Monday, 25 May 2015

WW2 Books: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

published 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 2Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 3Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 4Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Henry walked upstream against the current of Japanese families that continued flowing toward Union Station. Almost everyone was on foot, some pushing handcarts or wheelbarrows weighed down with luggage. A few cars and trucks crept by with suitcases and bags tied to the hoods, the grilles, the roofs – any flat surface became ample cargo space as families loaded up their relatives and their belongings and drove off toward the army’s relocation center – Camp Harmony, Mr Okabe had called it. Henry looked out at the endless ribbon of people. He didn’t know where else to go. He just wanted to walk away, wherever that was.

observations: Many Japanese people in the USA were removed to camps during WW2 – there was a fear that they might be passing information to the enemy, that their loyalties might be tested. This book – set in Seattle with a dual timeframe of 1942 and 1986 – deals with a friendship between a Japanese girl and a Chinese boy during those difficult times.

I had a very conflicted response to the book: I used to live in Seattle, and I loved the tight detailed geography of the International District, the recognizable streets and sights and sounds, the Uwajimaya store. The content of the book – I was less keen. It seemed childishly cartoon-ish and unreal, with the lines drawn between the good people and the bad people. The 1986 section was full of bizarre anachronistic mistakes – I wonder did the author change the timing of the novel at some point? The hero, Henry, would be 56 in 1986, but is constantly referred to as an old old man. The final plot point in the 1942 section concerns a person who is bed-ridden and immobile - he has had  a stroke - managing to achieve something which would be beyond the abilities of a master-criminal. Oh well.

Many many people loved this book. I wouldn’t normally devote a post to a modern book I found as unsatisfactory as this one, but the subject matter over-rides that. However I would recommend that anyone who is interested reads David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars – similar subject matter and set nearby, but with enormous depth, and real characters and nuance. It’s a true literary novel.

And the point this time is the pictures, from a haunting collection at the US National Archives, showing Japanese families being evacuated from California.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

published 2013 set in 1940, so one of our WW2 books


Burning Summer 2

A small package landed on Peggy’s lap, flat, light, and wrapped in tissue paper.

‘You might as well have them. My figure hasn’t been the same since Claudie,’ said June, her own hands encircling her still slender waist. ‘Don’t suppose I’ll ever get them on again, I’ll make myself some bigger ones as soon as I can get my hands on some more silk.’

Knickers. Two pairs of swirling gossamer knickers – handstitched, cream-coloured, as French as you like – beautifully ironed and giving off the faint, prickling scent of mothballs.

‘Oh, June… can I… do you really...?’ Peggy held their softness to her face, and couldn’t believe her luck.

‘Have them…they’re a piece of cake to make, as a matter of fact. Look…. It’s just a big circle really, with another cut out from the middle. That’s how you get that nice floaty effect. On the bias. I’ll teach you that too, if you like.’

Peggy gave June a huge kiss, and she laughed again.

‘It’s just a couple of pairs of knickers… hardly the crown jewels! But I’m glad you like ‘em.’

‘Oh I do. I really do. I can’t wait to try them on.’

She couldn’t believe her luck, on every front. It had to be a good omen, didn’t it?

Burning summer

observations: I never really know what defines a Young Adult (YA) novel: that’s the category for this book, but it seems to me it is just a historical novel, good for everyone, and very interesting. It has a very specific setting in time and place: Romney Marshes in 1940. The UK lives in terror of an invasion by the German Army, and this is one of the coastal areas most likely to be a landing-place. Syson does a terrific job in making this very tense and scarey, given that we know it never happened: she really does make you think about the possibilities, and it’s a most sympathetic picture of how people felt.

Heroine Peggy is 16, and she and her mother and younger brother have moved in with an aunt and uncle on a farm. There is some mystery about where her father is. They work hard on the farm, and try to be good lodgers. But then a plane comes down in the Marshes, and Peggy finds the young Polish pilot Henrik, and for complicated reasons decides to help him hide – even though he is an RAF pilot, ‘on the right side’. As the summer wears on, she is sure she is falling in love with him. But everything seems hopeless….

The details of life seem truly authentic, they have the ring of conviction, and the book is very well-written. My only complaint would be that there aren’t enough light-hearted moments like the one above – and like the moment where Aunt Myra is revealed as sitting in the cellar during air-raids with a preserving pan on her head for protection. The subject matter is serious and sombre, but I could have done with more light relief. And although the final epilogue is satisfying in many ways, I thought some of the characters and situations were left unresolved, I’d have liked more information. But then that’s a tribute to the book’s ability to involve the reader.

The WW2 airfields on the East Coast also featured in Ellie Griffiths The Ghost Fields.

I was intrigued by the idea of the circular knickers, and couldn’t really imagine them: luckily, researching them brought me to the website Sew Vera Venus, which I highly recommend. Proprietor Jeanne gives detailed instructions on how exactly to make French knickers with this particular method – but that isn’t the half of it. Her website is full of the most beautiful clothes, vintage-style but designed and made by her, including a lot more amazing lingerie. Anyone with any interest in clothes should go over there straightaway – if you only look at one thing today make it this gallery. I guarantee you will be knocked out - after browsing her site I felt even more sorry than normal that I can’t sew at all – there are patterns and instructions for many of the items.

Jeanne kindly gave me permission to use the photos above.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Eurovision Special: Conchita is Unstoppable

The book: Being Conchita: We Are Unstoppable

by Conchita Wurst
as told to Daniel Oliver Bachmann

published 2015 in German, now translated into English by Iwona Luszowicz

conchita 2

[The Austrian entertainer Conchita is waiting for the results of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, when nerves mean she has to go to the bathroom]

The train of my fishtail dress was three metres long and the toilets were at the farthest end of the hall; we did not just run, we sprinted. When I arrived I had to strip down completely because the dress was so tight. But I couldn’t complain – after all, I had designed it myself. It had been created by the ART for ART costume studios in Vienna, which are the best in the world.

The company still employs expert artisans with the traditional couture accomplishments you rarely come across in Europe these days - milliners, seamstresses and costume dyers. My design had certainly needed their expertise. The fishtail dress was made of white glitter-speckled tulle, overlaid with golden lace and covered with Swarovski crystals sewn on by hand.

But now, as I began to get undressed, the microphone clip detached itself and ended up falling into… well you can imagine where.
So what did I do? I had to laugh because the situation was so wonderfully grotesque that you couldn't have made it up if you tried.

Outside in the vestibule I neatly cleaned and dried everything; fortunately, the sensitive electronics had not suffered any damage from coming into contact with water.

Conchita 1  

NOTE: Conchita Wurst is the drag queen persona adopted by Tom Neuwirth. Because the excerpt refers to Conchita’s activities, I am going to use ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout.
observations: Translators are brilliant people, whose talents I can’t even begin to imagine. They can transform a treaty, a political speech, a key scientific document full of technical terms, into another language, every detail accurate and perfect. But, they're not always blessed with fashion expertise. Luckily, the translator of this book made the right decision, and asked me for advice: Clothes in Books can’t speak a word of German, but we do know about glitter-bespeckled tulle and we can understand a fishtail hem. Elsewhere in the book, Conchita describes encounters with top fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, and again CiB was called in as fashion consultant, to help edit the descriptions.

This might be the blog’s proudest moment.

By now I am worrying about my American & other overseas readers: are you mystified? How could you possibly understand the nature and importance of the Eurovision Song Contest in European life? How could you imagine the moment last year when – well before the show – we saw the Austrian contestant, Conchita Wurst, and knew that the competition was over before she had even sung a note. (And that if she didn’t win, it would be a travesty).

Since then, the world (most of it) has welcomed Conchita to its bosom, and her life has been a supersonic jet journey of personal appearances, meetings with famous people, and sophisticated campaigning for LGBTQ rights. She produced a ghost-written autobiography to be published to coincide with the special 60th anniversary Eurovision contest, being held in Vienna tonight.

And so the autobiography had to be translated from German into English. And this is where we came in.

The book is a fun read, with an individual take on life and a happy ending. Conchita’s alter ego Tom Neuwirth did not have a great time growing up: Tom as a child was interested in clothes and preferred girls’ company to boys, and says there were ‘loud-mouthed attempts to stamp the otherness out of me’. A career as an entertainer was the way out, and eventually Conchita, with her unforgettable image, was born to delight us all.

Some Eurovision winners sink from view and are forgotten. Others, like Abba, take on the world. It seems unlikely that Conchita will be forgotten any time soon.

With thanks to IWONA LUSZOWICZ AND HER TEAM, who gave me the chance to be part of Conchita’s story, and happily introduced me to the fact that the German language has the possibility of the word Glitzerapplikationen.

Friday, 22 May 2015

WW2 Books: New Zealand Connection

I first came across Leimomi Oakes and her wonderful website The Dreamstress when I was looking at Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment – Leimomi had recreated Polly’s army uniform to absolutely stunning effect: see the pictures here on my blog and here on hers.

I’ve been featuring a few Ngaio Marsh books on the blog recently, and she told me that she had created a Ngaio Marsh blouse. JUST LOOK AT IT:

Colour Scheme 2

--  and there are more pictures on her blog here.

So then she also said that Marsh’s Colour Scheme had the best clothes descriptions, so naturally I had to read it next – and it also fitted in with my look at wartime and post-war books:

the book: Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh

published 1943

colour scheme 1

[A visitor wants to give a young woman a makeover] ‘Shall I make Barbara Claire a present? What was the name of the dress shop we noticed in Auckland?...There was a dress in the window, woollen with a dusting of steel stars. Really quite good. It would fit her. And ask them to be kind and find shoes and gloves for us. If possible, stockings. You can get the size somehow. And underclothes, for God’s sake. One can imagine what hers are like.’

[Barbara Claire wears the new outfit at a local concert] When she walked before him through the audience, he saw that Gaunt had wrought a miracle. Dikon’s connection with the theatre had taught him to think about clothes in terms of art, and it was with a curious mixture of regret and excitement that he now recognised the effect of Barbara’s transformation upon himself. It had made a difference and he was not sure that he did not resent this. He felt as if Gaunt had forestalled him. 

‘In a little while,’ he said, ‘even though I had not seen her like this, I should have loved her. I ought to have been the one to show her to herself.’
observations: Leimomi was absolutely right: Colour Scheme is very funny and entertaining, with a great plot, all kinds of interest in its setting and, yes, terrific clothes.

It’s set at a thermal spa hotel in New Zealand’s North Island in wartime. A retired colonial couple are running this enterprise in an excruciatingly bungling, amateurish way. There is a sharp-tempered doctor brother on the scene, and a son and daughter who are both unhappy. The vulgar Mr Questing hangs around causing trouble. Into this bubbling cauldron (nearly as hot and dangerous as the medicinal springs and hot pools) comes a great Shakespearean actor, Geoffrey Gaunt, and his entourage. The spa is next to a Maori settlement, and very close to Rangi’s Peak, sacred in the Maori culture. As if all that isn’t enough, there is a fear that spies might be operating in the area.

The details of the various crimes are – as ever – well-worked out and maybe just a touch less dull than Marsh’s plots usually are. (All that endless discussion of where everyone was at what exact moment, and what they could have seen.) But I have realized that you don’t read Marsh for the plots, but for the marvellous settings and the funny bits, the great characters and the clothes. I really felt I could see the awful single-story spa hotel with the verandah running round it, the thermal pools nearby, and the Peak high above. Every scene with the Great Actor in was wonderful, and usually very funny. (This was exactly the case also with yesterday’s book, Lissa Evans’ Their Finest Hour and a Half, with another actor stealing the scene). There was a nicely-done romance, and the Maori issues (which I feared would be wince-making) were handled with some sensitivity.

There were some hilariously shouty and embarrassing scenes in this one, with everyone anxious to protect the distinguished guest from hearing, while he is busy taking delighted notes for future performances.

Above comes a much trailed and strung-out makeover scene for Barbara Claire, with this splendid moment in the runup:
‘Actually,’ said Dikon stiffly, ‘she’s rather attractive. If you look beyond her clothes.’
‘You’re a remarkably swift worker if you’ve been able to do that.’
and also a nice description of her being forced to swim in a very old-fashioned swimsuit – ‘the longest and most conservative garment obtainable at the Harpoon Co-operative Stores’ – which must be covered up with a raincoat for the journey to the water. (For another look at the history of bathing costumes, see this entry, the appropriately-named Witch of the Low Tide.)

Colour Scheme 3

Barbara’s mother, ‘who looked as if she had just returned from a round of charitable visits in an English village’, shows a particularly splendid horror when it seemed as though more (and financially much-needed) guests are going to come to the spa:
Her expression suggested astonishment, followed by the liveliest consternation. ‘Oh, no,’ she cried out at last. ‘We can’t have another. Oh dear!’
There is a character who is there under a false name: Septimus Falls. I feel this name must have some significance (like Enoch Arden in Christie’s Taken at the Flood, or Mr Datchery in Edmund Crispin’s The Long Divorce) but I have been unable to discover any. (Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway dies when he falls out of a window, but that seems rather tenuous/tasteless.)

The Ngaio Marsh blouse is, of course, courtesy of Leimomi Oakes.

The lady in the black dress is the dancer Irene Castle, the photographer was Adolphe de Meyer, and the image came from Wikimedia Commons.

The swimming lady is a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, who can’t ever have suspected she would end up at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

WW2 Books: Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

published 2009, set in the early years of WW2

D 1080

[It's 1941. Arthur, a shy bachelor, is enjoying his visit to the set of a film being made about the Dunkirk evacuation.]

Nothing happened for a good hour. The tide began to creep in. Chopper the bull-terrier passed by, busily sniffing, and one of the young lady actresses stepped on a jelly-fish and screamed a great deal… Round about ten o’clock, a light wind began to pluck a the water and the young lady actresses were helped into a rowing-boat and taken across to a thirty-foot white-painted tub anchored a few yards off-shore. Both actresses were wearing trousers, which was just as well since they had to climb a fixed ladder and swing themselves over the gunwhales.
The director shouted something through cupped hands, and one of the young ladies positioned herself in the bows, a hand shading her eyes, while the other took the tiller. The director gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign and strolled away to speak to the cameraman. A few minutes later, a boy holding a bucket and brush waded out to the boat and started to daub the side with what looked like muddy water. The tide crept in still further.

D 1076A

observations: Lissa Evans is one of Clothes in Books favourite authors – she was most recently mentioned in our list of homefront books (two books), and she also featured on Christine Poulson’s matching list. Crooked Heart was on the blog last year (and was one of my books of the year): this is an earlier novel, and the one that first introduced me to her. When I read it back in 2009 I was knocked out: it was very funny, and readable, and entertaining, but also a proper novel, literary and serious, with an excellent and carefully worked-out plot, and a great theme in the making of a wartime action adventure film that will also serve propaganda purposes. The book follows several characters: Catrin, a young writer, and Edith, who will work on the costumes. There’s Ambrose, a fading and egocentric actor whose every appearance is filled with achingly funny lines; and Arthur, above, a military adviser – fair enough, because he was at Dunkirk, but inexplicable because he has little to offer the film crew.

If you look below the homefront blogpost, you will see Lissa Evans coming into the comments with a list of other books about the era. She is a frequent visitor to the blog, and has become a friend via our online interactions. But that doesn’t stop me objectively recommending her as a wonderful and undervalued author: I don’t know why this book didn’t win every award going. I am very glad to say that it looks as though a film is going to be made of 1.5 hrs [© CiB]: it should be wonderful. Get ahead of the game by reading this, and all her other books….

The book is full of potentially illustratable outfits, but I decided to go with these pictures of film-making, from the Imperial War Museum. They show the making of a film called Channel Incident, definitely in the same area as the film in the book (and actually briefly namechecked: Channel Incident comes up as a possible title, but ‘already a film called this, last year’). I love Peggy Ashcroft’s trousers, and the continuity girl looks pretty good too - and looks like my idea of Catrin. 

Used with kind permission of the IWM: top one is © IWM (D 1080). It has this caption:
Anthony Asquith (centre) directs Peggy Ashcroft and Gordon Harker (left) in 'Channel Incident', a film about the evacuation of Dunkirk made by Denham and Pinewood Studios for the Ministry of Information in 1940. The stars are standing on board a motor yacht, named the 'Wanderer' in the film. The microphone boom can be seen over their heads and a large light is also visible to the right of the photograph. Just right of centre, actor Kenneth Griffith can be seen, sitting in a rowing boat.
Lower one is © IWM (D 1076A): ‘The stars are standing on board a motor yacht, named the 'Wanderer' in the film. The continuity girl, two other members of the production crew and the microphone boom are also in picture.’

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Post-War Books: Spinster’s Secret part 2– The Hats

the book: The Spinster’s Secret by Anthony Gilbert

published 1946

Spinster hat 2

[Miss Martin wants to sneak out from the old people’s home where she lives]

If the hat remained on the bed, where it could be seen by Matron through the open door, it would naturally be assumed that she herself was in the house. Nothing would have induced Miss Martin to go into the street without a hat, and everybody knew it. But Mrs Mount [Miss Martin’s roommate] kept what she called her garden hat – a floppy black crinoline affair with red roses on it – in the hall, and Miss Martin was guilefully forming a plan by which she could escape from the house wearing the garden hat, by which trick she would, if seen, be mistaken for its owner, the two ladies being not unlike from behind, and wearing much the same sort of clothes. Though, come to that, most old ladies in homes dress very much alike.

Spinster's Secret

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on the book.

So much of clothes interest here – not being able to go outside hatless was certainly true for a lady of her generation who wanted to keep her respectability, and that continued for quite a time. In this case she wants to go out detecting, so goes up to her room to get her hat. She is caught, and has to pretend she is doing some mending, but is forced to leave the hat on her bed. And now she has the great idea above…

There’s not much in the way of sweet old ladies and solidarity in the home: Mrs Mount doesn’t take the borrowing of her hat lightly. There is a most unnerving scene where she destroys Miss Martin’s hat in revenge, and you fear she may be going even further.

Spinster hat 3

A crinoline hat has turned up on the blog before, in a Josephine Tey entry. The phrase is very hard to pin down – the best I can do is that it is a large hat with a wide brim. ‘Crinoline’ wasn’t originally the petticoat, or the framework a skirt sat on: it was a very stiff material made of horsehair – so I’m guessing the hat is made of it too. Also hoping one of my expert blogfriends might be able to tell me more.

The question of garden hats is one we looked at before, in the works of Wilkie Collins.

Miss Martin sends a telegram arranging a meeting, and for recognition purposes says she will be ‘wearing parsley’. I assumed this was going to be a mis-transcription, and she would be wearing paisley, but I was quite wrong: she has a ‘green nosegay pinned to the shabby coat.’

Writing about another Anthony Gilbert book I complained that there are ends left loose,and it was exactly the same here.  There are 12 pages of explanation at the end, but – and this is completely bizarre - the ultimate fate of one of the key characters is not revealed to us. The whole book is about this person’s future, so it is both puzzling, and inexplicable, and somewhat insulting to the reader, not to tell us.

As with Agatha Christie (and very much not with Josephine Tey, always happy to give us her own opinions) characters are given strong opinions, and it is not at all clear whether the writer would agree with them or not:
At 40 it was ridiculous for a woman to talk of wanting to live her own life. .. True, she talked a lot of nonsense about her work, but it transpired that she only ran an art shop…
The 40-year-old is a most unsympathetic character who won’t help out Miss Martin, so it really is not clear whether Gilbert thinks this herself…

There is also the frequent post-War idea that being in domestic service was going to be a splendid fate: ‘plummy jobs – home helps practically rule the roost.’ Again, it’s not clear if Gilbert thinks this, but the trope in books is always from people who will never have to do it themselves. (eg in Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington: Lucy Eyelesbarrow is quite splendid and we all love her, but still the whole thing is a fairy-tale, surely.)

Spinster hat 4

The second picture down is from the Library of Congress, and seems the most likely fit for the actual hat. But as in the previous entry, I wanted to cheer Miss M up, so found two more great hat pics from The Athenaeum website – by Lovis Corinth, by Maurice Prendergast – and brought back an old favourite by William Orpen, featured several times on the site, most recently for Mrs ‘Arris – it is an all-purpose hat picture.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Cold War: Spy Sinker by Len Deighton

published 1990

Spy Sinker 1

It was Sunday morning. They were in West Berlin: Leuschner’s, a popular barn-like café, with gilt-framed mirrors on the whole of one wall and a long counter behind which one of the Leuschner brothers served. Coming from the jukebox there was a Beatles tune played by the Band of the Irish Guards. The jukebox used to have hard rock records but one of the Leuschners had decided to refill it with music of his own taste. Werner looked round at the familiar faces. On such Sunday mornings, this otherwise unfashionable place attracted a noisy crowd of off-duty gamblers, musicians, touts, cabbies, pimps and hookers who gathered at the bar. It was not a group much depleted by church-going. Thurkettle nodded his head to the music. With his bow tie, neatly trimmed beard and suit of distinctly American style, he looked like a tourist. But Thurkettle was here to commit a murder on the orders of London Central. He wondered how much Werner had been told.

Spy Sinker 3

Spy Sinker 2

observations: From WW2 and post-War books to the Cold War. This is number six in Deighton’s triple trilogy – see the summary of the books and my trail through them here - and in some ways a disappointment. So far we have seen events from the perspective of Bernard Samson – five books of his view of complex events involving spies, defectors, trust and betrayal, moving between Berlin and London, occasionally venturing farther afield.

This book switches to a third person narrative, and goes back to the beginning, and before: the events of the first five books are retold, and fleshed out with more detail than Bernard would have known. We find out a lot more about how certain things were planned and arranged.

This is entertaining and helpful, but not as much fun as when Bernard is giving us his deadpan and perhaps unreliable version of events. It’s a useful corrective, and probably very helpful to tidy up our vision of what’s going on, get us all in line for the final trilogy, Faith, Hope and Charity.

And of course Deighton is never less than entertaining. There is one of his trademark scenes where two conversations/events are going on at once – like this at a cricket match:
The D-G was still watching the match. ‘I like it,’ he said without turning round. Bret smiled grimly. It was an uphill struggle, but that was something of an accolade coming from Sir Henry Clevemore, although it could of course have been prompted by some cricketing accomplishment that Bret [who is American] had failed to understand.
-- and plenty of 1980s clothes: ‘He was wearing a suede jacket and tan-coloured silk roll-neck.’

There’s an interesting comment on national differences by an American commenting on the English:
‘I don’t dislike them; I said I don’t trust them. London is a real nice place to live. But I don’t like their self-righteous attitude and their total disregard for other people’s feelings and for other people’s property. Do you know something, Bret, there is not an Englishman living who hasn’t at some time or other boasted of stealing something: at school or in the army, at their college or on a drunken spree. All of them, at some time or other, steal things and then tell about it, as if it was the biggest joke you ever heard.’
In yesterday’s entry I was quite rude about a woman using national stereotypes about the British: here I just find if funny, does that show I am in favour of dishonesty? (No!)

I was glad I read Sinker: it was helpful, and satisfyingly cleared up what was going on in the earlier books. But it didn’t really take the story any further, and my main feeling was that I was pleased I wasn’t reading these books as they were published in the series – imagine waiting a year for the next book of Samson adventures and finding it was this one. And then you’d have had to wait another four years for Faith to arrive.

You can find entries on the other books in the series by clicking on the 'Len Deighton' label below. 

The top picture is from the Federal German archives, and shows a café in Berlin in 1972. The lower one was taken by Willy Pragher and is on Wikimedia Commons: it was taken in the Kurfurstendamm in 1960. The third one was taken in the Wall Park in Berlin last year, by Audrey Stafford.