Sir Sebastian is the nation’s premier luvvie. You can tell because he is a frequent guest on that television chat show with Dame Judy and Miriam Margoyles. This year he has, along with most of the other guests who appear in the autumn, a book to promote. This has been a useful diversion during Lockdown. Sebastian’s major project ‘Wylie World’, a theme park dedicated to his Aunt Muriel and Uncle Jasper, has been on hold because of the pandemic.
Officially the project is up and running again, but in practical terms little is happening. The hands needed for such a major cultural undertaking are not available. Mainly because anyone who can do anything has been sent back to Europe, so that “we can get our country back”, and “make our own rules.” Or as Jasper has noted in his diary, (while observing the political goings on of the last fortnight), “make our own rules and then break them when it suits.”
On the train the theatrical knight has had time to reflect on what his aunt, a conservative and his uncle a socialist might have thought about “the democratic deficit”, that seems to be occurring in Britannia. While Uncle Jasper no doubt would have gloated over resignations and sleaze, Aunt Muriel would have been deeply shocked. She was, it is true, a woman of decided opinions and indeed things were done either “my way or the highway.” She did, however, have integrity and the greater good at heart. Both imagined a world of custard and duster coats for all, even if they had what today would be called different “road maps”. The destination of choice was a place of tray cloths and napkin rings for all.
Sebastian, probably the world’s greatest interpreter of Shakespeare, took a little persuading to come North. His life is quite comfortable now in The Home for the Terminally Overdressed, which is tucked away on the Slough Trading Estate. It is a retirement facility specialising in providing care for elderly theatricals and those who have given their lives to stage and screen for our entertainment and education. He resides in the exclusive Judy Garland Wing, where those with memory issues can be assisted with the latest techniques. Sebastian sometimes has difficulty navigating his way through the present, but his good days are very good, and he enjoys representing the residents on the board of management.
He is still making appearances in film and television. Pinewood Studios and Broadcasting House are just a fast taxi journey along the M4. Media City in Salford is a bit of a trek and anyway Sebastian does not much care for Manchester and its environs since he was turned down for the role of Elsie Tanner’s son in Coronation Street in the early 60s.
He sits on a vast cultural archive and collection of material relating to his aunt and uncle. This gives him power and a role as it is much sought after particularly by two avaricious media women, Hilary Dee Range and Vivienne Valhalla. They are cunning and do everything in their power to access the material but “you cannot outfox” the Wylie Fox and the old actor plays them along.
Naturally they, like so many, have seen Cop 26 not only as the last chance saloon, but an opportunity. There are always opportunities, even in our darkest hours. To keep them at bay but interested, Sebastian has allowed the culture vultures access to some of the material that is associated with Muriel and Jasper’s visit to Washington in 1961 when they went to help the First Lady, Mrs Kennedy, with the redecoration of the White House. This, with its clothes and decorative details, has produced an exhibition which has opened in Glasgow to critical acclaim. Fitting in with the zeitgeist, as they say, and they say many things, it has an appeal to lovers of vintage and authenticity. It has proved to be an attraction to young Cop visitors when they are not marching with Greta in the rain. Cleverly, it has also drawn attention to Jasper’s latest book, Put Your Feet in a Box, which draws on his aunt’s wartime work and has relevance for the planet today. All underpins Wylie World now pivoting, like everyone else, to be “part of the solution”.
Sebastian is travelling to his home city of Glasgow, with his faithful entourage including Dean and Pearl Travers. Dean is the grandson of Mrs Travers (who did but not a lot) and son of petty criminal Billy Travers and his wife Sharon, who had the highest beehive hairdo in Glasgow and the most limited cooking abilities. Pearl and Dean act as chauffeur and secretary to the man who gave Shakespeare’s Richard III new meaning.
In case you have become too remote in Lockdown Richard III was a play by the most famous of the Shakespearean writers, William Shakespeare. At Glasgow they are met on Platform 2 by the Station Master (as the cameras are there for a documentary on BBC Scotland, which shows how the staff, live to work at the Station) and the manager of the Central Hotel where they will be staying. “Well, it was good enough for Roy Rodgers and Trigger,” said Sebastian to Pearl who thought a hotel nearer the conference centre would have more sensible. After all it was here “…that Aunt Muriel gave many of her famous lecture-ettes and Uncle Jasper helped prop up the Half Moon Bar in one of his tweed suits.” After a delicious afternoon tea at The Willow Tea Rooms, the theatrical knight and his team made their way to the Museum where a keynote had been organised by POPs (Pensioners Of the Planet).
“President Biden, Greta, First Minister, Provost, Ladies and Gentlemen – or if you are modern, Hi Guys and Guy-ettas – or if you are simply Glaswegian, Haw Yous.
It gives me the most enormous pleasure to be here this evening on behalf of POPs, which seeks to demonstrate that there are somethings the older generation got right and can provide inspiration for those of you who will live on the planet long after we have gone to the great green room in the sky. Indeed, might I begin by drawing attention to the fact that I am wearing a jacket which is not only older than you, but older than your parents and was indeed bought here in Glasgow at Messrs Carswells in Gordon Street. The cravat belonged to my uncle, and the cufflinks were a gift from the leading cultural promoter of my youth, the 1930’s chanteuse and high kicking dancer, Lady Pentland-Firth for my ‘Malvolio in the Park’. The arrest was unfortunate but in those days that’s how it went.
Today my generation and those who came before are criticised on what we have done or not done to the planet. Much of this is justified and we take the blame – mea culpa, we are all implicated. In our defence might I say two things, firstly it is the case that one can only do what one is enabled to do, but also and secondly, that there are exceptions to be found by mining the archives of yesterday. We, who increasingly come from another time and place, have had our brief shining moments too. It is often said that the wartime generation was exceptional and my excursions into the collections of my late Aunt Muriel, the simply marvellous Baroness Wylie of Waterside, might demonstrate that we were not all bad.
I know that many of you now know more of the part Aunt Muriel played in the last Unpleasantness,as wartime material has been declassified. To cut a long story short, she undermined the Nazi position in France enabling the D-day Invasions to take place. Her work with Dynamite Di and Winnie – she of the bicycle and the Wool shop in Auchterarder – have become legendary.
Few, however, know that in the early days of the war she was given the task of keeping up morale on the domestic front by giving people a feeling that they could do something to make a difference, even if they were at home. She embodied, indeed she invented, what would come to be called The Home Front by coming up with ideas that would appear in the press, women’s magazine and government leaflets.
It seems to me that much of what she promoted has been forgotten. We have more recently swum in a sea of stuff and a torrent of newness for the sake of it. Now perhaps we might once again adopt or adapt some of Aunt Muriel’s ideas, which were once embraced throughout the land. I will share some of these with you now if I might have the first slide.
Keeping a roof over one’s head and staying warm and dry are major considerations. So are carbon reductions. Aunt Muriel’s first piece of advice when trying to stay warm was, “keep moving or someone will throw a blanket over you.” She believed people sat around too much. On the other hand, she was well aware that munitions workers and desk bound secretaries were often chilly in unheated factories and offices. To a group of typists processing orders for rivets designed for aircraft she suggested:
You should find a wooden fruit box or cardboard box, into which one places straw or an old a blanket and a hot water bottle of the stone variety. Placing this under your desk, you may then insert your feet and stay warm without heating the room.
Aunt Muriel would later maintain that “many a Blenheim Aircraft was really built on feet in boxes”.
Muriel also believed that bed was a workstation and put many a finishing touch to inspirational prose tucked up under a quilt made from oddments of material. She also advocated putting on one’s make-up in bed, and wearing some old white gloves to keep one’s hand warm.
She even recommended the re-use of flour sacks from grain mills for pillowcases, as the fabric was so soft and warm, even if the manufactures logo did look a bit odd on the spare bed. Children, she believed, could begin the day warm by getting dressed under the bedclothes. In the bitterest of winter weather, such as that of 1947 she suggested a layer of newspaper or brown paper under a school jumper. As cats know, there is nothing warmer than newspaper.
Until recently the balaclava has been seen as something of a joke, now in 2021 it is a fashion item reflecting the current mood. During the war Muriel and her team recommended the universal wear of Balaclavas to keep warm in winter by providing knitting patterns in magazines – next slide, please.
A simple warm head covering can also be provided with the pixie hood, made by taking an old gent’s woollen scarf and folding it in two and then sewing it together for about 8 inches.
Aunt Muriel was well aware that it was hard to suppress fashion in times of shortages. Making a new dress out of two old ones became one of her trademarks as did “turning old undies into new” She managed to turn national effort and thrift into fashion by encouraging a competitive spirit. It became a matter of pride to fashion knickers from something else. There were more than a few Glasgow West End ladies going about their daily business in a remodelled silk parachute, with a touch of left-over lace and a double gusset, for the blackout. Even a gentleman’s trousers, to quote Lady Pentland-Firth, “had possibilities,” the legs and turn-ups easily made into a child’s shoe-bag, with a piece of cord or football lace threaded through the seam.
Muriel’s range of evening cloaks made from the boardroom curtains of a shipping company, being replaced by blackout curtains, became a must have accessory for the dance halls of 1941. There was she knew virtue in ingenuity and moderation. Waste could be made an enemy and extravagance immoral.
There were few aspects of the domestic economy which did not feel Muriel’s gaze. To cut back on meat consumption she persuaded Lord Woolton to promote a pastry dish of vegetables. Methane was not top of her thoughts, but meat imports using valuable shipping and fuel were. While the public were not thrilled about this, corned beef pie with onions and beans was a popular dish, using what was in the store cupboard. To women’s magazine editors, she promoted cakes with dried egg, mock marzipan, and mock cream, not to mention mock turtle soup, saying at one point “I am a mass of mocks.”
Fires could be made smaller using two bricks one either side of the grate. If a wartime wedding needed a bridal dress Aunt Muriel advocated the use of an old satin slip, and a pair of net curtains and for the headdress – a pill box hat fashioned out of white card and some pigeon feathers. A baby on the way? You don’t have a cradle all you need is an empty drawer. Somewhere to store a child’s toys – cover an old commode. Waste not, want not were her watchwords.
No opportunity missed!
Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on, and would be happy to do so, but that I fear would detain you from your supper. If you wish to read further and perhaps put into practice some of Aunt Muriel’s planet saving ideas, please do buy my book printed on sustainable paper with sustainable ink available in the Museum bookshop. This reminds me finally that regarding book production in War time, Muriel cut down on paper consumption by persuading publishers to reprint different titles on the inside jackets of books which remain unsold. She was, I believe, ahead of her time.”
“Thank you, Sir Sebastian, that was simply marvellous. Now finally before supper and for those of you who cannot get enough of Sir Sebastian, on Saturday he will be speaking at the Theatre Royal on the topic of Shakespeare as an Environmentalist. I see storms and shipwrecks ahead. Please put your hands together for Sir Sebastian Wylie Foxe.”
Sir Sebastian, if I might interrupt, apologies Sir David. I represent Woolly Films and I wonder if we might interest you in a part in a Christmas film with the working title “No Jumper for Santa”.
“Oh, I don’t think so, I have my artistic integrity to think of.”
“You could play it like King Lear.”
“I could. What does it pay?”
“A great deal.”
“Where do I sign?”
Sebastian Wylie Fox