Saturday, 30 November 2013

Bill Bryson at the Forum Cinema

Bil Bryson speaks!
Yesterday Mr Robot and I went to see Bill Bryson give a talk, arranged by Topping and Company booksellers. He's got a new book out, One Summer: America 1927. As you'd guess from the title, it's all about the summer of 1927 in the United States. We both love Bryson's work, I'm fascinated by the 1920s, and the talk was being held in the art deco Forum cinema – what better place for it? The cinema is now owned by a church, but it hosts other events from time to time, and Toppings runs a good range of events throughout the year, so I check their website frequently and snap tickets up if something looks interesting.

(Sorry the photo of Bill Bryson is so ropy - I snatched a few shots just as he came on, then put my camera away so I could enjoy the talk and wouldn't disturb other people.)

Mr Bryson read one excerpt from One Summer, plus some from his other books (including the memoir of his midwestern 1950s childhood, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid). He explained that when he started researching his latest book, his plan had been to write about baseball player Babe Ruth and aviator Charles Lindbergh, both of whom had performed amazing feats that summer. Lindbergh had become the first man to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris in a single flight (in the process becoming the most famous man on Earth), and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in a single season. However, he quickly realised just how pivotal that summer was for America, with the great Mississippi flood, the start of the Mount Rushmore carving project, The Jazz Singer being released in cinemas and so many more things happening, and so the book widened in scope, though Lindbergh remained a major part of it.

I'll write a full review of the book when I've read it.


To suit the event and location I tried to dress with a nod to the 20s, in a felt hat and straight coat, plus straight pink/grey tartan skirt and hip-length cardigan, but I don't think it worked, really. If anything the hats has too large a brim and the skirt was too long (and the 1960s bag didn't help). Ah well|!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

RIP Datamancer

I was saddened today to hear of the death of Richard 'Doc' Nagy, aka Datamancer. I'm probably well behind the steampunk community here - not being part of the community, I don't hear news as quickly - but wanted to mention it on my blog because I always found his work inspiring and exciting. If you've ever watched an episode of Warehouse 13, you may have seen some of it without realising.

Steampunk often seems to me to be misunderstood, especially by crafters outside the subculture whose approach to steampunk design seems to be to paint things brown and glue cogs on top. Rather than get into an argument about what was wrong with this notion, it was always easiest just to send them to Datamancer's website. His wonderful computers combined high craftsmanship with full-on Victorian style. Never twee, always functional, his designs to me embodied some of the fundamentals of steampunk: what would the world have been like if the Victorians had had computers? What would have been possible?

Thank you for expanding the realm of the possible, Datamancer.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Two Madames [perfume]

 I haven’t reviewed a perfume for a while, so I thought I’d introduce you to Rochas Madame Rochas and Balmain Jolie Madame. Both were first made midcentury, 1960 and 1953 respectively. My bottles are of the more recent formulations, though by all accounts the older stuff is even better - but then, isn’t it always?

I got both these fairly early on in my perfume-accumulating adventures, when my beloved Mitsouko was reformulated and I was investigating the whole world of other scents out there. Both of these had very good reputations and were being sold very cheap through Fragrance Direct. (I heartily recommend Fragrance Direct if you’re in the UK; their stuff is the real deal, and you can pick up a good discontinued bargain - cosmetics as well as perfume. They also do very good deals on gift sets after Christmas.)

What a shock the perfumes were! Perfumes from particular eras have styles, just as clothes do. Moreover, just as you can shorten a vintage dress or take off the sleeves or whatever and still have it retain something of its original era, so a perfume can be reformulated but never quite lose its place in time. These midcentury Madames smelled, to my nose, quite dated. They were also quite strident. Even though I’d got both very cheap, I started to think I’d made a massive mistake...

I warmed to Jolie Madame first. It’s a strange combination of leather and violets, an Emma Peel or Miss Moneypenny sort of scent. I think the violet is what helped, it reminded me of the early 20th century fragrances I love, Caron French Can Can in particular. Even so, it was on the wrists only, never too close to my nose. Then, one autumn day, it just worked. The violets were sweet, the leather had a darker quality that worked in the damp weather, and it was splendid. I spray it much more freely now when I wear it. The leather is too much for me in summer, and the violet too cool for winter, but sometimes I wake up in spring or autumn and only Jolie Madame will do.

Madame Rochas was took longer to love. There’s something very Marnie Madden (The Hour) about it: very mannered, beautiful yet somehow artificial, and it holds you at a polite distance even when you’re wearing it. I appreciate it more now, because of its manners, not in spite of them. It’s not a perfume to wear with jeans or even tweeds, it’s a very smart, very urban, very retro scent: a 1960s lady who lunches. Once, walking past Fortnum and Mason in London I saw they had a huge Madame Rochas factice (display bottle, full of coloured water not perfume) in the window. That tells you a lot about it. I only wear it to work, and then only on days when I’ve got my makeup nice and am dressed smartly! 

It’s worth taking the time to get to know a perfume. Of all our senses, smell is often the most neglected, and people who always pick beautiful colour combinations, or who have a real love of the feel of well-cut clothes in high-quality materials, sometimes surprise me by wearing only one or two undemanding scents. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of something brainless, but all the time? It’s the equivalent of living off burgers or wearing nothing but onesies and tracksuit bottoms.

My two Madames might not be my favourite perfumes, but I’m glad I can now appreciate them, and that they’re in my collection. Although I do wonder what people think when they meet me wearing one of them... 

Looking for a vintage scent to love? Check out my Brief Guide to Vintage Perfumes up to 1940, 1940-1959 and 1960-1989.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Knitting progress, Poirot and making connections

Joining in Tasha’s 1940s knitalong was a jolly good move. I think I’ve made more progress on my navy cardigan recently than I have in months. I have a half-hour commute each way to work, and while it’s dark at night, in the morning it’s light enough for me to fit a few rows in. I’m a slow knitter, so any extra knitting time is very welcome. My current aim is to be able to wear my cardigan by Christmas. Tasha’s set up a Ravelry group for the knitalong so I’ve joined that.

I’m slowly coming out of my wardrobe rut. I think being ill had a lot to do with my mood as I haven’t got anything new to wear but I’m feeling much more positive anyway. I had a whizz round the charity shops last weekend, but didn’t find anything I wanted. I nearly bought a couple of pleated wool skirts, but had to remind myself that it’s either expensive to get them dry cleaned or a faff to wash them (see my instructions for how to clean a dry-clean-only pleated skirt). I’ve still got one sitting in the laundry basket waiting for me to clean it, I don’t need two more!

Another thing that’s lifted my mood, generally better health aside, is the return of iconic 90s show The X-Files to my telly. One of the cable channels has been broadcasting the show from the first episode. Back in the 1990s I loved The X-Files. I even loved it when Mulder and Scully left and Dogget and Reyes took over in the early noughties. However, rewatching it is making me realise just how very good that first season was. There’s not a weak episode in the bunch. Scarily, Scully’s wardrobe is also making me aware of how much influence the 90s had on my personal tastes, especially my minimalist impulses and love of plummy lip colour. Could be worse, I suppose - what will the young’uns of the noughties carry forward, taste-wise?

On the subject of telly, it’s weird to think that Poirot has ended. Bruce Partington-Plans has written about the final series of Poirot extremely well, so I shan’t repeat what he said, but it will be sorely missed. I enjoyed the programme, but also loved the fact that so many other people did too, and it was something we could all share. I’m not sure if there’s anything that has lasted long enough and been watched widely enough to have the same impact. Watching Poirot, I never felt I was watching alone (okay, Mr Robot was always there, but you know what I mean) because I knew Gemma (Retro Chick) and Bruce and loads of other people would be watching it too. I don’t get out and about much, so it’s one of the few times when I felt properly connected to other people in vintageland.

On which note, are you planning to watch BBC2’s Cold War season? I’m looking forward to the documentary tonight, but anticipating even more eagerly Romola Garai in the 1970s-set drama Legacy at the end of the month. She was brilliant in The Hour, and I love a good espionage thriller, so here’s hoping Legacy has a decent script. It’ll give me something to knit along to...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wardrobe ruts and frustrations

Time for a new look?
I’m feeling in a wardrobe rut again. I did the same at this time last year - in early autumn I get excited that I can get all my favourite woollen skirts and jumpers out of the wardrobe, then by November/December I get all glum. I can think of a few reasons for this:

1: The weather is getting to me 
Perhaps the dark nights are just inducing feelings of gloom, and it’s creating a general dissatisfaction. Also, I've been ill since getting back from Burma/Myanmar, and that's guaranteed to dull any enthusiasm for clothes. (I found myself wishing for a onesie at one point, erk!)

2: Christmas is coming 
And that means parties. I’m nearly 40 and I really don’t know what to wear to get ‘dressed up’. I wear things like shift dresses with diamante jewellery to work, so the standard middle-aged partywear option feels like workwear to me. I feel anything especially girlie or sexy is probably a little ridiculous on me. This causes me masses of stress as I’m constantly aware of my age and weight (neither of which bother me on a day-to-day basis the rest of the year) and despairing of both. And I get invited to very few events anyway, which makes it all doubly stupid.

3: I do actually have a boring wardrobe 
This is a real possibility. After all, a tweed skirt and a jumper makes a nice change from summer clothes in early autumn, but rotating the same few tweed skirts and jumpers for months can get a tad dull. I do suspect I wear the same combinations of garments most weeks, and that my colour palette is limited. To this end I’m going to note down what I’ve been wearing day-to-day and see where things could be lifted, and where I could remix outfits.

I asked on Twitter whether people had advice for perking up a wardrobe, and one answer, which made me laugh and then think seriously, was Ankaret Wells’ comment that I should get a denim waistcoat. My response was that I can’t remember the last time I wore denim. (Seriously, I haven’t owned a pair of jeans for 20 years.) But why not step out of the comfort zone? Simply changing jewellery or adding a scarf doesn’t seem to be enough, so perhaps wearing something completely different is the answer. Yes, it might be a fashion disaster, but at least it won’t be boring.

Do you have any tips for perking up a tired winter wardrobe? What gets you out of your rut? I'm honestly not sure whether to trawl the chazzas for more of my usual sort of thing so I can mix and match more of what I currently own, or whether to try something completely out of my usual style (print! embellishment! modern!)

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Taukkyan War Cemetery, Burma/Myanmar

The main memorial has a central round 'atrium'
and two large columned wings.
If you read this blog regularly or chat to me on Twitter, you’ll know I went to Burma/Myanmar recently, in part to search out my family history. One of the most important places I wanted to visit was Taukkyan War Cemetery, within driving distance of Rangoon/Yangon. With Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, I thought I'd share my trip with you.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Walter Alexander (‘Bunny’) and his stepfather, John Rowley, both served in Burma, and both died there. I don’t believe Rowley has a grave, and I know Bunny definitely doesn’t, so their names on the memorial are the closest thing they have, and none of the family has been able to visit it before now. Rowley was a friend of Bunny, and married my widowed great-grandmother. He was a Yorkshireman with the 2nd Battallion King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; Bunny joined them, though he never set foot in England in his life. The KOYLI suffered terrible casualties during the war, losing nine men out of every ten. Rowley promised my great-grandmother that he wouldn’t leave Bunny, who was just 18 when he joined up and 21 when he died, behind. Rowley kept his promise in the saddest possible way, and so I wanted to put a little cross at the memorial for both of them.

Every one of these columns is covered with names
 It is possible to get the bus from Rangoon/Yangon to the cemetery, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re feeling especially adventurous - you need to get to the station in the north of the city and on the correct bus. Fortunately, as part of our trip (arranged through excellent local travel company One Stop) we had a car and driver for the day. Spring, our guide in Yangon, was a little surprised that we wanted to go to the cemetery, probably because it’s a long way for a destination without much of tourist interest, but as soon as I said it was a family thing he understood completely.

Bunny and Rowley.
Taukkyan War Cemetery is a peaceful place, kept in immaculate condition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff who work there. I headed straight for the central memorial, which is huge and lists all the servicemen who died in Burma during the war. I’d already looked at the CWGC’s website, which has details of many war memorials and cemeteries around the globe and allows you to search for graves, and so I knew the number of the face Bunny and Rowley were listed on. I entered next to a different face. The names are grouped by regiment, and I entered next to a face bearing the names of servicemen from Africa, names like Saidi Mwembele and Seluce Kasungu. Every November I seem to come across at least one idiot who spouts anti-immigration nonsense and links it to the war; I wish I could take them to Taukkyan and show them every face of this memorial - the Brits and the Anzacs, the Indians, Gurkhas, Africans and more. United they fought, united they fell, and if they died for anything, let it be for greater tolerance and decency, not for ignorance and distrust.

I wrote Bunny and Rowley's names on the back of
this little cross, and left it near their face of the memorial.

We found Bunny and Rowley easily, and Spring, asked the gardener if it was okay for me to place my little cross nearby. He said yes. We made sure we got photos for the family.

After that, I took a walk round the graves. They’re split by religion, as different sections of ground are consecrated to different faiths, and then within those sections the dead are grouped by regiment, so soldiers lie beside their comrades. I liked the fact that there were flowering plants on the graves, and that butterflies fluttered around. The place was neat and tidy, but it was also beautiful and peaceful. Going to the cemetery was a sad, sober occasion, but I found consolation knowing that Bunny is, in a way, with his friend and comrades, and has such a tranquil place where he’s remembered.
Looking at the memorial from one end, out across the
graves of some of the Indian soldiers.

All photos copyright PP Gettins.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Fit for a prince: the 1922 Bagan Thande hotel

This was built in 1922 for a royal visit

I've now been back a week from my holiday to Burma/Myanmar, and thought I'd tell you a bit about the Bagan Thande hotel. While I wasn't fussy about which hotel we stayed at for most of the trip, there were two locations where I got specific. At Inle Lake I wanted to stay in one of the Golden Island Cottages hotels, as these are run by a co-operative of people from the local Pa-O ethnic group, and I liked to know the money was going into the area where I was staying, plus the hotel was actually on the water (little houses on stilts) so we could watch the boats of the local pagoda festival being rowed past. In Bagan I really wanted to stay in the Bagan Thande as it was built in 1922 for the visit of the then Prince of Wales (who became Edward VIII in his brief stint as King and then, of course, became the Duke of Windsor). 'Thande', the name of the hotel, roughly translates as 'diplomatic residence'.

'David', as he was known to his family, did a diplomatic tour of the Far East in 1921 and 1922. He didn't embark on the tour entirely willingly, and he certainly wasn't entirely welcome: both India and Burma were struggling for independence at this point in time. (I must admit, as a Brit I spent a fair bit of time on this trip wishing my countrymen hadn't been such arses, and at the same time as someone of mixed ancestry wished they hadn't been such arses to my ancestors. 'Us' and 'them' in one package!)

It's wonderful watching sunset by the river
Nowadays the historic building at the Thande is a restaurant downstairs and suites upstairs. We didn't splash out on a suite, instead having a really nice bungalow with a wonderful river view (handily not far from the riverside cocktail bar), but when the weather is damp they serve breakfast in the restaurant so we did get to eat on the ground floor of the Prince's building. It's a very nice teak building, very clean and shiny, though I have to confess I didn't get much of a sense of history from it.

The dining room is very large and open, and I have no idea whether it was originally designed to be a large reception room or if it's been altered. In fact, I've been unable to find out much at all about Edward's visit to Bagan, although I'm sure he enjoyed looking round some of the magnificent temples; you'd have to be a barbarian not to be dazzled by their beauty.

This trip was entirely paid for by Mr Robot and myself, no freebies. We booked via a Burmese agent, One Stop, who I heartily recommend - all our transfers and flights were organised for us, and booking through an agent can mean you make big savings on the prices hotels quote if you book direct. I'd also recommend using a Burma/Myanmar-based agent as you will save significantly compared to using a European agent or package tour company; the prices some European firms were quoting for one person was as much as we paid One Stop for both of us together.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

I'm knitting for victory!

Tasha from By Gum, By Golly has launched 'Knit For Victory', a 1940s-inspired knitalong. All you have to do is knit something 1940s (or 40s-inspired) between now and January 31st 2014. I don't often join in knitalongs as they usually involve making something I don't fancy making or come up when I'm halfway through another, urgent project. However, half-finished large knits are okay for the knitalong, so I'm using it to give me the impetus to finish my navy cardigan.

I'd been feeling a little bad about how long it's taken me to knit the navy cardigan, which I started last year (July 16 2012, according to my project list on Ravelry – I'm idontlikecricket if you're on Ravelry too). However, looking at that same project list made me realise how many things I have completed since then, including swap box projects (two shawls!), Mr Robot's Wartime Farm tank top, and the gorgeous 1950s cardigan my friend Sarah wore to get married in. Not completing the cardigan hasn't been a sign of slacking, it's a sign that perhaps I need to spend a few months being a selfish knitter and making things for myself.

I'm hoping to finish the cardigan and then knit myself something else. I have a pack of black 4ply, so was thinking of It Cannot Fail To Please from A Stitch in Time vol 1 in black. However, I also have a load of silk/cotton blend in grey with a silver thread running through it, which I'd originally bought to knit a jacket but now fancy using for Lamour by Sarah Hatton – I reckon in that yarn it will look pleasingly dieselpunk. I guess I'll have to wait and see what mood I'm in when I've finished the navy cardi!