STORIES I CAN’T TELL
The Daily Mail, that rag, said I’d been a naughty girl from the start. The cheek! They ran a photo of me, aged five, smoking a fag, as if it were a secret they’d unearthed and not a publicity shot, as it was – and if that biographer fellow brings it up when he gets here I’ll throw him out. I will.
I won’t, of course, I can’t. I’ll have to charm the blighter. I’m not entirely dried up, so provided he’s a proper man and not a nancy I’ll be all right. The Mail ran that story some years ago, before the real scandal came out, back when they were getting hysterical about another bit of fun – you remember, ‘Me and my Dog’? All I’d said, for goodness sake, was that I was “Cold and kinda lonely,” and “Won’t some kind gentleman see me home?” That was nothing, was it, to the words of ‘The Butcher, the Baker’ or ‘My Man’o’War’? Or like my mother, twenty years earlier, standing beneath the streetlight asking, “May I walk with you? No, really? You’re very nice.” She had a fur collar and could shake it really suggestively, and the only time I sang that song on stage (in Starlight) I wore her one because it seemed both right for the song and a tribute to her. Why not?
Back then, before the war in old King Edward’s day, Mum got away with things I wouldn’t dare to try today. I did once – and I paid the price. Banned. Me, her little daughter. She was never banned. Yet the story the Mail splashed was the one about my dog (was the other one too hot for them?). Lord knows what they’d have said about Annie and her sheep: “Wagging their tails behind”, and the spoken part: “May I walk with you? You’re very nice.” She didn’t want ‘some kind gentleman to walk her home’; a quick trip down the alley would have been more up her street, as you might say.
But enough of that. I love this little old photo, me pretending to smoke a fag. Was I pretending? God knows. I was a scamp. And in the act I had to smoke, or look as if I did. People laughed because they didn’t believe I was smoking. It was 1900, thereabouts, with Queen Victoria on the throne, that stuffy and censorious age, yet not only could I go on stage and pretend to smoke but I was applauded for doing so. I sang a little song, ‘My First Cigarette’ and was billed as ‘A Bundle of Miracles: She Sings, She Dances, she plays Piano – and she Smokes just like a Man.’
This is my first cigarette
I smoked it for a bit
I can make the smoke-rings curl
Though I’m just a little girl
Who loves her cigarette
I’m trying to remember the verse. Yes.
I lit up then and there
Because I didn’t care
It tasted like burnt hay
I was a man that day
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Another verse:
I wasted lots of matches
My ciggie burnt in patches
But when it was alight
I thought it was all right!
I used to play up the “All right!” I’d jump off the stool and stamp my foot and march about like a soldier, pretending to be grown up. I had another song – no, that was later; it must have been after Queen Victoria died, King Edward on the throne; I remember I sang it in the first year of his reign when people cooed over the new king just as they cooed over a little girl in pyjamas, singing:
I love my great big teddy
And snuggle up to him in bed.
Whenever I am ready
I let him stroke my head.
Yes, yes, I know it sounds a bit naughty, but it didn’t to me, even if I did sing it in some pretty disreputable locations. The age I was I wasn’t allowed to sing in the evenings, certainly not in the big theatres, so it must have been the Mildmay or some such club, strutting about the stage looking sweet and innocent in pyjamas, getting laughs and warm applause, and with no idea of the double meaning behind my words. (I hope!)
My big old cuddly teddy
A girl’s best friend, all right
He stands so firm and steady
And looks after me at night.
I was five years old. I didn’t realise.
He’s a naughty hairy teddy
I love to make him purr
And often in my bed he
Gets me to stroke his fur.
I haven’t thought of this song for years and – oh, goodness, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there was another verse about his nose, and how it grows. Did I not realise? Right from the start then, five years old, not knowing anything, and – you know? – I was just as innocent in 1935. Go on then, cock your eyebrow, but I was always innocent; it was being so innocent that caught me out.
Here I am sixteen years later, and there’s George looking as grumpy as the title. Me looking as if butter wouldn’t melt while George looks a swell, as if he’s the star of the show and I’m the ingénue. I got him the part, for goodness sake! As if that’s not enough, he and Raymond both look young and hearty – and there’s a war on. Why weren’t they at the Front? You may well ask. Raymond’s bandage was only for the show, so how the pair of them managed to strut about in provincial towns without having a white feather thrust in their hands I can’t imagine. Perhaps they did and didn’t tell. George had his weak eyesight dodge but what was Raymond’s ‘lame’ excuse? He was as queer as a coot, of course, and would probably have been a bigger menace to our men than the Germans were, but I don’t think that got him off military service.
1916 this bundle says, not a good year, not the most cheerful set to pull from Annie’s trunk. Why do I call it Annie’s trunk? It’s been mine for twenty years. She kept everything in it, her costumes, song-sheets and hand-written scripts for old routines, but I use it now for memorabilia: my own old programmes, letters and photographs, things I’m reluctant to throw away but never look at. At the time, of course, they weren’t old, and perhaps the reason I never look in here is that some of the things don’t seem old enough: who’s interested in last year’s birthday cards? Yet now, as I delve down through all this paper looking at things from decades ago… it stops my breath. My heart flutters and I drop the bundle. Lots of bundles. Loose photographs. A hat. My life is here. Scraps I haven’t looked but which are as full of memories as old perfume bottles. You know: when you unscrew the lid an old forgotten fragrance slips out into the air, and you remember times you haven’t forgotten after all. It all comes back. Good times and bad.
I hadn’t realised how disturbing this might be. I thought, “How convenient. The biographer’s coming – what’s his name? James, yes, Mr James, and he’ll want snippets from the past. Well, they’re all higgledy-piggledy inside this trunk, I thought, and I can use them like cues from a half-forgotten script. “What d’you want to know?” I’ll ask. “What shows I did? When I recorded that song?”
I suppose he’ll want to know something about George.
This bundle is as good a starting place as anywhere, 1916, even if it was one of the worst years of my life. But before I show him any of this I’m going to weed out the stuff I don’t want him to see. There will be things I can hardly bear to see myself: memories of George, and Derek, and Bobby, and Charlie. Perhaps 1916 is not where I should start.
[You get the idea: as Maggie talks she shows you photos and fliers and shares extracts from old scripts. But what are the secrets she’ll unfold? There are some. Oh, yes. She’ll tell you things she won’t tell me!]