Authors: Norman Collins
For MARY & ERIC
A blessed companion is a book
You can tell the time of the day simply by looking at them. Not accurately enough to re-set your watch, of course. No split-second chronometer precision. But near enough. Take one glance at the faces around you, and you'd be right somewhere within ordinary sun-dial limits.
Up to 8.15 or thereabouts, they're a pretty mixed lotâworkmen, office-cleaners, early-shift postal clerks, messengers, doorkeepers, that kind of thing. But by about 8.20 the Underground system has begun to get its clients sorted out. From then on until a quarter-to-nine, youth has it. It is shopgirl and typist time, cashier and Junior secretary hour.
And with them a new sense of speed and alertness comes over the place, as though the whole world were celebrating its eighteenth birthday. The original spring freshness is still on everything. It's all brisk. And snappy. And staccato. There's the chink and rattle as the change is delivered into the little metal cup at the booking office. The quick snatch as it is scooped up again. And then the sprinter's dash down the escalator and the panic fight to get on to the train. From the way everyone behaves, all the alarm clocks in London might have been set five minutes too late. But that's always the way with the younger generation. Slapdash. Last minute. No proper planning. They're living on borrowed time every one of them.
Then as nine o'clock comes round, there's a second revolution. Sex and age go abruptly into reverse. Maleness takes over. Umbrellas and brief cases everywhere. Seasons as well as singles. Pipes as well as cigarettes. Indeed, the subtle, distinctive odour of Underground travel has changed entirely during the last ten minutes. And there's one ingredient that has faded out completely. That's the hot-house mixture of all the proprietary cosmetics, mingled regardless of their makers' reputations, and blown about by the gale of ozone that the London Transport engineers industriously keep pumping along the platforms.
It's the Older Woman who shares this predominantly male company. Confidential personal secretaries who are practically running the whole show. And the nearer it gets to nine-thirty, the more settled and unperfumed these responsible females become. Simply good straight-forward toilet soap and plenty of cold water, and the glint of no nonsense staring out from behind
their spectacles. By five-and-twenty to ten, in fact, there is hardly a woman of under forty left in the whole Underground System. A sailor straight home from the South Pole could go all the way from Colindale to Kennington, and never have any reason to glance up except to check what station he'd got to.
For, by then, London has settled down to work. Only the old guard, the heavy stuff, are still travelling. It is chairmans' and directors' session. Take a look down any carriage and it might be simply the London editions of
âmerely open newspapers, with a black hat on top and a pair of neatly creased trousers underneathâthat you are travelling with. Not a face, or even a waistcoat, anywhere. Just foreign news and home affairs and the financial columns all being borne along at thirty-five miles an hour underneath the streets and the houses, the sewers and the subways, the water mains and the telephone cables. It is a world exclusively of paper people. The nylon stockings and the toeless shoes, the
and little handbagsâthey've all vanished, along with the rest of the under-forties. It's the same carriage. Same advertisement of the same girl with the same permanent wave. Same rattle and roar in the tunnels. Same stopping places. But it might be the inhabitants of another planet who are travelling.
That's because it's in the tail-end of Mr. Marx's Class-Society that we're living. And five minutes either way mean that you have changed Classes.
On this particular morning, it was only just 8.30. And the tall man in the black overcoat and cravatish sort of tie obviously shouldn't have appeared in public before about 9.15 at the earliest. Simply didn't belong. Too opulent-looking altogether. Chauffeur driven, yes. But strap-hanging, no. He didn't really mix with Underground society at all. From his air of aloof magnificence, he might have been the President of Overseas Missions, the founder of a long line of Sunday Schools.
And he wasn't being seen at his best either. Could hardly be seen at all in fact. That was because it was the rush hour. Stampede and congestion time. Dignity, modesty, hygiene, nice feelings and all the rest of it had been left behind on the platform in the mad rush to get crammed into the train at all. If the cargo had been steers instead of human beings, one of the Animal Protection Societies would have been serving out summonses by the fistful.
As it was, this big, distinguished-looking man had got an unknown female bosom crushed practically flat against his left elbow, there was somebody else's hip pressed into his right thigh, and immediately under his nose was a lot of yellow hair that looked as if it had just been washed in an enthusiastic, amateurish kind of way and then not given time to set properly. Indeed, if it hadn't been for his height, he would have been smothered by the blonde several stations back, suffocated in a living jungle of shampoo and peroxide. There was one little wisp in particular that just reached his chin. But what could he do? His right hand was jammed flat to his side, and the other was imprisoned by that uninvited and unwanted female bosom. Short of biting the curl clean off, he was defenceless.
But in any case this was where he got out. It was Bond Street. At least, it was called Bond Street. Really it was only Oxford Street. But, even so, it was indisputably one of the better stations. It was exactly right for a man of six-foot-two with a cravat. And his behaviour was exactly right for his appearance. He didn't fight and scramble the way passengers do at other stations. He just inclined his weight forward, and said “Pord'n me.” Then when he finally got his foot on to the platform, he moved slowly and serenely. And why not? There was obviously no one waiting in the world up above to mention it if he was a few minutes
late. He could afford this unhurried, polar-bearlike saunter.
And it was the same when he emerged into the open air. Along Oxford Street he went. Into New Bond Street. Down past Bruton Street. Past Davis Street. Past Conduit Street. Into Bond Street itself. And finally to Downe Street, where the whole blockâall four sides of itâwas taken up by Rammell's.
There isn't anywhere in the world a more dignified emporium of retail commerce than Rammell's. Or a more varied and extensive one. It isn't just one shop. It is an entire streetful of shops. Complete with side arcades. And a restaurant. And two snack bars. And a bargain bazaar thrown in. All piled one on top of another, and with a specially big front door like the entrance to a Town Hall or a Bank Headquarters. A whole civilization all to itself. Practically a State.
The flagâplain white with a green “R” on itâcan be seen high over the main entrance in Bond Street. Andâbut only on Saturday afternoons, of courseâover the pavilion at the sports field out at Neasden. What's more, the telegraphic addressâRammellex, Londonâis known to cable clerks the whole world over. Even the afterthought, “London” isn't really needed. Letters addressed simply to Rammell's, England, find their way to Bond Street all right.
In short, Rammell's is famous. It's got everything. Take the Fur Salon, for example. As the highly decorative climax to what must have started up rather messily in Beaver Bay or Bear Creek, there isn't another fur salon that can match it. Not for minks or sables. Or the Library and Ticker Agency. Without it, most of Mayfair would simply sit at home looking at TV. Or Chinaware. Two floors up, there is nearly half an acre of hand-painted china and the more expensive kinds of cut-glass. Or Sports. That department brings Wimbledon, Lord's and St. Andrews all together in one blaze of coloured cat-gut, pure ivory willow and stainless steel, and keeps them there in perpetual artificial sunlight and an equable temperature all the year round. Then again, on the Provision floor (with the separate entrance in Downe Street) Rammell's potted shrimps are as good as anything that ever came out of Morecambe. But there's no point in trying to enumerate all the departments. Too many of them. Put simply, you could be clothed, fed, furnished, kept amused and ultimately buried entirely by Rammell's. Always provided that you are in the right income bracket, of course.
The tall man with the cravat had just turned the corner of
Downe Street so slowly and majestically that he might have been standing still, waiting quietly for Downe Street to glide past him. But even so, as the corner was turned, the scene changed abruptly. Rammell's shop windows ended, and Hurst Place began. Polished bronze and plate-glass gave place to grimed brickwork. And swing doors with metal kick-plates at the bottom were substituted for the revolving crystal cages on the Bond Street side.
In Hurst Place, too, the fleet of Rammell's delivery vans in their distinctive white coachwork were drawn up at the dispatch-bay like a floe of grounded ice-bergs.
It was a quarter-to-nine by now. And the staff entrance was crowded. The whole Rammell family was assembling. Rather a lop-sided family, admittedly. About two dozen girls to every man. But that's the way it is in these big shops. Rammell's alone ran to over five hundred and fifty on the distaff side. And there they were, all surging in, like novices turning up at the gates of some vast non-residential nunnery. Past the clocking-in machines they trooped, up to the staff cloakrooms. And after a quick peep in the mirror and a pat here and a dab there, down they surged again into the main shop where the dust-cloths were waiting to be whisked off the counters, and the hat stands in the Millinery department were all bunched together on one of the side tables without so much as a hat in sight anywhere.