Saturday, 30 August 2014

Coronation Stitches

Once again I have ventured onto eBay, that dangerous treasure store, and emerged with a copy of the March 1953 edition of Needlework Illustrated, published by Weldon's, an edition intended to help its readers make their Coronation souvenirs.  The front cover is brightly adorned with knitting, embroidery and wonderful little felt toys of a soldier, a sailor and an airman.

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The centrefold contains a wonderful double page colour picture of the embroidery transfer of the month (which is still extant with the magazine), with the Coronation coach and horses processing across the bottom. It would still make an attractive embroidered cushion or wall picture, I rather think my embroidery skills would need work first though!

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Naturally I was most interested in the knitting patterns; it was one of those, for a man's jumper with a Fair Isle border, which interested me in the first place.  It is the sort of jumper I could imagine my father wearing, though hopefully he would accept it in a colour other than fawn, as I do not relish acres of stocking stitch in fawn!  The accent colours are red, green and blue, rather than the red, white and blue I would have expected.  Elsewhere there are a couple of women's patterns, including the twin set from the cover and a very sweet dress and bonnet set for a toddler.  The yoke of the dress is knitted in the round on a circular needle, which is earlier than I had previously come across their use, certainly in a mainstream British knitting pattern.  However, I did then wonder why the skirt of the dress was knitted flat in pieces.

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Other features include table mats, some small items for gifts or bazaars - including a charming kangaroo sewn in felt and a crocheted tea cosy in an "Elizabethan" design.  In addition there is a schools' page with a simple embroidery design and a small piece at the bottom advertising Weldon's historical costumes for pageants, as seen in Weldon's Fancy Dress, price 1 shilling.  As in any old magazine the adverts are fascinating, mostly related to needlework, as you would expect and include holiday guides, knitting machines, children's clothes, fabric remnants, embroidery cloth and threads, knitting wool and a postal dress making course.  The best of the adverts is, of course, on the back cover and is for a series of Coronation Hats in Strutt's Candlewick Cotton. Many of the designs look more to me like something a French Revolutionary would have worn to man a barricade and the thought of them made in the same material as those old Candlewick bedspreads such as my grandmother used to have makes my mind boggle!

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Anyhow, there we have it, a small piece of social history.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Year in Books: August

This month's book is actually a children's book, Grace by Morris Gleitzman, a British born author who has lived in Australia most of his life.  My sister and I had a few of his books as children, I particularly remember Blabbermouth and Two Weeks with the Queen.  His books are unconventional and like Jacqueline Wilson he is not afraid to tackle big issues, so when I spotted Grace on Audible I thought I would give it a go.

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Grace and her family belong to a very strict church who believe that only they are going to heaven and that they must keep themselves away from the world to avoid "catching sin"; Grace herself is an engaging narrator, trying to do the right thing but often committing the sin of thinking for herself and asking questions.  Gleitzman captures the atmosphere of a very tight-knit, controlling community, while managing to keep his protagonists from appearing monsters, through Grace we see that the people who are hurting her family have been hurt in their turn.  The church has a very Old Testament focus, presenting God as demanding above all obedience, but I found it notable that in this Old Testament world, Grace's parents, the (comparatively) free thinking rebels, had given their children names with a more New Testament flavour.



Ultimately Gleitzman does bring a sense of hope and redemption out of these apparently unpromising beginnings.  Reading it from the point of view of a member of a church the book, while it could have been incredibly negative about religion, in fact felt positive and affirming and spoke about what church should and should not be like.  We need to think for ourselves and encourage and enable our young people to think for themselves: Christianity at its roots is a thinking, reasoning, questioning faith.  Exploring the Bible you can see many people grappling with God, with who He is, questioning Him, thinking, considering, from Jacob and Job, right through to Paul.  So we need to be able to take our faith beyond obedience and conformity, faith and reason do not have to be mutually exclusive.

If you want to get a flavour of the book you can read the first chapter on the author's website here, while in this interview he discusses the background to writing Grace.  I think I will be revisiting some of his books, I think adults can learn a lot from children's and young adults' books.

You can see the other entries for August in The Year in Books here

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Radio Recommendations

I listen to the radio a lot, a great deal more than I watch television and it is great to listen to while knitting.  My two staple radio choices are BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra.  I was practically raised on Radio 4 and I have listened to Radio 4 Extra, or BBC 7 as it then was, since its first night of broadcasting.  Even now I can remember sitting on a chair in the dining room sitting right by my dad's then very new digital radio, listening intently and rediscovering Hancock's Half Hour.  Therefore I thought it might be good to recommend a couple of the things I've enjoyed lately on the radio, as you can listen to the BBC radio player anywhere in the world, for free, what luxury!

Having said all that about Radios 4 and 4 Extra, I shall now make my first recommendation from Radio 3 (the BBC's classical music station): The John Wilson Orchestra Prom, Kiss Me Kate.  This orchestra specialises in mid 20th century musicals and associated music and their annual prom has become my favourite.  Although it may not be "high brow" music, it is full of joy, fun and done to an extraordinary standard, Kiss Me Kate swept me through a Sunday afternoon while I knitted the foot of a sock.  You have another three weeks or so to listen, then the filmed version will be on television at Christmas - I went and checked!

Next we definitely are going high brow, with T S Eliot's poem The Wasteland.  I recently bought a copy of his poems as part of an effort to get to know more poetry and I cannot say I understood it, indeed I still would not say I fully understood it, but listening to it has helped a bit.  In particular having two voices, Jeremy Irons and Dame Eileen Atkins, reading the poem helped to underline that it is not supposed to have a meaning as a whole.  By which I mean, it does not begin at point A and end at point B having been on a descriptive or narrative journey along the way, but that it creates its whole out of a series of impressions.  I found the best way to think of the poem was as a series of thoughts wandering through the poet's mind as he tried to make sense of the world after the First World War.  The reading is a delight in itself and I am pleased to see that it is still there for another three weeks so that I can have another crack at it, though I live in hope of a CD or download becoming available of this and Jeremy Irons' reading of Eliot's Four Quartets.

Staying with the First World War, the last recommendation for now is Home Front, an epic project Radio 4 have started this week, a drama with an episode set on this day one hundred years before.  The first two episodes have been very well produced, although they possibly need to watch their idiom, one or two expressions did not sit quite with the period and I already feel that I have learnt something more of the home front experience.

What are your favourites?

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Year in Books: July

Again, scraping in close to the wire, partly this month because for most of the month there was no one book that grabbed me and that I felt I had to write about.  That is not to say there have not been some good books, such as Janet Frame's first collection of short stories, an anthology of comic stories, H G Wells' engaging but slightly strange book Marriage or the ever delightful Psmith.  Instead I have decided on a book I am only half way through: God on Mute: Engaging in the Silence of Unanswered Prayer by Pete Grieg, recommended to me by a friend as I have struggled with prayer for quite a time now.  I often struggle to want to pray and I find myself worrying about prayer, particularly in light of all the terrible things happening around the world.  Or I end up feeling that as prayer is one of the few things I can do, I ought to be doing it more or "trying harder".



God on Mute is a book about faith, about prayer, specifically grappling with unanswered prayer and why our prayers might not be answered.  Pete Grieg set up the 24/7 Prayer network and in his own life has had serious struggles and unanswered prayers meaning he writes with power and from personal experience.  Pete Grieg combines this personal material with solid theology, presented in an accessible way and structured loosely around the narrative of Maundy Thursday to Resurrection Sunday.  Some of what it has to say is not necessarily what we want to hear about prayer and about God, but it is what we need to hear.

I cannot fully write about this book or do it justice: God on Mute is honest, godly, transformative.  I am only part way through the book but already feel freer, less worried, with an increased understanding of prayer, how wrestling with prayer can draw us closer to God.  How suffering does not mean we have done something wrong, but that suffering and persisting in prayer through the hard times can draw us closer to God.  It is so refreshing to read a modern Christian writer affirm that life is hard, but God is good.  The world is broken, life is hard, but that is not the end of the story: God is with us, Jesus died and was buried and rose again so that one day things can be different, the battle may rage around us, but the war, ultimately is won.

If you want a taster of Pete Grieg's teaching on unanswered prayer he has recently done a sermon on the subject at his church, which is well worth a listen (also available as a podcast).  Then go and buy a copy of the book, I am thinking of buying at least one more copy so I can start lending it round.

To see the rest of the year in books entries for July click here

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Knitted Novelties

We all have our chosen mode of distraction when things are hard, some watch TV, read or play computer games: this past week or so I have been taking refuge in the world of vintage knitting patterns.  I have won two EBay auctions and had a lucky time in a charity shop; I am now forbidding myself to look at EBay again - it's a dangerous place!

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Knitted novelty or "Odd Ounce" books seem to appeal to me particularly, they are not only a source of knitting patterns ranging from useful to bizarre, they are also a piece of social history.  Knitting novelty items seems to go back as far as there were women with time on their hands for "fancy work", such as this fabulous knitted pineapple bag Franklin Habit has written about and the booklets I have been collecting are descendants of such patterns.  The proliferation of fund raising fĂȘtes and "fayres" increased the need for women, who mostly ran such events, to make these items.

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The majority of the items are of household utility, in a fancier form, such as tea cosies, cushions and pot holders in various guises.  Hats, scarves, gloves and bed-socks are popular items, all entering the category of "useful presents".  There are also toys and frequently dolls' clothes.  Then there things one could class as true novelty items, golf club covers, toilet roll covers and poodle bottle covers.

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Yet at the same time these booklets represent a something of the constriction of the lives of many women, unable to undertake paid work because of marriage.  While the absurdity of many of the items amuses me, there is also behind it a sense of the need to fill in empty hours, even in the comparatively liberated 1960s and 1970s (when the booklets in my collection were published), in lieu of more useful work.  This is not to disregard the money that was undoubtedly raised by the sale of such items for charity.

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I was particularly taken with the parrot when I spotted this one in a charity shop!

Some of the patterns I could see myself making, such as the rabbit hot water bottle cover on the front cover of the oldest booklet in my collection, others, such as the poodle bottle covers I will be giving a miss.  The current trend for vintage has even led some companies to republish some of these books, such as this one (even featuring a knitted pineapple tea cosy!) and this one from Patons, although many are still available relatively cheaply second hand.

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Apologies for the quality of photographs in this post - the paper is quite shiny on most of these booklets making it tricky.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Time of Contrasts

The news lately has been abundantly dark, full of the terrible things we humans do to one another and I admit I have been finding it hard to deal with at times.  I pray and try not to brood or become utterly overwhelmed and it feels so little.

Meanwhile in the garden the summer continues oblivious, as it as always done, the borders a tangle of blooms and lush green.  It is, as the wonderful writer Ronald Blythe has noted, a growing year: young trees have shot up a foot or more, the roses reach for the sky, the sole remaining raspberry cane performs hitherto unheard of feats and the ceanothus and holly attempt to meet from their separate sides of the lawn.

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To sit in the garden and appreciate its beauty as it hums and twitters and flutters with wildlife seems indulgent, inappropriate somehow, like I should not be enjoying that moment when others were suffering so much.  But what does it profit anybody if I did not enjoy that moment, since there is nothing I can do as I am to change matters, once I have prayed and prayed again?

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Also thank you for your comments to my last post, try as I might, I cannot get blogger to let me reply, but I do very much appreciate what you have said.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Year in Books: June

This month's choice was something of an epic, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I listened to all 27 or so hours of it on audio book in May and June.  However, at no point was listening a slog, rather like a long, enjoyable journey; Juliet Stevenson's brilliant reading was a vital part of the experience.  The story concerns Anna, a divorced writer of a best selling novel in her 30s living in London with her daughter and covers a period of time from the 1930s to the 1950s.  In its structure it is far from a "normal" novel though, it moves fluidly through time and through different narrative perspectives and is a master class in plot and potentially unreliable narration.  The facts of who is who, or why or how particular things have happened are not spelt out, instead the reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together.  Although this sounds as though it could be infuriating, I found that it actually meant that I thought a lot about the novel as I went along and tried to fit the pieces together, some you are never openly told but are simply expected to put together.  You are quite simply plunged into Anna's world.



The Golden Notebook is very much a novel of the inner life and is mostly told through a first person narrative, except when Anna is looking at the content of the notebooks into which she has attempted to divide up the various strands of her life.  One of these is a third person account of her time in Africa during the second world war and her experiences involved with the Communist party there, for this section of the book Anna gives herself a new name, Ella and also renames most of the other protagonists of the novel.  Hence Lessing is able to leave you unsure how accurate this account of the past is, as Anna tries to create a distance between herself and her past and to examine it in a new way and try out new scenarios - Ella has a son, whereas Anna has a daughter for example.

Relationships and sex play a large part in the novel, as Anna and her friend Molly seek to find a new way to live as single women, a process which seems to result in a lot of unsatisfactory affairs, generally with married men, who seem to see them as available.  In this respect Doris Lessing gives a very different perspective on the life of the unmarried woman in 1950s London to that of another of my favourite novelists, Barbara Pym, whose women are solidly respectable, generally engaged in unrequited love, the church and lonely meals for one in small flats.  Anna's life seems to demonstrate the beginnings of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, its foundations, while Barbara Pym documents the last of a fast fading world.  Maternity becomes another key theme as Anna brings up her daughter, a very conventional young girl and Molly struggles with her son and what he should do with his life.  Molly's former husband Richard, who had a brief involvement in Communism, but has now settled down to business, represents conventionality and money and Tommy, their son, seems caught in between their two ways of life.  Furthermore one gets the impression from The Golden Notebook that it is not only the women who are struggling to sort out their relationships but the men too, such as Molly's ex-husband Richard, who moves from his second to third wives as the novel progresses.

Anna and her friends are experimenting in new ways of living, not just in terms of relationships but in everything; the Communist Party, in which many of the characters have been or are involved in, is a part of this search.  In the earlier, African part of the novel, Anna and her friends are frenetically engaged with the Communist Party and taking on some of the racism of the British rule.  While later on the novel illuminated the impact of the USSR upon the wider Communist Party, in particular showing the impact of Stalin's death and the revelations of atrocity that followed it on communists outside Russia; for many it seemed to destroy their faith in communism.  At the same time Anna comes into contact with Americans exiled because of the MacCarthy era in American politics; injustice in its various forms is a great concern of the novel.



Therefore, amid this tumult of ideas and identities, it may come as little surprise that mental health is another important strand of the novel, both for Anna and for those around her.  As I had been thinking a fair amount about identity myself before beginning this novel I did find it fascinating; there were a number of those moments of recognition when a novel describes a thought, a feeling, a sensation and you realise that you are not alone in what you feel.  Doris Lessing's descriptions of Anna's sessions with her therapist and of her time of disintegration, are vivid and the latter time becomes immersive, drawing you into Anna's world, it is powerful writing.  While Anna's notebooks, culminating in the final golden notebook of the title, are her way of working out her own identity and what she should do next, having published this successful novel and had a long, ultimately unsuccessful affair.

I have written all this and yet hardly touched on the themes, ideas and people of this novel, nor done the novel remote justice.  The Golden Notebook has to be one of the most thought provoking, absorbing books I have read in years and although its length may seem daunting at first I would recommend making the effort.  As time went on I found that I could lose hours to the book and that I became deeply engaged with what happened to Anna and loved the "Londonness" of the book - certain writers capture London so well.  While doing a little research to write this I have found The Golden Notebook Project, a website containing the novel and the debate a number of female writers are carrying on in the margins, with space for further debate in a forum, which might be an interesting way of reading it.  Lessing's own preface is on there too, although I am glad that I had not read it before I tackled the book, I prefer to make my own impressions, then read the introduction or preface to novels.  The audio book I listened to is available for download here - it is very much cheaper if you join Audible and buy some credits - and I very much recommend the reading, an excellent option for knitters or other crafters.

Perhaps this coming month I will read something that does not concern feminism?

All the other posts from A Year in Books can be viewed here