Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Circle Game: Lunch Time Takeaway (Take out)

My husband's great uncle Herb Nicholson, one of the characters in Flo in the City, my middle school novel about a girl coming of age in the 1910 era.

I just read one of Herb's 1905 letters, from September, where he has just arrived in Montreal to work at the bank. Marion, his sister, is also just arrived, as she is at McGill Normal School. (I wonder if their parents, the Nicholsons contrived that he be there, fearing for her. As it was, he hardly ever did anything with her that year, and probably picked up bad habits. In 1908, I have him whoring on de Bullion.

Anyway, in his letter, he says he is just arrived and that he has found a room on Mansfield for 7 dollars a month and if he pays another 10 dollars he can get his meals there, breakfast and supper and on Sunday all three meals.

And he has to 'order in' for dinner (or lunch) at work because the boys don't get time for dinner. Imagine. 15 cents a meal.

What goes around comes around. Now people eat their lunches at their work stations, too.

I discovered the letter looking for something else, the diary belonging to Elizabeth Fair (my husband's great aunt on another branch of his family tree, and first cousin to General Douglas MacArthur. ) I have just finished the book The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson, which is about 1911, a momentous year in the UK, due to the Coronation, strikes, impending war, and the heat, where it reached 90 degrees in the shade. Elizabeth visited London (and Paris) in 1911.

I read the diary a while back and found nothing at all interesting in it... as I think I wrote earlier. She was just a shallow woman doing the rounds, visiting the usual places, Hyde Park, the Tower, and meeting with 'contacts' and shopping until she drops. (I don't think she goes to the ballet, which might have been very interesting as the Ballet Russes with Nijinski were there.. )She doesn't even mention the heat, although she is from Norfolk Virginia, so she isn't hot I guess. (She does change her outfits often, but that's what the rich did.) The one interesting event she remarks upon is a suffrage parade. But Nicolson's book says the suffragettes took a break in 1911 in respect for the Coronation. I wonder if Aunt Elizabeth actually saw a union parade. There were many strikes in London that year, the heat being the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to unbearable lower class working conditions. In probably the most interesting part of the book, Nicolson describes the upper classes eating bon bons in the heat and then how those bon bons were made, by lower class women in Hades-like conditions..

Nicolson describes the life of servants and she doesn't make it seem all that bad. A life in service seems a better life than in the factories. In fact, that year they implemented a kind of health insurance and many people in service thought they didn't need it. Their employers took care of them in times of ill health.

Funny, I recently learned that my grandfather was a footman, in England, who, family lore goes, worked for an Earl whose daughter fell for him, so he was sent off to Malaya. (It was a privilege to go to the Colonies. It cost money and a position had to be procured. )Hence my family's story, Looking for Mrs. Peel at

A footman was a respectable job. You had to be tall and presentable. My grandfather was 6 foot 5.
I think he was the son of a Yorkshire sawmill worker.

Anyway, after reading about the lives of the factory class, and Montreal had poverty equal to London's.. I can't feel sorry for Herb and his take out lunches.

Indeed, yesterday, I went to the resto where my son works as a chef for a summer job and it is very hot. He came out to the terrace where I was sitting with my wine and reading the Perfect Summer in the big purple sun hat that I bought in Quebec, and eating the Greek salad he had prepared for me, and my son complained of the heat, he said it was 45 in the kitchen, and, to make him feel better, I told him about women in Nicolson's book, who went on strike in 1911, who sweated in the chain making factory, sparks flying, their young babies in bags hanging over their heads, their toddlers around their feet.