How to dress as the Suez Canal

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I defy anyone to read Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls, 1887, without hurrying off to run up one of these costumes immediately.

To dress up as Air: “A white tulle or gauze dress… the lower skirt is dotted about with silver swallows, the upper covered with a variety of insects. Head-dress, a gold weather-vane.” You should also find room on there for a windmill, a bellows and horn.

Queen of the Beetles involves “Short black skirt with horizontal stripes of red and yellow; a black pointed cap, the whole covered with ever-moving toy beetles.”

The Suez Canal is easier: “Long flowing robe of cloth of gold, with waves of blue satin bordered with pearls…”

I think my favourite is Dusk: “Dress of dull grey, muslin or gauze, silver ornaments and smoked pearls, a bat on shoulder.”

Express sounds challenging: “Miniature steam engine in flowing hair… wheeled skates for shoes.”

These are sweet: Glowworm: “Evening dress of light brown satin with an electric star in the hair.” Bullfinch: “Grey shoes with red heels and grey stockings with red clocks.” Amphitrite: “Silver tunic with shells, coral and seaweed.”

You can also dress as Night on the Bosphorus, A Basket of Violets, The Cotton Trade, Etruscan China, The Post Office – “On the skirt the different rates of postage, times of posting, names of several mails” – and The Family of the Vicar of Wakefield. Winners, all of them.

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Male partygoers don’t come off too well, unfortunately: they can wear “Evening dress of the future”, ie white instead of black, or dress like “an Irish car-driver” – patches – or “the tall gamekeeper in Pickwick” – corduroy trousers. Hard cheese.

Slug Spectacular

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Current reading: Shell Life: An Introduction to the British Mollusca by Edward Step. If you want the full information about plumed slugs or hairy sea lemons, or just a picture of some whelk teeth, then this is the place to come:
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Regarding Thomas Rowlandson

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Fans of Georgian London, bawdy satire or fun in general will want to get hold of Regarding Thomas Rowlandson, an account of the rambunctious life of the great graphic satirist and watercolour artist, as quickly as possible. New facts! Colour illustrations! A few of them quite rude! (But 18th century, so it’s all fine.)
(Declaration of interest: the authors are my father and brother. But don’t let that stand in your way.)

The Pastelogram

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There are many reasons to like Marianne Moore:
1) Her poetry – particularly her “love of intricately shaped animals”.
2) Her uniform. Not enough modern writers realise that without a tricorn hat and cape in the poetry world you are nothing. “She liked the shape of such hats, she said, because they concealed the defects of her head, which, she added, resembled that of a hop toad.”
3) The fact that when the Ford Motor Company hired her to think of names for their new model, she threw herself into the task with great enthusiasm: the Anticipator! Dearborn Diamanté! Turcotinga! The Intelligent Whale! Utopian Turtletop! I’d drive any of them. Mongoose Civique! Inexplicably the fools went with the Ford Edsel instead.
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The Monkey’s Bath

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I found this book, Animal Sketches by C Lloyd Morgan, in a Norfolk bookshop. It’s written for children, although Morgan seems to be a respected psychologist. It has some interesting info, eg spiders prefer the colour red and are distressed by the smell of peppermint; oysters have moustaches as well as beards. But as usual I’m looking at the pictures (by W. Monkhouse Rowe):
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Who knew larks had such deadly-looking feet? Some of the illustrations are pleasantly strange:
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Campaign to Sort Out Penelopes and Elizabeths

The main thing to think about when starting out as a writer is, do something about your name. My theory about why British women writers of the mid 20th century now tend to be underrated and neglected is that they are all called Penelope or Elizabeth, and no one can remember which is which. Muriel Spark was sly enough to have a stand-out name and so is the one who gets talked about.
To right this wrong, I’ve decided to embark on a campaign of sorting the Penelopes from the Elizabeths, so you don’t have to.
1. Penelope Fitzgerald
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Penelope Fitzgerald started writing novels in her late 50s – which is an additional reason why she gets forgotten about, people being generally pretty stupid about distinguishing one academic-looking middle-aged woman from another.
She’s best known for her novel Offshore, which won the Booker in 1979, but later wrote more ambitious historical novels such as The Blue Flower, about the 18th century German poet Novalis. You can read a slightly patronising piece about her by Julian Barnes here, or an admiring one by AS Byatt here.
I’d read and not thought much about Offshore long ago, so thought I’d give her short stories a go, in her collection, The Means of Escape.
Conclusion: Odd, unsettling little stories, with settings that zip all over the place from a reclusive composer on a Scottish island to plein air 19th century artists. The one that stands out is The Axe, a funny and genuinely frightening office-based tale, with a Bartleby the Scrivener atmosphere about it. One passage made me make a small squeak out loud on the Tube, it startled me so much.
Not at all what you’d expect from the author of Moon Tiger – but then that was Penelope Lively.

A Happy Nightmare

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“The pure nonsense they invented was a holiday of the mind; one of the few things, like Gothic architecture, that had really never been done before. It was something to create a happy nightmare; it was something more to create a thing that was at once lawless and innocent… It was the avowal of a sport or enjoyment to which the whole mind of the people must already have been tending. The Victorian Englishman walked the world in broad daylight, a proverbially solid figure, with his chimney pot hat and his mutton-chop whiskers. But something happened to him at night; some wind of nightmare blowing through his soul and his subconsciousness dragged him out of bed and whirled him out of the window, where he rose into a world of wind and moonshine… with his whiskers waving like wings.” GK Chesterton on Carroll and Lear

The Future of the Book: No. 1 The Floor Plan

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Suggestion: please can all novels from now on have floor plans. How am I meant to get a clear idea of the story if I don’t even know where the hell the kitchen is in relation to the library? Plus it saves a lot of time on boring descriptions.
I mean, it was good enough for the Golden Age of Detection. I particularly like these maps, above and below, in The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts. Don’t ask me why I’m reading it because I don’t know. But if you like a novel where a good chunk of the action is the two heroes taking it in turns to sit in a barrel to watch pit props being smuggled, then this is for you. At least I know where the Syndicate’s depot is in relation to Ackroyd and Holt’s.
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Why should I imagine it? It’s your book, you imagine it. Naturally Len Howard knows the importance of a plan in Birds as Individuals:
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And don’t forget to include an accurate diagram of any chessboard, bridge hand or bell-ringing chart mentioned:
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Tight as a tick! Fried as a mink!

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My recently bought copy of Tallulah Bankhead’s autobiography (which looks as if it’s still in print) turns out to be an ideal winter evening read. She describes her notoriously rackety life without remorse: “Let’s face it, my dears, I have been tight as a tick! Fried as a mink! Stiff as a goat!” “I’ve rejoiced in considerable dalliance, and have no regrets… I found no surprises in the Kinsey Report.”
It’s all done in style – at least in Tallulah’s version of events, most of which sounds completely made-up, but probably isn’t: “It’s true I once pinwheeled along Piccadilly, but I was only answering a taunt of my companion – Prince Nicholas of Roumania. You know those Roumanian princes! Not all of them are on key.” At one point, she suffers from some kind of flesh-eating virus that has doctors contemplating cutting off her upper lip to stop the infection reaching her brain, and takes the opportunity to adopt “one of those half-masks which make Moorish and Turkish maidens so provocative”.
She had a lion cub called Winston Churchill, and went on the wagon to show solidarity with the British after Dunkirk (although Robert Lewis said she replaced alcohol with ‘sniffing odd capsules that her sister Eugenia insisted were used to revive horses that slipped and fell on the ice’).
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Since she’s writing in 1953, some areas are skated over – she never hints at the rumours of her affairs with famous women from Greta Garbo to Billie Holiday, although she does tackle head on the 1920s scandal about her corrupting minors at Eton (perhaps because it pretty obviously wasn’t true, in spite of being investigated by MI5).
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When she gives evidence against a secretary who’s embezzled from her, Time magazine reported that onlookers “fully expected Miss Bankhead to pull out a small, pearl-handed revolver from her handbag and shoot both defendant and her counsel.”
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She didn’t make many films, preferring the stage. Strangely her last role was as a teetotal religious zealot in a Hammer horror film – “the ultimate in stabbing suspense”:
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