Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Constance Who?

Few weeks ago I found this book in a local charity shop. I always find old recipe books interesting so I bought it. When I got home I googled the author, Constance Spry, and was surprised to find she wasn't a cook but a florist and floral designer, and something of a celebrity.

It might seem odd to think of a celebrity flower arranger these days, but then a lot of decades would find the idea of a celebrity chef pretty odd too. That she had such name-recognition was why her name is on the cookbook, which she actually wrote with a friend, Rosemary Hume (the woman who invented coronation chicken).

That given, I was a bit surprised I had never heard of her. She sounds absolutely fascinating: from a humble background, she was an educated, working woman prior to World War One, during which she left her unhappy marriage and got a job as head of women's welfare in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Later, she was a headmistress, and left that in 1929 to set up a flower shop. By 1934, she had a shop in Mayfair that employed 70 people. She was commissioned to do the flowers for various royal weddings, including the coronation in 1953. She'd married again in 1926, to the man whose surname she took - Henry Spry - except she hadn't, since he was technically still married to his first wife. She also had a lesbian relationship with the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein).

Even her flower arranging was controversial. It included everyday objects and non-flowery things like cabbage leaves, and was inspired by Dutch Old Masters. When the Design Museum in London ran a retrospective of her work in 2004, board member James Dyson threw a wobbly and resigned. Presumably he thought that arranging flowers was women's stuff, and therefore not real design.

We think of the mid-20th Century as a time of domestic servitude for women, but very often I think the women who didn't fit this mould just get airbrushed out, and I wonder if sometimes feminists are as guilty as anyone on this. We think of flower-arranging as a kind of symptom of women's oppression, but as far as I'm concerned any way anyone wants to express their creativity is good. Besides, Spry spent much of her life committed to educating women in various ways, and offering them a chance to gain skills. Is it ok to say that Constance Spry, flower-arranger, educator, bon viveur, barbecue fan and businesswoman, seems like an absolute legend?

Quite apart from anything else, she just sounds like she knew how to live. Here she is, discoursing on train dinners:

"The primary qualification about such food is that it shall taste fresh and never bear the faintest trace of paper flavouring. I asked RH to recall a train meal that she thought good, and she gave me this one she remembered: 'Very good chicken, salad, and not too much bread.' A small spring chicken, cooked in a pan with butter, white wine and tarragon, was split in four and covered in lettuce leaves. With this there were bread and butter sandwiches, (French bread) lettuce and carefully picked watercress, salted water-biscuits, Camembert, ripe pears, and a bottle of claret."

I honestly can't be responsible for any acts of violence that might take place in the Virgin Intercity buffet if you just read that. But seriously, they sound so much fun, Constance and Rosemary reminiscing about boozy train picnics, and so much better than the godawful diet-tips and guilt-trips that fill women's magazines now.

You can buy a recent biography of Constance Spry, by Sue Shepherd, here. I haven't read it, so don't know if it's any good, but would love to know if anyone else has?

I'm glad somebody has written a new book about such a fascinating life. It bothers me that women who don't fit the narrative of the time just seem to get lost, and all these pioneering woman risk disappearing from history. Quite often when I read an old book, and some interesting woman pops up, I go to find more information, only to find there's not even a wikipedia page. I've promised myself that I will at least get round to putting up a couple of wikipedia pages for people who deserve it, so if anyone fancies sitting down with me for a wikipedia session, please let me know.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bin-sifters of the world, unite and take over!

You might have seen on TV or in the paper last week this story, about dustman Bob Smethurst, who rescued 5000 photos of World War One from the rubbish over the course of 30 years. I think Mr Smethurst is a bit of a hero, and should be given a medal.

Anyway I thought this was a good time to put my hand up and admit I too sometimes take things from dustbins and skips, without even having the excuse of doing it for a job. Things I have found include handknitted sweaters, dresses, tins and sewing stuff; books and sheet music, including these 1940s songsheets.

I also buy a lot of things from the cheap, tatty ends of charity shops (this is where the good stuff always is, incidentally). This 1926 London Tourist Guide was in a charity shop's pulping pile because the spine is damaged. Inside, it is full of fold-out maps, and pristine. The adverts in it are quite fascinating, and is startling to remember how Britain once prospered on millions of small businesses, rather than corporations.

I hate to see things of historical interest being chucked out, and I have a particular liking for things from the first half of the 20th Century, their solidity, the industrial chunkiness and ingenuity of them. I like to think of it as a kind of contemporary archaeology, (though some of my friends just think it's weird).

Often the things being chucked out are things to do with women's lives, like this outsize sewing pattern, in a bag put out for the recycling. I think there is a particular tendency to say 'what's the importance of that?' when faced with something domestic that no longer has appeal or relevance. But that is when the object is faced on its own: put six of them together from progressive decades and suddenly what you have is not a bunch of old crap, but a social history in progress.

1950s Mills & Boon
This social history can be represented by the smallest things: in a jar of buttons there is progress in industrial manufacture and chemistry, changes in fashion, changes in prosperity, wars fought, weddings made and funerals attended.

One of the reasons I like all this stuff is that I feel there is something subversive about it. We are often sold a narrative (The Village, anyone?) in which our working class past is seen as something grim and oppressive, and thank God for the shopping mall. But the things I have rescued, scrounged and bought for pence tell a different sort of story: of skilled labour and communal pride, good Sunday suits, cherished china, trips to the seaside, nights at the music hall. People were not then ashamed of their lives: they treasured and loved these things which had been earned with hard work. Likely as not they had lives as full of meaning and narrative as anyone's. I feel that these items bely a truth which is inconvenient to our current lords and masters, which is about a history that belongs to and is made up of ordinary people, not one that looks down its nose.

So I just wanted to write this blogpost to say Hurrah for Bob Smethurst, but also - if you feel a temptation to hoik that photo album or old tin out of a skip in your neighbourhood, don't be ashamed! Consider it your duty.


All these items came from one clearout that was on its way to landfill. There were eight handknitted sweaters, five handmade dresses, and various other items including the tin and postcard in a frame. I found this christening dress, and the photo, amongst table linen.  I think, given the age of the items, that the baby may have grown up to be the knitter.

Everyone who sees this christening dress says:
'That dress makes me feel sad.'
But nobody exactly knows why.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Review: Jane Eyre, Bristol Old Vic

I love Jane Eyre, it's one of my favourite books. I love film adaptations of it. Nonetheless, I'd have thought it a hard book to put on the stage, not least because it's quite long and complex, but also because lots of the action takes place in open, bleak locations.

This new production at Bristol Old Vic gets round the first issue by dividing the novel into two parts. It gets round the second by having almost no scenery at all, just a structure that the actors work round. When the play began I looked at this dubiously. I was even more dubious about the first five minutes, in which the infant Jane Eyre is born and orphaned. Fortunately, my doubts were swiftly dismissed as the play got into the swing of things. I was pleased they hadn't tried to modernise Charlotte Bronte's magnificent dialogue, instead picking judiciously from her words, adding a few new where necessary. But the stirring speeches in which Jane Eyre stakes her claim to justice, humanity and dignity are present and correct, and as moving as they should be.

Photo: Simon Annand
I was also really pleased that the costumes were undistracting, and era-appropriate. The plain set worked well, matched with the simple costumes and - though this might seem a strange thing to praise - absolutely brilliant lighting design. A number of lanterns did multiple duty as the stars, the windows of Thornfield, and also as the fires that the characters huddle over. It made for a very atmospheric production, in which there was often darkness or half-light on the stage. You really feel yourself clinging to the little warmth which warms poor frozen Jane, as she arrives at Thornfield for the very first time. In the scenes at Lowood School, they threw up the giant, terrifying shadow of the proprietor, making you feel you'd shrunk to the size of a child.

One thing which marked this version out from others I'd seen was that it was very much interested in the journey of Jane, and that Mr Rochester was only a part of this. In other versions the affair with Rochester is the story, with all else thrown into the background, whereas in this I felt that Jane Eyre herself, not Jane Eyre the romance, was really the item of interest. Whether this was because the production was directed by a woman, and so came out with a slightly different emphasis, I can't say. But I liked it. It's a subtle difference, but it's a difference between a story in which love wins the day, or one in which integrity and courage wins the day. This version, I think, was the latter.

Any actor who plays Jane Eyre has a challenge on her hands, as she needs to be both small physically and yet great as a person, and rather mousy, yet have enough attractive about her to drive a man to distraction. Madeleine Worral, as Jane Eyre, was absolutely and entirely perfect, being both dwarfed by the emptiness of the stage, and yet quite able to command it. As for Mr Rochester, played by Felix Hayes, he was fine, though a bit shouty for my tastes. But he had a hipster beard and I'm sorry, Mr Rochester should not have a hipster beard. Also, he was sometimes upstaged by his dog. The dog, played by Craig Edwards, was one of the highlights of the production. Another highlight was Melanie Marshall, whose beautiful, haunting singing was worth the ticket price alone. It's such a relief and a pleasure to see female performers who are not interchangeably blonde, and who have a bit of presence and force to offer.

My only quibble is that I'm not totally convinced they had to stretch it to two separate plays, and do think a bit of judicious cutting could have seen it off as one (maybe a three-act?) play. Nonetheless, a thoroughly excellent production, and one of the best things I've seen at Bristol Old Vic in a long time. I really hope it makes it beyond Bristol, as it definitely deserves more than a short run.

Jane Eyre Parts 1 and 2 is on till 29th march.