At the Fortnum and Mason’s Parlour Cafe service continues at the place of a sedate, unhurried butler coming up from downstairs.
I have ordered an Americano Coffee with hot milk on the side to sip while I wait for parcels from gift-wrap. Already I know that the parcels will be done in the same stately pace as it takes for my cup of coffee to be served. When the coffee does arrive, with the little chocolate ice-cream cone, it is about as perfect a treat as can be.
The Summer Sales are in progress in London. Much as they might like to, Fortnum and Mason’s cannot ignore them. But F&M resent all that mid-season sales imply and it is impressive how they manage to keep the allure around their brand. So the sales tables that are sprinkled through all of the floors are small, and layered with just a little of this and that. On one table lie a few scarves, half a dozen summer hats and clutch bags as if at a summer charity fête. At the kitchen table I weakened to a delicate light green and white stripped mug. It is perfect for those mornings when I do not go out, but boil the kettle at home for a mid-morning Nescafe.
On The Parlour Cafe floor, after the sale table, my eye is quickly drawn to the display of baskets. The wicker picnic hamper is back in fashion. We still have our one from Harrods bought over seventy years ago. Though the real knives and forks have disappeared the then new plastic containers and plates are still alive. These new wicker hampers also have ‘real’ knives, forks, plates and, of course, crystal glasses.
The hamper display is surrounded by shopping baskets in all guises.
All of them are bigger than my mother’s shopping basket which she carried into Fleet every weekday morning.
It would be close to ten-thirty in the morning before she was able to leave the house and drive to town with only a lip-stick and a small change purse in her basket. Once in town she would join friends for a coffee At Mrs. Max’s Café, before walking the high street to shop though she didn’t actually buy very much.
What did my mother do taking those precious morning hours in town? The ladies met at Mrs. Max’s Café, taking an hour or so to pretend they had nothing to discuss, but between sipping their coffee, smoking a cigarette or two, maybe even sampling one of Mrs. Max’s homemade croissants, they chose what secret heartaches to share among the gossip and laughter of friends. Mrs. Max’s pastries were reputedly not only the best in town but in Hampshire. She was French and in some way a refugee from the war. What caused her to be here was a question far too advanced for a child to ask. Did Lady Pechall, with her understanding of many things foreign know Mrs. Max’s story? Had she perhaps been instrumental in helping Mrs. Max get ‘settled‘ in the town? There is no recollection of a Mr. Max. After finishing their coffees and loosening their hearts the ladies got up to leave, saying that they had to ‘get on with it or I will be late.’ Each would stop in this shop and that as they walked the length and back along the High Street, placing orders and possibly putting one or two things in their baskets.
What did my mother buy in our small Hampshire town? Maybe some cooking staples, flour, sugar and raisins. Spices remembered from her years in Africa and still scarce in this immediate post-war period? These she could find in Canes Corner ‘Up to Date Stores’ at the far end of town or maybe at Ernest Oakley’s General Store, situated closer to the center of town. If she has a large list it would be boxed up in an orange crate to be delivered to the house. Mr. James Oakley himself might drive up to the back kitchen door, put the box on the kitchen table and, if Mrs. P was in a good mood and he not too busy, share a cup of tea while chatting, as one does, binding community together. Daily deliveries were still common in the countryside. Milk from Rose Farm Dairy was brought by the milk man on his way home to the dairy farm next door. Late morning would often find me waiting for the milk cart to return and be hoisted onto the back of the old piebald cart-horse to ride the few yards to the farm driveway. Gordon then lifted me back off and I would scamper home again, believing, as children do, that no-one saw me. Bread was delivered three times a week from Jessett’s Store. If he saw me the delivery man would slip me fresh still-warm roll from his basket. Even the butcher, Mr Percy Harden, would drive up with meat and game, considered to big or messy for my mother to carry. It was a time of transition. A time to change, to be more in tune with the new post-war society. For a large Edwardian household such as ours, outdated even then, this was a challenge. My mother had only the beloved Mrs. P. to help her each day. There was no housekeeper to rule the kitchen though my father kept three gardeners for as long as he could afford it.
Today deliver service is offered to the online shoppers of Tesco and Waitrose. Every evening one of their trucks comes down our little street and unload crates of groceries which fit into American sized refrigerators.
But for some baskets are now the smart midmorning accessory while we become super conscious of our plastic consumption and the need to buy fresh and organic produce.
The trolly is permissible on Camden High street though rarely seen on Regent’s Park Road. I bought my basket in Paris, where nearly everyone still shops with a basket.
But sometimes, when it is full, for I buy most things in our small village, it gets heavy.
This last week I pulled out from behind the washing machine my mother’s old basket.
She had long ago relegated it to carrying cleaning products up and down her stairs. Somehow she needed to honour its devoted service and hold onto the memories it carried for her.
I too had not let it go and for fifteen years it has held ‘extras’ in the back of a cupboard. But out it came, shaking off the under-stairs dust and, after a spray of furniture oil, it felt perky enough to fit on my arm and come into town. It holds more than I thought. It is well designed and alongside the bigger french basket it has it’s place once more.
Baskets are for the markets and for those of us who are older, who need the exercise and the daily connection with others. Walking into the village and coming home with our basket full is a good mornings work.