The Plastic Age

3 July 1933

When I was a child, learning history in school, we went back beyond the Spanish Armada, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens, beyond Boudica and Alexander the Great and the Hittite rulers to what my teacher used to refer to as The Ages. These Ages were indefinably long and unimaginably long ago. First came the Stone Age, cold and uncomfortable to our childish minds, without eiderdowns or kettles or books. The Bronze Age was next, and then the Iron Age, bringing war in the form of swords and spear tips – as if they hadn’t existed before. It was all such a muddle of materials and history, dinosaurs and cavemen rolled into one impossible account. As I child, all I could imagine were the things those people didn’t have, and how their lives must have had kettle- and eiderdown-shaped holes. Now, of course, I understand that new materials bring new technology and that it is the subsequent possibilities that matter and change the world for ever.

Lately, though, after whole history books of materials staying largely the same, we have entered a new Age: the Plastic Age. We’ve had these queer, malleable products for some time now – even my grandfather had a MacIntosh coat. I grew up with India rubber-soled shoes and bouncing balls. Increasingly, though, there are new plastics available. There are three pairs of luxurious rayon stockings in my drawer, cheaper than silk but just as smart. I have a dress and a blouse in washing silk. It was slippery to cut and sew but such a delight to wear: lightweight and smooth and elegant. It isn’t as though I wouldn’t have had a blouse or a pair of silk stockings before – of course I did. But now, when I would have worn a cotton blouse, I can choose a silky one instead for a fraction of the cost of real silk. There are cheaper alternatives to rubber products, which don’t disintegrate due to grease and sunlight. There are vinyl records behind the sliding doors of the gramophone cabinet, next to the more brittle shellac. And our new telephone is bakelite, which is as weightless as its name suggests.

It seems as though the pace of plastics is accelerating all the time. I wonder, did the people of the Bronze Age feel the same about small shifts in their technology? Only yesterday John came home with some Scotch tape that he’d been testing at the factory – a sticky plastic strip for holding parcels closed. Before, there was nothing wrong with string, but it suddenly feels second-rate. I wonder what will be next – our bags? Our books? The pots and pans in my kitchen?

It is remarkable how many things can be made from these new materials. We see them in and about the house, and they make little improvements to our lives, but I wonder about how they might be used in hospitals and schools and – heaven forbid – another war. If I think of Now as the Plastic Age, rather than just 1933, it puts me in mind of the evolution of the sword and the cannon and, finally, the machine gun. And then I have to remind myself of the stove, and the motor car, and the wheelchair. I suppose there aren’t such things as good or bad materials. Their virtue depends entirely on what we make from them.

Cecily

PS – I was trying to imagine how Cecily would feel about the advent of plastics. They were beginning to sell in the 1930s, and then the Second World War happened and it was after the war that they really took off as consumer goods. I suspect she would have felt the way a lot of people felt about the internet – aware of its possibilities, but also aware of its dangers and limitations in a vague, nameless sort of way. Or maybe I’m wrong, and she would have just embraced them wholeheartedly. I am by no means an expert on the topic – it’s just a little thought experiment. What do you think?

PPS – I’ve very deliberately included some naturally derived materials in Cecily’s post. We don’t think of rubber, shellac, rayon and the like as ‘plastics’ today, but apparently they did, back then. Plastic means ‘malleable’ (hence ‘plastic surgery’), and so all these new malleable materials were included under the same name.

On Liberty, and love

Whatever happens, people will always want chocolate. As a result, we’ve been largely untouched by the depression. The chocolate industry, and John’s role in it, have grown rather than shrunk over the past decade or so. All those Kitkats and Aeros have kept a comfortable roof over our heads and good food on the table. And although I am careful with my spending, I can afford to treat myself to a Liberty print now and again.

It’s easy to be happy, when everything is going well. My day yesterday consisted largely of taking apart a well loved and washed out blouse to trace a pattern from it, before putting the navy silk aside for other purposes. I arranged the pattern pieces on the bias and began to cut everything out, pot of tea on the table, wireless on in the background. After a while the news came on, and with it people who were so sure that they were right that they never even paused to hear the other side speak.

It was at this point that I discovered I’d cut two identical sleeve pieces, which was a mistake, as they ought to be mirror images of one another. The whole blouse had been a bit of a squeeze, really, and to my dismay there wasn’t a scrap left large enough to cut another piece. So I stitched three pieces together with careful French seams which should be reasonably well hidden under my left arm. Far from perfect, but far from a disaster, either. These things happen. I don’t think I’ll make that particular mistake again, for a while at least.

Had it been a cheaper, less nice fabric I might not have bothered. I might have cut it down at once into a blouse for Fliss or Ilse, and pretended I’d never gone wrong. But I love Liberty too much to let it go.

And besides, we do go wrong, sometimes. But rarely so far wrong that a little love and care can’t put it right. I can’t help thinking that we could do with a little more love all around, at the moment. A touch of understanding and patience for angry people. A dash of agape, of wishing the best for everyone, including those we might disagree with. Perhaps especially for those who are unhappy. Now there’s a challenge for me, far greater than a spot of dressmaking. And although it is hardly an original thought, it’s a pretty important one, here in 1932.

Frozen

The seasons lag behind the sun, dragging on their mother’s hand. The winter solstice was over a month ago and yet it is colder now than it was then, with hail and sleet and frost in the last three days alone. On paper it looks as though spring is not far off, but a glance outside dispels this theory in an instant. We are in the middle of winter, and every twig, every blade of grass, is frozen.

By noon there were dark brown molehills against the winter white where I had pushed my fork through the icy crust and pulled food from the crumbly soil: knobbly Jerusalem artichokes for a smooth and creamy soup, parsnips to sweeten a wintery stew. The eggs  were still warm when I wrapped my fingers round them, and the hens have puffed their feathers into little fluffy eiderdowns. I spread a fresh layer of straw in their house for them to scratch in, and threw in a handful of mixed corn. They don’t mind this weather as long as their crops are full.

As I went back over my lists last night, snug by the sitting room fire, I was glad to see how many weeks I had to finish all the inside jobs before the warming earth pulls my attention elsewhere. What’s the hurry? There’s a pile of beautiful fabric awaiting my attention, and some soft new wool to knit. The children are still playing with their Christmas toys and puzzles. We’ve visited the library. One way and another, I’ve got better at wintering as the years have gone on.

In Clydebank, though, there are many families for whom winter has just got worse, with the work on the Queen Mary grinding to a halt. There will be a lot of people without a fire to make their idle lists by, or new fabric to run contented hands over. When it gets as cold as this, I wonder how those without a roof survive at all. How do you coax yourself through another day of ice when spring is two months off, at least? I used to think about men in frozen trenches and wonder how they bore it; now it’s mothers who gladly send their children off to  school with its heater and free meals.

It’s a beautiful thing, a frozen world, when there’s hot toast and dripping at the end of your constitutional. And if there isn’t, then little kindnesses can go an awfully long way towards making sure there is.

 

After the storm

Mrs P came home today, wrapped in blankets in the back of an ambulance, to trees blown bare of every last lingering leaf and streets scoured dry by the wind. After the storm, the sun came out, and it was in this sunny interval that she made her careful way up the stairs to bed. She’s in safe hands, that’s certain, and there isn’t a neighbour or a friend who hasn’t visited with beef tea or broth or both.

As well as the branches littering the streets, and bins blown sideways in front gardens, there was a pile of scraps by the side of my sewing machine, and thread and fluff all over the living room floor. I sorted and tidied with no small satisfaction: everything big enough has been cut into strips for Ben’s quilt, or made into little bags or other gifts. Only a pile of crumbs remains, and those are destined for an afternoon of sewing cards. Order restored, it was time for a cup of tea and a daydream, watching the yellow light spill in through the window and stain the room with coloured beams. A little daydreaming, for the what feels like the first time in ages. A reverie.

Which is the name of the piece I’ve just started learning, oh so hesitantly, at the piano. After my lesson I did wonder if I’d set my sights a little high, but after half a painstaking hour this morning I had begun to string the notes of the first few lines into something resembling music. I set the needle on the record and let the gramophone play it properly while I sewed the last few pieces. Sometimes I wonder whether I choose the music to suit the mood I’m in, or whether my mood is dictated by the music. It’s probably a bit of both. Today was most certainly not a day for Mahler: although there are sunbursts in his symphonies there are also many storms. Today was a day for something gentler, something soothing and delicate and beautiful, after recent worries.

By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the clouds moved in once more, uncompromisingly dark. Yes, after the storm there is always the sunlight, but it often passes all too quickly at the moment. Today everything was right in my little world, but I am increasingly aware of the angry and the dispossessed. Since the crash it seems that it’s not only our economy that has suffered: our tolerance and generosity has, too. We had a leaflet through our letterbox last week, inviting Ben and Fliss to join the youth arm of Mosley’s New Party. They didn’t, of course. I worry, though, about where all this is heading, only fourteen years after the Great War. Yet at the same time, when the light slips in through the windows and good friends are on the mend, it seems impossible that such madness could ever reoccur. After such a storm, there should be sunlight for a hundred years at least.