phoebe

About: Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

Social anxiety and the not-so-swinging 60s in Agatha Christie and Miss Read

One of the best things about the Agatha Christie and Miss Read novels set in the 1960s is they give a fascinating insight into how that decade must have felt for the older generation. All we ever seem to hear about is how groovy and liberated the ’60s were – how the ‘youthquake’ was such an exciting time for young people – but to those of middle age and older who lived through at least one world war, it must have been a disorientating, bewildering time.

Christie and Read convey this with power and precision, perhaps because they were of that generation, and it’s a rare and welcome alternative view of the so-called swinging ’60s that we don’t often encounter.

Agatha Christie uses the massive social upheavals of the ’60s as a handy plot device – people aren’t always who they seem, so many records were destroyed during the war that a young woman turning up in a village with a small child can say she’s a widow who’s husband died in battle – but is she? Equally, that cantankerous old colonel tells a convincingly tedious tale of his years in India, but is he the real deal?

Without the system of recommendation that used to be the glue that held society together – a letter from an aunt to the local vicar, someone’s godfather vouching for a young man’s credentials etc – identity becomes a slippery concept and one that can be used and abused.

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The traditional English village that defines the Miss Marple stories is intact, but there’s a council estate on its outskirts and young girls in mini skirts pushing prams jostle the old maids on the pavements. Teddy boys loiter on corners and there’s a pervasive sense of anxiety, of connections being broken and histories lost.

There’s a definite sense of ambivalence in Agatha Christie’s writing when confronting the modern age. She mourns the passing of old structures and systems and the comforting familiarity they offered – swept away with the enthusiasm of zealous youth and replaced with… what exactly? In Christie’s mind, a vacuum is a dangerous thing.

But Miss Read (or Dora Saint as she was in real life) is more pragmatic about change. Her Fairacre and Thrush Green novels also chart the passing of life in quiet rural communities and again the massive social upheavals of the ’60s make themselves felt. The traditions of the country calendar continue – harvest festival, the annual village outing to the seaside, the WI’s summer fete – but advances in agriculture mean the young men of the area no longer work for the farmer, but travel to the nearby nuclear power plant everyday instead.

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She is a realist, not overly sentimental about the vanishing past. She points out that the children no longer arrive at the village school with Victorian ailments such as chilblains and mumps – their diets are better, their homes have central heating and indoor plumbing, they are stronger and healthier. Those olde worlde thatched cottages might look picturesque but they too often concealed damp, bad sanitation and serious deprivation and hunger.

My love of these novels feeds into a greater passion for the work of women writers of the twentieth century. Domestic fiction (sneering phrase) doesn’t get much credit but in my opinion if you want a real insight into the soul of a period and its people you’ll read the stuff written by women about everyday life.

It’s human sized. They notice stuff, like the difference between veg in a new suburb (small, pale, withered) compared to what you find in a country village, or how unbelievably difficult it was for a lone teacher to manage a class of 50 or even 60 children. It’s these tiny domestic details – seemingly unimportant ‘wallpaper’ that is far from being trivial, but reveals so much.

Oh and finally, these two writers are also good for showing that spinsterhood need not be regarded as a lonely, frustrating fate worse than death, but rather as a liberating, fulfilling state. So THERE!


A Design For Life: Liberty London Girl’s Friends, Food, Family

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2I own a lot of recipe books, and I bet you do too. And I’m equally willing to wager only a tiny proportion of them are covered in flour and greasy fingermarks like a well-used, well-loved recipe book should be. The one I refer to most often because it contains delicious recipes that look impressive but are relatively simple to make, is Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites. But I think that might change very soon, as the latest addition to my kitchen windowsill is Sasha Wilkins aka Liberty London Girl’s new recipe book,Friends, Food, Family.

Last year I was one of the lucky, greedy guinea pigs who enjoyed the bounty of Sasha’s dinner table while she exhaustively trialled the recipes for her book so I can confirm that they are very tasty indeed. And last week I attempted one of the mushroom-on-toast recipes to prove that they were easy to follow too.

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But what comes across in both the words and the pictures in this beautiful book is a message that’s more important than how to make a Victoria Sponge rise (though this is obviously crucial information.) What Sasha delivers is a lesson in living well – enjoying the company of your nearest and dearest, nurturing them with the food you make, yes, but also nurturing yourself by creating shared moments of kinship.

Drunken dinner parties where you set the world to rights over bottles of prosecco and something warm in a casserole dish, Sunday lunches that go on for hours with children and small dogs crawling around under the table, impromptu picnics, al desco snacks that lift the spirits rather than crushing the soul.

Sasha makes her point elegantly and emphatically: cooking good food should be a pleasure, not a stressful chore. Buy the best ingredients you can find and afford, cheat whenever possible to minimise your time in the kitchen and maximise your time at the table, because ultimately what matters is the memories you make, not whether the soufflé rose properly.

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Peppered in between the recipes are handy lists based on Sasha’s travels – the best flower markets in cities across the world, ingenious ways to arrange flowers to look fancy, and a killer dinner party playlist featuring Taylor Swift and Patsy Kline – all drawn from her experiences as a globetrotting, multitasking blogger and editor. Oh and praise be, she calls them FAIRY cakes NOT cupcakes and if that doesn’t convince you of this book’s credibility I don’t know what will.


Day Trippin’ with Aesop

aesop-bottlesIf Into The Gloss ever asked me to do a Top Shelf (ask me! ask me!) it would be repetitive but cool. That’s because these days you will only find products by three brands in my bathroom: Korres, Kiehl’s and Aesop – thoughtful companies that I admire because they use decent ingredients, appeal to the senses (nice smells, feel good on the skin etc) and have chic packaging. Yes, this matters.

I line up the Aesop bottles on the windowsill so the light shines through the sturdy brown apothecary glass, casting a comforting glow on the tiles. If it wasn’t for their ‘Resurrection’ handwash sitting by the sink, washing my hands would be a tedious chore. I am a firm believer in everyday luxuries.

So I was more than a little thrilled to be invited on a trip to visit the new Aesop store, out in lovely, leafy Richmond. And when I saw our transportation for the day – a jazzy little forest green 1938 bus which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Miss Marple film – I was speechless* with delight.

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Off we went on our merry way on our Venga bus and my travelling companions couldn’t have been a more delightful bunch: there was my old xoJane buddy Olivia Singer, now doing amazing things for the likes of Into The Gloss, and the ridiculously talented make-up artist Emma Day who prettifies people for Miu Miu and Chanel and all the lovely faces you can think of, and dapper interiors editor Talib Chaudry, who tried to nick my bag (not really).

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This wondrous pile of glossy green tubes is the new Resolute Hydrating Body Balm which in typical Aesop style doesn’t smell like your average sickly-flowery-soapy moisturiser. Instead essential oils of crushed Coriander Seeds, Black Peppercorns and Patchouli blend to make a scent that’s intriguing, complex and grown-up- quite masculine, very clean and bracing and slightly medicinal, like something you could imagine Brother Cadfael mashing up in his pestle and mortar. Yes at £25 for 120ml it’s not exactly a budget option, but a little goes a long way – this stuff sinks in like sexy, scented butter – and you really do get what you pay for.

meThe new Richmond store occupies a Georgian town house in the village and has scrubbed floorboards, a lovely old fireplace, panelled walls painted in a soft greenish-grey shade and a massive, cool sink in the middle of the floor. Here I am posing more woodenly than the woodwork in front of one of the windows. The store feels light, bright, fresh and welcoming – as if it’s always been there.

If you’re interested in skincare and/or architecture and aren’t already following Aesop on Instagram (@aesopskincare) do so immediately. Their stores are miniature masterpieces of craftsmanship, designed by interesting architects using beautiful materials to create spaces that manage to be both perfectly appropriate for the setting while also reflecting the Aesop ethos. Hey, maybe the Aesop ethos is fitting in with one’s surroundings, chameleon-like, while still being recognisable. It’s no mean feat and not something many brands pull off.

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Oh and a final note: there is something endearing about the way outside every Aesop store you’ll find a couple of bottles of hand cream which are there to be pumped by any passerby. That’s a very cool, generous, clever gesture.

*A lie. I am never speechless.


A tribute to ‘9’ – Debo Mitford, 1920 – 2014

It seems strange to mourn the passing of a public figure like Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire who died today, aged 94. How can you feel upset over the loss of someone you didn’t really know? But if you admire someone’s work, or the way they carry themselves, then it does feel like loss. I admired Debo because she seemed like an ordinary person who lived through extraordinary times, surrounded by colossal personalities. By ‘ordinary’ I don’t mean banal or uninteresting, but rather human and relatable.

Because of the family she was born into and the man she fell in love with and married, her path crossed those of some titanic Twentieth Century figures, from Hitler and Churchill to JFK and Evelyn Waugh. But she wasn’t crushed by the historic events and personalities who often overshadowed her own private life, which included pain and loss just like anyone else. Beautiful and clever (despite the nickname her sister Nancy gave her – ‘9’ – denoting her supposed mental age), she was also a realist who pragmatically coped with any situation she found herself in.

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Eminently practical, when crippling death duties threatened the very existence of Chatsworth – the house that came with the husband (Andrew, Duke of Devonshire), she simply rolled up her sleeves and set to work devising a way to save the estate – kickstarting the great British pursuit of visiting stately homes and buying produce in their farm shops. From her writing and her rare filmed appearances you could discern a dry sense of humour and a quirky streak – as evidenced by her obsession with Elvis Presley and lifelong affection for chickens.

I would recommend reading In Tearing Haste – a collection of letters between Debo and Paddy Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Moseley. While Paddy’s letters are lyrical, poetic sketches of exotic places, Debo’s are fabulously gossipy, often prosaic, dashed off in a hurry – and all the more entertaining for it. She reveals the highs and lows of managing her estate, her family, their eccentric and enormous circle of friends and because this is correspondence between two lifelong friends, between the in jokes you get real insight into their personalities.

It has been said that Debo was one of the last of her kind – an aristocrat who lived her life on the world stage and had great responsibilities on her shoulders, yet somehow stubbornly retained a sense of freedom and independence. It’s not only that she was born into a world of privilege and had access to famous figures and great wealth – she was much more than her title and her background, as anyone who ever met her will attest.

She belonged to a generation that endured loss through war but didn’t complain. Generous, thoughtful and dignified, Debo was the last of the (in)famous Mitford sisters and by going her own quiet way and being that rarest of things – a thoroughly good egg – her legacy may well endure longer than any of her controversial, colourful siblings. She earned the respect and affection of everyone who knew her and many who didn’t, including me.


Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake

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Sitting in my seat admiring the art deco splendour of the Hammersmith Apollo, I really had no idea what to expect from Kate Bush’s return to the stage after 35 years. As she walked onto the stage the emotion in the audience was palpable and she was clearly delighted by it and responded graciously and gratefully. Any worries that she might be nervous or stiff performing were soon dispelled as she launched into an energetic and evocative rendition of Hounds of Love, note-perfect and immediately, amazingly bringing back all sorts of happy emotions from my childhood – a kind of musical muscle memory.

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I found myself wondering, how did she get to be so confident? This woman who was writing songs like The Man With the Child In His Eyes and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and bringing them to life with such fearless vision. Where does that imagination and absolute conviction come from? All the snide comments about how she’s – gasp, clutch skirts – grown older makes my blood boil. No, she isn’t a teenager anymore, she’s a grown woman with a teenage son of her own (who performs with terrifying confidence, he is truly his mother’s son). But you can easily see the ghost of that eerily precocious, creative girl in the woman today – there’s the same strength and sweetness in her face and that haunting, unique voice remains pure and clear as a bell.

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**I didn’t break the ‘no photos’ rule btw, this is an official pic!**

It also struck me that Kate Bush is totally, absolutely English and this performance – right down to the ever so slightly am-drammy bits – could only ever happen in England. You could’t imagine Kate Bush shakin’ her booty ‘in da club’ – she’d more likely be striding across bleak grey fells in a stout jersey or hamming it up in a unitard. She’s goofy, eccentric, never cynical or arch and I think that’s part of the reason people are bewitched by the music she makes – her lyrics and those dreamy soundscapes are often challenging, sometimes downright weird, but because she offers them with such honesty, you have to respect her. That and she writes a bloody good pop song.

In that respect she makes me think of other ‘out there’ female artists – the likes of Bjork, Tori Amos, Paloma Faith – they charm their fans because they are unselfconscious, there’s no pretension. They couldn’t care less about being ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’ – and by virtue of that fact (and because they are insanely talented) they are infinitely more attractive than any sad pop puppet. It’s not about age, size or whether someone is or isn’t conventionally attractive – it’s an innate quality, some charisma that you just can’t manufacture or fake.

I can’t really put into words how I felt seeing songs that are such a part of me performed live before my very eyes. Kate Bush has been an icon in the truest sense since I was small, reassuring me that it’s not only ok to be a bit weird and to stand apart from the mainstream, it’s actually something to embrace and celebrate. I will remain forever grateful to her for that knowledge, which I clung to like a lifebelt through choppy youthful waters, and for giving me a truly unique experience to treasure one night in Hammersmith.

Oh and some thoughts on gig-going etiquette:

If you have to go to the toilet three songs into a show maybe don’t drink so many pints?

And if you really need a drink so badly you have go to the bar in the middle of a once in a lifetime show you paid good money to see rather than wait til the intermission then you definitely have problems. FFS.

Also, please don’t ‘sexy dance’ at the Kate Bush concert. Or anywhere for that matter, but definitely not ever at the Kate Bush concert.


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