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Handbags and Oily Rags

There is a maxim that you shouldn’t look into a woman’s handbag. I think originally it had to do with some kind of sacred ‘woman space’ into which no unsuspecting man need glance for fear of catching embroidery or a compulsion to make scones.

In my childhood the bags belonging to my various female relatives remained unmolested, sitting with some gravitas on rug and carpet, in the manner of peevish lapdogs that might bite if approached by anyone but their owner. It was always a revelation to see inside, the sound of the zip or the popper unleashing a particular kind of bag magic.

My maternal grandma, Ellen, favoured a bag that was styled something like a Mulberry Bayswater before they existed. It had a fold over flap and stout handles and was made from something that was nobbled to look like crocodile. She always carried a supply of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and spare tights along with a small gold(ique) powder compact. The mint sweets had a particular treacly pepperminty aroma that permeated the air once the tin was opened. Yes, a tin. Like the kind they make collections in and bearing a logo of the overly jolly Uncle Joe himself.

Her powder had a certain vanilla whiff to it. The compact was in a little velvet pochette and was embossed with a coloured picture of flowers that looked like a bird.  There was often a selection of Green Cross stamps, a folded headscarf, a can of Elnett hairspray and a rolled up shopping bag complete with rubber band.

In the zip pockets were respectively, a lipstick in a gold tube and her spare knickers. She favoured long legged style pants that, in the right circumstances could have doubled as sails, parachute or emergency bivouac bag.

This spare knickers thing was passed down. My mum also never left the house without a handbag stocked with, amongst her other accoutrements, a small piece of Lancashire Crumbly cheese in waxed paper, much folded, the cheese and the paper. There was always some old orange peel in the small inside pocket, a gold(ish) powder compact containing a pat of powder that looked as if it had recently suffered an earthquake. Cracks and fissures broke through the pale pink that shifted tectonically each time it was opened. There was also her fruit knife and, as mentioned, the spare knickers.

Once, prior to my university graduation, we had gone to a quite posh restaurant in Warwickshire. The waiter came to the elegant bar to escort us to our table and as we stood up my mum reached into her bag for her glasses case only for her spare knickers to be pulled out with it. The garment (we’re talking granny here, full briefs) fluttered to the floor and everyone in the bar looked down at them. My mum, without taking a breath said “Oh, my hanky.” reached down, retrieved the pants, dabbed them to her nose, popped them back into the bag and smiled at the waiter. I don’t think he had ever seen anything like it for elegance and aplomb. It is strange which are the abiding memories we keep of our lost loved ones. This one, for me, sums up my mum for its grace and humour.

Why keep spare knickers? There are less obvious reasons folks! They are useful for dusting your fingerprints from a crime scene for instance or wiping windscreens. They can be handy for cushioning fragile items that need to be in transit within the cargo hold that is a handbag. They can be utilised in the event of a bank robbery when you wish to either commit the robbery or avoid the ire of the robbers, just tug them over your head and you are unrecognisable. People look away in fear, trust me.

This usage doubles up if you happen to find yourself in an emergency skiing situation and triples if you are recruited by ninjas at late notice.

With this heritage I am always astonished by women who have ‘organised’ their bags. Not for them the permission slip for a school trip to Berlin in 2007.  I daren’t look and discover what bare minimalism they carry around. How can anyone get by without a leaflet about the Haworth Parsonage Museum?

My own bag sits on the table and simmers and now and again public health warnings are issued about it and men in biohazard suits quail at the thought of reaching for the zip which is straining against the rent in the time space continuum contained within.

The pockets are a forbidden zone. Sometimes things emerge. Furry possibly. Or wizened.

It contains ancient documents, scribbled shopping lists for shops long since taken by Administrators into receivership. There are pebbles, pine cones, an assortment of found owl feathers in a plastic bag along with some seeds snatched from a hedgerow, five green acorns and two driftwood sticks. There is a torch so that I can read The Observer Book of Birds if I happen to become trapped in a dark place. There is a pocket flint firestarter from the camping shop for that emergency firelighting situation. The Fisher Space Pen and three notebooks, two thin, one fat ensure that I am always ready to write. The doorkeys are always at the bottom, sinking through the flotsam and jetsam like an old wreck. The lipstick is worn down and is in a favoured colour long discontinued. There are metro tickets from Paris and Rome in the seams, along with crumbs from carrot cake eaten in Dolgellau. How the crumbs got in there I do not know as the bag was on the floor of the café and was zipped up at the time. Should you require a timetable for the ferry across the River Shannon I have one that might prove very useful for time travellers heading back into 1999.  What else? A blister pack of St John’s Wort tablets, a tide table for Cornwall in 2009 and, of course, there are spare knickers. Another example of the usefulness of emergency lingerie; my bike was parked outside the library and on finishing my shift I found the seat was wet with rain. The knickers made a useful and dry seat cover for my brief (sic) commute home.

My bag does not contain mints but it does hold my purse and its veritable Marseilles deck of reward cards along with a Samuel Johnson fifty pence piece that I keep as a talisman. There is a wooden bead, not legal tender anywhere, zipped into the change purse. A much folded map of a lovely Weymouth walk we did some months ago has almost become part of the lining. A ticket for the Welsh Highland Railway, third class, might get you to Caernarfon if you kept your finger on the clipped bit and smiled with some confidence.

Most would tidy these bits and pieces out and tut at the cluttered tat, representative of a jumbled mind. Others might relish the practicality of the emergency items, the requisites for stranding in any urban environment. I think Bear Grylls probably has several uses for a stray shoelace and an old mascara brush.

Did I mention my Swiss Army Knife? And the binoculars?


There’s also often a book at the bottom of my bag – if you’d like a book of mine, for free, to rattle around at the bottom of your bag, you just need to tell me where to send it.


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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


I’d like to send you a book for free – you just need to tell me where to send it.

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