Friday, 29 June 2012

Cardigans: srs subject is srs!

I really like this. I can definitely
see one of these in my future!

Okay, cardigans are really quite a frivolous subject. But I've got a big something-to-wear-over-navy gap in my wardrobe and thought that I'd knit a navy cardi now I'd finished the gold jumper. Because it's good to step outside of your comfort zone every once in a while, I thought I'd put away my Susan Crawford books and dig out my late 50s/ early 60s Vogue Knitting books. I opted for those as they did multi-sized patterns including some in my size, and the 1960s straight-up-and-down look is actually quite flattering to moderate apple figures like mine where there's very little waist definition.
There is a lot of mustard in my 1960s knitting
books. A good time to be a redhead...

Well, as Obi-Wan might have said (except he's never around to tell you when you need him, the git), these were not the cardigans I was looking for. I've already got a pack of navy 4ply, limiting my options, and in the 1960s synthetic fibres became trendy because they meant you could have a super-thick yarn that wasn't really heavy and didn't take days to dry, so there were lots of patterns that wouldn't work at all with the yarn I've got. The cardigans I could find were very plain and utilitarian, and I'd like to make something a bit more special than a boxy knit with pockets so those were out. I found some absolutely ripping little suits that I'm keen to knit, but my quest for a cardigan pattern continues. Tonight I grit my teeth, go back to the Stitchcrafts and older knitting books and prepare for some serious maths...

In the meantime, enjoy some 1960s knitted prettiness.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Giveaway! A box of Robotness!


Suitable for gents too!

My blogoversary has come round for a second time, and that means a giveaway. Well, actually, I've missed it by a week or so but the wait was necessary because I have made one of the items. I've put together a small collection of things. If you enjoy the stuff I talk about on this blog, you're going to like this prize.

What's up for grabs?

To start with, there is a hat. Handknitted by me to a 1940s pattern reproduced in A Stitch In Time Volume 2, this beret is made of Excelana, pure British wool from the Exmoor Blueface sheep. Never mind my ropy photography, see Theodora modelling an identical beret in the book. It's in cream, claret, pink and mint, and is very pretty. (I was pleased to realise I had enough yarn left over to make myself one too!)

Then there is a book, Puzzle For Inspector West, and a couple of fridge magnets.

I've got quite a stack of the Inspector West books, and find them a sort of half-way house between Dixon of Dock Green and Ed McBain, touching on both British cosiness and American hard-boiled fiction. John Creasey wrote over 600 novels and founded the Crime Writers' Association, but he's not so well known today. This book was printed in 1963, and has a marvellously lurid cover. (I have a copy of my own too, you won't be depriving me of part of my collection.)

The magnets are just fun, I love old posters and couldn't resist these, especially Home Front Woollies. I've got some of these of my own, too.

The brooch and tie pin represent the steamy side of the Robot. The brooch is brass with a bright red crystal in and is modern. The pin is a curiosity: a genuine cold war Soviet nuclear scientist's lapel pin. I bought it from Arfon Jones, who told me (I hope I'm remembering this correctly) that scientists would wear them to conferences to show what area they worked in.

So, there you have it: a box of robotness. To be in with a chance of winning, leave a comment. For a second chance, tweet about it and leave another comment to let me know you've tweeted.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show Live is currently touring the UK. We only heard about it on Wednesday and the nearest date on the tour to us, Cardiff, was on Friday, but we had to go. (Usually Mr Robot and I like to plan at least a month ahead; spontaneous is not the word for us.)

The fantastic thing for us was that the original cast, barring Peter Jones, the original Voice of the Book, who died, was going to be performing. We couldn't miss that! Different well-known people are taking the part of the Voice of the Book at the shows, and at Cardiff it was Phill Jupitus.

You can see the stage set in the photo. (I didn't take any of the performance as we were all asked not to take photos or make recordings.) The band were on the big round dias to the left, with the desk for sound effects just in front of that. The round dias on the right, with comfy chair and standard lamp, was where the Voice of the Book sat. Extracts from the book were beamed onto the big round thing hanging at the back of the stage.

It was  a great set, and I loved being able to see the sound effects being made and having the soundtrack being performed by actual musicians. In fact, there were many good things about the show, not least hearing the real voices, the ones we've loved for years. Before we went, a friend who'd seen the show commented that the first half was good, but the second half not so good, and now I've seen it, I agree with them. There's simply too much in the books to shoehorn it all into one show, and I'd expected the show to consist of roughly the same storyline as the first series of the original radio show and the TV series. The first half got to the point of the shootout at Magrithea, following the familiar plot. Unfortunately the second half is very bitty, with lots of references to things that are never explained, so you'll need to be a Hitchhiker's fan already to follow it - I feel sorry for anyone who went who isn't familiar with the later radio shows (based on books by, but not written by, Douglas Adams). Mr Robot is a huge fan of Douglas Adams' work and even he didn't enjoy the second half.

There were also some excruciating attempts to encourage audience participation. Personally, I went to hear the original radio cast, not sing 'Share and Enjoy', and from the lack of participation in general I'd say most of the audience felt the same way. Perhaps a better script, creating a show that people could genuinely warm to, would have encouraged more participation; it was hard to feel warm and fuzzy about anything in the second half, and a disengaged audience aren't going to join in.

If you have any interest at all in Hitchhiker's, I'd say you have to see it, if only to see the original cast. It's wonderful hearing those voices again, live. But the first half is vastly better than the second because of the poor script, so if you have to leave early to catch a bus or train, you really won't miss out on anything.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Jersey With a Soft Bow, COMPLETE!

Sound the trumpets (and forgive the ropy picture) for IT IS FINISHED!

Way back in April 2011, when I had finished my Madeira jumper and had about a month to go until the first Waltz on the Wye, I cast on the 1950s pattern 'Jersey with a Soft Bow' from A Stitch in Time volume 1. Rather optimistically, I intended to wear it at the event, and needless to say it was nowhere near finished by the time the event rolled round. As ever, things got in the way of it after that: freelance, swaps, work, reading. I decided to have a good push and finish it over Christmas.

After I'd completed the front, there was a little nagging voice in my head. Your tension's a bit loose, it said. Don't you think this is going to be too big? it said.

I ignored the little voice and knitted the back.

You know, it still looks too big, the little voice said.

I ignored the little voice and knitted the sleeves.

Crunch time came: all the pieces were done, and it was time to sew them together, and there was no avoiding the fact that the little voice was right, it was far too big. I could have sewn it up, but I'd never have been happy with it, so I reknitted the whole front and back. I've pushed myself over the past week to finish it, it's finally done and I wore it to work today. Although the reknitting took lots more time, it's worth it to have something I'm happy with. It would be awful to feel a vague sense of disappointment every time I looked at something I'd made.

The pattern itself was a dream; a combination of my loose tension and choosing a yarn other than the recommended one were what caused my problems. I used Fyberspates Scrumptious 4ply, a silk/wool blend which knits beautifully, has a rich sheen and feels lovely against the skin. It's not a cheap yarn, but I look after my clothes and decided it was worth the expense. The jumper was one of the nicest things I've ever had to sew up. The strong ribbing on the upper body and clear waves on the torso made aligning the knitted pieces really easy.

New vintage knitting book!
If you like vintage knits, Susan Crawford's new book, Coronation Knits, is out now, full of patterns from, and inspired by, the Coronation period. I'm one of the scheduled stops on the blog tour for it, so I'll review the book when my turn comes around, but in the mean time here are the stops so far:

Just Call Me Ruby (Susan Crawford)
Jen AC Knitwear (Jen Arnall-Cullford)
The Icelandic Knitter (Helene Magnusson)
Knitting Institute (Knitting Magazine)

Knitting Institute is the latest stop on the tour, so you can pick the next stops up there. On the 24th of June the tour moves on to textile historian Ingrid Murnane's blog, which I know will be fascinating, as Inny's done lots of research into knitting history. She wrote a fantastic piece for Simply Knitting magazine on London transport workers' knitting for the war effort in the 1940s, and I can't wait to see what she does for Coronation Knits!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Hollow Crown / Dangerous Sea, David Roberts


Two more 1930s -set mystery novels by David Roberts. (The earlier ones were Sweet Poison and Bones of the Buried.) His series about Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne definitely improves as it goes on. While I still have certain reservations about the books (In particular, when I initially started reading the series I was concerned that Corinth and Browne would simply be a less literary Wimsey and Vane, usually there's at least one character who, if not a real historical figure, is clearly meant to remind the reader of one, and there's always a degree of scene setting), I enjoy them nonetheless.

There are two main things that I appreciate about this series: first, that there's not always an unmasking of an individual with a dastardly plan behind the deaths in the books. Sometimes the death is simply an accident, sometimes a killer can't be brought to justice. It makes the stories feel more realistic. Second is the politics. I don't know whether Roberts had all ten novels in the series planned when he started writing, but all the novels engage with the turbulent times leading up to the Second World War, and characters often have very different viewpoints. Moreover, like real people their views change as history unfolds.

In Hollow Crown, it's Autumn 1936 and Edward is given the task of retrieving letters stolen from Wallis Simpson – letters sent to her by her lover. (You know who!) Unfortunately the woman who took them, a former mistress of the Prince of Wales, is killed and the letters disappear. Dangerous Sea is set in Spring 1937 and mostly takes place on the newly-launched Queen Mary; having proved himself useful, Edward's contacts at the Foreign Office want him to accompany a well-known economist on board the ship and make sure he reaches America, and an important meeting with President Roosevelt, in one piece.

Enjoyable fluff for rainy afternoons! (And we've certainly had enough of those of late.)

Source of books: One of these was bought from the Oxfam bookshop; the other doesn't have a sticker on so I'm not sure where I bought it, but it's definitely secondhand.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Get your game on!

It's too late for Fingermouse, but if we give
Arfon a reason to pick up his pens, we may yet
save the Clangers.
This is possibly not the normal sort of thing I talk about on the Robot, but I cover plenty of steampunk, so it does fit in. The Heart of Sut is a steampunk RPG card game, with mechanics by Chris Phillips, story by James Richardson-Brown and artwork by Arfon Jones (The Destroyer of Your Childhood, or at least taxidermist of Wombles and Fingermice...). The story behind it is that it's 1865, and six adventurers are traversing the Sahara in search of the Heart of Sut, a fabled jewel. The mechanics are all worked out, so now they've set up an Indiegogo site to help get it manufactured. If you fancy forwarding the cause of steam, support The Heart of Sut on Indiegogo. If you're into card games it's worth going for at least the Adventurer package because then you get a signed copy of the game.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Forgotten bombshells: Nita Naldi

Miss Dooley was born in New York in 1894. (Her true first name is uncertain, with sources claiming Mary, Nonna and Anita, all names that Nita herself said had been her name! The Rudolph Valentino Society have done research into it and Nonna does seem most likely to have been the true one.)

By the time she was 20, with her mother dead and her father absent, she had two teenaged siblings to look after, and started work modelling for artists. In 1918 she got her first job on Broadway. By 1919 she was performing in the Ziegfeld Follies, the Dooley girl was gone and Nita Naldi now trod the boards.

Her first major film role was in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, opposite acting great John Barrymore. She had luck with her leading men, vamping it up as Dona Sol in Blood and Sand opposite Rudolph Valentino. The two worked well together and she later acted alongside him in A Sainted Devil and Cobra. The camera loved her long eyes, oval face and dark hair. She also posed, topless, for Antonio Vargas, and acted in Alfred Hitchcock’s second film, The Mountain Eagle. Her last films were released in the late 1920s, and she never made a talkie.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Five Fabulous Flapper Fragrances

You've got the drop-waisted frock and a Charleston Chasers CD, you've got the bob and the pearls. But have you got it all? Here are five perfumes that were all around in the 1920s and still available today. They've all had some tweaks over the years, but should still give you a whiff of the Jazz Age.

If you're used to wearing modern perfumes, I recommend you go to your local chemist and take advantage of their testers, as perfume trends change over the years as much as clothes fashions do and you may find these a little strange at first. However, think of perfumes as being like food: if you've only eaten chicken nuggets all your life, you're going to find your first curry, or chili, or rare steak a bit of a challenge. Likewise if you're used to wearing the simple, intensely sweet perfumes that are currently popular, you're going to find the aldehydes of Chanel No. 5 or the tobacco of Molinard Habanita quite overwhelming at first. Persevere. True beauty is never simple.

Oh, and if you want to start wailing, "But it smells like an old laaaaady," please don't. Like fezzes, old ladies are cool, and they definitely have the best perfumes!

Chanel No. 5
This is first on my list because you can get it absolutely everywhere. EVERYWHERE! All sorts of stories surround its creation, but the one thing you can depend on is that it's been well-loved since its launch in 1921. A certain blonde bombshell revealing that it was all she wore in bed didn't hurt its mystique either. Chanel No. 5 is one of those wonderful perfumes that is appropriate just about anywhere, for work, going out, or just to please yourself. It's heavy with jasmine and rose, and has aldehydes in the top to give it 'sparkle'.

Guerlain Shalimar
I could have picked another Guerlain, Mitsouko, for my list. However, 1925's Shalimar is the one I've opted for. Rich in vanilla and bergamot, with an underlying animal note, if Shalimar were a garment it would be one of those amazing 1920s coats with a wrapover fur collar. I do find the current version starts off strangely on my skin and usually have to give it a few minutes to calm down, so if you do sample some in a chemist or department store, give it a little time. Shalimar is a LOUD perfume, so start off with a tiny bit. I have very dry skin and very few scents travel far from my skin, but even on me Shalimar stands out, and I only usually wear it in winter. You don't want to spoil your workmates' day with an intrusive fragrance.

Lanvin Arpege
You can find the current version of this fairly cheap (especially compared to the others on this list). Originally made in 1927, Arpege was reformulated in the 1990s, so if you can find a bottle from before then snap it up. However, the new version is said to be very close to the original, and also very lovely. Like Chanel No. 5 it's an aldehyde.

Coty L'Aimant
Cheap as chips, this one! Seriously, you can get the Parfum de Toilette in Boots for under a tenner. At that price, you know you'll be getting a lot of synthetic ingredients, and if you can get the vintage stuff that's always a better option, but the current version is still a good buy. Aldehydes were trendy in fragrance in the 1920s, and this is another one from that family, with the sparkling top notes that Lanvin Arpege and Chanel No. 5 have, although it's punchier than either of those. For the modern flapper on a tight budget, it's a jolly good substitute for Chanel No. 5.

Molinard Habanita
Like Shalimar, this is a big, party girl perfume. It's last on my list because it's a little harder to get hold of than the others. (If you're in London, Les Senteurs stock it – that's where I got my bottle.) That said, an Eau de Parfum version has just been released, which may herald a wider release, and by all accounts the EdP is very good. Habanita's got an unusual history compared to a lot of perfumes as its first incarnation was in a bottle with a dipper, and you put it on cigarettes to surround yourself with clouds of fragrant smoke. This in itself tells you a lot about the sort of girl who used Habanita, because in 1921 it still wasn't the case that every girl smoked. Inspired by the cigar-making girls of Havana, it has a tobacco note, but it's the fruity warmth of cigar tobacco, along with lush flowers. It reminds me of hot skin, but in a good way: definitely the lure of sunshine and good times in there. (I've done a longer review of Habanita.)

Saturday, 9 June 2012

STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway


a green steam engine
The Caerphilly Castle, a 1923 Castle Class engine.
You can go underneath it and get a good look 
at its cogs and pistons.
Steam trains! My office overlooks the railway line between Bristol and London, and every so often a steam train puffs its way past. I love that. In case you're wondering, my favourite engine that's gone by is the Bittern, which is currently painted up to look like the Dominion of New Zealand. Mr Robot calls me a trainspotter, but I don't care.

Yesterday we drove over to Swindon to visit STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It's housed on the site of part of the old railway works. At its peak, the railway employed 14,000 people in Swindon, with everything from foundries for casting metal parts and carpenters to make the bodies of the carriages to teams of upholsterers and people who'd repair the existing rolling stock. Swindon was tiny before the Great Western built its railway works there in the mid-19th century. Swindon built trains, and the railway built Swindon.

A very old steam engine, red and black with a shiny metal funnel.
The North Star, a replica of the 1837 
engine that pulled the first train 
on the Great Western.
The first part of the museum tells you about the parts of the works, the offices and stores, the foundries, machine rooms, boiler room and so on. During the Second World War, when the men went to fight, the purpose of the site changed temporarily and the women of Swindon stepped up and made shell casings and other armaments. In the boiler room, there was an excellent video about the women who worked there during the war. Possibly the most moving things in the museum were the war memorials. Each shop had its own, to the men of that shop who'd died fighting, and I noticed that a pair from the same shop, one from the First World War and one from the Second, had the same surnames on both. Families often followed the same trade, and I found myself wondering if these men had been father and son, uncle and nephew, both working in the same place and meeting the same early end.

The interior of the Great western buffet car, with a long shiny counter stretching the length of the coach, and a row of little round stools in front.
The interior of the 1934 buffet car. 
So deco!
After the works part, the museum tells you about the Great Western rail network, including some splendid steam engines to see and information on shunts, freight trains, signal boxes... all the stuff that kept people and goods on the move. My favourite bits came a little after that, with a mocked up train station (one of the exhibits was a Victorian coffee pot, silver plated, in the shape of a steam engine, which was used in a station buffet) and some carriages. I loved the 1934 diesel train and the buffet car which looked like a proper diner, complete with a sandwich display cabinet and gleaming tea urns. Apparently these buffet cars were better known for the amount of whisky passengers consumed on them! Then there was a small exhibit on holidays by train, as the Great Western made it possible for more people than ever before to visit the south coast, and had its own hotels and even boats.

Mr Robot investigating the attractions of 
a seaside holiday by train.
I do wish there had been more to see: more trains, more carriages, perhaps more opportunity to get some experience of the railway. I love old railway posters, and there was very little on them - who painted them, how did they change over the decades and so on. It didn't take us very long to go round the museum, and when we left we weren't at all worried that we might have missed out on anything. It was all very clean and modern and easy to get round (a good place for wheelchair/ mobility scooter users to visit) but not exactly stuffed. The old railway works site is enormous, but most of it is taken up with an outlet shopping centre. They've preserved many things within the shopping centre, including cranes and an engine, but ultimately it's a historic industrial space taken up with the same old stuff you can buy anywhere. I enjoyed it, but I don't think I'll go back unless they install a lot of new exhibits or stage a special event.



Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Another 1930s knitted beret


Tadaaah! A new hat!

I've made the Sunday Pictorial Beret from Susan Crawford and Jane Waller's book A Stitch in Time Volume 2 before, but that was for someone else as part of a vintage swap. I've now knitted one for myself using the last of my blue Sublime Merino 4ply (well, I've got one ball left, but that's not really enough to so something on its own). This is one of my favourite yarns and I knew it would knit up beautifully. I added a contrast edging and bows to my hat using a red yarn – I'm not sure what the red is, but it feels like a wool 4ply. I originally fancied making the beret in navy and red, but I only have 10 balls of the navy and am planning to use those for a cardigan, so couldn't afford to lose two on a hat. It seemed an ideal way to finish up the blue.

This reminds me a lot of classic military berets in that all the fullness is at the front while the back is comparatively flat. The red edging is half-hidden at the front, but you can see it and the red part of the trim at the back.

The Sunday Pictorial Beret would make a great pattern for a new knitter to try as it's incredibly simple, using only a couple of stitches.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Jubilee flowers

Constance Spry is one of my icons. While chefs like Elizabeth David and brands like Horrockses are remembered, Constance Spry has faded in the national consciousness. She ran a domestic science school with her friend Rosemary Hume. I think this Bank Holiday weekend is a good time to remember them both, because they played a part in 1952's Coronation. Rosemary Hume designed a dish for the Coronation lunch which has, in the following 60 years, been adapted, simplified, cheapened and become familiar to everyone in some form or other: Coronation Chicken. Constance was a florist and created lavish floral decorations.

The Coronation lunch was held in the hall of Westminster school, Constance Spry described it in her book, Party Flowers: "this stately hall was badly damaged during the war and its dignity is marred by a temporary roof. The walls too have been robbed by fire of panelling and are pitted and scarred..." Quite a lot for flowers to do, as she realised. "I went off to talk to my partner Valmar Pirie... and we quickly realized that the effect we visualized could not be got with flowers alone. Fortunately Sir David had also asked us to undertake the catering, and at the Cordon Bleu school Rosemary Hume was planning menus and methods. This combination gave us scope, and we finally decided to suggest a scheme in which the long serving-tables down the sides of the hall would be draped in gleaming gold, the table-cloths would be of blue, and the flowers of glowing scarlet." In that time of post-war austerity, when everything was in short supply, they were very lucky with the flowers. The mayor and people of San Remo sent a delivery of wonderful blooms as a gift to the Queen. After the luncheon, the flowers were sent to hospitals for more people to enjoy.

I have three books by Constance Spry: Come Into the Garden, Cook (a book of wartime recipes, although mine dates from after the war), How to do the Flowers (1953) and Party Flowers (1955). Inspired by the flower books and the Jubilee, here is an arrangement I did yesterday. The flowers are all stocks, which I love for their scent. You don't need nasty synthetic air fresheners when you've got an armful of these in the room. I didn't have any oasis (the green foam florists use) so I had to rely on the bulk and weight of the flowers to hold themselves up, but luckily the vintage Sylvac vase has done a lot of the arranging work for me. Party Flowers contains several photos of the Coronation displays, and they too had this dense pyramid shape, although in much more exotic blooms and, of course, the rich reds Constance Spry had wanted.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Great Gatsby [1974 film]


The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books of all time, and with the Baz Luhrmann film due out this year everyone's talking about it. BBC Radio 4 broadcast it a few weeks ago as the Classic Serial - I'm not an American so I've no idea if the accents are genuine, but it sounded jolly good to me and I've Tivoed it. I'm not 100% convinced by the soundtrack on the trailer to the Luhrmann film; I love 1920s music and wish that had been used, but I suppose then it wouldn't be a Luhrmann film. I hope it inspires people to go out and listen to the real thing.

I've also loved the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby for years. Some people don't like this film because it's too 1970s. I often say I don't like the 1970s, but that's not true, because I adore the 1970s nostalgia for the Edwardian era to the 1940s and Gatsby is part of that. It has a dreamy quality like Sarah Moon's photographs, overexposed so there's a blinding sunlight over many scenes (especially the ones where Gatsby and Daisy are together) and a gritty taking in of every detail in others. Mia Farrow makes a wonderful Daisy, ethereal and never quite present even when she's taking up the whole of the screen. Robert Redford makes a wonderful Gatsby, so earnest in his pursuit of a lost love.

While Daisy is light and airy, as Gatsby wants her to be, Myrtle (mistress to Daisy's husband Tom) is earthy, the opposite of his idealised woman. Working class Myrtle gets drunk, has a shiny face, swears, has sex, while Daisy floats along in a rich dreamworld, untouchable even though married and a mother. Yet as vulgar as Myrtle and her relationship with Tom are, that's not what ruins everything. Myrtle knows her place, and Tom is careful to keep her there. Gatsby refuses to accept his lot in life, and his attempts to rewrite history result, ultimately, in tragedy.

The film stays very true to the book. For me, The Great Gatsby is ultimately the story of the futility of dreams and the cast-iron of the class system, which the 1974 film conveys perfectly.

See the trailer for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby over at The Guardian.

My copy of the DVD was a gift from my husband.