Old ladies’ handbags

Launer handbags, as used by the Queen
A small handbag covered in silver sequins

Gran would have sniffed dismissively at this excuse for a handbag

My Great-Grandma died when she was 96, so I have distinct memories of her. A small, slender woman with wavy, fair hair and an eagle eye, she always wore a coat with a fur collar, and usually a hat and gloves. And she always had a handbag.

This handbag was a thing of wonder. In smooth black leather, it had rigid sides and a catch that could take your finger off if you weren’t careful. It also weighed about 5lbs when empty – two tonnes when full.

And this one - how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

And this one – how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

I was reminded of her when I saw a picture of Our Own Dear Queen recently, also with a handbag. In fact she is never without a handbag, and rumour has it she uses it to send messages to her aides (looped over left arm – I am talking to a dullard; hanging from fingertips – my feet ache, fetch the car etc). What she keeps inside is also a mystery, although I like to go with a linen hankie, half a bottle of gin, dog treats and a snub-nosed revolver.

The contents of Gran’s bag were not a mystery. She was a good sport and would let my mother root through it. With the help of her, and my aunt, I have compiled a list of what Gran used to keep in her handbag – and it is quite a bit more than the Queen.

  • Coin purse
  • Note case
  • Tape measure (for checking the sizes of clothes in shops)
  • Pen
  • Diary
    Now you're having a laugh - it's a gold string vest, not a handbag

    Now you’re having a laugh – it’s a gold string vest, not a handbag

  • Address book
  • Half a bottle of brandy (“in case”)
  • Eau de Cologne
  • Comb
  • Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes – in a silver case
  • Lighter (never matches)
  • Manicure set
  • Emergency jewellery purse (she would carry a couple of gold rings and a change of earrings, you know, in case the weather changed and didn’t match her jewellery)
  • Snuff (yes, snuff – this is a woman who was born in the 19th Century)
  • Handkerchief
  • Asprin
  • Little Imps (devilishly unpleasant cough sweet things)
  • Alka Seltzer (after the brandy and Little Imps, probably)
  • Scissors
  • Needle and thread (for emergencies, like sewing up her ruptured arm after carrying the bag, presumably)
  • Powder compact
  • Lipstick
  • Rouge
  • Keys
  • Smelling salts

No room for a revolver – though all she would have to do is wallop a would-be assassin with the bag and he would go down as if felled by a cannonball.

The Queen with a black handbag

I bet it’s actually bullet-proof

No choice but to choose

A row of expensive double-door fridges

My youngest daughter goes to secondary school next year, and she gets to choose. We are lucky – the two nearest schools to us are Good schools (so Ofsted says) and there is a grammar school in the next county.
So where do we choose?

We went to Devon on holiday this year, and spent ages pouring over holiday cottages. Got it down to two – one in the middle of a town (too noisy? too busy?), one in the middle of a field (too remote? too cold?). What if we picked it wrong and spent the whole precious seven days wishing we’d gone to the other place?

Last year, we were given some money to buy a TV. It took us THREE MONTHS to decide on the model, the size, and the functions. (And just for the record, 3D is a useless gimmick).

The first time I remember being too spoiled for choice was twelve years ago when our fridge (actually my mum and dad’s old fridge) broke down. They coughed up the money for a new one as a Christmas/birthday present. It was the early days of the internet, so I didn’t have to go to actual shops, but could compare fridges online. It was impossible – did we want an ice-maker, or a chilled water dispenser, a fast-freeze function, a chrome and black finish or pristine white? One shop would give us free delivery, but was that as cheap as the other place where we would get a £20 voucher?

Alright, it is a nice position to be in, but wasn’t life much simpler when there was less choice? I don’t just mean the amount of time you would save, but the lack of personal responsibility you would have.

Tizer sign

Time was when the hardest choice of my life was between Tizer and Dandelion & Burdock

If we get the wrong school, it is our fault for choosing wrongly, and we could never forgive ourselves – same with the fridge. Would I curse myself every summer for not getting one with a chilled water dispenser? (No – but I still wish we hadn’t bothered with 3D – all those stupid glasses falling out of the cupboard).
When my mum and dad bought the old fridge (we’re talking early 80s here) they got it from Kays Catalogue and had a choice of three, the price rising with the capacity of the fridge (and no chilled water dispensers). They bought the one they could afford, thought no more about it, and got on with filling it with Yorkshire pudding batter, beef dripping and Tizer.

I had no choice about the school I went to. It wasn’t the best school, but it wasn’t the worse, and either way there was nothing I could do about it.

Sometimes, it has to be simpler to just get on with the cards you have been dealt with instead of wishing you’d gone into a different casino.

Research – the writer’s cul-de-sac

Styles For All Figures - 1920's underwear

I’ve written a time travel novel called The Clock Box, and enjoyed it so much I am half way through writing another one. The first one is set in 1926, the second in 1940. The reasons for this are plot-dictated, rather than any particular love of – or in-depth knowledge about – these eras. Even so, I reckoned I had read enough Agatha Christie to be able to blag my way through 1926 and seen enough war films to pull off 1940.

Not so. Name me a cinema you would expect to find in a small southern town in 1940. There are loads – Odeon, Gaumont, Rex. But you have to be careful. This is 1940, not 1946, so you won’t find an Essoldo – they came later. And don’t opt for a Union cinema either – they were taken over in 1937.

Essoldo cinema

An Essoldo cinema – the name was an amalgam of the names of the owner (Solomon), his wife (Esther) and daughter (Dorothy). This is where too much research takes you

While we’re on the subject – what kind of underwear did people wear in 1926? Not what was in the fashion magazines, but what did people actually wear? Was it all buttons and ribbons or were there hooks and eyes? When did elastic become widespread? Did fast young gels wear the same kind of pants as respectable housekeepers? (I have been writing sex scenes. Fastenings matter).

Woman wearing 1920s underwear

Can you imagine trying to get this stuff on? Can you imagine someone else trying to take it all off?

These are the cul-de-sacs research sends you down.

My day job is a sub-editor. This is a heavy weight I happily cast off when I dive into the fiction pool, but, like that nasty slimy seaweed that wraps around your legs, it keeps reappearing and dragging me under.

A favourite author of mine once said that while re-reading one of his earlier works he discovered that he had described the sun setting twice, about three hours apart, on one momentous day. He hadn’t noticed, and neither had his editor.

I would have done.

At a talk with crime writer Mark Billingham in Hull recently, he said a reader once contacted him to point out that a particular set of traffic lights featured in one of his books (Oxford I think…) had since been altered and it was now impossible to turn right there, as one of his characters had done. ‘You may wish to amend this for the next edition’ the reader said. Billingham laughed it off; at the end of the day, you can only do so much research, he said. You just have to go with the author, or the amendments will never end.

I would have amended it.

I spent a pointless afternoon trying to find out what food was served in hospitals during the war. They would be on rations, of course, but surely they would get extra portions? Of what exactly? I read loads of fascinating first hand accounts from nurses and patients, but apart from one fella saying he preferred it in hospital as they got better food, I drew a blank. Ended up culling it from a 1946 report of recommended menus from a charity that inspected hospitals (it later became the King’s Fund, and was founded in 1898, becoming a think-tank after the NHS was set up).

Oh, and did you know the American army officer’s summer uniform had a leather belt until 1941? After that it became a sort of hessian affair. And that Daimler produced a massive 7.1 litre car in 1926 that apparently was so quiet you could only hear the engine when the bonnet was open. And while I know from studying zoomed in pictures of these cars that they definitely had glove compartments, I can’t find out whether you could lock them from the outside.

Advert for a 1926 Daimler Double 6

A late 20s Daimler. Beautiful – but does it lock from the outside?

This is the stuff I pick up while researching and I have no idea if it is any use. I just know it eats into the precious time I have carved out for actually writing, and I invariably cut it short without finding out exactly what I need to know.

It isn’t just researching facts either. Language can make or break a book’s credibility. A crime novel set in the 1960s I read a few years ago lost me totally when one of the characters was asked how they were. “I’m good, thanks,” they replied. NO-ONE said ‘good’ like this in the sixties. It is a 21st century expression. They said ‘fine’ or ‘fab’ or ‘gear’.

Another one –  ‘balls-up’ sounds modernish, lewd, and probably American, so I was searching for a phrase like it that would have been used in 1940s England. Turns out balls-up is the perfect phrase. It came into widespread use in the First World War and while its origin isn’t clear – it may be navel thing – it has nowt to do with testicles. Who knew? Well, me, now.

I research too much and for too long. Part is procrastination, I know. Part is fear of getting it wrong and someone smugly pointing out to me that ladies didn’t wear elasticated suspender belts in June 1926 because they weren’t invented until July. Part is the journalist’s need to get it right. But the biggest part of it is my need to get inside the characters – to think, talk, eat and feel the way they feel, to see what they see when they walk down the street.

I think I’ll have to accept I need a real time travel machine for that.