Friday, 18 April 2014

A Very English Affair [book]

From the title you might expect this to be a romance or Aga-saga. Far from it: A Very English Affair by Richard Davenport-Hines is a history book on the Profumo Affair, and its context.

Note for non-Brits: the Profumo Affair was a massive British political scandal in the 1960s, when War Minister Jack Profumo was discovered to share a mistress with Soviet Assistant Naval Attache Yevgeny Ivanov. The girl was young and working class, the man alleged to have introduced her to both men a society osteopath, and all sorts of naughty goings-on were alleged to have taken place, including at Cliveden, the palatial home of the vastly wealthy Astor family. So you’ve got everything: Cold War politics, celebrity, class, sex and money. British politicians aren’t strangers to scandal, so it says something about the Profumo Affair that it is still the One Scandal to Rule Them All.

Now, I like my history books to be factual, but I found the first chapter heavy going. In the first part of the book (the first 200 pages!), each chapter is devoted to a different player in the scandal: the Minister, the Doctor, the Good-time Girls and so on. It explains who they were, who was connected the them and so on, so gradually you build up a picture of the situation as a whole. Unfortunately the first chapter is about possibly the least ‘juicy’, if most powerful, player of all: the Prime Minister. I persevered through it, and it definitely Filled My Branes because mid-20th-century history is not my strong point, but did find that chapter terribly dry. The chapters on landlords, good-time girls and spies were probably the most interesting.

By the time I was five chapters in, I knew a lot about who was involved, their business dealings and personal relationships and so on, but I still wasn’t entirely sure how they all fitted together, nor did I have more than a rough idea of what the ‘scandal’ actually involved, and it was a real struggle to complete the book.

Davenport-Hines takes a harsh view of British society in the 1950s. The sexism of the time is made clear, as is the awful way Jewish, black and gay people were treated. The treatment of one of Keeler's boyfriends, sent to prison for beating her even though the person who actually did it admitted to it, shocked me.

I found myself feeling extremely sorry for many of the women specifically involved in the case, from Harold Macmillan’s wife, stuck in a loveless marriage, to Valerie Profumo (actress Valerie Hobson) and Bronwen Astor (Bronwen Pugh; model and muse to Pierre Balmain), both made to give up their careers on marriage. The young woman at the heart of things, Christine Keeler, came across as lost and vulnerable, her attractiveness both her one chance at getting away from her very poor beginnings yet also the thing that made men want to exploit her. It’s a world away from the modern cupcakes-and-kitsch view of life in the 1950s and early 60s, that’s for sure.

I learned a lot from this book, including that some of the 'facts'  about the Profumo affair were, interestingly, mostly made up, either by newspapermen in search of a sales boost or politicians jostling for power, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I put it down for quite a while while I read some fiction instead. I think I’d have preferred more narrative and less context. In most of the history books I’ve really enjoyed (Midnight in Peking, Harry the Valet) the context is carefully woven into the main narrative, which I like better. That said, I'm no historian, and historians have given it good reviews. Try getting it from your local library before deciding if you want to buy it!

 Source of book: Waterstones, bought as part of a three-for-two deal

Monday, 14 April 2014

1940s slip stitch jumper - FINISHED!

Wasn’t this 1940s sweater a quick knit? From cast-on to put-on, just three months. That’s super-speedy for me.

Weaving in all the ends was a real faff (I felt the gap between stripes of the same colour was too great for me to carry unused colours up the side of the knitting), but the stripes did make it very easy to sew the seams up evenly. I adapted the sleeve placement slightly to match the stripes too. The original pattern said to place the sleeve seam about a quarter of an inch in front of the side seam, but I put them together.

When the jumper was finished, I did find it came up a fraction too short, despite me putting extra width in the front to stop it having to stretch too much. I think my body must be slightly longer than I realise (or perhaps my modern trousers are lower-waisted than I thought and I should buy some proper 1940s repro ones.) To remedy the shortness I picked up stitches all around the hem and knitted an extra inch of ribbing. You can see a faint line a couple of inches up from the hem. I think I'd have preferred the coloured section to be longer, so that's something I'll need to bear in mind if/when I knit another top with a contrasting midsection - I need to add a couple of inches to the body.

Unlike most of the vintage clothing I buy, which is usually a tad too fancy for everyday things, my knitted tops are ever so easy to wear. Along with my jewellery and handbags, they’re the easiest way for me to get a vintage look for work. Because of this, and the fact the accessories I wear for work are usually late 50s/early 60s, I did briefly consider knitting something from that era for work... but then I found a really nice 1940s Fair Isle pattern.  I have no idea what I'll knit next!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

A 1950s Lisner enamel jewellery set

You can’t beat a Lisner jewellery set. I reckon so, anyway. My mother-in-law usually gives me money for birthday and Christmas, and I always try to buy something special ‘from her’ rather than just fritter it on beer and pizza. This was my self-chosen birthday present, though it's taken me until now to photograph it. I saw the set on Etsy and couldn’t resist. Earrings, brooch and bracelet for under £40, with postage? Get in my basket! It’s by Lisner, and looking at this adds to my conviction than an unsigned yellow bracelet-and-earrings set I own is also Lisner as there’s such similarity in the enamel leaves.

I’m pretty sure this set is 1950s. It has the copyright symbol next to the name stamp, so has to be post-1955, but after 1959 the Lisner logo was in script rather than block capitals, as it is on this set. Then there's the style. 1960s jewellery is often larger, more brash... a bit camp, in that it’s fake, you know it’s fake, it makes no attempt to hide the fact it’s fake but it looks utterly fabulous anyway. My yellow probably-Lisner set has plastic daisies on as well as diamante and enamel, and the bright colours and use of modern materials make me believe that set is 60s. The daintiness of these blue pieces makes me think they're earlier, as do the screwbacks on the earrings. The pastel shades of the cold enamel are also very mid-50s. At any rate, I shall keep an eye out for vintage jewellery adverts online. If I can spot this set in one, it’ll give me a date.

I bought the set from JewelryCreatedForYou on Etsy, and she's got a blue enamel earring and bracelet set for sale right now. When my set arrived a few of the diamantes had shaken loose in transit, but it just took a couple of minutes with a tube of UHU All-Purpose Adhesive to fix that – and as I said to Mr Robot, it’s better that the stones shook loose in the post, and fell safely into the box than that they fell out while I was wearing the jewellery and got lost. It’s certainly not the seller’s fault; after 60 years the glue probably just gave up!

Do you have a favourite type of jewellery? I know lots of vintage-lovin’ gals are keen on Bakelite and other early plastics. There’s got to be another diamante fiend out there...

Friday, 11 April 2014

Vintage embroidery transfer haul

Embroider ALL the things!
I had a bit of a grotty day on Wednesday, so to cheer myself up I bought a bundle of vintage embroidery transfers on Etsy. I got them from Mr & Mrs Magpie's Inexplicable Emporium on Etsy. Mrs Magpie is my friend Claire, but I paid full price and she had no idea I'd be the buyer! She has more tempting vintage haberdashery items if that's your thing, and also custom-makes felt cloche hats to order. Delivery was super-speedy; the patterns were with me by last night.

I've been wanting for ages to get back into embroidery - I haven't done any for years - and the 1930s embroidery book I got at Oxfam earlier this year has only fuelled that desire. The transfers include all sorts of designs. There are complete sets for different sizes of dressing table mat, large panels that would work as fire screens, others that would make excellent cushions, and even complete bag patterns.

I can do this!
As I don't want to spoil my original transfers, I think I'll get an embroidery transfer pen and some heavy-duty tracing paper and reproduce the ones I have. That way I don't need to cut these ones up in order to position them correctly on whatever I'm embroidering, and if I like a particular design I'll be able to put it on everything. There's one design, in particular, that has a very late 20s/early 30s look and would be perfect for using on a 20's style dress. Mr Robot has been really getting into Sewing Bee; I wonder if I could persuade him to make me some dresses if I bought him a sewing machine?

First, though, there's that time to find. I swear I don't know how other people do it - I must be about twice as slow at doing everything as everyone else, and I don't even have kids.

The pink and grey jumper is almost finished - it was complete, but I decided it was shorter than I liked, so I picked up a load of stitches around the bottom and am adding a couple of inches of extra ribbing. Hopefully I'll have photos to share next week. I had tried to be organised recently, and had put all my circular needles in a bag together... and I can't find the bag! Happily, a vintage one was stashed with my pile of vintage knitting items, so I'm now completing the jumper on an authentic 1940s circ. I'll say this for Abel Morrall's of Redditch, they weren't joking when they said their needles were rustproof. Moreover, the join between tips and cables is waaaaay nicer than on my modern Pony circs, which usually leave me swearing in frustration.

My next crafty project is the HP Lovecraft swap I've just joined on Ravelry. I'm hoping it will encourage me to get my knitting design head on again, it will certainly encourage me to knit faster and complete more items, and perhaps someone will end up with an embroidered Cthulhu...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Remember Me to the Bees book launch

Last Monday night I went to my friend Judy Darley’s book launch. (Judy blogs at Skylightrain.) Her first collection of short stories, Remember Me to the Bees, is now out, published by Tangent Books, so she threw a launch party. It was typically Judy – simultaneously businesslike and creative, with readings and music and the opportunity to purchase books. (If that sounds harsh, I don't mean it to: I really admire how hard she works to make her writing, which she is passionate about, a success, and it makes me realise just how dedicated a person has to be in order to be a writer. I couldn't do it!) The venue was The Birdcage on Clare Street in Bristol, which is a cafĂ©, an events space and a vintage clothing store all in one.

I’ve got a few friends who write, and the work of most falls within the crime, fantasy or science fiction genres; I think Judy is the only person writing ‘straight’ fiction. We always have really interesting chats about the process of writing, so of course I bought a copy of the book and am greatly looking forward to reading it. There seemed a bittersweet quality to the exerpts she read, with relationships breaking apart or already broken, but quietly, without melodrama.

The Birdcage’s vintage stock wasn’t my preferred era – there was a lot of 70s and 80s. That said, they did have a couple of really splendid 70s statement pieces, and even though I'd never wear them, I certainly admired them. The stock is used to decorate the venue too, so there are statement outfits on mannequins around the place. There was, however, an excellent stuffed macaw wearing a pearl necklace, and they sold really nice food and drink. The ladies is papered with old magazine pages, including some of Bowie and Jagger in their prime. Mr Robot says the gents is similar, but with old Playboy pinups. I don’t really approve of magazine vandalism but, well, Bowie*…

Photos by PP Gettins
 *You can get really good scanners nowadays. Why not scan the old mags and use the scans for wallpaper? Then you only need an A4 printer, and you get the look of using real pages but can keep your magazines.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Yesterday, shoes happened

It is spring, and that means my inevitable bleating on about being unable to find shoes.


I had a patchy year with shoes last year; one pair I mail ordered were too large (bizarrely, the other pair in the same size from the same firm were just fine), and my last pair from Hotter were appallingly bad quality - seriously, the rubber bit on the bottom of the heel fell off after a fortnight, and the leather wasn't even faintly water-resistant, so I spent a lot of time with damp feet and trying to polish out white salt marks when the shoes were dried.

After all that, I decided to try some different firms, and yesterday popped into Hush Puppies. They had a couple of pairs with a 1920s/1930s-looking heel, including these ones. The style is called Freya, and you can only buy it in red online, but they also had brown and navy in the shops, and the assistant said last year they had it in lots of other colourways, so she was hoping for cream again this summer. I guess the lesson there is, drop into the shop if you can as they might have even more choice! I really loved the little heart cut-outs, and I thought they would look great with colourful tights.

The other style I liked was Lonna; if I like these I might pop back in a few months for a pair of those – I'm hoping for a more summery choice of colours later in the year.

That isn't my carpet, by the way, it's work's. This is what happens when you get moved into an area previously occupied by games magazines...

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Jolly Roger?

How did it happen? You think it’s love, you think it’s for life, and then one day you realise it’s all over. I’m not talking about Mr Robot - we’ve been together 20 years at the end of April. No. I am finally admitting that Roger Moore is not a brilliant James Bond.

ITV (non-Brits, it’s one of our telly channels) has been showing one Bond film each Sunday for the part few months. I’ve been looking forward to them, and two of my favourites, You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have already been on, but as time has gone on, I’ve enjoyed the films less. Last weekend they showed Moonraker. I didn’t enjoy it.

To be fair to Rog, he is hampered by the fact that many of his films were made in my least-favourite decade, and he has to contend with safari suits, a dreadful ‘humorous’ American sherrif in a couple of films, and theme songs with some of the most godawful lyrics this side of a Tim Rice musical – seriously, listen to the theme from The Man With the Golden Gun. But then he also gets one of the best villains, in the shape of Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, one of the most genuinely scary films in the whole Bond oevre (Live and Let Die, which scared me no end as a kid), and a cool underwater car.

My mother-in-law is of the opinion that Sean Connery is the best Bond and that Roger Moore is the Saint. I disagree with the first part, I prefer George Lazenby or Daniel Craig, but she’s spot-on on the second bit. It’s not just that Moore played Simon Templar brilliantly in the 1960s/70s TV series, but he embodies the spirit of Leslie Charteris’ original novels. He’s lighthearted, witty, amoral, like Templar... he lacks the brutality of Bond.

I will continue to watch the Bond films because it’s been a while since I’ve seen some of them, and it’s a rare treat to get the chance to see them in sequence, but I fear I have a slog ahead of me. For Your Eyes Only, which always used to be one of my favourites, is next, but after Rog is Timothy Dalton, and then comes Pierce Brosnan, who is my least favourite Bond, though that is because he’s hampered by the worst Bond-by-numbers scripts. But then, hopefully, we’ll get the Craig films, and they’re well worth the wait.

Do you have a favourite Bond or Bond film?