Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Clothes to travel in

Our group of crime fiction fans has this month chosen a theme to write about on Tuesdays: we picked Travel and Holidays/Vacations – in any way the blogger chooses to interpret it.

TNB picture

New and casual participants are always welcome: just send your link to me or one of the others, or put it in the comments below. Or you can do a guest blog for one of the regulars.

Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo – that’s us going up the gangplank to murder…

Curt listed all the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ links over at his Passing Tramp website here, for week 1.
Week 2 links here.
Week 3 links here.

I’ve looked at a couple of different items this month - a Josephine Bell book, an Agatha Christie, and an obscure (but great) 50s book by John and Emery Bonett, set in a holiday hotel.

This week, in line with the theme of my blog, I’m going to take a look at clothes to go travelling in….

Let’s start with the train station. Big journeys tend not to start there these days, but they did in the Golden Age. So here is The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie, 1928

Travel fashion 1
Very perfectly dressed in a long mink coat and a little hat of Chinese lacquer red, she had been walking along the crowded platform of Victoria deep in thought.
The picture is Woman in Coat and Hat at train station, from a 1920s fashion magazine, from the NYPL.

Crime connection: she is also travelling with some very expensive jewels.

Or - this was my choice for a fashion editor travelling to and from Paris for the collections (see Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes).

Travel fashion 2

--- photo by Toni Frissell from the Library of Congress: it is widely described, and has been for years, as being taken at Victoria Station. But in the world of crowd-sourcing correction, and in an unlikely conjunction of high fashion and trainspotters, it is now claimed for Paddington.

Crime connection: Who is smuggling the fashion designs?
But perhaps you, the murderer, the victim and the witnesses are all travelling by boat? With a pool and sunshine? You’re going to need some appropriate clothes:

Travel fashion 3travel fashion 4

These were chosen for the excellent Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh.

Crime connection: there’s a serial killer on board.

Meanwhile, wealthy Linnet Doyle has a deceptively simple frock for her cruise down the Nile in one of Agatha Christie’s finest:
travel fashion 7
crime connection: Linnet should never have pinched her friend’s boyfriend…

Last week’s Tuesday Night entry showed some excellent beach outfits for your days on the sand, but we’ll just add this picture of holiday footwear:
travel fashion sand

But perhaps, like Harriet D Vane in Have his Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers, you want to go on a hiking holiday? People have told me that they remember Harriet as wearing trousers, but this is not the case – she is in a sensible skirt and a jumper.

Travel fashion 5

Murder interrupts her holiday, and she needs more clothes – a dinner and dancing dress to please Lord Peter, and a vamping outfit for getting info from a suspect.

Travel fashion 6
crime connection: Harriet has a murder to solve

Delano Ames published Murder Begins at Home in 1949 – contrary to the title, it is about a couple going away to stay on a ranch in New Mexico, and what I looked at in my blogpost was contrasting ideas of what constitutes proper riding clothes for those trips out into the hills - the world was changing just after the war:
travel fashion 8travel fashion 9

crime connection: it’s very embarrassing when your holiday hostess is murdered...

One crime film. If you look like Grace Kelly, then you can be a ‘wealthy tourist’ in Hitchcock’s film To Catch a Thief and dress in this – possibly the most fabulous beach/holiday outfit of all time.
travel fashion Grace

crime connection: jewel thieves again.

So there you have it – fashion bloggers and instagrammers often post pictures and collections of capsule wardrobes, or suggested packing lists: I think Clothes in Books readers can be confident that if they assemble all the outfits pictured today then they will be ready for anything, whether it’s sitting on the beach reading a crime book, or planning something heinous yourself.

However – one last tip – beware of: beach pyjamas, velvet stoles, large hats, distinctive shawls. And that's just the clothes. Also avoid: people who swim up to you in a quiet moment and somehow don’t seem to be helping you, professional dancers at the posh hotel, standing on cliff edges or under loose rocks. (H/T to fellow Tuesday-Nighter Kate Jackson - see her similar advice, channelling the Sainted Agatha, on her armchair reviewer blog).

Then you’ll be fine.

Monday, 23 May 2016

My Friends George and Tom by Jane Duncan

published 1976

HU 93851

[Janet is taking George and Tom to a cocktail party]

‘You had better shake out your kilts and give your sporrans a brush.’

The kilt was a long-standing joke among us as it is with most true Highlanders. It was regarded as a suitable hard-wearing dress for the young [niece and nephews] Liz, Duncan and Gee, of whom Liz the eldest was the only one ever to have a new kilt. Her first kilt had descended through Duncan and Gee and was now in storage awaiting Sandy-Tom. George had worn the kilt for seven years as a Seaforth Highlander, that is, as a uniform, but no grown-up Sandison would wear the kilt as a private citizen. It was worn mostly by landowners of English or even more foreign extraction or American tourists and a few exhibitionists who were possessed as a rule of physiques ill-suited to its exacting demands.My Friends George and Tom 2

‘Och, there will be no need for George and me to go to the party,’ Tom said. ‘It is yourself that they will be wanting and only asking us to be civil.’

‘You will go, both of the two of you,’ I told them. ‘You got me into this bazaar-opening nonsense and you will take the consequences.’

commentary: This is the final volume of Jane Duncan’s My Friends… series, and it’s been a long read for me. My first post (on the first book, My Friends the Miss Boyds) was published in June 2013 I see. I’ve read them all since then, and blogged on most of them – for list and overview see here.

Long term heroine (and author-substitute) Janet has returned to where she grew up , though not to her childhood home, which was sold several books back. She is sharing a house with George and Tom – one her uncle, one a long-term member of the family. They are aging, but they manage well together. Many characters from previous books turn up, and a lot of stories are rounded out – at least one person is given a change of heart. As usual, there can be some hard attitudes from Janet, and Monica gets short shrift. And there is a very strange, and presumably of-its-time, storyline about a Down’s Syndrome child.

The book is very meta, with Janet now a best-selling author – writing the books that we recognize as the My Friends series. This is quite hard to cope with, it must be said, I feel we are all inside the book. But it’s a gentle mellow story, and it’s nice to have the loose ends tied up.

You know what must happen to her elderly friends, and Duncan chooses to do it very sensitively. It’s a kind gentle ending, beautifully done. And she has one last surprise for the reader following family history.

I never could remember which was which of George & Tom.

I thought that was very interesting about the kilts, I wouldn’t have known that. George was at Reachfar during the First World War, so his army service must have been before that. So the picture, from the Imperial War Museum, shows the Seaforth Highlanders on the Anglo-Egyptian Nile Campaign of 1898, under Lord Kitchener.

Janet always liked her clothes, so in her new role as bazaar opener and cocktail party attender (because of her fame as a writer) I have given her a smart outfit and hat of the era, from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham

published 1936


Flowers for the Judge 2

Gina was pottering in the big living-room, clad in a severe man-tailored pyjama suit, when the woman admitted her visitor. She looked up from the hearthrug, where she was sorting her morning’s correspondence, when he entered, and his vision of her, kneeling there in the warm navy blue suit, was the only lovely thing in all that day...

Flowers for the Judge 3

[Later, the scene above is a matter of question at an inquest. The daily woman is on the stand:]

[the coroner said:] ‘I see that you took Mr Wedgwood into the room where your mistress was kneeling by the fire in pyjamas… When you say…pyjamas, Mrs Austin, do you mean her night clothes?’

The woman stared at him. ‘No, I don’t,’ she said. ‘It’s a new fashion. Little serge romper suits. Ladies wear them in the morning about the house. Very nice and respectable they are, something after the style of a naval uniform.’

commentary: Poor Mrs Austin is doing her best to protect her lovely employer, but her every word is a disastrous mistake – everything she says in her extended evidence makes Gina sound like an adulterous floosie, plotting the death of her husband. Mrs A sits down after giving evidence
…bursting with pride. ‘I showed ‘em,’ she said ‘they didn’t get much change out of me - nosey parkers!’
- completely unaware that her evidence has made Gina and her friend look guilty as hell.

[This is not a spoiler – there is an author’s note at the opening of the book making it entirely clear that Gina’s friend Mr Wedgwood is going to be tried for murder.]

This entry is another result of the discussion this month of books set in publishers’ offices – we started with Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, and then looked at John and Emery Bonett’s No Grave For a Lady. Readers came up with quite a few suggestions (and plenty of ideas for authors who SHOULD have written about publishers but didn’t – Christie, Sayers and Marsh) – but this was by far the most mentioned, so naturally I had to read it again. And what a joy it was.

There is a publishing office, a family business with family accommodation attached. This is in a quiet corner of Holborn (so hard to imagine now) - and there is a lot about another house in Streatham. Descriptions of both these places are done wonderfully well - I’m always cautious about describing anyone but Dickens as Dickensian (and am critical of others who do so) but her treatment of London does remind me of CD. The address of Horse Collar Yard, and then this lovely passage:
It was one of those warm blowy days when every street corner is a flower garden presided over by a stalwart London nymph still clad in the wools and tippets of winter and the air is redolent with an exciting mixture of tar, exhaust and face powder.
And of course timewise this book was published 80 years ago – and 80 years before that Dickens was in full flow.

At one point Campion goes to visit a potential witness. He taps on the door with ‘the brass knocker which bore a relief of Worcester Cathedral and had come from Birmingham via Bruges.’ This is completely irrelevant, the witness isn’t in fact terribly important, there is no significance in the knocker, and I don’t really know what this description means – it is hard to imagine. But it’s the kind of detail that Dickens, and Allingham, and sometimes Dorothy L Sayers, do well. It wouldn’t crop up in Agatha Christie unless there was an important clue there.


Perhaps you think life was lived at a slower pace in 1936? I don’t think so – Miss Curley is a respectable older maiden lady, a mainstay of the office. This is a description of (alibi for) her evening on the night of the murder:
Miss Curley left the office at half past five and went to Peter Robinson’s to have her hair shampooed. She left there at 6 and hurried on to the cocktail party… in Manchester Square. At 7.30 she left and went on to dinner at Rule’s with Miss Betcherley of Blenheim’s literary agency, and at 8.50 she caught a tube train to Hammersmith.
I need to hear from my online and offline friends in bookish London if this is a typical timetable these days. Another literary man’s alibi is that he took his landlady’s husband to the circus at Olympia, which has a dashing unexpectedness (and a hint at something…).

I loved the book – but because of the picture of life and the characters, particularly Ritchie, and the strange buried story about the man who disappeared years ago, and the affecting and very satisfying ending. And Lugg is at his finest. The main plot, the murder method, and the murderer seem less important.

By the way, I don’t know if I am being exceptionally dim or un-noticing, but I have no idea why the book is called Flowers for the Judge, and would love someone to explain the title.

The top picture is an advert for washing flakes. The other pyjamas are from a wonderful and highly recommended site called Wearing History.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

published 2015

Buried Giant

[Chapter 1opening lines]

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much else to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of children.

Buried Giant 2

commentary: I’ve liked other books by Kazuo Ishiguro a lot, particularly Never Let Me Go, but had my doubts about this one: it is set in the Dark Ages in England (sometime after the Romans left, in the first millennium of the Common Era) but in a world of some fantasy with ogres and dragons.

Buried Giant 3

An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, are unhappy in the place where they live (I’d never have thought I would mind so much that they are not allowed a candle, but I did) and decide to travel to see their son, even though they don’t seem to be able to remember much about him. Along the way they encounter many other people, joining forces with some of them. They stay in a monastery, they encounter a boatman, they wondered about a journey to an island. Another character is Gawain, from the chivalric romance about one of Arthur’s knights. There is trouble between Britons and Saxons.

The book is plainly jam-packed with references to myths and legends and English literature, and I’m sure I missed half of them. But I still enjoyed it hugely in a way that is hard to explain. The book had a hypnotic effect, almost hallucinatory, as you lived through the journeys and encounters.

The book came out last year to very mixed reviews – some people hated it, with its stately language and inexplicable happenings. There are plenty of articles out there about it, and interviews with Ishiguro, and I found reading them helpful after I’d finished the book.

It seems that the point of his story (as with many of his books) is the importance of memory and forgetting – he says in this interview that
the starting point was something like: ‘There’s a whole society where people are suffering some sort of collective, and strangely selective, amnesia.’… if I had to write the next line of the summary, it would be, ‘There’s a couple who fears that without their shared memory, their love will vanish.’ And then the third line would be that the nation around them is in some kind of strange tense peace.
I don’t think I truly understood all of the book, and I’m not doing a great job of explaining what was so good about it. All I can say is, don’t necessarily be put off by the trappings of it. I could not be less of a Tolkien/Game of Thrones reader, but that didn’t matter at all.

The picture of a Saxon settlement is from an American textbook of history.

Gawain and the knight from a 1910 book of chivalry.

The dragon is an Apocalyptic one from a book in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning

published 1972

Rainbird Pattern

[Miss Rainbird is hesitantly deciding whether to trust a clairvoyant, Madame Blanche]

Madame Blanche arrived at 6 o’clock that same evening and was shown in by Syton to the drawing-room. The curtains were drawn for the night and on a small table were set out a sherry decanter and cocktail biscuits. Madame Blanche, Miss Rainbird noted, was less soberly dressed than on her first visit. She woreRainbird 4 a plum-coloured dress with matching shoes and there was a long string of large artificial pearls around her neck and looping down over her ample bosom.
[Another meeting is arranged, at the clairvoyant’s house:]

Miss Rainbird sat in the front sitting-room. She had expected a room with touches of the colourful flamboyance which marked Madame Blanche’s clothes. She was wearing now, at eleven in the morning, a long purple gown, deeply V-cut at the neck. Tied around her waist was a length of red silk scarf. Her pearls today were wound in a close chain about her throat, and her red hair hung loose to her shoulders (beautiful hair, thought Miss Rainbird, well-brushed and obviously well cared for) giving her an oddly girlish look. The room itself, however, was well and quietly furnished. The two pictures were very good water colours of parts of old Salisbury.

 Rainbird Pattern 2

commentary: For a time there I thought Victor Canning was going to be forever associated in my mind with bedjackets. Last week I featured his Mask of Memory: it is a truism that I can never predict what will catch readers’ attention most on the blog, but bedjackets certainly did it – there was endless and fascinating discussion here and on social media on this item of clothing (French? pointless? extinct?). Amongst the commentary, blogfriend and writer Lissa Evans nominated Rainbird as a memorable Canning book… so I had to go and order it before even answering her, and read it straightaway. And there on p15 was a woman with ‘a short-sleeved bed jacket over her handsome broad shoulders’. Ha, I thought, imagining a second teasing entry focussed on this item.

But – no. The rest of the book swept me away, bedjackets were forgotten, and I would say this was the best thriller I have read in a long time, deeply memorable and with a most remarkable ending, just as Lissa said.

The book follows two strands. There is a clever kidnapper about, capturing high-profile figures with a carefully planned and complex strategy, and claiming a huge ransom. One of those shadowy departments in a miserable London office is trying to track him down, hampered by secrecy. Men referred to by their surnames, everyone miserable, and the weather co-operating. (By being miserable too. The pathetic fallacy.)

Alternating with this story, and much more entertainingly, we look at Miss Rainbird – a wealthy spinster, last of her family, ready to consult Madame Blanche. She is very suspicious, and is forceful and clever and unwilling to be conned. But she has family business she wants to put right.

Blanche is a wonderful character, smart and warm, blowsy and cheery, sharp yet kind, but not at all as clichéd as that sounds. She and her lover George are the sweetest, most charming couple you could ever meet in a book – flawed and real and funny. She is an intriguing mixture of fraud and reality. As you go through the book you are never quite sure how much of her spiel is real and how much might be fake – Canning is deliberately vague. George is an ever-hopeful remittance man, living on an allowance from his family, always about to make his fortune. Blanche pays George to find out details about her potential clients, details that she can drop into the sessions. She also has a lot of intuition and uses that to full advantage.

Miss Rainbird is no fool – again, she is sharp and real and very funny. The three of them go back and forth, wondering where to go next, not always confiding in or trusting each other. As readers we know that the family secret they are investigating must be connected with the kidnappers: then a third strand is introduced, and we can see the kidnapper’s thoughts.

This book is a tour de force, incredibly clever and funny and tense, and very very real. The descriptions of people and places are as good as any literary novel (many of the settings are actual places, and ones near to where I live) and I think I will remember them for a long time. There is one event in the book (not the ending) which really threw me, I don’t know when I’ve felt so strongly about something that happens in a book…

And there are additional incidental pleasures.

It's always interesting to see this in a book of 1972, about what we think is a modern concern:
Everyone talks about conservation now and pollution of the environment, but he was at it when we were at school [ie 20 years earlier]
Miss Rainbird is like a particularly good Daily Telegraph Social Stereotype, complaining about the
dreadful accents of the sons even of some of her well-connected, wealthy friends… all looking like gypsies even though they went to Marlborough and Wellington, and worse still when they went off to university living with equally disreputable girls, taking drugs and protesting against this and that…
not a word need be changed for today.

A five-star book, highly recommended.

In my reading for an entry last year, I learned that Rainbird 3a ‘pythoness’ is a woman thought to be able to foresee the future and commune with spirits. I think Blanche might have liked the name, and also this photo from the Library of Congress, which I have to remind myself (having used it several times) is actually meant to be Potiphar’s wife from the Biblical story of Joseph. But she makes a good pythoness.

Blanche is a great one for clutching her long string of pearls while in a trance and talking to her spirit guide Henry, which is why I chose the 1920s photo from Kristine’s photostream.

The next picture, plum-coloured dress, is by Charles W Hawthorne from the Athenaeum website.

The strangely modern-looking woman in green also looked just right - it is a portrait by Vincenzo Catena from early 16th century.

Tracy and GGary helpfully pointed me in the direction of the existential ennui review of this book, and Tracy also noted for me another useful site about Canning’s loose series of Birdcage books, covering both Mask of Memory and this one.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Holidays & How They Change

Our group of crime fiction fans has been choosing an author each month to write about on Tuesdays: this month we’ve decided to go for a theme instead, and picked Travel and Holidays/Vacations – in any way the blogger chooses to interpret it.

TNB picture

New and casual participants are always welcome: just send your link to me or one of the others, or put it in the comments below. Or you can do a guest blog for one of the regulars.

Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo – that’s us going up the gangplank to murder…

Curt listed all the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ links over at his Passing Tramp website here, for week 1.

Week 2 links here.

And my friend Bill from Mysteries and More wrote this entry a while back on a PI visiting Hawaii -

Aloha, Candy Hearts by Anthony Bidulka

-- what a great title!

Bonett 1

For this week’s entry, I was originally going to look at the reasons that holidays provide such great settings for crime stories. But fellow Tuesday-night-er Kate Jackson forestalled me – she did such an amazingly complete and fascinating post last week that there’s nothing left to say. It’s highly recommended and it’s here.

So I decided to think small instead. I took one of my favourite holiday-related crime stories: a really obscure book from 1959, set in a grand hotel on the fictional Channel Isle of Lyonesse. I re-read it, looking specifically for ways in which the holiday-ing population of murder victims, culprits, accidental witnesses and star-crossed lovers might be typical of their time, and might reflect the differences between 1959 and 2016.

Bonett 5

The Bonetts aren’t remembered much as detective story writers, but I think should be re-discovered.

No Grave for a Lady by John and Emery Bonett

published 1959 or 1960 – not clear

Last week I looked at the 1957 Nicholas Blake book, End of Chapter, and there was some excellent discussion here and on social media on the question of books set in publishers’ offices. It was only when I cracked open this one that I remembered that it has a publishing setting too: Andrew and Ashe Adams have just started their own business, the finances are dicey, and their star author, Lumina Flowers, may have libelled an aging German film actress, Lotte Liselotte. She is on holiday in Lyonesse, so author and publishers head off there to try to stage a fake-chance-meeting and persuade her not to sue. The Bonetts’ series character, Professor Mandrake, happens to be holidaying there too.

The book is almost more of a novel than a crime story – we know from the beginning who will die, but it doesn’t happen till page 170 of a 205-page book. By that time we are invested in the plotlines, and saddened by what happens. We get to know a large cast of characters – all well-defined, I had no problem keeping them straight – and a lot of the book is about their relationships and problems. There are plenty of jokes and funny observations on life and on holidays and on femmes fatales.

Bonett 3
Lotte cool and elegant in her sundress…

It reads more like a Persephone or Virago reprint at times – and that is most certainly a compliment. I’m always surprised that it was written by a couple – it very much feels like a woman’s book, and much of it is seen through Ashe’s eyes as she worries about her husband, Andrew, and his time spent with Lumina, the pretty, childless, bath-hogging (see below) author. However the male pov may be coming in at the times when you want to tell Ashe to slap her husband round the face, and Lumina too: the book is rather keen on her being clever and pretending to be cool about it, which led to some harrumphing round here.

And now, on to my list of key differences and similarities:

1) This is an up-market, fancy hotel for the monied classes, but no-one has a private bathroom.
Seven o’clock was zero hour for the hotel hot-water system. Blistering or carefully oiled grown-ups preparing to dress for dinner vied with the harassed mums of sand-grimed, over-excited children who had somehow to be got to bed. With less on their minds, the grown-ups won every time, and Ashe found herself keeping one eye on the nearest bathroom door for three-quarters of an hour while with divided attention she unpacked basic necessities for her own and her family’s first night at Lyonesse. When at last the bath-water gurgled out, the pink and fragrant person who emerged was Lumina Flower, which was about all she needed to endear herself to Ashe.
Not particularly relevant to the murder in this case, though there is some bathwater in Agatha Christie’s ur-holiday text, Evil Under the Sun.

2) Sunshine. There is an awareness that being out in the sun too long is a bad idea, and that wearing cream would be a good idea.

Bonett 6

3) There is a surprising amount about men’s shirts, and how washable they are. One character only has one shirt, which he washes each day. The ones in this advert would be perfect.
4) Dress codes
‘Is it nice at Floris Point?’ [Nearest town to the hotel]
‘Oh yes. There’s everything; Woolworths and fish-and-chips and pin-tables and movies. There’s a casino but we can’t go there. They won’t let you in until you got proper long trousers. Jeans won’t do. They got to be cloff.’
‘Cloff’ is my favourite phonetic spelling this year. (The speaker is a Rough Boy). But surprisingly, the rules are much less strict for women, and it is made clear that a woman in trousers CAN visit the casino.

5) Everyone brings masses of clothes with them – 14 evening dresses for some women – and many suitcases, and endless time has to be spent unpacking (2 separate sessions) at the beginning of the holiday, and then packing up at the end – there is much discussion, and plenty of time set aside, for both these things.

Bonett 2

6) People write letters in the hotel writing-room, on hotel writing-paper. Bless.

7) Television – there is a lot of comment on who has TV and who doesn’t. The Rough Boys are very familiar with it, but the main family doesn’t have TV because they are both poor, and upmarket intellectuals. It is seen as a class indicator.

travel bonett 4

8) Everyone is surprised that WW2 is still a subject of interest and controversy – they’d have expected that all to be history now. There is an idea for a joke best-seller: I was Hitler’s Dog. Sadly we don’t seem to have moved on at all from this.

9) There is plenty of discussion of how to bring up children which, with minor changes, could be put it any modern novel. Are parents too careful, do they zoom in to help too much, should children be allowed to play on their own? May they mix with the Rough Boys?

There is a splendid moment where another parent asks Ashe to dance:
‘My daughter hit your son on the head with a two-masted schooner. I think it’s fair to consider that an introduction.’
Ashe’s response, ‘from force of habit’ is ‘What had Benjy done to her first?’

Mind you, the hotel takes quite a sniffy view of children, despite being happy to take their parents’ money – I think this may have been very typical of the times, and one hopes has changed a bit.


So lots of great period details – and plenty of wonderful clothes too, which I hope I have reflected in the pictures. There is a tremendous final-night-dinner scene with everyone in their best outfits and all kinds of undercurrents and tensions.

There was an earlier entry on this book some time ago, concerning Ashe’s stockings, and making very similar points – I said Ashe is ‘torn between child, childcare, work and marriage, & fears she has missed out all round’ and that it could be a novel from now in that respect…

Lotte’s sundress from Kristine’s photostream. Other pictures from adverts of the era.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

published 2016, set in 1976

trouble with goats 2Trouble with goats 4

[Grace and Tilly are going to a funeral]

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea, Gracie.” Tilly stood in front of my wardrobe and stared into the mirror.

“You told me you didn’t have anything black,” I said.

“But it’s a poncho.”

“It has black in it,” I said.

She peered at herself. “It has lots of other colours in it as well.”

“It’s important to wear black at a funeral. It’s respectful.”

“What black are you wearing?”

“I was going to wear my black socks,” I said, “but it’s too hot, so I’m wearing a black watch strap.”

I tried to hand her my spare pair of sunglasses, but then I realized she hadn’t got any arms, so I put the sunglasses on her face. “I still don’t understand why we are going,” she said.

commentary: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set in the long hot summer of 1976, and has proved very popular since it was published earlier this year. Cannon has had lots of positive reviews and the book has sold well and been snapped up for a TV drama. I wanted and expected to like it a lot.

Half of the book is narrated by Grace, who is 12 and lives in a Midlands town. She and her friend Tilly know everyone locally. A woman goes missing: the street is agog, and Grace and Tilly set out to try to find out what is going on. Alternating with Grace’s narration, we look at events in the street from the POV of other adults, and we also look back to events 10 years or more previously. I found these shifts in narration unsatisfying, but Grace was more of a problem.

Child narrators can be difficult. In one of my all-time favourite books, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, the heroine Cassandra overhears someone describing her as a ‘consciously naïve’ kid and she is mortified. Ever since, that phrase has been my test for child narrators. I would say that about 95% of literary children, including Grace and Tilly, are exactly that, and it is a bad thing. Some reviewers have complained that Grace’s language, and her way of speaking and thinking, are neither internally consistent nor even possible. That’s true, but of itself wouldn’t bother me – I just didn’t find her very interesting. The plot was fairly obvious and contained few surprises, and I thought it dragged on and didn’t to me seem a very subtle book.

But I can see that many many people very much enjoyed the book, and there were positive things in it – some of the descriptions and phrases were clever and there were some good moments. I liked this about Grace’s mother:
“Fine,” she said, after a moment. “Don’t mind me. You do whatever you think is best.”
“Fine,” said my father. “We’ll go.”
My mother looked disappointed. She was used to her words being escorted by a translation.

And the clothes were good, as in the scene above, with its view of mourning. And always glad to use some photos from the Free Vintage Knitting Pattern site – there are many treasures there, but the poncho pictures are particularly good.
In fact, for years I have been looking for the book I canTrouble with goats 3 illustrate with this (right), the splendidly-named Lady-Man Poncho Skirt. Still searching. (And there is a tremendous gaucho in a poncho in this entry, on Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.)

Last week, at the Fashion and Fiction event featured on the blog here, the question of Clothkits came up: a certain kind of sewing package with a very distinctive look, forever associated with the 70s and 80s. Although not mentioned in this book (the parents involved would not have had time for that) those distinctive Clothkits pictures certainly made me think of the girls in the book.

trouble with goats

More books about 1976 – Maggie O’Farrell, William Boyd, and Claire Fuller.