Wednesday 28 December 2016

Class and Décor in the works of Simon Brett

Mustard and olive

I’ve just read two of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris novels – Cast in Order of Disappearance and Amateur Corpse – back to back. They are early entries in a series that continued into the 90s, both published in the mid-70s. Charles is a usually out-of-work actor who has left his wife about 12 years earlier. His bid for adventure and freedom has led him no further than a dreary bedsit, with a rickety kitchen chair, yellow candlewick bedspread, and gas ring behind a plastic curtain. While picking up work here and there, Charles sometimes stumbles across mysteries or murders, and feels compelled to try and puzzle them out, using the many characters he has played over the years as a disguise.

I find Charles likeable, despite his drink problem, and particularly appreciate Brett’s sharp eye for the contemporary scene.

“The Bricklayers’ Arms was one of those modern pubs that capture all the atmosphere of an airport lounge. Hanging red lights shone on leatherette couches and framed relief pictures of vintage cars.” What has happened to pubs like this? All re-Victorianised? Charles later drops into a “a coach lamp and horse brasses pub” patronised by the “the local Scampi and Mateus Rosé crowd”.

“The door was opened by a woman in a pale pink nylon housecoat and pink fur slippers. She had prominent teeth and dyed black hair swept back in the style of a souvenir Greek goddess. Her face was heavily made up and eye-lashed... She ushered him into a stuffy little room lit by bright spotlights. It was decorated in orange and yellow, with a leopardette three-piece suite covering most of the carpet. Every available surface was crowded with small brass souvenirs. Lincoln imps, windjammer bells, lighthouses, anchor thermometers, knights in armour, wishing wells... On the dresser two posed and tinted photographs rose from the undergrowth of brass.” Popular in the 30s, miniature brass ornaments have never made a comeback.

In one Nouveau Riche interior “all the walls were hung with hunting prints which were anonymously expensive, bought on advice by a man without natural taste. Two enormous china Dalmatians stood guarding the front door” which "had a brass lion knocker and was white, with small square Georgian panels. The up-and-over garage door was panelled in the same way. In fact the whole scheme of the house was Georgian, with thin-framed white windows set in neat red brick. It was exactly the sort of house that anyone in Georgian England who happened to own two cars, a central heating oil tank, a television and a burglar alarm would have had."

Inside Charles finds: “jungle wallpaper, a Raspberry Ripple carpet and a green leather three-piece suite”. Also a giveaway are “the miniature cluster of swords and axes tastefully set behind a red shield on the wall. And the three-foot-high china pony pulling a barrel. And the wrought iron drinks trolley with the frosted glass top and gold wheels.”

The couple who live here sport “saxe-blue silk shirts” (the man) and “rainbow lamé slippers” (the woman.

At the suburban house of his friend, a successful lawyer: “The conversion had consisted mainly of sticking cork tiles on every available surface... The pale green bath, basin, bidet and lavatory were modem and functional. Fluffy yellow towels hung from the heated rail... The walls were olive green and the floor was covered with the same mustardy carpet as the bedroom.”

Gerald “was wearing a double-breasted gangster-striped suit over a pale blue T-shirt. Around his neck hung a selection of leather thongs, one for a biro, one for a packet of Gauloise, one for a Cricket lighter and others whose function was not immediately apparent. His lapels bristled with badges, gollies, teddy bears, a spilling tomato ketchup bottle and similar trendy kitsch.”

Brett is exaggerating, but not much. There was a fashion for wearing a biro or cigarette lighter on a thong round your neck. Another female character wears “a P.V.C. apron with a design of an old London omnibus”. Plastics were trendy because modern, and you could print anything on them, including the retro kitsch popular at the time.

The apercus keep coming: “Charles remembered how cheap he had always found the emotionalism of Wagner’s outpourings... Again Charles was conscious of the other man’s need for him. He was being paraded for the benefit of Hugo’s local crowd.”

There is way too much about Charles’s drinking. He and others (and readers) assume that investigation is his hobby, and that he blunders around until the solution falls into his lap, but actually he behaves quite like a regular detective. He starts off noticing something that doesn’t add up, or wants to help out an old friend or girlfriend, and then does the usual pondering and legwork.

What makes these books particularly 70s, apart from the clothes and the décor? Censorship had disappeared less than a decade ago, and now we could say anything, and girls were on the pill, and you didn’t have to marry them... Brett veers between voyeuristic salaciousness, and a vision of how life would really be for a 50-ish actor in this brave new world. Charles has a rather unbelievable number of one-night stands, but wants to fall in love like a 17-year-old, while admitting to himself that this is unlikely to happen.

More décor here.

Monday 19 December 2016

Have a Very Classy Holiday Period!

Upwards moan about Christmas because they have reached 35-40 and now have several small children and they need to do the whole thing – decorations, tree, crib, family get-together, presents. And it’s all rather hard work. They do it, but they whinge the entire time. Also, how can you be original and special? A tree is a tree is a tree.

But they do it – like they get married in church and have hymns. It’s like saying “I’m grown up now and I’ve got to join the establishment".

I’m not going to join in the moan about Christmas starting too early (shops need a lead time to sell to us, and we need the time to buy the stuff), but I do resent being sold “Christmas” scented candles and – "mulled spice scented" thick bleach? “Christmas spice” scented loo paper?

The Times asked a few celebs what they avoided at Chrismas.

Stephen Bayley (head of the Design Museum): "Christmas is a spectacle of alarming excess and waste, although there are ways to avoid the kitsch.” He and his family have neither turkey nor tree. “We eat peasant feast food... minestrone or a cotechino with spicy lentils and mostarda”. (Cotechino is a kind of boiled salami, and “mostarda di frutta is a Northern Italian condiment made of candied fruit and a mustard-flavoured syrup”, says Wikipedia.) Lighting is “wobbly beeswax church candles bought in a Greek market”.

Kelly Hoppen (interior designer): “I can’t bear cinnamon sticks [as decoration] – they’re so naff – and those dried orange slices are the absolute worst.” Her favourite is “getting pine tree branches and putting them on the dining table” with some “big glass witches’ balls”.

Patrick Grant (designer) can’t stand not having turkey, and thinks the one-upmanship needs to stop.

Peter York (style guru) prefers food from Iceland, washed down with Kir Royale and Bayleys.

I’d love to serve Stephen Bayley peasant food – bubble and squeak (fried potato and cabbage), corned beef hash, lobscouse, Lancashire hot pot or stargazy pie (a Cornish dish made of baked pilchards, along with eggs and potatoes, covered with a pastry crust). Brexit cuisine! His menu will be banned once we leave the EU. I’m off round to Peter’s.

In the best possible taste

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday 5 December 2016

What to Wear 5

A woman flaneuse in Paris in the 50s is wearing an authentic orange Mexican “rebozo” as a scarf. Her handbag is a horse’s feed bag. Is she “playing with codes” (Radio 4)? This is a certain kind of one-upmanship, also an “ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude. According to Cheap Chic, you wear the actual prep school boy’s grey jersey from the school catalogue, not a copy. You carry a Woolworth’s satchel. You go to Mexico to get the scarf. It may cost a few pesos, but it also costs the price of the trip. It has to be a real horse's feed bag and you have to have the secret knowledge of where to get one. Asking the person with the bag where she got it like it would be lame, and she wouldn’t tell you. (I once admired a friend's scarf: she’d got it in Guatemala. So I went to South America to get one like it. Almost.)

In the 70s and 80s it was also a case of grab the generic thing that preserves a 70-year-old design before they stop making it or disastrously update it (Anello and Davide tap shoes). Black patent Mary Janes with a white or cream trim were popular with Teales in the 70s. Mrs Definitely had a wardrobe of plastic shoes (orange square toes with buckles were her favourites).

Upwards were too snobbish to be glamorous. We worked at entry-level media jobs and could only afford home-made and charity shop. And besides, fashion was a capitalist plot, high heels were patriarchal de da de da. We wore grandad vests from army surplus shops as jerseys.

The Teale version of “looks don’t matter” is “don’t pass personal remarks” (old-fashioned), or “don’t be uncharitable”. The Weybridge version is “avoid making comments”. Hippy Upwards would draw in their chins and stare unblinkingly if you commented amusingly on anyone’s clothes, hairstyle or behaviour, especially if you seemed to be “putting them in a box”, or implying that humans could be typed at all (because we’re all utterly original individuals, you see). Nobody could be as conformist or judgemental as a hippy, but it was always about falling short of the ideal in some way – like eating tinned tuna because it’s a) polluted with mercury and b) cruel to dolphins.

30s fashion crimesIn Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca, 1938, Mrs Dean is the vulgar mother of the common Valerie. She appears wearing “a Persian lamb coat and skittish hat, perched over elaborately curled golden hair”. She holds out a “tightly gloved hand” with an “arch smile”. Under her coat she is wearing “a tightly fitting lace blouse” and a “large paste brooch”. Her skirt is too short and tight. She smoothes out her gloves after taking them off. She has an enamelled cigarette case and smokes “fat” gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes.

40s and 50s fashion crimes
In the late 40s and early 50s, teenage girls were dressed like bigger children, with little sailor hats on the back of the head, short hair, a jersey and skirt. In the late 50s and early 60s, girls dressed like their mothers, with tailored suits, hats and gloves.

In children’s books, the middle-class teenaged characters have nothing much to wear but school uniform or sports gear. Boys have a jacket, trousers and a few jerseys and shirts; girls a few skirts, shirts and jerseys. They mix and match these dull, drab clothes. (The girls have one party dress, the boys one best suit. The girls have one or two brooches they pin onto their tweed jackets.) Only working class teenagers wear red pedal-pusher jeans, ponytails, makeup and stripy T shirts.

60s fashion crimesNylon knickers were naff, and we just didn't see those nylon negligée sets (nightie and negligee, both with two layers and frills, in ice blue or peach).

Jo Grant in Dr Who (70s) is dressed as a Top Shop hippy. Homemade chokers and leather waistcoats quickly became assembly-line versions of themselves. Purple and brown, originally signifying magic and the earth, were just this season’s colours. How annoyed the hippies must have been.

80s fashion crimesGreen furry monster slippers.
Mullet haircuts.
Ties with piano keyboards running down them.
Stonewashed denim.
Giant headphones with a union jack design.
The sort of thing that’s been uncool and untrendy and slightly embarrassing for 30 years. (Victoria Coren Mitchell)

Fashion crimes
high-street jewellery
(cheap, ugly, badly made, jumping on latest trend, e.g. big necklace of flat wooden rings)
filigree jewellery (not seen since about 1965)
glitter ball beads in different colours
It is not done to wear rings on the first and second fingers.
bottomless glasses (common in 50s, 60s and 70s, they made wearers look like librarians) They’re back 2014.

Winter, 2016 The current uniform is a padded jacket with a fur-trimmed hood or collar; navy, khaki, black, grey; skinny jeans and boots; plaid scarf. Sharon D wears her jacket fitted, and it stops at the waist. She wears knee-high black boots and walks with a wiggle. Thalia Upward wears a baggy jacket to the knee, and ankle boots. Christine Teale wears olive suede ankle boots with long fringes.

Scraped-back hair and a very tiny pompadour secured with hair grips is very Definitely, especially when the hair is dyed black or dark brown. Eternal hipster Rowena has adopted a look from early 70s knitting patterns, and is even dyeing her hair grey. But whatever the trend, female Stow-Crats are inclined to wear flowery fabric and quilting, sometimes combined.

I spotted some young European dudes in Hackney wearing correct and very stylish hipster gear – but it was all expensive, good quality, clean, and quite new. Designer work clothes. Accessorised with very expensive, unmarked, new leather mini-rucksacks. No beards, but model looks.

Jilly Cooper described Mrs Thatcher as looking “trim”, and unable to achieve Shirley Williams’ bag lady look that identified her to some as an upper-middle-class intellectual. But when you reach a certain age, you need to look “trim”, and also your clothes need to look “good”, ie expensive, or people will think you really are a homeless person. They also call you dear and assume you are losing your marbles. You can’t carry off the vintage shabby chic look any more. I plan to wear a lot of jewellery, a fur hat, dark glasses, and lipstick at all times. Scent probably helps. And a knock-off designer bag.

You know as well as I do that spike heels are out as far as daytime dress is concerned. The look should be casual. No one goes in for heavy make-up or exaggerated hair styles... It is most easily explained as the absence of bad taste, the elimination of the tawdry, the tinselly, the tacky.... When skirts are short, her knees freeze in the breeze. (Betty Cornell Teen-Age Popularity Guide, Betty Cornell)

The unchanging sub-Sloane look that satisfied Nice Girls for about five decades faded away in the Nineties... (Middle Class Handbook)

The upper and middle classes, who had previously despised the ‘servile’ costume [the kilt], now picked up with enthusiasm the garb which its traditional wearers had finally discarded. (The Invention of Tradition)

Her flowing dress and shawl combined with a tangle of hanging beads to make her look like a bentwood hat stand. (Star Trap, Simon Brett)

The knee-high boot was a hot look until two or three years ago, when it fell out of fashion favour because the norms got hold of it. They wore it with skinny jeans, which was OK, but then they added fluffy gilets and – heaven help us – waterfall cardigans. The high-heeled knee boot went from Carine Roitfeld to Carole Middleton. (Jess Cartner-Morley in the Times Oct 2014-10-11)

All my life I’ve wanted to wear fishnet stockings and hang around dog-tracks eating peppermint creams and using frightful language. (West End People, Peter Wildeblood)

More here, and links to the rest.