Joyce Grenfell's Suffolk diary

THOSE of us of a certain vintage remember Joyce Grenfell with affection: as the gawky and hapless policewoman Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's films, and also as a quintessential Englishwoman in various guises - as a distracted school teacher, for instance, or a refined lady trying hard to suppress a secret.

THOSE of us of a certain vintage remember Joyce Grenfell with affection: as the gawky and hapless policewoman Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's films, and also as a quintessential Englishwoman in various guises - as a distracted school teacher, for instance, or a refined lady trying hard to suppress a secret.

Her sharply-observed monologues spoke volumes about the world around her: about social manners, about the way we relate to each other, about the way society was changing.

It's well-known that, away from the spotlight, she loved escaping to Suffolk each summer. Joyce and beloved husband Reggie rested awhile in Aldeburgh every year from 1962 until her death in 1979, usually staying at the Wentworth Hotel.

It allowed her to enjoy three of the things she loved most: music (at the annual Aldeburgh Festival), bird-watching (at nearby Minsmere) and friends (the place was packed out with like-minded people).


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Just how much her short Suffolk holidays meant to her is made clear in a new book called Letters from Aldeburgh - Joyce Grenfell. Friend and biographer Janie Hampton has sifted through the canon of Joyce's correspondence to offer a selection of pertinent, happy, poignant and sensitive thoughts.

Most are to her long-time friend Virginia Graham, with whom she exchanged notes virtually daily whenever they were apart.

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Grenfell's writings paint a vivid picture of a world replacing post-war values with the modernity of the '60s and a quickening of pace in the 1970s.

On June 18, 1976, for instance, she reports: “Because I have taken so against the Daily Mail we got a Sun to see how it works. GHASTLY. A full-frontal bust on p.3. practically life-size.”

There is outright sadness - such as at the stroke, heart attack and subsequent death of Britten, and the death of her friend Viola Tunnard - but most of the letters feature astute observations cloaked in her habitual gentle humour.

For instance, on June 5, 1970: “The election news is a tremendous boring thing with which we've got to live, I suppose . . . I'm allergic to both Powell and Benn because they are unappetising to look at as well as explosive . . . if only they'd get together - Labour pool their real concern for the quality of life we are to live and the Tories to liberate commerce but not allow commercial radio!”

And on her journey to Suffolk in the summer of 1974 she had a train carriage to herself. “Wrote a quiet, reasonable and infinitely patient complaint about the filthy condition of the Ladies at Liverpool Street Station . . . I told the Stationmaster, misnamed Mr Savoury, that I knew he had staff troubles (the usual excuse so I got it in first) but as there was an attendant surely she should keep the place in some sort of order. What foreigners would think of it all. Definite evidence that we are third rate nation . . .”

Some are simply comic: “Blazing morning, and I've hung R.'s underpants out on the window-sill in a way that their actual character is disguised as simply white objects out to air.”

For a modern reader dismayed by the vacuity of today's text-messaging world - where lazy thought substitutes poetry like “the sea is a shimmer of sequins on palest blue” with “its gr8 :)” - Grenfell's prose proves welcome antidote.

Janie Hampton explains that Joyce started to enjoy music as a schoolgirl, when her father took her to the Proms at the Queen's Hall in Regent's Street. During the war years she took in lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery.

“She never claimed to be a music critic, but throughout her working life she listened to a great deal of it, not only at concerts but on gramophone records and the Third Programme,” says Janie.

It was her friend and colleague, skilled pianist Viola Tunnard, who introduced Grenfell to the Aldeburgh Festival in 1962. They had travelled in the Middle East and India during the war, entertaining the troops, and Viola would become a key member of Britten's musical team.

“Joyce's favourite form of creative expression was music,” explains Janie Hampton. “She would rather go to a concert than to the theatre, cinema or an exhibition. She liked 'all types of music, as long as it is good' and this encompassed Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. She preferred chamber music to symphonies, and could not bear 'hill-billy twanging' or organs with 'vox humana' pipes” - which imitate the human voice.

“When they weren't attending concerts, Joyce and her husband Reggie would set off armed with sandwiches, notebooks and binoculars. Although Reggie usually drove the car, it was Joyce who set the pace. 'We like to drive slowly,' she said. 'Then we can see the flowers.'

'So damn slowly,' Reggie murmured, 'that we can see them growing.'”

One day they identified 21 different species flowering on Aldeburgh beach, reports Janie.

Coastal Suffolk was also fantastic for bird-watching.

“Joyce watched birds the same way that she watched people - quietly, unobserved, taking mental notes and sometimes sketching them. She discovered that bird-watching was the perfect antidote to fame and a busy life, and if fellow 'twitchers' recognised her, they rarely mentioned it.”

Further up the coast, at Minsmere, warden Herbert Axell had been a key player in the early management of the world's first man-made lagoon for birds. Janie Hampton quotes a revealing nugget of Bert's. He wrote: “When Joyce and Reggie visit the reserve she often stays behind a hide to sketch while we go on. A glorious day on the marsh has sometimes been too much for Joyce's joie de vivre, causing her to break forth into song.”

The Grenfells later bought a cottage at Westleton, near Minsmere, that they rented to Herbert and wife Joan when he retired.

“Although they toyed with the idea of buying a holiday cottage of their own in the town, they decided that they preferred the freedom and sociability of a hotel. They usually stayed in the Wentworth, at the north end of the promenade, where Joyce often plunged into the North Sea, leaving Reggie to guard her towel. Reggie rarely swam - even in tropical waters he tended to turn blue.”

Joyce wrote to Benjamin Britten in July, 1963, from her home in Elm Park Gardens, London, to thank him for “another lovely and heartening festival”. He in turn invited her to perform her songs and monologues the following year.

She did. Britten described it as an “incomparably funny and wise evening”.

A fire devastated the concert hall in June, 1969, triggered by an electrical fault. Insurance money covered the work to rebuild the Maltings to the 1967 design, with better fire precautions and bigger dressing-rooms.

The hall was opened by the Queen the following summer and the schedule included a 70th birthday tribute to Noel Coward, sung by Cleo Laine, Benjamin Luxon and Joyce.

“Cleo is so pretty . . .” she wrote afterwards. “We had an interesting conversation about racialism. She is very 'realistic' about her situation and quite without any chip. She said too much fuss is made about colour and 'difference' and if it could be left alone it would happen naturally that people would get to know each other as people and that is the way to heal this separation and fear.”

Janie Hampton points out that although Joyce performed her songs and monologues at four festivals in total, she really felt herself part of the audience, and in the list of festival subscribers called herself simply 'Mrs R. Grenfell'.

November, 1979, marked her last visit to the town she quickly came to love. Joyce Grenfell would die three weeks later of cancer, at the age of 69.

She described attending the Armistice Day gathering by the Moot Hall on Sunday, November 11, “for (open itals) the (close itals) most British of ceremonies - Brownies, cubs, Sea Scouts, British Legion, Mothers' Union, many with banners, were ranged around the war memorial . . .

“It isn't easy to keep above these aggressive attacks of pain, but Reggie is so tender and supporting.

“Jean (her friend Jean Cowan, the then owner with husband Christopher of Aldeburgh Bookshop) has the radio on. I love music drifting from another room, don't you?”

Letters from Aldeburgh - Joyce Grenfell is published by Day Books at £10. ISBN 0953 2213 77

On June 17, 1962, Joyce Grenfell describes driving to Orford Quay to join the birding launch - “such a funny lot”.

“There were two youngish women, possibly teachers, unsuitably clad in vivid cottons, white 'cardies', plastic macs and thin shoes; a trio of open-air middle-agers, and a Mrs Bridgeman in windcheater and tiny sailing hat that looked glued on. I would have out her down instantly as bridge club, golf club, and not at all my dish. But not a bit of it, turned out to be very nice and very knowledgeable . . .

“She was amusing and unlikely. Last year she attended a bird-song course in Yorkshire, costing seven guineas all in, sleeping in a cubicle and walking five miles a day. She said it was enormously unexpected and her husband thought her mad, but advised us to go and we are seriously contemplating it.”

June 21, 1962

“The English food is very good here - well cooked and changeable if you get my meaning. There is fruit salad and 'coupes' but also castle pudding, and to R.'s pleasure, always a savoury.

“Lady Listowel has vanished. Charlotte Bonham-Carter, in a turned up Breton and her hair down like a sixteen-year-old, drove here just for Albert Herring and then back to town in order to attend Lady Dashwood's ball tonight.”

Sunday, June 20, 1965

“I caught the train from Liverpool Street and had a lovely sunny journey through East Anglia, rivers gleaming, sails out on wide waters near Colchester - or is it Ipswich? - eglantine in flower, poppies out, fields beginning to wave with rising corn, and everything very English and beautiful. I am swep' with an inner joy by it all, and there was my lover Reggie at Saxmundham, waiting at the level-crossing gates for me.

“Two elderly gents came into my compartment full of the discomfort of the seats at Lord's. They boomed about their need to know how to cook. Their wives won't let them get near their stoves and then they are helpless when left alone. They have decided to get on to the local WI and arrange for lessons next winter.”

In February, 1969, Britten dined with them. “He is so strange. One gets fairly near but as with all people of genius there are whole areas of total privacy.”

Britten was concerned about the number of pleas he was receiving, from teachers and parents, to help young composers.

“He is, as he says, pleased to be asked. But how important is it that he should use up very precious time for this in preference to his work? But he had a lot of help when he was young and I think he feels bound to do the same for other people. There is a faintly - and I mean faint - malicious streak that is apparently latent in a lot of these rather feminine men. I think that he could be ruthless, merciless? It is part of the insecurity of such a position, no doubt.”

The Grenfell file

Born Joyce Irene Phipps, in London, on February 10, 1910

Father was an architect

Mother was American - the sister of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take up a seat in the House of Commons

1939: Stage debut in the “Little Revue” - impersonations and satirical songs

1942: Wrote “I'm Going to See You Today”, a song that would symbolise her

1950s: Made name in films, alongside actors such as Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford

Most notable films: The Happiest Days of Your Life, The Belles of St Trinian's and the subsequent St Trinian's series

Also famous for one-woman shows and monologues

OBE in 1946

Joyce retired from the stage in 1973 after losing the sight in one eye

Died November 30, 1979

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