Yesterday, I couldn’t resist a trip to my favourite Charity Shop; it’s my favourite because it is one of the few that I know that sells vintage, and unused, tea towels (but not new ones). The Charity Shop remains unnamed because I know that there are loads of online shops that will scour places like Charity Shops to increase the size of their stock and sell on at five times the price they paid for them. I will have bought up their stock in a couple of weeks, all except the Great Little Trains of Wales (because I already have that one).
I wouldn’t normally buy one like the Breeders Rose; it’s not really my style. But four things caught my eye (a) it was pristine, never been used (b) it was a National Trust one (c) it is pure linen and I do like pure linen and finally (d) I spotted the name ‘Constance Spry’ and memories, that I hadn’t even considered for 40-odd years, came rushing through my mind. I had almost written the Blog by the time that I left the shop. It’s funny how one name came bring forth a random string of thoughts.
When I was 17, I got a Saturday job working in a florist. We didn’t even have a garden at home, I knew nothing about flowers but it had to be better than my previous job – working in Benthalls Food Hall, packing bags for women who could have packed their own bags but felt it was beneath them to do so. The customers could only be described as ‘snooty’, never said ‘thank you’ and wanted you to work at the speed of an express train.
Frustratingly, I can’t remember the name of the florist shop owner; but I can remember exactly where the shop was and what she was like. It was on the cusp of the High Street and Ealing Green, near the old Queen Victoria pub which is no longer there, in Ealing. It was a small shop, with big windows, the surround painted a grey/green colour. The windows always had amazing displays of flowers because the owner had been trained by Constance Spry. She was a small, thin woman in her late 50s, maybe older; she had black permed hair which I am sure had been dyed. She had had polio as a child which left her with a limb. Unmarried, she lived with her mother, caring for her.
Born in 1886, Constance Spry had been a nurse and a teacher of dressmaking and cookery, when, in 1929, she decided to open her own florist shop in Mayfair. It was called ‘Floral Decoration’ and her displays challenged the world of floristry. She used unusual objects as containers; she scoured second hand shops for adornments and she used unusual flowers, and grasses from the hedgerows, as part of her arrangements. When the woman I worked for left ‘Finishing School’ in Switzerland, she was apprenticed to Constance Spry where she learned her trade under Constance’s close tutelage. She worked in that Mayfair shop for many, many years until she decided to open her own shop in Ealing. There were no other workers in her shop; she just needed someone to ‘mind the shop’, and sell a few flowers, while she was making up arrangements. When I was old enough, and when she bought a tiny DAF delivery van, I also delivered bouquets. The DAF van was horrendous to drive; I don’t think it went more than 20 miles an hour and the working mechanism seemed to be based on a big elastic band.
I loved that job, which I held for several years, working every Saturday, plus in the Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays as well. I loved the smell of the flowers, seeing the different blooms, at different times of the year. She was very particular about the sort of flowers she bought; she only bought the flowers that she liked, and that she felt went well in bouquets and arrangements. So, we never sold tulips (they sagged too quickly and ruined a bouquet) or gerbera (looked good as long as other flowers were holding them up) or gypsophilia (cheap and nasty). But she did buy things like Bird of Paradise at the market; she knew how to use just one Bird of Paradise, in a bouquet, to take it to a new level. She found the most amazing variety of leaves to display with a bouquet, structural leaves that gave some balance and depth, a sense of elegance. She didn’t just wrap a bouquet in a load of cellophane but had a huge selection of wrappings. This was a creative woman who wanted to emulate, and respect, the training she received from Constance Spry; Constance Spry was her heroine. I often wondered if she actually made any money because of the length of time she took to arrange a bouquet or prepare an arrangement. She rarely did funeral flowers, and never bridal flowers, because they took so long to make and she felt they weren’t appreciated. She concentrated making up bouquets for people who wanted to come and choose the flowers or did arrangements for hotels and big events.
I remember working in the shop on Valentine’s Day. I seriously have never worked so hard. The shop was crammed with red roses and she sold every one. There wasn’t one prepared, already arranged bouquet, each was done to order; we worked to late that evening because she took the orders and asked people to come back to collect them. There couldn’t have been a woman in Ealing who was disappointed with their flowers that day.
The thing that I loved most about the job was that people wanted to buy flowers for good reasons, they wanted to make themselves, or someone else, happy. Flowers give a great deal of pleasure; seeing people leave the shop happy was a real bonus. There are few jobs that give such pleasure to people because, after all, flowers are a bit of a luxury. She paid a reasonable wage and I was able to open my first bank account and bought my first piece of furniture for my bedroom. I still have it today, a Victorian Tea Table, and when I look at it, I always remember those days in the florist.
Working in the florist, with the woman who was taught by Constance Spry, taught me a lot of things: flowers are for pleasure, giving and receiving pleasure; they are to be appreciated and the use of them at funerals is a complete waste of money. The dead person doesn’t get any pleasure from them (or as my mother said, “If you didn’t buy me flowers when I was alive don’t waste your money when I am dead”) and they hang around a grave side, or crematorium, to rot and die. Cut flowers should be arranged, with care, using beautiful containers, not just shoved in a jar; you have to think about which container suits the flowers that you have. If you look after cut flowers properly, with clean water, and feed, they will last longer. Don’t use flowers that do not have a long ‘shelf life’ because they look very sad. Giving flowers gives pleasure; I cannot look at a bouquet, in a garage forecourt, and think that it is something I would buy; they are usually made up of flowers that should not be put together, that do not have the same ‘shelf life’ and they are probably beyond their ‘sell-by’ date before they reach the forecourt.
Working in the florist shop in Ealing, I thought that I would like to have been a florist. I loved the lifestyle, early mornings to get to the wholesaler, meeting people who wanted some advice in choosing flowers, giving such pleasure. 15 years later, when I worked in the care industry, I thought I would like to do ‘something different’ in my spare time. I decided to do the NVQ in Floristry; it was a two year course. I decided to do just the first year, without taking any exams, because I wanted to learn some of the techniques in flower arranging and floristry but I didn’t want to take up a new career. I loved it; I was surrounded by people, much younger than myself, who had just left school but it was good fun (and hard work). When I finished the course, I was able to arrange all the flowers that my mother received when she was ill! A few years later I decided to go to evening classes in flower arranging. This was definitely a different group of people, older women who wanted to enter competitions! It’s funny how all the methods that my boss had used, from her Constance Spry training, were no longer used. I did several years of flower arranging classes; the bit that I found difficult was all the tutors saying things like “When you go home ask your husband to put together ………. “. Why was it so extraordinary to think that I couldn’t do it myself?
One of the things that I have done since the floristry course, and flower arranging classes, is make funeral wreaths. I still believe exactly what my mother said but the idea of making a wreath from the flowers from someone’s garden seemed like a beautiful idea, respectful and gave some comfort to relatives. Many of the funeral wreaths were made just of greenery from the garden with an odd flower; they were ‘different’ and were not wasting money. Relatives found me the greenery, sometimes with bits from all the family members’ gardens; I never spent a penny on those wreaths (except for the Oasis circle). I did one for John’s funeral, and I am always grateful to Constance Spry’s inspiration of my former boss, that introduced me to flower arranging and a love of flowers.
And that is why I bought this tea towel. It brought back some great memories.