Saturday, 31 May 2014

Invisible by Christine Poulson

published 2014

He used to go about once a month to the Percival David Museum of Chinese Art to build up his knowledge of Chinese porcelain. That was before the collection was moved to the British Museum , when it was still in a house in Bloomsbury. On that cold, wet November day he had the place to himself – or so he thought. He gazed at pots that were becoming as familiar as the crockery in his kitchen and were infinitely more beautiful: Qing dynasty bowls with delicate designs of peach and cherry blossom and chrysanthemums; Ming plates with brilliant green dragons chasing their tails on a lemon-yellow ground. It was when he turned to look at the Ru ware that he realised he was not alone.

There was a woman, wearing a belted raincoat, raindrops glistening on dark hair. She stood before the case transfixed. He didn’t wonder. The pots were perfect: so simple, so plain and undecorated and such a wonderful colour, hard to define – a greyish, greenish blue. As he drew closer, he saw that she was staring at a little bowl. ‘That’s one of my favourite pieces,’ he heard himself say and she gave a little jump.

observations: Now, we’re not taking credit for this book at Clothes in Books, but a recent entry on one of Christine Poulson’s earlier books, Footfall, wondered when she would produce something new, and how she could be encouraged to do so asap. Et voila, here is a new book. Well, actually it was already written by then – Poulson came into the comments to tell us. And we promised to feature it, so here we go.

All her previous crime stories – three excellent books featuring academic sleuth Cassandra James – have appeared on the blog (Murder is Academic, Stage Fright and Footfall) , but this is a standalone thriller, with an intriguing premise involving a man going into the witness protection programme, and a woman who finds she doesn’t know very much at all about the man she has been meeting regularly and falling in love with.

It’s got an excellent, tense plot, shifting between the two main characters, with a good number of surprises along the way, and settings including a cemetery in Sweden and the British Library (libraries are definitely a Poulson interest – see Footfall for more), as well as the china collection above. Poulson always has great, strong women characters, with real lives and feelings. And, although there are some very gruesome goings-on, I liked the fact that the depictions of violence and injury were realistic without being over-detailed or gloating. In far too many modern crime books there are far too many unpleasant descriptions of violence against, particularly, women and children – it was a pleasure to find a book that did the excitement, the jeopardy and the thrills without putting off this reader. I know I'm not the only crime fan to feel like this, and I would be strongly recommending this book on those grounds alone: but it is a very good read for anyone.

The book is published by Accent Press, and Christine Poulson has a blog called A Reading Life.

My only complaint is: not quite enough clothes descriptions of a kind suitable for the blog. So the pictures are a cheat, but as the book is called Invisible, I thought it was fair enough to have shadowy figures in the correct setting – this is the right china, though in its new home of the British Museum.

Both pictures are from Wikimedia commons and used with the permission of the photographer, Babel Stone.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

published 1951

[Joan is to be bridesmaid at her cousin Lucy’s wedding. She and her mother are not happy]

The sight of the bridesmaid’s dress, laid out on the bed, did nothing to sweeten their tempers. It was primrose-coloured and chosen to suit Melissa. They had protested, but Lucy had been adamant, assuring her mother that no colour really suited Joan and that the shell-pink, for which Mrs. Rawlings clamoured, would have been worse.

“I’ll never wear it again, never!” mourned Joan. “A hideous rag I wouldn’t be seen dead in…”

[her mother replies] “I always have said, and I always will say, that Lucy needs her bottom smacking. She’s so dreadfully conceited. Of course, she’s been spoilt. Nothing’s ever been good enough for her. Such nonsense, sending her to this college, when she could have got a job and been off her mother’s hands years ago. And now …” Mrs. Rawlings was obliged to pause, for Lucy’s marriage was hardly a retributive climax.

“Now,” she said darkly, “it remains to be seen. Have you sewed in dress preservers?”


“Well, you ought to do. You know how you perspire.”

“I don’t care. I’ll never wear it again. I’ve said.” 

“Sit down and sew them in now, do! There won’t be time after lunch.”

observations: I recently got a rather wonderful Tweet from @skiorouphile. It read

@ClothesinBooks: Idea? In Margaret Kennedy's Lucy Carmichael there's a bit on "dress preservers", "sewed in" as "You know how you perspire."
Then MJIBrower, tweeting as @VintageReader, told us:
They still make dress preservers: … :-)

Well!! Obviously I had to get hold of Lucy Carmichael immediately. My Margaret Kennedy reading up till now was confined to the luscious Constant Nymph, a terrific melodrama with a rather uncomfortable plot involving an over-young woman and an older relation-by-marriage. Kennedy tilts the authorial scales so you can convince yourself that this – including breaking up a marriage – is all perfectly fine (the abandoned wife is treated most ruthlessly), although also tragically sad. It has been beloved by teenage girls and many others since it was first published in 1924, when it was a massive and rather risque bestseller.

So Lucy came 27 years later. It has been republished by Faber, and is a splendid read in the Persephone/Virago reprint mode – there are bits to make you wince and pass swiftly over, but I enjoyed it hugely.

There has been quite a wedding theme on the blog recently (Guardian books piece, and click on the labels below to see more) so this fits in a manner of speaking: poor Lucy is about to be jilted, at the altar, by a caddish fiance who doesn’t turn up because he has run off with someone else. She goes to work at an arts and educational institute in the West Country: endowed by a local boy made good, and still connected with his family, it offers culture to students and supposedly to the local townspeople. The central section of the book largely deals with the internal politics of Ravonsbridge, which is simultaneously boring, convincing, and strangely gripping. There are lots of heavy-handed jokes about politics and the arts, and some quite funny ones too. The millionaire’s widow was an Earl’s daughter:

Lady Frances was, it seems, rather a problem daughter; she took up women’s suffrage and insisted on going to prison, which Mrs. Mildmay says was probably a good deal more luxurious than anything she was used to at Ravonsclere Castle.
There is a long description of a local election, again not as boring as it sounds, and a description of canvassing: something that doesn’t come up in books much, but hasn’t changed over the years. And bearing out my long-held theory that canvassing is exactly the same whichever party does it, no matter how far apart their beliefs.

Although slight and unimportant in the history of literature, this book has such good clothes in it that there will be more entries.

The top picture shows bridesmaids from a New South Wales wedding in 1931, courtesy of the lovely Sam Hood collection at Flickr. (Doesn't the chief bridesmaid look like a young Margaret Thatcher?)

The second one shows the very preservers discovered for us by Vintage Reader.

And thanks again to her, and above all to skiourophile for the excellent tipoff. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The caged bird sings of freedom

the book: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

published 1969

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

[The extract is not from the named book but refers to, and partly explains, its title. It is from the poem Caged Bird, published in Maya Angelou’s 1983 collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?]

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

observations: Maya Angelou died yesterday (May 28 2014) a few weeks after her 86th birthday. She has been an influence and an inspiration for generations, not because she was African American and a woman, but alongside those things. And in many ways, of course, in spite of the disadvantages those things presented to her.

Angelou wrote numerous poems and songs, cookbooks and children’s books, films and plays. She seems to have pretty much been good at everything: she made a couple of albums as a singer, including this one:

- and she even once ran a dance company with the legendary Alvin Ailey. But she is best known for her seven volumes of autobiography, of which the first - I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – is the most famous. 
The poem Caged Bird had not, as far as I can tell, been published prior to its appearance 14 years after that book.

The main pic is of the ballerina Tatiana Riabouchinska, backstage in costume for the title role of Le Coq D’Or in 1937. The costume was designed by Natalia Gontcharova, who surprisingly enough is no stranger to this blog.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

North and South by Mrs Gaskell

published 1855

[A group of women are discussing shawls and marriage]

'Helen had set her heart upon an Indian shawl, but really when I found what an extravagant price was asked, I was obliged to refuse her. She will be quite envious when she hears of Edith having Indian shawls. What kind are they? Delhi? with the lovely little borders?'

[It is decided the shawls must be viewed.]

So Margaret went down laden with shawls, and snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell. Her aunt asked her to stand as a sort of lay figure on which to display them, as Edith was still asleep. No one thought about it; but Margaret's tall, finely made figure, in the black silk dress which she was wearing as mourning for some distant relative of her father's, set off the long beautiful folds of the gorgeous shawls that would have half-smothered Edith. Margaret stood right under the chandelier, quite silent and passive, while her aunt adjusted the draperies. Occasionally, as she was turned round, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the chimney-piece, and smiled at her own appearance there-the familiar features in the usual garb of a princess. She touched the shawls gently as they hung around her, and took a pleasure in their soft feel and their brilliant colours, and rather liked to be dressed in such splendour— enjoying it much as a child would do, with a quiet pleased smile on her lips.

observations: An earlier entry on this book looked specifically at the wedding mentioned above. 

I love Mrs Gaskell, and her Wives and Daughters (a very early blog entry) is one of my all-time favourite books. North and South was written 10 years earlier, and although it is a good read, you can see that she developed a lot between the two books: this one has too much author direction and exposition, the reader is frequently instructed what to think. I don’t suppose it’s anybody’s favourite book, but it is well worth reading.

Serious Margaret has the weight of the world on her - early on she feels ‘as if a thin cold cloud had come between her and the sun.’ She has rather feckless parents (Gaskell is always very good on dysfunctional child/parent relations), whom she ends up protecting and looking after. Her father is a Church of England parson who has Doubts – one of the bizarre things about the story is that we never find out what exactly his Doubts are, just that they are severe enough that he feels he would be hypocritical to keep his living. Almost everybody else believes he should live with his doubts, and keep the job. But no, the Doubts mean that the family of three has to move from an idyllic village in the New Forest in southern England, to the smoky dirty metropolis of ‘Milton-Northern! The manufacturing town in Darkshire’, in case you haven’t got the point. Here they will live in poverty, and Margaret’s mother – who had married beneath herself anyway, and resents this come-down even more – will waste away.

There is a handsome mill-manager: Margaret is very disdainful as he is in trade. The book is a kind of Pride & Prejudice in reverse as they have to overcome their misunderstandings: but there is also a lot about trade unions and strikes, which you can’t imagine in a Jane Austen novel.

Very surprisingly, there is much mention of a waterbed – last year I did a piece for the Guardian about book references that sound like anachronisms but aren’t: this one would have fitted right in. In another Guardian piece, I was rude about the idea of gentlemen reading aloud while women did embroidery, so I was glad to hear that:
Mrs. Hale had never cared much for books, and had discouraged her husband, very early in their married life, in his desire of reading aloud to her, while she worked.
There is still more to come on this book.

The picture, from The Athenaeum website is by Alfred Stevens – we mentioned before our theory that he kept a number of Indian shawls in his studio for sitters

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Mexico Set by Len Deighton

published 1984

Mexico City airport was packed with people. There were Indian women clasping sacks of flour and a sequin-suited rock group guarding their amplifiers. All found some way to deal with the interminable delay: mothers suckled babies, boys raced through the concourse on roller skates, a rug pedlar – burdened under his wares – systematically pitched his captive audience, tour guides paced resolutely, airline staff yawned, footsore hikers snored, nuns told their rosaries, a tall Negro – listening to a Sony Walkman – swayed rhythmically, and some Swedish school kids were gambling away their last few pesos…

Werner was sitting on another of Dicky’s many cases. He was wearing a guyavera, the traditional Mexican shirt that is all pleats and buttons, and with it linen trousers and expensive-looking leather shoes patterned with ventilation holes. Although Werner complained of Mexico’s heat and humidity, the climate seemed to suit him. His complexion was such that he tanned easily, and he was more relaxed in the sunshine than he’d ever seemed to be in Europe.

observations: I liked Berlin Game so much that I immediately bought a hardback omnibus of all three in the first Bernard Samson trilogy. I should warn anyone else doing this: do not look at any of the peripherals of this giant brick-like volume until you have read most of the first two books. The jacket copy, and an introduction written later by Deighton himself, give away half the plot. The blurb is particularly bad – it spoilers the first book, yet at the same time seems to have been written by someone who hasn’t read the books AND is illiterate: quite an achievement. My friend Margot Kinberg took bad blurbs as a topic on her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog recently, and got a considerable response from her followers. The discussion is fascinating: you can read it here. I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this book in time to add it to the list of felons.

The blurb describes Mexico City (ie the place) as ‘the melting pot – in a very literal sense – which will leave the role of no character unchanged’. Nothing in the book bears this out (quite apart from the misuse of ‘literal’), but the atmosphere of the city is very well done, and made a change from the grim ambience of London and Berlin. (The Cold War was cold, ‘in a very literal sense.’)

The narrator, Bernard, mentions a character as having a PhD in office politics, and that’s a qualification you would have to give Deighton: who knows whether he ever actually was a spy, but you’d put good money on his having worked in offices while he cast a sharp eye about him. He is really excellent, and very very funny, on the way hierarchies work. Bernard’s increasing gloom over all this is a joy to behold, though Deighton does warn us not to take everything he says as gospel.

The character-drawing is also brilliant: ‘Dicky sighed the way he did when one of the clerks returned to him top-secret papers he’d left in the copying machine’. You could read a whole James Bond book without finding that level of one-sentence skewering.

And still seven more books to go….

I assumed, simplistically, that the special Mexican shirt mentioned above might be something bright and gaudy, but apparently not. This picture of guayaberas (the photographer’s preferred spelling) is from Wikimedia Commons, and was taken by Maurice Marcellin.

Mexico has featured before on the blog: Three entries on Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano; Carol Anshaw's swimmer at the 1968 Olympics (fabulous picture); Ayelet Waldman's sleuth visiting a market; Frida Kahlo in Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Pastels are weak, unless you wear them ironically

the book: Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine

published 2014

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

[Viv Albertine was involved from the word go in the London music scene that started up in 1975 and produced The Sex Pistols, The Clash and eventually The Slits. They were not hugely successful, commercially, but are one of those bands - and she’s one of those guitarists - endlessly named as an influence by much more famous musicians. The extract must be set in 1968, though she doesn’t say so.]

When I was fourteen I heard there was going to be an anti-war demonstration with famous people giving speeches in Trafalgar Square. It was the thing to go to, as exciting as a rock concert. I hoped there’d be lots of handsome boys there. I spent all Saturday morning before the demo tie-dyeing a white T-shirt black, stirring it round and round with an old wooden spoon in a large aluminium pot on the stove. Mum said, ‘Hurry up, you’ll miss it! Just wear any old thing, it doesn’t matter.’ But I had to look right. The T-shirt came out great, dark grey rather than black, with a white tie-dyed circle in the middle, a bit like the CND peace sign. I sewed black fringes down the side of my black cord jeans and washed my hair by kneeling over the bath, drying it in front of the open oven with my head upside down so it would look full and wild. Then off me and my friend Judie went to the demo, chanting, ‘Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?’ at the top of our voices. We got off the bus and ran down Haymarket towards Trafalgar Square. When we got there it was completely deserted. The paving stones were covered in litter, empty bottles rolled around, leaflets were blowing in the wind. No people, just pigeons. We’d been so long messing around with our clothes that we’d missed the whole thing.

observations: This is such a great evocation of time, place, fashion and being a teenager that it could come from a novel. (It’s just the kind of thing that would happen in Hilary McKay’s Casson Family series. The same ebullience, the same attention to detail.) Albertine only talks about things she was involved in or witnessed first hand, and this is a good example of how that keeps your attention locked on her. You might think she’d use hindsight and research, tell you whose speeches she missed or which famous people were in the crowd; but no: she and her friend start messing around in the fountain, get warned off by a policeman, and meekly head home.

Sitting on the top deck of the bus, the fringes on my jeans all straggly, my hair damp and flat and the dye from my wet T-shirt leaving grey streaks across my arms, I thought, What a great day!
At times this rigid rule can have odd, claustrophobic side effects. Sid Vicious was a major part of her life, but one day she sees him for what turned out to be the last time, and he’s never mentioned again. There’s just his and Nancy Spungen’s names and dates of birth and death, with no context. She either takes it for granted that you will know all about the lives of the other people she knew, or doesn’t think you need to. To be fair, most of the people in the first part of the book are famous enough that you know at least the basics about them, and in many cases a lot more - but only if, like me, you come from roughly the same generation and the same musical background (before during and after punk) as she does.

There will be at least one more piece about the book. This one is meant to cover the Clothes Clothes Clothes part of the title. There are many detailed descriptions of outfits, including some interesting stuff about men’s clothes as well as her own. The line “Pastels are weak, unless you wear them ironically” comes from Viv Albertine’s description of the unwritten rules of fashion, among the core of innovators who originated what we now think of as punk.

The main photo, taken last year, shows Viv Albertine bringing two of my passions together by wearing a PINS - my favourite new band - t-shirt. It’s not in the book. The other was taken in 2012 and a b&w version is on the back of the book.

CiB was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this memoir, so thank you to the kind people at Faber. It was an easy decision as to who got to read it, between the real blogger and me: after all, only one of us has been in love with Viv Albertine for 35 years, since I first saw her in the flesh – in a tutu and sheer baby blue polka-dot tights – at Eric’s club in Liverpool.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

published 1956


[Gianetta is staying in a hotel on the Scottish island of Skye]

It was precisely one-forty-eight am when I decided that I was not going to be able to sleep, and sat up in bed, groping for the light-switch… Then I remembered that the hotel made its own electricity, and that this was turned off at midnight. There had been a candle-stick, I recollected… my hand groped and found it. I struck a match and lit the candle.

[she realizes that she has left her handbag, and headache pills, downstairs in the lounge of the hotel]

I got out of bed, and grabbed my housecoat… thrusting my feet into my slippers and knotting the girdle of my housecoat tightly round me.

I seized my candle, unlocked my door, and set off.

And at once I saw that this was not to be, after all, the classic walk through the murder-haunted house, for, although the corridor lights were of course unlit, the glimmer from the eastern windows was quite sufficient to show me my way. I went softly along the main corridor, shielding my candle, until I reached the stairhead.

observations: The scene above, as Mary Stewart makes clear, is meant as a homage/ironical take on the traditional scene in the old dark haunted house. Stewart’s heroines, as pointed out before, are no clinging vines and don’t need looking after by men. The lady can take care of herself, thank you.

In the 1950s in even a quite posh hotel you would be expecting to share a bathroom – this is why characters in books mysteriously nearly always have a dressing-gown or housecoat with them when they go away, whereas most people probably don’t these days.

Mary Stewart died this month, and there was a blog entry then on her Arthurian cycle, the Crystal Cave trilogy. We also mentioned her romantic suspense novels, with a nod to their proto-feminism. This is not one of her best-known examples, but has a nice period feel: ‘Gianetta is hoping for a tranquil interlude on the Isle of Skye’ it says on the back cover – yeah, right. There will be danger, adventure and romance. Also quite a lot of mountain-climbing – this book has a very specific time frame, beginning just days before the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and so also matching up with the first conquest of Everest. In fact Gianetta is disappointed about that:
I’d always imagined it as the last inviolate spot that arrogant man hadn’t smeared himself over, sort of remote and white and unattainable. Immaculate, that’s the word I want. I somehow think it would be a pity to see man’s footmarks in the snow.
There is a character who writes travel books called Sauntering in Somerset and Wandering Through Wales – rather like Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter books who has written Travels with Trolls, Wanderings with Werewolves and Gadding with Ghouls.

Stewart is good at rueful clever moments :
I wondered irritably why married women so often adopted that tone, almost, of superior satisfaction in the things they had to suffer… I thought wryly that nobody ever wanted advice anyway: all that most people sought was ratification of their own views.
They are very much books of their time, but still rattling good reads.

With thanks to Colm Redmond, the guest blogger, for finding the pictures. His recent post on Inspector Montalbano used a similar image. Top picture is Yvonne Monlaur in The Brides of Dracula, 1960. The second one is Hazel Court in The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957.  As can be seen, the ladies choose immensely practical clothes for wandering round in the dark. 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

OxCrimes Anthology 2014 - Part 2

In Thursday’s entry I talked about the launch party for Oxfam’s latest fund-raising project, an anthology of mystery stories called OxCrimes: this is Anthony Horowitz speaking at the event:

Just to re-iterate: The anthology is a dreamteam of fabulous writers: you can find more details at Profile, the publishers, here. The 27 authors include Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith, Fred Vargas, Adrian McKinty and George Pelecanos. All genres covered, and all great stories, nearly all of them specially written for the book. Oxfam have a page about the book on their website here.

So: basically, try and buy it if you can. Terrific stories, and I promise you that the money raised for Oxfam could not be going to a better cause, it will be used for the very best purposes. You can buy it in all the usual places, you can get it for Kindle, and it is available for Kindle in the USA. If you buy the paperback from your local Oxfam shop in the UK, more of the money goes to Oxfam...

I’ve picked out another two stories to look at more closely - I also particularly enjoyed the contributions from Phil Rickman, Louise Welsh, Anne Zouroudi, Val McDermid and Fred Vargas.

Juror 8 by Stuart Neville

All twelve of us had the boy strapped down and wired up the minute the prosecutor opened his mouth. Not a chance in the world this young thug was innocent. They talked till I was dizzy, and not a word told me anything but this young man had stabbed his father in the heart in a fit of anger. They had two witnesses, a man about my age, and a woman in her forties. One saw the boy do it, the other heard him.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

The foreman held a ballot, and we all raised our hands to say guilty. All but one.

The man next to me, Juror 8.

Let’s talk, he said.

And we talked.

observations: If this is sounding familiar, it might be reminding you of the film or play of Twelve Angry Men – in its most famous form, Henry Fonda persuades 11 other men that the obvious guilty verdict in a murder trial is not safe. And indeed this short story is a new take on that, and a very clever, sad and enthralling one. Stuart Neville is not a writer I’ve read before, but I will certainly read him again. His writing skills are impressive: the story is not long, but tells a very complicated, tense story, as well as drawing a complete picture of a man’s life and circumstances.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of the jury at a 1914 murder trial in Long Island.

The Spinster by Ann Cleeves

She took up her knitting. She was working on an all-over jersey, a commission from an American woman, who’d wanted natural colours and traditional patterns… She knitted as her mother had done with a leather belt, padded with horsehair, and three pins pointed at both ends. One of the pins she’d stuck into the belt, and the garment grew as a tube. There were three colours: Shetland black, grey and mourrit, and she kept the tension even as she wove the wool into the back of the pattern.

observations: I’m a big fan of Ann Cleeves already (she is best known for the Vera and Shetland series, both now on TV) but this story surprisingly taught me something I didn’t know about knitting: when not a busy blogger, I’m also a keen knitter, and have done some very fancy Fair Isle patterns in my day, but I had never heard of this knitter’s aid, also called a makkin. I think the idea is that you can walk around doing other jobs while knitting – something that the hard-working women of the islands would do all the time. Perhaps that is why the belt is less necessary for others (lazier). This picture is from the Shetland Museum and Archives and used with their kind permission. If you look closely you can see the knitting belt round her waist.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Wedding Extra: North and South by Mrs Gaskell

published 1855

[Margaret has been helping organize her cousin Edith’s wedding]

'Yes,' said Margaret, rather sadly, remembering the never-ending commotion about trifles that had been going on for more than a month past: 'I wonder if a marriage must always be preceded by what you call a whirlwind, or whether in some cases there might not rather be a calm and peaceful time just before it.'

'Cinderella's godmother ordering the trousseau, the wedding-breakfast, writing the notes of invitation, for instance,' said Mr. Lennox, laughing. 

'But are all these quite necessary troubles?' asked Margaret, looking up straight at him for an answer. A sense of indescribable weariness of all the arrangements for a pretty effect , in which Edith had been busied as supreme authority for the last six weeks, oppressed her just now; and she really wanted some one to help her to a few pleasant, quiet ideas connected with a marriage.

'Oh, of course,' he replied with a change to gravity in his tone. 'There are forms and ceremonies to be gone through, not so much to satisfy oneself, as to stop the world's mouth, without which stoppage there would be very little satisfaction in life. But how would you have a wedding arranged?'

'Oh, I have never thought much about it; only I should like it to be a very fine summer morning; and I should like to walk to church through the shade of trees; and not to have so many bridesmaids, and to have no wedding-breakfast. I dare say I am resolving against the very things that have given me the most trouble just now.'

'No, I don't think you are. The idea of stately simplicity accords well with your character.'

observations: This is one of the books mentioned in my Guardian weddings post this week. There will be further entries on North and South (explaining more of the plot), but it also presented a great opportunity to show a wedding dress of 1855, the year it was published, along with a guest's outfit.

Margaret is showing her superiority to her cousin, and that she is not too vain and worldly. Her mother, on the other hand, doesn’t even attend her niece’s wedding, because of the lack of a good enough dress to wear. Her rich sister doesn’t understand: 
'Married for love, what can dearest Maria have to wish for in this world?'

Mrs. Hale, if she spoke truth, might have answered with a ready-made list, 'a silver-grey glace silk, a white chip bonnet, oh! dozens of things for the wedding, and hundreds of things for the house.'
Margaret wears white for the wedding – 100 years later that would be bad form, white clothes on a wedding guest were much frowned on – but we don’t find out what Edith wears, and although (SPOILER!) Margaret will be married in the end, we do not see what she wears either. But we do hear a lot about vain Fanny Thornton, marrying a rich manufacturer and taking endless trouble over the wedding-clothes:
the maid held up one glossy material after another, to try the effect of the wedding-dresses by candlelight.
Margaret is invited to a fancy dinner party, so it is a good thing she has the old wedding guest outfit to wear – her young friend Bessy is quite concerned:
'But them ladies dress so grand!' said Bessy, with an anxious look at Margaret's print gown, which her Milton eyes appraised at sevenpence a yard.
But she is reassured by the news of the white silk. ‘That’ll do’ she says.

The picture is a fashion plate of 1855, from the NY Public Library.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

OxCrimes Anthology 2014 - Part 1

The Case of Death and Honey by Neil Gaiman

It was a mystery in those parts for years what had happened to the old white ghost man, the barbarian with his huge shoulder-bag. There were some who supposed him to have been murdered, and, later, they dug up the floor of Old Gao’s little shack high on the hillside, looking for treasure, but they found nothing but ash and fire-blackened tin trays.

This was after Old Gao himself had vanished, you understand, and before his son came back from Lijiang to take over the beehives on the hill.

Face Value by Stella Duffy

I was dressed up, made up, designed-up, covered-up to look exactly like all of the the girls. The girls who directed you to the entrance, who offered you a drink, who handed you the catalogue, who scuttled back and forth along the street, up the stairs, to the walls where they placed those lovely lovely red dots. I looked just like one of them.

See? I told you it was not about me.

observations: On Tuesday night, the new OxCrimes Anthology was launched in London, at Henry Sotheran, a rare-book-dealers near Piccadilly. A party in a bookshop! What could be nicer, especially as the shop is so beautiful and perfect it looks like a stageset. I was lucky enough to score an invite, went along, and had a great time. I even took some photos.

The anthology is a dreamteam of fabulous writers: you can find more details on the Oxfam website here and at Profile, the publishers, here.The 27 authors include Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith, Fred Vargas, Adrian McKinty and George Pelecanos. All genres covered, and all great stories, nearly all of them specially written for the book.

So: basically, try and buy it if you can. Great stories, and I promise you that the money raised for Oxfam could not be going to a better cause, it will be used for the very best purposes.  You can buy it in all the usual places, you can get it for Kindle, and it is available for Kindle in the USA. If you buy the paperback from your local Oxfam shop in the UK, more of the money goes to Oxfam...

It’s hard to pick favourites when the book is so good, but I did love Neil Gaiman’s story of Sherlock Holmes and bees, perfection. And Stella Duffy’s creepy story about an installation artist was another winner – making you think about all kinds of artists and their work. I’ll do another entry on more of the stories in a few days’ time.

This picture gives a good impression of the lovely shop, and features authors such as Christopher Fowler, Maxim Jakubowski and Anne Zouroudi, and also Sian Williams, who translates Fred Vargas (amongst others).

Sherlock Holmes might easily be looking at bees in the top picture, by the classic Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget. The second one is an American sculptor, Brenda Putnam, from the Smithsonian.

Holmes appeared in this entry with Irene Adler, and a photo of Sidney Paget himself appeared in the entry for this Holmes pastiche. More worrying artists in Claire Messud’s book, The Woman Upstairs.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Wedding dresses in Books

One of the original inspirations for this blog was Jassy in The Pursuit of Love worrying about her sister’s wedding-dress, short ‘as was the hideous fashion’ - she is concerned that Louisa will be buried in her dress, and the undertakers will have to look at her ‘poor old dead legs.’ So we’ve always taken our wedding dresses seriously.

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and looks at weddings, and the all-important dresses, in literature down the ages. It could be Clothes in Books’ specialist subject on Mastermind: click on any of the wedding-related labels below and you will find a fine array of brides in books. Beautiful dresses and bad outfits, weddings in Japan and in the USA, weddings involving real people (JFK) and double-imaginary (in Ulysses), civil ceremonies and wartime weddings, and the intriguing case of the duplicate wedding dress (thanks again Audrey). There are trousseaux, and racy ideas for wedding lingerie.

This is my favourite of all the dresses ever featured:

...and here is part of the blogpost: 

In Samuel Richardson’s early novel Pamela (1740) the heroine holds out for marriage and gets it (against considerable odds, like some early Bridget Jones), but she seems to get married, rather surprisingly, in ‘a rich white satin night-gown, that had been my good lady's, and my best head-clothes’, so that the servants won’t guess what’s going on.

Jane Austen’s books all end in weddings, but there is very little detail of the ceremonies, apart from Mrs Elton’s bitchy description of Emma’s nuptials as being shabby and inferior to her own: ‘very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!’ Mrs Bennett in Pride & Prejudice suggests that Lydia should not wait to have her wedding clothes (whole trousseau rather than just gown) made, but should get on with getting married – well, yes, she’s living in sin, on the edge of social doom.

Is the most famous wedding in literature the one that doesn’t take place? Jane Eyre is set to marry Mr Rochester wearing pearl-grey silk – she has insisted on plainness, but as an alternative to bright colours, not to white. He gives her a beautiful, elaborate veil, but that is destroyed by the woman from the attic. We all know this story all too well, but the scene where Bertha comes and tries on the veil is bone-chilling – the more so because we feel such pity for her, though no-one in the book seems to.

At the beginning of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55), Margaret Hale helps with the preparations for her cousin’s wedding – as a guest she wears white satin, which 100 years later would have been very bad form. She also has some modern-sounding views: fed up with all the jobs for the girlish Bridezilla Edith, she says her own choice would be ‘to walk to church through the shade of trees; and not to have so many bridesmaids, and to have no wedding-breakfast’.

In the 19th century a new dress might be obtained for the wedding, but it is not necessarily white, and it will be used again - and plenty of women just wore their best dress, perhaps with a veil. The tradition for white seems to have started with the weddings of Queen Victoria and then her daughters, but took a long time to catch on. The one-off wedding dress is a 20th century invention, and even then, as you can find in Nancy Mitford and Somerset Maugham, a new bride was expected to wear her wedding-dress to her first dinner-parties.

The main complaint from readers of the piece was that there was no Miss Havisham – too sad, I thought. But there must be plenty of fictional weddings not yet covered on the blog, and I look forward to many more entries, and some same-sex weddings in books.

Some of our best wedding photos have come from Perry Photography, including two of those above, and they are used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

published 2014

[Student accommodation in the 1970s]

Sometimes Utility bookcases were provided. We asked for them to be removed. We kept our books in modern style, on shelves of planks raised on stacks of bricks . They were easily dismantled and taken from one unheated, mildew-ridden slum to another. The walls were decorated with posters attached by blobs of Blu-Tack, an adhesive substance that came in sheets of blue goo. The important fittings were the coffee mugs and the ashtrays, but books were the true furnishings. They were the soul of a room. They defined the identity of the person who lived there in a series of announcements: Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Richard Neville’s Playpower. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Carlos CastaƱeda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. All of these were required titles on the bookshelves of the counterculture, as defining as the shoulder-length hair, the tie-dyed t-shirt smelling of incense ash, and the bell-bottom jeans stained with drops of rank brown patchouli oil.

observations: This is Linda Grant’s Kindle Single – it’s short, costs 99p and can be read very quickly. Anyone who has too many books, of any kind, should read and enjoy it. This is non-fiction: Grant is moving house and so works out what to do about her surplus books, while thinking about her past as a reader.

As I say, any book reader/buyer/hoarder will love this piece, but it particularly resonated with me because I grew up, apparently, not far from Linda Grant, and around the same time. She went to the same bookshops as I did. A magical place for me as a child was the children’s book department at WH Smiths in Allerton Rd – that sounds so uninspiring, so limited: no Foyles, no Daunt, no Harrods books for us. So it was quite remarkably encouraging to find someone else who loved it. The department store Lewis’s in Liverpool city centre had a Penguin Bookshop tucked away in a corner – again, Grant and I haunted it. It took me from Noel Streatfeild to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and I once won a competition there and was given a bundle of books.

As well as all this, she does terrific clothes in her books – it’s surprising she hasn’t been on the blog before. She has a new novel out in July, Upstairs at the Party, again featuring our shared background, which will most certainly be providing an entry. 

You can read a longer extract from I Murdered My Library here at the Guardian.

The picture shows 1973 students looking at a noticeboard, and is from the LSE archives.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri

the 16th Inspector Montalbano novel

published 2010 as La Caccia Al Tesoro; English Translation by Stephen Sartarelli, published 2013

from regular Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

[The police are searching a house after an armed siege. Inspector Salvo Montalbano’s colleagues bring an elderly woman towards him.]

Caterina looked as if she had just stepped out of a horror novel. She was quite short and wearing a filthy nightgown riddled with holes, had dishevelled, yellowish-white hair and big, wide-open eyes, and only one long, blood-curdling tooth in her drooling mouth.

‘I curse you!’ Caterina said, looking at Montalbano with wild eyes. ‘You shall burn alive in the fires of hell!’

‘We can talk about that later.’

[In Montalbano’s office – a member of the public has come to report his car stolen]

‘Good morning,’ the man said, coming forward with his hand extended.

Well dressed, about fifty, handkerchief in breast pocket, gold-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper hair cut extremely short, English shoes all curlicues, moustache with the ends waxed and curled up. He was so drenched in cologne that the room immediately filled with a sweet scent that turned the stomach. The mere sight of him aroused such antipathy in the inspector that he just let the man’s hand hang in the air, without shaking it. He decided to deal with the matter in his own way.

Comment allez-vous?’ he asked the man.

The other looked at him as if he’d been kidnapped by Barbary pirates.

‘Ah, you mean you’re not French? Really? Hmph…!’ said Montalbano.

observations: The United Nations recently reported with some confidence that there is “no realistic risk” that the world is ever going to run out of grumpy middle-aged male detectives. At least, fictional ones. It sometimes seems like there’s one born every minute.

The Montalbano books (procedurals rather than detective stories) are set in Sicily in the present day, but are in many senses very old-fashioned. Sometimes this is in good or neutral ways, such as the cosy feeling that good guys always win in the end, and that cops can have mutually-helpful relationships with not-terribly-petty criminals without that counting as corruption. But some of it is bad - there are some distinctly unreconstructed attitudes to women and womanisers, for example, and the Inspector even has a habit of sending his deputy to seduce women to get information from them.

There are also a remarkable number of gorgeous, often young women throwing themselves at our middle-aged hero, who doesn’t always resist them despite having a steady girlfriend (who conveniently lives far away.) This is par for the course in Italian crime shows, such as Inspector De Luca and indeed Young Montalbano, which is based on short stories by the same author. But those guys are much younger than the Montalbano of the main series, who is in his late 50s by the time of this book and gives hope to middle-aged gents everywhere…

Anyhow, the books are a quick easy read, suspenseful, quite funny in an unsubtle way, and very consistent. If you like one, you’ll probably like them all. And they’re full of mouthwatering lists of what Montalbano eats – very little that he does is so urgent that he can’t stop for lunch, and he does his best thinking while walking his huge meals off afterwards. The translator includes explanations of what the dishes contain, and sometimes why they’re called what they’re called.

The woman in her nightie is Martha O’Driscoll, in the 1945 film House Of Dracula, looking perhaps a little less scary than Caterina. The chap walking his pet anteater is Salvador Dali, a man with a sense of style and a very noticeable moustache.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

published 1970


[11 year old Margaret needs to wear a bra to fit in with the other girls at her new school]

My mother drove me to a shopping centre where there was a Lord & Taylor. I had on my blue plaid dress and my loafers without socks and three Band-Aids on my blisters.

First we went to the ladies’ lingerie department where my mother told the saleslady we wanted to see a bra for me. The saleslady took one look and told my mother we’d be better off in the teen department where they had bras in very small sizes. My mother thanked the lady and I almost died! We went down on the escalator and headed for the teen shop. They had a whole display of underwear there. Bras and panties and slips to match. All I ever wore was white underpants and regular undershirts. Sometimes a slip if I was going to a party. My mother went to the counter and told the saleslady we were interested in a bra. I stood back and pretended not to know a thing.

observations: I’d never read this book, and when I did recently (for a shoe reference, the sockless loafers, for this Guardian piece) it was a revelation. I think I’d always assumed it was a religious book, and I still don’t think the title does the book any favours, it sounds a bit desperate. But as generations of young women can and do attest, the content is another matter entirely. The book is a delight: a straightforward story of the year in which Margaret turns 12. She starts a new school, makes friends, tries to fit in, worries about growing up, periods and bras, has an absolutely fine relationship with her parents, wonders what religion might be about. She would reassure any young person that everything she thinks is completely normal. And the book is hugely entertaining and funny, with its descriptions of school, social events, and the girls’ secret club. Everything is reported in quite a deadpan way, but as if it really might be a young girl’s diary, not with an adult author winking in the background.

And it’s hard to think of anyone not sympathizing with Margaret’s being ejected from the grown-up lingerie department.

The picture is the (adult) lingerie department at Macy’s in New York.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The late great Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

published 1970

I had seen the soldiers’ god, the Word, the Light, the Good Shepherd, the mediator between the one God and man. I had seen Mithras, who had come out of Asia a thousand years ago.

[Later, talking about gods] “I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the blood-stained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.— Is the bath ready?”

Twenty minutes later, in a dark blue tunic clipped at the shoulder by the dragon brooch, I went to see my father.

observations: Back in the 1970s there weren’t really Young Adult books as we understand them now, and it wasn’t clear what a keen reader would move on to after children’s books. This is a theme I’ve been looking at on the blog over the past year – see particularly the entries on Monica Dickens and Jane Duncan (click on the labels below for more). There was a kind of adult book which I think of as being suitable for a girls’ school library in those days. The doyenne of this genre might have been Mary Stewart, who has died at the age of 97. The surprising thing is that her books haven't appeared on the blog till now – although she was mentioned in this Elizabeth Ferrars entry, as possibly the inventor of the romantic suspense adventure story. 

And actually her books deserve a lot of credit: I can clearly remember reading them and being impressed by the way the heroines were independent, happy women with careers. Yes, they were normally going to end up with a tall handsome man, but in the meantime they got on with their lives, and were tough and adventurous. They didn’t need a man to rescue or protect them, and they certainly made me think that a woman’s 20s might be a great time for travel, work and a nice flat. This was by no means the impression you would get from many adult novels of the time.

The Crystal Cave was different again: the first of a trilogy about Merlin, and then also Arthur, in 5th century Britain. When I first picked it up all those years ago, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a modern adventure like The Ivy Tree and Touch Not the Cat. But in fact it replaced those others in my affections: I read it several times then, and I picked it up to do this blog entry, and have just read it in its entirety again. It is a wonderful book, the kind that makes you live in its world, and then wake up in a daze when you finish it.

It is exciting and tense and adventurous – you really don’t know what is going to happen half the time – and also very emotional: the scene where Merlin uses the winter solstice to pay tribute to his father is heart-stopping. And, it made me think that if the flat and job in London (as in the modern books) weren’t forthcoming, you could do worse than settle on a cave in the Welsh mountains and a nice quiet life with books and comforts surrounding you.

The Crystal Cave made me want to visit the places in the book, read more history, find out more about the times it described: it opened whole other vistas to me. Books like that should be cherished, and I hope it will live forever.

It resembles in a strange way Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, published a few years later: both first person narratives of a boy growing up in other times and places, both with an emphasis on a soldier mentor. Both are enthralling, perfect books, and both very different from the usual run of historical novels. And there’s a prefiguring of Harry Potter – the boy with the magical powers:

‘You heard that? Where were you?’
I told the simple truth: ‘My lord, I was asleep in the hills, six miles off.’
The very unusual picture is specifically of Druids – one of many beliefs featuring in the story – but seemed to represent the rest of the book too. It is by George Henry, painted around 1890, and is from the Athenaeum website.