Monday, 5 February 2018

What I read in January

I did very well at Christmas for books and book tokens; I am looking forward to getting plenty of reading done this year. I've talked before about my love of Persephone Books and I was lucky enough to get five of their titles as presents. I couldn't wait to start them which is why one of them is the first read of the year.

In 1939 Mollie Panter-Downe was a 33 year old writer of novels, short stories and articles, living in Surrey. Between the years covered in this book, 1939-1945, she wrote a regular 'Letter from London' for the New Yorker. These letters gave American readers a real idea of what it was like to live in wartime Britain.

The author covers all topics in her letters; politics, war reports, rationing, evacuation, bombing, entertainment and work. She can be critical, stern, amusing and is detailed in her accounts. Her writing feels very immediate, she is quite chatty, as a reader you get a real snapshot of exactly what was happening on that day, both locally, nationally and often globally and, importantly, you also get to know people's reactions and feelings to these events. I found the book fascinating and very readable. Even if you have read quite a bit of wartime social history this book will enhance your knowledge and understanding.

Sarah Dunnakey is an author local to me and this book takes inspiration from some of the places and landscapes in the area in which we live. I was looking forward to reading her book for these reasons alone but I really enjoyed her writing and story too. It is a fantastic read, rich in detail and captivating.

The book is set in both the 1930's and the present day. The main character in the 1930's is Billy Shaw, a young boy who lives with his family at the mill turned Pleasure Palace where his mother works and he helps out. He becomes a companion to Jasper Harper who lives on the moors above the palace with his mother Edie and his uncle Charles, both of whom are writers. Billy's life becomes entwined in theirs until a tragic event occurs which leaves behind a mystery.

In the present day Anna Sallis is the new custodian at the mill/palace and she is working on the archives, history and exhibitions to make it more of a tourist attraction. She comes across Billy's story and begins to unfold the mystery linking him and the Harpers. As the mystery unravels all the events of years ago and their consequences become clear.

Set in 1831 in the grimy, murky, crime ridden streets of London this novel follows the story of Hester White. She wishes to escape her dire surroundings to find a better life. She is also worried about the number of people in her area who are disappearing without a trace. A chance meeting with a gentleman doctor and his sister, Rebekah Brock, leads to a change in Hester's circumstances. She becomes caught up in a perilous attempt to solve a grim mystery and finds love and belonging along the way. An atmospheric and gripping tale.

I really enjoyed reading this, it was quite a page turner. I thought the author captured the sights and smells of London at that time very well, as a reader you were transported there. I was a bit disappointed by the end of the book, not so much that it spoilt it for me but it was all just rather convenient.

This is the true story of Lale Solokov, a Slovakian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz. The author became friends with him in the last few years of his life and Lale shared his story with her as he wanted it to be recorded before he died.

Lale's job in Auschwitz was to tattoo the numbers onto the prisoner's arms as they first arrived at the camp. This job allowed him some small perks, he got a few extra rations and he was allowed to move around the camp more freely than an ordinary prisoner. Lale used his position to aid his fellow prisoners; he shared his extra rations and traded smuggled jewels and cash for food and medicine. He met a young woman, Gita, as he tattooed her number and they managed to keep meeting up and fell in love. This book tells their struggle for survival in the most desperate and harrowing of places. It is an incredibly moving, powerful and important read.

What have you been reading this month?

Monday, 29 January 2018

Photographs from the past

I always enjoy a good rummage in dusty old boxes in junk/antique shops to see what I can unearth. I had a good look a few weeks ago in my local antique shop and I found these beauties. I spent quite some time deciding which to have. I couldn't afford to buy them all and I do find abandoned photos touching. I don't like to think that no one cares about the people photographed any longer and I always think that I need to rescue them. That is coupled with the fact that I love seeing fashions worn by real people in the past. So here are the choices I made:

Edith Dolan 1940's
One fantastic thing about these photos is that most of them had names written on the back and I do like to be able to put a name to a face. Many of them also had date stamps which is so very useful, especially for the starts and ends of decades where the fashions of one are merging into the new fashions the next and clothes alone aren't always enough to go on.

Isn't she just perfect?! Amazing hair, the arches on her eyebrows, glimmering pearl studs, puff sleeved jumper. I think the jumper is a hand knit and it looks to have dark thin stripes knitted in from the bust down. I think I have a similar pattern. I would love to know more about her.

Winnie Gibson and Douglas 1940's
Winnie's hat stopped me in my tracks and she went into the 'must keep' pile straight away. It is pretty amazing and so very big! Her dress is worth a good look too with those big round buttons on the shoulders and the diagonal stripes that cross at the bust. I wish I could see the rest of it. Douglas looks rather jolly and very smart in his uniform. I hope they came through the war unscathed and were happy together.

Ethel Booth 1920's
Ethel Booth 1920's
I couldn't leave Ethel behind for two reasons. One is that I found two photos of her and I wanted to keep them together. The other is her gorgeous 1920's day wear. I particularly like the first dress, the second is very pretty but a bit floaty for me. The first however, is one that I can imagine wearing. It appears to be a leaf print with a central white bib in the front and a long, pointed collar. Lovely shoes too.

I think Ethel is older in the second photo. Her face has slightly changed shape, her eyes are more defined like she may have some make up on and she has waved her hair. Her floral print dress has pointy, plain cuffs and collar. The floral fabric appears to be see through with a slip underneath, I think the slip is lace trimmed. Great shoes again. I can't quite see what she is holding but I think it is a beaded purse and so that is what it shall be.

Elsie Godard 26th October 1930
Bob and Elsie Godard 6th April 1931
I think Elsie Godard is such a glamorous beauty and I was so pleased to find two photos of her. I just love the top one; the casually knotted pearls, the big fur collar, the sparkle from the ring, the waved hair and that beret. It looks to be tweed, possibly with a bow at the back. I want it.

It is a bonus to get to see whole of her coat in the second photo; I'm sure it is the same one. I would like to know why they are in their outdoor clothes. Are they pretending that they lived in or visited the thatched cottage on the painted backdrop? Elsie looks more set for town than country to me though. Elsie still has her pearls on and I'm wondering if that is a dress clip on her cloche? Her shoes are marvellous too, with white edged bow shaped cut outs on the front.

Bob appears to be in a rather nice three piece wool suit, I can just about see his waistcoat. I like his big turn ups on his trousers. Nice tartan scarf too. I would like to know more about them.

Hilda and I 1920's
On the back of this photo it looks like the writer (I), on the left,  has written that they were 15 and a half and that Hilda is 17. I found out who was who as the next few photos are clearly labelled as Hilda. I think from their positioning that this is Hilda with her sister and I will come back to this in a couple of photos time.

I do like these dresses. You can clearly see the dropped waist of the one on the left, it is marked by several rows of small pleats. From the waist down the skirt are decorations which look rather like rosebuds. These appear to go all the way around the skirt. Hilda's dress has printed flowers and leaves which seem to reach just above waist level. There is a lace insert in the V neck. They both have lovely pearl necklaces and Hilda is spotting some very pretty, glittery star slides in her hair.

Hilda Price 11th April 1931
I would like to know what Hilda is thinking here; she has an interesting expression. I like her smartly belted coat with the big buckle and the thick fur collar with the corsage pinned on. I think her hat is woven fabric though it is hard to tell.

Florrie and Hilda Price 1930's

This was taken on 1st November but I can't read the year of the date stamp sadly. I think it is safe to assume that they are sisters. I am certain that Florrie is the I in the first photo with Hilda.  I have studied them a lot to make the connections. I like the matching huge bead necklaces and the carefully set hair. Hilda could well be wearing the same coat as in the previous photo.

Hilda 7th My 1939
Another interesting expression. What were you pondering Hilda? This photo really has something about it. Here she is a few years older, still liking a big pearl like necklace and a fur collared coat and a star shaped hair clip.

Hilda and hubby 1930's
I loved finding this and realising that I had photos of Hilda from her teenage years to her wedding. The back of the photo just said hubby, so sadly we don't know his name. I'm surprised that the writer didn't say having been so good at writing the names in the first place.

It is a perfect vintage wedding photo. Floor length veil, gigantic bouquet, beautiful full length, long sleeved dress and the groom is carrying his white gloves. I hope they were very happy.

Hilda Price and hubby
I nearly left this one when I first found it as it isn't my kind of thing and as I said I couldn't buy them all. But then I realised it was Hilda and it kind of finished her story off for me. I want this to be a honeymoon memento and I really think it could be. It was taken in a studio that has two branches, one in London and one in Blackpool. I'm so sure that Blackpool is where this was taken, it just feels right!

I think that these photos all came from one person's collection. I wish we knew the links between them all.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2017 in knitting

It is time to look back over last year and see what I got up to with my knitting. You can read about 2015 here and 2016 here. I feel like I haven't knitted all of the things that I wanted to knit this year. There are just so many great patterns! I am very pleased with what I have made and I enjoyed making them so I have to remember that. These are more or less in the order that they were made. Things do get moved up and down the list when deadlines or other occasions mean a change in project is needed.

This 1960's cravat and tam makes a super set but the pattern required a bit of tinkering. The cravat works very well and I made it and the tam in a lovely mustard Sirdar Baby Bamboo. It is 80% bamboo and 20% wool. I love everything about wool but it does not love me back. It itches me beyond belief, even a fine merino or when blended with silk. That is why I always wear a scarf and long sleeved tops with my cardigans. I thought I would get away with this one but not round my neck, so my mum now has the cravat. The tam is lovely but has no rib and no hatband (as per the pattern) so it just does not stay on my head. I have threaded elastic through it and that kind of works now. I can cope with wool in a hat as I have a big fringe so it never touches my skin!

I wanted to crack the pattern so I had another go in this lovely red Wendy Merino. I added some rows of rib and this one does fit and stay on. I don't normally wear red so this one was going to be for sale but I was surprisingly pleased with how it looked on so I kept it! I knitted the matching cravat too but I don't seem to have a photo of it.

I knitted this Aran pattern hat for my niece in Sublime Merino. She loves yellow and I love knitting cables so it was a good match. It was great fun to knit. There was a small moment of difficulty when she found that the pompom wasn't quite the colour green that she had picked out in the shop, (well remembered by her, age 3), but we have got over that now!

Next up was the completion of this lovely 1950's lace panel cardigan which I knitted in Millamia. I knitted the back, sleeves and one front in 2015!! It then sat in the naughty corner for a good long while as I got a bit confused working out the instructions for the other front. As is the way of vintage patterns, it just said to reverse what you did on the other side and I could not make it work. Helpful with lots of yarn overs and lace. Eventually, I sat down with my mum and she read out all the possibilities that a row could be whilst I knitted them to see what looked right. That way we got the pattern and I could finish my cardigan! It is a beautiful teal, the colour isn't exactly right in any of these photos.

This Marriner's tank top was one that I put on my 2017 knitting wish list and is in fact one of two projects from that list that got started in 2017. I started it on the train on the way to Edinburgh Yarn Festival. I have knitted the front and back, in Fyberspates Scrumptious and have stalled on the armbands. It is currently languishing in the Knitting Bag of Doom from which it deserves to be rescued rather soon. I would like to wear it.

This 1940's cardigan from a Canadian pattern has such a lovely texture, nice and squishy, and has great forties shoulders. It was knitted in Drops Merino and the colour is more like the second photo then the top one. It was a great pattern to knit. This one hasn't featured on the blog before as it was a commission knit.

I knitted this baby helmet from a 1950's pattern for a lovely friend's baby. I like the look of these traditional helmets and they must keep a baby's head nice and cosy. The decoration on the top is a button that you knit a little cover for and then sew to the centre of the helmet. I first knitted one of these helmets for my niece as a Christmas present when she was four months old. It has a bit of a family tale behind it. You can read the story of here.

This was another one from my knitting wish list. The model is holding an egg timer as the pattern states that this jumper can be knitted in eight hours. If you follow me on Instagram you will already know the sad story of this jumper. In brief, no, you can't knit it in eight hours and nor can you knit it with the yarn that I used (a Sublime silk/cotton mix) without it looking like a dish cloth. An expensive dish cloth at that. So it had to be pulled back and the yarn is back in my stash waiting for a more suitable project.

This is another unfinished project, it had to be put aside for more pressing matters but I do intend to go back to it. I really like 1940's tank tops/pullovers and have a great collection of men's patterns. This one gets bonus marks as it also fits into my Men Smoking collection. I have knitted the back and done the rib of the front. It might be for sale, it might be for me, we shall see!

I was on a beret mission in the latter half of 2017 as I wanted more of these most useful hats and had plenty of patterns to try out. This 1960's one is knitted in Debbie Bliss Aran in a fabulous duck egg colour. It was lovely to knit and I like the pattern. No photos of it on yet but I plan to remedy that soon.

I recently wrote a post about this beret pattern which you can read here so I won't repeat the details.

I also made a black one as a commission:

Squeezing in as the last knit of the year on the 29th December was a cream version, in alpaca and silk, for me.

In November I started another garment for myself. It is a 1960's sleeveless jumper with a big collar for pining brooches on. It is not finished yet but I can share the beginnings of it. I have knitted most of the front and have about an inch more to go on the collar. So about halfway there.

2017 appears to have been a year of hats and unfinished things. I'm aiming for more garments and more completed projects in 2018. What about you?

Friday, 12 January 2018

What I read in December

Happy New Year. I hope 2018 has got off to a great start for everyone. Today's post rounds off my monthly reading reviews for 2017. I read 55 books last year, I am planning a post discussing my favourites soon.

This is a children's story about a boy and a fox and a war. Peter rescued Pax when he was a cub and they have grown up together. With a war coming Peter is forced to return Pax to the wild; a decision he regrets as soon as he makes it. The book is the story of Peter's hunt to find Pax and Pax's story of what happens in the meantime. Peter and Pax get alternate chapters to tell their stories which works very well and the fox's voice is believable.

I enjoyed reading this book and it is very moving. I felt rather weepy at points. It would also be a good book to read aloud although you would need to judge the sensitivity of your audience. It is beautifully illustrated by Jon Klassen.

This novel is inspired by the life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar who was born in 1961 and died at the age of 29. She is best known for her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too which was also turned into a film. Andrea had a very tough life on an infamous estate, dealing with poverty, abuse and alcoholism whilst bringing up her children.

This book tells the story of Andrea's life both at home on the Bradshaw Estate and whilst visiting London as a playwright to see her work being produced. It describes how authentic her work was and the difficulties that she faced whilst writing. It is both tragic and comic, just like her scripts. You get a feeling of how hard it must have been for Dunbar to navigate between these two worlds, only one of which she really understood.

This novel is very well researched and written, with a strong sense of place and real empathy for Dunbar. I found it fascinating and learnt quite a bit too.

I had been looking forward to this book by Lucy Adlington coming out and I was not disappointed. Lucy Adlington is part of the History Wardrobe whose historical costume talks and events you may have been lucky enough to go to. She has written several other books, two of which I have on my to read pile.

This is an incredibly powerful young adults book which centres on four young women - Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. It is told from Ella's point of view and follows her from her first day in her new job in a sewing workshop. Only it is no ordinary first day as the workshop is in Birchwood (Auschwitz) and this is a story all about hope, friendship and survival. It is based on real sewing workshops within concentration camps.

I don't want to say much more about it as I do not want to ruin the story. It is a wonderfully written story which brings home the horror of it's setting in a way which is all the more powerful because it is dealing with sewing and clothes, things that are not out of the ordinary.

This novel begins in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat bought down by the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to house arrest in an attic room in the Hotel Metropol. The Count has to adjust suddenly from his life of having everything and more to having seemingly nothing. However, all of life can be witnessed through the comings and goings at the hotel. The Count makes an unlikely but rewarding friendship with a young girl who is also a guest. They explore behind the scenes at the hotel. This friendship has a lifelong effect on the Count and we follow his story up to 1954.

This book is atmospheric and it gave me a strong sense of Russia at that time, especially through it's politics, music, literature and ballet. The characters are strong and well drawn and you get a real sense of displacement. The house arrest in the hotel is a clever plot device which locks down the location whilst providing lots of plot opportunities in the day to day business of a busy hotel. I really enjoyed reading it.

This is a debut novel and a really great read. I enjoyed it a lot, you end up really feeling for the main character Eleanor. It is warm, funny and tragic in equal measure. I am finding it quite hard to know what to say about it without giving too much away.

Eleanor Elephant has many quirks and a decided way of doing things. Throughout the book we realise that this is to do with a tragic event in her early life which she has not/can not deal with. She has everything that she needs on the surface, a job, a flat, some interests but it becomes clear that she is existing rather than really living. Making a friend changes all that and we watch Eleanor change in ways that she never imagined. I can't say much more but it is well worth a read.

Despite having read a fair few crime books I have never read the 'Queen of Crime' P.D.James. These six short stories are clever tales of revenge. A bullying school teacher gets his comeuppance. A heart broken husband plots a way to get his own back but there is a twist in the end. A country house Christmas weekend doesn't follow the expected traditions. A young girl confronts a mystery in her past. A new house is acquired in a twisted way. A father in a nursing home cleverly gains revenge on his children.

These tales are well written and the characters are well drawn. I don't always enjoy short stories as I sometimes find them unsatisfying but that was not the case with these. Perfect for an afternoon of light reading.

There are two novels in this book. Quicksand was written in 1928 and Passing in 1929. Nella Larsen was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance (a movement in African American culture 1918-1937) and she was the first African American woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. She disappeared from public view after these two novels due to a messy divorce and a plagiarism accusation and worked as a nurse until her death.

Quicksand is thought to be semi autobiographical as the main character, Helga Crane, is the daughter of a West Indian father and a Danish mother, as was Larsen. Helga is a woman who is struggling to find a place where she is comfortable in life. Her parents are dead and her relatives are not all comfortable having her around. In seeking out what she wants she finds that she often feels apart when she is in black communities and is also uncomfortable living with her white relatives. She moves around trying to find where she belongs whilst becoming bogged down in questioning her emotions and her beliefs.

Passing focuses on two women and has some similar themes to Quicksand. Clare and Irene were friends as children and meet again after marriage and children. Both are mixed race and Irene identifies as black whilst Clare 'passes' as a white woman and her husband does not know her background. Clare wants to restart her friendship with Irene so that she can have an entry into black society and reconnect with one half of her identity. Irene fears for Clare being found out and judged by her racist husband.

Both books were fascinating, thought provoking, and gave me a much better insight into life in America for an African American in the twenties. I would like to think that things have improved enormously since then but recent events show that to sadly not be true.

I had quite a Persephone Books wish list for Christmas present ideas and luckily for me my family kindly obliged. This one is from my mum and dad. I do love Persephone books, they are always interesting, I like that they are out of the ordinary and that they work hard to bring forgotten women writers back to our attention. I have never read one that I did not enjoy. Also, let's not forget how beautiful they look in their classy silver jackets that open to reveal the glorious endpapers and the matching bookmark. The endpapers for this book are a 1933 textile design from the Calico Printers Association, Manchester. Imagine that as a frock!

Marianna was Monica Dickens second book, published in 1940 and written when she was 24. It tells the story of Mary from childhood to adulthood. It is a fairly gentle tale of family life, in a small flat and then house in London with her mother and actor uncle, with weekends and holidays spent at her late father's family's country seat Charbury. We follow Mary through endless summers with her cousins, school life, crushes, heart break, academic distress, acting school, Paris and love as she grows up and finds her identity. It has plenty of enjoyable domestic detail and special little moments and is a joy to read.