Thursday, 30 April 2015

Murder in Time by Elizabeth Ferrars

published 1953

Murder in Time

She had a wash and changed out of her office-suit into a dress of dull yellow silk, spotted with white. Going in to the sitting-room, Sarah discovered an old lady sitting in a high-backed chair.

The old lady was dressed in a mauve silk dress and mauve cardigan and had diamond ear-rings glittering in her ears. Sarah was not a judge of diamonds, yet something about the old lady herself made her instantly take for granted that these were real. The old lady was just lighting a cigarette from the stub of another, which she then threw, still glowing, into a small ash-tray that was already overflowing with stubs and ash.

‘Ridiculous thing,’ the old lady said malevolently at the inadequate little bronze dish. ‘Niggling. Stupid. I like things to be big and useful. Now, my dear, tell me who you are.’

observations: Karyn Reeves reviewed this book recently on her splendid A Penguin a Week blog: I had a copy on my shelves - which meant I read it a long time ago. But I remembered nothing about it, so gave it another go.

It’s a strange story, frequently subverting your expectations. Unlike many books of the era, it’s not always obvious who is ‘nice’ and who isn’t. People behave in odd and intriguing ways, but not to the point of exasperating the reader….

A group of people are gathered in a country house near the South Coast, because they are all flying to Nice for a long weekend. All they have in common is their acquaintance with host Mark Auty. The book began in time-honoured fashion with all the various guests thinking about and discussing their invitation, lots of exposition and descriptions of their backgrounds and clothes. It is obvious that some of the invitees are far from happy about the idea of seeing Mr Auty again. So – all set up nicely.

In fact no-one in the book makes it to Nice, which did surprise me – I kept expecting the trip to happen in some form, I think because I would have thought an early 50s writer who promises an exotic location would be expected to make good on it. But no, we are stuck in the hideous country house with low, beamed ceilings and plenty of brown furniture clutter – like the set for many a 50s British film.

The plot is bizarre, and provokes many, many unanswered questions: a major crime is averted, but really the chances of anyone getting away with it in the first place seem remote. The eventual solution is convoluted in the extreme.

But the details of life and attitudes are gorgeous. Our heroine Sarah has ‘a wash’ rather than a shower or bath. Everyone smokes and drinks all the time. Sarah has an academic father who wanted her to go to university, but luckily ‘her mother had come to the rescue’ and Sarah became a secretary, ‘not so foolish as to attempt to develop an intellect which no-one but her father would ever dream she possessed.’

Auty’s fiery Brazilian fiancĂ©e turns up and starts flinging accusations around – she says two people are secret lovers and murderers, and it’s obvious that it’s the sex claim that is really embarrassing for them. When they try to defend themselves, the man whispers ‘Go slow. Remember that you’re dealing with a Latin mind.’

And in an absolute prize conversation, the older lady above asks a young man why he gave up the stage.
‘The life didn’t suit me,’ he said…
‘It takes courage and devotion to be an actor,’ she said truculently. ‘I admire actors. In Bradford I go to the theatre every week, even in the pantomime season.’
‘That must take courage and devotion,’ he said.

The women have all brought special clothes to wear in Nice, which sadly we don’t see much of, though one of them says ‘tomorrow we’ll be in Nice and I can wear that topless dress with the camellia pattern’ – one does hope she means ‘strapless’, though elsewhere a different dress IS described as strapless, so it’s not an unknown phrase.

The relation between the older lady and her adopted son is very reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, which appeared a year before. There is also some muttering about the food black market – there was still rationing in the UK at this time.

So – rather good as a period piece. Not one you’d read for the brilliance of the plotting, but definitely an interesting read. And do read Karyn’s review too.

The picture is from the US Ladies Home Journal a few years before.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

published 1936

[Inspector Grant meets the Chief Constable’s daughter, Erica]

shilling for candles 3She was standing up now, her hands pushed into her jacket pockets, so that the much-tried garment sagged to two bulging points. The tweed she wore was rubbed at the cuffs and covered all over with “pulled” ends of thread where briars had caught. Her skirt was too short and one stocking was violently twisted on its stick of leg. Only her shoes— scarred like her hands, but thick, well-shaped and expensive— betrayed the fact that she was not a charity child.

[Later Inspector Grant meets her again] She was dressed in her “town” clothes, he Shilling for Candles 1noticed; but they did not seem to be an improvement on her country ones. They were neat, certainly, but they had an unused look; and the grey suit she was wearing, although undoubtedly “good”, was dowdy. Her hat had been got to match, and matched also in dowdiness.
No mother had chosen those clothes. They were ordered from the tailor just as her school clothes had been. ‘One grey flannel suit and hat to match.’ In spite of her independence and her sureness of spirit there was something forlorn about her, he felt.

observations: I was reminded of this book by a review at Tracy’s Bitter Tea and Mystery blog. She read the book for the Past Offences books of #1936 meme (see my Ngaio Marsh entry here – which, like this book, contains bogus religious figures) and liked it, and mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film based on it at year later, Young and Innocent. So now I have watched the film, and re-read the book.

The plot is this: Filmstar Christine Clay has been murdered on a beach in Kent – she had been hidden away in a holiday cottage, and almost nobody knew she was there. Her death doesn’t at first seem to benefit anyone particularly, but there is a young man she has been keeping company with – as the police close in on him, he makes a run for it. The Chief Constable’s daughter, Erica, is convinced of his innocence. On the whole, people think he didn’t do it because he’s not really up to it, a bit feeble, rather than for some more honourable reason - and when Erica says to Robert ‘You must be much cleverer than I thought you were, you know’ he replies, with some reason: ‘Yes? How clever does that make me actually?’

Round about here, Hitchcock and Tey part company. The film is a classic Hitchcock series of chases – away from danger of capture, and towards the McGuffin of a coat that will prove Robert’s innocence. The two young people get caught up in a children’s party and a game of Blind Man’s Buff. (Weirdly, they give the birthday girl a ‘stone dwarf’ ie gnome which they have pinched from the hosts’ garden.) Wikipedia says the film ‘is notable for an elaborately staged crane shot Hitchcock devised towards the end of the film, which identifies the real murderer’ – and indeed it is a remarkable shot.

The book has a completely different culprit and motive for the murder, and the young couple, though important, are only a small segment of the continuing investigation. Erica is also much younger and less polished than in the film, and is a much more original and charming figure. There is one scene where she is trying to convince a drunken vagrant that she is who she says she is:
Erica whipped up her short tweed skirt, gripped the elastic waistband of the gym knickers she wore summer and winter, and pushed the inner side of it towards him on an extended thumb. ‘Can you read?’ she said.
‘Erica M. Burgoyne,’ read the astonished man, in red on a Cash’s label.
‘It’s a great mistake to be too sceptical,’ she said, letting the elastic snap back into place.

I reproduce this without comment, except to say that you don’t get to see Nova Pilbeam doing this in the film.

The second photo above is Pilbeam (not in this film) – in fact she was only 17 when the Young and Innocent was made, though looking older, had been a child actress, and must have seemed a likely prospect for a stardom that never happened – her Wikipedia entry is interesting, and says she is still alive, aged 95.

The top picture is an impressionistic idea of Erica from the book (it’s from the ever-wonderful Helen Richey collection, and another photo makes it clear that those are culottes).  Below is a scenegrab of her much smarter tweed suit in the film.
Shilling for Candles 4
The motive for the crime is a particularly bizarre one, and the title – excellent though it is – is very much a minor part of the story. But it’s a good read, and the film is fun to watch, with its place in Hitchcock’s history – although the danceband in the hotel who are ‘blacked up’ as minstrels are hard to take for modern viewers.

A nice point in the (1937) film is that a child keeps saying ‘OK’ – it’s meant to be slangy and annoying, but obviously  understood and not unusual. Author Lissa Evans says that when writing her WW2 homefront novel, Crooked Heart (one of my best books of last year), she knew that usage of OK was authentic, but also knew that readers would object, claiming it was anachronistic… (a subject dear to the CiB heart.)

Monday, 27 April 2015

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

published 2002

All is Vanity

[Aspiring novelist Margaret finds herself using her friend Letty’s life in her writing]

I had had lingering qualms…. Whenever my pages had surged ahead, infused with Letty’s reactions, even sometimes with her own words, I’d reminded myself that this was only an exercise, a means of teaching myself how to create a character, a skill I would then apply to a far different character in far other circumstances. My reunion with my former student, however, wiped away all such niceties. A novel must be produced. Quickly. And this one was clearly well under way.

In fact, it occurred to me that it might even be a very good novel…

[Later, after talking to Letty] When I’d hung up the phone, I started for the bedroom, but stopped just before the door. The story pressed at me from within, pushing me irresistibly toward the closet/study. I turned on my computer and waited impatiently through its hemming and hawing. At last the screen was blank and my fingers pounced upon the keys.

observations: At one point Margaret, a teacher, says that she thought she was in Goodbye Mr Chips, but it turned out to be Lord of the Flies. It’s something like that for the reader too: one of the reviews quoted on the back says the book is ‘as funny as it is cruel’ which is quite a good description. The back cover also tells you most of the plot, so I don’t feel that I have to hold back in that area, though I think it is better to read the book not knowing what is coming.

Yes, it is funny. Margaret, in New York, is quite certain she can be a successful novelist, so she negotiates with her husband to stop working for a year. The description of her endlessly putting off writing, her writer’s block, her lack of subject matter, and her extreme self-delusion is very funny, and Schwarz manages to make her not as infuriating as you would expect. Meanwhile she is in constant contact with her childhood friend Letty, who lives in California and is a stay-at-home mother whose husband is about to get a new job. Margaret is running out of material and options and is lying to people about her writing. Letty gets caught up in a maelstrom of spending and home- and self-improvements. There’s a terrible inevitability that things are not going to end well for either of them. You want to strangle both of them at times. And at times I was hoping for a magical happy ending…

The jokes and observations are sharp and clever. I liked this on management consultants:
She convinced executives nearly twice her age to restructure corporations in industries and services in which they’d spent their entire working lives and in which she’d invested a few months.
And Schwarz is excellent on social events, embarrassment and mortification, and ways of fooling ourselves.

Letty’s life made me think of a long-ago book: The Serial by Cyra McFadden, a very funny 1970s classic.

I can’t decide what my overall conclusion on the book is. Schwarz is a very good writer, but there is something odd about the structure of this book. The first half is quite long and repetitious, and the POV changes are strange. I liked reading it, but wish it had been half the length...

I wanted a picture of a writer at her desk, but it seemed terribly unfair to use a living woman, who might reasonably object to being connected with Margaret in the book. So this is a ‘photograph of the Scottish travel writer, Saira Elizabeth Luiza Shah (who died on 15 August 1960), sitting at her desk with a typewriter before her’ from Wikimedia Commons. CiB has a long-standing campaign to bring back hat-wearing-indoors-at-desk, as seen in avatar, and in this blogpost.

Lilly dache smaller

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Silver’s Knickers

the book: Through the Wall by Patricia Wentworth

published 1950


Through the Wall 2

Miss Silver stayed for an hour, and had managed to draw Mrs Brand into a slight show of interest over a pattern for long-sleeved vests and the address of a shop where the wool suitable for making them could be bought. It transpired that Florence had always worn wool next to the skin, and had now arrived at measurements which made it practically impossible for her to procure the necessary underwear….

[Everyone in the household has to be strip-searched in case they have blood-stained clothes.]

Miss Silver immediately offered herself as the first subject for search…Mrs Larkin, being passionately addicted to crochet, became quite warm in her admiration of the edging which decorated Miss Silver’s high-necked spencer and serviceable flannelette knickers, which had three rows on each leg, each row being a little wider than the last. On being informed that the design was original she was emboldened to ask for the pattern, which Miss Silver promised to write down for her. After which they parted on very friendly terms…

[The search continues] The cook Eliza gave Mrs Larkin and even Miss Silver the surprise of their lives when the removal of her black afternoon dress displayed pink silk cam-knickers with French legs. Nothing more compromising than this came to light.

Through the Wall 4Through the WAll

observations: This is a stunner indeed. Vicki/Skiourophile came up with the news in a recent comment:
I've just read about some great knickers in Patricia Wentworth's Through the Wall, including Miss Silver's own knickers; and a bit about having to knit one's own underthings as too fat for shop ones. The mystery is a bit ho-hum, but there's a great cat.
I had to download the book even before answering Vicki, AND then had to swat away some cheeky comments from Col of Col’s Criminal Library.

But then I had the story in all its glory.

Through the Wall 3

I have recently been forced to reconsider Miss Silver after seeing this fascinating article by blogfriend Noah Stewart – anyone interested in crime fiction should read it. He made me determined to look at her tolerantly, and indeed I liked the first half of Through the Wall more than any of Wentworth’s that I’d read before. It starts with an uncle spying on his possible legatees, a ridiculous will, and a very strange household, thrown together solely, apparently, with the purpose of creating an impossible situation, an exciting bequest possibility, plenty of suspects, locked doors and a split house (rather like the incomprehensible one that turned up in Stella Gibbons' Starlight earlier this month on the blog). Kudos to Patricia Wentworth.

In the middle of all this there is a massive train crash: this serves no real purpose and has no lasting effects except to introduce two attractive young people to each other. In fact they don’t see each other (they are trapped in pitch black) so you think there is going to be some impersonation, or appearance issue, but no, not at all, literally nothing is made of this.

The most nervous beginner at creative writing class could have thought up a better way for them to meet.


So you settle in to enjoy this, but sadly it goes rather downhill in the second half. There is one obvious question about the murder victim and her brightly-coloured scarf: as no-one mentions it, you know it’s going to be part of the solution. And then – well there just aren’t that many people in the frame, and by the time you’ve knocked out the dead, the young lovers, and the general nice people (this is not a spoiler: there are two worthless young men, but it’s obvious that one is salvageable and the other isn’t) there aren’t going to be any great surprises in the revelation of the murderer.

But it was worth it for the knitted knickers, and for the very discomfiting image of Miss Silver being searched. (You can’t see that happening to Miss Marple. Mrs Bradley wouldn’t turn a hair, I imagine.)

As ever, Wentworth does a great job of describing everyone’s clothes throughout. She also uses a phrase which you don’t come across often:
he wouldn’t say Ina didn’t pay for dressing, every woman did
‘Pay for dressing’ seems to mean something like ‘looks good in nice clothes’ or ‘gets a good return on clothes in terms of appearance’. Perhaps (gives) pay(back) for dressing. Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother says about Harriet Vane that she ‘would pay for really inspired dressing’ (and plainly doesn’t mean ‘she has a lot of money for good clothes’). It’s in a Philippa Gregory novel too:
“You do pay dressing,” Jenny said.
And Angela Brazil from 1922:
‘If you haven’t thought about your clothes before it’s time you did. My dear, you’ll pay dressing.’
I haven’t really got a handle on this expression (I don’t think I’m making this up), and am hoping that maybe Lucy Fisher can help me out – I feel she might know the phrase?
And thanks again to Vicki and Noah.

There was a similar search of the females - Alleyn looks as though he has his 'brain in his fingertips' and there is discussion of who wears stays - in this Ngaio Marsh book on the blog. 

To find more Miss Silver on the blog click on the labels below.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Guardian books: What You See from a Train

train 1

Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian’s book pages – after reading the new Paula Hawkins thriller The Girl on a Train (blogpost to follow soon) I got to thinking about why the setup is so intriguing. The starting point is that a young woman gets the same train every day, and watches out for a house that backs on to the line. She imagines a life for the happy, good-looking couple in their garden, and looks for them obsessively twice a day, there and back. But what she sees begins to make her fear that something is going wrong.

Girl on the Train backgarden 1 

look out the train window and what do you see….?

That idea of glimpsing something through the train window is a complete winner - aren’t we all caught by that idea? And so I looked for other literary examples of what you see though a train window. This is from the Guardian piece:
The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington – actually a double-train moment. Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. The murder is a deeply memorable moment, and once you’ve read the book, you’re always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together. 

An earlier Christie novel, The Man in a Brown Suit, from 1924, contains a hilarious discussion of taking photos out of a train window:
“It must be some curve if you can photograph the front part of the train from the back, it will look awfully dangerous.”

I pointed out to her that no one could possibly tell it had been taken from the back of the train. She looked at me pityingly. “I shall write underneath it. ‘Taken from the train. Engine going round a curve.’”

“You could write that under any snapshot of a train.”
I think of this every time I see one of those curved-train photos, while still thrilling to the view.

train 3

The Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg
Other blog favourites mentioned include the Christmas bestseller Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – a 1937 classic book championed by my good blogfriends Martin Edwards and Curtis EvansThe Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes.
And Lissa Evans has already mentioned to me the marvellous Saki short story, The Storyteller, and I’m sure readers will have plenty more train stories that I should have put in the piece…

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell: Part 2

published 1939

Brandons mourning white dress

[The newly-widowed Mrs Brandon meets her husband’s aunt for the first time]

‘A posthumous child?’ [Miss Brandon] said with sudden interest, looking piercingly at her niece’s white dress.

‘Oh no,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘Mamma and Papa are still alive.’

‘Tut, tut, not you,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘What is your name?’

Mrs Brandon said apologetically that it was Lavinia.

‘A pretty name,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘When last I saw your husband Henry Brandon, he mentioned you to me as Pet. It was before his marriage and he was spending a weekend with me. I had to say to him, “Henry Brandon, a man who can call his future wife Pet and speak of the Government as you have spoken can hardly make a good husband and is certainly not a good nephew.”’

[the conversation continues] ‘I see you are determined not to give Henry away,’ said Miss Brandon, not disapprovingly. ‘But when is it? I see no other reason for wearing white so soon.

Her gaze was again so meaningly fixed upon her niece’s white dress that Mrs Brandon began to blush violently.

‘I don’t think I understand,’ she faltered, ‘but if that is what you mean of course it isn’t. I just thought white was less depressing for the children.’

‘I am glad to hear it. That I could not have forgiven Henry,’ said the disconcerting Miss Brandon… ‘Now you can ring for my second chauffeur, Lavinia.’

observations: In an entry earlier this week we embarked on this story of the clashing mourning styles, and I explained how I came to read the book. (Thank you again to Amy Towle.) The passage above is typical of the book, which I found hilarious. Even the fact of Miss Brandon bringing two chauffeurs around with her made me laugh.

This is another of the horrible-aunt descriptions that Amy meant:
When in bed she preferred to discard the wig, and wore white bonnets, exquisitely hand-sewn by Sparks, frilled, plaited and goffered, in which she looked like an elderly Caligula disguised as Elizabeth Fry. Round her shoulders she had a white cashmere shawl, fine enough to draw through a wedding ring, and about her throat swathes of rich, yellowing lace, pinned with hideous and valuable diamond brooches. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds sparkled in the creases of her swollen fingers, and in the watch pocket above her head was the cheap steel-framed watch that her father had bought as a young man with his first earnings.
Like this perhaps?:

Brandons bonnet 3

I had never heard of the custom of white being worn by a pregnant mourning widow: what an interesting detail!

There is a lot more about mourning later in the book: three women keep swapping round their frocks for daywear and the funeral. Is the black-and-white foulard quite right? What about the black georgette with the pleats (cost 20 guineas when new)? Nurse – who was nanny to the children, and now lives on doing sewing and mending for the family - is in her element making alterations, and all the staff enjoy a good gloomy death as much as the Brandons do.

By the time the Village Fete comes along – the climax of the book, and wonderfully well-described – there is time for a last swap: ‘Mrs Brandon gave in and with considerable heroism said she would wear the foulard, so that Delia would be free to wear her green frock.’ – which Nurse thinks isn’t quite suitable.

There is an excellent character called Sir Edmund – very useful and practical, a man to lean on. Thirkell draws him very cleverly, as he is very good and kind, and good fun, but she resists the temptation to make him hero material (as seems at first to be the case), and shows him as a flawed and slightly difficult man.

The top picture, Woman in a White Dress by Henri Lebasque, is from the Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Thursday List: Hanging Out The Washing


I love pictures of washing hanging out to dry – copies of the images above and below have been hanging in my house for years. There is something very satisfying about them, and it’s nice to think of drying washing as something that has been going on for thousands of years, mentions dropped into some unlikely books.

Odyssey 2

1) Starting with The Odyssey  by Homer – probably composed around the end of the 8th century BCE. This translation (2004) is by AS Klein. Nausicca, a princess, is going for an expedition from the palace:

The girl brought the bright clothes from her room, and packed them into the gleaming wagon, while her mother put up a box of food, with everything to content the heart. There she packed delicacies, with wine in a goatskin bag: the girl climbed up, and her mother handed her a gold flask of olive oil, so that she and her maids could use it after bathing. Then Nausicaa took up the whip, and the smooth reins, and flicked the mules to start them. With a clatter of hooves they moved off smartly, carrying the girl and the clothing, and the maids too, to keep her company. 

When they came to the river, lovely with streams, and never-failing pools, with enough clear water bubbling up and brimming over to wash the dirtiest clothes, they un-harnessed the mules and drove them along the bank of the swirling river to graze on the honey-sweet grass of the water meadows. They lifted armfuls of clothes from the wagon, carried them down to the clear black water, and trod them thoroughly in the pools, vying with one another. When they had washed the load and rinsed away the dirt, they spread the garments in lines on the beach, where the breaking waves wash the shingle cleanest. After bathing and rubbing themselves with oil, they ate their meal on the riverbank, and waited for the clothes to dry in the sun. 

When they had enjoyed the food, Nausicaa and her maids threw off their headgear and played with a ball, white-armed Nausicaa leading the accompanying song.

Nausicaa is a princess, so good for her doing her own washing. In fact she has been inspired by Athene, who whispered to her: ‘Your lovely clothes are neglected, yet your marriage will soon be here, when you’ll not only need to be dressed in lovely clothes yourself, but provide for those who accompany you.’ Nausicaa is going to help Odysseus…

2) James Joyce’s Ulysses is inspired by the Odyssey, and Nausicaa is Gertie McDowell – we featured her doing her laundry in the parallel scene a long time ago on the blog. (And in this entry I translated a poem by Sappho from the Ancient Greek, though I haven’t ventured my own translation of Homer.)

3) Shakespeare has washing hanging out too, in the song of Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale:
When daffodils begin to peer, --
With hey! The doxy over the dale, --
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge, --
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!

4) Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver  goes sleuthing in the Scottish countryside, in Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses:

[The farmer's wife] had been hanging out washing; a basket of linen sat in the middle of the patch of grass and a pair of underdrawers hung by one leg where she had abandoned them. Rather a splendid garment for a sheep farmer’s wife, I thought, studying the satin waist-tape and the lace trim. And next to them on the line . . . I blinked.

‘Never,’ I said out loud. ‘Preposterous.’ For next along the clothes line to the splendid underdrawers was a bandeau brassiere in the same white linen with straps of the same satin tape and no Scottish farmer’s wife from Gretna Green to John o’ Groats could possibly possess such a thing.


5) In Christianna Brand's marvellous wartime murder story, Green for Danger, the posh young nurses live in a cottage together - here the policeman has come to visit:

Cockie [stood] in the narrow doorway, politely averting his eyes from a line of solid-looking underwear hanging across the little kitchen…Woody dived under the line of washing, holding up a garment for the Inspector to follow her. ‘Excuse the Jaeger coms and things, but chiffon and crepe de chine don’t quite suit the life of a VAD…’

6) The poet Seamus Heaney wrote a wonderful poem about pegging out washing, dedicated to, and about, his mother:

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...

Odyssey 37) I recently came across a lovely book of poems called Washing Lines, which could have been designed for me: a collection of poems about laundry, washing and ironing, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts. It seems to be out of print now, but you can still pick up copies. (Watch out if you search on Amazon: you have to specify a search in books, or else you get offered a lot of cheap and nicely made washing lines in many different colours.) It features poets down the ages talking about doing the washing. It was put together by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, and is a lovely read.

8) There is currently an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery in London - this one, Hanging the Laundry Out by Berthe Morisot, is there, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington:

The top picture is a photograph by Crispin Eurich of washing drying in the streets of Huddersfield. The second picture is Southwold Beach by Stanley Spencer.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

published 1937

Brandons bonnet

[Mrs Brandon is newly-widowed]

As it was a cold spring Mrs Brandon was able to go into black, and the ensuing summer being a particularly hot one gave her an excuse for mourning in white, though she always wore a heavy necklace of old jet to show goodwill.

[She meets her dead husband’s aunt for the first time]

It was here that for the first and only time she felt a faint doubt as to the propriety of mourning in white, for her aunt by marriage was wearing such a panoply of black silk dress, black cashmere mantle, black ostrich feather boa and unbelievably a black bonnet trimmed with black velvet and black cherries, that Mrs Brandon wondered giddily whether spinsters could be honorary widows…

‘How do you do, Miss Brandon. Henry will be so sorry to miss you – I mean he was always talking about you and saying we must take the children to see you.’

‘I had practically forbidden him the house for some years,’ said Miss Brandon. To this there appeared to be no answer except Why? A question Mrs Brandon had not the courage to ask. ‘But I would certainly have come to the funeral,’ Miss Brandon continued, ‘had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed.’

brandons bonnet 2
observations: Twitter friend Amy Towle said this recently:
I'm reading The Brandons by Angela Thirkell which has some pretty gothic costume description esp. maiden aunts attire
So obviously I had to follow this up straightaway, and truly Amy was understating the case if anything: this book is full of wonderful clothes opportunities. I like Thirkell in moderation, and this is by far the best of hers I have read so far: full of very very funny scenes, smart social observation, clever character drawing. The occasional mean-spiritedness and snobbery I have objected to in other books is at a minimum.

This single scene is going to need two posts – the unexpected result of the clash in mourning styles will be seen later in the week.

The plot – such as it is – revolves round how the elderly Miss Brandon is going to leave her money, but nobody takes this very seriously. It’s 1939 and the world is about to change forever, but you wouldn’t know it. Daughter Delia has no (pre-marriage) life in mind other than staying at home with her mother, doing the flowers, playing endless tennis and dancing to gramophone records - although she does take a great interest in any medical disaster in the area. Mrs Brandon does absolutely nothing, but requires constant rests and lying downs – this is a joke, but it is still faintly shocking when the maid and the nanny fight over who is to remove her stockings for her.

The nearest there comes to any politics is when Mrs Grant – an Englishwoman Abroad, who has lived in Italy for some time - says this:
‘After St Francis, Mussolini is the greatest animal lover the world has known. I put them together, don’t you?’
‘I don’t quite know. I never actually met Mussolini,’ said Mrs Brandon cautiously, and somehow implying that she had at some period been introduced to St Francis.
-- and there is a passing mention of the Spanish Civil War.

But this is just for interest – you can’t blame Thirkell for doing a light-hearted novel so well: it must have given a lot of pleasure at a difficult time for the world.

Look out for the follow-up entry shortly…

The top picture – Elderly Lady in a Black Bonnet – is by Mary Cassatt and is from the Athenaeum. The mourning bonnets line drawing is from the NYPL.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

published 2013

Kiss me First

[Narrator Leila is finding out everything she can about another young woman, Tess, for an elaborate reason]

I also decided that we should take photos of Tess for me to later superimpose on scenes of wherever it was she was going, to post on Facebook. One evening I asked her to show me the clothes in her wardrobe, and she positioned the laptop on the side of the bed and pulled them out, one by one, holding them up against her. Once we had agreed on certain outfits, suitable for different seasons and weather conditions, she put them on…

Once dressed, I directed her how to use the self-timer on her camera to take photos of herself wearing various outfits against a blank wall in her room, in a variety of poses. She then emailed them over for me to check. Tess seemed to enjoy the session, happily rummaging through her stuff, holding things up for my opinion, exclaiming with delight as she chanced upon a favourite jacket she thought she’d lost. I don’t have any interest in clothes and didn’t know what she was talking about most of the time – vintage Ossie, my old Dries top – but I quite enjoyed it, too. It pleased me to see her happy.

observations: This is a book I was happy to be proved wrong about. The author is the daughter of Deborah Moggach, a very successful author and screenwriter – perhaps best-known for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (book and now two films) – and this book was described as a new kind of thriller, tackling life online, and ‘a much-anticipated debut.’

That all leaves me very straight-faced indeed, and I was in no hurry to read Kiss Me First. But actually it’s tremendous stuff, and if I could I would have read it in one sitting.

The concept has been widely described and discussed: Leila, a lonely young woman without much of a life, but with some computer expertise, gets involved in a strange online forum. As a result of this she is asked – by the very sinister Adrian - if she will help another woman: one who wants to commit suicide, but would like to do so without her family and friends knowing. So: Leila is to take over all Tess’s online activities, particularly Facebook and email, and pretend to be her, talking to her friends and describing a new life abroad. This is ludicrous (and there is a question of computers identifying locations, which is never addressed) but that didn’t matter, it was such a flat-out great concept that I was quite happy to go along with it.

I found the description of Leila taking over absolutely fascinating. She is something of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps one who slowly reveals herself, and I thought this was very cleverly done. (There was one clue just for UK readers when she describes herself buying clothes at Evans in Brent Cross). There’s a double time frame: we know something has gone wrong and that Leila is trying to save the situation, trying to find out exactly what happened to Tess. In one of her finer moments, Leila explains this:
It also felt wrong to abandon her just because things had got complicated. I thought of a sticker that our next-door-neighbour had on their car: A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. Of course, Tess was not a pet, but the sentiment struck a chord.
Leila’s perceptions of the world around her are very funny, and the entire book would have been worth reading just for the list of questions she prepares for Tess early on, after scouring Tess’s computer usage and emails:
1. In an email dated 27/ 12/ 08, Nicholas wrote, ‘Thank you for ruining lunch’. What did you do to ruin lunch? And why is he thanking you?... 

3. Was the nickname ‘Sugartits’ widely used, or just by Steven Gateman?...

5. In one email regarding a date with a man called Jamie in May 2009 you wrote, ‘he was intellectually beneath me.’ Yet you only got one A-level yourself, in art. What kind of qualifications did he get?... 

10. You registered once at the site in February 2005. What was the nature and frequency of your usage of the site?
11. On 16/ 05/ 08, you wrote to Mira Stollbach that you ‘couldn’t wait’ to attend her wedding that summer, but then in an email to Justine on June 2nd of that same year, wrote that you ‘hate fucking weddings’. Can you explain?

There should be an app to create such a question-list from all our email caches.

The book is not perfect, but I got very caught up in the story of Tess and Leila, who were both superb, real characters. The structure had been carefully worked out, and you just really wanted to know what was going on, as well as wanting to shout at Leila ‘Do not go and meet Connor’ – she has been communicating (like Cyrano de Bergerac) with one of Tess’s old boyfriends. Any book that makes me want to shout advice gets high marks.

The book worked for me on three completely different levels: both Tess and Leila were compelling and strangely convincing, the story was a tense page-turner, and the online/social media aspect was fascinating and original. An absolute cracker.

The picture comes from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Vintage Ossie’ is Ossie Clark – his picture turned up recently on the blog, one of his dresses a while back.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb


published around 1961 (uncertain)

set around 1954/55

Clue in the Castle 4

Caroline changed. Unbuttoning her brown skirt, she turned it inside out and slipped it on again – and in a twinkling she was wearing a blue one, for she had had it specially made and it was reversible. Off came her brown tie and a bright brooch was fixed in its place. Then the wig, navy beret and the nylons. At last she was ready. Tucking her school clothes [away] and covering them with bracken, she set out for the village. She shivered as she went, then laughed at herself.

clue in the castle 2Clue in the castle 3

‘I never thought the day would come when I should regret wearing nylons,’ she exclaimed to herself. ‘But after those school uniform lisle stockings these lovely fifteen denier creations are just plain cold!’
observations: I’m always ready to mock JD Salinger/Buddy Glass for the line ‘The Great Gatsby… was my Tom Sawyer.’ Probably because The Clue in the Castle was my Middlemarch when I was a young thing. Someone gave me the book when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I read and re-read it over and over, and can remember every detail of the plot. (Well inasmuch as anyone can, it is very complex.)

I was reminded of it last week, when guest blogger Colm got into a discussion with keen blog friend Lucy Fisher on the subject of lisle stockings – ‘the colour of strong tea’ as Lucy memorably described them in the comments.

Proust-like, I was taken back to this book and the lines above. And so I re-read it, enjoying every minute. And understanding finally that although it is a school story (my favourite genre as a child) it is also a crime story (favourite genre for many years since).

Joyce Bevins Webb seems to have written nothing else, and I have realized why: she must have used up every single plotline from her head in this one book. The story – which is only just over 200 pages long - involves all the following features:
  • Castle Monastery School – a girls’ boarding school which was formerly a castle AND a monastery (this is the school I want to go to, narrowly beating out Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, which has dormitories in the towers and a rock swimming pool filled by the tide)
  • A secret passage inside a hollow pillar, leading to a hidden room.
  • Threat from the sea, which is eroding the cliffs and threatening to wash away the ruins, and perhaps the odd bounds-breaking schoolgirl.
  • Three characters who are impersonating others, or are not who they seem to be.
  • The young woman above who is 29, but who is at the school pretending to be a Sixth former.
  • [SPOILER, but cannot miss this out:] the 29-year-old discovers to their mutual shock and surprise that one of the other pupils at the school is her daughter.
  • A good selection of wigs, disguises, haircuts, and dying skin brown - any of which change anyone’s appearance so much that they can easily avoid recognition.
  • A heroine, Nita, who has ‘well-brushed hair tied back with a brown bow like a highwayman’s’ (oh how I longed for such a look back then…)
  • A games mistress with black hair and red lips, who wears ‘a rich red twin set, and a pleated skirt of grey and white diagonal checks which swung with an arrogant air’ … which is how I would like to look now – see below (an illo from the book) for glimpses of both these:

Clue in the Castle 5

  • Pyjama trousers adapted to be worn as hiking shorts.
  • A girl pretending to be a boy, wearing said shorts.
  • Flashback to an air raid that caused a train crash: ‘at that moment the second bomb dropped… and we looked again and there was no train to return to. It had vanished.’
  • Fully three different babies who get lost, mixed up or wrongly assigned – even Shakespeare would have made do with two.
  • A runaway bride of 16, and a possible murder.
  • A wicked and dishonest old man who is hoping to get a reward for nabbing a murderer.
  • Romance for a lonely old doctor


The climax of the book comes at a school event which is going to combine a performance of Midsummer’s Night Dream (sadly under-featured) and a confirmation ceremony for the girls. During this, the police turn up to arrest the fake schoolgirl for murder – but luckily, by chance, the bishop who performs the confirmation is able to suddenly remember that he met her thirteen years before for about two minutes, and is thus able to give her an alibi. At this point the ‘very beautiful and dreadfully bad-tempered’ Games mistress breaks down and turns herself in because, again by chance, she happens to be responsible for the original death (manslaughter rather than murder.)

All that’s left after that is the recovery of a runaway, a confrontation in a cottage, a decisive romance and another lost-child-reunion.

Inexplicably, I have never met anyone else who has read this book. I hope this blogpost might uncover someone, and perhaps also reach out to a publisher, who can give it a new life. Think of the TV series – there would be actresses queuing up to play these parts…

Fabulous book, fabulous picture. From the Library of Congress, that top photo has this unbelievably fabulous caption ‘Shopping for cotton hose in a Hollywood store, Rita Hayworth finds that the shop-girl, too, is wearing hose much the same type she plans to buy. Miss Hayworth is inspecting a diamond pattern lisle stocking, personally selected for her by Hollywood's famed designer, Howard Greer, to accompany her afternoon ensemble.’

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul

published 1957

Mystic Masseur

[Ganesh, a Trinidad Indian, wants to be a pundit or mystic and is being advised by his friends on how to get customers]

‘Ganesh. Me and Suruj Poopa been thinking a lot about you. We thinking that you must stop wearing trousers and a shirt.’

‘It don’t suit a mystic,’ Beharry said.

‘You must wear proper dhoti and koortah. I was talking only last night to Leela about it when she come here to buy cooking-oil. She think is a good idea too.’

Ganesh’s annoyance began to melt. ‘Yes, is a idea. You feel it go bring me luck?’

‘Is what Suruj Mooma say.’

Next morning Ganesh involved his legs in a dhoti and called Leela to help him tie the turban.

‘Is a nice one,’ she said.

‘One of my father old ones. Make me feel funny wearing it.’

‘Something telling me it go bring you luck.’

‘You really think so?’ Ganesh cried, and almost kissed her.

She pulled away. ‘Look what you doing, man.’

Then Ganesh, a strange and striking figure in white, went to the shop.

‘You look like a real maharaj,’ Suruj Mooma said.

‘Yes he look nice,’ said Beharry. ‘It make me wonder why more Indians don’t keep on wearing their own dress.’

Mystic Masseur 2

Suruj Mooma warned, ‘You better not start, you hear. Your legs thin enough already and they look funny even in trousers.’

‘It looks good, eh?’ Ganesh smiled.

Beharry said, ‘nobody would believe now that you did go to the Christian college in Port of Spain. Man, you look like a pukka Brahmin.’

‘Well, I have a feeling. I feel my luck change as from today.’

observations: The Mystic Masseur was VS Naipaul’s first published book: nearly 60 years later he is weighed down with awards and titles and accomplishments – including a Nobel Prize - and recently appeared at the Jaipur literary festival. I think if you knew him only by reputation you would expect him to be an intimidating, difficult writer. Some of his work is complex, but always worth the effort: The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is wonderful, but close to indescribable – it’s hard even to say what kind of book it is.

So it is nice to go to this one, which is a hoot, very funny and readable and entertaining. The book tracks the progress of Ganesh, who wants to be important, and wants to be cultured, and wants to be an intellectual. It’s a long path, but he eventually does become someone. He is set on the way when he eventually finds success as a mystic masseur – a kind of faith healer.

I’m sure there are many areas where the book is a satire on life in Trinidad, and perhaps there are recognizable figures in it, none of which I could comment on. But even for the most overseas reader, it would seem to be a very convincing portrait of life on the island at the time. The dialogue, like that above, is amazing: it sounds so authentic, the rhythm is wonderful, but it has total clarity, there is never any problem understanding it.

The question of whether to wear traditional Indian dress (saris for women) or more Western dress comes up frequently throughout the book. The dhoti is a leg covering, the koorta a long loose shirt.

The picture is of an Indian man in Trinidad, and comes from the Southern Methodist University collection.