So Christmas is around the corner and I'm sitting here reading a book about ostrich feathers.
Stir-up-Sunday has passed me by and there's every chance Card-Writing-Tuesday and Getting-The-Deccies-Out-Of-The-Loft Friday will do likewise unless I wrap this one up quickly.
I'm thankfully aware that all these non-fiction reads of late will garner plenty of academic peer reviews on the literary pages, and that will be the place to look for a sensible, objective analytical approach to such incredibly scholarly works. However I also hope there's a place and plenty of space here for the joyous celebration of an accessible, knowledge-bearing book, hopefully without giving the impression that I am in any way demeaning the years and years that these authors will have spent working on them.
I really didn't want Plumes, Ostrich Feather, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce by Sarah Abrevaya Stein published by Yale University Press to end and it's all most bizarre.
First things first, the book arrived, I put my hand in the jiffy bag and got the fright of my life, because there was an ostrich feather included. I was probably emotionally ostrich-feather susceptible after that Fred and Ginger encounter a few weeks ago, recalling Ginger's Cheek to Cheek moulting frock that had Fred in a tiz.
But that aside global commerce is not really my forte, nor do I nurture a secret desire to make it so, but Sarah Stein has made this previously unknown single-commodity world of feathers strangely compelling.
There was big money in ostriches for a while and of course the potential for puns is vast (thankfully Sarah Stein can't resist them either) but I'm only going to say it the once, put all your eggs in one basket and there could be trouble.
Feather 'boom' in the 1880s went to feather 'bust' post First World War, but in that time a global and largely Jewish-mediated market created a Feather Road from the Western Cape of South Africa to the London Plumage warehouses (Salaman & Company had shop premises at 69 Lamb's Conduit Street, a feather's breath from here and a mere flutter from here) and thence on to the fashion markets of Paris, London and New York.
The US even tried the grow-your-own ostriches approach in Pasadena.
But it was also a world that, if I've grasped it correctly, Sarah Stein wanted to examine without privileging the usual overtly and slightly weary stereotype of the Jewish people as
'quintessential 'service nomads'...outsiders - urban, literate, peripatetic and in possession of contacts of kith and kin over seas. oceans and political boundaries.'
whilst still exploring Jewish culture identity and communities.
So a book where commerce does take centre stage and I now have a good hold on the folly of dealing in Feather Futures (that's about counting your chickens ostrich feathers before they've hatched grown) and won't ever dabble, but I did admittedly home in willingly on the over-arching themes of the Jewish diaspora whether Sarah Stein intended me to or not.
In the process I have also understood something new about the scattering and displacement of a people and how a deep sense of faith and family can be of advantage. But those issues of identity and communities, social and working conditions, the dictates and whims of fashion all proved fascinating too, and tragically in many ways, as Sarah Stein states, this is a story about failure because
'when the market was booming, there was little indication that plumes would have a more finite appeal than say diamonds.'
Whilst the powerful De Beers diamond syndicate controlled prices and cleverly advertised and marketed diamonds as 'enduring, classy and a mark of fidelity' sadly the ostrich feather became a tawdry symbol of dated and fragile decadence.
Quite surprisingly, and I had never thought of this, ostrich feathers in hats went right out of fashion with the arrival of the car and in came the cloche.
Mind you, first catch your ostrich and heaven knows how that was done when the feathers were plucked from the live (and kicking) bird. Obviously a spate of broken legs and someone must have had the bright idea of clipping rather than plucking, which the ostrich was quite pleased about no doubt.
So my recent non-fiction reading trail leaves me dangerously well-nformed about Pompeii, Stonehenge, the Memorial on the Somme, Fred and Ginger, anaesthesia, bubonic plague, and now ostriches so where to next?
Well. I have made a very promising start on The Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy Bodies, Books Fortunes and Fame by Ruth Richardson so expect some good did-you-know dissection stories to follow.
Meanwhile I bet you knew it was coming didn't you?
Your patience is rewarded, thanks to Yale University Press a prize draw copy of Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein will be quickstepping its way anywhere in the world to sweep one lucky winner off their feet.
Names in comments as long as you are wearing an ostrich feather boa of course.