Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Coldest City [comic]

Cold War spy stories are increasingly rare these days - with the Cold War over, that's no real surprise. However, I love a good espionage story, whether on film or in a book. The Coldest City is the first one I've read in graphic novel form.

This story is set at the end of the Cold War. The action actually takes places while the Berlin Wall is coming down. Lorraine Broughton, a British agent with no connection to Berlin, is sent to the city after another agent is killed there not long after one of his sources promises him a list of all the agents, on all sides, in Berlin. Because much of the story is told by Broughton at her debriefing, you know something has gone wrong, but what, and when, at at whose instigation, you have to wait to discover.

I liked Sam Hart's sparse, angular black-and-white artwork. I always loved mono artwork in 2000AD back in the 1980s, and was gutted when they switched to colour. You really see the power of pure monochrome in The Coldest City and, of course, having only two colours is perfect for a game of two sides. I also think the storyline is fascinating; writer Antony Johnston pulls no punches and does create a tense, complex tale. It's a proper old-school spy story, and it's refreshing to have a female lead character. (One who's in no danger of ending up on Escher Girls, either.)

There is a 'but', and it's a deeply subjective 'but': I really would have preferred there to be more words. Perhaps it's because I work with words, and am not really a terribly visual person. I remember words and music and smells far more than pictures. More words would have spoiled this as a graphic novel, it's beautifully weighted in its current form, so I'm not wishing for more words within the graphic novel... what I'm wishing for is an actual novel. As I said, that's very subjective. It's a backhanded compliment of sorts: The Coldest City is beautifully done, to the point where I wish there were more of it for me to linger over.

So, my big but aside, would I recommend it? To graphic novel fans, definitely. It also might be a good dose of realism for teens who think spying is all Spooks and James Bond; it's a world away from that sort of silly whizzbangery. As a fan of spy novels I don't regret buying it, but I'd probably reread a John le Carré or John Buchan before this.

Disclaimer: I bought my copy for full price with my own money. Antony and I used to work together years ago, but if I'd hated his comic, I simply wouldn't have reviewed it here. I liked it enough to tell you about it!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

1950s crime drama: Crimes of Passion

I am very excited that BBC4 has finally announced Crimes of Passion will be broadcast soon! I thought you might appreciate an advance warning, as it can be easy to miss good programmes coming up away from BBC1 and BBC2, and Doctor Who seems to be capturing the world's attention right now. I love Swedish crime dramas, I love old crime fiction, so what could possibly be more exciting than a Swedish crime drama set in the 1950s? That's all sorts of good things in one! And the first programme is being broadcast at the end of August.

The programme has been described as 'Mad Men meets The Killing', and the storylines as 'whodunnits'. The novels the episodes were based on were written between 1949 and 1958, so a little earlier than Mad Men – and as each episode is a complete case, I'm wondering how the comparison to The Killing arises, as that's one case to a series. The overall feeling I got from the trailer was one of cool remoteness, of trees and lakes and that amazing northern daylight that lasts for 24 hours in summer. If anything, it felt more reminiscent of Wallander, not that it's always easy to gauge a show from its trailer. Still, we don't have long to wait before Crimes of Passion is broadcast and we can all find out for ourselves, and you can bet I'll Tivo it.

According to The Guardian today, BBC4 is also going to be running a gothic season, including a programme on gothic rock. As seeing The Sisters of Mercy on Top of the Pops was mindblowing to teenaged me, I'm very much looking forward to that, and taking a little trip back to the 1980s, though I do hope there's something on old horror movies too... could it be too much to hope that they broadcast a few Universal classics for Halloween?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Vintage as a pick-me-up

Sometimes I've just got to retreat into an old magazine...
Most of us get a bit down from time to time. I'm not talking about depression, which is a serious illness, more the sort of thing generally healthy people feel occasionally. I have to confess, when I'm in the sort of mood where I'm feeling like a failure, things like blogs and Pinterest can make me feel worse, because it feels as though everyone else 'out there' is just perfect, endlessly spurting forth creative marvels while holding down an amazing job and living in a fabulous home. No-one else seems to be fat, forty, and treading in cat sick on their way to make breakfast.

The other week I found myself mired in the glums because a friend instagrammed a shot of her gorgeous midcentury kitchen. 'Why don't I have a gorgeous midcentury kitchen?' I thought. 'Why don't I have a gorgeous deco living room?' And you know what? That was stupid. I actually have a modern but 1950s-influenced kitchen, which fits into the very tiny space and which I chose precisely because it would be easy to keep clean. It's exactly the right kitchen for my house. And I don't WANT a deco living room! The sort of house interior I've always craved is, I suppose, Victorian Explorer, packed with all sorts of interesting things from around the world, and now Mr Robot and I are able to travel more, it's what we're achieving. There are paintings from Cuba and Burma, dishes from Barbados, Italy and Spain, a vase handmade in Wales, and I love them all. Vintage, I have to remind myself, is not a competition. You don't get points for having or wearing the right things. There's no certificate. You don't pass or fail. (Apart from in the eyes of a few purists who are probably best avoided anyway.)

Not shown: kitchen chaos
Away from the internet, though, I find vintage is both a 'comfort blanket' and a pick-me-up. The first thing I see when I turn my computer at work on is Rosie the Riveter declaring WE CAN DO IT! Yes, Rosie, we can. Deadline day? WE CAN DO IT! Photoshoot needs rearranging? WE CAN DO IT! Rosie is my icon. When I want to withdraw into my shell, or am faced with a horrible task, she's there, telling me that we can do it. Me and Rosie, what a team. When there's housework to be done, Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw keep me company, their swing tunes encouraging me to adopt a more positive and enthusiastic approach to the chores. I don't think it's any coincidence that both Rosie and most of that music date from the 1940s, that was very much a 'buck up and get on with it' time.

Perhaps weirdly, I also find my magazines from the 1920s-60s quite encouraging. Maybe it's because they're distant in time from me. Maybe it's because they're magazines, whereas blogs and photos on Pinterest are made by real people now. The magazine is only ever an ideal, something to aspire to, whereas if real people can manage to live a mess-free, picture-perfect existence (even when they've got kids) it says I'm clearly not trying hard enough, or am simply rubbish, if I don't manage it too. Sinking into the magazines is a wonderful break from the real world, and when I put them down I'm ready to take on the world again, cat sick and all.

Do you have a favourite vintage pick-me-up? I heartily recommend a daily dose of Rosie, but I'd love to know what fills you with WE CAN DO IT! confidence.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A couple of Odhams 1940s knitting books

This week my friend Sarah - whose wedding cardi I knitted - got in touch and asked if I'd be interested in buying a couple of Odhams knitting books another friend of hers was selling, so I said yes. Today Sarah delivered them. She was wearing her wedding cardi! I'm so happy that she likes it so much.

These books are from the 1940s, and they're real classics. You may have seen similar ones for sale at vintage fairs or even own some. Susan Crawford has an impressive stack of Odhams knitting books. Unlike later publications I own, such as Knit With Norbury, there's a strong emphasis on knitting for men in the books I bought today, with extensive sections of jumpers, cardigans, socks, mittens and headgear for the chaps, though the war itself is never mentioned.

There's also a typically wartime focus on make-do-and-mend, with chapters at the back of both volumes on restyling old knits. One way was to cut out worn-out areas and combine the good bits with other knitting or fabric sections, which is what you can see in both the pictures below. The child's dress is a too-small frock and old cardigan turned into a fake-cardigan-dress garment, while the woman's jumper is a shapeless old cardigan that's had a contrast front and collar added to turn it into a smart jumper.

The other way to reuse a knackered old knit was to rip back the entire garment, and steam the usable wool to remove any kinks before reknitting it into something completely different. There are little knitteds, like hats, gloves and waistcoats, which make use of small amounts of wool. Nothing could be wasted! It's very difficult to do that sort of thing today as most modern knitwear is factory made from cut-and-seamed knitted fabric, and if you try to rip it back you end up with lots of short fragments of yarn, not a nice usable length.

One book also has a chapter of colourwork garments; when you recycle an old woollie you rarely get back the complete amount of yarn, some is wasted. Fair isle and other colourwork styles use less of any one colour so knitting in several colours is a great way to get a large knit out of two reclaimed colours, neither in a large enough amount to make a garment by itself.

The 1940s isn't really my era (stylewise, I'm one for the 'streamlined' eras, either deco or midcentury), and I couldn't picture myself making too many of the items from the books, though a couple did catch my eye. The lace stitch blouse is really pretty, and has a cute pointed-edged collar, and the turban hat is tremendous fun. There's also a lovely lace bedjacket in the same volume as the lace stitch blouse; I don't know why I want a knitted bedjacket because I certainly don't need one, but I do adore them. (Do you have a bedjacket? There just seems something deliciously leisurely about sitting around in a nightie and bedjacket reading a book. Though I'd probably be wearing flannel pyjamas under mine and watching Star Trek, and thus the romance is deaded...)
Of course, any new knits will have to wait. I'm still plugging away at my 1940s fair isle cardigan. It's slow going, as I'm not the quickest knitter in the world, fair isle is time-consuming and I'm knitting the fronts and back all in one piece, but I am very pleased with how it's progressing. I'm still not 100 per cent convinced by the teal band, but I love the little row of flower shapes and think it should all look jolly nice when it's finished.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Goodnight, Baby

Lauren Bacall passed away on Tuesday. She was a Hollywood legend: beautiful, talented, and with Humphrey Bogart part of an on- and off-screen partnership that smouldered in many a classic film noir. The two first acted together, and she made her debut, in To Have and Have Not. That's not my favourite Bogie and Baby film, though it is possibly Mr Robot's, as he fell utterly in love with Lauren Bacall in that. Mine's a toss-up between The Big Sleep and How To Marry a Millionaire (one screen, three bombshells!). Like Katharine Hepburn, her wit and intelligence shone through in her performances, though she also had serious sex appeal – the quinessential film noir 'dame'.

In these days of endless celebrity dramas, one thing that stands out about Lauren Bacall is how notorious she wasn't. She managed her private life gracefully and privately, which is remarkable when you think she was only 20 when she first got married (to Bogart, her great love). Her fame endures not because of her beauty and talent, not her personal business. Some of today's stars could learn a lesson in graceful living from her.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

One owner since new - a couple of 1990s dresses

I was doing a bit of mothbusting today - I'd noticed a couple of the blighters in our bedroom and decided to refresh all the clothes moth killers, even though the ones I'd seen looked too large to be clothes moths - and one of the places I tidied up / checked contents for damage was my bedlinen trunk. As well as duvet covers and pillowcases, it's home to the few items of 1990s clothing I've kept.  I thought it would be fun to share a couple of favourites.

 We were pretty hard up when I was a kid, so when I was in my late teens and earning money as a waitress during the holidays and getting a student grant in term time, I was still pretty careful what I bought, and I really looked after my clothes. On the one hand, this did mean I wore some of my absolute favourites to destruction, but others have survived in rather good nick. It's funny, even though I never felt part of mainstream culture, looking at these does show how much mainstream culture can impact on the style of a subculture.

First up: the tie-dye dress. Yup, this dates from the very early 90s - 1990, in fact, the era of Madchester, the Second Summer of Love and all that guff. So, it predates grunge! And while Iwas a goth, in its tie-dye you can see influences from the whole Madchester thing. I bought it at Snetterton Market, a procession of tatty stalls selling counterfeit band T-shirts, cheap homewares, leather jackets... I'd never bought anything quite so me, quite so little like the things everyone around me liked. It could be worn with the narrow bits tied up (first photo) or hanging loose (second photo) - it's really rather short when they're tied, but when did that ever stop a teenager? I know it must have been in 1990 because I wore it to a Fields of the Nephilim gig at UEA that Autumn, and I still have the T-shirt from the gig, complete with the date. The T-shirt is in rather sorrier condition than this dress.

The Neph still tour, and because it's large and stretchy this dress is the one item from my tiny-torsoed youth that I can still get into. I've debated going to see the band perform and wearing this dress, but I dunno - I'm not the same, they won't be the same, and perhaps the experience would kill the memory.

Then there's the crushed velvet babydoll. Ay caramba, can you get much more 1990s than that? I got this from Miss Selfridge in Norwich, the winter of 1993. It's testament to the indestuctibility of synthetic velour, that's for sure, as I'm pretty sure I was still wearing it regularly in 2000, and while there's a bit of wear at the elbows, it's not really noticeable amid the rose pattern. I love this dress. I'd be wearing it still, if I could get into it! In my student days I wore it with a drapy, fishtailed green velvet (velvet on MOAR velvet!) thing that wasn't quite a jacket or a cardigan and came from the hippyish shop in my tiny university town. That didn't survive the years.

I've got a few other odds and ends, but as several pieces are black velvet, there didn't seem to be any point in photographing them. As any photographer will tell you, you use black velvet as a background because it absorbs the light and no details show - and so photographing black velvet items is a bit pointless! There's a handkerchief-hem velvet and lace skirt and top from Etam that's quite something, though, I wish it photographed better as you'd get a good laugh out of that!

Have you kept any treasures from the 1990s or even the noughties? Are you surprised to look back at them and see how on trend - or not - you were?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Giveaway winners / A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Trench Cake. Not in the Box of Robotness!
The Random Number Generator at random.org has spoken, and it says the winner of the Box of Robotness is number 3, Vintagegal! Congratulations! Please email your address to crinolinerobot AT yahoo DOT com and I'll post your parcel to you. Thank you to everyone else who fancied winning. I promise I'll have another box for you next July. (Or possibly sooner, if I find enough fun things to share with you. Sharing is fun.)

On the retro recipe front, I made a 1916 Trench Cake! Full Trench Cake writeup over at Greedybots.

Last night Mr Robot and I went to the Little Theatre in Bath to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914. I mentioned this on the blog last week and lots of people seemed interested so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

Each film was preceeded by an intertitle (the name for the 'words' bits in silent films) explaining who was who and what was what in the film, putting it into context. That was useful, though did prevent the experience being a completely immersive one. The music was written for the programme, and it was a bit loud, but sounded appropriate.

There wasn't as much news footage as I expected. There wasn't much non-war news footage at all, though we did get to see the Suffragettes marching on Buckingham Palace. It made me wonder how much news would have been mixed in with entertainment in the cinemas in the 1910s. I had expected much more awfulness from the front, but of course things would have been strictly controlled by the government, and people were still of the opinion that, “It'll all be over by Christmas”. In the footage of soldiers at Christmas, war looked more like a crowded Scout jamboree, with big white bell tents and all the men queueing up with their mess tins to get fed; not a trench in sight. There was also footage from Egypt, with troops parading for the Khedive (the country's ruler) and marching off to battle.

There were four main entertainment films, two British and two American. The British ones were Daisy Doodad's Dial (about a woman who decides to enter a face-pulling contest, leading to her frightening people on the train and in the street and being arrested) and one starring popular comedy character 'Pimple'. The BFI has put the full version of Daisy Doodad's Dial on YouTube so you can watch it for yourself. In Lieut. Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, our hero is sent to see an purchase an inventor's new submarine, which French spies (this was pre-war, and they were the old enemy) promptly steal, and Pimple has to thwart them. The intertitle stressed that the low budget of the Pimple comedies was part of their attraction to audiences. They weren't joking about the budget! No attempt was made to make many elements look real, from the interior of the submarine to the warship at the end. However, it works. A shonky attempt at reality would just have looked sad, whereas the use of crudely painted backdrops and a small boat with a couple of fake smoke stacks stuck on top gave things a certain defiant panache. Pimple takes his diving helmet off “under water”, smashes a window so he can deliver a message via a fish, sticks a fake beard to the outside of his diving helmet as a disguise... it was incredibly silly, and it worked.

The production values on the American films were so much higher. The episode of The Perils of Pauline was a bit dull, as Pauline goes from being set adrift in a hot air balloon to being tied up and left in a burning house, but it looked good. I was entertained by the fact that Pauline was capable of climbing down a rope anchoring the hot air balloon to the ground while clad in a relatively tight Edwardian skirt, but fainted as soon as her beau came along. A Film Johnnie (full version of A Film Johnnie on YouTube), from Keystone, was the best of the bunch. It didn't have the same quirky comedy as Pimple, but it did have Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp, in love with the 'Keystone Girl' he sees on the screen, causing mayhem in a film studio. There were more people, believable sets... Watching it, you can really see how Hollywood came to outstrip the British film industry.

As you probably know, I have a personal interest in things relating to Britain and India. Two films on the programme were of special interest in this regard. One was a sort of song-film, which would originally have been shown with an accompanying record playing along. (See The Rollicking Rajah on the BFI Player.) The 1910s recording has been lost, but the song 'The Rollicking Rajah' was recreated from the sheet music that still exists. It's a proper music hall number; a chap (clearly not Indian) done up as a Rajah sings about how he's come to Britain for a bit of fun and all the girls love a diamond-bedecked Rajah. Let's make no bones about it, there is an undercurrent of, “Coming over here, stealing our women.” I think the choice of a clearly Cockney voice for the recording softened things rather; you've got a social underclass singing about (what was perceived as) a racial underclass, whereas had the singer performed in an upper-class accent the scales of privilege would have been much more clearly tipped. By 1914 the British had undermined the power of the Indian princes to the point where they had little to do but become the legendarily wealthy playboys of the early twentieth century. Though the ladies did, indeed, love them.

However, The Rollicking Rajah is not the only reference to India on the programme. An early wartime animation shows a giant German picking on a little British soldier – 'Tiny Tommy'. Soldiers from other nations (Canada, South Africa and India) jump into Tiny Tommy, making him large enough to take on the German. At the end, the German is defeated and serves wine to the allied soldiers around him, again including the Indian soldier. He is valued, his contribution is equal. I think Britain's relationship to India at that time was as tangled as my own family tree, and I appreciated seeing two different aspects of that relationship. The animation was actually really good; the artist is shown painting, building up pictures and then overpainting bits. If you can recall the opening credits to Yes, Minister, it's a bit like that. The finished paintings would then move, just a little

I really enjoyed seeing these 1914 films being shown on the big screen. After I tweeted that I'd been, Bristol Silents said the BFI has plans to do the same next year for 1915. I really hope they do; it will be interesting to contrast the tone of these early-days newsreels and films to the ones made as the full horror of the war became apparent.