Sunday, 21 May 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Sunnylea by Jean Metcalfe

 
published 1980
 

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

 
 
Sunnylea 4Sunnylea


Father works in the Southern Railway in their Head Office at Waterloo Station. He loves his job because trains are his life. He can recognize rolling stock from its shadow on a wall. And his free season ticket in its celluloid holder allows us to live here where there are catkins and butterflies, away from London.

Mother is a self-effacing smiling lady who thinks that, outside her own home, everyone is better at everything than she is. Her dairymaid prettiness which Father carried in a sepia photograph through the war, is becoming contentedly plump so she has taken to salmon-pink corsets with laces. Now and again, when she has made sure that no-one will be calling, they glow on the washing line like a bright cotton sunset and the bones creak in the wind.

 
 
Sunnylea 2Sunnylea 3
 
 


commentary: This is a gorgeous book.  I got the tipoff from blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam, who’d seen a reference to it elsewhere - that description of the corsets on the line was what grabbed the attention of all of us.

It looks like a children’s book – text on one page, an illustration facing it - but I don’t think it is particularly. It is a memoir: Jean Metcalfe, a very well-known broadcaster in her day, is talking about her childhood in Reigate, south of London, and has painted beautiful watercolours to accompany her thoughts. Sunnylea is the name of her childhood home.

It’s just a straightforward picture of life in the 1920s in her family: simple, but immensely enjoyable, memorable and affecting. She remembers the arrival of their first wireless – she wasn’t impressed – and that this was an era where you wore your best clothes to go to the beach for the day. The book covers the 1920s – she was born in 1923, and in 1930 a little brother was born, bringing her memories to a close.

It is a beautiful, enchanting book, and someone should reprint it.

And of course this section covers two of Clothes in Books favourite things: hanging out the washing and corsets. (Readers’ favourites too –  that hanging out the washing item was by far the most popular post of 2015, and corsets are perennial winners.)

The top left picture is by John Sloan and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. Next to it there’s one of Jean Metcalfe’s own illustrations for the book, and the two lower pictures are an advert and a photo from the era.

















22 comments:

  1. The Jean Metcalfe of Family Favourites. She married her co-presenter at the Hamburg end - Cliff Michelmore. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Metcalfe

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    1. It was quite the romance I think, wasn't it? Our parents' generation were charmed...

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  2. Sometimes those straightforward memoirs can be really excellent, Moira. And it sounds as though this is one of them. I can imagine, just from the snippet you shared, that the writing style flows very nicely, too, which really adds to a story for me.

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    1. It is a lovely book, deceptively simple, I think, and she had a real talent for illustration.

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    1. I'll wake you up when normal service is resumed.

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  4. It has a real economy with the writing, but not at the expense of cadence or poetry - you can tell it's a broadcaster's voice, she's thinking about what if she only had a few minutes in which to paint a word-picture. I really do think it's really beautiful writing - very, very, very effortless, but at the same time, VERY difficult to do unless you're really practised at it.

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    1. YES! I couldn't think how to describe why this stands out from many similar books, but you are absolutely right. Such an air of simplicity, but such structure behind it... I am so glad you pointed it out to me.

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    2. There isn't a single wasted word.

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  5. This sounds like one I would enjoy especially as I spent my childhood in south east London.
    Ann

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    1. Yes very much so - I hope you can get hold of a copy.

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  6. This is so exactly the sort of book I love that I have had to order a second-hand copy right away. You have a lot to answer for, Moira!

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    1. I know, but I don't think you'll regret this - it is enchanting.

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    2. It arrived today and I read it in the garden in glorious sunny weather. Yes, enchanting.

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    3. Perfect! And this was the day for it, rather than going to the beach while dressed in your best clothes (and probs a corset...)

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    4. Skinny jeans are perhaps the modern equivalent of a corset . . .

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    5. That's a great perception! I can see a whole line in life where you change in your needs: when you're young, you want to look good. Then as you get older comfort is all...

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    6. Not quite all, Moira! At least not yet . . .

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    7. Glad to hear it! Keeping up appearances. (I won't mention those striped dungarees...)

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  7. Both she and Cliff Michelmore were part of a very important era in broadcasting, both on Radio and TV, when people were beginning to understand the power of the medium. She does seem to have had a very low-key, relaxed interviewing style, allowing her to get more out of her subjects. Given that he eventually became 'Mr BBC', it's fascinating that her husband was initially seen within the Beeb as 'not quite the right sort of person' to be broadcasting on the BBC (i.e. not a public school boy). They were both part of a burgeoning middle class who would come to dominate the business.

    I do like these straightforward memoirs of childhood. One of my favourite autobiographies is SEATS IN ALL PARTS by Leslie Halliwell. We see him as a precociously clever, film-mad, working class kid from a Mill Town in Lancashire, follow him as he gets a Cambridge Scholarship, and then on to temporarily managing a small cinema. It's charming and funny, but very little actually 'happens' in terms of family drama and emotional trauma. However, you get a real sense of time and place. These sorts of stories are just as important as the misery memoirs and dramatic revelations as they represent life as lived for so many ordinary people.

    ggary

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    1. Fascinating. I most certainly did not know that Cliff M was not seen as the right stuff initially...
      And the Halliwell book sounds terrific - he was such an important part of any real film fan's life, it's so hard to describe to the young people what it was like before the internet, and how important it was to have your two Halliwells to hand at all times.

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