Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Red Threads by Rex Stout

published 1941


Red threads

[Fabric designer Jane Farris has just taken delivery of a new outfit, and wants to try it on]

She had the lid off and the top garment unfolded and was holding it up for inspection. ‘Oh my God! … Hey what’s that? Oh – snip that thread, will you, Cora? Isn’t it pretty fine?’… She laughed. With the smock off and likewise the dress that had been under it, the pink silk hanging from the shoulder straps left almost as much bare skin displayed as if it had been a fashionable swimming-suit.

The skin was nicely tanned. She touched the pink silk. ‘Have you seen these, Eileen? Brettons are featuring them – they call them Shapesheers! Isn’t that terrible? Sheepshears, Shakespeares – it will haunt you. Cora, please dear, the brown pumps from that cupboard – no, over there – I’m glad it isn’t sweltering, because I do want to show this sort of casually – and oh, I forgot to phone Roberts & Creel to send samples of that two-sixteen mixture - ’

Miss Delaney was emptying a drawer, trying to find stockings to go with the brown pumps.

commentary: I first mentioned this book in one of our Tuesday Night Club entries on Rex Stout, but felt I hadn’t done it full justice. I loved the clothes content of the book – there’s a great description of a fashion show, plenty of detail of how the business works, and a lot about traditional weaving. We find out that eight or ten women in the New York fashion industry earn more than the US President. There is a discussion of whether an outfit should be priced at $200 or $300 – a lot of money in 1941 (still is).

Jane, above, is trying on a jacket and skirt – she has woven the fabric, to incorporate the very-important red threads, which have come from her boyfriend’s vintage (as we might now say) jacket. So it is a striped tweedy material, and that thin red line is going to be vital evidence in a murder investigation. As the proprietor of Clothes in Books, I don’t lightly say this, but it is actually quite difficult to visualize either the boyfriend’s jacket or the suit created by Jane. I wish I knew exactly what Stout had in mind.

Later on Jane wears a ‘straw falcon hat… at an angle that stopped before it touched the tilt of freakishness.’ I don’t know what a falcon hat is…

The designer setup resembles that lodestar of fashion/murder, Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham, over on this side of the Atlantic a year or two earlier – the plots are completely different.

Jane’s undergarment is going to be important again – because she is mugged for the vital clothes, and left to wander round a country estate in her slip.

I did enjoy this book, but feel it really suffered from the lack of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, who would have raised it to higher levels.

Red Threads 2

There’s more discussion of slips in this recent entry on the book that inspired the musical Pajama Game.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Wintle’s Wonders by Noel Streatfeild – Audition Dress

also published as Dancing Shoes

published 1957


[Rachel has to accompany another child from stage school to an audition]

‘What ought I to wear, do you suppose?’ Rachel asked Mrs Storm while Dulcie was out of the room. ‘Is a studio a place where I’ll have to wear my Wonder’s uniform?’

Mrs Storm had no idea what Mrs Wintle Wintle's audition dress 1would have answered to that, but she knew her own feelings.

‘For goodness’ sake don’t, wear what you like, nobody’s going to look at you.’

What Rachel liked was an orange woollen frock, one of the dresses which Uncle Tom had designed for her. Over it she put on a brown coat. She did not wear a hat. Under her arm she carried her favourite book, The Wind in the Willows, which she knew from experience was wonderful for making time disappear.
‘Very nice too’ said Mrs Storm approvingly when she saw Rachel. ‘Those colours suit you.’

commentary: As I’m always saying, the clothes are wonderful in Streatfeild books, nobody does it better, and what you wear to an audition is known to be particularly important. In this case there is a marked contrast between the outfit above and what Rachel had to wear for a previous audition:
[The Wonders’] audition dresses had been designed to make the children look younger than they were, so it was not a kind dress to many of them. They were made of seersucker, very full without a waistline, with frills on the shoulder and round the bottom.
Wintle's audition dress 2

Rachel is going to the studio just because there is no-one to look after her at home: the other (horrible) child, Dulcie, is apparently a shoo-in for the part. Any Streatfeild fan will guess what is going to happen…

I explained in two earlier entries why I thought this was such an unusual book, and why I liked it so much. It is much more cynical and cool than the whole of the recent Babbacombe’s, which was a book for adults supposedly.

And there are few scenes in any of Noel S’s books to match the heart-breaking moment where Rachel is going for an audition, and her sister Hilary (they are unloved orphans) is trying to make her ‘look as if more trouble had been taken over her than any of the others’ even though Rachel doesn’t suit that blooming dress, and doesn’t come close to getting the part. Dulcie openly laughs at her, and it is a dreadful, painful moment. So, when Hilary slaps Dulcie, readers everywhere cheer loudly.

This one seems like all the other Streatfeild books (they are now all published in Shoes titles, as if they were a real series) but actually it is very different. And excellent.

I think the top pictures are probably what the dress did look like, but they are not the pictures I had in my head when I first read it – and I was a child who would have looked particularly awful in the frills dress. I too could imagine a really wonderful plain dress that suited Rachel (and of course me) and I wish I could find the right picture – but it probably exists only in my head, and the heads of every other Wintle’s Wonders reader who knew she was Rachel inside.

Another classic Streatfeild audition-clothes-panic here on the blog.

And this audition blogpost had the helpfully descriptive title ‘Gasp at the Dodie Smith heroine in her Bo Peep outfit’, and an unmissable picture.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Thunderball by Ian Fleming–Part 2

published 1961

James Bond book 9, the 8th full-length novel

thunderball 1

Not bothering to open the low door of the MG, the girl swung one brown leg and then the other over the side of the car, showing her thighs under the pleated cream cotton skirt almost to her waist, and slipped to the pavement…

Thunderball tropical 2Thunderball tropical 3
Thunderball tropical 4Thunderball tropical
He was wearing a very dark blue lightweight single-breasted suit over a cream silk shirt and a black knitted silk tie. Despite the heat, he looked cool and clean, and his only concession to the tropics appeared to be the black saddle-stitched sandals on his bare feet. It was an obvious attempt at a pick-up. He had an exciting face, and authority. She decided to go along.

She wore a gondolier's broadrimmed straw hat, tilted impudently down over her nose. The pale blue tails of its ribbon streamed out behind. On the front of the ribbon was printed in gold “M/Y DISCO VOLANTE .'' Her short-sleeved silk shirt was in half-inch vertical stripes of pale blue and white and, with the pleated cream skirt, the whole get-up reminded Bond vaguely of a sunny day at Henley Regatta. She wore no rings and no jewellery except for a rather masculine square gold wristwatch with a black face. Her flat-heeled sandals were of white doeskin. They matched her broad white doeskin belt and the sensible handbag that lay, with a black and white striped silk scarf, on the seat between them. Bond knew a good deal about her from the immigration form, one among a hundred, which he had been studying that morning. Her name was Dominetta Vitali.

commentary: Earlier entry talked about the strange genesis of Thunderball and its continuing disputes, and dealt with the first part of the story.

Sixty pages in, the proper plot begins, and along comes Blofeld.

And I was almost immediately completely distracted from the plot, by this sentence about Blofeld's early life :
He soon realized, for he was a man of almost mimosaic sensibility in matters of security, that the pace could not possibly last. (my italics)
Mimosaic is an attractive word, but doesn’t seem to exist in any dictionary. Looking for any other uses at all, I found a possibility of, in Bible studies, mi-Mosaic (as in some way not Mosaic, against Mosaic, in the sense of Mosaic Law in the Old Testament). Didn’t seem likely. The only other viable  instance was as a translation of the German phrase
die mimosenhafte Empfindlichkeit der Turken
It is from a book  on German responsibility in the Armenian genocide, and is a quote from  German ambassador of the time,  Count J. Bernstorff - it is translated as ‘the mimosaic sensitivity of the Turks’. So I consulted my friendly team of language experts, who say that it would mean ‘over- or hyper-sensitive’. The reference is to mimosa leaves, which curl up if you touch them.


I was then delighted to find this quotation from a letter from Fleming to his publishers:
“I gratefully note all your cuts and digs and accept them all with the exception of 'mimosaic', a word which I saw somewhere and have taken to my heart. Do please let me leave this in if only to make my readers read at least one of my words twice over.”
He certainly got his way with me, I have spent a lot of time chasing it up, and involved other people.

And perhaps I am deliberately lingering around page 63, because I found the rest of the book rather a disappointment. I liked Bond arriving in the Bahamas, meeting up with Domino (above) and Felix Leiter – but the long dreary chases and fights in the ocean were not enthralling for me.

I enjoyed the distractions – Domino’s long story about the figure on the Players cigarette packet, and Felix’s disquisition on how to make money out of selling Martinis. It reminded me of the wonderful Peg Bracken , who quoted the passage in her Instant Etiquette Book then said ‘Felix Leiter was an admirable private eye, and I couldn’t have been sorrier when he was eaten up by the sharks. But he made a surprising omission here: the tip’. This was her intro to her own section on tipping – excellent.

There’s an odd and rather graceless moment when Felix and James swoop in their tiny plane over a woman sunbathing naked on the roof of a cabin cruiser and Felix says ‘authentic blonde’.

Emilio Largo is a good villain – used his picture from the Thunderball film before, in fact:

Thunderball 3

And I like that his boat is called Disco Volante – Flying Saucer – in an era before, I presume, that Disco meant something else.

And a few questions– I don’t want to be tasteless here, but Domino is tortured using a lit cigar, and ice cubes, ‘applied scientifically’. I don’t know what the ice cubes were for?

And, after giant squids and octopuses in previous books, is Fleming having a game with us by immobilizing Bond with a baby octopus?

And, the ransom letter from SPECTRE: is it meant to be weirdly written and at times incomprehensible:
The whereabouts of this aircraft and of the two atomic weapons, rendering them possible of recovery, will be communicated to you in exchange for the equivalent of £100,000,000 in gold bullion, one thousand, or not less than nine hundred and ninety-nine, fine.
What does that last bit mean? Reads like an unchecked draft?

Bond’s clothes come, of course, where else, from the fabulous and highly-recommended Suits of James Bond website.

Thanks again to the language helpers.

First entry on Thunderball here.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Thunderball by Ian Fleming: Part 1

Published 1961

James Bond book 9, the 8th full-length novel

Thunderball Lippe

[Count Lippe] was extremely handsome – a dark bronzed woman-killer with a neat moustache above the sort of callous mouth women kiss in their dreams.

He was an athletic-looking six foot, dressed in the sort of casually well-cut beige herring-bone tweed that suggests Anderson and Sheppard. He wore a white silk shirt and a dark red polka-dot tie, and the soft dark brown V-necked sweater looked like vicuna. Bond summed him up as a good-looking bastard who got all the women he wanted and probably lived on them—and lived well.
[Patricia] was an athletic-looking girl whom Bond would haveThunderball smock casually associated with tennis, or skating, or show-jumping. She had the sort of firm, compact figure that always attracted him and a fresh open-air type of prettiness that would have been commonplace but for a wide, rather passionate mouth and a hint of authority that would be a challenge to men. She was dressed in a feminine version of the white smock worn by Mr. Wain, and it was clear from the undisguised curves of her breasts and hips that she had little on underneath it. Bond asked her if she didn't get bored. What did she do with her time off?

commentary: After the placesaver of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only (did a blogpost on Quantum of Solace recently) it’s back to the proper books, which suit Fleming and Bond much better, without any doubt. But actually this one still isn’t a full return: Thunderball has a very strange and difficult history, and the lawsuits went on for years.

Briefly: Fleming was very keen for there to be Bond films, and it is hard looking back from the other end to see how difficult it was to achieve this - it seems very surprising but he was working away at it and trying to sell film rights for years. He had complex agent-ing arrangements, he wondered if TV was the way to go, or a different series character. In the midst of all this, a film producer told him that none of the books to date was really suitable: what was needed was a brand new treatment, a plot and story designed for a filmscript. Four people (apparently) were involved in what came next: Ian Fleming, his friend Ivar Bryce, producer Kevin McClory and writer Jack Whittingham came up with an idea for an adventure involving an underwater shenanigans around the Bahamas.

Nothing came of the film (at that time) and Fleming needed a new book, and took parts of the plot and turned it into the novel we are considering now. McClory tried to get an injunction to stop the book being distributed – that failed, but a subsequent court case did give him certain rights over the story and book. That didn’t stop the lawsuits, which went on for years.

The eventual producers of the Bond films we know didn’t want to mess with Thunderball while the court cases were ongoing, and so (apparently almost randomly) Fleming suggested Dr No.

When Thunderball did come to be made, McClory had the right to be involved in the production, which he took up, and also the rights to a ‘remake but not sequel’ – which is where that odd, non-canon, Never Say Never Again came from in 1983.

The whole story is strange and twisting and actually fascinating and sad. There is a whole book just on the case – The Battle For Bond by Robert Sellers, a book that the Fleming estate attacked, forcing the pulping of one edition. Most of my information comes from a riveting and highly recommended piece by Len Deighton called James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for his Father, some of which is in an introduction to the Sellers book. Are you keeping up with this? – I am the least likely person to be explaining this, but I did find it riveting.

Whatever the ins and outs, I found this one odd and think I could have guessed there was something strange about its genesis. For a start there is a terrific opening third (one I remembered well over the years) featuring Bond in a duel of wits at a health farm, Shrublands. Those wits aren’t up to much: Bond tries to do some research in an easily overheard phone conversation in a public phone booth, alerting the enemy. But it’s good knockabout stuff: the problem being that it has only the most tenuous connection with the rest of the book. The man he defeats, Count Lippe, described above, is vital to the wicked Thunderball plan, and as a result the plan is delayed by several days. That’s it.

My favourite line here is when Bond has left the health farm with its tiresome regime: that night he
[scores] a most satisfactory left and right of Spaghetti Bolognese and Chianti at Lucien’s in Brighton and of Miss Patricia Fearing [the masseuse above] on the squab seats from her bubble car high up on the Downs.
The glamour is almost too bright for the reader’s eyes. Although she has been massaging him with special mink-covered gloves:

Thunderball mink glove

Earlier on, Bond was seen to be
executing a passable Veronica
- which doesn’t mean that he killed off a random young woman: it’s a matador’s move, and the only way that he could save Patricia from the path of an oncoming car.

There’s something very English about this section, along with the cool young man whose ambition in life would be to become Tommy Steele. I enjoyed it all hugely, but was then ready to head off for the Bahamas as the real plot began… More later this week.

The man in the suit is a young-ish Laurence Olivier, and he is wearing Anderson and Sheppard tweed.

The young woman is advertising modern spa-wear from My first thought was to find a still from a Carry On film for Patricia, but I decided to give her some respect. And there weren’t any good pictures anyway, disappointingly.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

published 1995


I decided I had to see Angier's new illusion for myself, and when I heard at the end of October that he was starting a two-week residence at the Hackney Empire I quietly bought myself a ticket for the stalls. The Empire is a deep, narrow theatre, with long constricted aisles and an auditorium kept fairly well in the dark throughout the performance, so it exactly suited my purposes. My seat had a good view of the stage, but I was not so close that Angier was likely to spot me there.

I took no exception to the main part of his performance, in which he competently performed illusions from the standard magical repertoire. His style was good, his patter amusing, his assistant beautiful, and his showmanship above average. He was dressed in a well-made evening suit, and his hair was smartly brilliantined to a high gloss. It was during this part of his act, though, that I first observed the wasting that was affecting his face, and saw other clues that suggested an unwell state. He moved stiffly, and several times favoured his left arm as if it were weaker than the other.

Finally, after an admittedly amusing routine that involved a message written by a member of the audience appearing inside a sealed envelope, Angier came to the closing illusion. He began with a serious speech, which I scribbled down quickly into a notebook. Here is what he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen! As the new century moves apace we see around us on every side the miracles of science. These wonders multiply almost every day. By the end of the new century, which few here tonight shall live to see, what marvels will prevail? Men might fly, men might speak across oceans, men might travel across the firmament. Yet no miracle which science may produce can compare with the greatest wonders of all… the human mind and the human body.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I will attempt a magical feat that brings together the wonders of science and the wonders of the human mind. No other stage performer in the world can reproduce what you are about to witness for yourself!
With this he raised his good arm theatrically, and the curtains were swept apart. There, waiting in the limelight, was the apparatus I had come to see.

Prestige 2

commentary: The Prestige – as in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film featuring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman – is one of my favourites: wonderfully eerie and clever and mystifying, and despite its surprises and revelations, a film you can watch over and over again.

There are differences between book and film, and the book has a strange framing device in modern times – it is not really resolved, and I think Nolan did well to ditch it. But the book is just as fascinating and strange as the film. Both tell the story of competing magicians around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The two men get caught up in a ridiculous escalating war (given a better motive in the film) and at the heart of their rivalry is their wish to perform a Transported Man illusion: one where a person is visible at one moment, then re-appears somewhere else completely. They go about achieving this in quite different ways. To say more would be to spoiler.

It is clear that the author is very knowledgeable about the world of magicians, the illusions they perform and the historical era – and also that he has an amazing imagination: the story is intricate and powerful and also wide-ranging and very very clever.

Both film and book excel at creating an atmosphere, and tell their complex stories without too much confusion. I would highly recommend both…

The posters are from the Billy Rose collection at the NYPL.

Another great magician book is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, on the blog a while back.

And of course Elly Griffiths’ second series (after Ruth Galloway) features illusionist Max Mephisto – see for example Zig Zag Girl, also with excellent magician pictures on the blogpost.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Silver Intervenes

published 1943


Miss Silver Intervenes

Mrs Spooner’s letter arrived at breakfast time next day. Meade read it, and enquired in a laughing voice, ‘What on earth is a spencer?’

It was a bright sunny morning. Her heart laughed and sang. Her cheeks had colour and her voice lilted *. Everything in the garden was quite extraordinary lovely.

Mrs Underwood, looking across the table, said, ‘Good gracious – he’s not writing to you about underwear, is he?’

‘It’s not Giles – it’s Mrs Spooner. She wants a spencer out of her chest of drawers, and I shouldn’t know one if I saw it. What do I look for?’

‘It’s an underbodice – long sleeves and high neck – at least they’re generally that way. What does she want it for?’

Meade’s eyes danced. ‘To wear under her uniform now that the evenings are getting chilly.’…

She found the spencer at once. It was a horrible affair of natural wool with mother-of-pearl buttons down the front and a crochet edging round the high neck. It smelled of napththalene. It would certainly be warm, but oh dear, how it would tickle! She hung it on her arm and came out upon the landing, to find the door of the opposite flat wide open and Miss Roland standing there.

[ *  note: it actually says ‘filted’ in my edition. I’m guessing lilted? Anyone confirm or have a better idea?]

Miss Silver Intervenes 2

commentary: I read this book for one reason only: to find out if my 1944 book (for Crimes of the Century) The Clock Strikes Midnight spoilers it. In that book (on the blog this month), Miss Silver is praised for having solved another murder, the one here, and someone is named. I was curious as to how much of a spoiler this was. And the answer is – 50/50: the name mentioned does not occur till a long way in, but one element of the name does give a clue. Is that all clear then?

Doesn’t matter. The book was vintage Miss Silver and stands up well. It is wartime: in a small block of flats in London, people are coping as best they can. Mrs Spooner (above) never appears – she has gone into the ATS while her husband does other war work. Meade (where does Wentworth get her heroine names from?) lives with her aunt after a bereavement. There is ‘a very devoted couple – one of those finicky little men, always getting up to open the door for you, and taking the temperature of the bath water, and putting new washers in the taps – got on my nerves.’

There are eight flats, so it is actually just about feasible to keep track of them all.
The lady at the top is no lady: she is up to no good. You can tell because this is her outfit for an evening of bridge-playing:
Black satin trousers, a green and gold top, and emerald earrings about half a yard long.
Eventually there is a murder in the block of flats. Just as with the night-wanderers in The Clock Strikes Twelve, every blessed person of interest manages to put his or her self in the frame by visiting the flat of death at around the vital time.

There is blackmail, amnesia, lost partners, incriminating letters: all the essentials of a good murder story. I guessed one of the plot twists very easily, and the murderer more or less by elimination. But the picture of London in wartime was very nicely done - this is the perfect book for those of us who like homefront books, and I think TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery would enjoy it.  

As always, Wentworth has good clothes descriptions. There is a splendid moment where a putupon daughter, patient slave to a tyrannical mother, finally snaps and breaks free, ready to change her entire life, apparently mostly because of her desire for a beautiful skirt her mother is trying to claim: ‘in one of the soft shades between brown and sand with the least coral fleck in it.’ I think we can all sympathize with that.

I was interested to find an early appearance of this language construction – Miss S is trying to track down the blackmailer:
‘She gave you no clue as to the person’s identity? Not even by the use of a pronoun? She never said he or she?’
Ella shook her head. ‘No, it was always they. “They think they can do this or that, but I’ll show them” – you know how one talks. It isn’t grammar, but everyone does it.’
-people tend to think this is a very modern thing, a sign of the degeneration of life.

As Mrs Underwood says, a spencer should be long-sleeved and high-necked, but it is very difficult to find any picture of exactly that, so this is a selection of skimpier thermals described as spencers. The small second picture that looks right is actually a cheat – note lack of scale in the photo: these two are baby garments.

The Vintage Knitting Lady has a quite splendid collection of knitting patterns to mull over.

Miss Silver’s underwear was the main topic in one of my favourite blogposts of last year, and there are plenty more Wentworth books on the blog - click on label below.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Joint Lists: Books Set in Universities and Colleges

Academic list 4
We’re off to find the right books…

Writer Christine Poulson and I enjoy doing joint lists and joint reviews: when the idea came up of doing a list of books set in universities and colleges, we actually had to check that we hadn’t done it before – it is SO MUCH the kind of topic we both love, and love to compare notes on. But we haven’t till now – so here goes. 

As usual, Chrissie is posting her list at the same time, and here is the link to her post.

Eight Excellent Reads set in Higher Education


–  no particular order. Links to reviews  on this blog where available.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Contrary to what we all remember, quite a small proportion of Brideshead Revisited takes place at Oxford. Waugh creates the idyll and the relationship, and then the story moves on over many years and places. But still – that’s the picture we have of the book. My favourite part is the page or two on advice to the undergraduate - all of it is hilarious, but Cousin Jasper wins the prize:
'Don't treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home... You'll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first...Beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm...'
Finally, just as he was going, he said, 'One last point. Change your rooms … I've seen many a man ruined through having ground-floor rooms in the front quad,' said my cousin with deep gravity.

Academic list
Taking notes and paying attention
All Souls by Javier Marias

Marias is a great author: the pride of Spain, and not known nearly enough in the UK. I said about him before: It’s hard to know who the British equivalent of Javier Marias might be: he is a wonderful novelist, something of a superstar in his own country, and an academic, and he has also translated many classic English authors into Spanish. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that you can’t imagine Ian McEwan or Martin Amis doing a new version of Don Quixote.

My favourite of his books is A Heart So White, but I also love this one for its fabulous take on the foreigner-in-Oxford meme. It’s a charming book, and you never know where it is going next. The narrator is a visitor to the college of All Souls – and it seems not unreasonable to think that some of it might be semi-autobiographical…

The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

Trease wrote marvellous YA books – historical fiction, and the modern series of which this was the final entry. He wrote from the 1930s through to the 1990s, but I think the 50s was his best era. In this book, old friends Penny and Bill go off to Oxford from their grammar schools in the Lake District – there’s the usual collection of stories of college days, and the way friendships change, and a historical mystery as a diversion. When I re-read these books recently, I was surprised and impressed by how feminist they were: Trease himself was always overtly political and leftwing, but that by no means always went along with an interest in women’s rights. But his female characters are ambitious and delightful. And Penny wears tangerine slacks

Academic list 2
The height of technology, and of fashion sense

King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

A slice-of-life novel set in the West Country, but with a strong connection with a local university, a lot of academics around. I said in a review:

The book is reputed to have made Philip Hensher very unpopular in Exeter and at its university (to the point of his leaving?), where people saw it as an unflattering picture of them. But it is truly a picture of England today, and a majestic overview of the good and the bad.

My favourite plot strand was where the sharp Miranda was asked by one of her students for leeway, because ‘her parents are getting divorced and she is upset’. Miranda’s response to that is beyond perfect, even if it gets her into trouble – she writes to the parents…

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Most of this book is not, admittedly, set in academia, but the glimpses of Oxford life via Fanny’s marriage to the academic Alfred are hilarious and convincing. The dinner parties on the Banbury Rd, the undergraduates, the don’s wives and lives…

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

Having recently done Tuesday Night Club on academic mysteries, I am tending to avoid murder stories in this list. But this one earns its place by means of its absolutely wonderful, and hysterically funny, picture of bitchy academic politics, hatreds and relationships.

Academic list 3
The joys of the common room

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

I have a soft spot for this one, because it is set at Durham University, where I was a student many years ago. She writes wonderfully well about universities, about the Church of England, about religion in general. But most of all, she writes wonderfully well about people: I wish she was better known. Nowadays she writes about an imaginary diocese called Lindchester – two books so far, and a third one being written and sent out online every week. (Catch up and then sign up, and it will appear in your inbox every Sunday night.)

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

An odd book, and theoretically a memoir, but he has plainly fictionalized it a lot. It’s a very patchy read, but the best bits are very good – membership of the film society, being an extra on a film, and his decision to write some of his Finals answers in rhyme:
The Papal sanction menaced the unwilling;
they too would have to lend a hand at killing.


So there’s my eight: the only problem with Chrissie’s and my joint ventures is that we tend to agree on so many things, and choose the same books. Looking forward to heading over to her blog in the hopes that this time we might have a varied selection - and yes, it looks like we have.

And of course should say that Chrissie wrote a marvellous series of academic mysteries featuring her sleuth Cassandra James – they are highly recommended, and you can find out more on her blog.

All the pictures are from the LSE Library collection – as I’ve said before this is a marvellous resource for anyone looking for pictures of studious persons of the past…