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London - For men, a handbag is a thing apart, for women ’tis their whole existence, to misquote Byron and to echo the sentiments of Judge Zoe Smith, who told a handbag thief at Reading Crown Court recently that stealing a woman’s bag “is not just inconvenience, it causes fear as well. Her phone is taken, her cards, her money to get a cab is taken, her keys to the door of her house. Then there is the fear of anyone coming to break into the house”.
Like most women, my handbag is bursting like a glutton’s belly – but I did learn the art of carrying everything from the two greatest exponents of handbaggery: the Queen Mother and Margaret Thatcher, both friends of my father, the late Woodrow Wyatt.
The Queen Mother dined and lunched with us four times a year. On each occasion her outfits varied mainly in colour. For dinner, she wore a long chiffon dress that might have been fashioned from icing and round her neck would be the contents of King Solomon’s mines. For lunch she wore dresses with pleated skirts, a matching hat and ropes of pearls. But it was her bespoke Launer handbags, dyed to match her outfits, that were destined to tantalise and instruct.
As she wafted through our front door, her handbag always preceded her. Even when accompanied by a lady-in-waiting, she carried it herself, on her right arm, which was crossed over her magnificent embonpoint. The handbag had its own chair, which my father placed beside her, in order to avoid the necessity of her bending the ramrod Royal back. When we acquired a papillon pup called Mimi, the dog made a leap for the chair. My father did not distinguish himself with his chivalry: “It’s not my animal, Ma’am,” he said, “it’s Petronella’s.”
But I have Mimi to thank for the historic moment when the secrets of the Royal handbag were revealed.
As Mimi tore at the primrose yellow silk clutch bag with its satin handle, the Queen Mother giggled. “Perhaps she’s sniffed out the chocolates,” she said, smiling wickedly. “The corgis always sniff them out at Sandringham. At least one hopes it isn’t the gin.”
She dipped her beringed hand into her bag and drew out a linen handkerchief containing four Charbonnel et Walker rose-flavoured handmade chocolates. “The blood sugar can get a little low at my age” – she was then 85 – “but chocolates always do the trick. I haven’t had a dizzy spell yet. Besides,” she added mischievously, “it’s nice to have a treat after an indifferent meal.”
In winter, she continued, she often asked her equerry to pop in a tiny flask of gin. ‘I don’t approve of heated cars. They are very bad for your health. Many elderly people have caught pneumonia getting out of a heated car on to a freezing street. If one is cold when travelling, a nip of gin is a much more sensible idea.’
Later she confessed: “I’m not as nice as you think I am. I am a very vain woman.” Indeed, she carried a gold powder compact, set with an emerald, given to her by a maharajah. Her gold lipstick holder had been fashioned at Cartier to match. There was always a diamond brooch in a small box, “in case I feel like showing off a little”.
What astonished me most, however, was the Queen Mother’s revelation that she always carried a miniature first-aid kit. Might I see it? She obliged and showed me a simple thing you might buy in Boots. “During the war, my late husband, the King, insisted I carry bandages and plasters in my bag and I never lost the habit. As a matter of fact, I have used it more in the past few years, administering to my great-grandchildren when they get cuts and scrapes, than I did during the Blitz.”
Her handbag prompted the only personal remark I heard her make about her beloved grandson Prince Charles and came just before he announced his separation from Diana.
“Charles doesn’t quite understand about Diana and her handbags. He thinks it is just what the newspapers call fashion, and like all men feels more than two is an extravagance. But a handbag is so much more to a woman, isn’t it? It’s an extension of herself. Perhaps that’s why it causes friction.”
I was a schoolgirl of 15 when I was informed that Margaret Thatcher would be joining us for a family dinner. She wore a red silk blouse and matching skirt and her perfectly manicured fingers were clutching the largest handbag I had ever seen. Her black Salvatore Ferragamo handbag would fetch £83,110 at auction in 2000 and a black Asprey number £25,000 last year.
Indeed, she and the bag seemed to have an almost symbiotic relationship. As the Iron Lady drank a Scotch before dinner, her free hand never ceased to hover above the handle.
When my mother called us into the dining room, Denis had the task of carrying his wife’s bag and then placing it under her chair. I noticed that she gripped it hard with her ankles and occasionally glanced down as if to assure herself that its physical presence was not an illusion.
Once my fear had receded, I asked how many handbags she possessed. “Thirty-five, dear.”
She required many handbags in a variety of colours, she told me, due to the frequency of her engagements. But why so large?
“A woman’s handbag is her house,” she replied.
Egged on by three glasses of the blissful Hippocrene, I asked her if she might, for posterity’s sake, divulge the secrets of what was then the world’s most famous handbag. To my astonishment out came what appeared to be her smalls. On closer inspection, they were two pairs of tights. “Moving about all the time, your tights can get laddered,” she explained. “Always carry spares.”
She then extracted a bottle of clear nail varnish.
“If you run through all three, the nail varnish prevents ladders from spreading.”
Next came a sewing kit. “I’m afraid I took that from a hotel,” she said smiling. “But I can’t make speeches with the top button of my blouse missing.” Had it been anyone else I would have said the look she gave was arch.
She then drew out a powder compact, a mascara and two lipsticks. “I use a paler shade during the day and a darker shade in the evening. Under dim lights, a light shade washes you out.”
There were cotton buds in case her mascara smudged, two canisters of Elnett hairspray (supreme hold) and a tub of Vaseline.
“What do you do with the Vaseline?” I asked nervously.
“Apply it to my eyelids. It gives the impression that the eyes are larger and more wakeful and it’s a lot more economical than those expensive creams.”
I have never forgotten the lessons from these two legendary women, and as I write this, I have in my handbag one pair of tights (I have fewer engagements than a PM), one bottle of nail varnish, a can of hairspray, a needle and thread, a small bar of chocolate, two plasters and, like both the Queen Mother and Lady Thatcher, no cash or at least very little.
All these things have stood me in excellent stead – more so than some of the men who have complained that my handbags weigh in at 50kg.
I am waiting until I am 80, however, before I pop in the flask of gin. - Mail On Sunday