Drip-dry wash’n’wear?

Man-Made Fibre by Francine Stock

francine stock
Many of you may know journalist and TV/radio presenter Francine Stock from her time on Newsnight some years ago, and later on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row and the Film Programme which she still presents. She has also written a couple of novels and a history of film. Man-Made Fibre is her second novel which was published back in 2002.

Here I have to declare an interest. For over seventeen years I worked for chemical giant Du Pont which is based in Wilmington, Delawre. Du Pont are pioneers in the field of man-made fibres thanks to their employee Wallace Carothers who is credited with discovering nylon back in 1935. I was in the electronic materials division, far removed from the fibres group, but the company’s mid-20th century history is so steeped in all the advances in making synthetic materials that I couldn’t pass by this title.

man-made fibreI wasn’t sure what to expect either, and was pleased to find that despite the cover, this novel is not at all fluffy. In fact it reminds me of nothing so much as the TV series Mad Men.  It’s set during the same years – the early 60s, has the same attention to detail and is a thoughtful exploration of the disintegration of a family. I couldn’t help but see Alan and Patsy as Don and Betty Draper (but English).

The story starts in suburbia. Alan and Patsy have three children and a nice house in a cul-de-sac which Patsy is transforming into her vision of a modern home…

And it was all beginning to come together. Through the serving hatch the eye could catch the golden tones of the living area-cum-dining-room-cum-study, altogether more convivial with the new wallpaper, diagonals again, the Scandinavian influence still effective. Open-plan but divided. Efficient yet decorative. With the duty to entertain that Alan’s job would increasing involve […] there would be fresh chances to express their style. Patsy and Alan – the Hopkinses at home.

Patsy’s vision of being the perfect hostess is thrown into stasis with one phone-call. Alan is a scientist working on developing new fibres for NextGen, a small British company newly absorbed into the Lavenirre group based in Delaware (surely a ringer for Du Pont!). Alan’s potential new product has attracted the attention of the head office and he is summonsed to the USA. But once there, they decide to keep him and Patsy and the family will have to transfer with him.

Over in Delaware, Alan is unaware of the angst and upheaval this is causing to Patsy. He’s thrown himself into the American lifestyle – looked after by his company mentor Ray, a fibres marketing man – who is used to playing hard at the weekends…

Ray applies the same efficiency to work. He wants to look after Alan so that Alan can deliver for the firm – and for himself, of course. This division of the corporation is very exciting – has been for fifteen years or so, thanks to Dr Carothers and nylon. You people did wonderful stuff with Terylene, but with Dacron – well, you have to admit, Alan, we had the edge. And frankly, the ball is in our court now. We’re the only ones who have the muscle to deplot these new polyesters.

So Lavenirre is definitely based on Du Pont! Terylene and Dacron are both tradenames for PET – polyester terephthalate – commonly called polyester. ICI discovered polyester in 1941 and Terylene was their name for it, Dacron Du Pont’s version. No prizes for guessing which persists today – in fact ICI’s polyester business was subsumed into Du Pont’s in 1997.

The company is endlessly helpful in helping Patsy with all the business of moving. Alan’s boss, the slimy Fred Rookin, takes a personal interest – but it is his chauffeur Jon that does the legwork and catches Patsy’s imagination.

Patsy is always so together, slightly aloof and looked up to by her friends. The only people she lets go with slightly are her neighbours, Evie and Donald, an older couple who are honorary aunt and uncle to her children. Evie and Donald, childless, adore the kids, they also enjoy their life knowing that Donald who is older and more infirm won’t necessarily have much left.  Occasionally Evie will  take over the narrative to give an outsider’s view of the Hopkins household.

Change is always difficult – to manage it well, all involved have to embrace it, and Patsy doesn’t – at least not in the way that Alan hopes for.  There are no easy answers in dealing with these family dilemmas and Stock doesn’t try to give any. As in Mad Men, you sense that there are to be no truly happy endings to this thoughtful and well-observed novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Man-made Fibre by Francine Stock, pub 2002. Out of print but s/h copies available.

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Destined to be recycled, but …

Unless there is someone out there that collects 1960s single volume encyclopedias, this book is destined to go to the book recycling bank at the supermarket. I love the cover though, so I thought I’d give it a brief moment of glory before it goes …

P1020035

This volume was published in 1965 by Penguin, no R31, and has over 6000 headings, cross-referenced, with a ‘particular emphasis on the second half of the twentieth century’. From existentialism to xerography, abacus to Zulu – it’s packed full of information on 648 pages. The cover design was by Brian Mayers.

Some might say it’s sacrilege, but I might just cut the front cover off and frame it!

Britten centenary – my memories of Noyes Fludde …

brittenThis weekend marks the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. Radio 3 is celebrating with ‘Britten 100’, a weekend of programmes. I thought I’d celebrate too with some personal memories from my younger years of listening to and performing some of his works…

In 1966, the Canadian conductor Arthur Davison, who had made his home near Croydon, started up a series of children’s concerts at the Fairfield Halls. These popular concerts were full of light classical music, held on Saturday mornings and my brother and I went each season.  I’m sure that Britten’s Young persons guide to the orchestra would have featured.

CCF11232013_00000First performed in 1957, Noyes Fludde by Britten is a setting of the Chester Miracle Play of the story of Noah’s Ark for principal singers, plus a children’s chorus and orchestra, supplemented by recorders, handbells, organ and trumpeters. The part of Noye (Noah) was written for English bass Owen Brannigan, and the Fairfield secured his services to sing Noye in their production in 1968.  The production involved all the local schools in Croydon, and was repeated regularly for many years.

CCF11232013_00002I was in it twice.  The first time in 1971 as part of the children’s chorus of animals and birds that trooped down through the audience, two by two, to take our places in the ark.  Dressed in brown tunics and tights, we all had headdresses made by the local art college. I was a cuckoo!

It must have been one of Brannigan’s last performances. Already in his sixties, he was in a car crash in 1972 and never fully recovered, dying in 1973.  It was great fun, and the hymn Eternal Father which is incorporated into the work has been one of my favourites ever since.

The second time was 1976, and this time I was playing violin in the orchestra which comprised members of Croydon Philharmonic supplemented with members of the Croydon Schools First Orchestra. It was a real community performance – with children and adults performing and playing side by side.  There were handbell ringers and trumpeters in the Royal Box, the massed recorders of Croydon Schools in the choir stalls, and presiding over it all was Arthur Davison.

arthur davison

For a busy conductor, he did a lot for children – conducting the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (CYPO) in both its regular rehearsals and school holiday orchestral camp-type sessions. He was a larger than life character, in size and manner, and was a hard taskmaster – but when we played well he was appreciative. I ended up as principal second violin in CYPO, and was consequently always seated directly in front of him.  I can still recall him barking at me at one orchestra school, ‘I can’t see you,’ referring to my overlong and floppy fringe – which I got my mum to trim (that was brave!) back home. The next day, he grinned at me.

Bringing us back to Britten, one of the pieces we played during one season of the orchestral school, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which I love. They were a joy to play, and remain a joy to listen to.  I shall leave you with a Youtube clip played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

50th Anniversary of the Assassination of JFK

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo

jfkI was just three and a half when JFK was assassinated, so I remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had happened on 22nd November 1963.  They say it’s one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

I’ve checked my late Mum’s diaries and she didn’t comment, (in fact hardly any events in world politics made it into them). I asked my father (who was 84 on Monday- Happy Birthday Dad!) what he was doing. – he remembers it as a badminton night, and is sure they’d have heard the news over tea before going out to play that evening.

So, fifty years later we are remembering Kennedy’s untimely death. Jonathan Mayo, who has already done a ‘Minute by Minute’ treatment for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, has done the same for JFK. It is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on the 22nd at 6pm.

The book takes the timeline from just before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas in the evening of the 21st of November and follows through chronologically until the evening after JFK’s funeral on the 25th.  Mayo tells the story of everyone who was involved in the story, however small their role. It is, Mayo says:

The story of what took place in Dallas is not just about President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s also about the scores of people who were drawn into the developing drama. Some are famous, some obscure, but it affected them all, putting them in unexpected situations, and sometimes making them behave in unexpected ways. This book is full of stories that I hope will restore the impact of the assassination.

There is no room for conspiracy theories in this book which tells it as it happened.  This immediacy gives it the feel of a thriller.

I had no idea that there was no love lost between Kennedy and Johnson, and the Texas Governor Connolly, and that it had been considered dangerous for Kennedy to go to Dallas.

I was amazed to find that DJ John Peel had been in Dallas at the time, and was just feet from Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, whereas Alastair Cooke had declined to go on the trip being fed up of Democratic politics, and had remained in New York.

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside her. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside him. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

I was saddened to hear that JFK’s back-brace for chronic back pain, held him in a position where the second bullet was able to hit his head.  We share Jackie’s pain as she steadfastly stays in her pink Chanel suit, even when they reach Andrews Air Force Base saying ‘No, let them see what they’ve done.‘ when it was suggested that she change her dress. I really felt for her, Robert, and her children.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald – well, he was obviously a wrongun’! Enough said.

There was so much I didn’t know about the events in this book. The only thing missing in this book were some more photographs.  Adding the famous ones like that above, the Jack Ruby one, Oswald posing with his gun, etc. would have given it just that little extra to make it an exceptional read.  The minute by minute format gave it real pace, and unlike those difficult novels (and a certain recent Autobiography), the fact that the events unwind in the present tense generated a real sense of suspense and anticipation.  No matter what you think of JFK, this book gives a fascinating insight into some truly sad days. (9/10)

See also DoveGreyReader for another excellent review of this book.

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Source: Publisher (thank you). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo, pub Nov 13 by Short Books. Hardback 288 pages.

Woman, interrupted …

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater

This painful novel, her seventh published in 1962, is widely regarded as Penelope Mortimer’s most famous. It was filmed with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason in the leading roles and, it is the Oscar-nominated Bancroft who graces the cover of the Penguin that I inherited from my Mum.

The Pumpkin Eater is the story of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, marital and emotional. It starts with the a woman, Mrs Armitage (we never hear her forename), visiting a psychiatrist:

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’
‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.

She is in her late thirties, and has an unspecified but fairly large number of children by several fathers of ages from just three up to late teens. She is currently married to Jake who is a £50,000 per annum screen-writer and is as prone to having affairs as she is to having babies. It is when she meets the husband of an actress with whom Jake has apparently had an affair on location that things come to a head.

When they married, Jake was not yet successful. Many thought him mad to take on an already twice-married woman with a whole brood of children, and then adding to it. For Jake the reality of what he has let himself in for results in him having to work extremely hard to support them all, and although he says he loves her, he relieves his stress with little affairs. Having married too young, she has been happiest when pregnant and surrounded by her babies – it’s what she does best.

The book is in turns shocking, funny and moving as their emotional baggage ripples through this dysfunctional family towards its surprising conclusion.

Mortimer Family

The Mortimer Family, Penelope is at the back.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading The Pumpkin Eater, but neither did I dislike it. Mortimer’s writing of the narrator Mrs Armitage, despite her melancholia, has bite and some black humour. I had heard before reading that the novel was very autobiographical – Mortimer had six children by four fathers herself, and her marriage to John Mortimer was tempestuous. It almost felt as if you were prying into her own relationships, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable to read. (7/10)

For another take on this novel, read the review by Alex in Leeds

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, NYRB paperback, 222 pages.

Rediscovering Alderley Edge’s Old Magic

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen & The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

After going to see a lecture given by Alan Garner, reported here, I naturally wanted to read more by him, and especially to (re)read the Weirdstone Trilogy. In this post, I will look at my re-reading of the first two books, I’ll deal with the third another day.

Brisingamen 1Gomrath 1The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, followed in 1963 by The Moon of Gomrath.

I read them in as Puffin paperbacks in the late 1960s and can well remember the covers pictured, although my own copies are gone.

Both concern the adventures of Colin and Susan, ten-year-old twins, who have been sent to live with their mother’s old nurse while their parents are away working abroad. Bess and Gowther Mossock live on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a large hill which is the scene of local myths and legends.

Garner starts The Weirdstone of Brisingame with an account of the legend of Alderley Edge, in which a farmer taking his white mare to sell at market sold it to a wizard who appeared on the path over the edge. The wizard took him through iron gates into a cave where sleeping knights and their white steeds lay waiting to be called in the hour of need, but were one horse short. The farmer was allowed to cram his pockets full of treasure, but of course was never to find the cave entrance again.

Susan has a bracelet with a ‘tear’ jewel on it, which had come to her as an heirloom, and unbeknownst to her – it is the missing Weirdstone stolen centuries before. When her bracelet comes to the attention of the local witch Selina Place, the children find themselves hunted by the minions of the evil Nasrond, who had been banished centuries ago.  They find all this out from Cadellin – the Wizard of the legend and his friends the dwarves, who rescue them. Cadellin is then forced to let Colin and Susan be part of the action to rid the Edge of Nasrond and his ilk once again and restore the weirdstone to Fundindelve where the sleeping knights lie.

In The Moon of Gomrath, Colin and Susan are set to have another adventure when the elves borrow Susan’s replacement bracelet.  This is a powerful amulet given to her by Angharad Goldenhand the Lady of the Lake at the end of the first book. Being without the bracelet’s protection, Susan is possessed by an evil spirit, the Brochallan, which had been released when well-workings outside the pub set it free. Colin, with the aid of the dwarves has to seek the mythical Mothan, which only flowers at moonrise on the Old Straight Track – a path of the Old Magic to cure Susan.  More Old Magic is later set free by Colin and Susan when they light a fire to keep warm on the beacon on what happens to be the night of the Moon of Gomrath. This awakens ‘The Wild Hunt’ – the mythical wild horsemen and hounds of legend. To pile on the agony, Colin is abducted by the evil Morrigan and its goblin folk. A pitched battle ensues, primarily between the elves and the Morrigan, and Colin is rescued, but the Old Magic must still be set free.

'Druid's_Circle'_The_Edge,_Alderley_Edge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_43508Garner lives and breathes the landscape, mythology and history of Alderley Edge. All the places named in the book exist – like the Druid’s Circle, (which he claims was created by one of his forebears – a mason), and the Wizard pub.  It was rich mining area for metals, so the hills are dotted with tunnels. Now run by the National Trust, you can walk the trails and see magnificent views from the top of the escarpment.

Traditional Celtic folklore provides the basis of all the fantasy elements of the novels, and after the MoG, Garner explains where some of this comes from and gives some references including The White Goddess by Robert Graves. The spells are all from real texts – but are incomplete, he adds – just in case.

Around all the mythology is woven the adventures of Colin and Susan, a plucky twosome whose idea of fun is to go out roaming and exploring the edge all day every day.  They were obviously fit and healthy and thought nothing of walking or running miles at a time. Gowther and Bess give them this total freedom, with just little admonitions to come home for supper, or don’t go roaming on the Edge without a torch in the dark. Gowther and Bess understand the power of the place.

Reading these two books as an adult, it’s the mythological content I concentrated on, but as a child – they were such great adventures; grittier and more real than the world of Narnia. By letting the old worlds of magic and the modern age collide, the peril is much greater – there is no option of going back through the wardrobe.

Of the two, The Moon of Gomrath is the more accomplished and, the need for scene-setting over, there is more space for fantasy. The Elves, or lios-alfar, are particularly tricky folk – Albanac, a human who dwells with the Wizard Cadellin explains:

Remember, too, that no elf has a natural love of men; for it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar to the trackless places and the broken lands. You should see the smoke-sickness in the elves of Talebolion and Sinadon. You should hear it in their lungs. That is what men have done.

What price progress, eh?  Cadellin, a couple of pages on, explains more about how the worlds of humans and magic have diverged:

“Why do you think men know us only in legend?” said Cadellin. “We do not have to avoid you for our safety, as elves must, but rather for your own. It has not always been so. Once we were close; but some little time before the elves were driven away, a change came over you. You found the world easier to master by hands alone: things became more than thoughts with you, and  you called it an Age of Reason.

“Now with us, the opposite holds true, so that in our affairs you are the weakest where you should be strong, and there is danger for you not only from evil, but from other matters  we touch upon. These may not be evil, but they are wild forces, which could destroy one not well acquainted with such things.

“For these reasons we withdrew from mankind, and became a memory, and, with the years, a superstition, ghosts and terrors for a winter’s night, and later a mockery and a disbelief” .

I like Garner’s explanation very much – and wish it were so in a way. The rationalist in me can’t believe in magical worlds, but I do love to let my imagination soar by reading books where magic is allowed to live in our world.

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 288 pages.
The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 224 pages.
Boneland (Weirdstone Trilogy 3) by Alan Garner, pub 2013, Fourth estate paperback, 160 pages.
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves, Faber paperback.

A life on hold

Intermission by Owen Martell

intermission by owen martellMartell’s short novel takes a real event, the death of jazz bassist Scott LaFaro in a car accident in 1961, and imagines what followed.

LaFaro was the bassist in the Bill Evans Trio and died shortly after they recorded what are regarded as some of the best live jazz albums of all time (Sunday At The Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby). Before forming his own trio, Bill had played piano on Miles Davis’s seminal album Kind of Blue.  Martell’s story imagines what happened when trio leader Bill went to ground for several months after LaFaro’s death.

Fronted by an epigraph from Miles Davis “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” Martell attempts to do that in a way, but more of that later…

Bill is taken in by his brother Harry after Scott’s death, and later goes down to Florida to stay with his parents, Mary and Harry Sr. These three family members respectively take a turn to narrate the story, each taking a solo before handing over to Bill for the coda. Harry, Mary and Harry Sr reminisce about their own and the boys’ childhoods, growing up and how proud they all are of Bill who made something different of himself. No-one could be prouder than Bill’s mother, who is half-Russian and a musician-manqué herself. Her roots are grounded in Stravinsky and her favourite ballet of his, Petrushka, which contains the famous dissonant ‘Petrushka Chord’ much beloved of jazz artists too – indeed Harry’s first section is named after the chord.  Bill, stricken by grief and heroin, resembles nothing as much as the Russian puppet who comes to life.

This novel was not really what I expected from the blurb and the intriguing cover art. We learn virtually nothing about Scott, Paul – the other member of the trio, or the New York jazz scene – they are all peripheral to Bill’s grief,  it concentrates entirely on Bill and his family.

It’s all elegantly done, but there’s little jazz in this novel. Bill’s passivity absorbs all in its wake. The resulting prose is beautiful and carefully crafted, but was too drawn out to keep my full interest during the first two thirds; by the time that Bill begins to snap out of his funk, it was too late, so for me this book was disappointing.

Returning to Miles Davis’s epigraph, the author has looked at “what’s not there” – and eloquently described a musical void. But, the emphasis on the stop light on the cover and the novel’s title itself, do give a strong hint of the hiatus to come. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon Vine, please click below:
Intermissionby Owen Martell. William Heineman hardback, pub Jan 2013, 167 pages.
Sunday At The Village Vanguardby the Bill Evans Trio (CD)
Waltz For Debby [Original Jazz Classics Remasters] by the Bill EVans Trio (CD)
Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis (CD)

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]

“Summer fling, don’t mean a thing, But, oh, oh, the summer nights”

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

When I came across this short novel published in 1965, in a bag of books from my late Mum’s, I had to read it straight away for two reasons.  The obvious one is the title – it’s August – when better to read it.  The more compelling one however, was the cover photo on my edition which is of O’Brien herself.  Apart from ‘Read me’, her direct look seems to imply a book that will be chaste and wanton, and definitely hints at darkness. Of course she does know what fate has in store for Ellen, whose story this is.

Ellen, a young Irishwoman, is separated from her husband. As the book opens, he has arrived to take their young son off on a long camping trip. Ellen waves them goodbye, and a few days later she’s no longer missing them, for she has company, and foreplay soon starts…

He was doing what he could. Her arms were singing and her hips wild with little threads of joy running through her like little madnesses. After a year’s solitary confinement.
‘I’m out of practice,’ she said.
‘A girl like you.’ He didn’t believe it. Who would? She was twenty-eight and had skin like a peach and was a free woman with long rangy legs and thick, wild hair, the colour of autumn.

Ellen in appearance sounds rather like Edna herself, doesn’t she?

Her lover is a married man with kids, and another mistress called Miranda. Ellen is under no illusions, but after a night of passion, she does believe they will see each other again…

‘I suppose we’ll ring each other up,’ he said when she got out and stood on the kerb holding the door.
‘I suppose we will,’ she said. Wise now with the soft lustre of love upon her. Her eyes shining. They would meet soon and she would open again. The river of his being flowering into the pasture of her body. She was thinking of that when she got to the restaurant.

O’Brien is brilliant at using the world of nature for describing the joys of sex – while it’s all going well that is!

It’s a slack time at work, Ellen has some leave saved up, and feeling lonely after her encounter, decides to go to the south of France on the spur of the moment, with sun and sex on her mind. Every man she encounters gets the once over as a potential holiday romance. Her instincts aren’t always right though – the handsome Frenchman sitting next to her on the plane was looking forward to getting back to his wife and family in the mountains; the young hotel bell-boy gets the wrong end of the stick and makes a pass. With slightly less of a language barrier, will the Austrian violinist from the hotel orchestra be more the right thing?

‘And this,’ he asked, pointing to where her nipple lay, flat, under the flowered dress.
‘Nipple.’
‘Hot word,’ he said. It took her a minute to understand that he wanted not ordinary words, but erotic ones for wooing Englishwomen.

Soon though, she falls in with the entourage of an actor, and is courted by his manager Sidney, an older man. Hoping that the actor Bobby will eventually notice her, Ellen joins the party and is whirled into another world full of drama.

From this point on the book took on a distinct aura of Hemingway’s rich young things from The Sun also Rises – life is just drink, party, drink, get bored, drink, drive, drink, fight, drink, party, drink – you know the sort of thing; but also the failing relationships of Dick and Nicole Diver from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  There’s a timeless quality to this group’s exploits that echoes those earlier novels, and of course the Mediterranean setting reinforces it too – the sun and blue water acting as a reflecting and magnifying lens. I can’t tell you what happens after that. You’ll need to find that out for yourself – but it’s shocking on several levels.

Having become a mother while very young, Ellen’s release from the confines of single parenthood allow her to revert to her younger self and become a flirt. This, she enjoys at first, but as her holiday continues, it becomes something much darker, even an drug. O’Brien takes us into the mind of Ellen, from the frivolity of her lusty passions to the clarity of maturity that comes from having experienced the cycles of real life, and tinged with Catholic guilt. I really felt for Ellen.

This novel has so much light and shade – being racy and earthy, and full of the joys of love and nature, with some robust language, and then coming down to earth with a bump – becoming matter of fact and direct. I think I’ve found another author from the second half of the twentieth century to add to my list of greats.  Like Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, O’Brien doesn’t waste words, or pad things out with long descriptive passages.  This novel may not have Beryl’s wicked humour, but it’s packed with romance and darkness and didn’t disappoint. Thanks to my mother too, I’ve got several more O’Briens to read. (9/10)

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I inherited this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien. Pub 1965. Paperback, 169 pages.
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (Vintage Classics) by Ernest Hemingway
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

A Beryl Bibliography – part one

Thank you for the wonderful response to my decision to host a Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week in June.

Some of you aren’t so familiar with her books, so I thought I’d post a bibliography and give an idea of the subject for each of them, in time for you to find copies of those that interest you in time to join in.  I’m posting it in two parts.

I normally include my affiliate links at the bottom of a post but on this occasion, please forgive me – click on the book title and it’ll take you to the most readily copies available on Amazon UK.  (It’s taken me three and a half years of blogging to accumulate £25 in commissions, so it isn’t a big money-spinner!)

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 Harriet Said (1972).  Two  schoolgirls are on holiday in a Northern resort. One becomes interested in an unhappily married, middle-aged man. She and her friend Harriet begin a plot to humiliate him. But their fantasy merges into reality, with shocking and unexpected results.

The Dressmaker(1973) Titled The Secret Glass in the USA, Beryl’s second novel gained her, her first Booker shortlist nomination.  Set in wartime Liverpool, Rita falls in love with Ira, a GI. Her aunts Nellie and Margo aren’t convinced though. Billed as darkly comic.

The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) Won the Guardian fiction prize and achieved a second Booker shortlisting, this novel is an train-wreck waiting to happen. Brenda and Freda work for an Italian wine importer and are organising a works outing.  Complex, very black comedy, superb.

Sweet William(1975)  Ann throws over her fiancé Gerald for William – a serial womaniser. Can’t live with him, can’t live without him – what is she to do?
A Quiet Life(1976)  A post-war family drama set in the 1950s – Everyone in Alan’s family has something to hide, they’re all hanging on in quiet desperation, to quote Pink Floyd.

Injury Time(1977)  Edward is throwing a dinner party with his mistress, Binny.  However, some awkward guests arrive and Edward isn’t home yet …  a painful comedy.

Young Adolf(1978) A young Adolf Hitler turns up to stay with his brother in Liverpool.  Artist Adolf is a slacker who gets into trouble easily though – how will he turn out?  Sounds like Beryl is at her wickedest in this novel of high farce!

Another Part of the Wood(1968, revised 1979)  Her second novel, but revised and republished in 1979.  Joseph takes his mistress, son and some friends to stay in a cabin in deepest Wales for the weekend.  It won’t work, will it?!

Winter Garden(1980) Douglas takes a mistress, Nina, but soon he’s not able to cope with being an adulterer.  Telling his wife needs a break, she packs him off fishing in the Highlands, but instead he goes to Moscow with Nina.  Uh-Oh! Things will go wrong…

A Weekend with Claude(1967, revised 1981) Another early novel revised and republished. A weekend in the country goes very wrong and ends up with someone being shot.  (Until my copy ordered arrives, I don’t know much more about this one).

Watson’s Apology(1984) The first of Beryl’s historical novels, this book recounts the story of a clergyman who, in 1851, bludgeoned his wife to death.  Based on a real case, she presents a portrait of how this terrible crime might have come to happen.

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So there we have it. Part one of Beryl’s books – Maybe one of these titles will pique your interest. In part two early next week,  I’ll survey her later novels, short story collections and non-fiction books.