Tuesday, 31 December 2013

New Year's Eve And A Prototype Plain Jane Superbrain

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

the book:

Auntie Mame – An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis

Published 1955

[A couple of Pink Whiskers cocktails at Christmas have a dramatic effect on Mame’s mousey, frumpish secretary Miss (Agnes) Gooch]

She snorted and pulled off her orange tam-o’shanter, then she stared up at me long and hard. Her eyes, instead of being colorless, were a deep, glorious gray and they were enormous … she was – just for a moment – almost beautiful.

[She passes out and narrator Patrick – see this entry – is putting her to bed]

With a good deal of tugging, and with several of her loving stitches giving, I removed the mustard wool dress and dumped her on the bed, unlaced the health oxfords, and took off her glasses. Her hair looked quite pretty when it fell loosely on the pillow. As a matter of fact, I’d never noticed before, but Agnes had a damned good figure.

[On New Year’s Eve of the same year Miss Gooch’s potential, glimpsed here, has to be realized. Mame is ill and her fiancé needs a suitable substitute to take to a party he can’t afford to miss for business reasons]

“Put down that red one this instant, Agnes!” Auntie Mame said from the depths of her Kleenex. “You’re supposed to dominate it. … Here, that one, that good, tight, form-fitting Patou velvet.” …

Even with her plain white slip showing over the top of the black velvet evening dress, Agnes looked pretty good … She did have a form.

observations: When luminous Carey Mulligan played Violet Willett in ITV’s Marple: The Sittaford Mystery (see this blog entry for the non-Marple version), she looked gorgeous throughout and had only a pair of specs to make her, supposedly, into a mousey frump like Agnes. So once she took them off and revealed her true beauty, she hardly looked any better. The problem with ugly ducklings in TV and film is that you always know that’s what they are: the actress clearly has to be quite the hotty to carry off the big transformation, so if they’ve got her frumped up you know it’s not going to last.

But in a book you can get away with a lot more. Before the Christmas drinks, Miss Gooch is a bit of a bumpkin and her spinsterish personality (although she’s only in her twenties) perfectly suits her dull wardrobe. We don’t get any clues that she might be a babe in hiding. Then, the minute she’s drunk, she tries quite raucously to seduce Patrick. (Whether she succeeds or not is unclear.) And we gradually get to know that her body and face and hair are all lovely, and so are her eyes behind her comedy specs.

Not her skin, though. She has to be helped out by another Lydia van Rensselaer (see this entry) product: “Skin-Glo” leaves her whimpering with pain and “glowing like a red-hot rivet” but does the job of waking-up her skin, as Mame puts it. High heels instead of health oxfords is the final touch, and in the end, after six hours, Agnes can’t even see the result in the mirror because Mame won’t let her wear her glasses.

And how does it go? Well, without wishing to give too much away, she and Mame’s fiancé never come home after the party…

It is not that surprising that Patrick and Agnes are able to get cocktails at the Algonquin on Christmas Day, but it is a little surprising that they were able to go to a movie at Radio City. **

Readers of a certain age will probably remember the great event in Neighbours when swotty schoolgirl Plain Jane Superbrain was revealed to have been a hotty all along. They got around the problem I described above by virtue of the actress (Annie Jones) being a virtual unknown and the character (Jane Harris) brand new, so she could be geeky and speccy and frumpy (and of course, as this is TV, grumpy) and we never guessed what a swan she could turn into.

The main pic shows Carey Mulligan bravely trying but failing not to be gorgeous. The other shows I believe a genuine Patou black evening dress - although the picture is from 1950, whereas Agnes was borrowing Mame’s in the 30s. Also here’s an advert for some 1920s Patou gowns:

** The Guest Blogger is not quite as cosmopolitan as the original Clothes in Books, so apparently doesn't know that there is a long American tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day, nothing odd about that at all. 

But CiB is not, surprisingly, perfect. This entry, on Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, shows two Patou dresses as part of a recantation of an earlier entry.

Last year's New Year's Eve entry featured a horribly memorable party.

Thanks again to Trish Winter for the suggestion.

For more from the guest blogger, click on Colm Redmond below.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Skiing at Xmas: The Will and the Deed by Ellis Peters

published 1960

Chapter 8: She caught a glimpse of McHugh when she left the dining room. He passed through the hall from the outer door in a gust of frosty air, glowing with vigour and pleasure, and she saw that Trevor had been right. He had already managed to borrow ski trousers and boots from somewhere, and he left dykes of powdery snow outlining his footmarks on the scrubbed boards. The great sweater must have been borrowed too. He was a man who knew how to acquire what he wanted, wherever he might find himself. 

Chapter 10: McHugh came indoors when the
afternoon sun thinned and grew pale… Frau Agathe was beside him, keeping his speed with ease, checking and turning to correct his errors and guiding with advice and encouragement… In dark-brown ski trousers and a thick corn-yellow sweater, with a woollen cap pulled down over her fair hair, she looked like the most leisured and lovely of the winter tourists who never found their way up here to Obershwandegg.

observations: This book has featured before on the blog, and might have been allowed to slip back into obscurity, but this is one of the rare cases where the photos came first: having found Barbie and Ken in ski gear, they couldn’t be wasted. And The Will and the Deed does have a most definite seasonal peg too – the events take place while the cast of characters is trapped in an Alpine village over Christmas time. The author is very firm and clear about this, but then makes almost nothing of it - it’s not really important to the plot at all. The weather and the snow are, but nothing else.

As a murder story it has a very competent plot, but gets bogged down with endless discussions of who exactly was where at any given time, plus enough emphasis on who has a motive and who hasn’t to give any experienced detective story reader a big clue. The winter sports atmosphere is interesting and well-done though – in 1960 Peters would be assuming that most of her readers had NOT ever been skiing, but might aspire to, and the book reflects that.

Another attitude of the era is that an offstage character is reported as having hit his wife, but there is something of an implication that she deserved it.

Links on the blog: this book previously, and Hotel du Lac in another Swiss hotel. Last year’s Christmas-y Poirot pictured a young woman En Route to the Houseparty of Death. Dead Rich featured a Chanel snowsuit. Killer Barbie appears here.

The pictures come from the wonderful free vintage knitting pattern site. Clothes in Books has Guardian form when it comes to Barbies.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Xmas Presents: A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot

First published in French 1991 This translation by Linda Coverdale 1994

So here it is. I saw Valentina again on Sunday the ninth of this month, after more than a year she had been gone, and it was early in the afternoon, she wore a coat of midnight-blue velvet with a beaver collar and matching muff and bonnet, they must have cost an arm and a leg, but certainly they were a Christmas present, she was all chic and pretty and looked happy, cheeks red with the cold outside and her lovely black eyes shining. I was that happy to see her again and kiss her, I had to sit down. To me she brought presents too, a woollen blanket from the Pyrenees, slippers, oranges from Spain, and a little cross of real gold I wear since then around my neck, even at night, oh yes I was happy, you cannot imagine.

observations: Should be read with previous entry on this book, which explains the plot.

This is Tina’s godmother speaking, reporting by letter to Mathilde. Tina is a wonderful character, because she does not ever appear directly in the book, she is always being glimpsed through other people’s eyes. Eventually there will be a letter from her, but her speech and appearance are always reported, mediated. In the film she appears a fair bit, and is marvellously played by Marion Cotillard (pre-Piaf), as the subtlety of her non-appearance in the book could not be maintained.

When you finally find out what she is up to and what has become of her, it is a shocking twist. Her lover Ange has been with Mathilde’s fiancé Manech at the frontline: they are sent to die together. Although Ange is clearly shown as, pretty much, a worthless brute, while Tina is a prostitute, Japrisot treats them as no less important than the other characters. Tina and Mathilde are both trying to find out exactly what happened to the men.

As well as being a great book about war, the details of life in France are fascinating – and details are something Japrisot is very good at (the red mitten, the motor-bike, the plane tree and the poplar tree), along with dialogue and funny sideways comments – this is Mathilde:
Just as she is about to sit down at the table for her last meal with the family – no, I don’t hate you but how I’d like to strangle a few of you – she receives a telephone call…
The call contains devastating news, and it is the typical Japrisot touch to have such a light-hearted leadup to it.

Links on the blog: This book before. For other Christmas entries click on Xmas below. Louisa May Alcott’s heroine is offered clothes in velvet with a muff.

The picture is a fashion magazine illustration of clothes designed by Madeleine Cheruit, who has featured before several times on the blog.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Xmas visitors: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

published 1908

'What's up?' inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

'I think it must be the field-mice,' replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. 'They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They're quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over— they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.'

'Let's have a look at them!' cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, 'Now then, one, two, three!' and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

observations: Mole and Rat are visiting Mole’s old home, which he abandoned earlier in the year, and it is, of course, Christmas-time, and cold and snowy outside.

For more than 100 years children have responded to the strange and charming story of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad. These animals may not have proper names, but they have recognizable characters, and they live their lives like Edwardian bachelor gentlemen. I loved the book as a child, but re-reading it as an adult I kept tripping up on the relative sizes of everything – the animals themselves (badger would be a giant next to mole) and the fact that they’re drinking bottles of beer and talking about potatoes and apples; they have money and schools and clothes. You just have to try to ignore all that, and there are some nice touches where animal and human ways collide: Badger goes off to his study and is ‘very busy’, but that is because he needs his sleep in winter.

Nothing else that Kenneth Grahame wrote has survived, really, and apparently he did not have a happy life at all. But the innocent pleasures of this book will live on.

The top picture is from a 1923 edition of the book; 
the stuffed animals are from the Smithsonianand the festive koala bear is from the State Library of Queensland. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

Rustication by Charles Palliser

Published 2014 Set in 1863/4

As I reached the hall, suddenly there was Effie. She appeared as astonished to see me as I was to encounter her. And, moreover, she had obviously been out in the rain. We stood facing each other in the dim light. She looked as if she were about to attend an evening party. She wore her hair up and was in a dark green velvet gown I’m sure I had never seen before. It left her shoulders perfectly bare and was cut so low that it emphasised her bosom in the most striking manner. There were raindrops running down her naked shoulders and onto her front and into the top of her bodice. She has become a very handsome girl – tall, black hair, large grey eyes, regular features.

observations: This is the perfect post-Christmas read – if you have a few hours to spare and a comfortable sofa, then draw the curtains, light the fire, prepare some suitable snacks, and dive into this book. Those familiar with the works of Charles Palliser will know what to expect – a Victorian setting, clergymen, Cathedral towns, an unreliable narrator and all kinds of Gothic goings-on. Young Richard Shenstone has come home from Cambridge unexpectedly early – the clue is in the title – and finds his mother and sister have been forced by his father’s death to move to a dark miserable house in a lonely village. They are obviously not thrilled by his arrival, and they’ll be even less pleased when they find out what’s behind it. But someone is planning something rather dramatic. Who can it be? What is going on?

The action takes place between mid-December and mid-January, but there isn’t much seasonal cheer – Christmas is miserable, and the big centrepiece Ball, long looked forward to, ends in tears, and worse. All this is highly enjoyable (there are faint echoes of Lemony Snicket and the Unfortunate Events, so unrelieved are the bad things) and often very funny. Richard’s narration is extremely well-done – he is a horrid callow youth, obsessed with sex, but strangely endearing. But he’s obviously not telling us everything, and it’s clear his judgement can’t be trusted… Meanwhile there are anonymous letters in the village (warning: compared with the rest of the book, these are quite bizarrely unpleasant, containing very strong language) and violent attacks on animals.

There are quite a few loose ends (deliberately) left open, which some readers don’t like. I was more concerned by the fact that – as sometimes happens with this kind of book – you don’t know when the revelations have stopped: is there going to be one last twist? In the very finest books, the ultimate solution is so satisfying that you know you can settle with it. This doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it is still an excellent, sour read.

The picture, Young Girl in a Green Dress, is by John White Alexander and came from the Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Xmas crime on Boxing Day

The Flying Stars from The Innocence of Father Brown 
by GK Chesterton

Published 1911

[During a Christmas party, the young guests decide to stage a pantomime]

As always happens, the invention grew wilder and wilder through the very tameness of the bourgeois conventions from which it had to create. The columbine looked charming in an outstanding skirt that strangely resembled the large lamp-shade in the drawing-room. The clown and pantaloon made themselves white with flour from the cook, and red with rouge from some other domestic, who remained (like all true Christian benefactors) anonymous. The harlequin, already clad in silver paper out of cigar boxes, was, with difficulty, prevented from smashing the old Victorian lustre chandeliers, that he might cover himself with resplendent crystals. In fact he would certainly have done so, had not Ruby unearthed some old pantomime paste jewels she had worn at a fancy dress party as the Queen of Diamonds. Indeed, her uncle, James Blount, was getting almost out of hand in his excitement; he was like a schoolboy. He put a paper donkey's head unexpectedly on Father Brown, who bore it patiently, and even found some private manner of moving his ears.

observations: This is a crime that takes place on Boxing Day: the gentlemanly villain Flambeau tells us

my last crime was a Christmas crime, a cheery, cosy, English middle-class crime; a crime of Charles Dickens. I did it in a good old middle-class house near Putney, a house with a crescent of carriage drive, a house with a stable by the side of it, a house with the name on the two outer gates, a house with a monkey tree. Enough, you know the species. I really think my imitation of Dickens's style was dexterous and literary. It seems almost a pity I repented the same evening.

It is a classic Fr Brown story, with misdirection of a very particular kind. There are valuable jewels in the house – the Flying Stars of the title – and they disappear from the pocket of their owner. As a result Fr Brown turns out his pockets, and we find out that the contents are ‘seven and sixpence [37.5p], a return ticket, a small silver crucifix, a small breviary, and a stick of chocolate.’

And of course Fr Brown works out what happened during the amateur theatricals, and talks to the thief, who is sitting in a tree in a garden: it’s an affecting and beautifully-done moment, even though you suspect it would never happen like that in real life.

Another Fr Brown story is here – again with a setting in amateur theatricals, and with a comparison with this one. For more Xmas entries click on the label below. Lord Peter Wimsey -  'in a harlequin onesie' to quote blog friend Col - turned up in a past entry

The harlequin picture at the top, a magazine cover, is from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Nativity Scene - Happy Christmas

Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

published 1995

Each time he entered a sanctuary, Ives himself nearly wept, especially at Christmas, when the image of one particular church on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, whose choir was very good and the worshippers devout, came back to him, its interior smelling mightily of evergreen boughs, candle wax, and pots of red and white blossoms set against the columns. Dignified Irishmen, with greatly slicked heads of hair, dockworkers for the most part, turned up in ties and jackets, their wives and children by their sides. And there were bootleggers and policemen and carpenters and street sweepers in attendance as well. And a blind man whom Ives sometimes helped down the marble stairs; a few Negroes, as they were called in those days, all, Ives was convinced, believing in the majesty of the child. The old Italian ladies, their heads wrapped in black scarves and their violet lips kissing their scapular medals, and crucifixes and rosaries, kneeling, nearly weeping before the altar and the statues of Christ and His mother; and at Christmas, the beginning of His story, sweetly invoked by the rustic and somehow ancient-looking crèche.

A Happy Christmas to all readers of the blog

This book is a beautiful meditation on what religion and faith mean, and how we can cope with loss. It featured on the blog earlier in the year, when author Oscar Hijuelos died.

The Nativity scene is from the Claricia Psalter, dating back to the 12th or 13th century, when it was made for Benedictine nuns in Germany. It is kindly made available by the wonderful Walters Museum in Baltimore, who allow generous access to their images.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Eve, and it's Clothes in Books 700th entry....

Christmas themed books, pictures and blog entries:

It’s Christmas Eve, and this is the 700th entry on the Clothes in Books blog, so we've taken the obvious theme of seasonal books.

We started with an Advent procession early in December, and now there are Christmas entries all over the blog last week and this week: Carolling as a (possible) cover for murder came up, and Holden Caulfield’s pre-Christmas skating date in New York. Years ago the thought of a special seasonal outdoors ice-rink seemed very exotic and American, but now we have them all over the UK so it's not so special. (Not that they rent out little flippy skater skirts in British rinks, everyone wears jeans.) There’s a Christmas snowglobe and some horrible gift ties. Coming up there’ll be more Christmas crime (Father Brown and a Victorian pastiche), a childhood favourite, and some skiing.

There’ve been various wintry entries over the past year: Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? discusses the wisdom of going out ‘to the ruins’ on cold December nights – no good will come of it. Heavy snow was a feature of several books. In Harriet Lane’s terrific Alys Always the snow was a blank canvas before the heroine (?) decides to change everything.

The Sittaford Mystery is a satisfying Agatha Christie (and - unusually – a book not featuring any of her regular superstar detectives) and the snow is a very important feature, for reasons you wouldn’t necessarily guess.

There’s a reference to a modern-day Anna Karenina in a fur hat in Nicholas Mosley’s Impossible Objects – a wonderful book from 1969 – and this was the right picture for that one.

The Dark Winter by David Mark was a great new crime story – first of a series – set in Hull over a cold wintry Christmas.

From last year’s seasonal entries, we particularly recommend Nancy Mitford’s Linda and Fannie getting their Christmas presents in The Pursuit of Love: ‘My wicked parents turned up trumps’, and some lovely pictures - this is Fanny's fur hat: 

An absolute favourite picture and headline was this one:

'En route to the House-Party of Death' – Agatha Christie again, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas of course.

And to round it all off, there's Bridget Jones’s brilliant description of why Christmas is so annoying, in her entry on going back to the office in January:

It seems wrong and unfair that Christmas, with its stressful and unmanageable financial and emotional challenges, should first be forced upon one wholly against one’s will, then rudely snatched away just when one is starting to get into it. Was really beginning to enjoy the feeling that normal service was suspended and it was OK to lie in bed as long as you want, put anything you fancy into your mouth, and drink alcohol whenever it should chance to pass your way, even in the mornings. Now suddenly we are all supposed to snap into self-discipline like lean teenage greyhounds.

--- she has to wear that very short/non-existent skirt to get over it.

A Happy Christmas to all blog readers, supporters, commentators and contributors.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Driving Home for Xmas

Ruth's First Christmas Tree

A Ruth Galloway Short Story by Elly Griffiths

Published 2012

23rd December: ...Surely she must be near the Hunstanton turn-off by now? There is something mesmeric about the swirling snow; she imagines herself driving along this road forever, Norfolk’s answer to the Flying Dutchman, endlessly circling her destination, never again to reach the comfort of home. 

Only yesterday she bought one of those snow globes for Kate and had enjoyed seeing the child’s face light up when the globe was agitated and the little plastic scene disappeared under the ensuing blizzard. Now it’s as if she herself is trapped inside the glass toy, invisible behind the snowstorm. Her nose is almost touching the windscreen now. She’s sure that she’s missed the turning. No. Thank God. There it is, mercifully illuminated. Ruth takes the turning wide and continues her painfully slow progress. How does that song go? Driving home for Christmas

observations: The new Ruth Galloway book - the sixth in this excellent crime series -  isn’t out till February (tip: you can get it on Kindle a week earlier) so for anyone who is waiting impatiently for it, here is a sweet Christmas-y short story that Elly Griffiths wrote last year - and it’s free for a Kindle. It’s slight and charming, there’s no real jeopardy or major crime in it, but all our favourite characters are there in their full glory, and it is, of course, funny. Griffiths is very good at describing a Christmas party, and a hostess who insists you must come early, then is busy with all her other friends, then says ‘so this is where you’ve been hiding’. You wouldn’t get an idea of the intricate crime plots in the novels, but a very good idea of the wonderful characters in the books - including the thinking woman’s favourite policeman, the deeply un-PC Harry Nelson; and Ruth herself, the forensic archaeologist who makes the series so enthralling.

We can only hope Elly Griffiths goes on writing them forever. The 5th one, Dying Fall, featured on the blog in February. 

For more Xmas entries click on the label below. The picture is from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Xmas poem, by John Betjeman: hideous ties so kindly meant

Christmas by John Betjeman

published 1954

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain.
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker's Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that villagers can say
'The Church looks nice' on Christmas Day.
Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant. 

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

observations: John Betjeman had a strong faith and a keen interest in the Church of England. He is also the poet of ordinary people, provincial suburban people of the middle classes – although quite posh himself and very much mixing with the gentry. (His wife Penelope turns up rather unexpectedly in this entry - Evelyn Waugh modelled his version of St Helena on her, apparently.) Betjeman's poems were comprehensible and accessible – especially compared to some of his contemporaries – but none the less meaningful for that. And the images and stories they tell do live on – the bombs on Slough, Joan Hunter Dunn, and the couple in the teashop:
She such a very ordinary little woman;  
He such a thumping crook;  
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

And in this poem, ‘hideous tie so kindly meant’. (If you search on 'hideous ties' on Google images you get quite the collection.)

The big picture is of Fenwick’s department store in Newcastle in 1962, star lights above, window shopping below. It is from the Tyne & Wear Archive and Museum.

See more Xmas entries by clicking on the label below.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Xmas carols, and a nice seasonal murder

Odd Woman Out by Sebastian Fox

published 1958   chapter 9

Incongruously, at this moment, into the enclosed silence of the room came a sound from the road outside: voices in harmony, singing of the birth of Christ.

‘Listen!’ said Penelope, lifting a finger. Her eyes glowed with wonder… ‘Carol-singers! Isn’t it lovely? We must ask them in and make them some coffee.’

‘Is there milk enough? … Have we enough cups?’

‘We’ll manage, somehow.’ She went impetuously to the door. ‘Come in, good people, out of the cold. Such a nice surprise. We haven’t chairs for you all, but you won’t mind standing, I expect.’

Muriel Tallow [led] her party in. ‘A merry Christmas to all.’

There were eight of them including herself. They crowded rather sheepishly into the hall, shut the door quickly behind them, and stood waiting for they knew not what, full of polite murmurs and vague smiles.

‘Make yourselves at home, if you can,’ said Penelope, ‘while I go and get you a hot drink.

observations: Seasonal though this sounds, the carol singers are there for one cynical reason: to provide even more suspects in the murder of Cousin Emily – an unpleasant old lady, not much regretted. The book is very firm about being set at Christmas, but like various others, there is not much attempt at a festive atmosphere. In fact, it seems as though the author is rather casual about dates. The poor woman dies overnight Sunday/Monday. The investigation starts, then nothing seems to happen for several days – ‘Come and dine with me tomorrow evening. Both of you’ says the amateur helper, a solicitor, to the investigating policemen, and apparently there is no activity in the interim. By Thursday they manage to visit the dead woman’s bank – the manager appears entirely justified in his complaint that he should have been informed of the death earlier.

Then suddenly it is Christmas Eve, and the crime is solved and all is well. There was altogether too much plot in this book: there was gas in the dead woman’s room, cyanide in the glass, bruises on her neck, a possible heart condition, no fingerprints where there should have been. There’s a will, there’s money, there’s a religious angle, and a policeman who talks in quotations. And one of the old ladies, Miss Penny, talks in rhyming platitudes:
When trouble comes, of this be sure:heaven has blessings still in store.
So pretty much a classic English mystery of its date, 1958, and a good easy read – perfect for Christmas. Book and author are pretty much forgotten now, he's not even listed in most of the murder story reference books.

For more Xmas entries, click on the label below.

The picture, of one Alida Bosshardt leading the carol singing in the Netherlands, is from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Boy, did she hit the ceiling when I said that

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

The Catcher In The Rye
by J D Salinger

published 1951

[16-year-old Holden Caulfield is meeting a girl he hasn’t seen for some time, for a pre-Christmas date]

Finally, old Sally started coming up the stairs, and I started down to meet her. She looked terrific. She really did. She had on this black coat and sort of a black beret. She hardly ever wore a hat, but that beret looked nice. The funny part is, I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I’m crazy. I didn’t even like her much…

“Lets go ice-skating at Radio City!”

That’s the kind of ideas she always had. …

“You can rent those darling little skating skirts,” old Sally said. “Jeannette Cultz did it last week.”

That’s why she was so hot to go. She wanted to see herself in one of those little skirts that just come down over their butt and all.

So we went, and after they gave us our skates, they gave Sally this little blue butt-twitcher of a dress to wear. She really did look damn good in it, though. I have to admit it. And don’t think she didn’t know it. She kept walking ahead of me, so that I’d see how cute her little ass looked...

[Later] “C’mon, let’s get outa here,” I said. “You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth.”

Boy, did she hit the ceiling when I said that.

observations: Holden, from an era when teenagers supposedly didn’t exist, is seen as the archetypal teenager. But it’s highly unfair to teenagers
 to see him that way. Yes, his voice is a cocktail of baseless certainty, wilful ignorance, funny but lamentable lack of empathy, and stunning self-unawareness. (He’s always a little surprised when people don’t appreciate his own bad behaviour – see the last bit of the extract above.) No, you can never really like him even though the people who annoy him annoy you too. But anyone who thinks all this is specific to teenagers can never have read a newspaper letters page or column, or the comments on any of a million blogs or message boards – except CiB, obviously - or any social media at all. At least Holden has some excuse, in being so young. 

You could say his default position is overreaction, and that that’s what makes him funny. He often responds to people who in truth are just being a bit irritating as though they are war criminals. He tilts at the wrong targets in a way that only properly reveals itself to you when you’re older: for example, he seems to hate his prep-school roommate Stradlater for thinking he’s God’s gift to women, but maybe it’s because he actually is, at least in the sense that girls adore him. (The Urban Dictionary actually lists “Stradlater” as a noun meaning a man irresistible to women. So it must be true...) And he can’t simply say that Sally looked good in her skimpy dress, he has to look down on her both for wanting to, and for wanting him to notice.

Of course I was wholly on Holden Caulfield’s side, when I read the book first and I was a teenager. But it’s a great example of a book that reads differently as your own age changes. Reading it now, when I could easily have grandchildren Holden’s age, I find myself giving everyone else an easier ride, because I think they’ll behave differently and maybe better when they grow up a bit; but not Holden. I think it’s because he’s the one who’s already had his say. (As has Clothes In Books, see these entries…)

The most famous outdoor ice rink in NYC, often mentioned or seen in TV shows and films, is at the Rockefeller Center. Well, so is the famous music hall, Radio City: Holden and Sally go to that same rink. It’s been operating since 1936.

I was spoilt for choice with pictures of people looking good in black coats and berets but the winner had to be Debbie Harry in her awesome prime. The skater showing her legs off has a pretty good excuse, even if they’re the wrong kind of skates. As far as I know she was a real drive-in waitress, about the time Holden was writing.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Guardian books blog: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

published 1949

The Guardian newspaper's books blog is doing a series about people’s favourite comfort reads: I chose to write about Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Attentive blog readers would know it has been one of my most featured books at Clothes in Books – and not only because Nancy Mitford loves and knows her fashion. The piece is at the Guardian website here, and these are the opening paragaraphs:

As all Guardian readers know, the royal family traditionally likes to play parlour games around now. In 1949/50, according to Nancy Mitford's biographers Selina Hastings and Laura Thompson, the charades included one where the then Queen "kissed the King & shivered & everybody guessed at once!!" The answer was, of course, Love in a Cold Climate, which started enchanting readers, royal and not, in 1949 and has never stopped.

It is a book about rich, aristocratic people, people with titles and no jobs, and although Mitford liked to claim to be left-wing, she was never one for giving up any of her privileges, and had some decidedly undemocratic ideas about the role of women and who should have the vote. And yet the book is subversive as well as funny and comforting. These people, with their firm self-assurance, their conviction that they are the top of the pile and deserve all the comforts they have, are gently sent up and shown to be absurd. And – strangest of all – a plainly gay character is introduced, has a wonderful time and (apparently to the horror of American readers and publishers in the 50s) is allowed his own happy ending and lovers. Click here to read more….

You can find the past blog entries on the book here, and the search for Cedric's ball costumes - pictured below -  here and here. 

Not being sensible about clothes in this entry, with the red Schiaparelli jacket shown above, and the debutantes talk clothes in this one.


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Twiggy in Black and White by Twiggy Lawson (Lesley Hornby)

Published 1997  chapter 3   early 1960s

Before long, Biba was Mecca to everyone from shopgirls to debs…. Not only did the clothes look amazing, you could afford to buy something every week. I remember I bought a dress in brushed cotton jersey, lemon with shocking pink zig zags… Already the hemlines were creeping up. It was two inches above the knee. The first dress I bought was a linen shift with a keyhole neck. Another one I remember was A-line with tight, tight sleeves that ended in a puff at the shoulder, with little pearl buttons at the neck. All classics. If only I had kept them.

It wasn’t like any other shop I had ever seen. There were no rails, just clothes hanging off wooden hat stands and wicker baskets filled with T-shirts like vests with shoe-lace necks. There wasn’t even a proper changing room and not even that much choice. The clothes changed all the time… there were no women saying ‘can I help you madam?’ just young girls with long blonde hair wandering about tidying up the clothes that littered the floor and hanging them back on the hat stands….

observations: When Lucy Fisher, friend to this blog, recommends a book, then I always listen. She said I should read this, so I did: it is no work of literature – considering it is ghost-written it ought to be a bit better – but it does tell a fascinating story, and my goodness Twiggy loves her clothes. Her eye, her passion, her memory for virtually everything she ever wore is riveting. Although she came from nowhere as a model (no experience, no contacts, not really tall enough), you suspect that if she hadn’t been derailed she would have had a most successful career in her first choice, which was clothes design. One excellent detail is that before she hit the big-time, she was making enough money to live on just by making a couple of pairs of trousers a week for a market-stall.

The book contains a lot of lists of Twiggy’s famous friends – all lovely people that she adores – and of her triumphs on stage and screen. But sometimes her voice comes through more strongly, and it is usually over clothes or in one case make-up – after 30 years she can explain why she thought Yardley was not the right name for her to be linked with, and how exactly the colours of their Twiggy lines were different from what she was actually wearing. She also had a deal with chemical company Monsanto, who were making man-made fibres then but are now more famous for GM food, and this picture is part of a campaign for Klopman Mills, another fabric firm:

The book ends before she took up the role she is now known for in the UK: being the face of the retailing giant Marks & Spencer. No doubt there will be another slice of memoir later…

Biba was one of the game-changers of the 1960s until eventually they went out of business – it was very dark in the shop, and was widely believed to be a shop-lifter’s paradise. Everyone did love the clothes, and the top illo is from one of the mail order catalogues they produced in 1968/69 so that young girls in the provinces could aim to look like that too, or at least look at the pictures.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce

published 2001

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

The girl in the Welsh national dress appeared in front of me, blocking off the light.

'Hi, handsome!'

I looked up warily. 'Hi.' At close quarters I could see her outfit was only a faint echo of Welsh national dress: a basque, fishnet tights, a shawl and a stovepipe hat sitting at a jaunty angle on a mass of black curls.

She held out her hand. 'I'm Bianca.'

It would have been ungracious not to shake her hand, but I knew that once shook, that arm would act like a drawbridge enabling her to gallop across and sack the citadel of my wallet whenever she pleased. I hesitated which made her wiggle her hand impatiently in front of my face, grinning. ...

'Myfanwy told me to look after you.'

My heart fluttered unaccountably. 'She did?'

observations: The scene takes place in a hostess club. The girl the detective is talking to is alluring, but she's the wrong one. This is all familiar hardboiled-detective-story territory, but as the title suggests, this one takes place in small-town Wales and all the stock characters are present but a little skewed.

This kind of flippant take on the world of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe is in itself quite familiar territory by now, but this one is better than most. Raymond Chandler, for example, has a colourful, wisecracking narrative style, but describes a world that is brutal, dangerous and usually at best pretty amoral. Some modern takes on the genre also go heavy on the jokes and the clever metaphors and the wacky supporting cast, but forget to bed them into a serious story. The symptoms of Chandler's style are there but not the real thing.

Malcolm Pryce, however, has written a proper story with real peril, that also has room for the fun and humour and characters with daft names like Calamity. And Druids, by the way; something I don't think Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett ever thought of including. There are a further five books about this private detective, Louie Knight, with similar punning titles, such as The Unbearable Lightness Of Being In Aberystwyth.

I'm going to level with you: I don't think the ladies in the main photo ever worked at Moulin Goch, Aberystwyth's - apparently, the whole of Wales's - "most notorious nightclub". But they maybe understood Welsh traditional costume better than Bianca did. She probably looked a lot more like this pic, which is of Miranda Kerr dressed up to host a Halloween party in NYC.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell

published 1955

[Mrs Bradley and Laura Menzies are involved in a country house party featuring a Sherlock Holmes fancydress party]

Laura… invited Mrs Dance into her room and displayed the outfit of Mrs Grant Munro. ‘Not really my kettle of fish,’ Laura mournfully observed. ‘Wish now I hadn’t taken it on. I’ve been re-reading the script, and it seems to me that something in the line of Miss Mary Sutherland would suit me ever so much better. I’m big enough, goodness knows, and I’d adore to wear a boa and a picture hat, and look good-hearted and common…’

‘Mrs Grant Munro?’ said the enraptured Mrs Dance, eyeing Laura’s preparations. ‘Married to an African, and a black baby thrown in for good measure? My dear, this is where we change parts! It may take us all night and all to-morrow morning to make over the clothes, but who cares? And dear Bobo will be frantic at having his arrangements upset, and I do love him when he’s frantic!’

‘Here, I’m not a bit of good in the dressmaking line,’ said Laura hastily, alarmed by the suggestion that needlework would be involved in the changeover.

‘No need. I have a certain genius that way...'

So, to Sir Bohun’s inarticulate fury, Mrs Dance, mischievous and pretty, appeared as the adventurous, experimental Mrs Grant Munro, and Laura scored a major success as the inhibited, faithful, cruelly misled bride-left-at-the-altar, Miss Mary Sutherland, boa, picture-hat, and all. This shock to the host came at a bad time. No sooner had Mrs Dance first broken the news to Sir Bohun that she and Laura had changed costumes than she added that she refused to dine wearing her bustle...

observations: I was reminded of this book when doing a blog entry on Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, following on from one on women in trousers. Clothes in Books does love a fancy dress party, (see this recent entry for links to earlier discussions) and this is an exceptionally good one, no complaints this time that not enough is made of the party. There is deep fog outside, locked rooms with sinister explanations, and a giant dog with luminous markings jumping in through the French windows.

Plus a lot about the damn bustle.
‘Nobody asked her to wear a bustle,’ snapped Sir Bohun. ‘No bustle is mentioned in the text, so far as I am aware, as being part of any lady’s costume. Nobody but Brenda Dance would have thought of wearing such a tasteless and frivolous appendage.’

I always enjoy reading the Mrs Bradley books – see earlier entries here and here – but they are very strange and most unlike other crime books of the era. The plots don’t really make sense, there are thousands of loose ends, all kinds of strands are raised and followed for a bit and then ditched. So they’re not for everyone. But who could not want to know what happens after this sentence:
She had become aware of a stealthy footstep on the stair and had seen a shadow appear where the thin winter light picked out the banisters.
And what about this piece of important detection:
Nothing but a love affair – preferably a clandestine one – should keep a girl of her age from toboggans and skis, I feel.
Mrs Bradley is definitely one of the great heroines of detective fiction.

The pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.  

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Paris Album 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau

Published in French as Portraits-Souvenir in 1935

This translation by Margaret Crosland published 1956


Mountains breathe, move, slide against one another, climb up and penetrate into each other, and the century-long slowness of this rhythm escapes us…

A film should be made of the slow-moving periods and fashions that succeed one another. Then it would be really exciting to see at high speed dresses growing longer, shorter and longer again; sleeves growing fuller, tighter, then full again; hats going down and up, perching on top, lying down flat, becoming decorative then plain; bosoms growing fuller then slighter, provocative and ashamed; waists changing places between breasts and knees; the ocean-swell of hips and haunches; stomachs which advance and retreat; petticoats which cling and froth; underwear which disappears and reappears…

Silk conquers wool, wool conquers silk; tulle floats, velvet hangs heavy, sequins sparkle, satins crease, furs slip over dresses and around necks, going up and down and round the edges, and curling up in a frenzied panic like the animals from whom they are taken

observations: It’s hard to imagine who might be the British (or American) equivalent of Jean Cocteau. He wrote poetry, novels and plays and was also a film director and artist; and he also knew anyone of any significance in the world of the arts in Paris over 60 years. The extract above tends to tell you all that – the use of words, the images, the wish to make a film of it, the knowledge of society. His 1946 film of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast is ravishingly beautiful, and often listed as one of the best films of all time.

This book is not a proper memoir, just a few images from his life, ‘souvenir portraits on a grand scale’, and he does warn the reader not to be too trusting of details and dates. It is absolutely enchanting, full of lovely images, wonderful words, and meetings with all kinds of important people - Isadora Duncan, Edmond Rostand, the Empress Eugenie, Colette and blog favourite Francois Mauriac.

At one point he seems to claim that as a schoolboy he simultaneously lived at home and in a rented apartment his mother knew nothing about – typically she only found out when a newspaper contacted her. He remembers as a child ‘the luck of not being old enough to understand the Dreyfus affair’ , and reminisces at length about the magic of the theatre and his great love for a play of Around the World in Eighty Days. He says that the wonderful singing during the tragic ending  of Tristan and Isolde is all very well, but what really gets him going is the words of Phileas Fogg: '20,000 banknotes for you, Captain, if we reach Liverpool tonight!’ He does sound immensely likeable.

This cartoon from 1900 shows the fashion in bosoms advancing and retreating:

The other pictures are from adverts of the time.