Tuesday, 21 February 2017

TNC: James Bond and the Art of Love

In the month of Valentine’s Day, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week, could really only go with the theme of

Love logo


As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery is collecting the links this month.

Last week I looked at Love in Agatha Christie.
Anyone who hasn’t read Ian Fleming’s James Bond books will probably be surprised that I have picked him for this week’s topic. I have spent the past year reading the James Bond books and stories from beginning to end, and they have surprised, confounded and delighted me. I wanted to do a roundup post on the whole project – and this seemed the ideal way to look at Bond and Fleming and love…

James Bond in Love

thunderball 1
This is how the archetypal Bond Girl dresses in the books

I read most of the James Bond books when I was a teenager, and hadn’t looked at them since. I had seen exactly one Bond film in my life.

At the end of 2015 I read an extract from a collection of Ian Fleming’s letters, The Man With the Golden Typewriter. I bought the book, read it, gave it to half a dozen people as Xmas presents, and on the strength of it decided to re-read all the James Bond books. I feared that they would seem dated and perhaps tiresome, that the attitudes to women, foreigners and the lower classes would be objectionable – but I was certain it would be an interesting project.

It certainly was, and I was confounded by how enjoyable the books were. Yes, they were of their time – for such unrealistic stories, they are full of fascinating details of how we lived then. To take random examples:
Smoked salmon as a luxury item  
Las Vegas as a new phenomenon, and one readers would not know 
Sexy women in wellingtons as they run round the casinos in Vegas 

Spaghetti Bolognese and sex in a car as the height of sophistication

Live and let Die 2
Bond or Bigglesworth? all-purpose illo

Other aspects I very much enjoyed were the similarities with childhood hero Biggles, and the succession of giant and small octopuses and squids. The fact that nearly all the nice women at some point wear a ‘hand-stitched leather belt’. The way the titles have entered the language. The Bond details of sleeveless shirts, slip-on shoes, a hatred of flying. The absorbing card games (compared with the dull golf).This list of what Bond would do if he got rich:
He thought for a moment and then wrote carefully on a memorandum pad headed ‘Top Secret’:
1. Rolls-Bentley Convertible, say £ 5000.
2. Three diamond clips at £ 250 each, £750.
I said then: ‘Bless. It’s like my son’s Christmas list when he was 8.’

But what surprised me most were the Bond Girls, as they are always known – though not by Fleming. Of course they were women of their time, and I don’t think Fleming can be criticized for that. There are lines and passages that made me wince, that I wish he hadn't written - but not too many of them.

The women are varied and fascinating, and Fleming does attempt to see into their lives and minds – much more so than many of his contemporaries. And he does a good job of describing their clothes on the whole.

Here’s my final rundown of the books, with links to the full review and a particular look at female characters.

Casino Royale 1953 Vesper Lynd (a problematic heroine), the French setting, some horrible scenes of torture and general violence. You can see why this one must have been a welcome breath of casino air in post-war Britain. Bond is in love with Vesper.

Live and Let Die 1954 Solitaire is a fairly unmemorable heroine. The book has nice scene-setting in New York, Bond travels by train to Florida and then on to the West Indies. These are the key elements of the plot:
The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target. And now Solitaire, the ultimate personal prize.
You could get away with that personal prize business in 1954. The book ends with Bond going on (carefully-worded) ‘passionate leave’ with Solitaire, who, far from being concerned by the danger, violence and injury she has suffered, is concerned about getting some clothes and the right lipstick. (In case it isn’t clear, this is a sign of her sang froid and feistiness rather than frivolity and silliness.) Short-term love affair.

Live and Let Die Duke Aquarium
New York in the 1950s
Moonraker 1955 Gala Brand, something of a lightweight, but starts out with an excellent attitude to Bond:
Clearly a conceited young man like so many of them in the Secret Service… she had put him in his place and shown him that she wasn’t impressed by dashing young men from the Secret Service, however romantic they might look.
They are not in love.

Some wince-making discussion of the secretaries at the department. I ask: ‘what does Bond need a secretary for?’

Diamonds Are Forever 1956 Tiffany Case, Las Vegas, and a splendid variety of settings and action. Relationship with Tiffany fizzles out a bit… but she is a great heroine.

Man with Golden Gun 1Man with Golden Gun 2Man with Golden Gun 3

From Russia With Love 1957 Tatiana, she of the bottom shaped by ice skating: ‘she had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep.’ This book is completely bonkers but at the highest possible level, terrific fun and definitely one of the best, what with Istanbul, the Orient Express, the gypsies and the awful Kerim. OF COURSE Tatiana and Bond are in love.
Dr No 1958 Honeychile Rider. She is wonderful, surely everyone’s favourite Bond girl, and the book is terrific. She and Bond love each other, but with no prospect for a future.

 Goldfinger 1Goldfinger 1959 Pussy Galore and the Masterton sisters. Pussy is a lesbian and is – of course – just ready to be converted by James Bond, who has some very weird views on the subject. It’s a pity: leaving a bad taste from what is otherwise a fun book.

For Your Eyes Only/ Quantum of Solace 1960 Nice collection of stories, not noted for the women characters.

Thunderball 1961 Domino Vitali, a classic Bond woman. This book had a very complex history – see entries – and the first half is a lot better than the second. I managed to devote most of an entry to a discussion of the word ‘mimosaic’.
The Spy Who Loved Me 1962 Vivienne Michel. Noted for 1st person narration by Vivienne, and a very creditable attempt to represent her point of view. But the title is the opposite of the reality: she loves James Bond, not the other way round. The Spy I Loved would be more accurate.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service 1963 Tracy Vicenzo. Possibly my favourite – heroine and book (keep changing my mind). The romance in this one is too sad, but the action is terrific. Fork Left for Hell is my favourite chapter title in the entire oeuvre. Bond is very much in love.
You Only Live Twice 1964 Kissy Suzuki. Strange Japanese setting, a dream-like surreal quality, and a charming young woman. There is a deep relationship, but you know Bond is not in it forever…

Man with Golden Gun 4

The Man with the Golden Gun 1965 Mary Goodnight. She was his secretary in earlier books: he meets up with her in Jamaica. This is a book Fleming would surely have edited, but it was published after he died. Not the best one, but still – not bad. Mary G does not play a large role.

Octopussy & The Living Daylights 1966 No real Bond girls. An interesting and varied collection of stories, and there is one knockout female character (in The Living Daylights) whom we never actually meet. And neither does Bond. 

I had two invaluable resources while reading my way through the books, and while writing this and all the other entries: the Kingsley Amis book The James Bond Dossier, and the website The Suits of James Bond.

Amis talks of Fleming/Bond, and the accusation that he/they are misogynists. Looking specifically at  a passage about Honeychile Rider, he says:
I suppose it is conceivable that the man who wrote that ‘hates women terribly’, but I can’t feel that he obviously does.
And I think it is also relevant to look at James Bond’s description of why he loves the woman he eventually marries:
she’s adventurous, brave, resourceful. She’s exciting always. She seems to love me. She’d let me go on with my life. She’s a lone girl, not cluttered up with friends, relations, belongings…
He wants a modern, feminist, independent woman in my view.

I am ever on the alert for what I consider to be problematic male writing, and am a very strong feminist. Of course there are attitudes and remarks in these books that I wince at – they are very much of their time, and would be unacceptable now. But overall, I think Amis is right.

James Bond and Ian Fleming were not woman haters.

And the books have given me a huge amount of pleasure over the past year – I can highly recommend them. Anyone who only knows the films or the later books by other hands might be as surprised and impressed as I was.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Book of 1943, & a Larkin Connection


The Worsted Viper by Gladys Mitchell

published 1943

Worsted Viper

[Three young students are on a holiday on a motor cruiser in the Norfolk Broads]

Laura, looking bored, was reclining on the cabin top in a two-piece bathing suit, which, whilst aesthetically passable, for she had a splendid body and a good skin, was ‘apt to render the embonpoint’ as Kitty euphemistically expressed it.

‘I do wish you’d put some slacks or shorts on, or something,’ said Alice. ‘You’re attracting attention.’

‘Not in this noodist colony, I ain’t, duck,’ retorted Laura, but she spoke dispiritedly.

worsted viper 4
[The young women decide to make an expedition to Yarmouth, and are deciding how best to travel]

[Alice and Kitty] stipulated that the journey was to be made by water, as they were not going to walk eight or nine miles out and the same distance back in the evening.

‘Slackers,’ said Laura, appearing with her magnificent posterior draped, this time, in a pair of linen shorts.
Worsted Viper 3

commentary: Philip Larkin must have loved this book.

He was a big fan of The Great Gladys, and in a piece on her says:
Before her marriage to Detective Inspector Gavin and eventual retreat into matronhood, Laura was equally prepared to strip off and dive for evidence or to test tides; some unregenerate readers came to value these episodes for themselves.
Well, this book is chockfull of Laura taking her clothes off and swimming around in little or nothing. There is also a naked virgin in danger of being offered up to Satan, and I think you can say without undue libel that Larkin would have loved that too - ‘it’s only educated people go in for that muck’, as the policeman says. The unlucky virgin is captured by the baddies twice, which defies belief.

Laura also swings ‘her cosh with the true aim and unthinking blood-thirstiness of her position as centre-half in the College hockey eleven. The man fell flat.’

The plot, as so often with Gladys Mitchell, is beyond description. There is Satanism, revenge and the eponymous stuffed toy snakes – about as sinister as they can be, doll-like creatures left on dead bodies. (What a great title ‘The Worsted Viper’ is!) There are dead bodies all over the place, and some strange ideas about ‘clearing people away’ from certain areas by means of planting dead bodies – which seems to make no sense at all.

I have just read the book, I read crime books by the hundred, generally have a quick understanding to them – but I could not explain to you what was going on in this book. Mitchell (and in this respect she is very unlike Agatha Christie) poses questions which are never going to be answered. There are several prostitutes in the book and some very lurid lowlife – again, you don’t get that in Christie.

But still – it was marvellous, I really enjoyed it.

The background is boating on the Norfolk Broads, which reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club and Big Six – similar era, and some of these people in the Viper were undoubtedly the Hullabaloos of those books. And reminding me also of Chrissie Poulson’s much more modern Deep Water. And Walsingham is featured, as in Elly Griffith’s The Woman in Blue.

This is my book of 1943 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at Past Offences. However, as a book of 1943 – absolutely nothing, the war doesn’t seem to be going on at all. Mrs Bradley mentions a rannygazoo, a splendid word apparently meaning ‘deceptive story or scheme, pranks, tricks or other irritating or foolish carryings-on’. Someone is eating ‘cokernut chips’ which is an early alternative spelling for coconut. 

There is a character with the excellent first name of ‘Romance’, though she is a sad unromantic figure.

The discussion of the girls’ clothes IS very much of its time – Laura is daring and likes wearing slacks and shorts as well as her two-piece bathing suit.

Top picture is an advert.

Two women: filmstars on cigarette cards from the NYPL.

Third picture is Jane Wyman in a two-piece in 1935 – a discussion of the history of bathing wear comes in this blogpost on Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

published 2017

[It is 1989. Adam Sharp is playing the piano in a bar in Melbourne while on a business trip ]

Best of Adam Sharp
I didn’t see her walk in. I saw her when she came over to the piano. In a town that dressed in black, she was wearing a white woollen dress and high boots. Mid-twenties, shoulder-length dark-brown hair against light skin, maybe five foot seven with the heels.
She had a pink cocktail in her hand. We were in a what was technically a cocktail bar, but this was Australia and most people drank beer, wine and simple mixed drinks unless they got into downing shots – B52s and Flaming Lamborghinis. The collection of liqueurs behind the bar was more for show and Shanksy’s cocktail repertoire was limited. But tonight he had produced a pink one. With a cherry and an umbrella.

commentary: Graeme Simsion – and I know this is not what authors want to hear – will always make me smile primarily because I think of the wonderful Don in The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. I got a review copy of the first book, knew nothing about it, didn’t at all know what to expect, and completely fell in love with the story of the clever academic who sets out on a logical search for his life partner. She appears early in the book, and we all know what will happen (even though she does not match ANY of his criteria for a perfect woman) and we all hugely enjoy watching clever Don slowly catch up with us. I told everyone to read the book, gave copies out as gifts, and correctly predicted it would be a bestseller. The sequel was just as good.

So, I know this is unfair, I just miss Don in this, Simsion’s new book. Adam is much more normal than Don – he is more like a Nick Hornby character, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. He has been with his partner Claire for many years, but an email out of the blue makes him think back to 1989 and the mad love affair he had in Australia with an actress called Angie. Of course he loves his partner, but things are steady and dull now. And as he splendidly says:
What would it say about my relationship with Claire if I felt too vulnerable to respond to an innocuous query [from Angelina]?
So he replies to his old flame, and tells us the story of their original affair, which takes up a big chunk of the book, and is a nice light romantic tale. It’s very funny, and convincing. I think the passage above shows how well he writes – it’s a gentle touch, but you get a lot of info from that simple description. Adam is obsessed by music, and throughout the book he tells you what was playing and has all kinds of trivia and unlikely byways about contemporary music of the past 50 years – the author has even provided a playlist that you should listen to while reading the book, and I certainly hauled out some old tracks after reading Adam’s comments on them. 

Simsion is also very good on clothes. I particularly liked Adam buying new walking gear (hoping to fit in but failing) because it reminded me of trying to find a picture of a Gore-Tex jacket expensive enough for the first Rosie book.

In the second half of the book, Adam goes to meet up with Angelina – and her husband Charlie. Yes. They all three have a vacation together: old and new friends, meeting up, fun occasion in a beautiful house in the South of France. I would never in a million years have guessed how this was going to pan out, and I doubt any other readers will either. There were some most unexpected twists and turns, which I will not spoiler, and it certainly kept me reading, though some of it made me feel a bit sticky, queasy (can’t define it further than that).

It’s an odd, muddling book: extremely entertaining and funny, and very perceptive on various aspects of life. I love the fact that it was a book about older people, at a different stage in their life but still having strong feelings, able to make mistakes, fall in love, and make right and wrong decisions. (Rather like my recent discovery, Jane Fallon.)

So even if Don and Rosie are missing, I do recommend this one as a thoughtful but very funny look at a mid-life crisis.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Last James Bond Book


Octopussy & The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming

final James Bond book
first published as a book 1966
current editions contain these short stories:
The Living Daylights
The Property of a Lady
007 in New York

Octopussy 2

[Octopussy: Major Dexter Smythe lives on the coast in Jamaica and has a great interest in an octopus…]

The eye in the mottled brown sack was still watching him carefully from the hole in the coral, but now the tip of a single small tentacle wavered hesitatingly an inch or two out of the shadows and quested vaguely with its pink suckers uppermost. Dexter Smythe smiled with satisfaction. Given time, perhaps one more month on top of the two during which he had been chumming up with the octopus, and he would have tamed the darling. But he wasn’t going to have that month. Should he take a chance today and reach down and offer his hand, instead of the expected lump of raw meat on the end of his spear, to the tentacle – shake it by the hand, so to speak? No, Pussy, he thought. I can’t quite trust you yet.

Octopussy 1

[The Living Daylights: Bond is on surveillance work, and there is a women’s orchestra playing in the Ministry. The cello player has attracted his attention]

With that poise and insouciance, the hint of authority in her long easy stride, she would come of good racy stock – one of the old Prussian families probably, or from similar remnants in Poland or even Russia. Why in hell did she have to choose the ’cello? There was something almost indecent in the idea of that bulbous, ungainly instrument between her splayed thighs.

commentary: This was a real final hurrah: Ian Fleming died in 1964, with his last Bond book, The Man with the Golden Gun, not quite publication-ready. Octopussy & The Living Daylights were put out in 1966, and later editions added the other two stories, which are very slight but give a sense of completism. (Apparently Fleming thought so little of Property of a Lady he refused payment for it.)

Octopussy is bleak but memorable: James Bond comes as the avenging angel to sort out the Major, above, and we find out how Smythe got hold of the money to fund his apparently-enviable lifestyle – but we also see how grim and limited that life has become. And at the same time, Jamaica, the coast and the sealife are beautifully portrayed – with a lookback at life in the Alps in the 1940s.

I have in the past been quite rude about Bond, Fleming and an octopus - see this entry on the giant one in Live and Let Die, and the baby octopus in Thunderball.

Property of a Lady really is a slim tale – rather sweetly, the world of Sotheby’s auctions is explained in great detail to an awestruck Bond, who comes over as rather provincial and ignorant. The story was written for Sotheby’s. The mysterious Maria Freudenstein (mentioned as Maria Freudenstadt in Man with the Golden Gun, presumably just a mis-remembering, and something Fleming would have edited if he’d lived long enough) turns up and in true crass style we get this:
she was not attractive enough to form liaisons which could be a security risk
-  what a useful attribute in an undercover agent.

The Living Daylights is a story that has stuck with me since I first read it in the corner of the public library probably 40 years ago: Bond moves into a grim apartment in Berlin to watch out for a sniper - he is to forestall an assassination attempt. It is a distillation of the un-glamorous side of Bond, as shown in this adorable passage:
Bond lit the gas cooker, burned the message with a sneer at his profession, and then brewed himself a vast dish of scrambled eggs and bacon which he heaped on buttered toast and washed down with black coffee into which he had poured a liberal tot of whisky.
- and it is also a distillation of his sentimental side.

There is a little hat-tip to his family. After the passage above, Bond’s thoughts continue:
Of course Suggia had managed to look elegant, and so did that girl Amaryllis somebody. But they should invent a way for women to play the damned thing side-saddle.
Amaryllis Fleming was Ian’s half-sister, and a professional cellist.

007 in New York is just a list of Fleming’s favourite places in New York, but described as Bond’s choice – 007 is imagining in his mind what the perfect 24 hours in the city would be, with plenty of detail. There is the slightest element of plot, and a smile-worthy ending. It is not a spy story at all, but it is very charming, and given that in the end there weren’t enough Bond books – well it is definitely worth having.


And that’s it: I have now read everything Ian Fleming wrote about James Bond. It has taken me a year, and I have enjoyed it immensely. I will do a roundup post next week.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Tuesday Night Clubs: Love and Christie

In the month of Valentine’s Day, the Tuesday Night bloggers, a group of crime fiction fans doing a themed entry each week, could really only go with the theme of 


Love logo

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

And Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery is collecting the links this month.

A few weeks ago I did a blogpost on Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, focussing on the strong female character of Sarah – and I mentioned the possibility of making a list of my favourite women characters in the Christie oeuvre. I also wondered who would be on others’ lists – and Brad was quick off the mark, accepted the challenge, and produced his list here. And for his first love-themed entry he chose his favourite Christie couples.

I had already decided for this entry to look at the great Christie women through the lens of their lovelives – which is of course quite different from favourite couples! (am holding off from reading Brad’s post till I’ve assembled my list, mind you.)

So here, in no particular order, are:



Mysterious woman, in mourning, in love and doing some sleuthing
Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow (1946)

I always say that she and this book are for the true Christie aficionados. She is one of Christie’s best and strongest females. She is a sculptor, and Christie totally makes you believe in her artistic talent, which is quite an achievement. The reader is left longing to see some of her creations described in the book. She cheats at cards ‘skilfully’ in a good cause, and can knit a good sweater.

And yet – her connection with the case comes through her long-standing affair with a married man. I think (open to correction) that she is the only character in the oeuvre not to be judged or punished at all for having an affair – it is accepted matter-of-factly.

We, Henrietta’s fans, want to think that a part-time lover suits her best, she wouldn’t want the bother of being married. She certainly wouldn’t be worriting over the joint of mutton like Gerda. There seems little doubt that she does love him very much. But there are two faint questions: her lover doesn’t really seem like a very nice man, why does she put up with him? And, how much does Gerda know at any given point? It’s a mystery.
Supplementary: she only has a tiny role, but the very memorable Mrs Crabtree also belongs on this list. She is John Christow’s favourite patient, and she seems like a stock Cockney character. But there is something more to her, and she sticks in the mind.

Sophia in Crooked House (1949) 

There are a lot of strong and intriguing female characters in this book, from common Brenda to wonderful Magda. Sophia is probably way down most people’s list – she is the young woman who had a very senior job in Egypt during the war, and who wants to marry Charles. When her grandfather dies, Charles comes and tries to find out what is going on. In a household of excitement and drama she is calmly in charge, hilariously organizing her actress mother, and with a clear view of what’s going on. No wonder she is the old man’s heir…

I like her for her straightforwardness in love - she’s no shrinking violet waiting to be wooed. When Charles contacts her, she sends a telegram:
Will be at Mario's nine o'clock. Sophia.
--and after a few awkward moments and some ‘artificial talk’
"Sophia," I said.
And immediately she said, "Charles!"
I drew a deep breath of relief.
"Thank goodness that's over," I said.
"What's been the matter with us?"
"Probably my fault. I was stupid."
"But it's all right now?"
"Yes, it's all right now." 
 How romantic is that?

Five Little Pigs
Caroline has loved Amyas since their magical childhood together

Caroline in Five Little Pigs (1941) 

Another book full of strong fascinating women (in very different ways…), and Caroline is notable for her love for Amyas the artist, despite his bad behaviour. You do think she should have slapped him, and you also close your eyes at the idea that she went to jail to protect someone else – but she is a memorable, decisive woman, one you can only respect. Her relationship with Amyas is actually very real: what strikes me is that the two of them are so wrapped up in each other that they love their daughter, but have no time for her – and that this might be an almost unconscious reflection of both Christie’s marriages. Christie certainly loved her daughter, but she does seem to have chosen her husbands when it came down to it.

Man in Brown Suit
Anne is no-nonsense, sharp, and has great hats

Anne Bedingfield in Man in the Brown Suit (1924) 

I love this book, love this heroine, and have done since the first time I read it as an impressionable and romantic teenager. Her relationship with the eponymous Man, Harry, was terrific then, and I still like it now. She falls in love with him, and is determined to prove his innocence: she sets off for adventures and is brave and resourceful. And in the end gets what she wants. She is a wonderful heroine – and the book is very clever as well as being hilariously funny.

Dolcis shoes
Tweed skirts and brogues for nice girls

Megan Hunter in Moving Finger (1942)

Another teenage favourite, and if asked then I would have claimed it has a particularly satisfying plot, very well-worked-out, and that Miss Marple is sharp and has sensible things to say. But of course secretly, what really sold it to the very young me was the makeover scene, where Megan Hunter is whisked off to London by narrator Jerry, because he has recognized her inner beauty, and, as we can all see, is in love with her.

The makeover (and oh, Clothes in Books does love a makeover) is wonderful. Jerry is given the killer line ‘It just infuriates me to see you so slack’, and then, half a day’s magic later –
Megan was standing looking at herself in a long mirror. I give you my word I hardly recognised her! Tall and slim as a willow with delicate ankles and feet.. quality and distinction in every line of her…
Is that true love?


So that’s five great Christie women and their romances, and I could have gone on all day. I can’t believe that I haven’t mentioned Jacqueline de Bellefort (love took her to some pretty unlikely places in Death on the Nile) and Iris and Rosemary in Sparkling Cyanide, sisters facing up to opposite sides of love. Then there is the mystery woman who only appears in the very final pages of Cat Among the Pigeons, and who is remembering someone she loved very much – an ending that if it appeared in a ‘literary’ novel would be justly famous.

But I will end with the note that Megan writes near the end of Moving Finger. It is a masterpiece of a love letter, very short (actually unfinished), one that grabs me afresh every time I read it:
I was reading my school Shakespeare and the sonnet that begins:
So are you to my thoughts as food to life  
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground...
And I see that I am in love with you after all, because that is what I feel…
The perfect ending for Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Nobody Does it Better





Peter and Paul by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild)

published 1940 (magazine serial in 1939)

Peter and Paul

[Petronalla and her twin sister Pauline have come to work at a dress shop: Petronella is a model]

Petronella was enchanted to work at ‘Reboux’. For a girl who all her life has wanted to try on clothes, to be paid to do it seemed like a miracle…. No trouble about anything. Everything given to you to put on. Even the underclothes she wore.

‘I’m designing and providing underclothes for my models,’ David explained to Moira. ‘Otherwise the little wretches will have bumps from suspenders and things ruining my frocks.’

Shell pink satin brassieres and panties he designed, which fitted like skin. He ordered stockings which held themselves up. He provided beige satin shoes.

Peter and Paul 2

The girls’ sets of underthings were made in the workroom. Petronella, the first time she put on hers, knew that satin was one of her natural elements.

‘Goodness’ she sighed, kicking aside the garments of inexpensive flowered material which Catherine [her mother] had provided. ‘Me for silk always. I’ve always thought I was that sort of person.’

commentary: I have mentioned several times  the delights of Greyladies Press - Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone.  As well as their non-threatening murder stories, they also have uncovered a treasure trove of lost romances by Noel Streatfeild, written under the name Susan Scarlett.

All the ones I have read so far have been almost identical, but in the best possible way – so when you pick one up you know it will be a safe, silly comfort read. They are all about young women making and selling dresses, in either a department store (Babbacombes) or a select dress shop, as above and in Clothes Pegs. The background is extremely authentic - you would guess Streatfeild worked in the industry, and then lived off the proceeds for some time by churning out stories – this one was a magazine serial first. The plots are fairly preposterous but highly enjoyable, and you don’t much doubt there’ll be a happy ending.

Peter and Paul are daughters of the vicarage, like NS herself, and so more upmarket than the cheery Cockney families in the other two I have read. I thought this was better as there was a faintly patronizing note in regard to the ‘blimey, we have no money but we’re warm-hearted and good’ families in the other books. The twin girls have been found a job, because they have no money and no other prospects: David the dress designer is the son of family friends. One twin is the most beautiful person anyone has ever seen, the other is quite normal (=quite normal plot device for NS). David falls at first sight for pretty Peter. Paul(ine), who has fallen for him at first sight, is devastated, and also has to put up with a much inferior job at the shop, while Petronella becomes a model.

It seems unnecessary to explain how all this is going to be put right, but there is a beauty contest, a lot of evening engagements in white and black dresses,

Peter and Paul 4Peter and Paul 5

in borrowed dresses and torn dresses.

There are moments when the sharper side of the author comes out. I liked the vicar worrying that Petronella has been led astray by the job, and has her mind on the wrong things. Pauline says ‘It’s the same things it’s always been on.’ The girls’ mother says:
‘I know, darling. But fathers are like that. They think anything in their daughters they don’t care about must have been picked up outside the house.’
And there’s a splendid admonitory story at the beginning, about the dangers of the girls living in Sodom -  in Gomorrah -  in London, and why they must come home every weekend:
‘I had a niece who was away every Sunday and that was why, I am sure, things turned out as they did. Sundays can be so dull, especially in the winter, and you must do something. Anyway, it was a very nice baby and they’re married now.’
I’m happy to read any more of these that Greyladies can find. I’m sure in six months I won’t know which book was which, but all the better in terms of a future comfort re-read.

30s pic of brassiere from Clover Vintage tumbler as also are white dress, and black dress.

I first used the second picture in a post for Dodie Smith’s marvellous The Town in Bloom – which has its similarities to this book, set ten years earlier, but more girls on the loose. I said then:

The picture is from the State Library of New South Wales via Flickr . These women are mannequins for a Sydney department store called Grace Bros – an eye-catching name for UK readers, who remember a camp classic sitcom called Are You Being Served?, set in an apparently imaginary shop called Grace Brothers.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson

published 2015

Child Garden 1Child Garden 2
Child Garden 5

I chose high, wedge-heeled boots in plum-coloured suede and black trousers that skimmed the top of them. They were made of some kind of very sturdy elasticated fabric I had never come across before. I pulled it in every direction, wondering what it must be like to sew seams into, then I put the trousers over my arm and went looking for tops too. Standing in the changing room, I looked at myself in the leopard-print chiffon blouse and the black fake-leather jacket; in the sturdy trousers, balanced on the not-quite-sturdy-enough wedge heels. I clipped on the earrings I had chosen and then set to unwinding my hair. It was longer than I thought. I don’t look in mirrors much and the small one in the bathroom that I use to make sure my parting is straight only shows me from my scalp to my chin. I had no idea that my hair would cover me to the elbows.

commentary: Catriona McPherson has featured a lot on the blog, but mostly via the wonderful Dandy Gilver, her 1920s series sleuth. But her contemporary books are really excellent too (The Day She Died is here). This one I found nearly unputdownable – it’s beautifully structured so you need to know what is going to happen next. Many of the tropes are familiar, but she does something really different and clever with them. The heroine, Gloria, lives near an old house which is now a carehome (where her son lives) and was once a school. She meets up with a childhood friend who was part of a group of children who had a very bad experience at the school – a night’s camping trip that went wrong. It seems that those now-grown-up children are being picked off one by one. She tries to trace them all. Meanwhile she visits her profoundly-disabled son, and reads to him from the Robert Louis Stevenson book A Child’s Garden of Verse. She has another friend in the carehome, and a lot to worry about. She is a wonderful heroine - not perfect, has her issues, unusual looks. A nice woman to spend some time with.

McPherson always has wonderful observations about life along the way: I liked her sharp comments on a passing character who is talking about suicide:
“There’s copers and there’s quitters. If he had thought on his poor mother before he did it, she’d be a happier woman today. But then, she brought him up and made him what he was.” Even to me, a stranger, this sounded like the most cold-hearted, smug-faced drivel anyone could think up if they were paid to try.
She’s brilliant on clothes, and I like her portrayal of Gloria, who dresses like ‘a Texas polygamist’, but still knows what she is doing. The passage above is her changing her look, because she needs not to be recognized. But she has plenty to say about others, a woman wearing:
The sort of trousers you’d have to go looking for these days, when it’s harder to dress badly than it is to go to Primark and dress like everyone.
Probably my favourite thing in the whole book comes when Gloria describes a game she plays with her assistant – her job as a registrar involves seeing new parents:
Lynne and [I played] The Hand Of Woman, where we tried to tell whether a toddler had been dressed by its dad when the mum was still on her back from the birth. “She laid that outfit by,” Lynne had said one day, full of scorn, when a young man brought in a child, chittering and blue-lipped in a matching sundress and sandals during a sudden cold snap. “That’s the hand of woman.”
One of those truthful, real things that most women would recognize – but have never seen written down. And it has its relevance…

McPherson is such a good writer: she creates a wonderful atmosphere in the book, using a variety of features, and is funny and entertaining and scarey all at the same time.

She makes excellent use of the Stevenson A Child’s Garden of Verse. The poetry book is a strange read with its simplicity and clarity that still leave your mind full of questions. There’s a reason why it has entertained endless generations of children. The picture above is of my own ancient, very battered copy.

Child Garden 3

….And this is just a sample of the hundreds of editions it has run to over the years, with wildly varying covers and illustrations.

RLS has also featured on the blog with his marvellous book Kidnapped.

Click on the labels below for more from Catriona and Dandy 

Thanks to EW for reminding me to read this.