Saturday, 31 August 2013

Seamus Heaney

From Clearances, published 1986

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

observations: Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74. He was unquestionably a great poet, one of the greatest of his age, and one whose work will survive. He wrote lines as simple as you wanted them to be, and as complicated as you wanted them to be. You could understand them easily, and then you could take them further, look harder. And they were memorable – I think of the poem above whenever I am folding sheets, or whenever I am wondering if laundry is damp or just cool. The poem was written after his mother’s death, she being MKH.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, turned down the Poet Laureateship, and with Ted Hughes compiled one of the best poetry anthologies ever – The Rattle Bag, supposedly for children but actually for everyone. His poems are now widely taught in schools and colleges.

The picture, from the Dutch National Archive, shows washing day at the town of Volendam in the Netherlands.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Familiar by J Robert Lennon

2012  part 1 chapter 5

The crack in the windshield disappears. She tries to blink it back into place because at first she thinks that her vision has blurred, but blinking doesn’t bring it back, and now she is noticing other things. The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. The window’s closed and the air-conditioning is on, the dashboard isn’t dusty anymore, and the taste of mint gum is in her mouth. In fact the gum is there, she has gum in her mouth right now. She pushes it out with her tongue and it falls into her lap. The gum lands not on her cutoff jeans, but on a gray cotton skirt draped over a pair of stockings. These aren’t her clothes— she doesn’t have clothes like these. She’s wearing an ivory silk blouse and there’s a sticker on the blouse that reads HELLO! MY NAME IS, then in her own block printing, ELISA MACALASTER BROWN. She notices that the spring in the seat is no longer bothering her, and that she is wearing an uncomfortable bra.

observations: My, but this is a compelling and thrilling book: seriously unsettling and a seriously good read.

Elisa, above, has just found herself in a new world. Except it isn’t a new world – it’s just subtly different from the one she remembers living in. Everything is familiar, but not quite the same. And there is one huge difference: she had been visiting her dead son’s grave. His death had been a devastation to her, a defining moment in her life. But in this new world, he is still alive… and, in the best subverted expectation imaginable, he’s actually not very nice: a brilliant direction to explore.

Elisa fumbles her way around in her new milieu – sometimes aware that she has surprised people by what she doesn’t know. She makes changes in her new life to make it resemble more her old life – there is an entertaining strand in which she tracks down the man who was her lover before, and a funny but awful scene where she applies for her old job. She wonders if this is some aspect of Multiverse physics she has come up against, and investigates that.

It’s not just an amnesia story, or time travel; and in fact the ending could be a little disappointing to some – it’s very much not all wrapped up and explained. But Lennon makes that work, and the scenario is endlessly thought-provoking – what makes us what we are? If we change something a little, are we still the same? What IS going on in Elisa’s head, is this for real?

The writing is amazing: Elisa’s son is a computer game designer, and here she thinks how good he is, as she looks at one of his characters, a waitress:
The way the clean apron nevertheless bears faded stains that can never be washed out, and the way it creases when she gestures, the fibers frayed and weak with age. How is it even possible to evoke these details in a video game?
It’s a bit like wondering how Lennon can do such a great job writing a woman, in a novel, in an unreal situation. If I’d read this blind I’d have assumed it was written by a woman: he is very clever and knowing about the small details of women’s lives.

All in all, the book is a triumph.

The picture is of a bus driver in Washington State in 1945 – wrong era, wrong vehicle, but it looked true to the spirit of the new Elisa, and if we’re talking parallel universes, who’s to say it isn’t actually her.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

Published 1941 Book 1 chapter 5 & chapter 7

Mr Crale had been painting in a small enclosed garden, known as the battery garden, from the fact that it overlooked the sea, and had some miniature cannon placed in embattlements. It was situated at about four minutes’ walk from the house. Mr Crale had not come up to the house for lunch as he wanted to get certain effects of light on the stone – and the sun would have been wrong for this later. He had, therefore, remained alone in the battery garden, painting…

The Battery was an artificially cleared plateau with battlements set with cannon. It gave one the impression of overhanging the sea…

A girl, a girl in a canary-yellow shirt and dark-blue slacks, sitting on a grey wall in full sunlight …

observations: If you’re a big fan of Agatha Christie, and you’re ever lucky enough to go to Greenway, her Devon holiday home, and you go walking in the grounds – then you might have a moment when you come along a path and go ‘Woa! No way!’ because you realize you are standing in the exact spot where Amyas Crale died. The Battery Garden is instantly recognizable to fans of this book.

And as an extra joy, the village across the water from the house (roughly where Handcross Manor would be) is called Dittisham: Elsa Greer in the book, 14 years on, is Lady Dittisham.

And if the book is as much a part of your family life as it is in ours, you can call ‘I’ll see to her packing’ to each other, to be overheard and misunderstood by others. (Though we do that all the time, not only in the Battery Garden.)

Elsa in the book is having an affair with Amyas, and wants him to leave his wife and marry her. She says ‘if [his wife] loved him, she’d put his happiness first, and at any rate she wouldn’t want to keep him if he wanted to be free.’ This is a common trope in Christie books, a whiney claim that love might mean allowing a divorce – but it’s not an idea you come across much in real life. Did people really think that, or is it just for the convenience of her plots?

In an
earlier entry on the book, I enthused about the TV adaptation of Five Little Pigs – the only thing that could have improved it would have been shooting it in the right place, ie at Greenway. This is where the TV film shows the murder taking place - nice enough in its way: 

Christie said Greenway was the most beautiful place in the world, and it must be high up there. There is a lot to recognize, from the boathouse where Marlene dies in Dead Man’s Folly – soon to feature in a new TV production of the story apparently - to the foxglove leaves from the Marple short story, the Herb of Death.

The top photo was taken at the exact spot where Elsa Greer must have sat on the grey stone wall posing for Amyas. With thanks to TKR and BNS.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Cary Grant's Suit by Todd McEwen

From Granta magazine 2006

North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America. The title sequence in which the stark lines of a Madison Avenue office building are ‘woven’ together could be the construction of Cary in his suit right there – he gets knitted into his suit, into his job, before our very eyes. Indeed some of the popular ‘suitings’ of that time (‘windowpane’ or ‘glen plaid’) perfectly complemented office building. Cary’s suit reflects New York, identifies him as a thrusting exec, but also arms him, protects him: what else is a suit for?...

The recent idiom of calling a guy a ‘suit’ if you don’t like him, consider him a flunky or a waste of space, applies to Cary at the beginning of the film: this suit comes barrelling out of the elevator, yammering business trivialities a mile a minute, almost with the energy of the entire building. The suit… [is] a real beauty, a perfectly tailored, gracefully falling lightweight dusty blue… It’s by far the best suit in the movie, in the movies, perhaps the whole world.

observations: Two happy chances led to this entry. When I featured Todd McEwen’s Five Simple Machines recently, with a picture of Killer Barbie, his publisher Charles Boyle at CB Editions told me about this essay, published in a Granta travel writing edition a few years ago. I absolutely loved the essay, and then while looking for a film still, came upon the completely amazing Clothes on Film website, which I strongly recommend anyone with the slightest interest in clothes or films should visit immediately. It’s possible I’m prejudiced in its favour, this being a subject so close to my own, and to my heart - but no, I think anyone would enjoy a turn around this site.

Meanwhile, McEwen’s piece is hilarious, but strangely convincing – it’s as good a way of studying a film as any. Later on, after the famous crop-dusting scene, he says:

[Grant] looks like he’s been teaching school all afternoon… his tie is still pressed and the shirt is white, even the collar and cuffs. You cannot violate the white shirt of the Sixties. You might kill me but you will never kill this shirt.

And he continues to track the clothes in the film - Mount Rushmore seems ‘a very formal national park, there were a lot of people dressed up in the cafeteria’.

Links on the blog: Todd McEwen here. In Strangers on a Train (1950), a character chooses a glen plaid suit, as mentioned above, and for the entry there is a fine illo featuring a young and handsome Frank Sinatra, a man nearly as stylish as Cary Grant.

The two stills from North by Northwest are, of course, from Clothes on Film – their article on this film is well worth reading in parallel with the McEwen.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

published 2012    chapter 18

[Helen Walsh meets up with her sister Claire]

It was a while since I’d seen her, a couple of weeks. She looked great. Her hair was long and swishy, her fake tan was up to date and she was wearing slouchy capri pants, a tiny t-shirt with an anime character on it, a pair of super-high wedges and an armload of silver bracelets inscribed with Hindu prayers. That’s what happens when you have a teenage daughter. Kate may be a hormonal nightmare but it helped Claire to keep her look bang on trend…

‘What’s new?’

‘Up to me eyes.’ She produced a tab of Nicorette and put it in her mouth. ‘Giving up smoking’, she said. 'Growing out my fringe. Bidding on a lampshade on eBay. Looking for a recipe for vegetarian lamb tagine. Taking the dog to be de-bollocked. Wondering if I could get Kate sent away to one of those reform places for problem teens. The usual.’ She went into her bag and produced a book which she gave to Mum.

‘Thanks, love.’

‘No, it’s for my book club. Could you read it by Monday and tell me what it’s about?’

[her mother demurs]

‘Ah whatever. I don’t know why I bother. All we do is drink wine and complain about our husbands. We never talk about the books…’

observations: I’d never read Marian Keyes before. No real reason, I just assumed she was not for me, too mass-produced. But then I needed a third book for a 3 for 2 offer, and this one claimed to be a mystery story - though I was politely doubtful, I read a lot of them, and in general writers moving in from other genres are, politely, no good at all. So I was confounded and delighted by how wonderful this book was: I loved it. Helen Walsh is a PI in modern-day Dublin, she’s a lovely and real character; her family (who apparently feature in other books) jump off the page, there’s an excellent mystery to be solved, the book is full of great jokes and clever observations about modern life, and the subject of depression comes up in a natural but helpful way.

It was like reading the first Kinsey Milhone book and knowing that A for Alibi was just the start of it. Now I have all her other books to read.

Helen is excellent: sour, friendless, difficult, but somehow charming and delightful at the same time. She is constantly being rude about herself, and you don’t doubt her, yet somehow she shines. And her sister above: you can’t imagine a better character summation in a dozen lines, most of us would know her from that, along with the nugget of truth about teenage daughters and their effect on their mothers’ wardrobes. Helen’s parents are also excellent – Helen moves back home and is horrified to find that they don’t eat proper meals any more, and have breakfast at a coffee bar, ‘like Europeans’.

The book’s a treasure, both as a detective story and as a hilarious picture of modern life. It turns out that all the millions who buy Keyes’s books were right all along.

And all an excuse to show great pictures of women in capris. The top two pictures are from Dovima is Devine. The other one – an all-time favourite – illustrated a Noel Streatfeild entry on the blog, where the trousers are described as ‘sort of three-quarter length slacks’.

Monday, 26 August 2013

My Friend Rose by Jane Duncan

published 1964  chapter 2  set in the 1930s

[A shipping firm arranges a day out for all the workers at the country home of one of the owners]

The staff was enjoying its collective self in what My Friend Martha would call ‘no ordinary way’. ..

Miss Slim, with typical versatility, was the queen of the luxurious, blue-painted swimming-pool. Enormous in her tight black suit with the club badge on its ample breast… in the water she was agile, graceful and lovable… At one moment her broad laughing face under its tight cap would be grinning at us from the deep end and at the next her huge shiny rump would be rising like Atlantis refloated from the water of the shallow end. The typists and despatch clerks, white and spindly, the boys inclined to strut a little in their royal blue or black, were all glad to take lessons from her…

The door of the women’s dressing room opened and Mrs Roy came through, a golden-haired, cream-coloured Juno in a tight, flame-coloured backless swimsuit of shining satin, a large yellow towel trailing from her left hand.

observations: Another of this weird series that I am re-reading, and as it is the summer Bank Holiday in England (usually the cue for endless rain and cold winds, but still) here is a nice summery day out and some poolside antics. This book is a return to the quality of the 1st one (My Friends the Miss Boyds) while being a completely different kind of novel. Written in the 1960s, it is mostly set in the 1930s: a young woman works for an upper middle class family in London and the Home Counties, and watches their goings-on with interest. There is a discontented wife (Mrs Roy, above) a difficult child, chirpy cockney servants, and spinster friends in the village. It has a good brisk pace and plenty of activity. In a fine example of changing mores, our heroine/narrator hits the child and by this means impresses her, improves her behaviour and ultimately gets employed to look after her. More sociological detail: the child has been wetting the bed, and someone enquires ‘is she still pigging it?’ – unfamiliar to me in this form, though the 1950s book Lark on the Wing produced some interest in the phrase in the comments, here – in regard to young people sharing a flat, not wetting the bed. 

On the plus side – there is a hat the colour of the fluff under a housemaid’s bed (though this is seen as a mean comment), there is an unseen character called Pipette (!), there is one called Angela Carter who couldn’t be less like the real-life novelist of that name, and there is this ruthless comment from Mrs Roy to our lovely narrator:
Your figure isn’t bad, but you shouldn’t wear these shirt blouses. They make you look like a Lesbian but you aren’t. I’d know if you were.
Lesbian blouses! If only we could find a picture to illustrate that.

The timeline of the book don’t quite seem to work out – or at least it’s hard to believe that Rose was 35 when she got married, or that the child is only 8 and has already run away from school twice, and that the marriage only lasted five years.

Links on the blog: More of this series on a regular basis, click on Jane Duncan below. Maybe going to become less regular, as the later books are much more expensive to buy 2nd-hand (they are all out of print), and I don’t like them that much. Janet in the book has a fraught meeting with potential in-laws – there’s a very similar scene in the same era in London Belongs to Me, and the clothes shopping in the entry isn’t going to help. A previous Bank Holiday entry here, and Graham Greene ensures you don't think Brighton on a holiday would be fun in Brighton Rock.

The picture is a swimsuit layout for the Ladies Home Journal in 1932, from the amazing George Eastman House collection.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Elizabeth & Essex by Lytton Strachey

Published 1928   chapter 10


The Queen’s costumes were a source of perpetual astonishment to De Maisse [a French envoy], and he constantly took note of them in his journal. He learnt that she had never parted with a dress in the course of her life and that about three thousand hung in her wardrobe. On one occasion he experienced something more than astonishment. Summoned to an audience, he found Elizabeth standing near a window, in most unusual attire. Her black taffeta dress was cut in the Italian fashion, and ornamented with broad gold bands, the sleeves were open and lined with crimson.

Below this dress, which was open all down the front, was another of white damask, open also down to the waist; and below that again was a white chemise, also open. The amazed ambassador hardly knew where to look….

The Frenchman was convinced that she was trying to bewitch him; perhaps she was; or perhaps the unaccountable woman had merely been feeling a little vague and fantastic that morning when she put on her clothes.

observations: What a strange anecdote this is – you’d think her maids or tiring women wouldn’t have let her go about like that, and it does seem very under-dressed for a meeting. De Maisse says he can see right down to her navel, a very modern-sounding phrase, we might as well be in the Daily Mail describing Saturday nights in big cities.

When we looked at the undergarments of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, our blog friend and costume expert Ken Nye kindly explained in the comments that Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl hadn’t got it right:
Her skirt and bodice would have been worn over a voluminous linen shift trimmed with black-work embroidery and the lacing would have been done "straight" (i.e. one lace going round-and-round) rather than in a criss-cross pattern - that's Victorian and later.

So presumably it’s that lacing that hasn’t been done here. How surprising. I asked Mr Nye what blackwork was, and he explained further:
Blackwork is simply a style of embroidery done in black silk on white linen. It was particularly fashionable in Tudor times, and is often seen in portraits as caps, and on the edges of ruffs and the bits of shirts that peep out at cuffs and necklines.

Strachey does make history clear, though his biographer Michael Holroyd says politely that he’s not always reliable about his sources. Elizabeth & Essex is shot through with the modish Freudianism of the day, and in fact Freud himself liked the book very much. It seems a real shame that Strachey didn’t write novels.

We don’t really ever need any justification for Dress Down Sunday, but in the previous entry from this book Strachey, says we should ‘look below the robes’ - and Thomas Cromwell in this entry says something similar, quoting Cardinal Wolsey.

The picture of Elizabeth is from Wikimedia Commons. The two pictures of a chemise and blackwork are from this website, which I think might be dormant now.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Four Bare Legs in a Bed by Helen Simpson

book of short stories published 1990:  this extract from An Interesting Condition

[first-time mothers after an ante-natal class]

‘Have you bought all the equipment yet?’ asked Career Girl, who was called Carol. ‘Look at this list my friend gave me: six crotch-fastening envelope-necked vests, six babygros, three dozen elasticated disposable nappies, Moses basket for first six weeks, drop-sided cot for afterwards, it goes on and on, I mean, I ask you.’

‘You don’t have to buy all that,’ said Alice stoutly. ‘My mother put me in the bottom drawer of her chest-of-drawers when I was a baby. My cousin’s just had twins, and she sleeps them side by side in an opened-out suitcase.’

observations: Most story collections tell you where the individual items first appeared: this one doesn’t, but I would have been interested to know, as a guide to their target audience. Helen Simpson’s stories are following women’s lives over the years, and this collection goes with newly-weds and pregnancies. An Interesting Condition would be familiar territory for anyone who actually attended such ante-natal classes in the 1990s - it’s a very funny and accurate picture. The health visitor hasn’t quite finished knitting a uterus to fit inside the model pelvis: the class is going to watch a doll being born. One of the expectant mothers is
the dressiest woman there, wearing a scarlet leisure suit appliqued with characters from Tintin, snow-white socks and navy-blue deck shoes
-- and I was very sorry not to be able to find a photo of that.

The next story is Labour, a description of a baby being born, very cleverly written, but it’s hard to know who it’s for. Either you’ve been through it and you know, or it’s outside your experience and there doesn’t seem much point in reading a fancy Greek drama about it. The stories are a very mixed selection, some a lot better than others – Christmas Jezebels is very funny, and the best ones are reminiscent of Angela Carter.

Simpson has a later collection – originally called Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, now sadly reduced to Getting a Life it seems – which is wonderful. It has views of women at a slightly later stage, and is spot-on: real, entertaining and thought-provoking.

This earlier book has too many miserable fat women with low self-esteem and no hope. Simpson is seen as an upmarket writer, but the stories are like the fiction that used to appear in old women`s magazines, but without the happy endings. Low-rent mag stories at least were hopeful, positive, and not just about love. They were big on friendship and improvement and certainly never encouraged staying with the wrong chap.

Links on the blog: A baby hat here, and a discussion of what babies (and their parents) wear here.

The picture is from the Cornell University archives – there was a strong home economics department there in the first part of the 20th century, with a clothing and textile division, and these are examples of clothes used or made in a class.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax (aka Andrew Garve)

published 1948  chapter 11

She walked in, self-consciously diffident, and Cross examined her. She was fairly young – twenty-five to thirty – and easy on the eye. She brought with her into the room the odour of cheap, heavy scent of a sort with which Cross was not unfamiliar. She wore a fur coat which had once clothed quite a number of rabbits. She was spectacularly blonde, with hair done up Edwardian fashion and surmounted by a hat consisting mainly of purple gauze. Three little blonde ringlets were carefully arranged across the upper part of her forehead. “Have a chair,” said Cross politely. “Thanks,” said the girl. “I don’t mind if I do.” There was a thin veneer of studied refinement in her voice, overlaying a solid foundation of Cockney. She sat back, loosened her coat and revealed a luscious figure. She crossed one leg over the other provocatively, and smiled. Cross noticed that she had a small button mouth, enlarged and re-shaped by thickly-applied lipstick.

observations: My good blogging friend @Lucy R Fisher – already responsible for several blog entries, and see her own excellent blog here – suggested this book, exactly for this scene & this woman, who is called Doris.

Roger Bax is the same person as Andrew Garve, who featured recently. I think he wrote dozens of books, but based on these two he really liked bizarre murder plots. Both have enjoyably ridiculous murder plans – not as in a comedy thriller, say, but just ones that you can’t imagine anyone ever doing in any circumstances. The Galloway Case depended on getting the autographs of many crime writers: this one involves altering a road sign and waiting for a foggy Thursday. (I thought a clue was going to be that two separate characters live in Kingston, but this seems to be just coincidence). You know from the start what is going to happen, you follow the criminal planning the murder - he experiments with different materials for the fake road sign (yes really).

There is a long prologue about the villain’s war experiences, and later he describes them to the goody goody couple at the centre of the plot in a horrible and melodramatic way. You can see the seeds of a different kind of book and anti-hero here - a few years later and it might have been quite revolutionary. The Goody Goods are very annoying, so that you almost start to sympathize with the murderer, but then he turns out to be vile in some new way.

There are some quite remarkably dull chapters about sailing, very detailed descriptions. And the women characters are as hilariously cardboard as in the other one. There’s a sweet story about a female interviewer asking adventure-writer Alastair Maclean why there were few female characters and virtually no sex in his books, and his replying wistfully that the really didn’t know enough about that sort of thing. Perhaps it is the same here.

Although it’s not really a murder mystery, there is one surprise: the way the first attempt at murder goes wrong is as entertaining as it is unexpected.

With thanks, again, to Lucy.

Links on the blog: The heavy fog and a restless and reckless London after the war are reminiscent of the superior Tiger in the Smoke.

The photo shows filmstars Betty Grable and George Raft – highly respectable (although Raft had criminal connections), and I’m sure it’s not rabbit - ** ADDED LATER: see comments below -  but the picture somehow fitted the description.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

published 2003

She wrote a few letters. And she got her uniform out of the wardrobe and inspected it critically.

The uniforms that had been made for them had a special, additional quality that could only be called… girlie. They had more braid, they were better tailored, and they had a long skirt with a bum roll rather than trousers. The shakos had plumes, too. Her tunic had sergeant’s stripes. It had been a joke. A sergeant of women. The world had been turned upside down, after all.

They’d been mascots, good-luck charms…

She examined herself in the mirror. Her hair, now, was just long enough to be a nuisance without being long enough to be attractive, so she brushed it and left it at that. She put the uniform on, but with the skirt over her trousers, and she tried to put aside the nagging feeling that she was dressing up as a woman…

observations: There’s a one-star review of this book on amazon which includes this:
anti patriotic, anti monarchist and very left wing. I don't think that the author should be attempting to indoctrinate the youth of today with such a clearly biased, left wing book.
One can only hope to buy a copy for every member of the youth of today: it's a political, satirical and quite stern book – very funny, but when it’s not being funny it’s sad, and it is indeed a brilliant anti-war document.

Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary says that an army is
a class of non-producers who defend the nation by devouring everything likely to tempt an enemy to invade.
Pratchett’s army is, on the whole, something like that. You can see echoes of the First World War, the Crimean War, and recent events in the Middle East, all mixed in with the usual Pratchett parade of trolls, vampires and just plain funny people. And, as you would expect, every cliché of war stories ever is mocked: the earthy RSM, the foolish officers, the women camp followers. Polly Oliver (yes, just like the song) dresses up as a soldier to go and search for her brother, and the book tells what becomes of her, with an ending as touching and memorable as any book.

This is just for interest: the original ‘monstrous regiment’ does not mean a group of ugly women, as Daily Mail writers would have you think. The phrase, by the always-attractive John Knox, is objecting to rule by women, so more like the modern ‘regimen’ – he means it is unnatural to have women in charge. (Well he would, wouldn’t he?)

By a happy chance, I finished reading this book around the same time that the amazing Leimomi Oakes of the Dreamstress website completed a five-year project to recreate Polly Oliver’s uniform, with the gorgeous results you see above. She very kindly allowed me to use her pictures – the lower one is her original sketch for the design – and it’s worth looking at her entries on the costume, and at her site in general with its stunning projects.

Below is Hazel Douglas who dressed as a soldier to follow her husband to the First World War. She was caught and sent home, and died while he was still abroad.

With thanks to AJ for the recommendation.

Terry Pratchett books have featured on the blog before here and here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Great Impersonation by E Philips Oppenheim

Published 1920  chapter 1

[Everard Dominey, travelling in Africa, has collapsed. He wakes up in a strange hut.]

In a few moments the tall, slim figure of a European, in spotless white riding clothes, stooped down and came over to Dominey's side. "You are better?" he enquired politely.

"Yes, I am," was the somewhat brusque rejoinder. "Where the mischief am I, and who are you?"

The newcomer's manner stiffened. He was a person of dignified carriage, and his tone conveyed some measure of rebuke. "You are within half a mile of the Iriwarri River, if you know where that is," he replied,—"about seventy-two miles southeast of the Darawaga Settlement." 

"The devil! Then I am in German East Africa?"

"Without a doubt."

[Later he sees a doctor] "Some bodies of Askaris have been washed up from the river," the doctor informed him, "and two of your ponies have been eaten by lions. You will excuse. I have the wounds of a native to dress, who was bitten last night by a jaguar."

observations: When I feel I haven’t read enough manly, testosterone-driven books I take a look at Col’s Criminal Library, an excellent blog full of books I seem never to have heard of. Sometimes his descriptions sound like parodies of noir classics, and before now I have accused him of making them up (something surely he would never do?) – in his world there are titles like Horse’s Arse and Pig’s Head, policemen called Pufferfish, and gritty noir cult classics called Lethal Injection.

The Great Impersonation is pretty mild in comparison, but I am very grateful to Col for the recommendation, as the book is what is technically known as a hoot and a half. In the African jungles in 1910, a German and an Englishmen meet: they were at school together and are doubles. Both are patriots. One comes back to resume life in London. But is he Sir Everard Dominey, or is he in fact the German, come to do untold damage to the English cause in support of Kaiser Wilhelm?

While you are guessing away about that, you can also be very impressed by this sexy man, who has a Hungarian countess, a Duchess and his wife at his feet. (There is a wonderful scene where he receives clandestine orders that he must marry one of these women at once – “You could not expect me to mix up a secret honeymoon with my current commitments!” he says irritably.)

Oppenheim was a swaggering figure who wrote more than 100 books and lived a life of (apparently) great wealth and glamour – I had assumed his books, very successful and popular in their day, would be routine or mediocre, but this one is excellent, and will need two entries to do it justice (more on sex, coming soon). It’s a great pity the book contains casual racism and unthinking jingoism that read badly to modern sensibilities.

There is a Captain Bartram in the book, which is also the name of the hero of The strange Fate of Kitty Speller, set around the same time as this one was written.

The picture is of someone called Arthur Sullivan – it’s from the Library of Congress and there is little detail given, though it does seem to be someone dressed up for a costume party rather than a real explorer.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Secret Countess (aka A Countess Below Stairs) by Eva Ibbotson

published 1981

[Muriel has dressed up as Madame de Pompadour]

But it was Muriel, the guest of honour, who rightly drew all eyes. Muriel’s dress was of blue and silver, the colours that the Sun King used above all others for the glory of Versailles. Myriad bows glittered on the satin bodice; the elaborately flounced overskirt was sewn with tiny bunches of gauze roses and forget-me-nots. Priceless lace edged the sleeves and the low décolleté, diamonds sparkled on the high, white wig and in the heels of her silver slippers – and round her throat, perfectly matching the blue of the dress and of her eyes, she wore the sapphires that were the bridegroom’s present to the bride. If Muriel looked pleased with herself she had every right to do so, for here was a Pompadour to silence all beholders.

‘My dear, what an unbelievable dress!’ said Minna, genuinely impressed.

observations: When I blogged on Madensky Square (my new favourite Ibbotson book) reader Sarah suggested this one too, and I am very grateful to her. After I’d read it I looked back at her comment (scroll down below the entry), and her comparison with Georgette Heyer is exactly right – that is what it’s like. It’s aimed at the ubiquitous Young Adults, and it is indeed rather romantic and frothy, despite dealing with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. Ibbotson’s sense of humour and strong heroine stop it from tipping into sweetness: it is semi-predictable and a tiny bit precious, but just landing on the right side for entertainment - and every now and again it subverts expectations.

There is a slight moral problem, in that a criticism of the appearance of a ‘good’ character is seen as a sign of the worst viciousness, but the book makes much fun of the looks of the characters on the other side of the author’s love-list

But all is forgiven, because Ibbotson not only regularly describes everyone’s clothes, but does a fancy-dress party really worthy of the description. We have complained before that these events are talked up in books, but generally don’t amount to much (discussed at length in this entry, which used the picture above, and there's more fancy dress of the era here and here.) But this one is great fun, with the Russian Ballet as guests, and a Salome ‘who had made rather a jolly severed head out of papier mâché’ (there is later a disaster where Lady Hermione sits on it), a Bo-peep, an Apollo, a Puritan, Cleopatra, a daffodil and Grace Darling. Undine the watersprite looks like ‘an outsize codfish or perhaps a trout’. Excellent stuff.

Links on the Blog: The theme of the great house after the war reflects back to the recent Strange Affair of Kitty Easton, while the Russian Ballet came up in Petite Mort and, pricelessly, Cedric’s other costume for that Mitford Ball:

The Boucher picture of Pompadour is in the Wallace Collection; details of the other photos in the entries linked to them.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Man in the Red Hat by Richard Keverne

published 1930  chapter 2

[Mark is looking for a Miss Buckingham, and calls at her house]

An awkward maidservant who answered his ring [said] ‘No sir. She don’t live here any more.. the house is let. It’s Major Arthur lives here now… Or there’s Miss Crawley – perhaps she would do?’…

‘Who’s Miss Crawley?’ he asked.

‘She’s Miss Buckingham’s companion. Funny, isn’t it?’ She smiled ingenuously. ‘She only come at lunch-time. Should I tell her?’

Mark was saved an answer by the appearance, from a door on the far side of the square hall, of a woman. At first glance she looked like any ordinary well-dressed woman of the period, in close-fitting hat and short skirt, but as she came towards him he was conscious of an air of capability about her. Clearly she had overheard the conversation.

‘You wanted to see Miss Buckingham?’ she asked, gazing at him through steady brown eyes that seemed rather to be assessing him.

The maid faded away.

observations: Richard Keverne seems to have been one of those industrious detective story writers producing their books regularly in the Golden Age, now completely forgotten: there’s no Wikipedia entry, and he’s not listed in any crime fiction reference books that I can see. But there is evidence that Eric Partridge was reading him when he compiled his Dictionary of Slang, first published 1938. The Man in the Red Hat is quoted twice to illustrate modern usage – for the word ‘murky’ as meaning discreditable and sinister, and ‘poisonous’ referring to a person, with the implication of his being discreditable or corrupt. Both usages were said to first dates from the 1920s/30s.

So yes, the story is full of murky deeds and poisonous people, while the noble Mark tries to sort everything out. The Man in the Red Hat is an old painting, maybe valuable, and various people seem to be up to no good with it. One of the twists in the book stands out a mile to the modern reader, though in fairness that’s mostly because it’s a standard Christie trope (about old ladies) that we’ve become used to.

Very much of its time - Mark meets an artistic friend of Miss Crawley and we are told that he:
knew the type and rather disliked it for the obvious insincerity of its pose of sex equality. Normal politeness would be wasted on her.
-- which doesn’t endear him to the modern reader. The artistic lady wears an ‘overall of lurid design’. I spent some time, unsuccessfully, trying to visualize this before deciding it was meaningless.

There is a nice description of lunch in a traditional London chop house, and some useful advice for those drinking in unknown parts: Always order rum. ‘You’re pretty sure to get honest rum anywhere. It costs more to fake it than to make it.’ Who knew?

Altogether, a reasonable read, of historical interest, but not a must-read – I got quite tired of the endless plot convolutions among the pool of unattractive characters.

My Penguin copy of this one implies a publication date of 1938, but 1930 is the correct year – there’s a review of it in The Spectator magazine then. So the photograph (from the Clover Vintage Tumbler) is from Vogue in 1930 (although the words ‘of the period’ in the extract above suggest it might be set a few years earlier.)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Dress Down Sunday: The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott

published 2011


But Clover could not sleep. It was funny how that stage name left her out. Belle– Aurora with a blank space in the middle, because she was the blank among them, really. Clover turned again in the bed, making the others turn, and put her arm over Bella this time, who slid backwards into Clover’s knees and thighs more tightly, warm under the gold silk. Mama had been right to bring the coverlet, though it had to be tied so tight to pack into the trunk every morning. They were getting faster at packing. Rags out of their hair, stays tied, stockings on, petticoats, skirts and waists, boots rubbed and retied— there was a complicated sequence to dressing, and the peacefulness of thinking about it let Clover drift away…

[Later, Bella is getting ready] She ought to have a corset too, but Bella was still treated like a baby; hers was only a band, even though she had a bust beginning, and perhaps with a little cotton stuffed inside a corset she would look more like the sixteen she was supposed to be…

observations: These excerpts slot in with an earlier description of the Belle Auroras getting up and ready in the morning.

The book is perfect for this blog: full of clothes descriptions, and historical references that we have followed up before: there’s the ivory satin bodice which might have been this picture of the divine Lillie Langtry: 

And the apache dancing we featured a few weeks ago – ‘It was tight and harsh and none of it pretty; exciting to witness, like a fight on the street’ - and the company that’s performing East Lynne.

And lovely descriptions like this one as they rush to go on stage:

The boy knocked at the door, and they were up and out in a flurry of skirts and boots, a herd of young horses rising suddenly from a field.
Or a sister ‘fizzing gently like very cold champagne.’

The sisters mention Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, the chorus girl made good who stood in for Holly Golightly in this entry, and whose life story makes for fascinating reading.

The Little Shadows, still one of my favourite books of this year, has featured before here and here.

The picture is a ladies' underwear advertisement from 1913, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald

published 1920

[Bernice has been staying with her cousin Marjorie for the summer]

When she had undressed for the night the door opened and Marjorie came in.

"Bernice," she said, "I'm awfully sorry about the Deyo dance. I'll give you my word of honor I'd forgotten all about it."

"'Sall right," said Bernice shortly. Standing before the mirror she passed her comb slowly through her short hair.

"I'll take you down-town to-morrow," continued Marjorie, "and the hairdresser'll fix it so you'll look slick. I didn't imagine you'd go through with it. I'm really mighty sorry."

"Oh, 'sall right!"

"Still it's your last night, so I suppose it won't matter much."

Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes--and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes.

observations: A mention of shingled hair in a 1930 novel last week provoked some discussion in the comments section (scroll down below the entry) as to what was a bob, a shingle or a bingle.

Bob: hair cut short to the same length all round. Shingle: hair cut to taper into the neck and - thank you, @Lucy Fisher -
cropped quite short so that it looked like a shingled roof…a bingle was a bob/shingle cross. Short at the back, with "wings" of hair to stick out from under your cloche hat. "Madam says you've completely bungled her bingle!" (Old Punch joke)

But the thing is, it means short hair, and it was the fast girls, the uptodate modern fashionable ones, who got their hair bobbed. This short story takes the matter just as seriously as it deserves, and shows that Mean Girls, jealousy and bullying were not all invented with the internet. The most famous bob (both then and now) was probably blog favourite Louise Brooks - this picture used for this entry:

Bernice is staying with Marjorie, but is dull and unattractive. Marjorie gives her a makeover (and no, it does NOT involve cutting her hair, merely threatening to) and suddenly Cinderella is getting all the attention, and Marjorie is put out. So she provokes/dares Bernice to go through with it and get her hair bobbed, with sad results (didn’t the same thing happen on Friends, with Rachel and Bonnie?): she is no longer attractive, and she is seen as fast. (Note: that is bad.)

It is unusual in the fiction of the time for the bob not to be seen as attractive and liberating, but FSF makes it clear that her hair lies in ‘lank lifeless blocks’, and is ‘ugly as sin’. (These are Bernice’s thoughts, but this is no modern, unreliable view of a young girl’s lack of self-esteem – it is clear that everyone shares her horror at what she has done.)

But Bernice is going to get her revenge: well may we all stare at Marjorie’s braids. For the moment.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of soprano Stella Carol, who was discovered singing Christmas carols in the street in London, and was due to have a remarkable career. But she was travelling on a White Star liner, the Arabic, torpedoed in 1915. There are reports of her keeping up passengers’ spirits by singing in a lifeboat, but I was unable to ascertain whether she made dry land again – she certainly seems to have disappeared from history at that point.

For F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, click on the label below.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The Dark Winter by David Mark

published 2012  prologue

The supertanker Carla. Seventy miles off the Icelandic coast. One last interview, here in the galley, with its stink of fried food and burned coffee, its diesel and sea-spray; the deep, bass-note hum of unwashed men and wet wool. So many memories …

Closes his eyes and it hits him like a wave. For an instant, he is a young man again, starting an eighteen-hour shift, pulling on a jumper stiff with fish guts and slime. He’s warming his hands on a mug of tea when he’s not spooning enough porridge into his gob to fill his belly. He’s hurting. Trying to convince himself his hands are his own. He’s hearing the skipper’s voice. The urgency of his cries. He’s swinging the hook. The hatchet. Chopping at the ice. Hacking it free in lumps that could stove your skull in if you weren’t quick on your feet. He’s feeling the ship begin to go … ‘The sound of the wind,’ he says, and in his coat pocket he feels his fingers make the sign of the cross, genuflecting on the smooth, silky surface of the packet of Benson and Hedges.

observations: Dark Winter was much talked about by crime fiction fans last year, and for good reason. It’s the first of a new series: police procedural, distinctive hero, and specific regional setting – there are plenty of series like that (and some of them are very good) but this one promises really well. Aector McEvoy has many of the usual traits – present tense narration, backstory, rugged appearance, family life (though it’s nice that he has a happy homelife, unlike most cops and PIs in books) – and is plainly going to have an eventful relationship with his boss.

The plot is clever – what can link the old fisherman above with the young girl hacked to death in a church before Christmas? The writing - like the B&H packet described perfectly above - and characterisation are marvellous. McEvoy’s boss
scares the hell out of the younger male officers, to whom she exudes a certain best-mate’s-mum kind of sexiness.
And the sense of place is terrific, from the bustling city centre just before Christmas to the rough estate:
Two children of no more than seven years old are playing on the only equipment in the little swing park not to have been vandalised beyond use. The joy of seeing the two boys laughing with glee as they push each other around on the roundabout is tempered by the fact they are both smoking. ‘Not exactly Tenerife out there, is it, lad?’
Looking forward to reading the next one in the series.

The book has recently been reviewed at Col’s Criminal Library.

Links on the blog: Plenty of other crime fiction – click on the tab above. Trawlermen in a more innocent setting in a children’s book here. Going fishing in Scotland here, with a wonderful picture.

This photo is from the National Maritime Museum.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Wise Children by Angela Carter

published 1991

‘Why are they called Pierrots?’ asked Nora outside the Pier Pavilion.

‘Because they do their stuff on piers.’

I love the artificial dark of the matinée, the same, exciting dark you get when you draw the curtains after lunch to go to bed. The sea was swishing back and forth beneath the Pier Pavilion and it was moist and warm, inside, and full of holiday scents of Evening in Paris and Ashes of Violets mixed with dry fish, that is, fried, from outside, and wet fish, that is, dead, from down below, and hot tin, from the roof, and armpits. Nobody there to take a ticket; the first half of the show was nearly over so we sneaked in at the back.

The Pierrots were standing around in their white frills, looking spare, and there was a comic up on stage halfway through his act.

. . . The Pierrots, all turned pink themselves, formed groups reminiscent of posies and nosegays and sank to their knees for the throbbing finale. You couldn’t get away with that sort of thing, these days, not unless it was what they call ‘camp’.

observations: An end-of-the-pier story for high season at the British seaside.

The history of the Pierrot is complex and artistic – he is part of the Commedia dell’arte and an existential figure, as well as being the classic clown hiding his tears.

But not in an English seaside town in the first half of the 20th century – there, the pierrots, male and female, form a concert party, all in together in your big frilly collars, just like JB Priestley’s Good Companions, just like this group in the picture (who are Irish, not English).

Nora and Dora, the twins at the heart of this book, are having a wonderful day at the seaside, even though things will go slightly wrong later when they meet their father. He is one of the old glamorous actor-managers (we do like them in a book) and is a big part of the book’s splendid theatrical setting, covering every kind of act, show, theatre, play, performer, film imaginable. By the time we’ve had Midsummer Night fairy costumes, film-making and jumping beans – well it seems like there’s a whole dose of Noel Streatfeild in there somewhere. No, that’s a good thing…!

Links on the blog: This book before. These events take place in Brighton which has featured before, one way and another.

The picture (don’t you just have to stare at it) is of an Irish entertainment troupe, and is from the National Library of Ireland.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Simon Said by Sarah R Shaber

published 1997 chapter 17

Lillie Blythe answered the door almost immediately. She wore a neat blue dress with a wide skirt and white Peter Pan collar and cuffs. The dress was faded and threadbare, although clean and ironed to perfection. She wore stockings, black pumps, and a pearl choker. Her blond hair showed an inch of grey at the roots and was styled like Doris Day’s forty years ago. She could have stepped out of a Frigidaire advertisement in the pages of Life magazine in the 50s, except maybe for the cigarette that dangled out of her mouth and the dowager’s hump that caused her to lean forward slightly. Her skin was remarkably clear and unlined. She had obviously spent most of her life indoors.

Simon was so busy taking in her appearance that he didn’t say anything.

observations: This was the first of a series of murder stories featuring an academic sleuth in the North Carolina town of Raleigh. Professor Simon Shaw is a historian, and is asked to help with the identification of a body dug up in one of the town’s older mansions. He gets involved in the investigation - and with a female lawyer employed by the police – and tries to find out why someone in modern times cares so much about a crime committed many years before. Of course this is not breaking any new ground in cozy mysteries, but Shaw is a good series lead: he has a full backstory, a messy emotional history, and a few entertaining quirks. The book is very readable and has a strong geographical location– the Raleigh setting is done well, and the references back to the world of the 1920s are intriguing: the character above is one of those who remember the dead woman. The historical part comes alive: rich families in their Colonial mansions, bluestockings going to college, servants, unsuitable boyfriends and snobbish gossip. There is also a long and atmospheric description of a visit to a (modern) baseball game, and quite a lot of detail about guns.

Later books in the series didn’t quite live up to the promise of this one, but the author has now started a new series – the Louise books, about a young woman working in Washington DC during the Second World War – which sounds very promising.

The picture is not a fridge advert, but Tupperware, which seems fair enough. This lady from a magazine short story (this entry) might have done too:

And there’s a more sober British cook here.