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stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Exceptional people: Malcolm Monteith – and the saddest words in the world

looking backSometimes I have a bad day. I’ve stayed up too late and slept badly. The Min Pins keep their distance, tired too from a night in a bed on a stormy sea. In the morning I scurry around making their breakfast and sorting out the chickens. Munching toast from Jalopy’s long dashboard, I corner carefully and prepare for the worst. Bad nights often mean a tricky day at work.

As a decorator, I can’t hunch at a desk and pretend that I’m working. It’s all about being lively and producing truly visible results. A small flask of coffee gets the adrenalin rushing and I work at fever pitch all morning but by four pm I’m staring out of the window, longing for freedom and space.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to remember Malcolm Monteith’s wise words and get on with the job in hand. Often I forget and it’s only when I chug towards home that the wisdom filters through.

I met Malcolm in a tobacconist on London’s Kings Road, Chelsea, just around the corner from the road where I lived with Smart Wife and Kind Husband. It was in the mid 1970’s. Malc was an amazing man. Full of fun and the sort of wisdom that comes with age and the experience of living just beyond the fast lane.

I later discovered that his trips to the tobacconist were to buy a pack of ten unfiltered Players cigarettes for his wife Cis. She used to smoke the final centimetre using a pin. They had fallen on hard times and she supplemented their pension by repairing Edwardian clothes in The Chelsea Antiques Market, so a pin cushion was always to hand.

Despite the setbacks, this intelligent and flamboyant couple appeared to surf the bad times and enjoy any lucky break that came their way. They lived over an “ordinary” greengrocer’s shop when Chelsea was still a good mixture of race and incomes. Their flat was pretty basic with a pervading odour of rotting vegetables. Now it has probably been replaced by deluxe flats for the discerning elite. The shop below possibly sells antiques or handmade chocolates.

In his prime, Malcolm had written articles for the popular UK weeklies in the 1950’s, Picture Post and Lilliput. When those disappeared he moved on to writing for other publications but they just weren’t the same for him. Like us, he’d have enjoyed the wit and sparkle of The Oldie magazine. But it was conceived long after he moved on to edit the best weekly in the sky.

I loved this couple. Forty years older than me, they were a real foil to the muddled miasma of my mid twenties life. They had a certain springy calm that I still envy now.

Sitting in a raucous smoke filled bar one evening, Malcolm peered at me over his pint and announced.
“If only – are the saddest words in the world.”

The best advice that I’ve ever been given.


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10 Comments

  1. What a lovely reminiscent article this is. I think it is beautifully written, Fiona.

    Christopher and David – we are so pleased that you found it. Hopefully it will reappear once a year on October 9th to remind us of your uncle.
    I never met him but I would hazard a guess that he and I would have had a ball over a beer or two every week.

  2. Your post has assembled the family, I am Christopher’s younger brother, David, and thus another nephew of Malcolm & Cis.

    What I remember of Malcolm was his unfailing ability to conjure up delightfully descriptive aphorisms. The Kings Road he once described as being a collection of boutiques, antiques and narcotiques – this being the late 60s or early 70s.

    And, somewhat disloyally, he would refer to the readership of the Field as a collection of two-legged spaniels.

  3. Christopher

    Malcolm was my uncle, dead nearly 13 years now, and I used to spend a weekend with him and Cis during the school holidays when I was in my teens in the late 50s, early 60s. The ‘pervading odour of rotting vegetables’ brought it all back. The casual, almost bohemian atmosphere, the evenings in the Cadogan Arms just across the road were so different from the much more regulated lifestyle with which I was familiar and which was typical of the era. For some years, Malcolm worked at the Field magazine just off Piccadilly, taking his golden labrador Liz with him. She distinguished herself once by sleeping through a burglary at the flat, though God knows what there was to steal, and biting the policeman who came to investigate. In those days it was regarded as an honour to work for such a prestigious periodical as the Field and Malcolm claimed that he resigned from it when he discovered that his secretary was being paid more than he was. Man cannot live by honour alone. For many years Cis worked at ‘the Wiggery’ – a place with a much more formal name at a smart address in SW1 which charged its customers a fortune for hand-made hair pieces but paid its skilled workers peanuts. For all that, the enormous joie de vivre that Malcolm and Cis shared made those weekends a beacon in my adolescence. I remember them both with great affection.

  4. Thank you for the kind comments about the gites – they’ll be even nicer when we get them built “lol”.

    As for living life to the full – I TRY and do it but don’t always suceed – given the chance I will stick my head in the sand even though experience has told me that having a go leads to new and exciting things.

  5. Don’t know why but I wasn’t expecting that. It gave me goosebumps, so very true.

    I’ve said many times ‘if only we had a dog’ as you know. Well, guess what, we have one!!!! Fiona I’m so happy and in love with her, we all are.

    Hope you’re well. x

  6. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Rosie

    Thanks for this. I find it’s all too easy to get bogged down under a small horizon and loose sight of the bigger one. I agree with Veronica – your gites look great.

    Hello Veronica

    I admire you for jumping in! Nothing is guaranteed to work, But better to move sooner than leave it to when you retire when it might be hard to make friends and establish a good life.

    Hi Celia

    The Oldie is wonderful. I’ve been reading it for at least ten years (almost from the cradle ?). The only monthly that’s enthroned beside the loo.

    In fact it’s the one mag that I reread and notice more delights!!

    Hello Jane

    I wrote this post as I was sliding swiftly towards the ‘If only’ state of mind!

    I agree with Rosie too, why not focus on living a life that’s 100%. Sometimes things just get out of kilter

  7. Jane aka:aromatic

    I did not realise just how many times I have said/thought those very words, particular of late…. and after reading your well written and enlightening post it has given me a real reality check. I now have much food for thought!! Also quoting Rosie ‘Life is too short not to give as many things as possible a go’ well even more food for thought.. I will not go hungry today!!

    Jane xxx

  8. magic cochin

    Shocked!!!! Come on… you’re not old enough to be reading The Oldie!!!!

    Celia

  9. Veronica

    I totally agree Rosie — we did the same! We’d planned to retire here, but retirement was a long way off, and you never know … so we just did it. Of course things can go wrong, but a) if they do, you just have to find a solution, that’s what life is about, and b) you never know till you try! We have not regretted it for a moment, even though financially we have been worse off than we were in the UK.

    PS your gites sound fantastic 🙂

  10. I didn’t want to be in my old age uttering the words – “If only we had been brave enough to move to France …..” which was one of the reasons I plucked up the courage to make the move. It has not all been plain sailing but I am so glad I was brave enough to do it. Life is too short not to give as many things as possible a go.

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