Over the last fifteen years or so, my husband and I have acquired more tea sets than we can reasonably use (or house). We didn’t set out to collect them and if pressed, we would not call ourselves “collectors”. “Rescuers” feels like a better description, especially in the face of the appalling “smash the crockery” stalls from which we frequently run in horror at garden fetes. A tea set has the same resonance as a family photo album, something that might have been a wedding present, perhaps saved for “best” instead of being used every day. Once we happen across a tea set that calls to us from the jumble of a second-hand shop, we no longer have a choice. We hold our breath as each piece is wrapped, then carry our new treasure home, where it must fight for space on our already-crowded shelves.
One of our favourites is an angular green and white Palissy tea set, painted with gold stars. My husband found most of it – a large tea pot, sugar bowl, cups and saucers and tea plates – in a charity shop on Leyton High Road, near where we used to live. The milk jug was missing, presumably broken by a previous owner, so my husband started looking for one online. During the search, he acquired a matching but smaller tea pot, another sugar bowl and, eventually, the elusive milk jug. Buying china online is a risky business. Someone posted a sugar bowl and milk jug to us with no more protection than a jiffy bag. The sugar bowl survived but the jug arrived in pieces. It wasn’t the one we wanted to complete our favourite tea set but the seller’s lack of care was still upsetting.
Palissy china in this style was made by AE Jones Ltd in Longford, Stoke-on-Trent during the 1930s and early 1940s. The Palissy name was bought by The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company in 1958, later passed to Spode after a merger in 1976 and was sold to Aynsley China Ltd, also of Longford, in 1989, when the Palissy Works were demolished. The mark on the underside of our tea set seems to date it to the years between 1935 and 1939.
Which brings me to VE Day. We wanted to remember and mark this significant event in our collective past but felt a bit queasy about any sentimental “flag-waving”. Our solution was to focus on the personal – things we now have and cherish that other people owned 75 years ago. My husband carried a wind-up gramophone into the garden and provided a soundtrack to the day with a fabulous collection of 78s. Our playlist included Glen Miller, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and even (to my great surprise) the band of the Coldstream Guards playing the National Anthem – a rare engagement by my husband with that particular piece of music. We enjoyed afternoon tea from the Palissy tea set, thinking of our families’ war time experiences and wondering who had eaten from those plates and drunk from those cups to celebrate the end of the war in 1945.
This morning, I read Julia Harrison’s piece “Story telling” from her always-thoughtful Silver Locket blog. It immediately brought to mind some stories my son and I shared when he was little.
He was four years old when I lost my hair as a result of chemotherapy. Someone had advised me early on to get a wig sorted out while I still had my real hair, so it would be the best possible match. I called a friend I hadn’t seen for ages and we had a bizarre but hilarious day in Notting Hill, choosing me a wig then heading off for a late lunch. I can’t recall the name of the restaurant but its distinguishing feature was that when we ordered house wine, it came in an already-opened bottle, marked to show how much it still contained. We were charged for what we drank, presumably in centimetres, although it was all a little bit fuzzy by that point in the afternoon.
My wig really was an excellent match for my real hair but my son was disconcerted by my new appearance. As far as he was concerned, there was little to choose between my bald head and my wig. Both were repellent. I felt pretty much the same but I wanted to make him feel more comfortable. I tried to make him laugh by imagining what would happen if I was walking along one day and my wig blew away. Very soon, we had made up a story which culminated in my wig blowing into a lift as we chased it. Inevitably, the doors closed and we were left scrambling up the stairs to keep up with it. There was no obvious conclusion in which the wig and I lived happily ever after, or my hair grew back and the wig retired (although both are currently the case) but that wasn’t important. The story had served its purpose in making the wig something we could joke about and a part of our family story. My son got used to my new appearance, telling me that my head looked like a boiled egg. I never really got used to it but I came to terms with it and now, my hair looks just as it did before.
The other tale that we all still remember is the story of Horace the Rook. I invented it while we were staying with my parents in Devon. Just beyond the boundary of their garden is a tall tree, which we could see from our bedroom window. I noticed that there were often rooks perched there, sometimes in groups but more often, just one, and I made up a story. The hero was a rook called Horace, who lived in the tree with Mrs Rook and all the baby rooks. Every day, Horace would fly off to the beach (in reality, just 10 minutes’ walk for us) to forage for food. One day, he found something wonderful and brought it back as a gift for my son, who, of course, also featured in the story. I had to tell it every evening at bedtime, not just while we were in Devon but often also back at home, for many years. Despite regular “nudges” from my husband, I have never written it down, although it is still clear in my mind. If you want to know what happens, you will have to wait and see….