Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Kitchen Suppers

Kitchen inspiration

Calling it a kitchen/breakfast room, because you want people to think that for proper meals you use the dining room.

An island or breakfast bar instead of a table. You can’t get your knees under an island/breakfast bar, and those bar stools are terribly uncomfortable, so all you can do is eat and run. You can’t sit down and eat, do homework, work or cook! You have to mix, and roll pastry standing up. And nobody else can sit and chat to you while you peel, chop or fry. You need a couple of sofas.

But perhaps posh people are getting the message:

“At the top end of the market, it is unusual now to see a property without two kitchens,” says Lochie Rankin from luxury property search agent Lichfields. “Many expensive houses have a main kitchen and a catering kitchen used by staff, often in the basement, with huge industrial-style ovens and fridge freezers.” The upstairs family kitchen, with coffee machines and comfy sofas, will be the setting for the informal “kitchen suppers” made fashionable by Sam Cam and the Chipping Norton set... “The trend for two kitchens has been getting an awful lot bigger,” says Rupert Sweeting, head of the country house department at Knight Frank. “More kitchens have arrived partly because people just don’t want dining rooms anymore.” [And the final touch is a third, outdoor kitchen in your garden.] (yahoo.com, Nov 2014)

They are trying to get back the sociable cosiness of the working-class live-in kitchen. Cooking and eating round a camp fire is also bonding. OK, you can have togetherness in a dining room, but it is tainted by a history of sitting there while servants dish up food you haven’t cooked, the older generation bullies the younger, and the entire ceremony becomes about “proper table manners” rather than food, conversation or enjoyment.

“People want larders. The possession of a larder signifies to many people that they have arrived. Most people come from homes that did not have anything like a country house larder.” (Lucy Alexander Times Nov 5 10) Modern kitchen designers, she says, are still hooked on the sleek, modernistic, science lab look for kitchens and don’t really know where to put a larder. She blames Downton. But you couldn’t stir a Christmas pudding for 20 people in a giant china bowl on a worktop. You need a table. (It wouldn’t be easy to butcher a turtle, skin a rabbit or clean a pig’s head, either. No room – and you'd hit your head on the cupboards.)

Nobody has pictures in their kitchen any more – or even decorative wall plaques or hanging plates.

“Cabinets date terribly quickly, so you change the handles or the doors.” (Antiques Road Show)

For people who wear Boden, a company called Plain English Kitchens has been around since the early 90s. They have their own Farrow and Ball style colour range (airforce blue, rust red and shades of camouflage). But basically they are fitted kitchens in “natural” materials, with an industrial chic look. The units probably have recessed brass handles. (Guardian, Feb 2014) “Country” kitchens have the same old “science lab” layouts with more folksy units.

Samantha Upward buys a dresser and a table and a Belfast sink (ripping out old 70s units), and hangs pans from hooks on the walls. She either strips the dresser or paints it white. She complains that people never cook in their “state-of-the-art” kitchens (and besides they cost £10,000). All her equipment is either bought in France (made of enamel to a design nobody’s changed for 50 years because there’s no need to) or in antique shops (also enamel, but cream/green rather than blue/red). She likes blue and white striped Cornish ware, or green Denby ware. Upwards have always loved hardware shops, maybe because the products are generic and never change. And because they love working class paraphernalia - but only when it’s 50 years out of date.

Ultra-Bohemian Rowena Upward buys benches and sinks from a real science lab and installs the lot in her kitchen. She grows herbs in the fume cupboard.

Where have all the kitchen tables gone? They are standard furnishings in hipster cafés. Ask your local café if they can spare one.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

More World of Interiors

Why is it the super rich never seem to have any taste in curtains? (Feargus O'Sullivan)
Syrie Maugham started the trend of stripping and repainting French provincial antiques. (Wikipedia)

Poverty has its whims and shows of taste, as wealth has. Some of these cabins were turreted, some had false windows painted on their rotten walls; one had a mimic clock, upon a crazy tower of four feet high, which screened the chimney; each in its little patch of ground had a rude seat or arbour. (Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens)

Today your bedroom is the backstage area where you prepare for your performance in the theatre of the world... The living room... a sort of stage-set where homeowners acted out an idealised version of their lives for the benefit of guests... The inexpensive and slightly lowbrow connotations of gas meant that it was still shunned by the upper classes: they stayed loyal to candles. Lucy Orrinsmith, author of The Drawing Room, Its Decoration and Furniture (1878), suggested that one’s ambition ought to extend beyond a coal scuttle decorated with a picture of Warwick Castle and a screen showing ‘Melrose Abbey by Moonlight’. Instead, homeowners should look out for quirky, exotic flourishes for their best room: ‘a Persian tile, an Algerian flower-pot, an old Flemish cup, a piece of Nankin blue, an Icelandic spoon, a Japanese cabinet, a Chinese fan … each in its own way beautiful and interesting’. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, Lucy Worsley)

Middle-class Upwards are still following Orrinsmith's instructions almost to the letter. But Rowena Upward, the ultra-Bohemian, is collecting Jacobethan furniture, little brass animals – and anything decorated with Warwick Castle or Melrose Abbey. She has an eye on a bamboo Edwardian overmantel which she plans to fill with knicknacks. She even intends to crochet frills for all its brackets. It won’t quite go with the Jacobethan – but perhaps she’ll go all-out for 1880, with potted palms on stands and round tables with velvet covers to the ground.


Sofas from the 1950s often had plastic trays clipped onto their arms to hold food or drinks. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, Lucy Worsley)

The “random cladding” movement in architecture. (Adam Furman)

In a poncey club sitting on a sofa made from a slab of pumice with no back to it. They know how to make you feel welcome. (Mark Gatiss)

Bow windows with bottle-bottom glass, plus Georgian fanlights, on a 60s council house.

Hotel room en suite bathrooms with glass walls so you can watch TV in the bath. (What if you’re sharing the room???) And many hotel rooms have TVs in the bathroom, some disguised as mirrors or pictures.

“Classic” French provincial bathroom cabinets (including a basin on cabriole legs with faux drawers).

Buying a Georgian house and removing all the fireplaces so that there’s no obvious place to put the furniture and it stands around looking awkward.

Dummy chimneys on new houses.

Bars in Dalston with the “poverty look” - distressed wood and reused school chairs - which are too expensive for local people.

Crazy paving – on the wall.


The Pig Hotel “all shabby-chic Georgian splendour, roll-top baths with views over parkland...” (Times magazine 2014-08-16) Nothing can be both shabby AND splendid. Unless you specifically mean “shabby splendour”. And if the Georgians had had roll-top baths they would not have sat in one looking out over parkland. Oscar Wilde used to say that a gentleman never stood at a window – or was it Lord Chesterfield?

Using a rumpled but neat look. (onekinddesign.com)

“Shaker style” now just means “wooden kitchen units”.

Rustic” is now a catch-all term that has drifted a long way from its roots in clothes and furniture actually made by genuine rustics (You can have a rustic or “woodsy” wedding, according to Etsy.)

The Museum Selection catalogue name-drops frantically in an attempt to convince us that its style-free products are sprinkled with the fairy dust of famous writers and artists.

“Rackham Plaque, redolent of the dream-like paintings by Arthur Rackham” – but not based on any particular work.

“Petal Fairy Statue, recalling those depicted in tales by Andrew Lang...” It looks like a rip-off of the Flower Fairies series by Cicely Mary Barker, and looks utterly UN-like the illustrations to Lang by HJ Ford.

“English Tweed jacket, Beautiful wool tweed jacket evoking the silhouettes of 1940s originals” – but not modelled on them.

“Art Deco Mugs, inspired by the vibrant Art Deco ceramic designs of Clarice Cliff...” They’re a poor imitation. None of the “Art Deco” products look remotely Art Deco.

It continues through the ages, “echoing”, “capturing”, “evoking” – but never reproducing.

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Classy Careers (and Money)

The wicker workshop was a great success
“I’ve made an almost vulgar amount of money.” James Braxton, Antiques Road Trip

The Antiques Roadshow “clumsily punctuates [the personal and historical] narrative with a judgment of exchange value”. (paulmullins.wordpress.com archaeology blog)

Hire-purchase rules were relaxed after the war – middle-class Upwards were furious. Here were common people getting what they wanted now (probably over-shiny furniture), instead of employing “deferred gratification” – something they are still very fond of. Access ("Takes the waiting out of wanting!") was one of the first widely available credit cards in the early 70s. The middle classes had another hissy fit. American Express, Diners Club and Barclaycard were different because they were exclusive.

Upwards and Weybridges used to be very shocked if you bought anything in a corner shop: “It’s so much more expensive than the supermarket!” And of course you can only buy chav food like Heinz salad cream and tinned steamed pudding. But it’s in walking distance, and I haven’t got a car, in fact I can’t drive, and I don’t need to do a huge weekly shop because I don’t have a husband and family... (“You haven’t got a car!!!” I think they stop talking to me at this point. Happy thought: filch a lot of Waitrose bags to carry the corner shop food. Or invite them to dinner and serve up spam fritters and spaghetti hoops.)

Is “artisanal” the new exclusive?

Latest middle-class careers: hand-make bespoke ordinary things like leather satchels, bicycles or fountain pens. I’m not sure how you’ll get organic materials into a bicycle – wooden pedals? Wicker basket? Hessian panniers? Is there a basket shop in East London called “The Wicker Man” yet?

Why don’t middle-class people open internet cafes? For the same reason that they can’t learn to tap dance, act in musicals, or become estate agents.

Is the educational end-game that all children should aspire to pass exams, go to uni and get a white-collar job? Who’s going to do the blue-collar jobs? We need bus drivers, firemen, shop staff...

An Upward wrote in to the Guardian complaining that if schoolkids don’t learn French they’ll “have no knowledge of other cultures”. Reminds me of getting an Arts Council grant: with breathtaking culturecentrism, the form required us to promise we would “contact other cultures”. But Upwards can always send their children to an inner-city primary school - they'll contact many other cultures. Some of the pupils may even be French.

More careers here.
More money here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Class and Barbara Pym III

Look out for the peonies on the altar...

Class, Religion and Decor in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence

Jane is a fortyish vicar’s wife who has just moved to a country parish. Her friend Prudence is 29, and works in some unspecified publishing job. She shares an office with two female colleagues who are always discussing when the typists are going to bring their tea. (Because they couldn’t possibly make it themselves.) The hours of work were officially ten till six, but Prudence considered herself too highly educated to be bound by them.

Jane, the central character, treats her husband’s parish like a big joke, and tries to find suitable men for Prudence to marry. Prudence is an attractive girl who has had strings of admirers since Oxford – but shouldn’t she have chosen one of them by now?

As the story progresses, Jane becomes more and more irritating. She loved Oxford (where she taught Prudence), but she has never got over it. Her memories of “riotous fun” involve gathering autumn leaves and going to evensong. Her “bright” conversation annoys people. Her subject was obscure 17th century poets, and she once wrote a book of essays. But since she got married, she hasn’t cared enough to become good at anything. And: There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more.

When she sees someone she knows: She wanted to rush in to him, to greet him with some exaggerated mocking gesture, ‘Buon giorno, Rigoletto,’ posturing and bowing low. Did people ever behave like this? Thank goodness she resists the impulse.

Soon after the move, Prudence asks her: ‘Have you met any interesting people – people of one’s own type, I mean?’
She has met Fabian Driver, a local widower. Jane tries, rather inefficiently, to bring them together. Prudence could give cultured little dinner parties with candles on the table and the right wines and food... Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely.

As usual, Pym’s characters discuss class through other subjects, such as soft furnishings:

‘Oh, but it looks “lived in”,’ said Jane [of her vicarage living-room], ‘which is supposed to be a good thing. I thought Mrs Pritchard’s a little too well-furnished – those excessively rich velvet curtains and all that Crown Derby in the corner cupboard, it was a little over-whelming.’
Jane’s curtains, brought from a previous house, are too short and narrow to keep out the draughts that pervade Victorian vicarages, and she can’t be bothered to replace them, so her predecessor’s were “excessively rich”.

A visitor notices: ...the fireplace, whose emptiness was not even decently filled in with a screen or vase of leaves or dried grasses.

When Jane meets the Pritchards, she is amazed to find that they travel in a “motor” and have “luncheon” with the Bishop. But well-bred people talked like this even today, Jane believed.

Jane muses on the surroundings of young men living in lodgings: ‘I always feel so sorry for young men living in lodgings, especially on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder if he has a sitting-room with an aspidistra on a bamboo table in the window and a plush table-cloth with bobbles on it, and some rather dreadful pictures, perhaps, even photographs of deceased relatives on the wall.’

Prudence’s smart flat has a “general effect of Regency”, and pale green bed linen. Prudence drinks expensive Lapsang Souchong tea “out of a fragile white-and-gold cup”. But Jane ponders: Those light striped satin covers would ‘show the dirt’ – the pretty Regency couch was really rather uncomfortable and the whole place was so tidy...

Miss Doggett snoops around her companion’s bedroom: One would have imagined that a gentlewoman would have her ‘things’, those objects – photographs, books, souvenirs collected on holiday – which can make a room furnished with other people’s furniture into a kind of home.

Jane’s husband, Nicholas, is glad to be working in a genuinely old church: He would no longer have to say to visitors in his gentle, apologetic tones, almost as if it were his own fault, ‘I’m afraid our church was built in 1883,’ as in the suburban parish they had just left.
As usual in Pym novels, there is much discussion of shades of meaning in the Church of England – is the local church “high” or “low” enough? And where you worship depends on your social class: Here Fabian came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity.

Prue ponders going over to Rome, but can’t face: ... listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself... Of course... one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Nor even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on the back of the New Statesman, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.

Jane explains the difference between low and high: Evensong in a damp country church with pews, and dusty red hassocks. No light oak chairs, incense or neat leather kneelers.

The ladies of the parish decorate the church every week. One of them describes a wonderful arrangement she’s seen: She’d put red and pink flowers on the pulpit, rhododendrons and peonies with some syringa and greenery. Red and pink together is a middle-class taboo, and rhododendrons and peonies are far too colourful and showy.

Prudence enjoys novels that are: ...well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.

The end of the novel is indefinite rather than unhappy. The story contains many tips on how to land a husband, but marriage may involve "struggling with the washing up for six", curbing your husband's penchant for little sentimental affairs, or not realising that his affectionate tolerance for you may be wearing thin. (We also discover that two characters from a previous novel, who had crushes on the two halves of a married couple, have married each other.)

More Pym here.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Classy Quotes 18

Are you one of those weathergirls?

My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. (writer-in to Mariella Frostrup in the Obs, Sept 14. The girl is living abroad at the moment, but the writer wonders what will happen to her when she returns to the "real world".)

She had decided tastes and a long list of hates. These included: the sort of woman who wants to join a gentlemen’s club; the bits of paper that fall out of magazines; female weather forecasters; visitors to Chatsworth who complained that the countryside was ‘dirty’; the words ‘environment’, ‘conservation’ and ‘leisure’; supercilious assistants at make-up counters; dietary fads; skimmed milk; girls with slouching shoulders and Tony Blair. (Daily Mail obit of the Duchess of Devonshire)

I received little praise if things went well. I remember once saying this to her ladyship. ‘What do you expect me to do, Lee, keep patting you on the back?’ Given an answer like that I never laid myself open again. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, quoting from a butler’s memoirs)

A character in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge says he has “risen from nothing” – he means his father was a butcher.

We were professional people; the other people who lived in our street were not and they were not asked to the party. Most of them were better off than we were but I was the only man who owned a dinner-jacket. Nora would have been shocked if I had suggested that she was a snob. She explained her attitude carefully. “It isn’t a matter of social standing, Tom. I haven’t anything in common with them.” (Change Here For Babylon, Nina Bawden)

She liked listening to the light programme and reading the popular women’s magazines – I would find them carefully hidden under the sofa cushions—and she was ashamed of these things. (Change Here For Babylon, Nina Bawden)

They were tremendous houses in Adelaide Crescent; they started off with a basement and went right up to an attic, there were 132 stairs in all, and the basements were dark and like dungeons. The front of the basement, with iron bars all down the bay windows, was the servants’ hall... We were ushered into a hall that I thought was the last word in opulence. There was a lovely carpet on the floor, and tremendously wide stairs carpeted right across, not like the tiny little bit of lino in the middle we had on our stairs. There was a great mahogany table in the hall and a mahogany hallstand, and huge mirrors with gilt frames. The whole thing breathed an aura of wealth to me. I thought they must be millionaires. (Below Stairs, Margaret Powell)

There are some very regrettable people come settling round here lately—people one can't dream of knowing. It's a great pity. (Non-combatants and Others, Rose Macaulay)

Clare Balding has written several books about her upper-crust, horsey family. The Times interviewed her. Hers is the traditional dysfunctional English family – where stinginess is championed and scorn a form of tenderness. Her father is “pouring sherry into his Cup a Soup while muttering disparagingly about people who drink at lunchtime”. Her brother Andrew is cast as the family idiot and gently bullied throughout.

When Balding introduces a new pet to her mother:
“A white dog? Good Lord, how London can you get?"

My mother is a firm believer in: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Balding tells me. "She’s very 'stuff and nonsense. Crack on. Are you bleeding? No. Go on with you then. Are you concussed? No, you’re still talking. Crack on.'

Her mother agreed to join her on a radio ramble. Balding was thrilled, but didn’t let on:
That would be too close to being emotional or even “soppy”. And she might think I am going to give her a hug or something awful.

(Times September 2014-09-06)

Oh it is hard you will agree
To know your place in Britain's meritocracy
It's most important you should know
The people who're above you and the ones below

If Parliament's where you would be
Be sure you come from Oxford with a good degree
For then you may in your accent smooth
Persuade the shiftless workers to the polling booth

A redbrick university
Puts you on the lower branches of the tree
And even there you'll have a ball
Scorning those who never reach the tree at all

Lawyers, doctors, dentists pass
Their examination to the middle class

Especially if they just scraped through
I'll give you ten to one that they'll look down on you

If proper status you would win
Be sure to hang your curtains with the right side in
No one's below you, fancy that
Then your only consolation is to kick the cat

(Kick The Cat, by The Spinners)

When a middle-class man moved to Bruton in the West Country: "I was slightly traumatised. You couldn't get a decent coffee, a Bloody Mary or decent bread." (Times 2014-08-04)

Like many cities at that time, it was rigidly class-structured, with each class having its own way of life, diet and types of eating-house. (Amazon review of The Victorian City. Is it different now?)

The film is redolent of the class-consciousness characteristic of that period – there is little no possibility of anyone wanting to improve themselves. (Amazon reviewer of In Which We Serve uses “class-consciousness” to mean “once a villein, always a villein”, hinting that now we are modern and enlightened, we expect people to try and move up the class ladder. Who is happier, though? The working classes cosy in their tiny terrace house, the lower middles bickering in the parlour, or the toffs hiding their feelings over the tea table? They have more space, but it seems to have pushed them further apart emotionally.)

With funds channelled into private schooling and little to spare, we hovered between austerity and middle-class privilege. (Emma J Page, Times 2014-08-02 Oh, we did!)

More here, and links to the rest.

And more here.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Class and Noel Streatfeild

Hello, boys!

Noel Streatfeild, the children's novelist, came from a middle-class background, but worked as an actress for 10 years before starting to write. Ballet Shoes, her first children’s book, was published in 1936. She recalled, "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book." But according to writer and playwright Samantha Ellis (and internal evidence), Ballet Shoes was a retread of an adult novel, The Whicharts. So much for the story “telling itself”.

To create the children’s book, she removed snobbery, cruelty, anti-Semitism – and sex – from the backstage story. The Whichart girls are three half-sisters, bastard children of a Brigadier, brought up by his devoted, discarded and childless mistress, Rose Howard. Though he leaves them some money and a house, they struggle financially until someone suggests to Rose that she send the children to stage school to learn to dance, and let out rooms to lodgers. (But they hang on to a nanny and a cook.)

From a young age, the three girls work in panto, and then the chorus of musical comedy – just as in Ballet Shoes. But they are not cute, innocent and whimsical – they are pettish, spiteful and amoral. Maimie, the eldest, quickly becomes the mistress of a theatrical impresario. When he drops her, she moves on to Herbert, who has made money in the garment trade. In the Ballet Shoes version, the girls live in a strange world in which they work, but don’t have boyfriends.

The Whicharts describes a world that has disappeared, in which children can work in the theatre from a very young age (eight?). After the war, rules became stricter, and dance academies trained children for a life that no longer existed.

Noel S stresses that the eldest two children’s mothers come from “nice” backgrounds, as does Rose. The youngest child’s mother was a dancer from Balham, and this fact is quite frequently cast in her teeth. Daisy is the most talented of the three, but ends up moving in with her real grandparents who have moved up in the world and to Surbiton.

Through her characters, Streatfeild expresses her contempt of shabby theatrical lodgings and the people who stay in them. She has the prejudices of her era and class – despising “slop” (sentimentality) and “showing off”. The story is not aspirational, like Ballet Shoes – she does her best to make the life of the theatre sound unpleasant.

The eldest girl, Maimie, is pretty and a “show-off”, but not an inspired dancer. The middle child, Tania, is hard-working and competent, but would rather be a mechanic. Only the youngest, Daisy, is a natural dancer (those Balham genes). The other two sneer when she is marketed as a “child wonder”.

As the story becomes more about Tania, the "plain" one, it becomes a better read, especially when she falls in with some genial but incompetent Shakespeareans who are doomed to forever tour the provinces.

Streatfeild refutes some well-known platitudes. Tania ponders: “All that bunk people talked. ‘Life is what you make of it.’ All that muck!... Daisy would probably make money because she really could dance.”

As for Maimie, she becomes a chorus-girl and “This changed her.” (So much for “Change comes from within”.) She wishes she had more money. “Money can’t buy happiness, you know,” says Rose. “Oh, my God! Fancy handing that slop out to me... Look at us! Taking in boarders. Too few servants. Too few clothes. Us children dancing to help things out.” Brought up by the ladylike Rose, the children think of themselves as middle-class, like the other girls at their school.

When Maimie gets her hands on some money of her own, she buys “rubbishy, showy clothes”. But she wants a good time, and “a good time was going out with boys... in her new showy clothes she was a great success”. (So much for “inner beauty”.)

Tania “detests” going on tour. She “loathes” her lodgings. “...the woolly mats, the aspidistras, the enlargements of the landladies’ family, the curious smell of old food and dirty carpets, the shiny horsehair sofa with the stuffing coming out and all the springs broken... the bedrooms with the wallpaper hanging in shreds... the dreary row of equally awful little houses, the dirty paper blowing up the gutter...”

An aitch-dropping dresser (whose “humorous” speeches I skipped) notices that the sisters are "so obviously a cut above the other children.” Rose suggests some other careers to Tania: “Very nice people work in shops nowadays.” After Rose dies, Tania suggests pawning her jewellery to buy Daisy some audition clothes. “Nanny was really shocked. Pawn! Ladies and gentlemen didn’t pawn.” But she does.

Nanny’s name is Mrs Riggs, Daisy’s real family are Mr and Mrs Higgs – standard “working-class” names. Daisy describes the Higgs’ home: “Imagine! They’ve got the loveliest house with the neatest garden. All the flowers in rows – a different colour in each row – and such a pretty drawing-room – everything pink – and heaps of pink bows... And there were heaps of pictures all in bright gold frames... and lots of ferns – with green bows on them to match the carpet.”

Having discovered their granddaughter, the Higgs would “like to do well by her. Like her to have a chance of meeting really nice people. There were lots of nice boys growing up in the neighbourhood. Nice for Daisy to have a chance to meet nice boys...” Which is kind of them. We hope she meets and marries a nice boy. It’s suggested that Maimie turns down Herbert and breaks her heart over a married man. As for Tania... well, read it for yourself.

I would love to read Away from the Vicarage, the second volume of Streatfeild’s (fictional) autobiography, in which she becomes an actress in the 20s.

More literary snobbery here.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Class and Joanna Cannan II

Joanna Cannan: All Is Discovered

There is not a single likeable person in this book, apart perhaps for the murdered woman, a "peasant type" who only ever wanted to work on a farm. It is all about class. Joanna Cannan uses her story to pour scorn on council house dwellers and farmers’ wives who want to climb up the social scale thanks to cheap wallpaper, manmade fibres, fridges and convenience foods. It is the early 60s.

The only halfway attractive character is Arthur, an elderly man who lives in a "cream and green" council house and grows his own vegetables. But even he has every dropped H notated.

His wife Edie has aspirations and a seersucker tablecloth. There are “sandwiches to cut and fill with a new recipe from Women’s Weekly Outlook – pineapple with a dab of mayonnaise – and then she must comb out her hair, at present set in curlers under a headscarf, and change into her Terylene skirt and Acrilan twin set.” The couple have just dined on “baked beans, tinned luncheon meat and processed cheese”.

Even worse is Sylvia Lumley, wife of a farmer. She “teeters” across the farmyard in stiletto heels. She owns a miniature poodle and a “baby” car, and wears a mohair stole, a black lacy nightdress and an apple-green cordury housecoat. Not all at once.

She is not unfaithful, but likes to go on dates with men – usually her cousin Eddy – who take her out to dinner in a nearby town in posh restaurants like Antonio’s. She waits for her date sitting on the edge of a “couch” in a “niche”. The date is a frost – she is too “ingratiating and unsophisticated”. She chooses scampi followed by pressed duck, though “she would much have preferred vol-au-vent and chocolate mousse, and all the time she talked brightly, trying hard to please. She was unsuccessful and knew it.” She “had looked forward to a harvest of expensive entertainments in Sandbourne’s hotels, concert halls and theatre.”

When we see inside her house, we find that “the ‘lounge’ had recently been redecorated in one of Sylvia’s foolish attempts to follow a fleeting fashion with two wallpapers of cheap quality and unrelated design; roses rioted over the three-piece suite; the eye was further confused by patterned curtains, a patterned carpet, a rash of small brass objects...”

Cannan’s series tec is Detective-Superintendent Price – she loathes him. He wears “Strydeout” shoes that fall to bits in the rain. He has twin boys called Howard and Norman, and is married to Valerie, who has a “rat-like” face and is not interested in becoming more middle class. They holiday at Seaview, Ryde or the Pines Hotel, Budleigh Salterton. He uses words like “desirable”, refers to people as “that worthy”, and brags that he doesn’t read novels but “biography, travel, history and current affairs”. When he wants to let his hair down he takes off his tie, undoes the top button of his white shirt and spreads “its collar over that of his navy blue blazer”.

He has opinions like these: “I haven’t much sympathy with loneliness. I believe that it is almost invariably self-inflicted. Any man or woman of goodwill can find a niche in the community – only freaks and those who wilfully refuse to conform remain outside the human family.” And “This insidious ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude is spreading.”

The farmer’s daughters are “plain”, and behave like a parody of Cannan’s usual horsey girl heroines. They talk too much about their pets’ ailments, and rabbits with myxomatosis, and call things they approve of “jolly dee” (jolly decent).

About two-thirds through the book, Price drops out and we leave these scenes of provincial squalor. The murders are not local after all, but connected to rackets based in Soho – prostitution and what we’d now call people-trafficking. We meet a whole new set of characters who are repulsive but unreal. The case is taken over by one Frobisher, who seeks out a felon called Delano in a peeling Georgian boarding house. “He was in a passage carpeted with worn linoleum, smelling of gas, cabbage and old sins.” (They usually smelled of paraffin, incense and Alsatians, as well.)

Suddenly we’re in the world of 50s film noir as the story gallops to an end. Where is the witty and warm writer of A Pony for Jean?

Liz Jones met her daughters, the Pullein-Thompsons, who wrote many pony books between them: "The family never had any money; their parents believed that to worry about it was beneath them... ‘They had ideas above their station,’ says Josephine."

More here.