Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Living with books

Funny how a domestic upheaval can make you reassess your relationship to your physical books - both one's personal relationship with them, and their place in our newly digital book world. My relationship with my physical books had been - well, you know how it is after years without change: you get too comfortable, you start taking it all for granted, you hardly notice the accretion of the years or your habits, you even lose sight of some of the things about it all that matter, so it's not actually so comfortable, really, it's all sort of running away with you...

We have books all over the house - in the back room downstairs we have poetry, short-story anthologies and non-fiction; the room I write in is crammed with lit crit, feminist books and lit mags. John's a psychologist by profession and writes on linguistics so, naturally, the room he writes in houses his psychology and linguistics books as well as his particular poetry collection; there's a shelf of cookery books in the kitchen, of course, and I have a line of books published by Salt at my bedside. Our biggest collection, fiction, we have always kept on these shelves in the front room downstairs, and when we came to strip the room in the summer for fairly major building work and decorating, it took me a fortnight of afternoons to shift the books elsewhere. Painting the shelves was a pretty time-consuming job and took up gallons of paint, but spacious as they are I had begun to realise that they were no longer adequate for the books they'd been carrying: the books been double- and even triple- stacked, with others piled horizontal on top of the rows (you can see something of how it was in the sidebar in the videos of me reading from The Birth Machine). We hadn't been able even to see more than half of them and had forgotten we owned some of them, and the difficulty of getting to some of them had meant that they'd got more and more muddled as the years went by.

So what to do when I finally finished painting a couple of weeks ago and it was time to fill the shelves again? John suggested we limit them to classics and hardbacks. I wanted to know if he was mad: we wouldn't even fill the shelves and then we'd have nowhere for the modern paperbacks of which we have far, far, more. But I was wrong. We have far more of everything than I'd realised. Here below are the shelves filled as John suggested, and we still have boxes and boxes of paperbacks lining the landing, and we're going to have to go to Ikea for more shelving for the landing.

It makes me wonder: when, how did I acquire quite so many books? And what does it mean? Am I some old-fashioned fogey clinging on to an outdated way of life - because it is a way of life, the keeping of physical books: all that effort and time carting them around, all that thought, time and expense in creating places to put them... And they just disintegrate, don't they? The spines, I found, had started to come off the little leather-backed classics I was so thrilled to snap up from a secondhand-book shop when I was a student, some of the paperbacks had fallen apart, and those on the very top shelves, packed too tightly in a room inadequately heated before we set it to rights, were even going mouldy.

But I tell you what: I only found one plastic bag's worth that I was prepared to take down to the charity shop...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Review: 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook, Edited by Charlotte Fiell and Emanuelle Dirix

What do I do when I'm setting a novel or a story in the past, and I want to refer to characters' clothing? I look at old photos, of course. What do I do when I'm producing or acting in a play set in the past? Ditto, of course. And what do I do when I have a spare afternoon? Scour the charity shops for vintage to wear NOW, of course.

So imagine my delight when the publishers sent me this book: over 600 original photographs and illustrations of the fashions of the thirties - drawings taken from fashion periodicals and mail order catalogues of the time and Hollywood studio press shots - and with an introduction by leading fashion historian Emmanuelle Dirix which sets the developing style of the era in the context of the two shattering world events that framed it: the Wall Street Crash and World War Two.

One thing that struck me immediately was the difference between my own impression of the way people dressed in the early thirties, as illustrated in our family photos - with a distinct overhang of twenties flapper style on the younger women (straight up-and-down dresses, dropped waists) and the older women still in Edwardian-style dresses - and the more forward-looking style presented here, figure-hugging and fluid and developing fairly early on in the decade into the styles I don't see on my family until war time - big shoulders and blouson waists. The introduction neatly addresses this issue, pointing out that fashion is about fantasy and ideals, and at the start of the decade the privilege of an elite able to patronise the couture houses. However, Dirix traces the way that the Depression broke down this divide and led to a democratisation of fashion, with Paris fashion houses offering ready to wear and even 'sew up your own to fit' ready-tailored garment pieces, and the rise of department stores and mail order catalogues. The Hollywood talkies also brought glamorous fashion and its escapism into the purview of ordinary women, explaining the apparent contradiction of this era, associated as it is with both glamour and economic recession.

Maybe it's the book nerd in me, but I'd have liked some information about the publications from which the illustrations were taken, and maybe it's the history nerd in me, but I badly wished that the illustrations had been presented more chronologically, in order to show the development Dirix describes. As the decade wore on, and 'the rumbles of warmongering grew louder', she tells us, more functional, military-style garments began to appear, so it seemed odd to me that the first section, 'Daywear' should open, rather than end, with a colour photo spread of two such dresses from 1936, and that there was no chronological pattern to the presentation of images that I could detect. Also, I was fascinated by the distinction made in the captions between 'day dresses' and 'afternoon dresses' - I'm no fashion history expert after all - a distinction I could not always detect in the dresses themselves, but I'll have to go elsewhere to investigate that little socio-historical matter: the book doesn't address it.

However, this book is a veritable feast for theatre and film wardrobe departments, fashion historians, fashion enthusiasts, and vintage wearers everywhere. If it hadn't been sent to me by the publisher, I would definitely be asking for it for Christmas. At the bottom of this post you'll find the details of how to buy it, and in the meantime, here are some of the hundreds of gorgeous images:

First, two evening dresses from Tres Chic - Selection Reunis, 1932:

 Three images from Tres Parisien, 1933:

and actress Madeleine Carroll in 'It's All Yours', 1938:

1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook is published by Goodman Fiell, has an RRP of £30 and is available from as well as Amazon and all good book stores.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A J Ashworth's dark secret

One of the five writers I tagged in The Next Best Thing is A (Andrea) J Ashworth (above), and today her post is up. Bravely, she writes about a work in progress - something I can never bring myself to do: I don't mind talking about the writing process as I experience it, but I have a superstitious fear of giving away anything of the subject matter or story before a thing is finished. Well, Andrea isn't giving too much away but she whets our appetite: the book, a novel, is about a dark secret, and who can resist that?

I also recommend Andrea's collection of short stories, which won the Salt-run Scott prize and was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize, and which I nominated when asked by the Guardian to make suggestions for the reader's choice slot on the 2011 Guardian First Book Award shortlist.