I don’t think I ever entirely accepted the Navy philosophy of calling any accommodation, be it a house or a concrete bottomed wreck, a ship. I could never think of myself as being ashore when I went out the gate. In fact I thought the whole concept childish and foolish, but it was surprising how simply it rolled off the tongue without thinking, and does even now when taking about the Navy Instructors and senior staff at Leydene were allowed to live ‘ashore’, this gave the married men the opportunity to have their families with them, which I think was at the back of the privilege, but the single men also profited. I was not at Leydene long before I was introduced to Madam Spirella and her concentration camp. Although we were given a living allowance and still enjoyed all the facilities of Leydene, including retaining our bunks and being fed, living ‘ashore’ was inevitably dearer, added to which there were the local attractions in the form of the pub, The Jolly Sailor, the cinema and Portsmouth just down the road, were all a drain on an insubstantial income.
My mate Frank had suggested Madam Spirella’s as a suitable pied a terre and I was duly ensconced. I rented a single room on the first floor, furnished with a narrow, single steel-framed hospital bed, a card table, two cane dining chairs, a dressing table and a wardrobe which trebled as a food cupboard cum cleaning store. With linoleum on the floor and a worn mat in front of the fireplace which contained a 500 watt cooking ring that doubled as a heater, for which we paid some extortionate sum – this was to be home for quite some time. It was bleak, inhospitable, but a relief from the years of communal living, the claustrophobic atmosphere of mass humanity, repeated expletives, noise, perpetual noise, the constant demands of the public address system and Vera Lynn at every hour of the day from the wake-up call to lights out. Don’t believe all they tell you about the popularity of the Stars of the past, even they had a sell-by date and constant repetition can pall
Madam Spirella was our name for the woman who ran the house. I say ran, that is an overstatement because all she did was collect the rent, the tenants had days when they were responsible for the cleanliness of the hall and stairs and they were totally responsible for their own rooms. On the front of the house was a brass plate which said ‘Madam XXX, Corsetier and Spirella Specialist’, or words to that effect. She was not unlike Madam Arcarti in the film Blithe Spirit, detached from reality, on a higher plane of artistic genius, but that didn’t stop her coming down to earth with a thump if anyone digressed from the list of do’s and don’ts pinned up everywhere, or on rent day. We were a happy band of refugees from authority. One of our number played the trumpet in a dance band at a nearby seaside town on the weekends when he was not on duty. He constantly amazed me how every night he would take out the sheet music of the latest tune to hit the streets and proceed to orchestrate all the parts for the band, without playing a single note. Frank and a one-time school teacher from Huddersfield called Don, also had rooms and the three of us would sometimes eat together, generally on the first day of the weekly ration. At that time, 1944, with the Second Front in full swing, rations were fairly strict and only those in the know could take advantage of the black market, with the result that on Monday of every week we had a blow-out of almost all the week’s ration at one go, and then ate in the local Salvation Army canteen for the rest of the week.
Sophie, coming from Ireland did not suffer the same restrictions as we did in England. and when she came over to stay at Christmas, she brought a good deal of food she had gathered up, for the two of us, or so she thought. What she had not realised was that we, at Madam Spirella’s, tended to share and share alike and so her precious butter and eggs were destined not only for us, but my mates. It was more than a shock to her, I think it took her a day or two to get over it, especially as in our chauvinist society she was expected to cook her provender as well. It was the first morning after Sophie had arrived in Madam Spirella’s prison camp when, as I knew the ropes, I decided I would make the breakfast. Staying there were two Wrens and one was in the kitchen when I arrived downstairs. It was clear she was not in the best of form by her posture, from the way her dressing gown was holding her up rather than the reverse, and by her reaction to my breezy ‘good morning’. When I asked her what was the matter she looked at me with the most jaundiced look I have ever seen and said, ‘I hate this place,’ meaning Petersfield, ‘its full of Irish and Plymouth Brethren.’ For a moment there was silence, but she was totally unaware of her gaff. For me, there was no way I could let that go, it was too good an opportunity to be a chauvinist, so I made her bad day even worse, I told her my wife was Irish. The size of the hole which opened at her feet and into which she disappeared was just enough to accommodate her and make my day.