Christina Koning

Novelist and short story writer.

‘Strange how potent cheap music is…’ Listening to the sounds of the past

When you’re trying to recreate the past, there’s nothing quite so evocative as listening to the popular music of the era, which is what I’ve been doing for the past few months of researching and writing my soon-to-be-published novel, Game of Chance. The book is set in 1929, on the eve of the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent Great Depression, and much of the action takes place in a snow-bound London, where poverty and unemployment are already much in evidence. I wanted to portray this – but also to show the deep class divisions in the society of the time. And so my story, a murder mystery, moves between several very different worlds – from the shabby backstreets of New Cross and Shoreditch, to the more affluent squares and closes of Knightsbridge and Mayfair; from the bohemian circles of Camden Town and Notting Hill, to the country houses of the Home Counties. One thing all these otherwise disparate worlds had in common was the music of the times – available to any home that possessed a wireless, and also to be heard across the capital in nightclubs and at fashionable parties.

In researching this, and putting together a playlist of some of the most popular tunes of 1929 (see attached link), I was struck by how many of the songs still to be heard today were first written and performed in that golden era we call the Jazz Age. Melodies such as Gershwin’s incomparable ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Bix Beiderbecke’s ‘Singin’ the Blues’, or Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, date from that year, as does the wistful ballad, ‘I’ll See You Again’ (performed by the Master himself), from Coward’s operetta, Bitter Sweet. Perhaps more surprising, is that many of the songs later recorded – and made their own – by renowned artists such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, were first performed, often in rather less sophisticated versions, in the late 1920s.

‘Singin’ in the Rain’ – later made famous by Gene Kelly in the 1955 movie of that name – is one of these, its up-tempo 1929 version sung by one Cliff Edwards. ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ (later a Sinatra classic) was recorded no less that four times in 1929 – by Harry Richardson, Eddie Walters, Eddie Cantor, and Paul Whiteman. There were also several recordings of ‘My Blue Heaven’ – another song which has been covered many times by artists in the years since. ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ – later memorably performed by Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 spoof of the Roaring Twenties, ‘Some Like It Hot’, was first recorded by Helen Kane thirty years earlier. Other perennially popular favourites, such as ‘Bye, Bye, Blackbird’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ also first hit the airwaves in that remarkable year.

In writing Game of Chance, I had a great deal of fun incorporating snatches of some of these wonderful songs into the chapters describing a glamorous party, held at the Cadogan Square home of a beautiful ‘Society’ hostess. Amongst the popular ‘hits’ being played by the jazz band hired for the night, is the show tune ‘Oh, Lady Be Good!’ from the musical of that name, whose lyrics beautifully encapsulated the dreamy sensuality of the mood I was trying to convey:

Oh, sweet and lovely lady, be good

Oh, lady, be good, to me;

I am so awf’lly misunderstood,

So, lady be good to me…

Other tunes now familiar from later ‘covers’, but then brand-new, included ‘Ain’t She Sweet?’, ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave’ – another song whose lyrics stay just the right side of suggestiveness:

We’re all alone

No chaperone

Can get our number

The world’s in slumber

Let’s misbehave…

The prevailing mood of many of these songs is a sort of manic cheerfulness – a refusal to be ‘downhearted’ in the face of trouble and hardship. One particularly touching lyric – ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’ (with music by Jimmy McHugh and words by Dorothy Fields) was apparently inspired by the writer and lyricist spotting a young couple looking in the window of Tiffany’s jeweller’s shop in New York; the title line was supposedly said by the young man to his girl. Whether this is an apocryphal story or not, the song (later recorded by Billie Holiday) does capture something of the spirit of the times, with its mixture of bravado and wry resignation:

Gee, I’d like to see you lookin’ swell, baby,

Diamond bracelets Woolworths doesn’t sell, baby;

Until that lucky day, you know darn well, baby,

I can’t give you anything but love…

Nor is this the only song from 1929 whose determination to ‘look on the bright side’ acknowledges that there is a darker side to life. The perennially popular, and (to my mind, at least) rather too jaunty ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, presupposes that the ‘happy days’ in question haven’t always been ‘here’. The almost insufferably bouncy ‘When the Red, Red, Robin, Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ contains the lines

There’ll be no more sobbin’

When he starts singin’

His old, sweet song…

No wonder these tunes proved so popular throughout the Depression and during the Second World War. They were the musical equivalent of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters put out by the Ministry of Information in 1939 to ensure that people didn’t succumb to gloom and despondency during the Blitz. They celebrated love, life and happiness in the face of looming disaster. And, dammit – they were catchy!

For these and other musical treats of 1929:
















‘Down the hatch’ – a brief history of the cocktail

It’s summer, it’s hot, and I’m up to my eyes in researching the next book… Happily, it doesn’t always have to be the heavy stuff. Today I’m looking into cocktails – specifically, those popular between the ‘Jazz Age’ of 1925 or thereabouts, and the early 1930s. In this endeavour, I’ve been assisted by a book, which, although published in 1949, still has about it the raffish feel of that earlier time. It’s my father’s well-used copy of the Esquire Handbook for Hosts, and it contains everything one could possibly want to know about… well, being a host. To this end, it offers chapters on cooking – provocatively titled ‘the world’s best chefs wear pants’ – on keeping one’s guests amused during the hours between cocktails and dinner (card games of all sorts, from Gin Rummy to Poker, feature here) and on ‘what the well-dressed host will wear’ (‘your double chested dinner jacket of the same midnight blue as the dress trousers is always in good taste’). But the main point of the book is – not to put too fine a point on it – the drink.

Here are chapters on knowing your wines, on mixing a punch ‘to bowl you over’, on fixing a ‘highball’, and on making the perfect mint julep. There is even a section for teetotallers, as well as one for the inevitable morning-after hangover cure. But the sections which interested me are the ones that deal with the cocktail, in all its variety. So here’s the Manhattan – this particular version an eye-watering concoction of ‘4 parts Rye or Bourbon to 1 part Italian Vermouth’, stirred, not shaken and poured into a glass with a cherry or ‘preferably, a twist of lemon peel’. Here’s the Old Fashioned, which seems to consist mainly of Angostura Bitters, sugar, and orange zest; the Daiquiri (fresh lime juice, Bacardi rum, ice and sugar); the Gimlet (3 parts dry gin to 1 part Rose’s lime juice) and of course the Martini. This classic drink, as most aficionados will know, has many variations, but the classic, as given in the Handbook, is 1 part French Vermouth to 2 parts gin, served in a cocktail glass with a green olive or a twist of lemon. The Gibson, otherwise called a ‘Very Dry Martini’, is a lethal sounding combination of 1 part Vermouth to 5 parts gin, served with a cocktail onion…

The list of evocative sounding names goes on: the Pink Lady (gin, egg white, lime juice and grenadine), the Whisky Sour (lemon juice, sugar and bourbon), the Manhattan (orange bitters, vermouth and rye or bourbon), and something called ‘Death in the Afternoon’ – a mixture of champagne and absinthe – which was apparently a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s… Needless to say, I haven’t tried all these drinks – or at least, not all at once – but reading my father’s cherished ‘how to’ book on being a good host had given me an insight into a long-lost world. It was a world of elegance, and sophistication – of Jay Gatsby’s ‘blue gardens’ with their ‘whisperings and… champagne’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ – but it was also a world of excess, and desperate gaiety, and borderline alcoholism. One only had to think of Lady Brett, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with her cropped hair and her sporty clothes, and her fondness for getting ‘tight’. Or Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby. Or Waugh’s brittle and affected Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies… Alcohol and literature have always had a close association, and never more so than in the hey-day of the cocktail – which, roughly speaking, lasted from 1920 to the early 1960s.

The earliest use of the term ‘cocktail’ dates from much earlier – the beginning of the nineteenth century – and drinks such as the Sazarac, a mixture of brandy, bitters and absinthe, were popular from the 1850s onwards. But it wasn’t until much later – after the First World War, in fact – that the idea of mixing one’s drink of choice with sweet or ‘dry’ mixers, really took off. The first cocktail party was apparently held in St Louis, in May 1917 – perhaps as a ‘send-off’ to some of those brave ‘Doughboys’ going of to fight in France – but the full impact of what newspapers of the time came to describe as the ‘cocktail habit’ wasn’t felt until after the war, and the imposition of Prohibition in 1920, across the United States. During this period, which lasted until 1933, drinkers had to take their pleasures illicitly, in the notorious ‘speakeasies’, where illegally produced ‘bathtub gin’ and other horrors, would be mixed with sweet-tasting liqueurs, and chilled with lots of ice, to mask the taste. In Europe, where no such restrictions existed, the craze nonetheless caught on, and soon the ‘cocktail hour’ became an established fixture of any smart social circle, celebrated by writers of the period from P.G. Wodehouse to T.S. Eliot. In Carry on Jeeves, we first meet Bertie Wooster when he is recovering from a night of excess drinking concoctions of the sort enthusiastically described in another Wodehouse novel, Uncle Fred in Springtime: ‘champagne… liqueur brandy, armagnac, pummel, yellow liqueur, and old stout, to taste…’


Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer, I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he comeback with a glass on a tray.

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rathe like a royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. it is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a lifeline that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if someone had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seems suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; bird twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything.





How I learned to love the Bloomsbury Group

I must confess that I started watching ‘Life in Squares’, the new three-part drama about the Bloomsbury Group, which was recently shown on BBC2, with considerable reservations. What on earth was there left to say about these – to be frank – rather self-indulgent and privileged people, that hadn’t already been said in a host of books by and about them, and latterly, in films and television programmes in which the whole gang – the Woolfs, the Bells, Duncan Grant, Keynes, Strachey, Roger Fry – were made much of? Wasn’t it time to call for a moratorium on the Bloomsburies and all their acolytes, past and present? From which it may be obvious that, with certain honourable exceptions (yes, I mean you, E.M. Forster), I’m not a fan of this particular ‘set’, whose achievements, though undeniably impressive, seem to me to have been over-valued, to the detriment of other, no less impressive, talents in twentieth century Art and Literature.


‘Life in Squares’, I thought, would be just another breathless hagiography, celebrating the already over-celebrated lives of the Blessed Virginia and her crowd. I promised myself I’d give it ten minutes, and then switch over to something more enjoyable. An hour later, I was still watching – and unashamedly riveted by – the successive dramas unfolding in Amanda Coe’s treatment of the lives of what was then a disparate group of Cambridge friends (and their sisters), meeting for tea and chat about art and books, in the Gordon Square house belonging to the orphaned Stephen siblings. With so many characters to incorporate – the list above is only partial, leaving out quite a few of the era’s major figures (no mention of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, or Wyndham Lewis) – Coe wisely chose to focus on the central relationship, between Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), and her sister Vanessa. Interestingly enough, and despite Virginia Woolf’s far greater posthumous fame, it is Vanessa who emerges as the more dominant character. From her impetuous – and soon to be regretted – marriage to the philandering Clive Bell, to her no less extravagant love for the painter Duncan Grant, she comes across as passionate, headstrong and likeable.


Part of this is due, no doubt, to Phoebe Fox’s sympathetic portrayal – helped by her strong physical likeness to the beautiful Vanessa. Nor is she the only piece of great casting in this superior mini-drama: James Norton gave a wonderfully dissolute performance as Duncan Grant, convincing this viewer, at least, to reconsider him, not only as an artist, but as a key figure in what was to become a kind of blueprint for the Bohemian lifestyle, as the Bloomsburies metamorphosed into the ‘Charleston set’. Having visited Charleston – home to the Bells and Duncan Grant – and Monk’s House, at Rodmell, where the Woolfs established themselves during the same period, I was delighted to see both places featuring strongly in this television drama. That gave me another reason for continuing to watch, as well as the fact that I was now hooked on the tangled love affairs and intermittent crises which were unfolding. The period covered – from the 1900s to the 1940s – is one in which I have been interested for a long time. I was glad to see it reconstructed so accurately and (dare one say it?) aesthetically. From the Art Nouveau silks and velvets sported by Vanessa as a young woman, to the more austere wartime garb worn by her older self (of which more later), this was a feast of period detail: beautifully lit and shot.


Of course, there were a few things I’d like to have seen done differently. The decision to cast a second group of older actors – with the wonderful Eve Best playing Vanessa – in order to convey the passage of time, was not wholly successful, and might have caused confusion to anyone not familiar with the story. The need to compress the events of forty years into three hours led, inevitably, to certain things been glossed over – or left out altogether. The 1920s and 1930s – arguably the most important period, as regards the literary and artistic output of the group – was shown only in passing. Individual episodes – such as Duncan Grant’s decision to become a Conscientious Objector, at the outbreak of the First World War – were barely touched on. The decision to focus on the Grant/Bell menage meant that even Virginia Woolf’s suicide got short shrift. But overall, this was a well-written and engaging dramatisation of a fascinating period. It certainly converted this Bloomsbury sceptic to a more appreciative frame of mind. Now – where’s my copy of To the Lighthouse?


Christina Koning talks about writing historical fiction

Christina Koning talks about her novel Line Of Sight

Christina Koning talks about her novel Fabulous Time

Christina Koning talks about her novel The Dark Tower

Christina Koning talks about her novel Undiscovered Country

Christina Koning talks about her novel A Mild Suicide (1992)

Christina Koning taking about her novel A Mild Suicide

‘Sitting on a sofa, playing games of chance…’

My latest novel, Game of Chance – the second in a series of detective stories set in the late 1920s – centres, as the title suggests, around a game of cards, specifically, Solo Whist. I chose this particular game, rather than Bridge (which was actually more popular in the period I’ve been writing about) for two reasons. One was the relative simplicity of the game, which lent itself to the plot structure I had in mind; the other was the peculiar resonance of the terminology. For a story featuring both an amateur detective and a policeman, the fact that one of the ‘calls’ in the game is ‘Prop & Cop’ was irresistible; so, too, were the no less resonant calls ‘Misere’, ‘Misere Ouverte’ and ‘Abundance’. Other details – the fact that the ‘play’ goes clockwise, and that the individual players are identified by the points of the compass – provided further indications of how the novel should unfold.

Nor was it a wholly arbitrary decision to make card-playing a dominant motif in the second of my stories about the ‘Blind Detective’. My protagonist, Frederick Rowlands, whom we meet a decade after he lost his sight at the Third Battle of Ypres, is a keen card player – as was my grandfather, Charles Thompson, on whom the character is loosely based. I still have two packs of Charles’s braille cards, marked in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corners with the raised dots that denote their suit and value. With these, my grandfather was able to play to competition standard – against sighted, as well as blind, opponents. And so it made absolute sense to have him matched, in my fictional version, against a murderer, both playing for higher stakes than the shilling or two which might have changed hands in the drawing room.

In researching the book, I started to think about the literary predecessors of my particular ‘game of chance’. Because of course card games – like chess, or billiards, or even croquet – are often to be found in novels, and films. They lend themselves so well to the dynamics of relationships. Card games are mock battles, in which much is at stake – not least the winner’s pride. Over the centuries, the language of card playing has become essential to the way we describe our experience. We talk about ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’, ‘putting your cards on the table’ and ‘playing your trump card’; about having been ‘dealt a bad hand’, having ‘a card up your sleeve’, being ‘unlucky at cards, lucky in love’, and so on. A number of these card playing analogies found their way into Game of Chance. In thinking about the novel, I also rather liked the idea that ‘Chance’, that mythical figure on whose favour all such games depend, is usually regarded as blind.

And so to the literary antecedents – of which of course there are many. Card games are thought to have originated in China during the T’ang Dynasty, and the first reference to card games dates from the 9th century. The game – perhaps closer to what we now know as dominoes, since it was played with tiles rather than paper cards – was exported to Persia, from where the idea of dividing the cards into suits seems to have come. Further modifications of the design were to occur before the emergence, in Europe at least, of the familiar ‘deck’ of cards, with its four suits: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs, with their numbered sequences and ‘court’ cards. This standardisation is by no means universal, by the way: some countries (Spain, for instance) still use the older suits of Coins, Swords, Cups and Clubs. (I have in front of me a pack I bought some years ago in Venezuela, which looks like this.) Swiss German packs use Roses, Bells, Acorns and Shields instead of the more traditional images.

But for Alexander Pope, writing in 1717, the pack looked like this:


Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever’d,

With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;

And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,

Th’expressive Emblem of their softer Pow’r;

Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,

Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;

And Particolour’d Troops, a shining Train,

Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.

The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;

Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.’


Card games were enormously popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as any reader of the novels of Jane Austen will attest. References to card playing are to be found in most of her novels – one thinks of Lydia Bennet’s fondness for ‘making bets’ in the game of whist being played while Lizzie and Mr Wickham are having their heart-to-heart in Pride and Prejudice. Here, as elsewhere, the game offers an analogue of the shifts and ambiguities inherent in the characters’ relationships. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the famous card playing scene in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford, conscious that she is in danger of losing the affection of Edmund Bertram, the man she hopes to marry, makes a last ‘bid’ for his attention:


Miss Crawford, a little suspicious and resentful of a certain tone of voice and a certain half-look attending the last expression of his hope, made a hasty finish of her dealing with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it”…’


As always in Austen, it is the psychological aspect of the ‘game’ the characters are playing which most interests her.

This is no less the case in another famous literary card game – the one played by Pip and Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the themes of betrayal and sexual cruelty are explicitly set out:


“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.

“Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”

“Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards…’


This, incidentally, is the game in which the youthful femme fatale shows her ‘disdain’ for her unfortunate playmate in a single telling phrase: ‘“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella…’ Enough to send a shiver up one’s spine.

In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, and its wonderful film version, directed by Terence Davies, card playing has moved from being simply a metaphor for the human interactions to being an integral element of the plot. Here, the impoverished Lily Bart, who has hitherto refused to become embroiled in the ruinously expensive games of bridge which are a feature of the country house weekends to which she is invited, is forced to conform – or else risk being ostracised from the ‘best’ social circles:


For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe. And since she had played regularly, the passion had grown on her…’


Aficionados of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories (and I am one) will be familiar with the ‘passion’ that bridge inspires in its devotees – none more addicted to this particular game of chance that the two principals, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas. Bridge is a thread which runs throughout this deliciously funny series of novels – the first of which was published in 1931 – and gives rise to some of the most hilarious scenes. Here, Miss Mapp is indulging in a little bit of gamesmanship – to the annoyance of her fellow players:


Upstairs the geniality of the tea-table had crumbled over cards. Elizabeth had been losing and she was feeling hot. She said to Diva “This little room – so cosy – is quite stifling, dear. May we have the window open?” Diva opened it as a deal was in progress, and the cards blew about the table: Elizabeth’s remnants consisted of Kings and aces, but a fresh deal was necessary. Diva dropped a card on the floor and put her foot on it so nimbly that nobody could see what it was… Elizabeth demanded another fresh deal. That was conceded, but it left a friction.’


Sometimes the ‘friction’ engendered by games of chance – especially, it would seem, by bridge – can end in murder. Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, a story I found extremely helpful when plotting my own murder mystery, concerns such a game. Set up by the sinister Mr Shaitana, it centres around a dinner party, to which four detectives – one of them our old friend Hercule Poirot – and four suspected murderers have been invited. When dinner is over, the guests sit down to cards.


“Thank goodness there’s to be bridge,” said Mrs Lorrimer in an aside to Poirot. “I’m one of the worst bridge fiends that ever lived. It’s growing on me. I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards…”’


Of course it all goes horribly wrong. But at least Mrs Lorrimer gets her game of cards.