Friday, 30 December 2011

Fifth Avenue Girl [film]

Ah, Ginger Rogers! This 1939 film is not her best. In Fifth Avenue Girl*, rich businessman Alfred Borden (played by Walter Connolly) is weighed down at work, his daughter's a constant partier, his son shows no inclination to help out with the business and his wife is, according to the gossip columns in the papers, on the verge of going to Reno – home of the quickie divorce in 1930s America – with a 'friend'. It's Alfred's birthday and no-one's around, so he takes a walk and meets pretty, sassy Mary Grey (Ginger) in the park. She's too hard up for much fun, so he takes her to the poshest club in town, they buy champagne for everyone, even his wife who's there with her chap, and the pair of them have a roaring time. The following morning, his wife actually notices him. Alfred then hires Mary to pose as his girlfriend as a way of getting his family to notice him.

This is not my favourite Ginger Rogers film. She and Connolly have some great lines and interact well together, but the story is quite predictable. Because it's so predictable, there's not enough done in the script to make it believable, so you can't quite accept the way things work out in the end. You believe Alfred Borden loves his wife and wants her to love him back, but some of the other relationships... well, until the end, you'd swear the characters disliked one another so much they'd be glad to see the back of each other. The best screwball comedies work because the stories move fast, so you're too busy enjoying the fun to think about plausibility, but this isn't the case here. Not a bad film, overall, but definitely not Ginger's finest moment.

*I've gone with the spelling from the film poster. The DVD release calls it 5th Avenue Girl and the Internet Movie Database has it as 5th Ave Girl.

This DVD was a Christmas gift and therefore paid for, although not by me.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Everything stops for tea

Another of my Christmas presents – you're going to see a lot of these over the next few weeks – was a cake stand and some baking tins from Mr Robot. The tins are the good quality, heavy duty baking tins. I've had cheapo flimsy ones and they're just not as satisfactory in the long run. The stand is made to look like one fashioned from vintage plates, but is actually made from new pieces. I like that, because whenever I see real vintage plates turned into cake stands I picture someone somewhere with a teaset in need of that plate or saucer and feel a little sad.

Anyhow, with Mr Robot at work today I had plenty of time and space to put my new tins to work. Things didn't go quite as planned: I made the scones first, because they were fastest and left the mixing bowl clean enough to make Irish lemon cake. The recipe for that is from Cakes Regional & Traditional by Julie Duff. She's spent years researching recipes from around the UK and Ireland, collating different versions of classic recipes and looking into the history of each, and I heartily recommend that book. The recipes might not seem flashy, but all those I've tried from it have been delicious. I used my tin of mini squares for that, making 12 little lemon cakes.

Then crisis time! First, I had only two eggs left. I wanted to make the French madeleines from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book to test my new madeleine tins. I had to do some recalculating on quantities. Then it turns out that French madeleines contain lemon, which I had not anticipated, never having made them before.

So, if (when!) I do an afternoon tea again I will make sure the cakes aren't two-thirds lemon ones. I've test-frozen some scones and some madeleines to see how they store. Making three lots of cakes from scratch every time is a terrible faff, but making one lot and getting some frozen ones out won't be. The savoury bits are bagel slices topped with salmon and cream cheese, walnut bread rounds with pork rillettes and a caper and toasted thin baguette slices with olive oil and jamon serrano. No, the latter isn't very traditional, but I like it. Next time I will try to make some form of small savoury quiche or barquette for a greater variation in texture, but overall I think the savoury part of this tea is better balanced than the sweet.

Who'd have thought planning an afternoon tea would be so tricky?

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Victoria Vanishes, Christopher Fowler [books]

When a man is tired of London, he is probably also tired of Christopher Fowler's novels, and a boring git to boot.

I'm not totally sure that this book is completely suitable a subject for this blog, but my gut instinct says it does fit. It wasn't written in the past, nor is it set in the past, but like most of his books anyone who loves real history and quirky stories may well find it just their thing, and I think most people reading this blog do have a love of history.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I thought I'd share a couple of festive images from the December 1954 issue of Stitchcraft with you as I have had a stinker of a cold for three days and haven't been up to doing or writing much constructive. (Day job took all my energy, blogging fell by the wayside!) Luckily I'm not cooking for several days. We're off to the mechanical mother-in-law for turkey and trimmings tomorrow, then a day after Boxing Day Mr Robot will be doing goose terrine followed by roast goose (two Hugh-Fearnley-Whittingstall recipes that have become firm favourites; we also confit the legs to eat around Easter). Goose is followed by my definitely-not-for-kids apricot trifle - none of that jelly nonsense and lots of brandy. Mr R is insisting on putting multicoloured hundreds and thousands on top this year, the heathen.

So, have a good one, and I hope Father Christmas brings you all the things you need and some of what you want, and that all the recipients of the gifts you've bought make appropriate delighted squealing sounds on unwrapping them. And I hope that your food is as tasty as ours is going to be!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Duke Ellington Christmas [events]

Mr Robot and I had a rip-roaring time last night. The Arc Theatre in Trowbridge hosted 'A Duke Ellington Christmas', with singer James Lambeth and four musicians (whose names I can't remember because I had lots of beer to drink) on double bass, guitars and trumpet.

For the seating, round tables with chairs had been put up in front of the stage, lending the theatre a pleasingly clubby feel. The Arc is a modern building, and while it's never going to have much atmosphere in itself, it doesn't clash with the tone of anything going on there. We dressed up, Mr Robot in his suit, fedora and raincoat and me in my Able Grable Miss M and a cream angora cardigan from Monsoon. The cardigan was an emergency purchase before a party last winter when I realised the dress I planned to wear didn't cover my bra well. Its puff shoulders complemented the sleeves of the dress, so I didn't end up with weird overstuffed looking upper arms. I had hoped people would dress up, and there was a gaggle of lovely people there to celebrate a birthday party, all red lips, sparkly jewellery and stockings. Who says Trowvegas doesn't do glamour? They all helped bring a bit of vintage atmosphere to the place.

The structure of the band lent itself more to a 50s jazz sound than big band arrangements. We hadn't been sure of it would be all Christmas music, but it wasn't. It was all wonderful versions of classic Duke Ellington numbers including 'Perdido','Take the A Train' and 'It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)'. We both enjoyed every minute of it, happily tapping feet and fingers along, and all but floated home, although that may have been partly thanks to the beer.

There's only one thing I would have changed about last night - I'd have filled the Theatre with people! Music this good, with beer or wine, for £10.50, less for concessions? WHERE WAS EVERYBODY? The place should have been packed. The film It's A Wonderful Life is showing at the Arc on Tuesday. Price? A mere £2.50. Bargain. I'm going, and I hope it's well supported. The Arc is probably closing its doors as a public theatre soon, so if you want to make the most of it while we've got it, there's also the DS Big Band performing on the 27th of January. And yes, I've bought tickets to that too. Tickets for that are a ridiculously affordable £9.

Images (taken on an iPhone, apols for quality!):
The band
Two friendly attendees
The bass player
Yours truly (now with bobbed hair)

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Who Framed Roger Rabbit [film]


What's not to love about this film? Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my all-time favourites, one I can't find fault with. I suppose if there is no whimsy in your heart you might just find it nonsense, but to me it's a magical, if slightly sad, film.

Bob Hoskins plays seedy private eye Eddie Valiant. In the world of WFRR?, cartoon characters - 'toons' - are real, acting in studios just like human stars, with their own little district in town, Toon Town. Eddie hasn't worked for toons since one dropped a piano on his brother, killing him. He's hired by RK Maroon, boss of one of the big film studios, to spy on the wife of Roger Rabbit, one of his big stars. (Jessica Rabbit has become possibly the most famous character of all from the film.) Valiant photographs her playing pattycake with Toon Town's landlord, who ends up murdered, and Roger is the logical suspect... but did he do it? The plot is strong and hold together well; I know that sounds odd when we're talking about someone setting up a cartoon rabbit, but it really is a fun story for adults as well as kids.

I love the cameos from famous cartoon characters in this film. No one big studio dominates: Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse appear in one scene, while in a nightclub Daffy Duck and Donald Duck attempt to out-perform each other on grand pianos. Betty Boop pops up as a nightclub hostess (she's black and white and her career went downhill after cartoons went into colour). Even the scenes where Eddie drives into Toon Town remind me of animations from the 1930s, although I couldn't say whether they are directly based on any.

I also love the look of this film (according to Wikipedia it's set in 1947). Bob Hoskins has the perfect seedy PI outfit, with fedora, loud tie and disshevelled suit. Dolores, his human girlfriend, has some fab suits and hats when she's not working in the diner. The nightclub and Maroon Studios are wonderfully deco.

WFRR? does make me a little sad, because it's such a lovely world, and in the real world the Cloverleaf vision of massive freeways and service stations, with none of the colour and chaos of Toon Town is what really comes to be. It's always a shame that the film ends and dumps us back in the world of motorways, billboards and no magic. Still, it's on DVD, so returning to Toon Town is as easy as playing a disc.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The 1920s: fashion’s next big thing

Fashion’s been pilfering from the past for years, but in recent years the ‘in’ decade has been changing rapidly. The 1950s have been a firm favourite for a few seasons now, and while fashion embraced the 1970s and flirted briefly with the 1940s this season, in Spring 1920s styles are returning to the spotlight. It’s been creeping in this winter, with ASOS stocking a couple of beautiful flapper party dresses and M&S doing a nice selection of cloche hats, but for spring expect so much more.

I’m sort of excited about a 1920s revival. Excited because I love the Jazz Age, and because those tubular, drop-waisted styles are a gift to people with thick-waisted apple bodies like mine. Sort of because, well, the High Street rarely gets it right, and it’ll probably disappear by this autumn. Here’s what I’d like to see…

On or below the knee
For most of the 1920s, dresses were actually on or below the knee. They were short by comparison to dresses from the Edwardian era, and scandalous by the standards of Victorian-born grandmothers, but in modern terms, not that short at all. I realise most of the dresses around will be a good few inches above the knee in keeping with modern tastes, but it’d be nice to see some that are an accurate length.

1920s for daytime
So far most of the 20s-influenced dresses I’ve seen coming to the high street next season have been beautiful and strictly for evening wear, with beading and embroidery. It’d be fab if the drop-waisted silhouette also made it though to daywear.

Tunics! Tunics! Tunics!
Comfy, practical, attractive… what’s not to love? People who don’t want to go all-out 1920s can wear them with jeans or trousers. People who like to dress modestly, for religious or personal reasons, can wear them too.

Shoes with 20s-style heels
‘Cos I’m an old lady and stilettoes make my feet hurt. I’d like something pretty and comfortable.

Cute little leather handbags
If handbags get any bigger, they’ll have to have wheels on the bottom. I don’t care if they are made by Hermes or Mulberry or Louis Vuitton or anyone else, when we hit the point where everyone’s dragging their bags around, they’ll resemble those tartan shopping trolleys little old ladies have AND we’ll all then need a small bag to put keys, phones etc in anyway. Let’s have some dainty bags for daytime.

Recognition in the fashion press for Colleen Moore
Because nearly everyone forgets the first flapper superstar, the torch that lit up flaming youth, even fashion magazines that are supposed to know their style history.

Images: Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O'Neil in Sally, Irene and Mary
The pins of Louise Brooks in Rolled Stockings
The real life marriage of Mae Murray to Prince David Mdivani, 1926. At the left of the picture are Pola Negri and Rudolph Valentino

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A touch of Wimsey

Of late, in between work and knitting, I’ve been rediscovering the pleasure of reading Dorothy L Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. I’ve no idea why Wimsey hasn’t gained quite the following of Agatha Christie’s most famous detectives, because all the elements are there, from fascinating plots to the possibility of exquisite Art Deco settings.

I think Sayers was in many ways a better writer than Christie; her command of language and characterisation is better, although Christie was the mistress at creating a world the reader could sink into without effort, and you can't beat her novels for an 'immersive' experience. Sayers nudges the intellect, Christie the instincts.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Vintage embroidery styles: blackwork

In my past two pieces on vintage embroidery styles (Jacobean and cutwork) I’ve said that needlework styles tended to get bigger and bolder as the 20th century moved on, with thicker, darker or more colourful threads being used and, eventually, more delicate styles dropping out of fashion. As cutwork’s popular appeal was fading, new styles, frequently “counted” (with stitches worked across a set number of threads) became popular. Nowadays the most commonly seen one is cross stitch, but in the mid-20th century one that became popular for home furnishings was blackwork.

Blackwork is exactly what you’d expect: embroidery done in black, usually on white. It has its roots in Tudor styles, but the modern version is always counted, and geometric filler patterns are used to provide shading in place of colour.

It starts coming up more frequently in the magazines of the late 1950s, and its boldness and geometry meant its popularity continued into the 1970s. The earlier designs tend to be floral, in keeping with traditional needlework motifs, but by the 1970s it’s unashamedly abstract, often done on very bright fabrics. The first design you see here is from the later 1960s, the second is from 1960, and you can really see how suited the filler patterns were to more graphic designs.

If you’re a novice embroiderer, blackwork is a fantastic style to start with because it’s counted and so it’s very hard to make a mistake (and if you do make a mistake, it’s easy to snip out the faulty bit and re-do it).

Friday, 9 December 2011

The joy of buttons

Maybe it’s because I’m feeling the need for more cardigans, but lately I have been button mad.

I never used to have many clothes. We were very hard up when I was a kid, so I got used to having one coat, one pair of shoes and so on, and so got into the habit of buying the plainest ones possible because they had to go with everything else. That’s probably where my love of a plain black dress comes from. (I’m in good company; when Sophia Loren first moved to Rome to make a career in films she had one blouse and one skirt and dyed both black so they would be suitable for any occasion.) I don’t think I ever had fancy buttons on anything. Now I’m a knitter, I can have all the lovely cardigans I want, with whatever buttons I choose, even if I knit something that only goes with one skirt.

As the year has been ending, I’ve bought a few vintage buttons. I got some square blue Czech glass ones at the fleamarket in St Andrew’s Hall when we went to Norwich for a weekend. They had another packet or two, and I wish I’d bought the rest now! The ones you see here were all from the By Jam stall at Clothes Show Live. I had a lovely chat with the lady from By Jam, and she knows a chap who lets her have access to his old buttons. I nearly bought three sets of the larger one (three in different colours in a pack) but I spotted the smaller yellow ones and just had to have them.

I also got this diamante brooch at Clothes Show Live, from Tea and Scandal (whose website seems to be down right now, so no link). In a few more weeks, my resolution to buy more brooches will end. It’s been a good resolution; I’ve stuck to it. I think for 2012 my resolution will be to buy more buttons!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Jazz up your Christmas [music]

Looking for something to listen to over the festive season? Here’s what I’ve had on my iPod this month.

Nat King Cole and Dean Martin: Christmas Together
One for when all the family is together, it’s a compilation of seasonal songs from two gents whose voices were as rich and smooth as brandy butter. There’s a mixture of carols, traditional songs and 20th century tunes. I’d say this is a good one when the family are all together; your nan will love it as much as the tiniest member of the family.

Various: Essential Jazz Christmas
This is a real mixed bag from a wide range of artists, and whether all of it is jazz is definitely open to debate. Some of it is excellent and unusual, some of it a bit too sentimental for my liking. (I really don’t like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney singing ‘Silver Bells’, nor do I like Gracie Fields doing ‘I’m Sending a Letter to Santa Claus’, but Dean Martin singing ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is lovely, and I very much enjoyed the Jack Teagarden and Duke Ellington tracks.) This is probably best to play when you don’t know what people’s tastes are like, at a cocktail party perhaps, because there’s lots of variety.

The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas
It’s not Christmas at Casa Mechanica without Muppets. And, okay, this CD is quite modern, but you just listen to the Electric Mayhem Band singing, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ (Essential Jazz Christmas has the great Louis Armstrong doing this) and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag’ and tell me the Muppets don’t do jazz. As for Miss Piggy’s rendition of ‘Santa Baby’, it’s the song she was born (stuffed?) to sing.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra In the Christmas Mood
This is the newest of the four CDs. My local Scope charity shop had several Christmassy compilations for £4 each and this double CD set was one of them. Glenn Miller only recorded one Christmas song with his orchestra, ‘Jingle Bells’, and this was done years later by members of the orchestra, it’s not a genuine swing-era recording. Sometimes it's a little too smooth, fading into the background, and I'm not taken with the female vocalist on some recordings (she sounds rather post-swing in style) but on the whole it's great for relaxing to. 'In the Christmas Mood', 'Winter Wonderland', and 'Auld Lang Syne' are excellent.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

winter warmer: Spanish tapas bars

Like the British pub, the Spanish tapas bar can be vintage, but isn't always. Sometimes it looks fairly modern but one has been in that spot for ninety years, other times one will look traditional but be barely a decade old. (For example, sparkling, well-lit Taberna Miami, the third and fourth photos on this page, was opened in 1930.) Being mad about Spain, and not mad about the British winter, I thought I'd share some sunny photos and some notes on pub crawling in a vintage Spanish style.

First up, your tapa is for you and you alone. If you sit at a table and order a big pile of dishes to share, that's not tapas. The tapas tradition started in Andalucia, when barmen would put a little saucer on top of drinks to keep out flies. Then they started putting olives on the dish (after all, a salty snack never hurts drink sales). That evolved into the custom of having a little snack with your drink, some bars became popular for certain things they put on their saucers and so a custom came into being. The Spanish have a verb, tapear, to go for tapas, and for that you go from bar to bar, having a drink or two and a tapa in each.

While I can't decide if it's Granada or Toledo that's the place I've had the best tapas, my favourite Spanish city, and the one I've explored most thoroughly, is Seville. Ten years ago, most of the bars in the Barrio Santa Cruz (the old town) served tapas. Now, with more frequent flights from all over Europe (Ryanair now fly into the city), more and more serve raciones and medio raciones, plates and half-plates. They're the same good food, and do take pressure off the waiters in what is now quite a busy tourist centre with organised groups of up to 40 people apt to descend on a single bar at once (can you imagine doing two little dishes each for a group that size?), but it's still a bit of a shame. The was the case at one of our old favourites, Agua Y Viada, although they still do the best sangria I've ever tasted. And yes, sangria is very touristy, but it's not as though Mr R or I could pass for Spanish, so why not do the tourist thing?

Other tapas bars I'd recommend in Santa Cruz are Dona Lina (which has the most spectacular tiled interior, as you can see in the first photo on this page, and has tortillitas on its menu, little shrimp fritters that are somewhere between a pancake and a prawn fritter) and Bodega Santa Cruz (in the black and white photo, serves lots of bocadillos, akin to mini paninis with fillings such as chorizo or morcilla, black pudding, in). For our favourite, though, it's a toss-up between El Toboso and Meson El Cordobes. El Toboso is tiny, with perhaps half a dozen tables, but they do some really unusual tapas, and it's one Santa Cruz bar where you're guaranteed to find Sevillanos stopping off. There's usually only one chap serving, and you will have to wait if they're busy, but if you can't wait, Spain is not the country for you. El Cordobes is brightly lit and looks quite modern, and there's always football on the telly, but the flamenquines are exceptional, both in flavour and cheapness, the host is very chatty (Mr R usually ends up discussing football in Spanish with him), and they have a staggering array of drinks on offer. On our last night, Mr R ordered saffron gin. Saffron gin. You've never come across it? It is an acquired taste. I was trolleyed, so I ended up finishing it for him.

If you're on a budget, I would recommend you tapear in Triana, the district across the river, instead. T de Triana, a modern tapas bar, in probably my favourite there, although the fish bar right at the end of the waterfront nearest the market is another place we always have to stop, Mr R for adobo (marinated dogfish chunks) and me for puntillitas (whole baby squid in batter), and I think Taberna Miami is now on our list of stop-offs!

How to find a good tapas bar
Be very careful about going into places with translated menus. In particular, avoid anywhere with pictorial menus or national flags on the menus. Places that rely on tourism don't have to worry about their customers coming back.

Step off the tourist track. Our favourite bar in Toledo was in the old city, but next to a government building. No tables outside. We knew it had to cater to the local trade, which meant it had to attract repeat business.

Don't be put off by a place not looking olde-worlde or particularly plush. The Spanish know good food, and somewhere that looks quite basic can serve brilliant grub. If a bar doesn't look fancy, customers are coming in for other reasons. What's more, it used to be customary for people to sling their napkins on the floor. That doesn't happen as often, but a plentiful supply of metal boxes at the foot of the customer side of the bar is sign of a place that attracts locals.

And when you've found one...
Drink inside at the bar. You'll hear more Spanish, and it's honestly much more fun.

And ffs, DON'T amble up to the barman bellowing, "Do you sell beer? Beer grandy?" like one oaf we saw in Seville. Learn the word for wine or beer. It's not hard.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Tale of Two Berets

Looking for a quick vintage knitting project? You can’t beat a beret. In November I made two.

First up is Sunday Pictorial Beret from A Stitch in Time volume 2, in Sublime Extra Fine Merino Wool 4ply, my favourite yarn. The pattern was originally printed in the 1930s. I’m in a swap group called ‘Odd Ducks’ on Ravelry where members sign up for themed swaps, and this is going to be part of my parcel for the Favourite Artists swap. My partner is really into vintage and Chagall, so a vintage-style beret in Chagall blue seemed very appropriate.

If you are learning to knit, I can’t recommend this pattern enough. Apart from casting on and off, it uses just three other stitches: knit, kfb (knit into the front and back of a stitch, making an extra stitch) and k2tog (knit two together, decreasing by a stitch). Most of the beret is knitted in straight garter stitch. Despite the simplicity of the stitches, it's constructed really cunningly, with extra fullness in the front and a flatter back for an attractive, non-mushroomy silhouette.

If you are a beginner, you might be put off buying the book just to get the one pattern. Well, there are other hats and scarves in the book too, and it will serve as inspiration to keep you knitting if you do buy it, but if you really can’t face it, find a friend who’s an experienced knitter and owns the book and ask to borrow their copy. I've photographed my knitting on top of the book so you can see just how well the pattern knits up: will be just like the picture once I've pressed the bows a bit flatter.

The other beret is for my mum, and is knitted from my ‘old faithful’ 1960s beret pattern. (See my own beret and two I knitted for charity from the same pattern.) This is the fifth one I’ve made from this leaflet. I didn’t have a clue what to buy mum for Christmas and she loves my Fair Isle beret, so I whipped this one up in six days. It’s made from oddments of yarn. As any make-do-and-mending 1940s knitter would tell you, the great thing about Fair Isle is that you don’t need lots of any one colour. I picked colours that would work with mum’s red hair. I hope she likes it!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Forgotten Bombshells: Sari Maritza

Do names get much more exotic than ‘Sari Maritza’? It’s certainly more evocative than Dora Detring-Nathan, which was our latest forgotten bombshell’s real name. Sari did have a cosmopolitan start in life, being born in China to a British father and Austrian mother, and educated in England, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Sari only worked in films between 1930 and 1934, starting with low-budget efforts in Britain and Germany, then having a brief time at Paramount in Hollywood. Paramount was looking for a continental actress to be the next Garbo or Dietrich; neither Sari’s films or her acting took her to that level and she cheerfully admitted getting out of films when she married because she couldn’t act. But what a photo she took!

Monday, 28 November 2011


I've been a bad blogger. Well, not exactly: I've been away in Norfolk seeing my mum, her chap and – most importantly ;) – their kittens, and was too lazy to preprepare posts to go live while I was there. Anyway, Mr R and I also spent a couple of nights in Norwich and had a jolly good time, only the portions of food we ate in restaurants were huge, so we ended up unable to drink any more and had to retire early each night. Ay caramba! We did not do much of vintage interest, unless you count a little bit of shopping, but all I bought was vintage buttons. When you don't know what to buy, buy buttons, they'll come in handy sooner or later.

It was jolly cold, much colder than darkest Wiltshire. If you're venturing up to the flatlands, definitely pack something nice and woolly. I was very glad of my tweed skirt, Madeira jumper and beret!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Vintage Christmas: events in Trowbridge

Now, I know Trowvegas may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's mine. It's not cute, or quaint. In fact, in the early 19th century it was described as 'The Manchester of the West'. However, it does still have some vintage life in it, and usually much more cheaply than in Bath or the cutesier nearby towns.

This December the Arc Theatre has two events that I think are worth noting, 'A Duke Ellington Christmas' on the 17th, with James Lambeth doing many of the great man's best-loved songs, and a showing of It's A Wonderful Life on the 20th. Full-price tickets for the former are £10.50 (£8 for concessions). For the film, you'll pay £2.50. Yes, two and a half of your British pounds. For a bigger screen than most venues in Bath, and in a location which sells beer and cider. As I said, it's a great-value town...

Looking ahead, DS Big Band is back in January. An evening of jazz classics for £8. "There must be some catch!" I hear you cry. Well, yes. Thanks to financial difficulties at the college it's attached to, plans are for the Arc to close to the general public, which is a crying shame. Grab your chance for a cheap night out while it's still there! (There's a petition to keep it open here.)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


According to Yahoo (via Art of Darkness), NBC are remaking The Munsters. Did no-one learn from the appalling late 1980s/early 90s television version? Ot the atrocious 1990s television version of The Addams Family?

Stop it. Stop it now.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

This week's telly: Pan Am

I very nearly didn't watch Pan Am, which started on BBC2 this week. I'd read a couple of Tom and Lorenzo's reviews of it and they didn't seem that taken by it. However, Janet Street Porter reviewed it for Front Row on Radio 4 and hated it, which I took as a good sign. On top of all that, it's Saturday and I have a couple of tight knitting deadlines, including a Fair Isle beret that I need finished by next Friday, so I watched it on catch-up as I knitted away.

First observation: programmes where people have very similar hairdos and all wear the same outfit are quite tough to follow when you have prosopagnosia! One gripe a lot of people have with the show is that it's a bit shallow, but I don't look for deep and meaningful in a show to knit to, and characters who are a bit two-dimensional are actually quite handy when you're struggling to identify people. A bit bohemian, possibly girdle free? That's Christina Ricci's character, free-thinker Maggie. There are two sisters, pretty runaway bride Kate and less pretty CIA recruit Laura. Then there is Frenchwoman Colette who, being French, gets to have affairs. It is all utterly frothtastic, but I enjoyed it anyway.

What's more the uniforms are very nice, and the other clothes in the programme... Well, you know I always say I'm never into the 1960s? This is not your crimplene, boil-in-the-bag 1960s. It's not quite Emma Peel either, but there are some lovely frocks to be seen. My favourites have been on Laura and Kate's mother, but as most of the cast spend their time in uniform, she does get the lion's share of the delish dresses in the first two episodes. The cars are pretty neat too.

Oh, and the soundtrack? I wants it. Definitely the cool sound of the early 1960s.

I'll definitely be watching more of this, I enjoyed it loads. (In non-vintage viewing, American Horror Story is on probation – it's okay but not great, so when I run out of knitting it may get chopped from my personal schedule – and I am VERY much looking forward to The Killing tonight, even if Lund does have her stinky unwashed constantly-worn jumper on again.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Vesuvius Club, Mark Gatiss [books]

This is the first of Mark Gatiss' Lucifer Box novels, but the last I have encountered. I'm writing about it first because I didn't actually like the second, but feel in retrospect I am doing it a disservice. Let me explain:

1: I read, and disliked, the second Lucifer Box novel, The Devil in Amber.
2: Radio 4 Extra broadcast Gatiss reading the third book, Black Butterfly, as part of the Crime and Thrillers hour. I really enjoyed it, and Gatiss' reading gave Lucifer a different, more likeable voice to the one I'd had in my head.
3: A workmate lent me The Vesuvius Club, which I very much liked, and which, in my head, was read in the same way as the radio programmes.

So now I have to go back and reread The Devil in Amber and see if I like it better the second time around.

Monday, 14 November 2011

F, You're Fedorable

This is a guest post from Mr Robot. He's not a blogger – if he had one of his own he'd manage three posts in a day and then nothing for ten months – so I've decided to make Mr Robot's Gentlemen's Corner on my blog for him. And he's asked me to tell you to excuse his facial hair, it's for Movember. (I like it.)

’Evening everybody, Robot here. Crinoline has asked me to tap out a few thoughts on my experience as an amateur hat wearer, or Gentleman Hattist.

From whence came impulse for a hat is unclear. Probably it started with the long and flappy raincoat that has a certain noir-ish feel to it, and the healthy collection of Bogart films no doubt played a role (not that I’ll ever be a Bogart you understand and, if she’ll forgive me saying it, Crinoline is rather more Katherine Hepburn than Lauren Bacall). It always felt – especially on dark winter evenings – that there was something more to be had. Something slightly edgy. Glamorous, even. Something Hatty.

They’re not that easy to come by (at least not cheaply), and whenever I found something I fancied, there’d be a voice in the back of my head saying 'Go ahead, but you’ll look a right pillock'.

So I dithered and muttered and prevaricated and ultimately did nothing, which Crinoline took to be a signal that she must buy one for me. Which it wasn’t at all. And when I opened the big box on my birthday to find a genuine fedora inside, well I fear I probably wasn’t as effusive as she might have hoped. [Too bloody right!] Do you really expect me to go out in that?

It took a while. I wore it around the house a bit (especially if uninhibited with ale) for a good month or so but I was still uneasy. People will stare. They will laugh. I will wish to be a tiny dead hedgehog.

It must have been the middle of summer (because it was tipping down) when I finally took the plunge; what I could really do with in this is, ah – a hat!

There were a few double-takes I’ll admit, and friends would adopt a distinct look on first meeting the behatted me. The eyes would drift upwards and pause. The mouth dropped open but clearly words failed. Perhaps a little choke. Being well-disposed, they’d opt for a completely un-headwear-related topic of conversation, solildly lock eye contact and NOT LOOK ANYWHERE ELSE AT ALL - much as a civilised fellow must do when faced with an distressingly appealing expanse of bosom.

The first couple of weeks “out” were a tad uncomfortable – but really that was just self-consciousness: it felt like a costume. But as I became more comfortable wearing the thing, the oddest thing happened. I started to get compliments. Two favourites were “only you and X could get away with that” (X being terrifically and naturally dapper), and “you know, you don’t look completely stupid.” This last, coming from a man who bears a startling resemblance to Uncle Fester, I considered quite a coup.

The ladies seem to like it too, or at least those who work with Crinoline and therefore (see above) probably wouldn’t dare say anything else. Still, a favourable glance from crumpet – no matter how imaginary – is never to be sniffed at.

I’m still learning about this hattery business but we’re making progress. I now beware unseasonal sunshine, for a sweaty head is unpleasant and can lead to unattractive tufting. I can’t tip it yet, but on occasion have found myself touching the brim in greeting (and how did that feel the first time? Suave isn’t the word).

And I have started experimenting with tilts – nothing too rakish, too Sinatra, but I have at last found a use for the word “jaunty”. It still feels a touch affected but I’m sure we’ll find the sweet spot soon.

Pip pip!

In case you're wondering, I bought the hat from Laird London. Highly recommended for fast service, and they replaced the hat when the one I ordered was the wrong size without charging me extra P&P.

Vintage embroidery styles: cutwork

If you’re into early 20th century styles, you can’t beat a bit of cutwork. It certainly featured on cutwork and clothing from the 1910s onwards. At its simplest, it’s outlining a shape in buttonhole stitch and then cutting fabric away to create a lacy look. Like most embroideries, it did evolve in style. The embroideries from the 1910s that I’ve seen have a lot of curlicues and s-shapes, a lot like you’d expect from Edwardian print ornament or silverware decoration.

Most of my magazines are from the 1930s and later, and by the 1930s there are many more natural shapes, with flowers being especially popular. I’m not sure when the designs that look like a flower within a shape (usually a circle, but could be a triangle or other geometric shape) came into vogue, but they’re definitely big by the 1930s. They do have a deco feel, don’t they? On this page you can see a 1930s design from a magazine, along with the free gift of a piece of linen printed with the design to turn into a handkerchief sachet! Still with the magazine 80 years on...

The cutwork I’ve seen from the very start of the 20th century was white-on-white. I’ve seen self-coloured cutwork on 1920s garments (eg green embroidery on a green background), and some subtly contrasting work from the 1930s (eg white embroidery against pale blue linen, such as the sachet scanned in on this page). My 1930s patterns include instructions for doing cutwork on nightdresses and blouses as well as tablecloths, napkins and the like. I haven’t seen much from the 1940s, possibly because things like fabric transfers and, indeed, the fabrics themselves, would have been hard to get hold of, but there is still some, such as the dressing table set on this page.

By the 1950s the designs I’ve seen tended to be confined to homewares, not put on clothes, although whether that was because it was easier to buy lengths of broderie anglais and whitework fabrics I couldn’t say. What is certain is that in the patterns from the 1950s you see lots of colour in cutwork, for example the pansies outlined in dark purple and yellow with their leaves edged in vivid green at the top of this page.

Despite the addition of colour, the floral 1950s designs aren’t as different from the deco-feeling 1930s ones as the 1930s ones are from the rococo Edwardian patterns. Perhaps it's this lack of modernity that led to its decline; the 1950s cutwork patterns feel a little dated for their time, and my guess is that they were aimed more at an older generation, and by the 1960s cutwork is not at all trendy. Where it is used, it's confined to things like tablecloths for afternoon tea – and who thinks of the 1960s as a decade of afternoon teas?

Saturday, 12 November 2011


I wasn't planning to do a post about Remembrance Day, but now I feel the need to. I do feel it's a very important day. I know some older people refused to speak about the war - Mr Robot's grandmother wouldn't, and my own former-land-girl grandmother won't. However on my father's side of the family there's a fairly long tradition of service in the armed forces, so I grew up with the stories.

My grandfather, who was career army, transferred from the Indian Army to the British in the 1930s. He was serving at Alexandria when World War 2 broke out. As part of the Science Corps (pathologist/bacteriologist), he was attached to the 8th Army, and among other things was present at Monte Cassino and helped in the clear-up at Belsen. Belsen was one of the things he spoke about to the end of his life, not the sights, but the smell. He was present for the post-mortem on Himmler.

His brother Bunny died at the Battle of Sittang in Burma. The account of his death – he's referred to as WA Macdonald – can be found here.

My grandfather's family was mixed race. They were not unusual. Only two out of every ten soldiers who fought in Burma were white. 90,000 West African soldiers fought in East Asia. Soldiers from the Caribbean fought in Europe.

What I'm trying to say is, tomorrow if you're at a wreath laying or see footage of the ceremony at the Cenotaph on telly, don't forget all the other soldiers, the ones who weren't white and may well not have spoken English. This wasn't a war about Britishness or, as some posts on Facebook seem to have reduced it to, Englishness. Remember all the soldiers who fought and died for freedom, all the countries who lost sons and daughters.

And then remember the Axis troops who died, and the civilians. Because war is a horrible thing, and human lives are precious.

Photo: Top is my grandfather McDonald. The photo was allegedly taken on the day that war was declared. I've watermarked it because it it precious to me, and if you misuse it I will hunt you down and eat your liver. The second is one from his photo album; I know nothing about them, sadly.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Scar-Crow Men, Mark Chadbourn [books]

Rhian of The Crafty Geek gave me the follow-up to The Sword of Albion. Interestingly, she didn't like this one as much as the first novel, but I preferred it. This may be because it's more of a murder mystery, starting with the death of playwright Christopher Marlowe (a real-life event which is still debated to this day). Also, Grace is far less annoying. In the first book she was determined to find out whatever Will Swyfte was up to, which led to her wandering into one of London's criminal 'rookeries', getting abducted by Spaniards, and generally being the most annoying creature on the face of the planet. I've nothing against stong female characters, but Grace was an idiot; steaming thoughtlessly into every dangerous situation is not strength. The Irish assassin, Red Meg O'Shee, is a fairly stereotypical female adventurer, but I don't read swashbucklers for deep character development and intricate portrayals of the human condition, I read them for excitement and fun.

Anyway, in many ways it's similar to the first: the fairies are once again up to no good and Will and the other agents of Walsingham - now deceased - are forced to stop them, complicated by the fact that after Walsingham's demise power struggles at court have weakened the position of the new head of their faction. Eventually, they are as at much risk from their fellow humand as they are from the fairies. I still love Chadbourn's careful blending of fact and fiction, and very much enjoyed this book. I wasn't quite so keen on the ending, but it was tremendous fun getting there.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Pastiche? Unhealthy fantasy? Why I love vintage

This post is prompted by a couple of excellent posts I've read this week, one by Bruce at Eclectic Ephemera and one by Penny Dreadful. Both have encountered, directly or through friends, fairly hostile attitudes towards vintage. I've encountered nasty attitudes towards people doing their own thing before - back when I had blue hair, I actually had people shout across the street to tell me how awful I looked! - and I really don't understand them. Possibly it's a result of me having mild prosopagnosia, but I like people who have their own recognisable style. It could be something as simple as a love of particular colours, or as dramatic as eighteen piercings and a mohawk, I don't care. I love it when people are themselves.

So, why do I love vintage? Well, I do still veer off on non-vintage tangents. After spraining my ankle earlier this year, you can bet your socks that I'll be wearing hiking boots on every icy day this winter, even if they're with a tweed skirt and 1940s jumper. My personal tastes are best described as 'Modern Puritan versus the Inner Hippie'. The modern puritan likes nothing more than a simple black dress; inner hippie occasionally has urges to go all Stevie Nicks or Lord of the Rings. A vintage-style black dress keeps the puritan side happy while being romantic enough to shut the hippie up. Neither is particularly keen on the modern, short, tight, "LOOK, CROTCH! LOOK, TITS!" fashions. And if the upshot of all this is that people think I look like a museum piece sometimes… their problem. I just put the things I like in my wardrobe.

Then there are the practical factors: quality of fabric and cut. Have you seen how little knitwear nowadays contains animal fibres? That's great if you have allergies, but synthetics simply aren't as warm (and some set my teeth on edge). Modern cotton clothes fabrics are often paper-thin compared even to garments from 20 years ago. The styles frequently rely on stretch and gathering for shape, rather than being composed of as many parts as they were in the past. That's fine if you have the perfect figure, but I'm neither young nor slim and need my garments to help me out!

As for the films, the music, the books... I just like them. To date, they haven't prevented me from holding down a job, getting a mortgage or doing any of the things that would suggest some sort of unhealthy fantasy life.

If you've done a post on why you wear vintage, listen to the music or watch the films of another era, please do link in the comments. I find it interesting to see why people do it. And I bet there's not an unhealthy fantasist in the bunch!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Stitch in Time Volume 2: the trunk show

Last night I was lucky enough to go to Susan Crawford’s trunk show at Marmalade Yarns in Frome. It’s the second trunk show I’ve been to there (the other was non-vintege, so I didn’t blog about it), and I have to say they’re really good fun. Marmalade Yarns is a tiny shop, but packed with the sort of yarns I really love, and it’s on Catherine Hill, alongside all sorts of interesting independent shops, some specialising in vintage.

The trunk show was to give people the chance to see the garments from A Stitch in Time Volume 2 by Jane Waller and Susan Crawford. I’ve been waiting for this book for months, and last night I finally got my copy. It contains 80 vintage patterns, all reworked using modern yarns and in many more sizes than the originals. If you’ve ever looked at a vintage pattern and bemoaned the fact that it came in a single size, or tried resizing one for yourself, you’ll know how useful it is to have a book that’s done all the hard resizing work for you, no matter how many vintage patterns you already own!

The book covers the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and includes some lovely hats, gloves and scarves as well as many cardigans and jumpers and even a pinafore dress. I bought a couple of packs of Sublime Extra Fine Merino Wool 4ply half price from Black Sheep in preparation, and now I just need to decide which garments to knit. While I’m usually early 20th century in my tastes, there’s a darling twin set from the 1950s in the book, and the bolero for that would be perfect in navy to go with some of my work clothes.

I’m probably guilty of gushing a lot over Susan, but it was at the launch of one of her other books (Vintage Gifts to Knit) that I got talking to a young lady wearing something she’d knitted from A Stitch in Time Volume 1 and it hit me like a thunderbolt that these things look good on real people, and I too can have the pretty every day. This blog probably wouldn’t be here without that party, and my wardrobe would certainly be emptier. Find out all about Susan's books at her website.


Garments shown are:
Me with Susan - she's wearing 'Ribbon Threaded Jumper' from the book, I'm wearing my Madeira jumper from Knit With Norbury. Please excuse my face of pure goofiness; I have my book! Want to know something sad? I took it to work today. I couldn't bear to leave it at home.

Jen Storey of The Knitter and freelance tech ed Jen Arnall-Culliford looking at 'Lady's Evening Jumper'; Jen S is wearing a non-vintage hat, 'Peerie Flooers' by Kate Davies, (massively popular with knitters right now; I know at least three people who've made it) and Jen A-C is in 'A Warm Jacket'. That's mostly in 1x1 rib, so a git to knit (well, I hate 1x1 rib and so does Jen A-C, so I'm sure we can't be the only two!) but fits like a glove.

Me in the cardigan part of the 'Trimmed With Roses' twinset. The jumper part has short sleeves and, below the same rosy band at the top, stripes all the way down to the ribbed welt.

A rack of pure deliciousness.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

I say, old chap, it's Movember

"Is that why the ladies keep taking their clothes off at me?"

"Yes, they really can't get enough of a good lip-weasel. On top of all the dashing manliness a 'mo imparts, they know you're a caring and sensitive type who supports men's cancer charities."

"Men's what?"

"Oh dear. Take a peep at the official Movember website, old man. Everything you need to know about the campaign is there."

"And the ladies love it?"

"Oh yes, sends 'em absolutely potty."


Monday, 31 October 2011

R Chetwynd-Hayes: a peculiarly British sort of spooky

This post is prompted by rewatching The Monster Club, a very early (and incredibly low budget) 1980s portmanteau horror film. (Portmanteau films are ones made up of several stories interlinked by some sort of narrative, and I've only come across them in horror films. You could call The Simpsons annual Halloween 'Treehouse of Horror' episodes portmanteau episodes.)

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Bloofer lady: Yvonne de Carlo

“You think you're the only one who works hard? How would you like to have to clean nine rooms and a dungeon every day?”

Lily Munster is such a well-known character it’s easy to forget that behind her was a beautiful actress, Yvonne de Carlo. And before you comment to tell me what a hottie Lily Munster was, I know she was! But nowadays de Carlo’s starlet days have been largely overshadowed by her most famous role. Back in the war years she was quite the Forces pin-up.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

More wool!

(Thinks: I hope Mr Robot isn't reading this, my ever-increasing yarn stash makes him look all sorrowful.)

Is it me or do winter coats have narrower arms nowadays? I'm sure I used to be able to get coats over jumpers in years gone by, but I've torn the linings of more modern coats trying to shove thick jumper sleeves down narrow coat sleeves. Anyway, neither my old fine-gauge black cardigan nor my old navy one are really good enough for work now – the former is missing a button, and the latter is going thin at the armpits and the arms are a bit short after an accidental hot wash. It won't take much work to replace the black one's buttons, but it also has a caramel edging so I'd like a solid black one. With this in mind I've just bought ten balls each of black and navy Sublime Extra Fine Merino Wool 4ply from Black Sheep. It was half price, so a bargain. (I've been shopping with them for years; they're brilliant for discounts on discontinued colours).

Next week Susan Crawford is doing a trunk show for A Stitch in Time volume 2 at Marmalade Yarns in Frome. I've been looking forward to this book for quite some time, but with 80 resized vintage patterns, it's been a lot of work for Susan. And it's finally here! I'm hoping there will be the perfect cardi in there. I've got a few nice vintage patterns of my own at home, but it never hurts to have more designs to choose from. I do love the puffy-sleeved designs of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but will have to be sensible and choose things with narrower ones that will fit under my coats.

See Susan's photo shoot video, featuring impossibly glam models and some of the fab patterns from the book!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Shopping joy/ being different

After being about the only person who didn't have a great time on Thursday night (which, if I think about it sensibly, is bloody great, because it means everyone else had splendid fun, so that's a whole room of fun) I've been feeling a bit flat. Crabby old killjoy, that's how I felt, can't have fun with anything, not even vintage, out of step with the rest of the world. But lo! Yesterday I went to the post office to collect a parcel, a vintage wrap dress I ordered from erachel on Etsy. Isn't it cute? those little pink spots are raspberries. The weather is probably too cold for it right now, but it's a plus size and I liked the print, so I snapped it up. (Thank you, zombies*, thank you for my dress.)

Mr Robot wasn't really in the mood for taking photos and so didn't point out that my hair was a mess. He also managed to cut the ruffles off the bottom of the photo! The hem of the dress sits roughly level with the bottom of my knees, and above the hem are three bands of gathered fabric, so it's got three tiers of double ruffles. As you can see, instead of the usual fabric ties it's got a pink fabric cord. Because of the length I'm not sure if it's late 50s or early 60s, although the darker colours and lack of pockets lead me to guess it's 60s but it's pretty, whatever it is.

I have a confession: I never used to like pink very much. However, this dress and my Heyday Fleur black roses are making me wish I had a pink cardi. Hmm. Black would definitely be more sensible!

Then on the way back to the car, we dropped into a house clearance place that sometimes has vintage knitting patterns and I spotted this vase. I'd been looking for this sort of thing (large, vaguely deco, not too glossy) for the dining room, and although I'd been hoping to find something green, I liked this white shell shape. £3. I got it home, looked it up on the internet and it's SylvaC, mould 513. Although the base stamp is really unclear, that makes me suspect it's most likely to be genuine as a fake would probably have a sharper base stamp. It doesn't really matter if it is fake, I bought it because I liked it and for £3 it's an absolute steal.

So things aren't as awful as I was thinking, and with bargains like this coming my way I must be doing something right, even if it isn't the same as everyone else.

*I review books freelance. Lately I've been up to my ears in zombies. The undead are buying my winter wardrobe.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Private Vintage Club [events]

Just out of interest, I'd love to know your expectations of an event called 'Private Vintage Club'. I didn't have a terribly good time last night, but I think it was because my expectations of what the event would be, and what the actual event turned out to be, were radically different. I was expecting more vintage really, so having settled on wearing an Able Grable dress and worrying that repro might not make the grade, no matter how lovely, was quite surprised that so few other attendees were wearing vintage (although all had made an effort, which is always lovely).

Anyway, the emphasis inside was clearly more 'club' than 'vintage', and being a crotchety old lady I wasn't keen on the music. I'd been wondering, would it be swing? Would it be rock'n'roll? Would it be 60s girl bands and the Rolling Stones? No, it went 'doof doof doof' like at every other trendy bar in town. Argh.
You also couldn't order drinks at the bar. I necked my glass of champagne pretty fast and wanted MOAR booze, but was told I'd have to wait for a waitress to come round. I waited. And waited. And got out my knitting. Eventually I was able to order, ordered a dry martini, was brought a vodka one (gah!) and got charged £9 for the privilege. I'd only pay a fiver more for one at the Savoy and that's got an Art Deco setting and jazz music! Booze FAIL. A couple of quid less (and the right drink being delivered) and I'd have ordered a lot more.

Now, the vintage clothes at the fashion show didn't disappoint (although the hair and makeup did). The show was done jointly by two bath businesses, Scarlet Vintage and Hannah Dulcie ( a lingerie shop), and while I'd have preferred more dresses and fewer pants, and indeed more clothes pre-1960, it was lovely to see the clothes on real people. I do wish there had been a voiceover telling us something about the garments, and that the fashion show had gone on longer.

So, not a fun evening for me, but I think lots of the other attendees really loved it. As I said, I think the problem was the gap between my expectations and the reality, there was nothing wrong with the event itself.