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Dust on the Rubber Tree - Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

What would you like as the title?

We can call it Dust on the Rubber Tree.

Why?

Because that’s the name of my book… I always wanted a rubber tree for the studio… I imagined a lovely big flower growing, but they never did, the leaves used to fall off, all but the very top ones, they ended up looking like little palm trees and never really amounted to much at all.

I was born Sheila Val Jean Hugo, a descendant of Victor Hugo, writer of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, daughter of Victor Emanuel Hugo and sister to Victor John Hugo, later to be joined by Harill Roderick Hugo in a little part of old town Swindon. A dear little lovely part of the old railway town in a little village on a private road leading down to nowhere. A better class of Swindon. The first thing I can remember is my little brother Roddy sitting on the floor of the drawing room with his tongue hanging out and a tin of treacle upside down on his golden head.

Everybody was so very polite it was all really rather twee. All us posh little girls had our fairy dresses complete with a wand with a star on the top and dancing shoes. You just had to have a new one every year. It was the outfit we wore to all special occasions. My grandparents were just two ordinary people. They had thirteen children and a toyshop called Tompkins and Barrett’s. One of those children was my mother.

My mother didn’t work. She died of cancer at the age of 37 when I was almost too young to remember. She’d been a concert pianist. I remember her playing and singing scales in front of the long yellow velvet curtains. I hated it. It put me off classical music for life. She played and Aunt Grace sang. I said, “Mummy, I’m taking my dollies upstairs to play.” It drove me nuts. Aunt Grace took the place of my mother and although she didn’t live with us she did all the motherly things. She bought my school clothes. It was Aunt Grace who first showed me how to use make-up. She came round with lipstick and said this is what you do, Sheila. You put it on your lips like this, then you do this (grimaces) and then you rub it all off… it’s ridiculous. That was the only make-up we had, no powder or anything… marvellous. Rubbish of course. She took me to dancing school. My father paid.      

Back then Swindon was the centre of the GWR and father worked for the railway at the other end of town. My father was a gentleman. He would come home smelling of beer and tobacco. When I was a young girl he would bring his pals home from the pub. I made cheese straws in the oven and would serve them whisky late into the night. They all said, “You’ve got a good one here, Victor.”

My early years were idyllic. I went to a private school called Miss Fentleman’s from the age of three. It was situated in a lovely old house in Bath Road with only one big classroom for all the ages. We would go out down over the cliff, down into the playing fields for races and things. There were rope ladders at the back of the house and we had to climb down to the playing fields. We had our lunch out of a little lunch box. I must have looked a picture with my pigtails. We’d go to school in a pony and trap. Alice the farmer’s daughter would call for me every morning. It was a very posh school. We had different hours to the ordinary children who went to the elementary school so we wouldn’t have to meet them. When the school was repainted we had our lessons in the bedrooms. One day Kenneth Bottomley, whose daughter was in the last Conservative government, hit me in the stomach, the teacher saw him. When she asked why he’d done it, he said it was because he loved me. After my mother died I still went there for a while.

In Drove Road, where we were living, the maths teacher took me father aside saying, “Vic, I don’t know why you’re paying all this money, couldn’t she come to the elementary school? To get her up to scratch I’ll give her private tuition.” The standard at the private school was far worse than at the elementary, it was just very snobbish. It was all to do with class and keeping the poorer people apart, although nobody was ever rude. So I was taken away from the private school and started at the elementary. I was very shy and I had to go on my own. I remember saying to Victor, “What happens if I don’t find the door?” I really thought I might be left out in the street all morning.

At the time my voice was so blah, blah, blah, that every time I spoke they all used to laugh. It ruined my voice trying to talk down to them. There were 32 in a class. In tests I was always 31st or 29th or something until I suddenly decided I would learn. I made up my mind to think, when I’m told something, don’t just try to remember it, think why. Then you might remember it. That term I came out on top. Everybody said, “Oh, she cheats.” But you can’t get to the top by cheating and I was never anything other than top until I left school, every term. Mathematics was my best subject. I even once got 100% in trigonometry. It was so very easy. I remember the schoolmaster’s face, “Number 1… Sheila Hugo. What’s happened here? From the bottom to the top!”

I used to dance. I went to dancing school, which became very important to me. My brother would put on his Eton collar and tie and all the rest to take me to dancing classes and bring me home again. I used to dance with Diana Dors although we went to different dancing schools… we would give concerts with the two schools together. Aunt Grace would say, “Just you watch little Diana and you’ll be alright.” I stayed in contact with Diana all the way through, right until I was staying in the Duke of Windsor’s flat. I think I was the better dancer.

Aunt Grace used to give me a glass of port and lemon before each concert. I remember Uncle Harry, the henpecked husband of Aunt Grace, being rather intoxicato obligato, poured out that much port, about four inches, and that much lemon, none, and did it all the wrong way round. I was reeling all over the place. They had to carry me out to the car but I recovered before lunch. It was my very first memory of getting drunk. I came from humble beginnings and progressed to better things later on.

I took up the carpets in the kitchen and practiced tap on the stone floor. I didn’t know at the time that Fred Astaire danced in soft shoes and the taps were added mechanically afterwards… tap…tap… tap… it was a treble tap and your foot can’t do it. It’s too fast. I practiced and practiced and I nearly got it. I was 13 or 14 and I think I was better than him. I was very good at acrobatic dancing. Bending over backwards to pick up a flower. I wore a pair of short black trousers with a kind of bib or a piece of cloth that covered the front. When I was doing a back flip my nipple came out. I was so ashamed.

We used to give dancing parties in the garden… little concerts really. I used to put a sign on the gate, “Entrance fee one penny. Lemonade one halfpenny. Come in!” We used to dance out of the drawing room windows into the garden. We’d put chairs along the edge of the wall. Unsuspecting guests listened to Roddy on the violin and me on piano. I suppose it bored them silly. One day my father came home and noticed the sign on the gate and said, “Look we can’t have this, it has to be free.” We were very disappointed. I had a good business sense in those young days. I went out early in the morning to pick mushrooms and sell them to the neighbours for tuppence for a great big bagfull. When daddy found out he made me go and give all the money back. They said, “But Mr. Hugo we like it.” But he said it was beneath his daughter to be doing things like that. I had quite a trade going with my brother on our bicycles.

It was an idyllic scene with a watercress stream and fields running up the hill to a haunted house that would have made a very fine home for a tramp… you could just see it from our garden. I was terrified of the place. In the lane that ran behind was an overgrown wall with a loose brick. In the summer I’d boil rose petals to make a scent and hide it behind the brick. I told my friends that the fairies had left them something and if they paid me tuppence I could find it for them. I was a good storyteller. They didn’t have to pay but the fairies might be offended if they didn’t. I used to write letters to the fairies even though I knew I was cheating them.

Down in Swindon… oh, it was a lovely area with the downs and the haunted house… I’d sit in the garden at 5 o’clock in the morning and read right through a history book before breakfast. I remembered everything. Each page number and what was on it. When I went to do the exam I sat down and wrote it all out, then as soon as I’d done it I forgot it. You don‘t need history. My only regret is that I didn’t pass French. I had a good French master but I used to muck about, standing on the seats and sticking my tongue out at him. He said, “Naughty, naughty. Sit down and behave yourself.” My French dictation was rubbish. Dear, oh dear. You had to pass in one language to get your matriculation so that pulled me right down, that did. I was a silly girl.

I wanted to be an entertainer all my life, not an actress or a dancer but a bit of everything. I was a very good dancer. My dancing teacher came to see my father. She said, “She’s a genius! You’ve got a fortune here, Mr. Hugo, if you get her trained up properly.” He wouldn’t do it… said he couldn’t afford it. He said it wasn’t worth it as I’d be married in no time. If my mother had been alive she would have sent me and who knows what might have happened. My father let me down, he put all the money into sending Victor to college and I never got my chance but I loved him dearly, I could never hold it against him. He had a hell of a life, a dead wife, and three children to look after. So we had a housekeeper then… various housekeepers. They all really came to marry him and he would have been quite a catch. He wanted to have somebody else, in fact he did meet someone, but he made the mistake of asking Roddy and myself if we wanted a new mother. I said, “Oh no. Daddy, no!” So that was that. I look back now on that with horror. It was tit for tat. He took me out of the dancing school. We had to have someone when mother died. He wasn’t having any of it. Helga joined us when I was nine and stayed until father died aged 71. She became part of the family. She was a virgin and stayed a virgin all her life. She thought of Roddy as her baby. He died two years ago.

We would go to church and then to Aunt Grace for drinks afterwards before we went home. The housekeeper made me go. I hated it. Four times on a Sunday, Communion, Morning Mass, Sunday School and Evensong. I told my father I didn’t like it. Quite ridiculous since he thought it was me who wanted to go. The Sunday school I didn’t mind, little plays and all that. There can’t be just one person looking after everyone… not the housekeeper… I mean God.

I used to go and stay with my aunts on holiday… Aunt Jessie and Cousin Doreen… running in and out of each other’s houses… we were a close family. I would sleep with Doreen in a little room. We had a long garden at the back of a country house leading up to a summerhouse… a little house on its own but in a garden… very expensive. Aunt Jessie was very foolish with her money, she always spent it before she got it. We had a row one day so I packed all my things and walked all the way back to Swindon… I was about eleven.    

When I left school I worked as a secretary on the railway but I was so ignorant. We called the GWR the factory… my father still worked there earning about eight or nine pounds a week… he was the foreman… some workers only got 27 shillings. There were headlines in the local paper, “Swindon man goes bankrupt on £16 a week.” Laughable isn’t it? They closed the factory for a week and everybody went on holiday at the same time. The taxi would arrive. You would all go off to the station seeing everyone you knew on the platform. We all went to Western Super Mare and you’d see all your neighbours on the beach. It was ridiculous. We called it Trip Week.

When I was a teenager I met my first film star… he became a lifelong friend… I introduced myself by asking him where he was going for Trip. He had to ask his friends what on earth I meant. I realise how stupid it was now. It was Guy Middleton who was in French Without Tears. I went to a dance when I was sixteen and he was standing by the band. He was the entertainment officer for the King’s Royal Rifles, the 60th regiment. He asked me to dance. Then he took me home and arranged to see me again.

The next day the town was buzzing. Sheila is going out with a film star. Guy took me out when I was a virgin. He said, “Why haven’t you?” I said, “I’m afraid I don’t like anybody enough and I’ve no wish to get into trouble.” He told me he had slept with over 310 women, and that night I kneeled down and prayed for him. I knelt down and said, “Dear God, forgive him, he didn’t mean to be so bad.”

He never had me. I was as green as the fields of Swindon in those days and thought it was suicide if you had a baby outside marriage. He said, “You are a funny little girl.” I was still living at home and he used to come to tea with my father nearly every day… rather black tea, which Guy would always refuse. It had become far more than a liaison but all of a sudden he went away. I didn’t see him again for nearly twenty years. I used to have the most extraordinary laugh, “Har! Har! Har!” I was in London years later in a pub on Gloucester Road when one of my friends made a joke… I laughed and a hand touched me on the shoulder, it was Guy, and from that point it became a lifelong friendship. He asked me to marry him.    

We moved down the hill out of the village into Swindon proper and I got a modelling job. I modelled the world’s first all-metal swimsuit, it was made of silver and it wasn’t very comfortable. It didn’t photograph well either, not as well as the woollen one my girlfriend Audrey had. Hers was black with white magnolias on it. When people saw me they gasped but in the photographs it disappeared. It just seemed grey. Once I was modelling the swimsuit, which came with a little overskirt… at the end of the catwalk I had to turn and take off the overskirt to show the bathing suit, but I couldn’t do it. The authorities said it was too much like a striptease so I had to carry the skirt down to the end of the runway and put it on at the end instead. My father laughed but I think he was proud.

I used to date the soldiers from the King’s Rifles. When they left, the town was suddenly empty and I started seeing Mr Tooth and, don’t laugh, he was the local dentist. Ronald was a lovely man. I can’t remember how I met him but it must have been in one of the pubs in town. There were three big pubs the Bell, the Goddard Arms and the Kings Arms and I was in one of them with Ronald every night. We would take Diana Dors’ father, Burt Fluck, to the pub with us, he was just a nice old chap. I think her mother had died by then. Diana’s father wasn’t a train driver, which the papers said he was, he was very middle class, an architect. She was a well-bred girl from a good family. There’s nothing wrong with train drivers, he just wasn’t one. We all used to drive out to the country together. Ronald liked fast cars. He wasn’t a handsome man but he had a Morris 8 and you could drink and drive, back then. It was Ronald who taught me how to drive. His house was always full of people, baking potatoes on the fire… baked potatoes and butter. He was the most Chelsea of Swindon. He really drew the crowds. He was the ‘Swindon Set’ and I suppose it was natural that we should meet. At the time he was in love with the doctor’s daughter, Babe Young. There were three children Biddy, Babe and Boy. He was besotted with Babe. We all used to drive out into the country to the Sun. There was no ban on drink-driving back then. Ronald had a smash up and injured Babe. He wasn’t falling about drunk but he’d had a few. We took our cars out racing down to Brighton… it took us one hour exactly from the Cromwell Road… all drunk, but sensible drunk. Babe was scarred but it didn’t spoil her beauty… it added to her.

When the war started, Babe went away, joined the WAF. It was most amusing because Ronald and I secretly began to pop into bed for half an hour, then he’d take me home. It wasn’t long before I married him. Two days after our marriage he was called up.

Our friends were from London, in fact Chelsea, but they were quite a different breed to the ones I ended up with… better… or better with money anyway. They certainly wouldn’t have lived in Squalor Court. After I married Ronald, Babe came to stay. I adored Babe but in the army she had a real problem. They couldn’t call her Private Babe. First of all Ronald went to Aldershot where he telephoned telling me to come up for the weekend… I did… it was disastrous. He was bad at everything. The army had put bromide in his tea… it was a bit much… we’d only been married two days.

Afterwards he was posted to Chelsea… I followed him to Sloane Square but he had to return to the barracks so I wasn’t allowed to see him until the evening. I found a place to stay in Lower Sloane Street. I had no real idea where I was other than that I was in Chelsea. I walked down the King’s Road until I found a hairdresser. After a shampoo and set I went to have beer at the Lord Nelson where I met the first two of the Chelsea Set, Jimmy De’Lemaire and Tony Mortimer. They said, “Goodness me, you look like Veronica Lake.” Thinking I’d never see them again I said, “How funny, my name is Veronica.” I didn’t mean it and I didn’t expect it to stick. They never believed me after that when I told them that my real name is Sheila. So for years and years I was Veronica. It was Thelma my girlfriend who said, “Her real name is Veronica but she likes to be called Sheila.” It was the other way round. It wasn’t until I married Leo Britt that it was corrected. He insisted that I was called Sheila. There are still people who think of me as Veronica. I decided on that day that Chelsea was for me, so I lied to my employer in Swindon. I was still working for the GWR, very posh but it doesn’t sound it. I told Mr. Barrington that I wanted to join the WAF. He said, “My dear, you can’t. You’re a lady, it’s not for you.” You couldn’t leave without permission. I told them I was going into the Forces but they wouldn’t let me leave. I thought of another plan. I told them that my husband was stationed in Chelsea, which by that time he wasn’t. I said I was desperate to see him. They let me leave on emotional grounds and I’ve been a Chelsea Girl ever since.

When Ronald came back I wasn’t the girl he’d left. I’d had a string of lovers by then. I was about twenty when the war started… Mr Tooth was moved abroad to fight and we just grew apart. I’d had four years of glamour and theatre and I couldn’t go back to being the dentist’s wife. When you’re twenty, four years is a lifetime… you get to know your values and what you want out of life. Ronald was a lovely, decent chap but I could never love him. The war had an enormous influence on my life, as soon as I got to know anybody they went away. If Ronald Tooth hadn’t been called up and gone away for four years I don’t think any of this would have happened. Guy Middleton asked me to marry him and then he disappeared.

As soon as I got to London I got a part with Jack Benson… the producer of A Little Bit of Fluff at the Ambassador’s Theatre. Jack said I could have a part. I went to the labour exchange to get my pass to take on the part and they said I couldn’t have a part because I didn’t have an Equity Card and I couldn’t have an Equity Card because I hadn’t done anything before. So instead of going to see Jack who might have been able to do something… pushed the thing through… I gave up and left it. I didn’t end up in the show at all. It was such a silly thing to do as the production rolled on for about seven years. I’ve had opportunity knock many times and I never got there. Somehow I managed to get a job as an artists’ model and became the dumb blonde of the Sunday pictorials and then Sally in the News of the World. Posing in the nude. Arthur Ferrier was the artist. He drew it. It was the first real job I had in London and afterwards I worked for the GLC for their still-life department. Posing in full dress. Arthur was a pictorial artist… a cartoonist. He said, “You’re just what I want for this strip.” I went to his studio and undressed down to a little pair of pants… ten bob a sitting. It was good enough but it wasn’t what I wanted. 

It could have happened for me. I’m not saying in any way that I could have been as good as Diana Dors but I could have been well on the way in a different manner. I would never have made a good actress but I was a natural entertainer or presenter and I had all the right connections. I had so many opportunities and I didn’t take them. I was always too interested in getting on with my love life. It was a choice. The ones who wanted to help my career were not so attractive. I’m a Pisces, a fish swimming in both directions. I can’t make decisions. A long time later I rang an agent and said I was exactly right for what he wanted. He said, “I think you might be right but I can’t have you using your own name,” which was then Sheila Britt. It was a well-known and jolly good name for the theatre so I never understood it. I got some photos taken but because I wouldn’t sleep with the photographer he wouldn’t let me have them. I couldn’t send them because I couldn’t pay. Some men are horrible. I was ready for the limelight but it’s not true what they say, opportunity doesn’t just knock twice, it knocks many times, you just have to be able to see it and I never could. I knew all the right people.

I met Dennis Price, one of the actors from Kind Hearts and Coronets. He said I was the girl he’d been waiting for all his life. Vincent Price I met once or twice. Tony Curtis came round to see Candy, my dolly friend. She had a collection of about 200 or so antique dolls. He was doing a film with her. One day he was being driven along the Brompton Road and he saw her outside the Zetlin, a pub just round the corner. The chauffeur stopped and he came over. He was really quite a disappointment. Lots of very smudgy make-up… and he was the same when he knocked at my door.

Candy was a little actress who pretended to be 25 when she was 45. She was in The Persuaders. We used to dance together. I used to go to a jazz club in the West End where Dick Katz was the pianist. Actually I’d go alone and dance, I liked the music so much. I got to know George Melly who became quite a good friend and I went to his rehearsals. Once I went to one of the recordings and got so carried away I was humming and singing along… a bit pissed. Humphrey Littleton was quite miffed, “If you don’t shut up…” I had to leave. Afterwards I met George outside my bank in Sloane Square and he told me of all the takes they’d done the one they’d chosen to use was the one with me humming over the introduction. George was a lovely friend.

I still saw Diana every now and again. She was making a film with Anthony Newley who played the Artful Dodger… he used to come out with us most nights. I suppose he was her boyfriend but I liked Tony very much… I think I adored him. Tony came out with the Chelsea Set almost every night. He wasn’t tall but he was very handsome. One day Diana said, “I’ll tell you what, Sheila, I’m going out with one of your ex-boyfriends, you can have Tony.” She went through my boyfriends like a dose of salts. She said, “I don’t want him anyway. If you go into the Connoisseur Club at six, you’ll find him there waiting for me, but I’m not going. Say hello and take it from there.” I said, “Alright Di, thanks”. I turned up and sure enough there he was. I had a drink and everything was going fine, just as she said it would. We were just about to take off and go somewhere else when a horrible boyfriend of mine who was a greengrocer or something turned up and started to cause a scene. He got very upset. He was shouting, “What are you doing with my girl?” I wasn’t his girl at all but he was crazy about me. He dragged me outside and punched me silly. I had concussion for about a month. I never got my Tony after all. It was a real pity. Tony must have thought his luck was in that night but it was all over so quickly he must have been disappointed.