Friday, 28 September 2012

Square eyes, square ears...

What’s happening down on the farm? I love going away on holiday, and it’s ace coming back to catch up on all my favourite telly and radio. I’m still enjoying Wartime Farm, especially seeing Peter and Alex trying their hands at various revived crafts such as making roofing tiles and making a bird scarer powered by what are essentially mini fireworks. (Although will someone please burn Alex’s never-changed Stank Top?) Mr Robot was especially traumatised by the sight of Ruth making cheese from sour milk in this week’s episode, as his gran used to do something similar but strain it through (clean) old tights. No wonder he and his mother refuse to contemplate cottage cheese!

The end of The Bletchley Circle was predictable enough, with the usual television villain going over the top just so you know he’s REALLY mad – in case the fact he’s been killing women and erm, enjoying, the corpses wasn’t enough of a clue that he wasn't a well bunny. That said, I did appreciate the fact that central character Susan’s last scene left you to think about whether she was happy with her own situation and what decisions she’d make. The 1950s is probably my least favourite decade of the ones I mainly cover on this blog, and it’s probably because of all of them, it’s the one where things feel to me like they went backwards for women, where society as a whole tried to cram them all into being wives and mothers, whether they wanted to be those things or not, in an effort to return to a pre-war ‘normality’. A normality that was in truth being chipped away at even in the 1930s.

Good news on the radio front next week: Dick Barton is returning to Radio 4 Extra in The Paris Adventure! The post-war adventures of Dick and his chums Jock and Snowy are great favourites of mine, and they’re all in 15-minute chunks so you can enjoy a tasty nugget of derring-do every day. (Re: me not liking the 1950s much, as stated above: The massively popular Dick Barton: Special Agent radio programme got cancelled in 1951 as it was too sensationalist and the BBC controllers wanted something more conservative. BAH. That is the 1950s for you. And Dick Barton is back anyway.)

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L Sayers / Something Wicked, David Roberts

Apols for the radio silence, I've been off on my holibobs (to Segovia in Spain, in case you were wondering – not much of a place for vintage, but aces for Romanesque architecture and free tapas). I did take a little bit of my own vintage and repro with me, in the shapes of a couple of crime novels.

It's a tad unfair to compare these two books, I admit: Sayers was writing in the 1930s and so has the advantage of knowing intimately all the things that were current, whereas Roberts is a modern writer and has to recreate the era, which means he is sometimes heavy-handed with brands and famous names. Yet it is their differences that I found really interesting. In both cases, an aristocratic man with a bent for sleuthing is in love with an intelligent, unconventional young woman. Despite both books being mystery novels, there's an awful lot about attitudes towards genders and politics in them.

Sayers barely touches on 1930s international politics; an American character, Miss Schuster-Slatt, who has an interest in 'breeding', pops up, but she's mainly as a figure of fun. What is dug into, and in depth, in Gaudy Night, is what is proper for women. The first Oxford colleges for women weren't founded until the 1870s, and women were only admitted as full undergraduates in 1920. Sayers is writing at a time, about a time, when the fight for women to be educated (and get the vote) was still easily within living memory, and when women were expected to give up everything on marriage to have babies and be a wife and mother only – a fantastic opportunity for a woman who wants it, but a dreadful prison for one who doesn't. Needless to say, as a working-class female who received a university education and has the option of contraception, this book made me consider once again how grateful I am to the women and men who worked so hard for equality in the past!

Roberts' concern is politics. Over the course of his Corinth/Browne stories everything has been building up to war. Having just finished Gaudy Night, I did wince a bit when Edward makes some throwaway remark to Verity about her not wanting babies; even if they both agreed on this (and it would take some planning with a calendar or, erm, bedroom activities, to be sure) it's not something that would have been seen lightly at the time, and that's really what differentiates the book written after the war from the one written before it. We know how the 1930s ended, and can't ignore it.

Of the two, I vastly preferred Gaudy Night. The grammar is better. The characterisation is infinitely better, and the plot is plausible. Something Wicked really did descend into Midsomer Murders-type silliness, with corpses all over the place, ridiculously contrived murders and the world's most obvious villain. Sometimes you need a bit of fluff, and I don't regret buying it (it's on Kindle, so isn't taking up scarce shelf space). I just wish I hadn't read it after the vastly superior Sayers!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

My frump suit scares all the boys from the yard

And they're like, "You dress like my nan!"
Damn right, I dress like your nan.

My name's Mim, and I'm a frump. And you know what? I like being a frump. There are some women who manage to be vintage and sexy – not just Dita von Teese, but regular ladies, who have a touch of Marilyn or Rita or Clara Bow about them. They have gorgeous high-heeled shoes and saucy pencil skirts and red lips and they work it. Me, I'm channelling Margaret Rutherford, possibly Miss Lemon on a good day. I wear jumpers and vintage-style but comfy shoes, and when I read old magazines and pattern books I realise that my figure looks more like the ones in the very few patterns 'for the mature woman' or 'for the fuller figure' than it does like the pretty ones in the rest of the book. (Well, nuts to that, I know how to resize a pattern; if I want to knit the pretty thing, I shall!)

I am making an effort to look a little more stylish, but I think I'll always be a frump. I really can't be doing with shoes that make my feet hurt, and I have too much front to go bra-less, so I've said sayonara to strappy and strapless tops and frocks. A thick waist and small hips render pencil skirts pointless. So I have made the decision to Work The Frump. Why not? I  can pin my enormous blingy brooches to my shift dresses, look for smart suits with fascinating details, have fun knitting my own jumpers and wearing them, and do all the things I enjoy doing, from book shopping to the Charleston, in my comfy shoes. Yeah. Being a frump – it's awesome!

Monday, 17 September 2012

The first railway murder

Death comes to the Victorian railway! Having mentioned in my review of Midnight in Peking that I don’t read much true true crime, here’s a review of another true crime book, Mr Briggs' Hat.*

Historically, the case covered by this volume falls into a similar era as the Road Hill House murder discussed in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Thomas Briggs, a respectable, elderly man, was found battered and dying on a railway bridge, having apparently been attacked and flung from his first-class carriage. It was Britain’s first railway murder, and the relatively new detectives of the Metropolitan Police investigated the case, even crossing the Atlantic to catch their suspect.

Somehow Mr Briggs' Hat is not as satisfying as either Whicher or Midnight in Peking. In both those books, the author presents the reader with additional information unknown at the time – in the former case, details from people who knew in later life the woman who eventually confessed to the murder, in the latter the notes on the investigation carried out personally by the victim’s father. However, that comes late in both volumes, and I found myself losing interest in this book early on. It’s not the lack of extra information, it’s the overall lack of human connections within the narrative that I found unsatisfying. The accused is an enigma, and that does make you, the reader wonder about his guilt or innocence, but as there’s no relationship between the victim and the accused, or accused and police, the investigation feels dull. I did find myself wondering about the relationship between the accused man and the person who named him to the police, but this is not really explored. Author Kate Colquhoun is to be credited for not putting evidence where none existed, or trying to embellish the facts, but there simply isn’t enough human complexity for this to be compelling as a narrative.

The social background to the case could have been fascinating: as in the Road Hill House murder, Victorian notions of class had a big impact on the way the case was represented in the papers, and in addition the mid-Victorian love/hate relationship with industrialisation and the railways came into play. Yet somehow that too falls flat. The most interesting bit of social history concerns the Victorian debate about the death penalty and public hangings.

So, not an especially gripping read. I have been left musing on whether the conviction was sound, so the story has had an impact on me, but it was a bit of a struggle getting to the end of the book, and I don’t feel I’ve been enriched as far as knowledge of Victorian detectives, the railways or the judicial process go.

*I blame Tim Weaver; I went to the launch of his novel Vanished and bought these two books and one other from a display. (And Vanished, of course – it’s very good, as long as you don’t mind plenty of gore, and I’m not saying that just because Tim is a chum.)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Telly tales: Wartime Farm / The Bletchley Circle

Ol’ square eyes is back. (What can I say, I luffs my telly.) Thursday bought a double dose of retro goodness in the shapes of Wartime Farm and The Bletchley Circle.

 Down on the farm, Ruth was experimenting with taking the red dye out of military petrol to sell on the black market – filtering it through bread did the best job – and preserving fruit with the WI. As the hay meadows had been ploughed up to grow veg, Peter and Alex were making a silo to provide their cows with silage for feed over the winter, aided by a couple of ‘land girls’. (Really two historians specialising in the history of the Women’s Land Army.) Ruth also used a haybox to cook a stew by insulating the pot while hot. Hayboxes have intrigued me since I was a kid and read The Children Who Lived in a Barn so now I have the urge to try it for myself, although I don’t have room in my tiny kitchen. It was all really fascinating stuff, and I really enjoy the way the team go into details about the wartime reality behind their re-enactment. My one tiny criticism is that it doesn’t really feel as though they’re living the wartime lifestyle full-time at the farm – how dare the presenters have lives and interests outside my tellybox?! Heh. Maybe the BBC should do a show where they force people to do just that. But I still do really enjoy the programme.

In Shallow Observation News, Ruth and her daughter wore some utterly fab suits this week, and Alex’s tank top must be getting pretty stinky by now as he seems to wear it for hard manual work every day.

The Bletchley Circle is on ITV, and I catch up with it on ITV Player, thereby sparing myself annoying adverts. (Is it me, or do all adverts nowadays either feature a slowed-down version of a song performed by some twee girl with a guitar or an amateur group rendition of a song that also used to be perfectly decent before the advertising people got hold of it?) Anyway, this drama probably looked really good on paper: a group of women who’d worked as codebreakers and analysts at Bletchley Park during the war get together a few years after the war to solve a series of murders. They all have reasons to be unsatisfied with their post-war lives, lacking an outlet for their mental energies. I like the look of the production too; it captures that period of austerity after the war, rather than being too glamorous.

 Where I have a problem with The Bletchley Circle is its portrayal of men. There’s no real depth to the male characters, they mostly pop up to throw an obstacle in the way of Our Glorious Heroines, and are more likely to beat them or try to rape them than help them. Never mind that real men would have their own post-war issues to come to terms with. I especially find the relationship between Susan and her husband an odd one. He just pops up at intervals to patronise her before heading out to do Important Man Things, and while she's happy to break the Official Secrets Act with almost anyone and everyone, she can't talk to him. This is no criticism of the actors and actresses, who are doing their best with a limited script. I’d like to read The Bletchley Circle as a really well-written novel, because the basic plot is exactly the sort of thing I love to read, but it needs much more subtlety and depth and CHARACTER than comes over on screen.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Vintage knits, recreated

If you're looking for a vintage style woollie, you have a number of options. You could knit one yourself, or persuade a friendly knitter to make one for you. You could look for a repro knit (although in my experience you're more likely to find a midcentury-looking garment than one in the style of the 1920s or 1930s).

You could also buy a garment hand-knitted to a vintage pattern. My friend Jill and her sister (I made berets to a 1960s pattern for their charity fundraising stall) have started their own business, Betty Knits. They make garments to vintage patterns and can do special orders. Mostly they sell at vintage fairs around London, but they also have an online shop with a selection of items including berets and tippets knitted to period patterns.

Fur is a matter hotly debated in vintage circles, which inspired Jill to design an ethically sound fox stole; she knits these herself and I think they're great fun, perfect for anyone who's not too purist about their era. However, if you demand strict authenticity, try one of their tippets.

Note: Betty Knits is not to be confused with Betty Knitter, which is designer Elizabeth Jarvis' business. Personally, I love Elizabeth's designs; she always approaches construction in a unique way, which is refreshing when so many knitting patterns simply look like variations on a theme, and her use of colour and texture always inspires me. (She designed an amazing ammonite bag, knitted in a spiral, for Simply Knitting that I keep hoping to convert to a cat bed!)

Sunday, 9 September 2012

All the fun of the Steam Fair!


Carter's Steam Fair came to Bath this weekend and it was AWESOME! (If you're in Bath and reading this on Sunday, they're at Victoria Park until 9pm, so get yourself down there.)


John and Anna Carter started the whole thing off when they bought the Gallopers, the carousel, back in 1975. They had an interest in vintage machinery and entertainments, and repaired the carousel and got it running. They acquired more rides over the years, and today the fair is the vintage travelling funfair, with some extremely rare rides including one of only two remaining sets of Steam Yachts in existence. As soon as we saw the posters going up in Bath, Mr Robot and I knew we had to go along.

The Steam Yachts, built in the 1920s

Victory Dive Bomber. Scarier than you
might think!
I generally don't like funfairs, I think because the one that used to come to my home town when I was growing up struck me as tawdry and quite seedy, and was mainly full of drunk teenagers throwing up on the Waltzers (or getting pregnant behind them). Carter's isn't like that. It's like the funfair you always thought should exist, but could never have been real. Well, it is real.

We arrived and the first thing we heard was proper rock 'n' roll. The Rock 'n' Roll Dodgems not only have pictures of famous musicians on the stand (I got very excited to see Billy Lee Riley, singer of 'Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll' depicted there), but all the cars are named after musicians too. On the side of the Duane Eddy dodgem there's a painted note that the real Duane Eddy visited the fair in the 1990s and drove his namesake car. Close by was the Victory Dive Bombers. We went on those. they started off going backwards, and just as we got used to that, they switched to going forwards. It's quite a strange sensation hurtling towards the ground in a little metal box.

The chair-o-planes are thought to date from the 1920s. I was
very excited to see these, as I've seen them in silent films.

I loved the carousel!
Anyway, I won't go into all the rides with you, you can read about most of them on Carter's website. The two things that really stood out for me were the Gallopers and the Wall of Death. No, carousels aren't especially thrilling, you sit on a wooden horse and go round and round. And yet... these horses were so beautiful! And right in the centre, where the central column met the roof, were paintings of music hall artistes like Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. A bit further out, hanging from the roof, were portraits of Kings and Queens of England. Around the centre were more famous faces, such as Nelson and Brunel – and the fair's founder, John Carter. The organ was painted with jungle scenes. And as we went round, I could see the men operating the ride shovelling coal into the little engine that powered the whole thing. Real steam! It was like a little ride back into 1910.

This motorbike wasn't used in the display, but it made a real
roaring sound when the showmen revved it up!

THE WALL OF DEATH!
The Wall of Death was simply crazy. The original Indian Scout, imported in 1929, is one of the motorbikes still used for this attraction. It sounds so simple: chap rides motorbike, goes up wall. If you saw it on the telly, you'd probably think, "Meh, so what?" But to see it for yourself, with a real man riding up the wall (to a point where his tyres are only a foot or so away from you), hearing the loud engines and realising that one error would probably kill him, is another matter entirely. I was awestruck by their skill and daring.


Yes, he's sidesaddle with one hand off the handlebars.
And that wasn't the most daring bit!

Some of the fleet of vintage Scamell lorries used to move the fair.
'Why Not' has been on the road since the 1940s.


We had a fantastic time at the fair. The rides are moved by a fleet of vintage trucks, and many of the showpeople living in vintage living wagons, which limits the fair's mobility: Bristol and South Wales are as far as it goes, according to the fair's website. If you do spot it near you, definitely go. As I said, it's like the funfair you always wanted to exist, but never thought could be real.

Behold, the mighty hunter (Mr Robot) shooting sweeties with corks...

Friday, 7 September 2012

Wartime Farm: last night's telly

Ruth, Peter and Alex from Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm are back, and they've taken another leap forward in time, this time to the years of the Second World War, so the programme is called (no surprise here) Wartime Farm. I very nearly missed it, but luckily Charly (Landgirl1980) mentioned on Twitter that it was on.

Another era means a new farm, this time in Hampshire, with the massively important ports of Portsmouth and Southampton on the coast, so right in the thick of the British war effort. This first programme saw the trio settling into Manor Farm and also getting to grips with life in the early part of the war, the 'Phony War'. Labour-saving devices came in, from paraffin stove to the electric iron to easy-to-clean lino, to free Ruth up for the war effort. Having seen the mountain of scrubbing and water carrying Ruth did on the Edwardian Farm, it's nice to see her getting a few more gadgets to help out. (I loved the kitchenette Ruth got; out kitchen here at Casa Mechanica is the same shade of yellow with very similar handles, and I picked it out precisely because I'd wanted a vintage-looking kitchen.) Pastures were turned over to arable. The team took on secret wartime duties. Alex wore more than one fabulous fair isle knit, which makes me wonder if I should have another go at persuading Mr Robot to consider a tank top.

I'd loved both the other ...Farm series, but had enjoyed the Victorian one more than the Edwardian, and had feared that things might be like the Supersizers, where I enjoyed the first show, Edwardian Supersize Me, had been happy with The Supersizers Go... and The Supersizers Eat..., where they did a different decade or era in each show, but had found the Good Life programme very shallow and not at all as much fun. Happily, it looks like Wartime Farm is going to be an excellent series. Will they get women's land army volunteers stationed with them, or have to take on some evacuees? Will some GI's arrive? I look forward to seeing how they get on in forthcoming episodes.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Knits on the needles: 1940s jacket/cardigan

Sorry, it's hard to make out the
stitch patterns on navy!
Here’s how I’m getting on with the navy cardigan. Still one one half of the front. No, it’s not progressing very quickly, but then it’s done in thin yarn on thin needles, so it’s going to take a while. I certainly get a lot of knitting time per pound spent when I work in 4ply.

 I had a moment of panic over the weekend when I washed the gold jumper o’ doom and it seemed to grow! As I’d spent over a year working on it, reknitting it once when the front and back were too large, I was horrified! Luckily it seems to have reduced again as it dried, otherwise I’d be facing the choice of finding it a new home with a larger lady or giving it a warm machine wash and hoping it shrank just enough.

 Now, knitting in navy is proving to be a real chore in anything but decent daylight, so I’m thinking of changing my planned next knit. It was going to be in black 4ply, but I’m not sure my eyes will survive the winter doing that, so I think I will leave it until the spring. I’ve got the yarn for the ‘Marmee’ jacket from Louisa Harding Summer Classics, but now I’m not sure if I want a knitted jacket, and I’m wondering whether to turn it into Sarah Hatton’s ‘Lamour’ pullover instead. The yarn is a cotton/silk blend in silvery grey, with a fine silver thread running though it, and I think knitted in that yarn, with a clear diamante button on the tab, ‘Lamour’ would have exactly the space-age-deco look I want to work on getting into my wardrobe. What do you think?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Charity shop WIN!

A hand and lower arm in a chocolate brown Victorian-style blouse, showing off a lace cuff and puff sleeve
 Get to your local chazzas now as it looks like the seasonal change is happening – that means summer stock is extra cheap in some, and you'll get first pick of the winter stock in many!

We've had another one open up in my home town (lots of people grumble that the town centre is nothing but charity shops, but that suits me fine) so we went round it today, and the prices were eyewatering. I picked up a checked skirt and it was £12! It may have been Aquascutum, but it wasn't lined, and while nice it wasn't an especially stylish or distinctive one, so back on the rail it went.

There are pintucks on the bib.
Two of my usual favourites, British Heart Foundation and Scope, came up trumps. BHF seems to have weird policy of slapping 'High Street Brand' labels on some things and pricing them a bit higher, but that does seem to depend on which labels the staff are familiar with. In my size there were things like synthetic-fibre M&Co tops with that label on for £4... while I got a wool-rich Phase Eight skirt, and an almost pure wool skirt from a German label I'd never heard of, for £6 and £4 respectively. Not much difference in price, huge difference in quality. (Is it me, or can people not tell the difference between 'branded' and 'good quality' any more?) One skirt is dark grey, the other is charcoal pinstripe, and both come to a few inches above the ankle and should be great when I'm feeling a bit Miss Lemon at work this winter.

My real find, however, was this chocolate brown Victorian-influenced blouse for £4 in Scope. I've been wanting something a bit more Victorian to wear to steampunk events, and had been looking online. The things I found and liked were mostly in the US, so on top of the cost of the items, I'd probably face Customs charges. I'm not so keen on the weird peplum bottom, but it's not terribly puffy, and the lace cuffs more than make up for that, I love the way the sleeves look. The buttons are a bit chipped, so I'll either replace those or paint them. That's saved me some money.