There was a time when "Harrods" did not mean "Al Fayed". It did not immediately conjure up the image of a proprietor who asserted that the Duke of Edinburgh had his ex-daughter-in-law bumped off. In the late Fifties, it was an upper-crust enclave. "Being a Harrods customer was a way of life; you bought everything at Harrods," recalls Penny Vincenzi, whose first job was in the Knightsbridge store.
Vincenzi, who has written 14 novels, began by handing out other people's books. Author of No Angel and Wicked Pleasures, she is now engaged in chairing the new £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize. This first-novel award is named after her late literary agent and the shortlist will be announced next month.
Before writing her own first novel, she was a librarian – at Harrods.
"There were far more private lending libraries then," she explains. "Boots had one. At Harrods, you got a book straight away; you just rang up and ordered it and it was delivered that afternoon, sometimes by horse-drawn van."
She began working in the Harrods library after taking her A-levels. As a humble member of staff, young Penny did not enter the main Harrods building like the smart customers but used another, over the road, connected to it by a tunnel.
She would slip into a green wrap-around garment, "a horrible green, so unflattering, like joke cleaning-ladies' overalls". Emerging from the subterranean route, she would go to her appointed desk in the library on the fourth floor. There were 12 desks, each with one senior and two junior librarians who dealt with customers in person or over the phone.
Penny handled readers whose names began with the letter S. "Sir Malcolm Sargent was an absolute sweetheart, very polite." The famous conductor was unusual: "Most of them were absolutely horrible. We were minions." She struggled to take down the book titles and names of gentlefolk with plummy voices.
She was once reduced to hiding behind the shelves in tears when a lady provided with the wrong book threw its container at her for being a "complete dolt".
Penny lived in fear of being sacked by the chief librarian but came to love the job and the fellow librarians, or minions. And she was being paid like a grown-up.
In her novels, she has drawn on her Harrods experience to describe how it feels when you are losing control and the situation is rapidly slipping out of your grasp. Her first novel was never one of the titles bought by Harrods and dished out to classy readers. Old Sins was not published until 1989; that was the year when the Harrods library closed down.
'An Absolute Scandal' by Penny Vincenzi is out in paperback (Headline Review, £7.99). Details of librarian training: www.learn direct-advice.co.uk.
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