Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Price of Refrigerators at the Army & Navy

When I worked in Kensington, I often walked past the blue plaque on the block of mansion flats where T.S. Eliot spent his last years, and then, barely a hundred yards away, the blue plaque on the considerably grander block where Ivy Compton-Burnett lived. Did the paths of these two literary grandees ever cross, I would wonder? (And did either of them come across Carry On actress Joan Sims, who lived even closer to Eliot's apartment? That would have been something...) Now, thanks to Hilary Spurling's brilliant biography of Ivy, I know that at least her and the Eliots' paths did indeed cross.
 This was at a time when Ivy  had developed a habit of mischievously steering the conversation relentlessly towards such subjects as the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy stores.She would then exclaim with mock dismay, 'Here we are - some of the best-educated people in England, I suppose - and all we can talk about is the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy.' She applied the technique to Mr and Mrs T.S. Eliot when they met at a party in Knightsbridge and subsequently shared a taxi home. By all accounts, they talked of nothing but the forthcoming Rent Act (an obsession of Ivy's), cake shops, fishmongers, greengrocers in the Gloucester Road and where to go for the best fillet steak. Ivy found the whole episode very amusing, as did the Eliots, who were 'tickled by the fact that she was complaining bitterly both at the party and in the taxi at having to pay the porter five shillings for bringing up her coals!'
 The poet and the novelist continued to glimpse each other on their rounds and no doubt exchanged more observations on cakes and fish (the latter, oddly, the very subject that R.S. Thomas raised with Liz Taylor). 'I don't see very much of him, you know,' reported Ivy, 'but I like to know he's there.' She found the phenomenon of 'Mr Eliot's bride' quite fascinating. 'Apparently she's always adored him,' she told Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one), 'although she was his secretary for years. I am sure if I had been his secretary for a fortnight I should have wanted to poison him, not marry him... Yes, I should have run round to the chemist's for three pennyworth of poison after a very short time.'

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