Sunday, 29 April 2012

Sweet Poison / Bones of the Buried, David Roberts

These two novels are the first and second in a series of ten about Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne. While set in 1935 and 1936 respectively, they were published in the 21st century. (Historical detective fiction had a real 'moment' about a decade ago, although of late it's been the modern, more hardboiled Scandinavian fiction that's been en vogue in crime fiction.)

Sweet Poison introduces both main characters: Edward is driving to the family home, Mersham Castle, where his brother, the Duke of Mersham, is having a dinner with the aim of furthering the cause of peace in Europe. Verity, who works for the Daily Worker, a Communist publication, is also visiting the castle pretending to be a journalist from Country Life with the real aim of writing an exposé on how the aristocracy live. Then one of the guests, a well-respected old soldier, dies of potassium cyanide poisoning...

In Bones of the Buried, Verity is writing for both the Daily Worker and the more mainstream New Gazette from Spain. When her former lover is accused of murder, she asks Edward for help.

The main problem I have with these books, which I do actually enjoy, is the one I have with most fiction written after the era in which it was set – the writer has to set the scene. All the things that Dorothy L Sayers or Agatha Christie could expect their readers to know and take for granted needs more explanation, and the writer refers to things very stereotypically of the era. Roberts does spend a lot of time 'scene painting' and referring to things a modern reader might know. In Sweet Poison, for example, Verity goes out in a Schiaparelli dress, rather than a more obscure but equally authentic label such as Roecliff and Chapman. Ben Belasco in Bones of the Buried is clearly a Hemingway-alike. Roberts has done a lot of research but it does give things the feeling of a costume drama. And despite all this careful scene setting, there is a massive flaw in one part of the storyline in Bones of the Buried. In 1917, one female character is a film star with a son at Eton. Later it's said that her husband met her in Hollywood. However, that would mean somehow an English girl was in Hollywood before the movies even started there, and that she was a major star at a point when the harsh lights needed for filming meant actresses had a very short working life because ageing skin showed up so clearly on screen. (Sticking black gauze over the lens was a later development.) It's not crucial to the plot that she's a film star and it simply doesn't work, whereas as a stage actress it would have made more sense.

I'm not going to pretend these books are high art, and I'm always going to prefer Dorothy L Sayers or Agatha Christie, or even Freeman Wills Croft, to them. But there is a finite number of books by those writers, and Roberts' books are fun, even if Corinth and Browne do come up as Wimsey and Vane-lite in their sparring. My assessment? One for secondhand or Kindle purchase. If I can get a cheap secondhand copy of the ones in the series that I'm missing, I will, otherwise I'll get them digitally so they don't take up more of my limited shelf space. Make of that what you will!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The 1930s cocktail

After some discussion with steampunk friends about martini recipes, I thought I'd share the two martini recipes from my 1936 Quaglino's cookbook, The Perfect Hostess, with you. I found it in my local Oxfam Bookshop a couple of years ago, and it's definitely one of my most treasured vintage books. The restaurant was founded in the 1920s and was extremely fashionable in the 1930s, so if anything could tell you how a smart cocktail was mixed, it's this book.

Dry Martini Cocktail
2 dashes Orange Bitter
2/3 Gin
1/3 French Vermouth

Martini Club
1/4 Orange Bitter
1/4 Whisky
1/4 White Martini
1/4 Cointreau
2 dashes Maraschino

The book doesn't tell you how to mix them, but then it gives no quantities for the ingredients in the recipe section. As only one cocktail includes the instruction 'shake well' and a couple end with 'Squeeze lemon peel on top', I would guess that you put the ingredients into the glass in the order in which they are listed

If you're a real cocktail lover, Gemma at Retrochick has done a super post about her favourite cocktail, the Manhattan cocktail, today. Surprisingly, Quaglino doesn't list that one at all!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Uncommon Danger, Eric Ambler [books]

A 1930s spy novel, this, and a really gripping one. Most writers seem to focus on the Cold War nowadays as a background for espionage stories. (Even William Boyd's new Bond novel will be set in the 1960s.) It's certainly a fruitful source, but I do love ones between the wars. More importantly, I love spy stories set and written between the wars. Uncommon Danger was Eric Ambler's first 'straight' espionage story, his first novel having been a spoof of the genre (which a lot of people took seriously!).

It's the mid 1930s, and freelance, Europe-based journalist Desmond d'Esterre Kenton has lost all his money in a game of poker dice, and so hops on the train to see if he can borrow some money from a Jewish friend who he helped escape to Vienna. On the train is a nervous little man who claims to be Jewish and asks Kenton if he'll take a package, which he claims contains bonds, through the border checkpoint for him, in exchange for a large sum of cash. Kenton agrees, and when he's done it successfully the man, made even more nervous by the presence of a shifty-looking chap on the train, asks Kenton to take it all the way to Linz and deliver it to him at a hotel there. Kenton, intrigued, agrees. Of course, the man isn't Jewish, the package doesn't contain bonds, and when Kenton arrives at the hotel the man is dead and he is in a whole heap of trouble.

I really enjoyed this novel. A lot has been made of Ambler's left-wing bias, but while I found he displayed a degree of naivety towards the Russian state, it makes a refreshing change after the number of right-biassed stories I've read from the era. Moreover, I found it genuinely exciting. Modern spy stories, with the exception of John le Carré's ones, seem to focus on increasing amounts of sex, explosions and general nonsense to create excitement. Ambler can put you on edge just describing a man trying to tunnel under a fence! I think it's because he goes into detail, so you really get to know Kenton and share his anxieties and uncertainties.

Like pre-Cold War spy stories? Radio 4 Extra occasionally broadcasts Eric Ambler stories, and while none of those are on the schedule, they are broadcasting Somerset Maugham's Edwardian spy tale Ashenden, Gentleman Spy next week.

Book source: I paid full price for my copy at Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Hitchcock Nine: saved, and being shown!

One of the first posts I ever did on this blog, nearly two years ago now, was on the BFI's appeal for funds to restore some of Alfred Hitchcock's silent films. So it's with real pleasure that I saw a news story on The Guardian's website today saying that all his films, including the restored silents, will be shown in London this summer, and that several of the silents are being shown in appropriate venues including the Hackney Empire and Wilton's Music Hall.

It's part of the 2012 Festival, and you can book tickets online. I'm avoiding the capital this summer because of a Certain Sporting Event, but if you're stuck in the Big Smoke, this is one way to avoid high pressure sales of fizzy drink and sweaty people in lycra.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sinatra Swings

This CD is a combination of Frank Sinatra's 1956 album Songs for Swingin' Lovers and nine from 1955's In the Wee Small Hours. The songs don't follow the original albums' track listing, which has both good and bad points: In the Wee Small Hours was developed as a concept album of sorts, but it's quite a blue album, and as not all the songs are used, the ones that are may as well be jumped up through the more upbeat tracks from Songs for Swingin' Lovers. It stops there being a big melancholy chunk all at once.

I bought this as a gift for Mr Robot, whose tastes are a little later than mine – as far as popular music goes, I go forwards from the 1920s, he comes back from the 1960s, and occasionally we meet in the middle! (After 1969 I'm afraid it's rock, goth and indie almost all the way, with a couple of exceptions.) But now I'm rambling. I thought this would be right up Mr Robot's street, but he usually plays his CDs in the car and finds it a little downbeat. Possibly the Wee Small Hours songs are responsible for that. I listen to my iPod at work, and Sinatra Swings is actually very good when you're trying to block out general office sounds and want something smooth.

My favourite songs on it are 'I've Got You Under My Skin' and 'Anything Goes' – well, you can't go wrong with Cole Porter, can you?

I think if you like Sinatra, you're probably better off collecting the individual albums as he was a man who thought carefully about how his records were put together. This isn't a bad CD, combining songs from one-and-a-bit of the man's best albums, but the running order seems a little bizarre. Get 'em the way the man intended, as two separate ones.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Current knitting projects

These fair isle fingerless mitts are a project I designed recently. I don't talk about it much on this blog as it's not relevant to the Robot, but I'm a big fan of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden novels. I based a Harry Dresden swap parcel on the Winter and Summer faerie courts in the books, and the mitts were the big part of the Summer half.

I've promised the pattern to my friends over at The Making Spot (it should go up as a free knitting pattern), so I need to get into gear, type it up and hand it over! Want to knit your own fascinator? One of my other designs, a fascinator and matching gloves knitted in a silk/viscose yarn, is on sale over there.

I'm still working on that gold 1950s jumper. I had to reknit the front and back as my tension was so disastrously out, and the back is now complete. I suspect when it's finished, I'll be sick of the sight of it and not want to wear it!
Another 1930s beret from A Stitch in Time Volume 2 is also on the needles. It's mostly in the same shade of blue as the first one I made, but with a red band and I'll make red bows for it too.

Both jumper and beret have been temporarily sidetracked by a shabby chic design I'm doing for Simply Knitting. I can't say too much about it, but it should be in print in the next couple of months and then I can talk about it in more depth!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Maytime excitement

Steampunk festival Waltz on the Wye is fast approaching and I am so excited! It's a little over a month away now. Mr Robot is once again official event photographer, and he's got loads of new kit for the modern setup (he bought a fantastic new lens last week), plus we'll be giving the Voigtlaender an outing. James Richardson-Brown and Arfon Jones are going to be releasing their new book, Life of the Air Kraken at the event (written by James, illustrated by Arfon), and I have to go to that!

I'm an 'urchin' (crew for the event). In my case this means being photographer's assistant for the ball, watching over the Contraptions Exhibition for a session on Sunday morning, and giving a talk on Victorian and Steampunk knitting after that. I've already started prepping my talk, and I've got a design to finish for work and then I can move on to knitting my samples for the talk. (Note to self: knit faster!)

I've got most of my outfits sorted. I'm going dieselpunk rather than steampunk – think between-the-wars science fiction rather than Victorian – and have planned one outfit each for the Friday and Sunday, and a day outfit for the Saturday plus my ball dress. The Saturday is looking like being all Able Grable, all day, as I'm planning to wear my Miss M for daytime and a Dream Girl 1932 for evening. I don't think I've ever planned so many outfits, not even back when I went to the Whitby Goth Festival! (And believe me, I knew people then who would take suitcases full of clothes for that weekender.) The thing I'm coming unstuck on is hats. I'm probably going to have to order a few bases from MacCulloch and Wallis and trim them myself. I'd meant to drop into their shop when I was in London and buy some, but now it looks like I'll have to suck it up and pay the postal costs. (Ow, ow, ow.)

Anyway, enough of my witterings: Jarkman has revealed one of the things he's made for the Contraptions Exhibition, so feast your eyes on this incredible steampunk pocket watch. One of the things I really admire about steampunks is the way they make beautiful, functional, enduring things. This is real craft.

Images: copyright PP Gettins
Top: The Expedition to England, part of last year's event.
Bottom: Pocketwatch playing on the bandstand at last year's event. They're playing at the ball this year, and I will be abandoning my photographer's assistant duties for their set. They play strange, beautiful music with twisted lyrics. I loved the song 'It Ain't So Bad' about poor Lucy, who survived by eating rats until she ended up in the place where all the rats lived...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

What goes with black?

More 1940s tips from Good Housekeeping for you. (And the image is from Stitchcraft September 1948.) Thanks to a gothspent youth, my immediate answer to the question would be MOAR BLACK, but that is not what the ladies of GH had to say on the matter. As ever, begin with the shoes and bag, not the dress.

Leather accessories Black
Costume and coat shades Black
Etceteras (also frock or sweater) Any bright or pastel shade and wines, or black (not browns or navies)
Hat Black (plain or trimmed etcetera colour or matching etcetera)

Leather accessories Black
Costume and coat shades Any bright or pastel shade, and wines, but not browns or navies
Etceteras (also frock or sweater) Matching, or toning, or contrasting with the costume colour (i.e. mid and lighter blue, with wine, green with beetroot) or black
Hat Matching the costume or etcetera, or black

What do you know, MOAR BLACK does indeed go with black! Want to know What goes with brown?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Three: not the magic number

Before I launch into my grumbles, Happy Easter.

Happy? I'm going to grumble at you anyway.

I like tea sets. I like nice china. I do not like it when people split up perfectly good tea sets that could go to a home with someone who'll painstakingly collect the rest of the set. (I was very pleased at last week's Secret Tea Party to see Missalyz had tracked down some cups and saucers to go with a teapot she already owned, it's fantastic to see things coming together instead of being split.)

There's one charity shop in my home town that gets nice tea sets in. It used to sell them whole, for a reasonable price. Not any more. Now they have a glass case, with trios (cup, saucer, tea plate) for sale. And a trio costs about £12, or more than half of what they used to charge for a whole set. I thought perhaps this was just one chain getting funny ideas, but in Bath I found one in a different chain doing something similar... but charging £20 per trio. TWENTY POUNDS. Splitting up a beautiful set and charging really silly prices. I can get more pieces than that, in a tasteful gift box, complete with sweeties, from Mrs Stokes, for a little more that.)

They seem to be slapping the same prices on everything from any old tea set, but still sell things like pressed glass cake stands for £1.50 so they don't seem to know the market prices for tea ware in general. I bought a cake stand from my local one, and mentioned that I was thinking of doing an afternoon tea for my workmates, and the lady behind the counter said "We have some very nice teacups." I simply said that they were too expensive for me, and from her expression I guess a lot of other people had already expressed their views rather more strongly. It wasn't her fault, the order probably came down from some central organising person who doesn't actually speak to the people who use their shops. I can't help thinking it will have an adverse effect on donations; Trow is a very working class place where people simply aren't prepared to pay Bath/ Frome prices, and either people will believe they can get more for their china if they sell it themselves or, if they're keen to donate, they'll take it to somewhere they feel doesn't overcharge people.

Anyway, I still know somewhere - a dealer, not a charity, ironically enough - that sells whole/part dinner and tea sets at reasonable prices. I think I shall keep looking there for a nice set of tea cups.

(Photo: some of the china used at one of Mrs Stokes' tea parties. See how pretty it is all together. DO YOU SEE HOW PRETTY IT IS ALL TOGETHER, CHARITY SHOPS?)

Thursday, 5 April 2012

On yer bike - Bristol Vintage Velo is back

Passionate for Pashleys? Chuffed with your chopper? (The bike sort, you dirty so-and-so!) And living in a gurt lush part of the UK, or willing to visit for a day? Then you'll be pleased to know that Bristol Vintage Velo is back. It spun off from Bristol Cycle Festival, and is now an annual event. I'm not going – the only kid in my year at school to fail the cycling test, I have absolutely no road sense and stick to feet or public transport – but one of my steampunk chums is ready to ride, and this year looks like being bigger and even better than last year's event.

It takes place on the 29th of April 2012, and you can find out more about it and sign up at the Bristol Vintage Velo website.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bag pr0n

Ooooooh, feast your eyes on this baby. In my post about Vintage Sunday, I mentioned buying a cheapie bag, but I didn't talk about this little extravagance, bought from Scarlet Vintage. Frankly, any accessory that costs more than most of my dresses (NB: I'm a stingebag and a charity shopper, most of my dresses don't cost that much) deserves its own post. So here it is, a stunning suede one made by Riviera. I'll be saving this for special occasions. And yes, I will be painting my fence later this summer!

I think what really drew me to it was its dramatic shape, framed with bold brass. That and the fact that it has a little tortoiseshell-backed mirror inside, which I'm told has always been there, although it's different in style to the bag. No matter, I like it!

Although it's from the 1950s, I think the bag will work really well with my dieselpunk day outfits at Waltz on the Wye, and it's roomy enough for things like hotel keys, purse, lipstick and all the other gubbins I'll be carrying around.

Scarlet Vintage also had this incredible dress, cotton printed with images of Venice, for sale at the Secret Tea Party. It was sold to them by its original owner, who bought it early in the 1960s – so, a wonderful example of how '50s' styles did carry on over into the early 1960s. Want it? They may still have it, if you're lucky...

Monday, 2 April 2012

Secret Tea Party: Vintage Sunday

Last week was Bath In Fashion, and to round things off yesterday was Vintage Sunday. This meant a vintage market at Green Park Station, and a Secret Tea Party alongside it, with Pearl Lowe as special guest. I knew I had to go, and booked my ticket months ago.

Catching the train meant getting into the city early, and a chance to browse round the market. Last time I went to a vintage market at Green Park I really wasn't impressed. Yesterday, however, it was way, waaaaay better. In fact, I was thanking the Gods of Cake for making me a fat lass, otherwise I could have done some serious damage to my bank balance. (Although it has to be said: sellers, would it kill you to put a waist measurement on garments, just to give people an idea of whether the dress they've picked up is even close to their size? I just assume nothing will fit me and ask outright if there's anything plus-size, but it's got to be really annoying for anyone between an 8 and 12.) Like a numpty I've lost her business card, but one lady had the most incredible 1930s chiffon dresses. They're the sort of thing you'd want to have hanging up just to look at the fabric. I've still got the gorgeous patterns drifting round in my head.

The other really pleasing thing was that across the market, prices were good. Yes, you could have spent a couple of hundred on a 30s chiffon gown, and it'd be worth every penny, but you could also spend £5 on a pair of earrings. I got a black bag with a snap clasp for £8, a little more vintage than the cross-body bag I currently use for work, but not so precious that I'll cry when it gets worn out. I also bought some vintage buttons from Jumblejelly, a haberdashers from Bradford-on-Avon that had a stall at the market for the day.

And so on to the tea party! Catherine – Mrs Stokes – has been running these for some time now, and they've become really popular. There were (I think) a couple of hen parties and a birthday party in, as well as people who'd come because they just fancied tea, cake and a Charleston. Quite a few of us were repeat customers, and I met up with Sarah, who I met at the first party I went to, and Missalyz (her blog is Of Cake and Science). Sarah was wearing a stunning silk MaxMara dress from Scarlet Vintage, and Missalyz was wearing a Vivien of Holloway 'Runaround Sue' in the poker print. (That particular style of dress looks better and better every time I see it. Another lady at the event was wearing a VoH 'Peggy Sue' in black strawberry dots, and hers looked fab also.)

Rounding off our table were three more ladies. I've probably mentioned on the blog before that I have trouble with names and faces, and I can remember what they wore, but not their names, despite talking with them for hours! It feels terribly rude, but I'm coming up with a complete blank when I try to remember – if you're reading this and you were one of the ladies, I've got my own husband wrong before now, my memory for people is that bad! So please comment and remind me!

As well as cake, there were Charleston lessons (but not for me, I've knackered my knee) and an exhibition dance from Hoppin' Mad, a talk on vintage clothing and what to look for from the owner of Scarlet Vintage, and Pearl Lowe named the person she felt was the best dressed – a beautiful girl in a scarlet dress with white polka dots, all very 1940s and a well-deserved win.

Brilliant fun!


Photos:
Cake!
Vintage buttons on Jumblejelly's stall. Can... not...resist...
Catherine, tea party hostess to the stars, dressed to charleston.
Yours truly, in a turquoise linen late 50s/early 60s dress bought from Flourclothing on Etsy. I love this dress. And you can just see the lady who won the 'best dressed' prize over my shoulder. Next time I will ask people if they mind me taking their photos, but I'm always a bit shy of being so forward!