About a month ago, I found myself trawling the narrow streets of Covent Garden in search of vintage clothing shops. The object of my search was an evening dress to wear to a dinner, but not just any dinner: I was one of the winners of a competition to write a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel. The prize was dinner with Agatha Christie’s grandson at her home, Greenway, in Devon. I was also planning to stay on another night for the vintage-themed opening cocktail party for the Agatha Christie Festival.
Being in London was a slightly surreal experience for me as I had arrived from Zimbabwe the previous day. The trip was the highlight of my year and one I had been looking forward to for months. It is perhaps a commonly held idea of someone from the third world that London is an abundant source of everything and nothing is particularly difficult to find. It was certainly a surprise to find that many shops didn’t open until eleven on a Sunday and that the shop I wanted to visit in particular, Blackout II, wasn’t open at all.
The shop assistants I dealt with were in the main very friendly and keen to help me find a 1920s dress – not a real one of course, but one in the style of the age – but I was less than enamoured with the suggestions made, mostly because they did not look anything like an evening dress. One man suggested a tweed skirt and jacket and long sleeve blouse and it was on the tip of my tongue to say that I was going to the dinner as myself, not in the guise of Miss Marple.
It did not take me long to realise that ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ really refer to 1970s and 80s clothing rather than anything much older and are often labels assigned pieces of clothing that in other shops would cost half the price. I began to feel, too, that nothing was genuinely itself, rather a reproduction, and tried too hard to be something it wasn’t.
I found the experience true also of ‘vintage’ teashops, of which the Internet has a plethora of suggestions. Somehow the silver teapots, the cake stands and the rather kitsch décor all suggests wannabe aspirations. The insistence that you enter and enjoy a ‘genuine vintage experience’ recalls substandard hotels in Africa optimistically named The Ritz or The Savoy with their promises of ‘deluxe’ or ‘executive’ accommodation. The bottom line is that if you have to say what you are, then you aren’t it.
I suppose I sound rather down on the whole business, but I’m not. I found the dress I was looking for at Mad Elizabeth at the Cornmarket building in Leeds. It was a relief to say the least as, although I could’ve found more of a bargain on the Internet, as I was travelling around a bit, it would’ve been difficult to have had something delivered on time. My next stop was the haberdasher’s to find a pair of long black gloves. As I watched them being gently lifted out of their tissue wrapping, I couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement. There was something so special about the experience, as though I had been allowed to a world only a select few have any knowledge of. A pair of silk stockings completed the purchase and then I was able to focus on finding a string of black beads and a sequined headband with obligatory feather.
I arrived in Torquay at 3.15 on the day of the dinner – I half considered arriving on the 4.50 from Paddington – but I had little time to prepare as it was. Feeling rather glamorous, I made my way opposite the station to the Grand Hotel where I checked into my room. At a quarter past five, the prize winners congregated in the hotel lobby and introductions were made before the taxis arrived to take us to Greenway.
I often think there is a part of me that hasn’t quite grown up, a part that hasn’t stopped believing in magic. As a child growing up in Africa, I lived in an Enid Blyton world. I had an idea of England that was years out of date and, despite the eight years I spent living in the UK, I never quite despaired that one day I might find it. Arriving at Greenway is probably the closest I got to doing so. As soon as the taxi left the main road and followed the narrow winding lane up to the house, I knew I was going somewhere special.
The house is beautiful – much larger than the average person would live in today, but homely too. On our tour round the house, I didn’t feel I was viewing a museum piece. Rather, there was sense that any minute a car would draw up, and Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan would step out, home after a long trip to Turkey or Syria.
The dinner, of course, was the highlight of the trip. It is not often that one sits next to Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, and gets to ask him questions about his famous grandmother and her work! We also got the opportunity to meet Agatha Christie’s publishers at HarperCollins.
The next day, I walked the Agatha Christie Mile with my sister who had accompanied me on the trip and we sat on the terrace of The Imperial Hotel and drank Pimms. Walking through Torquay I had tried to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago: the train station teeming with men going off to war; lovers walking arm in arm along the promenade. Now looking around the hotel which features in at least three of her novels, I caught a glimpse of Agatha’s world and the people who inhabited it. I half expected an ageing actress to enter in a whirlwind of furs and pearls and order martinis while an overloaded bellboy struggled in behind her with a trolley of cases and trunks or a dandy in white flannels coming in from the tennis courts.
The previous evening, I had taken the opportunity to tell Mathew Pritchard that I didn’t think the Miss Marple TV adaptations were very good in my opinion because they deviate from the plot quite a bit. His response was that a balance had to be maintained between being true to the story and attracting a younger audience. Although I agree to a certain extent, I also often wonder if the younger generation aren’t underestimated. At 41, I was one of the oldest of the competition winners; it was more than obvious to me that Agatha Christie is loved by all generations. We live in a world which has run out of ideas, one that reproduces fashions and tastes and tries to pass them off as new. If young people search for anything it’s authenticity and perhaps that is why Agatha Christie maintains such a hold over our imaginations: we look for a world of which we only catch glimpses.