Friday, 6 March 2015

Capital by John Lanchester

published 2012


[Smitty is an anonymous conceptual artist]

Going to art parties was something Smitty loved to do. There wasn’t too much chance he would be recognised, even among an art-world crowd, because among that crowd there was a rumour – a rumour started by Smitty, as it happened, via a hint he’d got his dealer to drop – that Smitty was black. The existence of that rumour was Smitty’s single favourite thing in the whole entire world.

So his identity was protected here. At the same time, he was careful not to do the party thing too often, because if he did do it too often, people might start to wonder who he was; might start to wonder properly, not just to be faintly, briefly, idly curious... So he always dressed up in a suit and tie, a not-too-smart formal suit, not a wide-boy-at-play suit, and if anyone asked him what he did, he said he was an accountant who worked for the artists’ insurers. That shut people up and made them go away pretty fast. ..

Smitty was…. checking out the talent in the room – the talent in all senses. [He] recognised about a third of the people in the room; that was about average. ..The dealers were for the most part wearing expensive versions of smart casual, the artists were carefully superscruffy, and the civilians wore suits.

observations: Capital was touted as a state-of-the-nation book: Lanchester was going to tell us about London, about money and about Britain by describing events and people in one South London road in 2007 and 2008. It’s not a bad idea – roads do exist containing valuable houses and very varying kinds of people, and theoretically that could give you an entertaining and convincing picture of some aspects of city life.

But I didn’t think this worked, and am at a loss to know why it was so well-reviewed. I assumed it would be a page-turner, you would want to know what would happen to the characters, but I lost interest in most of them quite early on. There were small but niggling mistakes – the first couple of pages contained several odd repetitions, and a mention of ‘printer ribbons’ where you’d think cartridges must be meant. Later there are references to child-support in a context where child benefit seems more likely, and to children going to prep school at the age of 11. It doesn’t give you much faith in the great gobbets of research that are carefully plonked in throughout the book. The plotlines seem predictable and when they weren’t they were to the detriment of the plot (eg the fate of Roger). The would-be satire of the hilarious banker’s wife seemed overdrawn and pointless. (Really? Christmas?) It wasn’t at all clear how one character came up with half a million pounds – it seemed flatout impossible.

There were a couple of moments I enjoyed – the asylum-seeker’s rant about residents getting upset about parking was hilarious and to-the-point and rang totally true, and there was a nice notion of ‘competitive tiredness’. But that wasn’t enough to show for a very long book full of very un-nuanced Asian shopkeepers, inept public schoolboys & East End wide boys, lovely Polish builders, lovely Hungarian nannies, and a wonderful old lady.

Much better books on London life have come from Amanda Craig: A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds are both far superior to this one.

There's another arty party featured in the entry for Brian Morton's A Window Across the River.

The picture – of a gallery opening in downtown Seattle – was taken by Joe Mabel, who uploaded it to Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Edwardian Fashion by Daniel Milford-Cottam

published 2014


Perhaps the most defining garment of the early 1910s was the hobble skirt, which appeared towards the end of Edward VII’s reign. The concept of a skirt that actually inhibited walking was irresistible to satirists and cartoonists, inspiring hundreds of cartoons and comic postcards. However it offered an undeniably elegant silhouette that contrasted with the voluminous petticoats of a decade earlier. The slender skirt and attractively detailed blouse were the foundation of early 1910s fashion, and, a century later, rising hems notwithstanding, still represent a classic womenswear look that has never really gone out of style…

One of the great ironies of the hobble skirt was that it emerged at a time when women were becoming increasingly active. The sweeping skirts of the previous decade had at least permitted ease of walking, which, at its narrowest, the hobble certainly did not. It severely limited the fashionable woman’s ability to hurry for a bus, climb into an automobile or a carriage, or even – had she strong enough suffragist leanings – participate in a ‘Votes for Women’ march. Even more ironically, many smart women could not place their feet sufficiently far apart to properly perform the new and increasingly popular ballroom dances.

observations: It is a great pleasure to feature today on the blog this marvellous book by one of Clothes in Books’ best and most helpful commentators, fashion expert Daniel Milford-Cottam. When he did a guest post recently – on corsets, tight lacing, and the alleged 16 inch waists of the Victorians – I thought it really was time I got hold of his recent book on Edwardian fashions. And what a joy it was – really, I could do endless blogposts from it, and I want to feature all the pictures. It’s short, has amazing illustrations on every page, and is readable, accessible, entertaining, and endlessly informative. Daniel writes beautifully, and puts the clothes perfectly in the context of the times, as you can see from the excerpt above.

Many blog interests are represented: corsets (of course) and the designers Worth, Cheruit and Poiret. The book explains the obvious point: we might have a picture in our heads of an Edwardian look, but fashions and silhouettes and hemlines changed as much in a few years as they would now. And of course – pictures and fashion plates won’t necessarily show what real women looked like or wore. Vogue models today don’t particularly look like women you would see on your local streets.

The book has a way with a good anecdote too: my favourite is about a Russian princess who
notoriously described one of [Poiret’s] audaciously simple komono-inspired cloaks as a sack fit only to hold the severed heads of peasants.
[You can see some of Poiret’s amazingly beautiful coats in this entry.]

Anyone who has an interest in clothes and the history of fashion should read this book: very highly recommended.

The picture shows a dance called The Grizzly Bear, illustration by Edouard Touraine 1912 – Daniel took it from his own collection of fashion images to put in the book.

Vita Sackville-West’s novel The Edwardians has given us a number of blog entries featuring fashions of the time.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Groaning Spinney by Gladys Mitchell

published 1950

Grroaning Spinney 1

‘I shall wait up, I think. What would you like to do?’ groaning spinney 3
‘Knit,’ replied Mrs. Bradley. She went up to her room and returned with a repulsive bundle of dead-looking natural-coloured wool. ‘Do you think purple or puce would look better as a contrast with this?’
groaning spinney 2
‘Good heavens!’ said Deborah, expressing simple horror. ‘It’s bad enough as it is!’

Mrs. Bradley grinned amiably and set to work on huge wooden needles to fabricate what appeared to be some sort of shawl, a type of garment which, needless to say, she never wore.

observations: Mrs Bradley’s clothes are always a joy – elsewhere in this book she goes out (to view a dead body) wearing ‘a ski-ing suit she had borrowed from [niece] Deborah, enormous gauntlet gloves of her own, and Jonathan’s motor-cycling helmet’. How practical. In earlier entries on Mitchell books we featured a wonderful attempted (failed) makeover scene from Laurels are Poison and a really excellent Sherlock Holmes costume party in Watson’s Choice.

The last time I read a Mrs Bradley book – A Hearse On May-Day – I complained that the first half was highly enjoyable, and then ‘nothing much seems to happen till suddenly the solution to a rather dull mystery is announced, to nobody’s great surprise.’ This one is similar, except the second half consists of a lot of activity that leads nowhere.

There is one scene, about two-thirds in, which seems to have something missing – I don’t know if this is a problem with the Kindle formatting, but an exciting attack and defence moment, two people struggling, ends like this:
‘You be damned for a liar!’ he said. ‘Of course I haven’t been in Oxford. Get out of here and go home!’
The next line is a different scene, different people, talking about a different incident. You never know with Mitchell, but I think something has gone wrong there.

The first half IS splendid – Christmas in the country, houseparty in the big house, servants, visitors coming and going, poison in the curry, snow blocking the roads. There are poison pen letters, which would have fitted in well with our CiB meme last year. Of course, everyone agrees, it must be a woman writing them, probably ‘that Mrs. La-di-dah that does for Mr. Fullalove.’ Again with the gender roles, I was surprised to find this: ‘Aspirin, of course, suggested the presence of a woman.’

There’s a great post-war rationing atmosphere: a pig-club, a shortage of whisky, and this about Christmas presents:
‘That awful Amy Curtis has sent me an awful handbag,’ she announced. ‘Do you think I could send her that book token for a guinea which Myra Standish sent me and didn’t sign, and buy myself some stockings with the money? I’ve had dozens of book-tokens this Christmas and no stockings at all.’
(As we know from other posts, stockings were hard to come by just then, and this entry deals exactly with the question of giving them for Christmas.)

Mrs Bradley is always an omniscient, multi-skilled genius, but she excels herself this time by expressing a comma in her voice:
‘You’ll have to leave your digging for to-day, I’m afraid,’ she said gravely. ‘The police, you know. Ed Brown was shot at, just after half-past twelve.’  
The comma indicated in her voice prevented the statement from being a lie, but this fine shade of meaning was lost upon her hearers.
The investigation seems to go on for months, apparently to accommodate some nature writing about the countryside, which I found pointless and annoying, but the book is well worth it for the first half.

I wonder if Mrs Bradley being quite so bad at knitting was a joking comment on those two arch-knitters and sleuths, Miss Marple and Miss Silver?

The shawls above come from the much-loved Free Vintage Knitting Pattern site .

Monday, 2 March 2015

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood: Part 2

published 1938

Lions and Shadows 2

[Christopher, a Cambridge undergraduate, decides to buy a motor-bike]

The college tutor, to whom I had to go for permission, remarked: “don’t let it keep you from your work for the Mays.” He, at any rate, didn’t seem to find anything comic or neurotic in my purchase. I felt quite a wave of gratitude towards him as I left the room.

How I loathed and enjoyed those rides! The street outside the garage was narrow and full of traffic. My departure was always a moment of sheer terror…

Out on the long arrow-straight stretches of the Newmarket Rd it was glorious. I shouted and sang to myself and rode quite fast, at more than three-quarter throttle. Then the exhilaration of the spring air would overcome my caution; I would open her flat out. I don’t suppose, even then, that the bike did more than 55; but it was more than enough for me. I clung on, horribly scared, with the wind screaming in my ears: I wasn’t allowed to reduce speed until I had counted up to a hundred at least. Once I went into a bad wobble and very nearly crashed. I was so shaken that, when I got back into the town, I dismounted and wheeled the machine nearly a quarter of a mile, bending, every few yards, to peer and frown at the engine, so that passers-by should think it was out of order.
observations: Without getting too serious about it, Isherwood’s experiences with his motor-bike mirror quite a lot of his traits. He decided to get a motorbike with an air of showing off, then felt he couldn’t back out, and then cannot bring himself either to enjoy it wholly, or to get rid of it. He wants to be manly, and he likes danger, but not all that much. And the authentic Isherwood detail – remembering to make the passers-by think he is wheeling the bike because it is damaged. And then remembering that 13 years later.

The book is a fictionalized memoir - names are changed, but his friends WH Auden and Stephen Spender make their appearances. It tells the story of his life from public school, through university, up to around the age of 25. See earlier entry here for more detail.

He came from a moneyed background: as usually happened with these young men, he goes abroad, he does some coaching, he takes a job as a private secretary. (His career path also resembles that of James Lees-Milne, another approximate contemporary.) Like the Babe, he does some skating.  The high point of the book probably comes when he deliberately fails his exams at Cambridge in order to make himself leave: The Punch-style would-be funny answers raise only a faint smile, but the history answers written as concealed sonnets and other poems are excellent:
The Papal sanction menaced the unwilling; they too would have to lend a hand at killing.
Perhaps there has been a little bravado added to this section, but it is highly enjoyable.

He is funny and self-deprecating – about a trip to Europe as a teenager he says:
I was keeping a diary of our tour; how I wish I had put down in it one interesting, one sincere, one genuinely spiteful remark
He also writes interestingly about the novels that were current then, the “cradle-to-coming-of-age narrative.” And later pours scorn on his attempt to keep a journal in the manner of Barbellion:
‘My chief difficulty was that [unlike him] I wasn’t dying of an obscure kind of paralysis – though, in reading some of my more desperate entries you would hardly suspect it: “too miserable to write any more….” “This is the end…” By these outbursts I meant, as a rule, simply that I was bored.
-- all of which makes it odder that he wasn’t better at structuring and editing this book. It has passages of great interest, and humour, and intelligence, interspersed with long and dull descriptions of plots of books he didn’t write, and pretend games he played with a friend.

But it is well worth reading for the good bits.

The book ends, satisfyingly, as he sets off in 1929 to visit Berlin, the place with which he will forever be associated.

The picture shows a motorcyclist in 1930, and is from Flickr.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

published 2015

Hourglass Factory DD  1

[Frankie George, a young journalist following a story, visits the dressing-room of cabaret artiste Ebony Diamond]

Halfway down a paint-scented corridor, Ebony’s name had been badly calligraphed onto a piece of card and stuck to flaking door. The young stagehand held it open for Frankie. She crept inside, felling slightly violatory, the same way she had felt going into her Nan’s parlour after she had died. The smell was there; poudre d’amour and Old Tom gin…
The mirror reflected back a rack of corsets, all black with jet beads, lace and magpie feathers. The large taffeta dress Ebony had been wearing at the corset shop was upended over a chaise longue, its petticoats splaying out into sooty petals.

‘What was she wearing when she came in?’

The stagehand pointed at the dress.

‘She keep clothes in here?’

‘She moved a few costumes in the other day. Said she couldn’t make up her mind.’ Frankie turned and ran her finger along the corset rack, rough silk and slippery satin. She peeked at one of the labels. ‘Olivier Smythe.’

Hourglass FActory DD 3

observations: There’s nothing that Clothes in Books likes better than an entry on corsets – the subject is so fascinating, and we marvel at the pictures available. We’ve also recently been looking at the whole question of what corsets do: please read this entry by a guest blogger expert, which arose from this one. The comments beneath both entries are also well worth reading.

In an earlier entry on this book I explained something of the plot, which deals with suffragettes and trapezes as well as corsets. It’s a very lively book, and although the mystery drives the plot, it is also similar to something more carnivalesque – I mentioned Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus last time, and the scene above reminded me of Fevvers’ dressing room in that – see blog entry.

And then, the trapeze artiste made me think of one of my favourite pictures of all time: Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ which is at the Courtauld Gallery in London. The picture is of a barmaid, but if you look closely in the corner you can just see the dangling legs of a trapeze artiste:

Hourglass FActory DD 5

--- and I do recommend you look at the full picture here on the Courtauld website.
The corset shop of Olivier Smythe is a big feature of the plot, so definitely time to bring out the picture for all seasons (from George Eastman House):

Hourglass Factory DD

- every few months there’s an entry requiring this one, most recently it was for a post on GB Stern’s wonderful The Matriarch.

There are plenty of interesting clothes descriptions in the book – Frankie, a young woman, chooses to wear men’s clothes, tweed trousers and a bowler hat, and there is a description of the hats of the time that had stuffed birds on them.

There is also a particularly grim (and presumably authentic) description of the process of force-feeding, used on hunger striking suffragettes – in this case a man.

Suffragettes featured in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, frequently featured on the blog last year: the heroine, Valentine Wannop, is a determined campaigner. Suffragettes and music hall are both important elements in one of JB Priestley’s best novels, Lost Empires. Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows (multiple entries) is another wonderful novel about women entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century.

The picture of styles of 1910 (ie 2 years before the book’s setting) is from the New York Public Library. The second picture is an advert where you can just read A Large Showroom is Now Devoted to Corsets, which could be an alternate title for the book.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Locked rooms by Laurie R King: Part 2

published 2005

Locked Rooms equake 2
Locked Rooms equake 4

[Sherlock Holmes is looking at photographs taken after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906]

Along the front of the picture, picnics were taking place. A group of young men, some of them hatless but all in ties and tidy suits, sat and lay back on their elbows on the grass around a cloth arranged with sandwich rolls and bottles of lemonade. In the centre of the photograph, with the smoke cloud huge and furious above them and the dapper young men glancing at them from the sides, stood a pair of young women—girls, really— dressed in their spring finery. It might have been an illustration of the careless self-obsession of the young, yet somehow it was not…

The profile of the hill on which the camp was laid was the familiar park a few streets away— Lafayette Park, little more than a grassy knoll with the incongruous house parked among the trees at the top, the whole of it two streets wide and two deep. In the first photo, the grass was a jumble of possessions—bedrolls and steamer trunks, strapped orange-crates and disassembled bed-steads. All the women wore the elaborate hats of the period, and most of the men were missing.

In the next picture in the sequence, a tent city had sprung up in front of the elaborate Victorian houses that faced the park. Here, the rising smoke was closer, possessions had been gathered into rough heaps, and a few canvas tents had been raised, the whiteness of their sides and the unbeaten grass around their bases clear signs that the photograph had been taken soon after they had been installed. The women were mostly bare-headed, and the men had returned, to stand about in their shirt-sleeves.

observations: This is the second entry on the book, and should be read in conjunction with the first, which explains (somewhat) the strange combination of Sherlock Holmes and the young woman, Mary Russell, that he has married. They are investigating possible crimes in San Francisco, where Russell lived as a child until the rest of her family was killed in an accident.

I really enjoyed this book: you might not think so to hear me complain about some aspects, but it’s true. I could have done without the endless food descriptions, people eating meals that have no relevance to the plot, and which I don’t find interesting. Is it just me? It annoys me when two characters are having a conversation, but every line or two has to be punctuated with ‘he took another bite of his chops.’

In addition, King has obviously done endless research into the time period, and then shovels the results in in large doses – but then she’s not alone there, is she, fellow readers? Far too many historical novels could be halved in length with some proper pruning of the lists of what’s on at the theatre and what books people are reading. In this one we have, Ooh crosswords, what are they? ‘Can’t see them catching on myself.’

But I did find the descriptions of the SF earthquake and fire very interesting and informative.

There is quite a lot in the book about the Chinese practice of feng shui, which is a feature of Nury Vittachi’s Mr Wong books. There’s one on the blog here, illustrated, as it happens, with some very nice pictures of San Francisco Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century. Exactly where Russell and Holmes go to eat those endless fragrant meals and discuss the case between bites.

locked rooms equake 5

The top pictures are from a contemporary book on the earthquake, and come via Flickr.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Harding’s Luck by E Nesbit

published 1908

****I would challenge readers to try to work out or guess what the people in the top picture are doing, before reading the explanation immediately below ****

Harding's Luck 1

[Dickie and his new friend Mr Beale are going tramping together]

"Can you write?"

"Yes," said Dickie, "if I got a pen."

"I got a pencil—hold on a bit." He took out of his pocket a new envelope, a new sheet of paper, and a new pencil ready sharpened by machinery. It almost looked, Dickie thought, as though he had brought them out for some special purpose. Perhaps he had.

"Now," said the man, "you take an' write—make it flat agin the sole of me boot." He lay face downward on the road and turned up his boot, as though boots were the most natural writing-desks in the world. “I'm glad I wasn't born a table to be wrote on. Don't it make yer legs stiff, neither!"

Harding's Luck 2

[many adventures later in the book] Before long two most miserable children faced each other in Edred's bedroom, dressed as Red Indians so far as their heads and backs went. Then came lots of plate armor for chest and arms; then, in the case of Elfrida, petticoats and Roman sash and Japanese wickerwork shoes and father's shooting-gaiters made to look like boots by brown paper tops. And in the case of Edred, legs cased in armor that looked like cricket pads, ending in jointed foot-coverings that looked like chrysalises.

observations: When I recently read Nesbit’s The House of Arden, a whole bunch of Nesbit fans came into the comments (it was sooo nice!) and several of them recommended Harding’s Luck, which is a sequel to Arden. The connection isn’t obvious for a long time (and you could certainly read either book as a standalone) but eventually E&E from the first book turn up, and you can work out Deptford Dickie’s role in the first book.

For some people, it is their favourite Nesbit: I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a good rollicking tale, not at all predictable, and she makes a brave effort to make a hero of a rough, common boy. Nesbit has strong socialist principles, and that comes over in her books, but her life was spent amongst moneyed people with servants.

There’s a tremendously affecting bit near the beginning where Dickie wants to grow some flowers, but buys ‘bird seed’ at the hardware store, because he hopes that means the flowers will be bright flowers like a parrot’s colours. He takes up with Mr Beale, above – a most interesting figure, and not one you could put into a children’s book now – and there is an adventure resembling one of Oliver Twist’s.

I don’t know why the children had to dress quite so strangely in the second excerpt above, but I was very impressed by the imagination shown.

The book takes the House of Arden a lot further, and resolves various issues, but the ending left me open-mouthed. Everyone is in quite a difficult situation, all the main characters have behaved really well, trying to do the right thing, and Nesbit has carefully explained the temptations and problems (I have to be careful what I say, as I really don’t want to spoiler this for anyone coming new to it.) And then she cuts through it with a completely unexpected move on the part of Dickie, one that I have been thinking about off and on since I read it.

The illustrations are from a 1910 edition of the book. You can find the text free online.