Princess Margaret loved Jenners (and so did Uncle ‘Fingers’) – Kevan Christie

In 1964 the Jenners beauty counter defined sophistication
In 1964 the Jenners beauty counter defined sophistication
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Sad news passing through the in-tray this week had me digging out the old fur coat and ditching the frilly knickers (which were starting to get a bit tight anyway).

I am, of course, talking about the imminent departure of the Jenners brand from its Princes Street location as the building’s Danish billionaire owner plans to reinvent the historic site.

This felt like a hammer blow given the recent stooshie around East Princes Street Gardens turning into Blackpool, the 23 hours of darkness we’ve been enjoying each day throughout November, and Edinburgh cooncil bringing Christmas forward by around two months.

I know many people feel the real Jenners died in 2005 with the House of Fraser takeover but it still had a bit going for it before Sports Direct pitched up with the towelling socks.

The city is slowly becoming unrecognisable to those of a certain vintage but 20-odd years of endless road and building work will do that to a place and Tourists Rule OK. Plans are afoot for a “much-needed” hotel, cafes and a rooftop restaurant and bar to replace the existing department store, alongside luxury shops that may lurk in the lower floors. These have been linked to Anders Holch Povlsen’s clothing brand Bestseller, which is “bringing sustainable fashion forward” but doesn’t seem to sell any of those grey Lonsdale jogging bottoms much loved by House of Fraser supremo Mike Ashley.

Polvsen can give you change for a £4.5bn note so hopefully the “total restoration” of the Category A listed building’s facade will include the sensitive reinstatement of some of the lost original elements.

We could do with a bit of sensitivity in the capital at the moment.

However, the Jenners scoop – as reported in these pages and those of the Edinburgh Evening News – got me feeling all gooey and a bit sentimental for days gone by.

An esteemed colleague, who shall remain nameless, has accused me of wallowing in the past and recommends I sit in a darkened room and watch BFI films of Auld Reekie from the 1950s, as is my wont.

Makes a change from him asking “why do you hate Scotland?”

I don’t, but moving out of the Capital to the sunnier climes of west Fife has certainly paid dividends, dear reader – wheelie bins regularly collected, for starters.

Brown for refuse and garden waste, green for plastics.

Anyway, like a lot of Edinburgh punters I had a family member who worked in Jenners, my mother having gone straight from Portobello High School aged 15 in 1961 to the perfumery department.

She returned to the store in the early 1980s after a spell at Patrick Thomson’s, or PTs, on North Bridge, and worked for Christian Dior.

Animal rights protesters smashing up the perfume counter and the occasional visit from my shoplifting uncle, Fingers Christie, who had ventured up the town from Leith and would tell my mum he was “working”, were just some of the highlights.

Liberty ties were going like hotcakes on the black market circa 88’ and the Encyclopedia Britannica always came in handy if we needed to look something up... your honour.

I remember going to pick her up with my dad and him parking the car across from the side entrance on South St David Street, completely unmolested by any traffic 
wardens. At 5.30pm on the dot the staff door would open in Rose Street and glamorous workers of all sexes would spark up their fags and either head home or cross the road to the magnificent Abbotsford Bar for a swift half or three.

These were the days of Dynasty and Dallas, high hair and padded shoulders were de rigueur, with a splash of diamante to round things off – and the women looked nice as well.

Mum would sometimes bring her perfumery pals home, they would sit and gab, eat exotic dark chocolate ginger biscuits from M&S, crack open the wine and some of them would smoke. I can still smell the heady mix of tobacco and Chanel No.5 or Poison – the 
perfume, not the wine they were guzzling.

Lipstick-covered fag butts would fill the ashtrays and my brother and I would be introduced before someone would ask how I was doing at school. “Great Aunty Sheila, I got a D for French last week.”

Speaking to former Jenners staff this week I heard great stories – and some of them may even be true.

Half-days on a Saturday when Princess Margaret would have the run of the place, having taken a break from downing cocktails in Madogs on George Street.

The King of Jordan popping in for a pair of grey joggers and Peter O’Toole having his hair cut gives us a flavour of the kind of esteem the “Harrods of the North” was held in at one point.

Everyone remembers going to Jenners for the toy store, the Christmas tree and seeing Santa before he stopped existing, but the human interaction between the staff and customers is where the real magic lived and breathed.

The whole Are You Being Served? Grace Brothers – “Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery kitchenware and food... going up” vibe of the place.

A documentary about Liberty of London captured the essence of life in an iconic department store and I’m sure Jenners staff enjoyed the same camaraderie and sense of belonging in its heyday. In fact, I know they did.

On the plus side, at least the building remains and I’m cautiously optimistic the project will preserve this totem of Edinburgh recognised the world over.

I bought my one and only cravat in Jenners, and a mustard Sabre jumper that went down well on the football terraces. The red corduroy jacket, however, goes down as a fashion fox-pas.

So long Jenners old friend, like East Princes Street Gardens, although you’re gone, you won’t be forgotten.