Travelling to the End of the Line

Have you ever looked at the destination name of the train you are on and thought you would travel to the end of the line just to see what it was like?  I’ve often considered it, but on Tuesday I did it for the first time, and went to Letchworth.

In truth, it wasn’t quite as random an idea as that; there was a purpose to my journey, as my friend Voula had invited me to attend the launch of her novel, Honor’s Shadow at the book shop in the town.  I didn’t much fancy driving north out of London in rush hour, so decided to make an afternoon of it instead, especially after I did a bit of light google research and discovered that Letchworth is the first Garden City, conceived and built just after the turn of the last century.

The town’s website does a good job of selling itself, and I was especially intrigued by the idea of the corset exhibition at the Heritage Museum.

J drove us up the A1 in the early afternoon; I’d printed out a couple of maps of the town centre but we didn’t have a route map, believing that between us we were sure there was a sign for a specific exit for Letchworth……leading to that prolonged conversation ‘surely we’ve not gone past it?  We’d have noticed it, wouldn’t we?  Is it north or south of Stevenage? Don’t know.  If we get to Peterborough we’ve definitely gone too far….’

For future reference, there is a specific exit off the A1.

I don’t think anyone had ever asked the lady in Boots for directions to the Heritage Museum before, because she asked her young colleague to point us in the right direction.  We’d parked in a multi-storey car park and emerged into a shopping plaza with a name that didn’t appear on my little map, so we had no idea where we were.

Later, when I’d walked around the town centre a couple of times, I could understand why it would be so odd to be asked directions anywhere; it is all very compact and simply laid out.  But it’s the same everywhere – it’s easy when you know how.

I cannot recommend a visit to the Heritage Museum highly enough; we had an absolute hoot there.  It’s small, and could take only a few minutes, but if you don’t pause and watch the films taken from the Spirella factory archive then you will have missed something utterly compelling and hilarious in its squirm- making reality.

The corset business seemed to operate a proto franchise system where the merchandise was not sold through shops, but instead via corsetieres who visited the clients in their own homes.

It’s the home visits that would have been key, especially for the ‘A/L’ customer, for she, of the ‘abnormally large’ physique, would need a little privacy for the intimacy required for the proper fitting of her support garment.

We watched a training film, showing a large, elderly lady, with neatly crimped grey hair, in sensible bra and big pants (and for any American readers I mean English pants/underpants, not trousers), being fitted for her A/L corset, by a sturdy, matronly looking expert.  First off we were shown how to distinguish between abdomen (with emphasis on the middle syllable) flesh, and pubic flesh; one can be controlled with corsetry, the other not.  The test involved the fitter tracing her hands through the ‘flesh’ around the hips of her client in search of the pubic bone.  Really. And in the 1930s too.

Once it was established that the client had the right sort of flesh, the corsetiere got to work lacing the corset to fit her contours, by adjusting the lacing knots and then reaching down inside the corset, between it and the client’s abdomen (remember, emphasis on the middle syllable) and pulling up the model’s pants inside.  The camera panned to the completely expressionless face of the elderly lady, who seemed not to notice that she’d just had her pants unceremoniously hoiked up by someone else.

By this time J and I were laughing so much we both had tears streaming down our cheeks.

When we emerged,  the museum custodian smiled and said she’d known where we were in the film by the noise we were making.  She wondered if perhaps the piece shouldn’t have a ‘PG’ certificate as some of the school children who visited were rather put off by it; especially the boys…….

The memory of it’s been making me smile ever since.

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