual saga, however – my own children ate all manner of food in all manner of places and, as far as I know, were none the worse for it.