Knit one pearl one

Posted by Jeni in Ad Infinitum | 8 February 2021

As the snow covers the Hellebores I've just read that James Dean would have been 90 this week, he died when I was six.

Neither Mr. Dean nor Mr. Presley were visitors in our house, our house - one of the first to have quadraphonic sound - preferred to fill the air waves with Mr. Sinatra, Ms Fitzgerald, Coltrane and Gospel. My father played drums on a biscuit tin using knitting needles, my mother harmonised to Doris Day, and I practiced my five finger exercises whilst swooning over a singer from Lucknow, India. Cliff Richard was a sanitised version of Elvis, who had the delicious Jet Harris playing bass for him in the 'Shadows', and his red double decker bus from 'Summer Holiday' was parked in the Studios car park down the hill. I didn't stick pictures of Harry Webb on my bedroom wall, but I did learn all the lyrics to 'Living Doll' and 'The Young Ones'. Travelling back from The Watford School of Music on the big six-wheeler, scarlet painted, London Transport, diesel engine, ninety seven horsepower omnibus. I would climb the spiral stairs to the top deck of the No.306 - reeking of stale fag smoke - that's the bus not me I didn't start smoking till I was 18 - sit next to a window, wipe away the condensation then, staring at my reflection, I would practice curling my lip like Cliff. I can still twerk my lips in opposite directions on both sides, a skill of absolutely no use to anybody.

Our slum clearance house was a new build with a little open fire and a coal bunker outside the kitchen door. My father decorated every year painting over the wood chip wall paper. We were the very first to have a totally black living room wall in front of which stood Ercol furniture, designed by Lucian Ercolani, whose 'simple goal was to create well-designed, quality furniture made with pride by trained craftsmen'. My father, though unschooled, had a keen eye. Our contemporary home was carpeted and dust free, not to mention the garage full of knocked off toasters.

I would place the beautifully crafted ash tree rocking chair in front of the record player and put Dionne Warwick on the turn table. I taught myself to sing to Burt Bacharach, who shared my mother's birth date. My stage mother turned down the role of 'Buttercup' in the annual school production of Gilbert and Sullivan, preferring that I took the limelight. 'HMS Pinafore' featured several naughty boys playing sailors, Dave Green, who played my love interest and me. I can remember standing centre stage, speaking a line, waiting for the laugh, then extending the pause over the three nights and basking in the glorious embrace of the biggest laugh of the three. My first review in the Boreham Wood Post, which I still have in a flimsy scrap book my mother used for all my endeavours, wrote that I was the next Dora Bryan, who was a minuscule comedienne who ended up living in Brighton and cocking her leg up in the air whenever she could. The review said I had wonderful comic timing but that I couldn't sing for toffee. Hence me sitting in the rocking chair doing my sing-along-with-Dionne.

I was once told by a psychologist that if you get lost in life, returning to your dreams of the six year old version of you will clarify your purpose. I never had any doubt that I would grow up to be a loud mouthed performer. I always wanted to act. There is a photograph of me, aged three, with Jazz hands, singing Al Jolson's' 'Toot Toot Tootsie' at a Communist Party Social. I'm bobbing about in a purple and green silky number wih matching bunched knickers. The ensemble had been sent over from the wealthy American relatives along with boxes of Philadelphian cream cheese.

My first proper performance was as 'The Queen of Hearts' in my primary school's Christmas show. The reviews, talking about the stillness I exuded, was attributed to the weight of the handmade cone hat my mother had made. I think she fashioned it out of concrete; any attempt to move my head would have resulted in a dislocated neck. I inherited my mother's crafty techniques when I created an Easter bonnet for the Dawter. I glued plastic flowers, faux fur rabbits, ribbons, chocolates and full blown eggs onto the crown of the straw hat. My poor uncomplaining child hid in the outdoor toilets and hung her heavy head to stay away from the judging.

I cannot sew, I will not crochet, but I can knit. An activity I took up whilst performing in the West End. I appeared in the second half of 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist', so had at least an hour and a half in my dressing room before I went on. I would nip next door to Gaby's deli in the interval and buy salt beef on rye for the cast and, whilst noshing on pickles, I would assemble needles and wool and set about deciphering Patricia Roberts' knitting patterns. Ms Roberts was all the rage in the 80's. I chose a Fair Isle sweater using multi coloured yarns. Not traditional for me, instead of muted sepia tones I used purple, yellow, green ,blue red and gawd knows what else. Every night for ten months I cast on and off, plaited and twisted, and created a sweater of rare design. I'd make my entrance, wait for my laugh - a la 'Buttercup' - take my bow and go home. On my last night I packed up my pancake, kissed goodbye to 'The Wyndhams Theatre' and drove home with my completed knitwear. I had been taught how to wash wool by a flat-mate. Trickling luke warm water into the kitchen sink she would add soap flakes, and gently massage her garments. Whilst running the Ascot to rinse her delicates she would say,

'Never twist the wool. Squeeze and squeeze again keeping the fibres in tact.'

Her laundry skills acquired from her independent public school education have stayed with me. There were very few woking class actresses when I begun. I had to rely on the upper echelons to teach me how to wash Cashmere, how to cook a proper omelette in butter in a searingly hot heavy frying pan, how to place a napkin on my lap surreptitiously, never to call it a serviette and to always sit with my knees together. Where would I be without Roedean.

I unpacked my theatrical suitcase and looked at my Fairisle; it was beautiful. Throwing my bits into the washing machine I retired into the living room to watch Joan Collins in 'Dynasty'. The spinning cycle finished I climbed out of my red bean bag and emptied the drum. Hidden in between my smalls was a dolly's pullover. On closer inspection my laybours of ten months had been shrunk beyond recognition into an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny multi-coloured matted beanie. Had I known I was going to have a baby seven years later I might had kept it.

You know when the actor isn't acting they are 'restin', as Priti Patel would say. When an actor is resting they are also worrying, kvetching, taking up hobbies and hustling to buy their daily bread; always the state of affairs that 98 per cent of my industry live with, though at the moment Covid may have increased that number to 99 percent.

After 'Wyndhams' I carried on knitting having falling in love with Kaffe Fassett and his designs. I knitted floppy sweaters and scarves. I made big knits for the younguns, big knits on big needles. I made vintage garments from vintage patterns and I knitted a Guernsey for the old git. It was made in Guernsey blue wool on circular needles and had his initials knitted into the ribbed hem, thus identifying him should he fall overboard from whatever clipper he was sailing on. I knitted and knitted, keeping the tension tight, not with me and the old git, but the tension needed when working in tiny little stitches. I completed the masterpiece the day I was cast in a sitcom. Forty years on the sweater still looks impressive, though age has not withered him age has certainly changed the 'oosbinds dimensions. The navy blue Guernsey has been banished to the back of his cupboard alongside an 18 inch sponge phallus from his stint at the National Theatre playing a Satyr in 'The Trackers of Oxyrinchus'.

My Aunty Esther knitted under the bed clothes, my mother knitted hats and socks in broad daylight and if money weren't tight I would take it up again. But what for? Nobody is going out, nobody wears buttoned up cardigans any more. All the children in the extended family wear either designer bollox or charity shop chic. I have got patterns for a knitted garden, a knitted brick wall and knitted fruit and veg. It occurs to me that were I to rekindle the joy of knitting I would be doing myself a favour. It would keep my fingers busy and eating an Alpaca Kajam Chunky wool aubergine, whilst difficult to chew, would certainly keep the weight off.

Jeni Barnett tells of her scrumptious time at Good Food Live in her first audiobook! Download NOW from iTunes

Comments

1. At February 10, 2021 9:51 PM Lyn Misselbrook wrote:

I have never been a crafty person, sewing, knitting, baking being the skills others always had. I was taught all 3 but never grasped the knack. With knitting, I always dropped stitches. Maybe that is why ‘Stiches’ is thus far my favourite of B’s songs. So you learned to sing & passed it on! I learned to crochet when I worked at Chichester Festival Theatre but now, I would not know how to start. Strangely my son has become the baker in my family, strangely as I only taught him to cook not bake!
PS: why does the website always put strange strings of symbols instead of quote marks & other punctuation?

2. At February 11, 2021 8:52 PM Jane May wrote:

I too ponder about taking up knitting again. For a while,
I knitted for Ritzynitz (sp?) in Brighton. It was a much loved hobby in my youth until my son was born in 1987 and I stopped. My dad taught me when I was a child. I still have all the needles but no patterns. As you say, what's the point now. I don't see anything I can afford the wool for - it'd be cheaper to buy ready made. Perhaps it's the comfort of the needles clicking and the soft creation of knitwear strewn across a lap. That's what we miss right now...comfort.

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