While women around the globe fight for gender equality, a small group in London is committed to living in the past. They exist in a Fifties twilight zone, accepting boarding school rules and, when they are wicked, a whack from Miss Martindale's cane . . . BIDDI RORKE visited the Aristasian Embassy.
They giggle girlishly as they take their seats. Dressed in starched black pinafores with matching hair clips and pressed ties, they look the picture of innocence. The chatter subsides as Miss Martindale, a formidable woman of indistinguishable age, enters the room. 'You were a bit slow to greet me, weren't you girls?' she says ominously, tapping the tip of her slim wooden cane against the old-fashioned school desk. Her pupils cast their eyes downwards at the scuffed herringbone floor.
'That won't do, will it girls?' Miss Martindale admonishes.
Striding towards Dierdre, a plump woman who has spilt ink on her homework, she draws herself up to her full height.
'Now Dierdre, even your margins aren't correct,' she tsks. 'What did I tell you? You only begin writing a quarter of an inch from the left-hand side of the page.'
'Yes, Miss Martindale,' Dierdre mumbles into her tie.
'Come here then. Naughty girls need to be punished when they do not follow instructions.'
Miss Martindale neatly administers three thwacks of the cane against Dierdre's ample calves and orders her to sit down. The others titter nervously, and the lesson, a simple elocution exercise, resumes . . .
NUMBER 9, Eagle Way, is different from the adjoining houses in respectable, if unfashionable, Snaresbrook in northeast London. Pebble-dash homes with clipped lawns and neat cars in each driveway are the norm, yet number 9 stands apart. With its overgrown garden and tightly drawn curtains, the imposing double-storey seems deserted until Miss Martindale throws open the door.
An imposing, impeccably groomed woman with coiffed brown hair and reading glasses, Miss Martindale heads the Aristasian Embassy, a household of women who have turned their backs on contemporary society.
'Living here is like entering a completely different world,' she trills theatrically. 'It is like walking through the wardrobe to reach Narnia.'
She leads the way from the murky entrance hall, with its wood panelling, magazine racks and hat stands, to the drawing room. In her silk navy-and-snow polka dot dress, complete with seamed stockings and sensible pumps, she epitomises everything Aristasia stands for: fashion, femininity and fantasy.
Outside, the real world carries on. When it's not hurtling through underground tube tunnels, fast-moving contemporary London salutes progress, embraces technology and idolises strident, independent women who have reached the higher echelons of socioeconomic power.
Miss Martindale does not disguise her contempt for what she pertly refers to as The Pit. 'Why take part in an inferior world with inferior objectives?' she asks archly. 'The Pit destroys everything of beauty and innocence; every positive aspect of the human psyche is crushed and perverted.'
She adds, 'Female emancipation, which came with the Sixties, encouraged women to struggle for something they did not need. In the process they became like imitation males and learnt not to enhance their femininity because it was seen as a weakness.
'Women of all ages and professions find their way to the Aristasian Embassy. They're women who want to be feminine but don't know how to be because they've been neutered by the expectation that they should be ambitious and career-oriented.'
THE EMBASSY drawing room, bathed in musty apricot light, has a distinct museum quality about it. Bing Crosby croons comfortingly from the gramophone, filling the air with his words. Fur coats and pillbox hats hang on the walls. For the women of Aristasia, clock hands froze at what they call The 1960s Eclipse.
'In the Fifties there was a great sense of family and decency; a real smartness in society,' Miss Martindale says. 'Suddenly, in the Sixties, all those things were inverted. It became normal to honour ugliness over beauty and naughtiness over goodness. In the Fifties, although women had to live within some limitations, there was still a reverence for womanhood.'
To prevent being tainted by liberal attitudes and androgynous advertising, Miss Martindale and her girls lead a delicate life of curious seclusion.
They do not watch television, read newspapers or listen to the radio. Their telephone is a chunky Bakelite model no push buttons or fancy gimmicks. In the spacious kitchen there is no room for Magi-mixers or microwave ovens, only good, old-fashioned equipment on spotless counters.
Shopping in The Pit is undertaken out of pure necessity but it is done the Aristasian way. 'If any of the girls are with me when I need to go out to buy fresh bread or pastries, I blindfold them so they are not poisoned by the sight of Bongos who inhabit The Pit,' Miss Martindale explains.
Transport is a cumbersome beige-and-grey Wolseley, complete with a wireless that plays only pre-recorded pre-Sixties music. No plastic bags for Miss Martindale either only quaint drawstring shopping bags and baskets.
'Design is propaganda,' she intones. 'Ugly aluminium telephone kiosks, garish tennis balls, plastic jug kettles and Bongo motor cars are all making a point. They are surrounding everyone in The Pit, day by day, hour by hour, with a barrage of visual propaganda. They are saying things about the world and life and the nature of reality all the time.'
According to 'the girls', Bongo design expresses haste, casualness and vulgarity. More importantly, it denies human dignity, uprightness, superiority and the sense of tradition. To counteract this decay, they surround themselves with music, art, dιcor and literature of the pre-Eclipse. In their unnerving quest for aesthetics and style, they have even invented the word 'fleeming' to describe the way they collect cheap articles from car boot sales.
BACK IN the drawing room, a polished cherrywood drinks cabinet holds bottles of schnapps and strawberry liqueurs, but Miss Martindale prefers to ring her silver bell and order tea from the maid.
Perfume decanters, tortoiseshell cigarette holders, ornate silver ballerina lamps and framed faded photographs line the walls but the bookshelves are the most interesting. Row after row of battered spines bear similar titles: Miss Pike and her Pupils, Mrs Beeton's Cookery, The Empire Annual for Girls, A Little Radiant Girl, Peter Pan and Wendy, Naughty Sophia and The Decline of the West.
'Inside every one of us is a little girl who wants to be good and experience the school spirit,' Miss Martindale asserts. 'In our upstairs schoolroom, with its chalk board and old-fashioned desks, we are free to do exactly that.'
Beatrice, the maid, enters the room in a starched black uniform with white apron and mobcap. Tea, in lemon Art Deco cups with silver teaspoons, is ceremoniously served before she curtseys politely and disappears into the gloom of the house.
'Some of our girls also have a distinct desire to serve,' Miss Martindale explains crisply. 'Of course, they are disciplined if they do not carry out their duties satisfactorily.'
Discipline is a key word in this surreal Enid Blyton home. As the eye-shadowed matriarch explains, it gives definition and hard edges to a world that, having been created by girls 'somewhat overbalanced' on the side of imagination, intellect and the fantastical, could all too easily become shifting and indistinct. Using rules, regulations and set tasks, this stern disciplinarian creates solid architecture in a world that could otherwise 'evaporate into a cloud place'.
The Aristasian Embassy is so committed to the power of the cane that it even publishes slim volumes on the merits of 'correction and chastisement'. Aside from this mail-order business, income from a small silk stocking enterprise enables the insular group to survive financially.
MISS MARTINDALE'S household, which has been operating for the past six years, is unlike the other seven Embassies that are scattered around the UK, the South of France, New Zealand and Australia. The first of its kind was established in the early Seventies ('the Second Decade of Darkness') by a group of young female Oxford scholars who wanted to divorce themselves from their diseased Bongo counterparts.
While the other Aristasian groups are closed households, Miss Martindale has opened her doors to women who are interested in upholding her way of life. This expansiveness allows Miss Martindale and her three 'permanent girls' a little extra input. Living in isolation, no matter how pure and noble, can be frustrating.
'Of course, it's a smaller world in numbers,' Miss Martindale admits, 'but it's by no means empty. If we ever need a little entertainment we simply create our own.'
Upstairs in the dressing room, Dierdre, Penelope, Beatrice and Miss Martindale are preparing for an evening at the cinema. 'Naturally, we don't go to Bongo theatres,' Miss Martindale takes care to explain. 'We have our own cinema in the house.'
The women gloved and hatted descend the stairs in a flurry of perfume and powder. Alice unclips her beaded handbag and carefully counts out three shillings.
'We prefer not to use Bongo money,' Miss Martindale interjects.
Alice, a fine-boned honey blonde, has been looking forward to Little Women with Katharine Hepburn all week, and has promised herself a special treat, perhaps a choc ice, to make the outing even more memorable.
Miss Martindale is especially passionate about the embassy movies. 'Everything in them, the cars, the telephones, the policemen, the little girls, the magazine covers, the music, the clothes, the vowels, the shop fronts everything is healing and good,' she enthuses. 'So long as we do not neutralise them by thinking of them as old films, so long as we see that they represent normality, they can do us the most wonderful amount of good.'
In the darkened lounge, the credits begin to roll and the girlish chatter dies down. As the grainy images flicker into focus, they ooh and aah collectively at the heroine's clothes. Even the antiquated cars in the movie hold the women spellbound. 'How beautiful,' they gasp in unison. 'What marvellous attention to detail.'
Pulling at her ivory, elbow-length gloves, Miss Martindale smiles in the dark. What a splendid evening, she thinks to herself, and what a perfectly wonderful world . . .