It’s In The Bag

I listened to a great podcast the other day. It was on BBC Woman’s Hour and was talking about Margaret Thatcher and her handbag.

Apparently, when she was Prime Minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher took her handbag everywhere. It was black, slightly briefcasey in appearance, and in many ways, as formidable as its owner was.

Thatcher carried that handbag with her during summit meetings with Gorbachev and Reagan often placing it on shiny, mahogany conference tables like a challenge or across the front of her body like a shield. That handbag came to be known as Thatcher’s not so secret weapon because politicians and diplomats the world over never knew what she would pull out of it or what it contained.

I found it fascinating that a woman as strong and indomitable as Margaret Thatcher carried a handbag everywhere she went. It was as if she carried a little piece of femininity into a realm of male supremacy.

The story of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag reminded me of my Scottish grandmother who incidentally, was also called Margaret but was referred to as Peggy. Peggy Hamilton. She kept her maiden name during a time when it just wasn’t done and worked her entire life at a local bookmaker’s. Barely five foot tall, she ran that place and what she didn’t know about betting and horse-racing wasn’t worth knowing.

Peggy Hamilton had a handbag. A big, black, shiny handbag. She took it everywhere with her – even up to the shops when all she was doing was buying a bottle of milk. When she walked into a room the first thing she did was put the handbag on the table. Then she would take off her gloves and put them inside. The click of the clasp on the handbag was like a gunshot.

As we sat without our elbows touching the table we gazed at that handbag. It loomed. It intimidated. It was a portent of doom. My sister thought it contained thousands of sweets. But I thought it was a kind of Pandora’s box.

We were frightened to look inside but also eaten away by curiosity. One day when our grandma was cooking lunch we couldn’t stand it anymore and my sister, Shelley, always daring, always reckless, clicked open the clasp. It was as loud as a thunderclap right inside the room.

My grandma was there, by the bag, finger on the clasp as quick as those robots from Terminator 2 – all-seeing, all-powerful. We sat back in our chairs, hearts racing as she circled the table muttering : ‘I wonder why any child would dare to open their grandmother’s handbag without permission. I wonder why they would be so rude.’

We didn’t say a word, we hardly dared to breathe. I thought that if I died right there and then it might actually be for the best. My grandmother went back to cooking lunch leaving the handbag on the table. A challenge. A thick underlining of her authority.

When shoulderbags became hugely popular in the 1970s my grandmother scoffed. ‘Who could be bothered with such frivolity?’ she said. ‘No one takes someone who carries a shoulderbag seriously.’

I was overjoyed with the purple suede fringed shoulderbag I’d gotten for my tenth birthday but I began to rethink the value of it under my grandmother’s unwavering scrutiny. I began to think that maybe a handbag was a more appropriate kind of accessory, even for someone wearing flares and platform shoes. I began to bow to the power – unquestionable and abiding – of the big, black handbag.

I have favoured handbags over shoulderbags ever since.

When my grandmother died every member of the family agreed that her handbag be buried with her. It seemed right somehow. None of us ever knew what her handbag contained, none of us ever had the courage or desire to open it (even after her death) for we felt in our hearts that it held a part of her it was important not to tamper with.

I know that wherever she is now she is keeping things under control with that handbag, opening and closing the clasp with all the impact of an exploding star.

And I know she is happy about it.

21 thoughts on “It’s In The Bag

  1. Fantastic story Selma (you can sure tell a tale)! I love the way you describe the sound of the clasp opening ‘It was as loud as a thunderclap right inside the room.’ As we know, never, never look inside a woman’s handbag or shouderbag or purse (my hubby won’t look in mine – even when I say it is ok – he just hands it to me for whatever he needs out of it (with a look of horror on his face like he’s thinking – she says that, but what is she really saying, women are very confusing) πŸ™‚


  2. GABRIELLE – That clasp really was loud. A lot of handbags back then had them. I will never ever forget the click of it. I know a lot of people who won’t look in my bag, either. It’s hilarious. However, a male friend of mine has one of those ‘manly’ shoulderbags and I certainly wouldn’t want to look in there. It is full of all sorts of weird stuff. Maybe the moral of the story is don’t look in anyone’s bag regardless of gender. Some things are best left private πŸ˜†


  3. My mother would come unglued if anyone looked in her purse without permission (especially my father… wowsers!) But one day, she took me on a journey into that hallowed place. I’m still not sure of what I saw, but I do know she carried a LOT of things in there.

    On the other hand, my ex wouldn’t think twice about pawing through my purse to look for the checkbook, despite my constant requests to him to “just let me get it.” Served him right when the top came off the lip balm and he stuck his finger in “some kind of vile slime.”

    When I find the perfect purse, I will never change it out and it will become that sacred, secret-keeping, portable temple.


  4. Everyone needs a handbag of some kind, to carry all the clobber that modern living demands. Only, us men call them ‘briefcases’

    (Mine held a notebook, a couple of pens, a packet of tissues, the daily paper and my lunchtime sandwiches … and a packet of cigars, back when I smoked!) πŸ˜€


  5. Hi Selma,
    Great story and you told it so well I could picture your Grandmother with her handbag. I remember when I was younger, no matter where you went you always saw all these different handbags the ladies were always carrying, these days of course it’s a bit of a mixture, I’m a shoulder bag girl, I carry a lot of stuff, and Hubby always asks if he has to go into my bag for something, he is from the “old school”.


  6. KAREN – And a temple it should be. LOL. I used to love looking in my mother’s handbag when I was a kid. It contained all sorts of wonders – lipsticks, embroidered handkerchiefs, little bottles of perfume. It was like getting a more detailed insight into her life. I hope you find that perfect purse one day!

    ADEEYOYO – She was one of the last of her kind, I suspect. I know what you mean about the filing cabinet πŸ˜†

    TRAVELRAT – I have seen some men’s briefcases that have been choc a block full of stuff. I agree with you – I think everyone needs some kind of bag. We need somewhere to put all our stuff and not every outfit has deep enough pockets!

    MAGS – I used to like the elegance of the handbags you saw in the old days. They always matched the shoes. It was so well planned. Nowadays anything goes!


  7. A wonderful tale indeed. I also remember the sound of those clasps, very distinctive, my grandma “Big Ma” had a number of these bags.

    I had one of those fringed purple “numbers” too Sel. And a jacket to match no less. Oh lalal eh!!! LOL

    Thanks also for the lovely, lovely comment about heading “back to school” I was touched by your words.


  8. GERALDINE – And I meant it. You are such a great writer with a great deal of sensitivity and insight. You also have the brains and work ethic needed to complete a degree. I have no doubt you’ll come top of the class.

    You won’t believe it – I had a fringed jacket to match too. But I can go one step further – I had knee high purple suede boots as well. It was a purple frenzy. Or maybe a haze. I thought I was so hip. Too funny!!


  9. I’ve never met your grandmother or her handbag and I’m scared to look inside it. Hey, that would be a good horror movie – Grandma’s Handbag!


  10. I’m feeling quite sheepish as I’ve never NOT had a bag that hung form my shoulder. I suppose that explains a lot!


  11. PS: Boo hooo…my sister-in-law had the purple suede over the knee boots not me. For some reason, my dad didn’t want me to have a pair of these, my skirts being as short as they were, were bad enough LOL!!!!!

    Thanks for the memories and again, for the kind words.


  12. I loved this story! I can just picture you trying to get into your grandma’s handbag! I love purses – I have so many ranging from small to big, sporty to a little fancy! I like the small ones since the bigger ones I keep filling till they are so heavy that I think my shoulder will fall off!


  13. Oh my, I thought you were describing MY grammas purse!! lol Too funny, its like an unwritten law that grammas have to have purses with loud clasps! She always carried a hand bag, I think alot of that generation did, complete with the gloves one never left the house without!
    Great story love, I can always count on you and Geraldine to write about things that bring back great childhood memories!


  14. Oh WOW! I was hoping you would say you opened the bag and tell us what was in it! But you didn’t, which meant so much to HER… such restraint you have! I am too curious. I love that she was buried with it… what a terrific story!!


  15. I love the story of your grandmother and her handbag. As for Mrs. Thatcher, I couldn’t help but wonder if she might have had the “go codes” in that bag. The US President has his own bag that goes everywhere he does, but he has a lackey to carry it for him.

    I’m a shoulder bag gal myself.


  16. ROSHAN – It would be a fantastic movie. Grandma’s Handbag. It could have an axe in there or a feral leprechaun or be the portal to Hell. Haha. I think I watch too many horror movies!

    LAURI – Sorry to make you feel sheepish. Haha. Truth be told, I prefer shoulder bags – they are much easier to carry around but every time carry one I think of my grandma all day and how she would disapprove. It’s a curse!!!

    GERALDINE – They sound like they were really cool boots. Those were the days, weren’t they? I’ll never forget them.


  17. MELEAH – You would have made my grandma very proud. Hahaha.

    TBALL – I know what you mean. I have a couple of big bags which I got thinking they would be FAB coz I could fit so much stuff into them but every time I use them I feel like I’m about to dislocate my shoulder. Ouch!!

    CATHY – That is hilarious. I love that your grandma had a similar bag. Maybe having one is part of the grandma codebook. So funny!


  18. KATHERINE – All these years later I wish I had opened her bag. I have convinced myself there are some family secrets in there. I have envisaged all sorts of scenarios. But I guess I’ll never know….

    PATTIKEN – Now that is a great point about Mrs. Thatcher. I hadn’t thought of that but it makes sense that she would have carried the codes around with her. Imagine if she’d been the victim of a bag snatcher. It would have been a national emergency!!


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