Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Man From the Diogenes Club [book]

The cover of The Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman
Imagine, if you will, a blend of The New Avengers, The Prisoner, Jason King and Tales of the Unexpected. Possibly stir in a bit of Sapphire and Steel. You might just come close to imagining The Man from the Diogenes Club.

The Diogenes Club first pops up in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Kim Newman has taken the idea of a secret organisation and run with it in many of his novels. Throughout the Anno Dracula series (I've reviewed Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron already) he features the Club as a sort of secret service, defending humanity from the supernatural and strange. Naturally The Man From the Diognes Club features the Club, with many of the same faces, though it's not quite the same as in the Anno Dracula books – this is an alternate reality to Newman's alternate reality.

The stories are all set in the 1970s and early 1980s, apart from the last one which brings Jeperson into the present. In the first one, young policeman Fred Regent has infiltrated a skinhead gang, but when they break into the derelict building at the end of a pier and discover demon Nazis, things are getting very weird indeed. Fred manages to escape, and the Diogenes Club, in the shape of flamboyantly-dressed Richard Jeperson and his minxy redheaded woman of action, Vanessa (no surname) enter the proceedings. Jeperson feels very Jason King – if you've ever seen that show, or even just a photo from it, you'll picture Peter Wyngarde every time Jeperson is described. Vanessa is harder for me to picture; I mostly end up with one of Pan's People in my mind! Together the three of them tackle a sinister clinic, voodoo assassinations, the Soho Golem, and other bizarre enemies. Along the way they encounter the likes of soap stars, strippers and businessmen obsessed with Egypt.

Newman's 1970s is a colourful place, probably bearing the same relation to the real 1970s as Austin Powers did to the real 1960s: it's brighter, more exciting, more flamboyant. His 1980s is grimmer than his 1970s (and possibly the real decade), steelier, a hard era driven by greed. While the book is a series of short stories and you could read each one on its own, in sequence they do form a narrative. The changing relationships between the characters, and the way the world around them changes over time, gives these ostensibly lightweight, playful chapters an overall sense of depth and, dare I say it, melancholy. You'll find yourself thinking about Fred, Richard and Vanessa far more than you might expect to, and what at first seems cartoonish leaves a lasting impression.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The best museum I have visited in a very long time

Middle-class Victorian parlour
A trip to a museum is something I've always relished, and some of my earliest memories are of visiting them with my parents. When Mr Robot and I visited York recently, we visited York Castle Museum, and it is, without doubt, one of the best museums I have visited in some time.

Earlier this year we went to London for the launch of MiMi Aye's cookbook, Noodle! We had time to kill the following morning, so visited the Museum of London. I have come to love London, but the Museum of London didn't really grab me. Obviously it's a major city with a history predating the Romans, and that's a lot of history to fit into one location, so the displays on each separate period are fairly limited. On top of that, other London attractions and museums, such as the Tower of London and the V and A, have lots of major items relating to London's history in their collections, there's no centralised 'everything in one place' collection for London.

York is another city with a history that predates the Romans, but rather sensibly they don't try to cram everything in. Jorvik, nearby, does a superb job of telling the history of Viking York, and because York's mediaeval streets, walls and buildings are rather more complete than London's, you're able to find more about that period in other places in the city. York Castle Museum concentrates mainly on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and does a really good job of it. Moreover, it mixes historical artefacts with interactive elements in a brilliant way, so it's engaging for kids yet still fascinating and deep enough for adults too.

1950s living room, ready for a birthday party
Instead of cabinets of similar items, the first part of the museum is a series of room sets, such as an 1860s middle-class parlour and an early Victorian rural cottage interior. I liked this much better than having similar objects grouped in cabinets, as while you didn't get a complete history of any one object (eg teapots) at a glance, you did get to see objects in context and get an idea of how people lived and how lives had changed. The room sets go right up almost to the present day, including a 1980s kitchen, and there's a special test kitchen where staff explain historic recipes to you and allow you to try some - when we were there, they were letting people try 18th century gingerbread, and explained that they were very lucky to have a cookbook from that period (handwritten by a cook).
1940s suburban kitchen
After a quick whisk through the farming sector, which was well done but not as good as the excellent room sets, there was a really nice display on Births, Marriages and Deaths, again from the Victorians to the modern day, with garments and objects relating to these life stages on show. The Victorian implements used in childbirth really made me cringe!
Stunning fabric on a silver 1930s wedding dress
The Victorian mourning clothes were beautiful, and I loved the wedding dresses, which included the trunk a Chinese lady brought when she moved to Yorkshire to marry her husband. The stories behind many of the dresses were included, making it a genuine history of people in York, not simply what people in York might have worn. I was touched to see the chocolate factories, among the city's major employers at one point, gave their staff beautiful wedding gifts (items given depended on seniority and length of service); one lady's Shelley china tea set was on display.

Victorian back street. Non-Victorian fire exit sign!
Then was my favourite bit: the Victorian street. Probably my favourite bit of the Museum of London was an area designed to look like a Victorian street. Well, York's knocks spots off it. All the building fronts bar one are authentic - the one that isn't had to be designed specially to fill an awkward space. There's a back street complete with slum rooms and laundry strung between the buildings (and a truly GRIM loo with a heap of model poop inside, complete with smell!), and a high street full of shops, all stocked with original items.
Part of the Victorian street - there's more through the archway

Another corner of the Victorian street. Genuine relocated shop fronts.
We were there while the Tour de France was on, but usually they have staff in one or two of the shops, too, for an even more complete recreation. BRILLIANT. The light goes from 'day' to 'night', so you get to see it at different times of day, too.
Inside the chemist's
While we were visiting the major changing exhibition was about the First World War, telling the story with a strong local perspective. It was beautifully arranged, and very moving. One bit was designed like an Edwardian railway carriage, with footage of the Belgian countryside going past the 'window'. As you sat there, you'd feel the thud-thud-thud of artillery, and the landscape changed... very simple, but incredibly moving. It's hard to grab the scale of the war, but by telling the stories of several people who served, the museum gives you a very good idea of what was going on and what conditions were like.

There's a 1960s street after that, but after the Victorian one it's a bit disappointing, and I suspect serious fans of the decade would want something a bit deeper. I know I did. Whether you like the style of the 1960s or not, it was a decade of massive social and cultural change, and there wasn't really space to convey the era.

After the 1960s street there are the dungeons. Audio-visual material is used well there. Because the cells have blank white walls, actors telling the stories of real prisoners are projected onto them, and it's a really interesting way to see the history of crime and punishment in York. Finally, you exit through the gift shop.

If you're in York, I really recommend a trip to the Castle Museum.

The first three photos are mine, copyright Miriam McDonald, the others are all copyright PP Gettins

Friday, 18 July 2014

Crinoline Robot's Vintage Week

Ooooh, I haven't shared a Vintage Week post with you in ages. I haven't finished reading a book or watched anything new to share with you, but I thought I would tell you about my general bimblings over the past week and beyond.

I've bought a suit! It's a Printzess 'Cooltimer', so very lightweight, probably early 1950s going by the style, and I'll be doing a proper post on it once it's out of quarantine. At the moment it's still sealed in its plastic postal bag along with a couple of Zensect moth-killing balls to remove any risk of it bringing travelling pests into my wardrobe. After all, you can steam or carefully iron out creases, but moth holes are forever.

I bought the sewing pattern you see on this post from Etsy, even though I don't sew. Claire at Eternal Magpie was clearing some out, and among them was a large late 50s/early 60s half-size pattern – if you haven't come across those before, half-size means it's a bit thicker round the middle, just like me. By the way, 1920s lovers: Claire makes the most amazing hand-blocked felt cloche hats, so if you're looking for a specific colour or trim to go with one of your outfits, take a look at what she's got in her shop. I believe she also takes commissions.

The reason I don't sew, though I'd love to, is because I don't have room for a sewing machine. Mr Robot and I have agreed that if I use up some of my knitting wool, it will make room for one. Project: use up wool is continuing, and when I went to York I cast on a new project in the car, a 1940s fair isle cardi. The colours I'm using aren't authentic – a black base with white, grey, raspberry pink and teal instead of the original's fawn with red, white, blue and chocolate brown – but this will help get a few more balls out of the stash. (I'm not entirely sure how moving wool in ball form in the boxes to cardigan form on top of the wardrobe counts as making space, but it definitely does.)

I'll share more of the project once it's actually started to look interesting; I've converted the pattern to be knitted in one piece as far as the armpits because I couldn't face weaving in all the ends from two fronts and a back, and so at the moment I'm still plodding through the boring old ribbing.

And I suppose the biggest thing to have happened is that I've given up a lot of my freelance work. I used to have a motto, 'Never turn work down', and recently was worried about losing my day job. Well, I didn't lose my day job, but in planning all the things I could do to earn money if I did, I realised just how many creative things I really wanted to do and never had time for because of other commitments. So I have reclaimed my free time and am planning to start designing knitting patterns again, completing a writing project, and generally having fun. At the time I thought I might regret giving up the freelance, and who knows, in a year's time I might decide it was a terrible move after all, but right now I'm enjoying being able to march to the beat of my own drum rather than race from deadline to deadline doing things I'm not completely satisfied with.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Bath: Georgian dresses, vintage tea rooms and a modern necklace

HOW low cut is that black dress? Ay caramba!
Today I went to Bath to meet up with my friend Andrea. The main reason was to see the exhibition of Georgian clothing ('Georgian: Dress for Polite Society) at the Fashion Museum. As you can tell from the title, the clothes didn't encompass the whole of society, just the posher end - whose garments, let's face it, are the ones most likely to have survived.
Gorgeous bright colours. Yellow was popular in the 1730s.
It was really lovely to see garments from roughly a hundred-year period and get a real feel for how styles changed over the time. Some of the dresses were in one style, but made from silks typical of a couple of decades earlier, indicative of remodelling. Men's garments were shown as well as ladies', and it did strike me that the Georgian period, with its splendid coats and waistcoats, would have been a good time to be a well-dressed chap. I don't know if I've ever seen embroidery as exquisite as that on the men's garments.
Simply stunning work, still with incredible colours.
I am now kicking myself as The Great War in Costume exhibition is due to run from the 19th of July until the 31st of August, so if I'd waited one more week I'd have seen that too. However, I can easily go back before the end of August. One thing that tickles me about that exhibition is that as well as both authentic uniforms and civilian dress, they'll have some frocks from Downton Abbey in the exhibition - and when we went to Vintage to Vogue later on in the day, the lady who owns the shop said she's recently sold some dresses to the programme's makers, and that they were coming back for more. So some of the dresses could have been on sale in Bath a while earlier!
So very, very Princess Anne!
Of course, it's not just the big exhibitions that get changed at the Fashion Museum, and this time there was an extra treat in the shape of a few dresses worn by dresses of the British Royal family. I was very chuffed to see one of Princess Anne's outfits because I have a sneaking admiration for anyone in the public eye who'll cheerfully trot out and rewear stuff she wore in the 1980s - somehow she's managed to maintain the same shape, and doesn't give a snot if she ends up in some tabloid's Sidebar of Shame for wearing something so old. (Actually, given that the 1980s now get classed as vintage by some people, maybe Anne is ONE OF US!..) It was fun to see just how very Anne her outfit was, and Princess Diana's garments were likewise instantly identifiable as her sort of thing.
I was struck by how slender Di's frocks were.
After the museum, we popped round the corner to Bea's Vintage Tea Rooms. It's literally just round the corner, being just behind the Assembly Rooms where the museum is housed. If you have a real antipathy to embroidered table cloths and mismatched china it's probably not your sort of place, but I will say they serve proper cakes (not cupcakes) and good strong tea, and the large shop windows make the whole place feel light and airy, not claustrophobically twee. It's not cheap - we had afternoon tea for two at just under £15 a head, and we weren't offered extra water for the tea, or any extra milk - but it is all clearly homemade and in a lovely location, so I'd probably go back.
Bea's is usually packed.
We also did plenty of shopping. As well as Vintage to Vogue we dropped into Scarlet Vintage, lots of the boutiques, plenty of perfume places and some of the charity shops. I treated myself to a dinosaur pendant. No, it's not vintage. But it is a triceratops, and I simply couldn't resist it!

Have you been to any good exhibitions lately?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Outfit post with unfortunate photos

Okay, a warning: people are not Mr Robot's photographic speciality and I think he's usually a bit exasperated when I ask for an outfit photo, and I have never learned how to pose properly. However, I've just been to York for the weekend and thought I'd share a couple of Saturday's outfits, awful though the poses are.

First up is the dress I recently repaired. (How to repair torn armpits in a vintage dress) There's a lot I love about this dress, from the pattern to the look of the fabric to the crisp lines. The one thing I don't like is the waist. It's lower at the back than the front. This could be to do with my front - manufacturers tend to cut for a C-cup, not my ludicrous build - but it makes me feel as though I'm wearing a maternity dress. Although the dress came with its original belt, I'm tempted to replace it for everyday wear with a thicker one that covers both the dress's high-low waist and sits straight around my actual waist. You can see my favourite 1960s handbag on my arm in this shot.

Then there's my party dress. I actually really like this dress, but the photo is one of the least flattering I've had taken this year. Hey-ho, we all know I'm never going to be a model. The party had a Gatsby theme, so I wore this dress from Hobbs, based on a 1920s tennis dress. I couldn't afford the dress at full price (£150 for pleated polyester? I think not!) but got it cheap in the sales and have been waiting for an opportunity to wear it ever since. The weather wasn't quite warm enough when I went to Burgh Island, but it was perfect for York. I'm wearing it with my Louis-heeled Hush Puppies for a 20s look, though you can't see those, and tried to tie my hair back to give the impression of a bob. A necklace seemed superfluous with a sporty sort of outfit. And see? Apples CAN wear 20s, in fact if you've got a rounded tummy like mine, a good dropped waist renders it invisible!

Anyway, nice photos not of me in my next post - I promise!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Is there Life on Mars?

Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been rewatching Life on Mars. (The UK version, I should point out, not the US remake.) I’ve been a tad blue at times, and there’s something very comforting about it - perhaps it’s the fact that things always work out right in the end.

In case you somehow managed to miss it, here’s a spoiler-free synopsis: Detective Sam Tyler has an accident in the late noughties and wakes up in 1973. All the policemen around him are convinced he’s on secondment to them from a place called Hyde, and that he should be there. Being from the 2000s, Sam finds a lot of the methods and attitudes of the time hard to deal with, especially as his boss, Gene Hunt, frequently seems to embrace them. Sam’s not sure if he’s crazy, if he’s travelled in time, or if he’s actually in a coma, as he’s occasionally able to hear the sounds of a hospital above the noises around him, but that might not be real either. All he can do is keep solving the crimes that come his way and hope to work out how he’ll return to his own time – at the same time coming to feel part of the team and growing close to a female officer, Annie.

The first time I watched the programme my focus was on the narrative, but seeing it again I’m also able to pay more attention to the craft, and how hard the makers have worked to create 1970s Manchester. There are mill buildings, and red brick streets, many of which were being demolished in the midcentury to make room for tower blocks. City centres up and down Britain have been rebuilt over the past 40 years, so it’s great that the film makers have been able to find enough believable locations. Of course, the programme is a fantasy of the 1970s rather than the actual 1970s, and some elements of the design reflect that. Real offices would have had proper ceilings, for example, and the darkly Brutalist police offices with their industrial, preformed concrete ceilings reflect Sam’s state of mind and the attitudes of the people around him, they’re not part of an accurately recreated police station.

Camberwick Green Sam
Being a child of the 70s - I was born in 1974 - I don’t remember masses about the decade as I was very young then, but some things in the show are still familiar.* My very favourite bit from both series is the episode that opens with a pastiche of the opening credits from children’s programme Camberwick Green (perhaps because I watched it as a child). Instead of the usual Camberwick Green character rising out of the music box, there’s a model of Sam Tyler. Then, joy of joys, you get to see a little Camberwick Green version of his crude, brutal yet fundamentally good, boss, Gene (erm, kicking in a nonce. This would be one of the methods of the time Sam has trouble with).

I have a Woman’s Weekly pattern for knitted Trumpton figures from years ago, and as Camberwick Green, Chigley and Trumpton were all made in the same style, I reckon I can adapt the patterns to make myself a cuddly Gene Hunt. Gene is my favourite character because you sense underneath it all he could be a really good guy - he just needs Sam's help to get there. And in the mean time, he's a drinking, sweary, reckless-driving delight.

If you missed Life on Mars, I highly recommend it. It - and I’m including the followup showAshes To Ashes, which was set in the 1980s, in this - is one of the best programmes on British telly in recent years. And the soundtrack is excellent...
Camberwick Gene, cheerfully beating up a suspect

*Papa Robot was in the Air Force, so I spent my pre-school years in the Netherlands and Germany - now when I visit the Netherlands, I get a really weird ‘time slip’ feeling and feel like I’ve fallen back in time to then. A touch of the Sam Tylers, if you like.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Wiltshire Armed Forces and Veterans' Celebrations 2014

Trowbridge is host to the Wiltshire Armed Forces and Veterans' Celebrations, and each year the town is filled with serving soldiers, representatives from military charities and re-enactors. Today there have been parades, marching bands and weapons displays, and as we were in town we wandered into the park, where the event is held, to have a look.
Here are a few of the photos from the re-enactment side of things. I had expected there to be more First World War re-enactment this year as it's the centenary of the start of that conflict, but it was mostly Second again, though there was a mocked-up trench to give visitors an idea of the narrowness of WWI trenches and the heights of the walls.
 It's a real shame that the weather was not good - it rained quite heavily on occasions - as it did deter people from looking around as much, though there was still a decent crowd.
We'll head back tomorrow as 'WWI Songs Remembered' is scheduled to be on the bandstand at 11:30, followed by a demonstration of the evolution of a soldier's equipment from the First World War to the present, and the 1940s Roadshow takes to the stage at 1pm.
I recently updated my listing of What's On In Vintage Wiltshire, and if you like re-enactment there are some big events taking place around the county in the next couple of months. There are also many events to do with First World War history being staged.