Thursday, 31 October 2013

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie

published 1956

[Hercule Poirot] was standing by the tent labelled ‘Madame Zuleika will tell your Fortune for 2s. 6d.’ Poirot bowed his head, entered the tent and paid over his half-crown willingly for the privilege of sinking into a chair and resting his aching feet.

Madame Zuleika was wearing flowing black robes, a gold tinsel scarf wound round her head and a veil across the lower half of her face which slightly muffled her remarks. A gold bracelet hung with lucky charms tinkled as she took Poirot’s hand and gave him a rapid reading, agreeably full of money to come, success with a dark beauty and a miraculous escape from an accident.

‘It is very agreeable all that you tell me, Madame Legge. I only wish that it could come true.’

‘Oh!’ said Sally. ‘So you know me, do you?’

‘I had advance information – Mrs Oliver told me that you were originally to be the “victim,” but that you had been snatched from her for the Occult.’

‘I wish I was being the “body,”’ said Sally. ‘Much more peaceful…’

observations: Both the book and last night’s TV adaptation are very plainly set at Agatha Christie’s holiday house, Greenway in Devon – renamed Nassecombe House for the story. You can follow the characters around the house and grounds throughout, and the murder takes place in the boat house, easily identifiable:

-- it was blocked by bats the last time I was there.

Mrs Oliver and Poirot have a chat at the Battery Garden, photographed for this entry, (which also takes a long look at Greenway).  Below is the view from there - Etienne de Sousa's boat moored in the river?

The lodge and the top cottage are mentioned, and you can see the house that was for a long time the hostel. You can walk the path from the hostel through the grounds (trespassers!). You can continue down to the ferry and ring the bell to be taken over to the other side. Christie mentions the pleasure boats from Dartmouth making a commentary on Nasse House as they go past: nowadays they comment on the fact that it was Agatha Christie’s house.

Where was I? Oh yes, the mystery… well it’s not a bad one, though a bit complex and unlikely, and there is one impersonation in it which completely defies belief - while at the same time a much lesser parallel impersonation is seen as impossible. There is a lot of interesting discussion of clothes and hats as means of disguise, it's a thread running through the book - the excerpt above is a small example. The fortune-teller is not pretending to be a gipsy by the way - because ‘everyone in agricultural districts hates gipsies': the kind of crass but authentic detail you can rely on in Christie.

The setting at the charitable summer fete in the grounds of the big house is very well done, and the character of Mrs Folliat, and the sympathy both Poirot and Christie have for her, are beautifully written. The way the ending plays out is excellent.

The top picture is from the Library of Congress. Thanks to TKR for the Greenway photos.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Women sharing flats. Clothes. Lives.

Today's blog is about women in shared accommodation: flats (or apartments), student halls of residence (or dorms), hostels and clubs. The setups feature a lot in 20th century books - why is it so popular? And what happened to all the men? - we don't find them much.... 

The blog entry appears on the Guardian newspaper's books blog, here. These are the opening paragraphs:

Two young women move into a student Hall of Residence in London, and have this conversation:

‘It would be nice if we went around and talked like an Edna O’Brien novel. It would suit us.’

‘Yes it would become us’ I said. ‘We haven’t the class for Girls of Slender Means.’

Hilary Mantel knows exactly the tradition her 1995 novel An Experiment in Love is tapping into. Set in 1970, it is the perfect template of the women-living-together book: here are the shared clothes - a hideous-sounding but very fashionable fox-fur coat - the rivalries and jealousies, the secrets, the alliances. (And an uncredited cameo appearance by Margaret Thatcher). 

Because after all, what do women do when they grow up? They move to the big city, where they share flats, rooming-houses, hostels or halls together, in twos and threes and fours. One of them is anxiously pursuing a career, but another just wants to get married. One will have an affair with someone who is married, and one will have an unwanted pregnancy....

Read on here.

Most of the books mentioned have featured on the blog, including Tales of the City, The Bell Jar, and The Country Girls. The Schiaparelli dress is here:

The Town in Bloom features a couple of times, and so does The Best of Everything. Or you can click on the author labels below.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Wise Children by Angela Carter

published 1991

Then there were the frocks. Some things we’d put away in plastic bags: bias-cut silk jersey, beaded sheaths that weighed a ton. Others we’d covered up with sheets, the big net skirts, the taffeta crinolines, halter necks, strapless, backless, etc. etc. etc., all heaped high on Grandma’s bed.

‘Half a century of evening wear,’ said Nora. ‘A history of the world in party frocks.’

‘We ought to donate it to the V and A,’ I said.

‘Why should somebody pay good money to look at my old clothes?’

‘They used to pay to see you without them.’

‘They ought put us into a museum.’

‘We ought to turn this house into a museum.’

‘Museum of dust.’

Nora rummaged among the rags and gave a soft little chuckle. She held up a foamy white georgette number with crystal beads. ‘The Super-Chief!’ she said. ‘Remember?’
‘“ She wore something sheer and white and deceptively virginal, that emitted a hard glitter when she moved, a subtle, ambiguous cobweb softness veined with a secret of ice. ‘Got a light?’ Half trusting, half insolent, a hoarse voice, older than that pale face with its purple heart of lipstick, flourishing its rasp of gutter like a flag, with pride.”’
I for Irish, Ross ‘Irish’ O’Flaherty. Hollywood Elegies. The very frock! He never knew I’d borrowed it from Daisy.

observations: The book within a book is Hollywood Elegies, the lines in double quotes are the novelized version of a meeting on a train (that would be the Super-Chief) by a Pulitzer Prizewinner – Dora is remembering her conquest, and his written version of it.

The story of Dora and Irish is very plainly borrowed from the story of F Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham – but then everything in this book refers to something else, you get lost in all the Shakespeare plays and references, with the bits that remind you of another book, a play, a poem, a filmstar, a film. You also need a family tree to try to keep straight the two families, the Chances and the Hazards, though even then you have to allow for the fact that parents are not always who they seem to be. Does even Angela Carter get it wrong? The Chance sisters could never have been Tristram’s fake aunts (she seems to mean fake cousins), and there are some early references to Melchior where it seems Ranulph might actually be meant. There is a list of characters at the back of the book – you could do with it while reading, but then in its nature it contains spoilers, so there’s no easy way to keep track. There is also a(n) (extra) question mark over the punctuation of What? You Will!, the Shakespearean revue – the exact form of the name varies almost every time it is mentioned.

But all this is positive: the book is tremendous fun, Nora and Dora drag you through their picaresque, carnivalesque adventures, to America and back, looking for joy wherever it comes, and it is laugh-out-loud funny at times, very affecting at others.

Links on the blog: Angela Carter has made many appearances on the blog, and this book has appeared twice before: click on the label below. The real Fitzgerald has featured
before, as has his most famous book again, click on the label.

The picture isn’t exactly virginal, but the rest of the description fits beautifully, and she IS a Ziegfeld girl, so a performer like Dora. She is Mary Eaton, an actress of the 1920s, and the picture is from the
Library of Congress.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

published 1998

I went backstage to fetch Alice, who was just lowering what looked like the mossy nest of a Parisian chaffinch on to her curls.

‘Oh Alice, what a marvellous hat!’ I said when I’d embraced her.

‘Yes, it’s good isn’t it? I got it at Yvonne’s. But listen; there were three straws in her window, all with identical brims: big ones. One trimmed with roses, one with mimosa and one with cherries. Imagine it, Sanna, exactly the same brims in every case!’

I too was shocked. How can anyone think that roses, mimosa and cherries can all be treated in the same way? For roses the brim must be wider, softer; mimosa (about which I’m doubtful anyway — one so easily feels one is in the presence of a hatchery for miniature chickens) needs to be wired on with a lot of greenery, and cherries really only work on a boater. You have to be quite rakish and impertinent when wearing fruit.

observations: Of course I was bound to love this book for the blog (previous entries here and here), because it is full of clothes descriptions, but it’s also a charming, affecting story of love and friendship and food and children and poverty and mother-daughter relationships.

In fact, the book several times mentions Sappho and her daughter Kleis, and the embellished headband, and the very poem that CiB translated from the Ancient Greek for this entry… so headwear a bit of a theme.

The Viennese setting is lovely – the opera, the serious citizens, the food, the obsession with the past and with matters of morals and honour. It is all kept from tweeness because of the knowledge that the First World War is coming soon… and life is going to turn very serious for the musical comedy military in the book. And the book takes the emotions very seriously too:
‘To have felt anything so intensely, so utterly. To be so open to sorrow. I’ve never felt anything like that, Susanna. It’s what we all want, to be entirely open to life.’
Many of Susanna’s customers also want dresses inspired by current stage productions – something like this Bakst costume on the blog a couple of weeks ago. The buying and selling of hats 20 years later was a major feature of this entry, which explains the effect of the First World War on the millinery trade. More Eva Ibbotson, and more from this book, by clicking on the label below.

Credit again to the rather wonderful people at Pan MacMillan’s Bello, who have republished Madensky Square as an ebook.

The picture is The Hat Shop by Henry Tonks

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

published 2013


Wednesday 30 January 2013 Pros of sleeping with Roxster 12, cons of sleeping with Roxster 3, percentage of time spent deciding whether or not to sleep with Roxster, preparing for possibility of sleeping with Roxster and imagining sleeping with Roxster compared with actual time it would probably take to sleep with Roxster 585%...

‘What are you supposed to do about being naked?’

‘You get a slip, darling.’

‘A slip – like the zoo form?’

‘Go to La Perla – no, don’t go to La Perla, the expense is eye-watering. Go to Intimissimi or La Senza and get yourself a couple of little short black silk sexy slips. I think, when you were last doing this, they were called “petticoats”. Or maybe one black, one white. With a slip, you can show off your arms and legs and d├ęcolletage, which are always the last to go, but keep the central area – which we might want to gloss over – glossed over. OK?’

observations: Bridget, the widowed single parent, is starting a relationship with a much younger man, whom she is fairly obviously not going to end up with, but who breaks with the tradition of such romantic comedies by being in fact terribly nice, with nothing wrong with him apart from his age. It’s refreshing, and their text/tweet exchanges are very funny when involving food (less so when involving farts.)

Meanwhile, if you were ever inclined to dismiss Fielding and Jones as lightweights (not a mistake Clothes in Books makes in fact), they’ll come out with something like this:
I looked at them with the expression of an anti-Iraq War demonstrator hearing that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Or this:
[I wish] I could have sat down for a minute and read the Style section from last week’s Sunday Times whilst believing myself to be reading the News Review
As ever, Bridget & Helen are brilliant on clothes: the Bohemian neighbour across the road with the increasingly strange headwear, the attempts to get daughter Mabel into an outfit that makes sense – ‘cool shorts-tights-and-biker-boots outfits from H& M kids, or sticky-outy party dresses from Mum’ (Mum is wearing a Carole Middleton coat-dress) - the navy dress that Bridget wears all the time. And the slip is a great idea, though it definitely should be silk. This one is from Lily Silk.

Another important Jones outfit featured on first publication, and there are also entries on Bridget’s black teddy and short skirt.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan

Published 1962  Part 4

So in 1935, Alasdair was a Scottish Nationalist and wore the kilt all the time – the kilt that torture would not have made him wear the year before – and had a tendency not to shave if his father had not forced him to do it… Alasdair suddenly saw [the local gentry] through Scottish Nationalistic eyes as an oppressor of the people and treated me to long diatribes about how the noble sons of the soil had had their crofts burned about their ears in order to make deer forests…

This struck me as a lotta hooey, but it was fine summer weather and I wanted to wear my new tweed suit to the Highland Games at Inverness, and Alasdair, even with the beard, was as fine-looking an escort in a rugged sort of way as a well-dressed girl could wish for, so I sort of went along with this Scottish Nationalism for a bit, although pointing out gently that the Daviots of Poyntdale had not been such grinders of the faces of the poor as many families had been.

observations: I am working my way through the My Friend series (those I can find – some of the books are quite rare) and this is not one of Duncan’s finest moments. For a start, all this pretending to views she doesn’t hold is seen as light-hearted and youthful and charming, where other characters would, for much less, be condemned as hypocrites and for not living up to the stern standards of Reachfar (the childhood home, a croft). Narrator Janet is terribly interested in herself, but she is also very easy on herself, while being hard on everyone else except her family.

There is a rather horrible storyline about a very damaged child – not much sympathy coming from our lovely heroine – and the story darts about all over the place. It certainly isn’t a good introduction to the series. On to the next one.

A previous entry, the Miss Boyds, has Janet’s grandmother ‘giving her feather boa a shake’ – in this book the boa is given away to the sad child. For (a lot) more Jane Duncan click on the label below.

Josephine Tey is another one with strong views on Scottish Nationalism, (though as we regularly point out, she has strong views on everything), and Pat here sounds like a younger version of Alasdair.

The top picture, from the Library of Congress, is a completely unfair cheat: it shows music hall entertainer Harry Lauder (‘Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador’ according to Winston Churchill) and his wife, who must have been twice the age of Janet and Alasdair.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

published 1864/5  chapter 7

The next day was Sunday; and it was beautiful to see how Mrs. Greenow went to church in all the glory of widowhood. There had been a great unpacking…and all her funereal millinery had been displayed before Kate's wondering eyes. The charm of the woman was in this — that she was not in the least ashamed of anything that she did. She turned over all her wardrobe of mourning, showing the richness of each article, the stiffness of the crape, the fineness of the cambric, the breadth of the frills,— telling the price of each to a shilling, while she explained how the whole had been amassed without any consideration of expense. This she did with all the pride of a young bride when she shows the glories of her trousseau to the friend of her bosom. Jeannette [the maid] stood by the while, removing one thing and exhibiting another. Now and again through the performance, Mrs. Greenow would rest a while from her employment, and address the shade of the departed one in terms of most endearing affection.

observations: Almost any of Trollope’s women are a lot more entertaining and real than any of Charles Dickens’s. Can You Forgive Her? is long, but a very clever look at three different women and their love lives, and the three are portrayed beautifully. Not-as-silly-as-she seems Glencora, annoying Alice (the one we are asked to forgive), and here the smart and calculating widow Aunt Greenow.

In a previous Trollope entry – on The Way We Live Now – we noted how well he did women on the edge, and this is another example. He has an eye for Mrs Greenow's vanities and calculation, but clearly has a soft spot, and she comes over as a splendid character, great fun. She may be a widow, but not one who is going to be quite inconsolable. Hilariously, she keeps changing her mind about how long Mr Greenow has been dead, to suit. She has her little ways: she wants the house she rents to be the biggest, even if it's not,  and can use her widowhood to make life more comfortable -
Mrs. Greenow was never out of her room till half-past ten. "I like the morning for contemplation," she once said. "When a woman has gone through all that I have suffered she has a great deal to think of."

"And it is so much more comfortable to be a-thinking when one's in bed," said Jeannette.

Her potential romance with, and choice between, two potential suitors is a major thread in the book, and a highly enjoyable one, which will feature in a future entry. And at least she has money of her own – it’s an important business in the book, and you’d feel sorry for the women left with none, and even the lady of slender means who wants to go visiting ‘making both ends so far overlap each other as to give her the fifty pounds necessary for this purpose.’

For more Trollope, and more from this book, click on the label below.

The picture – somewhat later date than the book – is from the Texas State archives.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Give a Corpse a Bad Name by Elizabeth Ferrars

published 1940  chapter 1

At six-thirty on a Tuesday evening near the beginning of January Anna Milne was heard by her parlourmaid to say: ‘Damn the man, he’s late!’ At six-forty-five the girl, returning from the errand that had taken her past the open door of the drawing-room, overheard the words: ‘To hell with him, I can’t wait!’ Three minutes later she saw Mrs Milne come out of the drawing-room, pick up the fur coat that had been thrown down on a chair, put it on over the white skirt and knitted jumper she was wearing, pick up the badminton racket leaning against the chair, and go out by the front door. At six-fifty the lights of Mrs Milne’s Bentley flickered past the windows of the house. The parlour-maid, returning to the kitchen, told the cook what she had heard. Until past seven o’clock they discussed the language often used by Mrs Milne. They disapproved of it.

At twenty minutes after midnight a white-faced woman in a fur coat walked into the police station in the village of Chovey.

observations: Elizabeth Ferrars wrote a shedload of murder stories between1940 and her death in 1995 – more than 70 of them. She was well-thought-of among crime story aficionados, but is pretty much unknown or forgotten in the outside world. Her books were good interesting reads, and she had some very good ideas, but perhaps in the end she lacked the spark to catch the imagination and to become as famous as Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham.

This was her first book, and it’s a clever cool story, with something of a surprise at the end. She is starting a series detective, Toby Dyke, who is just a collection of eccentricities and whom she abandoned after a few books. There is the standard scene from novels of the era – a look at the life of a moneyless literary man, living in a ramshackle cottage with a woman to ‘do’ for him. There is a lot of emphasis on the fur coat mentioned above, and some nice other outfits too, plus a look at the dead man’s life via his clothes, and a clue about his suit – ‘I know the trousers he was found in were tweed, and most people don’t wear blue jackets with tweed trousers if they can help it.’ Despite the date, the war couldn’t be said to feature much, except for a woman who is ‘crooked as a swastika’.

The best scene, worthy of Cold Comfort Farm, comes when the detectives find out what it was about Mrs Milne (above) that so shocked her staff, ‘why Martha believes Mrs Milne is a tool of the Evil One, sent to snare her poor sister’. The answer has to do with contraception.

The book is a good period piece, creating a convincing atmosphere: you can see from it why she was popular, but not one of the greats.

The picture, from Vogue, comes to us via Dovima is Devine.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

published 2010

He was also notable as the only pupil not to wear the school blazer, which he evaded with a falsified doctor’s note claiming “seborrhoeic dermatitis”. None of the teachers dared ask what this affliction consisted of – a fortunate turn, since Jimmy himself could only have guessed. The reason for his subterfuge was simply that he preferred to wear a donnish tweed jacket with elbow patches, in whose left pocket he kept a copy of Ulysses – the Modern Library edition, missing the dust jacket – and in whose right pocket he stored his calabash pipe and a tin of Mac Baren Club Blend tobacco. The balance between left and right pockets was grossly uneven, Ulysses being a notably heavy volume, so he evened it out with fountain pens, which often exploded, bleeding a constellation of indigo blotches into his right pocket. 

observations: The Paris-based International Herald Tribune stopped operating under that name last week: now it is the International New York Times. That’s seen as the end of an era – although the paper has had various names in its life. It was an iconic part of the American experience abroad, and it was the paper Jean Seberg was selling in a Paris street at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless – the scene that was described as worth the price of admission on its own. (Though of course the paper had a different name then - New York Herald Tribune.)

Tom Rachman’s book is a wholly fictional picture of an international paper produced in Europe for cosmopolitan people. The fact that he worked for the International Herald Tribune is naturally coincidental. (It’s sometimes hard to remember that the book is set in Rome – it feels as if it should be Paris.) It is in the form of a set of chapters, each centred on one person directly connected with the paper.

It is a lovely book: funny, sad, real, with very recognizable characters and conversations and relationships. Didn’t we all know someone like Jimmy, above, as a teenager? On the next page Jimmy’s friend wonders what on earth Molly Bloom from Ulysses looks like. Luckily Clothes in Books can show him:

He gets a job on the paper because his arcane knowledge and pedantry come in handy – excellent description of what a journalist needs.

Just picking three pages at random: There is the character Hardy who ‘has written a thousand words, which is greater than the number of calories she has consumed since yesterday’. There is the lunchtime slander session about colleauges: ‘Kathleen misses the point, Clint Oakley can’t even do a basic obit, Herman is living in another era.’ There’s the page that has the very important Puzzle-Wuzzle – we never do find out what that consists of.

Although very specific to this particular paper, the book gives a great and very truthful picture of the way journalists operate – (compare with Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning) and is saturated with the sadness of a world where newspapers are disappearing, and journalism is changing beyond all recognition. A book that really does describe and define its era, as well as making you laugh and wince in equal measure.

The top picture, from the Smithsonian, is of artist Guy Wiggins

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Night Watch by Sarah Waters

published 2006  section set in 1944  chapter 2

‘Helen!’ Helen heard somebody call above the snarl of traffic on the Marylebone Road. ‘Helen! Over here!’

She turned her head and saw a woman in a blue jeans jacket and dungarees, rather filthy at the knee, with her hair done up in a dusty turban. The woman was smiling, and had lifted her hand. ‘Helen!’ she called again, beginning to laugh.

‘Julia!’ said Helen, at last. She crossed the road. ‘I didn’t recognize you!’

‘I’m not surprised. I must look like a chimney-sweep, do I?’

‘Well, a little.’

Julia got up. She’d been sitting in the sun, on a stump of wall. She had a Gladys Mitchell novel in one hand and a cigarette in the other: now she took a hasty final draw on the cigarette and threw it away.

observations: Another woman in trousers, as featured on the Guardian Books Blog recently.

When CiB featured Night Watch before, there were a couple of interesting comments, which were plainly correct, GOOD comments because they agreed with what I thought. We all loved Sarah Waters’s writing, but found the reverse structure of this book unsatisfactory. One contributor said ‘I felt a bit flat afterwards. It seemed more a series of vignettes than a whole story’, which summed it up well. But the book IS beautifully written, and does a wonderful job of creating an atmosphere. The description of moving through the blitz at night would alone make the whole book worth reading.

Julia in the book writes detective fiction herself: Gladys Mitchell is a real writer who has featured on the blog before – she was a prolific producer of murder stories, at least a book a year, and 1944’s was called My Father Sleeps. Did the BBC props team find that one for the 2011 film of the book?

Links on the blog: Gladys Mitchell here and here, the Second World War from a more European perspective in this book, and a more Irish perspective here. And Noel Streatfeild’s children are living in wartime London and worrying about their clothes.

The picture is from the US Library of Congress collection, and shows an American woman working for the war effort.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

published 1946

For Geoffrey, the choosing of a tie had developed into an elaborate ceremonial, involving reference to his suit and shirt, to the weather, and to an imperfect memory of what he had worn during the preceding ten or fourteen days. On this particular morning, having returned with some sense of anti-climax to the tie he had first selected, he gazed for rather longer than usual at his reflection in the dressing-table mirror. The impact of womanhood on his life, he reflected, is to make one rather more attentive to one’s imperfections than is normal. None the less, he did look at least ten years younger than his age; the slightly faun-like mischievousness of his face was, he supposed, not unattractive; light blue eyes and close-cropped brown hair had, without doubt, their charms… From these complacent reflections he was interrupted by a subterranean booming which he supposed must mean breakfast. He bent his attention painfully upon the outside world again, and hurried downstairs.

observations: There are many things worthy of comment in Edmund Crispin’s books: they are enjoyable lightly comic crime fiction stories and his series hero Gervase Fen is a fine creation, and there are some strange plots and great clues going on. There is another aspect of his books which we discussed in a blog entry featured on the Guardian books blog (
sex, since you ask). And here’s something else: a man taking pains with his appearance because he is newly in love – surely a very real phenomenon, but not one that turns up in books much. (There is this excellent piece of David Copperfield as a major counter-example, also discussed on a Guardian podcast). But here’s nice Geoffrey thinking about the beautiful daughter of the Precentor. Geoffrey is a musical expert, as was his creator – Crispin was the penname of composer Bruce Montgomery who, solid gold fact, composed scores for the Carry On films.

The action takes place during the second world war, and it is a key element - there may be spies - but oddly there is no wartime atmosphere, and most of the action could take place at any time. The story is a touch melodramatic, but not in the completely unlikely way that, say, The Moving Toyshop is – it’s a plot that you could imagine coming from another writer, not true of most of Crispin. But like his others, this one is clever and funny and charming. Gervase Fen describes a knot used by the killer and says it is called the Hook, Line and Sinker because ‘the reader has to swallow it.’ The cathedral clergy are shown as detective story fans: apparently they are ‘great readers – they have little else to do.’

Another Cathedral Close mystery here, and a Nativity play set in a Cathedral here.

The sweet, if rather fuzzy, photo is of E Herbert Norman, a Canadian diplomat and historian, as a young man.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett

published 1932  chapter 4


I lived at the flat at Chiswick with my Grandmother. I wore a stiff linen collar and tie and corsets with bones in them. A few years later I cast them aside. My Grandmother and an elderly cousin said that it was indecent and disgraceful and women’s backs were not strong enough to support themselves; I am now forty-one and my backbone has not yet crumpled up…

I was now sixteen. I drew from the nude at the Art School, but I had never dared to look at myself in the mirror, for my Grandmother had always insisted that one dressed and undressed under one’s nightdress using it as a kind of tent. One day, feeling very bold, I took off all my clothes and gazed in the looking-glass. I was delighted. I was much superior to anything I had seen in the life class and I got a book and began to draw.

observations: Nina Hamnett had a splendid and unashamed idea of her own good looks. She seems ready to take her clothes off and dance at the most casual request – the picture above is almost too modest for her self-descriptions - and there is a great story much later when she is staying with friends in the south of France:
One morning I was standing in the middle of my room with no clothes on, assuming a variety of poses and looking at myself in two mirrors, so that I could see the effect all round. The window was open and suddenly the round red face of a workman appeared. He had come up a ladder and was engaged in painting the house. I stood still with shock, and so did the astonished workman. I then walked up to the windows and closed the shutters.

-- it’s her flat description of what she was doing that I find so endearing.

In a previous entry on her, we showed some brightly-coloured stockings: she is very interested in legwear, and says she had long feet with nice toes which she was very proud of.
I had a wonderful collection of stockings at that time and wore flat-heeled shoes with straps on them like children do. They made my feet look very large. They cost five francs and were worn by concierges. I had red stockings and yellow stockings and some that looked like a chess board.

She would have loved the modern MyTights website and these from Pretty Polly:

And she tells us about Gertrude Stein’s legwear:
She wore in the winter thick grey woollen stockings and Greek sandals. The stockings had a separate place for the big toe, as the sandals had a piece of leather which went between the big toe and the other four toes.
And there is a funny story where a pedlar selling silk stockings tells her they would be ‘an investment’ for her, and she is complimented because he thinks she is a ‘lady of loose morals’.

More from Nina Hamnett: click on the label below.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is from the cover of an American magazine called Puck.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: last book + round up

From Scenes Like These by Gordon Williams 

published 1968

It was still dark, that Monday in January, when the boy, Dunky Logan, and the man, Blackie McCann, came to feed and water the horses, quarter after seven on a cold Monday morning in January,. Damn near as chill as an Englishman’s heart, said McCann, stamping his hobnail boots on the stable cobbles.

Dunky Logan rested his old bicycle against the stable wall, then hung the gas-mask case, containing his sandwiches and vacuum flask, on a nail. The slack sleeves of his grimy fawn pullover hung down over his hands, stretching inches beyond the elastic cuffs of his green zip-jerkin. Even on a morning like this it would have been unthinkable to wear gloves. Only nancy boys wore gloves. He’d pulled down his pullover sleeves to protect his fingers from the freezing metal of his bicycle handlebars. Even in the stable the air was cold.

observations: I’d never heard of Gordon Williams, and would never have picked up this book if it weren’t for this project of reading the inaugural 1969 Booker Prize shortlist, ready for the week when the 2013 Booker Prize was awarded.

He turns out to be a surprising person:

- he wrote the novel on which Straw Dogs (violent Sam Peckinpah film starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George) was based

- he worked at Chelsea FC

- as a result of that he wrote the Hazell books with footballer Terry Venables - later a TV series

- he turned down the chance to write the film Gregory’s Girl.

What interesting lives writers lead.

I wanted to like this book, but sadly couldn’t get on with it at all. It starts off well, with Dunky saying that he is ‘Like young Jim Hawkins, able to talk to both Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney’, and another Robert Louis Stevenson book, Kidnapped, is referenced soon after. Dunky has ‘daft notions’ about his future, and wants to be one of the men. But the book is unrelentingly miserable – a brutal story of his growing up in rural poverty in Scotland after World War 2, his sad family and friends, the emptiness and violence of his life, with scenes at work on a farm, at a dance, at the football, at a party. There was something of the country dismals satirized by Stella Gibbons  in Cold Comfort Farm.

However, many others who have read it seem to have liked it very much.

The picture is a young farm worker, from Library and Archives Canada. There’s a thread throughout the book, a hope that perhaps emigration to Canada might be a way out of the boys’ miserable lives.


The six books on the Booker shortlist in 1969 were:

Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley

The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

Figures in a Landscape by Barry England

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

From Scenes Like These by Gordon Williams

-- and that is the order I would put them in, with the Mosley book the clear winner. (All reviewed on the blog in the past 10 days.)

I was impressed by the shortlist: when I embarked on the project I unfairly assumed that the list would be rather conventional and narrow. Although it is very noticeable that there are no non-British writers – which would never happen now – in fact the books are extremely varied. The Mosley is experimental, as is to some extent the Newby, there are two woman writers on the list, the Williams book is written in Scottish dialect and about a very working-class boy, and the Newby book is asking hard questions about British colonial policies. The topics covered include fame, love, violence, escape and identity – most of human life is there….

The judges in 1969 were: W.L. Webb (Chair), Dame Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, David Farrer.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Oscar Hijuelos RIP: Mr Ives' Christmas

Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

published 1995

[Edward Ives is courting Annie MacGuire in New York in 1948/49]

For the most part, they saw each other on weekends. There was very little they did not do together in their spare time: they went to jazz clubs in the village, visited galleries, haunted bookshops, had picnics in the park, and sometimes, with a borrowed car, took drives upstate, along the Hudson and beautiful wooded areas, through quiet towns and countryside, where they fantasized about living one day. They got to know each other’s friends…

His bedroom sounding sweetly with a nearby church’s bell-tower clarion on Sunday mornings, he would take her to Mass. He wore a blue suit with white shirt and red tie, and she wore a dark dress and a white felt hat, with a ribbon about its brim and a veil that fell piously over her face. At Mass she found Ives’ reaction to the service more moving than the service itself.

observations: Oscar Hijuelos died last week. He was a Cuban-American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love – great title, great book, great film –  the first Latino to win the award.

This book has a lot in common with the current cult and blog favourite Stoner by John Williams: and not just the fact that both have misleading titles – Stoner has nothing to do with drugs, and Mr Ives’s Christmas may sound like some sentimental twee book about happy holidays, but is far from that.

Each book tells the story of a good man living his life in a difficult world, and both are intensely rewarding, extraordinary novels that show us what great writing can achieve.

Mr Ives marries Annie, above, and has two children, but you know from the opening pages that his son dies in a stupid street incident. The book shows how his life divides from that moment, and how he tries – and for a long time fails - to come to terms with his loss. It is an uplifting book, about serious religious faith, but it is not necessary to share Mr Ives’ faith, or any, to get the point of the story. It is difficult to write grippingly about goodness, but Hijuelos achieves it (as does Williams in Stoner) and also gives a lovely picture of life in a certain milieu in New York from the 1940s through to the 1990s, even though this is a relatively short book.

His death is a great loss, but Mr Ives’ Christmas will surely last forever, keeping a word-of-mouth reputation and perhaps some day enjoying a revival like Stoner.

The picture is from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley

published 1968


[The narrator is observing an unknown couple near the British Museum]

The girl had a small dark face surrounded by a fur hat from which her gold eyes looked out. I thought of Anna Karenina at the railway station; her first appearance there and the last, because her end was foreshadowed in the beginning. In the girl’s eyes was a depth like a well; you could drop a stone down and listen for ever. When she walked she strode with long legs as if she were skating. When she took off her hat you expected snow to scatter

He began to tremble.

He said “Like Anna Karenina in the railway station. You spread a little happiness around.”

She stood up. She said “That is unforgiveable.”

I wanted to say “I thought of Anna Karenina!”

He said “Oh sit down.”…

After this there was a spell of cold weather in which the pavements froze … Then the man and girl came in together again one day having just met outside; they reeled through the door as if into a bedroom.

observations: Impossible Object was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in its inaugural year, 1969. And should have won.

It is an amazing book: experimental, inventive, twisty, strange, thought-provoking, tricksy. As one of the cover reviews says, ‘This is black art’.

Impossible Object at first seems to be a collection of short stories, with linking passages between the stories - relevance not clear, written in italics. Most of the characters don’t have names, and sometimes you think you’ve got them straight and then you realize you are wrong, maybe names have changed. All this would normally be tiresome and bring a chill to the heart – but actually this is a fabulous book, immensely well-written, very clever and funny. It follows couples (or is it always the same one?) in their house, in a London pub, in Italy and in North Africa, and anyone who has ever been in any relationship will recognize the exact secret descriptions of the way people interact. I gave up underlining the good bits, because there were too many: the wine as thin as wood shavings, the woman whose tight skirt, loose top and head made her look like Brussels sprouts, God seems to be ‘on the side of the beautiful and the greedy.’

The sections above happen in and around a pub, described perfectly:

A London pub at lunch time has a masculine air; there is an activity of elbows like bow-strings being drawn back at Agincourt, feet are on duckboards and glasses are grenades in the hand. There is a roar of agreement as if in a Paris salon that Dreyfus should be shot. I did not like the people in the pub. But I think I am happiest when I feel people are against me.
(Dreyfus affair featured in last week’s entry about Robert Harris’s new book, and there was a link with another Booker 1969 shorlister: Barry England’s Figures in a Landscape.)

Impossible Object is much the best book on the shortlist, and absolutely should have won the Booker Prize in 1969 – and it should be a modern classic now, not a forgotten book. (Click the Booker Prize shortlist 1969 label below for more contenders.) 

This is one version of what Nicholas Mosley says is an impossible object, and he says it represents endlessly the ways we relate in life:

The fabulous picture at the top comes from the US National Weather Service, part of the 
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Department of Commerce. It was taken in New York in 1969, just after the date of the book, and seems in the spirit of the extract above, and thus the ideal illustration for Anna Karenina in Bloomsbury and Manhattan. AK herself appeared on the blog here and here.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

What's the opposite of anachronism?

Today’s blog is about phrases, words and artefacts in literature that seem to be anachronisms but aren’t: hanging out, flossing your teeth and wearing a big B on a necklace. 

The entry appears on the Guardian newspaper’s books blog here. And don’t miss the comments – there are some fabulous examples from readers.

Whether we're reading the Booker prize books or watching Downton Abbey, we all love to catch out an author in an anachronism. Philip Hensher, in a piece on this year's Booker longlist, found problems in several books, and took particular issue with the use of "Hello" in Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, set in 19th-century New Zealand. It seems that "Hallo!" – meaning "Stop, wait, hang on" or as a surprised or informal greeting (and much used in Dickens) – hadn't yet morphed into "Hello" as a gracious salutation. On the plus side, Hensher gave a date to one novel, Jim Crace's Harvest, because of the use of mauve – the name for the colour was invented in 1856.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, with the new series of Downton Abbey in full flow, we can expect the usual criticisms that the language and activities of staff and aristos are inauthentic and too modern – there's a website, Prochronisms, devoted to such TV nitpicking. There's no harm in that – the site is funny and informative – the site proprietor refers to it as Downton Crabbey – but other critics can be too ready to assume that because something doesn't sound right to them, it is automatically wrong…..

Click here to read more.

Some of the items featured in the entry have appeared on the blog – Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl, James Joyce and the dental floss, Agatha Christie endlessly. Julian Fellowes has an entry, F Scott Fitzgerald has several, and Philip Hensher is here too.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Booker Prize 1969: Something to Answer For by PH Newby

published 1969

[Leah] walked out of the room across the hall and into her own bedroom where, because she had left the door wide open, he could see her drag an enormous black suitcase out from behind a wardrobe. She had it open by the side of the bed and was throwing her clothes into it. The first garment to go in was a fur coat he had not seen before. It was a smoky brown; musquash, he thought, the sort of thing that would set you back eight hundred guineas at Swears and Wells. Then suits, stockings, underclothes. She was just throwing them in. She was a poor packer…

With him in the boat were Leah with suitcases, Mrs K with her cases and baskets… They were not going back. This was the end. What they could not carry with them was lost to Nasser…

As an American citizen Leah counted on being put ashore in Cyprus and flown to the States where Townrow supposed she would at once set about trying to realise the value of whatever her father had left.

observations: This is the book that won the very first Booker Prize, back in 1969. Most people couldn’t name it, and truly it seems that it would be completely forgotten if it hadn’t won the then unknown award. It is a strange, surreal book with an unreliable narrator and constant changes of tone and style and even name – there is a continuing thread that the protagonist, Townrow, is forever being addressed by different names and given different backstories: it’s never clear if these are actually his. It’s all a bit John le Carre, a bit Graham Greene, but sadly without their talent. The book is set 13 years before publication, during the Suez crisis of 1956. There is a whole thread of a man who may or may not be dead, his funeral and his coffin, which may contain guns rather than a body, a woman taking the body on a boat, a man dressed up as a woman.

That all sounds more entertaining than it is, but the book does have the occasional moment, for example where Townrow tries to have sex with Leah from the extract above, who is plainly reluctant.
She seemed all elbows, shoulder blades and heels. It was like trying to make love to a dough-mixing machine. She wanted it, didn’t she, otherwise why all this hissing and moaning?
This is far from being the best book on the 1969 shortlist - the blog is featuring them all - and strangely is one of the ones that has worn most badly – others on the list feel fresh and modern and relevant by comparison.

The lady in the picture has been packing for a much happier reason than Leah: she is a GI war bride going to join her husband.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Booker shortlist 1969: The Nice and The Good by Iris Murdoch

published 1968

He felt extraordinarily calmed by Mary’s presence. In a curious way he was pleased that she had not disputed his self-accusation but had simply given him the correct reply. She assured him somehow of the existence of a permanent moral background. He thought, she is under the same orders as myself. He found that he had picked up the hem of Mary’s dress and was moving it between his fingers. She was wearing a mauve dress of crepe-like wrinkled stuff, with a full skirt. As he felt the material he thought suddenly of Kate’s red striped dress and of Judy’s dress with the blue and green flowers. Girls and their dresses.

He said quickly, letting go of the hem, ‘Mary, I hope you won’t mind my saying how glad I am about you and Willy.’

‘Nothing’s – fixed, you know.’

‘Yes, I know. But I’m so glad….’

They stood up. Mary turned her lean sallow head towards him, brushing back her hair. Her eyes were vague in the hot dappled half light. They stood a moment awkwardly, and then with gestures of salutation parted in silence.

observations: This is a very Mudoch-ian collection of thoughts and styles: interested in dresses - they are mentioned several times throughout the book - and there are obviously undertones and love affairs and then those slightly strange sentences and descriptions – ‘vague in the hot dappled half light’ – you wouldn’t be sure if that was affectation or meaningful.

This one really is the archetypal Murdoch book: too many characters (in some editions apparently there is a list of them, which might be helpful – I never was completely convinced I knew who all the different children belonged to), plenty of people with strange names – Octavian, Ducane, Biranne – and sentences like this one:
This metaphysical dilemma was present to him at times not in any clear conceptual form but rather as an atmosphere, a feeling of bewildered guilt which was almost sexual in quality and not altogether unpleasant.

Iris Murdoch certainly has a distinctive style. Does anyone read her any more? Was she an important philosopher, an important novelist, both, neither? Reading her 30 years ago you would think she lived the life of the people in her books – estates in Dorset, smart flats in London, communal living – but this seems not to have been the case. She apparently said that you should never drink expensive wine, keep it cheap so that you don’t get used to the good stuff – her rather sybaritic characters might disagree.

But, the book is hugely entertaining, quite modern in tone, and very funny at times. The book begins with Radeechy, a civil servant, committing suicide – he has not left a note:
‘That’s not like him!’ said Octavian. Radeechy was an indefatigable writer of circumstantial minutes.
It stands the test of time very well, and definitely deserved its place on the 1969 Booker Prize shortlist.

The pictures of girls in their dresses are both from the State Library of Queensland.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Muriel Spark & the1969 Booker shortlist


The Public Image by Muriel Spark

published 1968

[Annabel is a successful film actress, Frederick is her husband, Francesca is a secretary in charge of publicity]

But then Francesca would come, either to talk to them, or to arrange an interview, or with a photographer to take a picture of Annabel lounging on the bed, in her nightdress, one shoulder-band slipping down her arm and her hair falling over part of her face. Francesca disarranged the bed. She sat Frederick on the edge of the bed, in a Liberty dressing-gown, smoking, with a smile as of recent reminiscence….

‘We must get the two sides of your lives,’ Francesca explained, in case there should be any doubt.

Annabel was entirely aware of the image-making process in every phase. She did not expect this personal image to last long in the public mind, for she intended to play other parts than that of the suppressed tiger, now that she was becoming an established star.

observations: The Public Image was shortlisted for the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969.

This is not one of the better-known Spark books, but it’s a little gem, well worth a read, and surely as relevant now as it was when written. It’s a story about fame, and image, and the press; it’s very funny and clever; and it’s only 125 pages long.

Annabel is becoming a film star. Her husband Frederick considers her to be empty, stupid and vacuous, and has a high opinion of himself:

His mind took the inward turns of a spiral staircase, viewing from every altitude and point of contortion the unblemished, untried, fact of his talent.
He does very little, and deeply resents her success, while happily living on her money. So he makes an outrageous but careful plan to do her down in the most unlikely way. Annabel fights back, and by the end of the book the reader is agog to know what will happen next.

The writing is superb, with lovely details: Annabel makes a film called Minerva Arrived at Platform 10, there is an extended comparison of the stories beloved of the press with the plots of opera, there is mention of ‘tiger in the tank’, an advertising slogan of the time, a friend is called Golly.

It’s hard to know what to make of Annabel: the blurb writer of my Penguin edition *, some reviewers, and – of all people – John Lydon** (aka Johnny Rotten) see her as an egotistical villain. Is this a male reaction? She seemed an excellent character to me: independent, successful, clever, focussed – perhaps not incredibly moral or perfect, but a lot nicer and cleverer than her husband. And the consideration of what happens to a public figure whose image changes struck home a lot in the days of Miley Cyrus - who can blame her for being careful?

*NB do not read the Penguin blurb before reading the book - as well as being idiotic, it has a major spoiler.

** Astonishingly, John Lydon named his band, Public Image Ltd, after this book.

The book is set in the filmworld of Rome – as was part of last week’s Beautiful Ruins. The coldly manipulative Frederick came over rather like Harald, Kay’s horrible husband in Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group. Muriel Spark has featured on the blog several times before.

The picture is from the Library of Congress.