The bright spot over these past few days of first-world problems has been the companionship of perfect bedside reading material in Norman Collins' Bond Street Story.
Rammell's department store is the epicentre for the characters in this book, published in 1958. The Second World War is only lightly touched upon and there's little mention of austerity. In fact, at Rammell's department store, with its staff of over one thousand, and too many departments to mention, it's nothing short of a consumer's paradise.
The patriarch of Rammell's is Sir Harry. At nearly eighty he is 'somewhere in the teenage of his second childhood' and full of ideas, some of which are ridiculous and raise the ire of his son and heir, Eric. The junior Mr Rammell lives in Eaton Square with his wife, who in my mind closely parallels Hyacinth Bucket in the social climbing department. As for her appearance, Collins is unforgiving...
'The door had opened by now, and Mrs Rammell was standing there. She was undeniably a handsome woman. Tall, fine-limbed, distinguished looking. But distinctly unrestful. Too much of the race-horse about her. Even in the loose bathrobe that she was wearing there was something in the dark observant eye, the distended nostril, that suggested the starting-gate and photo-finishes.'
Their only son, Tony, is twenty-three years old and showing little interest in the position as the next heir apparent to the Rammell dynasty.
Mr Privett and his family live in a modest home on Fewkes Road in Kentish Town. Husband and wife met while working in their respective departments, but as this is a story of its time, Mrs Privett left work once she had a husband and home to care for. Their seventeen year old daughter, Irene, is showing signs of stretching her job search to places other than Rammell's which causes no small amount of upset at home.
And then there is Marcia, the star model for the department store....
'Wherever you looked, she was there. Superb. Serene. Indisputable. The steeply arched eye-brows. The long curve of the cheek. The deep indecipherable eyes. The wide gentle mouth. The face smiled imperturbably on the public from all sides. From boxes of face powder. From the shiny pages of expensive magazines. From Mayfair pageant programmes. From the walls of the Underground platforms.'
Once the fancy department store clothes and make-up come off, Marcia goes home to her spartan flat. Mind you, it's off Sloane Square. It's not quite the life she sees for herself so when Mr Bulping, a chief buyer, shows an interest in her, she is mildly entertained. But soon she's repulsed by his pawing, slurpy kisses, and sweaty brow. Who wouldn't be?
Mr Privett from Kentish Town has a longtime friend in Mr Gus Bloot. Their relationship is a touching one, more so since Gus's wife died and left him quite alone in a rooming house with only his prized budgies for company. But that's about to change with the appearance of Hetty as he sinks into the sound of her voice....
'...still warm and caressing even when sending casuals and other wartime shop crawlers away from the shop totally unserved. Or the perfume that she used - a thick musky scent that conjured up visions of palm trees and bright moonlight and scorching sun. Or her hair - jet black and worn long, wound round the top of her head in a braid as thick as a ship's hawser.'
Hetty, from Finsbury Park, is the complete opposite of Gus's dearly departed Emmie and the poor fellow is losing sleep over what to do next.
Norman Collins shines brighter than anyone I can think of when it comes to creating characters and weaving them all together to create a story as closely woven as any fabric. His dry wit and pin-sharp observations are irresistible and often hilarious....
'The film itself the wildly popular one - was rather sad, Irene thought. It was set in the Canabière district of Marseilles. And it was all about a deaf and dumb girl who murdered her illegitamate baby when it tuned out to be blind like her lover. But the photography, everyone agreed, was of of this world. It was shot mostly at night. Or in the rain. With only the outlines of things showing. These, however, were enough. Rubbish bins, urinoirs, public wash-houses, seweres, horse-abbattoirs - they were all there. In short, the film had Cannes Festival Award written all over it.'
For anyone who has read London Belongs to Me and wanted the story to go on and on despite its doorstop heft, a treat awaits you in Bond Street Story. And speaking of treats, a cosy English novel that ticks a plethora of boxes would not be complete without the lusty description of a good tea.
'As soon as the room was to rights again, Mr Privett went through into the scullery and put on the kettle. Then he arranged the tea tray with the cups and saucers. And, going over to the cupboard he took out the large circular cake tin with the portrait of Queen Mary on the lid. It was the remains of a chocolate cake that was inside. Thick chocolate on top. Then broad veins of brown sponge with white cream running thickly across it. It looked rich and geologic. Mr Privett cut two generous slices and put them on a plate beside the empty teapot. Even so he was sorry that it was chocolate. Fruit cake, he knew, was what Mr Bloot preferred. Cut from the solid block. The dark kind with preserved cherries in it. Marzipan icing on the top if you like. Even shredded coconut. But definitely fruit. And preferably cherry.'