Reads – Dressed For War

Vintage fashion is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I love how it transports you to another time and place; how it brings history to sparkly/embroidered/pleated/knitted/colourful/woven (the list goes on and on) life; how there’s a story, a wearer, a maker behind each garment; how it teaches me lessons about what clothes and styles work for me; how it makes me feel a bit braver when I pick an outfit.

And writing all that down in a dodgily punctuated paragraph makes me realise that vintage fashion actually has certain parallels with reading.

*sits back to mull over this epiphany*

Anyway.

Dressed For War by Julie Summers

Dressed For War by Julie Summers is a biography that shines a light on the life of Audrey Withers, the editor of British Vogue between 1940 and 1960.

Having now discovered Audrey Withers, I can’t quite believe I hadn’t heard of (or noticed, perhaps) her before – she was a gentle giant of the publishing and fashion world, with a quietly powerful influence on the public’s mood, at a critical moment in British history. She was well connected and well respected in important spheres throughout her career, and her progressive views lead the way for changes that we take for granted today.

‘I have always realised that in some important respects I am not a ‘natural’ Vogue editor. I have tried hard to alter or suppress certain attitudes and qualities which I realised were not in the picture, and to cultivate others which were… I think the outlook of an editor cannot help but be reflected in a magazine, but I make bold to say that my outlook (which would not have been rightly the magazine’s outlook fifteen or twenty years ago, and may not be right in the future – unless I and the times can change along together) was right in the war years and is right now.’

Silhouette
me and my shadow exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum in London

One of my favourite sections of the book explores Audrey’s working relationship with the pioneering American model, photographer, and journalist Lee Miller. Again, I can’t quite believe I hadn’t heard of Miller before – she’s an extraordinary character who forged her own fascinating path through the world. I certainly know who’s biography is top of my list to read next!

Obviously, the focus of the book is Audrey, the world of Vogue, and fashion (plus Lee Miller), but the author delves into plenty of historically important moments and their impacts on the everyday lives of Britons and Europeans. Books like Dressed For War help to bring the dates, numbers, and statistics of World War II to stark life, and certainly helped me keep being under temporary lockdown in perspective. A pandemic is obviously not great (understatement of the decade), but fifty-seven nights straight of bombing over London was worse.

Dressed For War was a wonderful sneaky peek inside the world of Audrey Withers and 1940’s magazine publishing, filled with a cast of astonishing personalities, a lot of painful history, and plenty of beautiful fashion.

And if that sounds like your cup of tea, you should definitely read it!

Some articles on the subject I found interesting…

How British Vogue’s Wartime Editor Audrey Withers Changed Fashion – And Feminism – Forever

Don’t Let History Forget This Incredible Female World War II Photographer

Reads – A Fortune-Teller Told Me

AFortuneTellerToldMecover
A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani

Fortune-tellers and travelling. Not much can go wrong with that combination, can it?

I was sold on A Fortune-Teller Told Me in roughly half a second, convinced by the title alone. Sometimes you just know.

It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.

‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’

This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.

Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.

‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’

A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.

And I wonder what Terzani would make of it?

October Scares: Four

Ghost in the Great War, vintage Daily News book from 1927.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I just thought you should know that it’s almost – very very nearly, so-close-you-could-touch-it – November.

November.

*flings hands into the air disbelievingly*

I don’t know how it happened either.

On the plus side, almost November equals almost Halloween, which equals time for another spooky read.

I found Ghosts in the Great War at a flea market a few years ago and it was love at first sight of the title. It was published in 1927, and is a collection of stories (or, ahem, “thrilling experiences”) sent in to the Daily News by its readers, detailing strange occurrences during the First World War. I did make the mistake on first reading of a). choosing a dark and stormy night to read it on, and b). being all alone in the house. It spooked me a lot more than it really should have. Rereading it threw the hyperbole and melodrama of some of the tales into much more stark light, although there were certainly a few stories that were quite moving and/or disturbing.

There’s a family woken by the sound of chains hauling across the ceilings and floors of their house on the night the Aboukir sank, taking with it their son-in-law. There’s an injured soldier who follows the vision of his wife to safety. And there are countless “goodbye” visits from the fallen.

It’s not the scariest book in the world, but it’s certainly choc-a-bloc full of ghosts and apparitions and things that go bump in the night.

Perfect for almost-November.

Reads – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners in 1760s Yorkshire. It follows the fates of “King” David Hartley and his gang as they exploit the close-knit and secluded location of the Upper Calder Valley to clip real coins and forge new ones – an activity that got so out of hand it threatened to destabilise the economy and meant death by hanging for anyone found guilty of it.

In my head, it played out like a cross between Poldark and Peaky Blinders, only set in Yorkshire and much more grisly.

Book review of The Gallows Pole
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

I had very mixed feelings about it.

I want to say that I love it, but I don’t so I won’t.

I respect it and admire it and marvel at it, though. #awkward

Here are some of my main takeaways…

Sections of the book are written phonetically – from David Hartley’s point of view – and for the first half of the book it kind of drove me up the wall. I’d see the itallics and a little piece of me would shrivel up and die inside. It just felt so painful to read, so slow, so laboured. But, somewhere along the line, I had an upiffanee. It’s not that it became easier to read, it just somehow – unexpectedly and weirdly – became a joy to read. David Hartley is mad and delusional, yet brilliant in his own horrible way. The phonetic writing is the same and the book would lose something without it. So I can forgive Benjamin Myers the fingernails-on-blackboard pain it initially induced in my brain. *pats self on back for moral goodness*

The other thing that was a joy to read, though this time throughout the whole book, was the writing about the landscape. It lives and breathes and sets the page alight. There’s lots of rain, lots of clouds, lots of fields, hills, and mud. Endless skies and knotted trees. Wild wind in your hair and fresh air in your lungs.

The descriptions are intense and vivid.

‘Finally the sky was free of clouds and stars cut through the night like smashed quartz sprinkled and thrown aloft to stick there.’

Well, holy moly is that one lovely sentence. One of many.

‘The night came in like a bruise of purples and blues and then finally gripped so tight that the sky was black and broken by the weight of time impressing upon it.’

(Just a heads up here: the description of the landscape is intense and so too is the description of brutal, sick violence. It hurt to read. If you can’t stand that kind of thing in a book, this absolutely isn’t the one for you.)

Ultimately, there was only one thing that deep-down bothered me about the book.

Maybe this is a totally unfair criticism, but I hated the fact there wasn’t really any character to root for, that there was no-one to give you a sense of hope. I personally found it hard to read a book where I didn’t feel tethered to at least one character’s soul, even in a little, teeny-tiny way. I did enjoy the moral conflict between law and order and the “clip a coin, fuck the crown” spirit – because how exactly do you live freely and fairly when the weight of the law is always stacked against you, when people can pick you up and move you on, lock you up, kick you when you’re already down on a whim? – but I just wish there had been someone in the book that I felt less than 90% negatively about.

Everybody – and I solemnly swear this – is up to no good.

It wore me down.

Like I say, maybe that’s unfair. But it’s how I feel. So there. *sticks out tongue*

It’s a beautiful and bleak, brilliant and frustrating, intriguing and unnerving story. I loved it in a way, and hated it too for making me feel kind of miserable. If I were a star-giver, I’d give it four out of five. Four for its rugged beauty; the fifth being held back because it made me grumpy. (Or perhaps just grumpier.)

So, yeah. Feelings all over the place for this one.

I can see how that’s not really helpful. But it’s how I feel.

So there.