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!