1965, Atholl Crescent College of Domestic Science, Edinburgh. I’m nineteen and studying Institutional Management for three years which will qualify me to run large organisations on the domestic front. I’m not bright enough for University, according to my school, but I’m practical, so this will do. Because I’m never going to tell anyone that my dream is to be an actress, my mother would expire.
We’re in cookery class, a room full of huge gas ovens and wooden topped kitchen tables, all to be scrubbed before we finish. I’m wearing full whites which include a starched apron and a white, lace edged mob cap. In class we are all to call each other by our surnames, so I turn to my friend Kate and say “Miss Dury, could you help me with this please?” This is the swinging sixties…
We start with the basics, beef stew and apple pie, then over the next three years advance into classical French cuisine according to Escoffier, the famous French chef who was followed slavishly then. The worldwide cuisine we have now is unknown for some time to come. Eventually we arrive at large scale, cooking for anything up to 180, the average lunch time sitting in the student dining hall.
Still on the practical front we learn to clean everything imaginable, launder, sew, and even how to oil bed springs, which I’ve never been called on to do again. In the class room there are Business Studies, Legal Studies, Physiology and Nutrition, all delivered by the same brigade of middle aged to elderly ladies I thought I’d escaped when I left boarding school. The style is formal, rigid, unforgiving and incredibly dull. But at least the practical stuff is active and passes the time faster.
My first year is in a hall of residence, sharing a room with Kathy, who talks from waking to sleeping, mostly about “my George”, whom she eventually marries. The rules are tight, no visitors, sign in and out, written permission needed for a weekend away, detailing who, where. Creating an uncle in not so far away Dundee, I spend a weekend with a boy I’m keen on who is studying there, and we part with our virginity on a rickety old army camp bed he borrowed for me, in case I said no. The following day I try my beef stew on him and his flatmates. More practice needed on both, but sadly not yet a while, as he soon leaves College to take a job abroad.
I’m nervously getting ready for my first Saturday night dance at the Student Union. Five of us line up around the dance floor with all the other girls, waiting for the boys who are still in the pub. As they arrive they file past us, eyeing us up and down, whilst we try to look nonchalant. Two stop in front of me and one says – “what d’you think?” “Nah” the other replies “don’t like her skirt.” They move on.
Gradually the other four are asked to dance, each passing me their handbag. Then I see him, he’s on the other side of the room, smiling at me, and beginning to walk across. I dump the handbags in a heap and head towards him, smiling back. He goes right past, there’s a girl behind me, it’s her. Walk on, don’t stop, you’re just crossing the room… The only boy to dance with me turns out to be drunk enough to need propping up, and pretty soon staggers off, muttering.
By the end my only concern is how to get home, as all my friends have disappeared with partners. It’s late, I’ll miss curfew. With a vague idea of the direction I run down the winding, cobbled streets of the Grassmarket, which turn out to be one of the roughest parts of the old city. Drunks whistle and shout, an old man with newspaper tied round his feet lies across the pavement clutching a bottle. I take off my shoes to run the faster, and eventually make it back, late, too breathless to speak to the angry warden. I never went again.
By my second year I’m in a student flat, there are parties, and before long I’m invited to a ball. It’s glorious, the guys all in dinner jackets, or kilts and waistcoats, and the women in long dresses, elaborate hair piled high and sprayed in place. I’m with Alan, a good friend and if either of us is short of a partner for an event we invite each other. A young man approaches, blushing nervously, he’s a first year photography student, would I allow him to take portraits of me, dressed as I am?
The following week we meet in a dusty old hall where he’s set up lighting, I change into my Mary Quant with long pink gloves and shoes to match, and too shy to speak much, he moves me this way and that, until he has the images he wants. It feels glamorous and other worldly, and when he eventually gives me a photograph I can hardly believe it’s me.
It’s six thirty on a cold, wet November morning when I catch a bus to my first of six weeks “On House”. This is practical experience, working as a cook and then a cleaner for three weeks each in one of the College halls of residence. I start in the kitchen where three of us are to cook lunch for fifty, one on main course, one desert, and me on veg. I’m shown a small room in the cellar with a bare light bulb, no heating, a sink with cold water and a sack each of potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
By eleven thirty I stagger up to the kitchen with all I’ve peeled, numb with cold, and help the other two cook, serve and clear. I’m on veg for a week, then, thank heaven, we swap. At the end of each session we stock take every item in the kitchen to the last piece of cutlery, and place the orders for ingredients for lunch tomorrow. If we forget anything, even down to the last teaspoonful of salt needed, it won’t be there.
The following three weeks are spent cleaning student’s bedrooms, bathrooms and common rooms to a level of perfection only ever achieved during these tests. And we ourselves are to look immaculate at all times in our starched whites and mob caps, in case we must answer the front door, looking like someone in a period drama.
We’re being taught to operate to a standard of 100%, because once we’re out in the workplace all kinds of unexpected events will need to be dealt with, meaning we’re only likely to achieve standards of around 80% most of the time. It’s like the army, perfect drills, immaculate uniforms, highest achievements, in preparation for the unknown that a battle will bring.
My first taste of battle is three weeks work experience in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a gothic, outdated 1000 bed hospital, where the kitchen is staffed by 30 chefs and a small army of women. It’s like an industrial cathedral, vast, bewildering, and full of huge equipment. I report to a chef who passes me on to one of the women, and I sense her sizing me up – English, posh, probably hopeless. “Go peel they sybies” she says brusquely, pointing to mountains of spring onions on a kitchen table.
The work I’m given is basic, and my biggest challenge is understanding the rough, guttural Scots accent of the women, whilst they enjoy taking the mickey out of a student. There’s a tight knit group who work incredibly hard with arms in water up to the elbows, constantly washing the huge pots and pans that come to the sinks thick and fast. They tease me mercilessly, but I know it’s not unkind, so I just keep grinning, and they roar with laughter.
On my last day I’m allowed to prepare trifle. A week’s left over sponge cake has been thrown into what looks like a small paddling pool on wheels, and I crumble it across 90 large dishes, then cover it with endless tins of fruit salad. A chef has made custard in a vat as high as my shoulder, turning a handle like a ships wheel to pour it over the fruit. Then he whisks what looks like glue in a huge mixer until it expands to become “cream” which I pipe across each dish. The reality of “institutional management” has hit home. The crew of women at the sinks are kind and affectionate as I leave, “away wi’ ye, hen, ye gie us great crack”.
By now I’m used to city life, and there’s a lot to love, although it’s a man’s world, and can be harsh. I arrive home from College to find police searching in the grass outside our flat for a murder weapon, finding a bread knife that had killed the man next door. Pubs shut at ten, so drinkers knock it back hard and fast, drunks are pretty common from early evening on and I just ignore them now. Until one day something snaps.
I’m striding up Lothian Road after a long day of cooking, still in my whites and comfortable work clogs with wooden soles. There’s some scuffling behind me and I glance round to see two guys with cans of beer, leering. I speed up. So do they, laughing and taunting. With no forethought at all I spin round and find I’ve a clog in each hand, the heels held close to the ears of one of them, and I’m snarling “one step nearer, Jimmy, I’ll smash your head in and you’re deaf.” We’re all still for a moment, the two of them rocking unsteadily, staring at me. Then I slip my clogs back on and stride away. I’ve no idea where that came from, but I’m glad to know it’s there.
I’m really excited that my final work experience is three weeks in housekeeping at the George Hotel, one of Edinburgh’s finest. It was originally five elegant town houses built in 1775, eventually converted into one, maintaining much of their Georgian splendour. The grand entrance hall has stone floors and columns, well heeled guests in wing chairs, and luxury abounds.
I’m assigned to Agnes, a chambermaid who proudly tells me that she’s 82 and has been here forty years. We clean bedrooms and bathrooms together at incredible speed and she never stops working, showing me the standards supervisors will look for when they do spot checks, and the short cuts to take that they won’t notice. You’d rather not know. And all the while she’s giving me a running commentary of the things she’s seen over the years – dead guests, fights, ladies of the night, famous people… “and it was right here in this very room.”
Dirty laundry is bundled up and kicked down several flights of a spiral stone stair case. Agnes swoops on breakfast trays to check the leavings, squirrelling away the unopened little pots of marmalade and butter in deep pockets, even the odd rasher of bacon, making sure I get my cut. Staff quarters are anything but luxury, behind the green baize door there are concrete floors and a bare, drab room where we have meals, the food arriving long before we do. Two worlds, upstairs and down.
It’s winter, my third year, and I’m walking the length of Princes Street in the cold rather than go home. The student flat I’m in this term is not a happy place. Finally I trudge back, and on a whim call Alan for help, whispering into the communal phone in the hall. In half an hour he’s found me a flat where three girls are looking for a fourth, and I can go tomorrow. I move in, relieved, and with no idea that the very best of my student days have just begun.