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How my letters from Paris in the 1960s shine a light on the past and impart lessons for today

By Mary Kenny

Published 21/11/2016

Home comforts: the strains of Gay Bryne over the airwaves from Dublin were a ‘thrill'
Home comforts: the strains of Gay Bryne over the airwaves from Dublin were a ‘thrill'

Do you have any old letters in the attic? Don't chuck them, keep them: they are social documents. They are voices from the past which may impart many lessons - some of them possibly embarrassing, but striking, just the same.

It happened to me. A cousin found some letters I'd written to the family as a teenager, and she sent a handful of them back to me. I opened the old envelopes still bearing those lovely stamps of yore, and from them my teenage self came tumbling out - a painful mixture of the innocent and the mortifying, half-baked opinions and events observed that have a strangely contemporary echo.

One of the most telling aspects of the old letters lies in remarks about money and what things cost. In one letter from Paris, in May 1963, I thank an aunt "for your wonderful present of £1, and warm letter. The pound replenished my purse which had diminished to the sterling equivalent of roughly one penny farthing, and the letter silenced my grumblings that I had No Friends and Negligent Relations." A pound sterling meant much, as did a letter.

I was an au pair at the time (attending to seven children, in a 'tres Catholique' family) and earning 150 francs a month, which was about £8 sterling: the Irish pound was then linked to sterling. I was a bit of a failure as an au pair to seven children, and was soon replaced by a more efficient German girl, and so moved to be a companion to an eccentric old dame called Madame le Docteur Miller.

Here, my wages went down to 100 francs, but I had more free time, and access to Madame le Docteur's circle of aristocratic old codgers. "I am her cook, maid, femme-de-chambre, femme-de-menage, masseuse, dame-de-compagnie, receptionist and even secretary." The 100 francs - then £7 and ten 10 shillings - didn't go far. The "cheapest pair of stockings costs 7s.6d. (just over a third of a pound), my train tickets for the week just as much; an entry to an art exhibition the same again".

A weekly packet of cigarettes and a visit to the theatre (two francs), plus "endless cups of coffee - 50 centimes" must be squeezed into the budget. Shampoos, toothpaste and sanitary towels are expensive: stamps and shoe repairs have to be accounted for, and ballpoint pens are a worry.

However, I was free to go to school in the afternoons, and "none of the kids ever has a sou. You'd be decidedly out of things if you did have a sou".

Madame le Docteur "had been a very distinguished physician and had made friends with some of her very chic clientele. So yesterday I met the king of Spain's son - a direct descendent of Louis XIV - and the other night the Prince Bagrateon (Bagration), ex-Czar of the little Russian state of Georgia. Her life is the most social and it is great fun for me to see. It is also something of a disillusion. One realises that there never could be a classless society".

Madame le Docteur had some sparkling memories. "She remembers Russia before the Revolution, Paris in the Belle Epoque, the Cote d'Azur in the Twenties…she danced with Mussolini and remembers her parents talking about the trial of Oscar Wilde. She saw the Diaghileff Ballet in Nice in 1910 and went to Ascot in 1912. Yet she adores the present and lives every moment of it. She doesn't think things are basically any different today than before. There is more social justice and less moral hypocrisy, that's all."

The brave new world of the Sixties was dawning and we thought we had invented a new honesty. Then I added: "Just let me tell you that Education in Ireland doesn't equip a girl at all at all for life outside Ireland."

Some of the lessons I picked up at Madame le Docteur's establishment I would later disavow: "I've learned how important it is for a woman to be personally clean, attractive, thrifty, a good cook, a good housekeeper and feminine. It is nothing to do with getting a husband - it's more a matter of integrity, a sort of duty one owes to one's self-respect. My Beatnik stage is over."

Subsequently embracing feminism, I thought all that stuff about being domesticated and feminine was tosh.

Ambivalent attitudes to Ireland emerged: I thought it too stuck in the past (the aunts were always reminiscing fondly about the old days), and yet, one night I reported: "Just now I turned on the wireless and I'm really thrilled to have gotten Radio Eireann. So I'm listening to Gay Byrne and waiting for the National Anthem - it will sound so sweet from here."

The political talking point, in 1963, was the UK's desperate attempt to get into the European Union, which was then called the Common Market, and General de Gaulle's resolute attempt to keep the Brits out.

My 19-year-old political self observed: "The whole of Europe is forming a giant anti-English block… England is going to be made to crawl into that Common Market. As one Frenchman said to me - since 1740, England's been trying to separate France and Germany and thus throw Europe into chaos; now France and Germany have at last come together against England."

Oh, the ironies of history.

Pretentious arty aspirations abound in my teenage epistles; what's strangely absent is a sense of sexual awareness, which I would have shared, not with my aunts, but with my cousin.

Ignorant or innocent? Sheltered from too much too soon, or ill-equipped for the world we were entering?

It's all in the letters.

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