[1966. Nat Fane, writer and man about town, is visiting his agent.]
Nat angled the Silver Cloud through the slender funnel of the mews entrance and parked. He could have come on foot – it was only a 10-minute stroll -but arriving by car felt more appropriate to his status as a client. It tickled him to think how much he loved this car… The one ant at the picnic was the appearance of an identical motor in Antonioni’s latest, Blow-Up. Now people would assume that he was trying to emulate David Hemmings, looking oh-so-cool in his white jeans and shirt unbuttoned down to here as he piloted his Rolls around London. Nat had bought his a year before, but sensed he would still look like a copycat.
In the foyer of Penelope Rolfe Management he flashed a smile at a couple of dolly birds clicking by, their outfits and make-up as vividly coloured as a kingfisher. Their smiles in return inclined Nat to wonder if they had the smallest idea who he was…
Penny cradled the receiver and spread her palms in beatific welcome. She was wearing one of her paisley turbans and a sky-blue star-printed jersey dress (‘Biba, darling’). Her face , tanned and shielded by the huge tinted lenses of her spectacles, have her a faintly mythological aspect: half agent, half owl.
commentary: Everyone writing about London in the 1960s puts the women in Biba dresses, or features a trip to the iconic shop: but you can’t criticize them for that – it’s not a cliché, just a reflection of real life. It would be interesting to know when Biba was first mentioned in a contemporary novel of the 1960s. I had a quick look and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t from much later – but perhaps a Margaret Drabble novel might feature Biba?
This extract is typical of the book: it is well-written, interesting, carries the plot further – and also gives you plenty of anchors for the time and place, without shoving the research in your face. Quinn is very good on the clothes of his era…
This is the third in a loose trilogy: Curtain Call was set in the 1930s, then Freya took the story of some of the characters from the end of WW2 into the 1960s: now the story is picked up and moved on again. I’ve liked the series more and more as it goes on – I thought Curtain Call didn’t need the murder plot imposed on it (and I wasn’t convinced by the clothes - see the blogpost). But I loved Freya, and then this one even more, and hope there will be more.
The publisher’s blurb says ‘Sexy, funny, nasty, Eureka probes the dark side of creativity, the elusiveness of art and the torment of love’ and that’s a fair description. The characters are very rounded, and the book is entertaining and funny. It also contains a surprising amount of sex:
He briefly wondered if his hostess would provide the necessary, and, deciding not to leave it to chance, packed two Venetian carnival masks and his riding crop.The framework of the novel is a film Nat is writing (called Eureka), a tale with Henry James (who is quite the blog favourite) and ‘the figure in the carpet’ at its heart. The shooting of the film allows Quinn to bring in a wide range of characters and settings: from respected British actor to young actress/waitress; from German avant-garde director to East End gangster. And there are plenty of parallels between the film and the book, and we can look for our own figure in the carpet.
It’s a solid satisfying read, and particularly enjoyable because it has such a wide range of ages in the major participants, the story is not at all confined to any one age group – or to any particular world or milieu. I have read a lot of books set in the 1960s in recent years, and this is most definitely one of the very best.
I hope Anthony Quinn isn’t moving through the years too fast, and that there will be more of his history of the world…
Top picture is a Biba dress, second one shows David Hemmings taking his photos of the vivid dolly birds in Blow Up.