I did that inevitable summer/winter clothes swap last week.
The right day dawns and it's time for the old heavyweights to emerge and opening the lid on the blanket box where I store everything was like saying hello to a load of good friends, all those jumpers I was sick of the sight of earlier in the year re-emerge, old faithfuls ready to do a turn through another winter.
All this annual perusal and culling of the wardrobe whilst I'm reading Justine Picardie's biography Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life wasn't good for me, and I couldn't help imagining what Coco would make of it all if she walked past...
Me muttering " er...je suis desole" whilst Mademoiselle tsks "c'est tres terrible".
I did go through a Chanel No 5 phase many years ago but I still don't think Coco would have been impressed.
First and most importantly I have to mention the book itself.
Harper Collins have really cut their cloth perfectly with this one, high production values, beautifully laid out, perfect weight matte paper with pictures throughout, not the predictable two chunks of glossies, it even smells perfect too. Also an interesting sans serif typeface more of which when I've finished Simon Garfield's fascinating new book Just my Type - A Book About Fonts, who would have thought such a book could be quite so interesting.
But likewise my knowledge about Coco Chanel as sketchy as that about fonts, so I was the blank screen on which to be written and how fascinating to discover the girl and the woman behind the legend.
A childhood anchored in distress and desertion rather than the love of a family, having been left by her father in the care of the nuns at Aubazine in 1895 after the death of her mother, and at the age of eleven it's not difficult to imagine the impact this must have had on the young Gabrielle Chanel. Images forged in her mind that would emerge in her fashions many years later, but it also sets the scene for a sense of personal shame and embarrassment and a subsequent lifelong obfuscation of the truth about herself that Chanel maintained to her dying day.
How sad too that such humble beginnings lauded as something worthy of praise and mention these days were not so highly thought of in the social-class ridden era into which Chanel emerged as a young woman.
Few people if any knew any single reliable truth about Mademoiselle, so many versions of a life through which Justine Picardie has steered a steady course, via all the available sources, to offer an insight into this complex but ultimately lonely and seemingly 'unloved' woman. Justine draws on evidence from other biographies, sometimes gossip and rumour which has become fact whilst diligently exploring all the detail to arrive at new conclusions.
Coco Chanel's relationships always formed with 'incorrigible womanisers', wealthy ones mind you but mostly caddish and 'unavailable' men. Mistress to the charming and debonair Boy Capel and then after Capel's untimely death, a lengthy affair with surely one of the wealthiest men in Britain, the Duke of Westminster, so plenty of gossip to plough through there.
And I bet like me you'll cheer when you discover the fate Coco had in store for the sparkling emerald and the string of pearls, gifts from the Duke of Westminster as penance for his infidelities and Coco's subsequent humiliation.
It's enough to make me think about taking up.... no I can't give it away.
Nor will I reveal all the other surprises and revelations but there are plenty in store if you decide to read this. As Justine had promised us at Port Eliot, Mademoiselle did indeed have a very interesting war, counting Winston Churchill amongst her close friends, and a nice little dovegrey family coincidence here too.
Mention is made of a meeting that was due to take place between Chanel and Churchill in Spain in December 1943 but
'..the British Prime Minister had fallen ill after the Tehran conference in December 1943... the meeting with Churchill could not happen - he was very tired... he cancelled his appointements in Spain and went back to England after stopping in Cairo and Tunisia.'
To Winston's rescue the Tinker (father of dgr) on board HMS King George V ...yes can you believe it, I turn to his little book Bugle Boy and there it is confirmed,
'I couldn't be returned to Eastney Barracks as we were in the Mediterranean and I would have to wait until we were sent home - I didn't know that we had the Sicily and Italian campaigns yet to come, so that wouldn't be until October 1943. Even then at Christmas we went back to the Mediterranean to fetch Winston Churchill after he caught pneumonia whilst at Marrakesh...'
Also perused with great interest here, Coco Chanel's salmon fishing records whilst staying on the Duke of Westminster's estates in Scotland. No messing about on the banks of Loch More for Coco. On those three days in 1927, Mlle Chanel upstaged both Winston Churchill and the Duke, none of hers got away, thirteen of the twenty salmon caught landed at Mademoiselle's feet.
The first day's bag for Coco, seven fine and good-sized fish totalling 122lbs in weight.
I was not surprised because there is one fishing book on Bookhound's shelves which even I find interesting, Salmon and Women The Feminine Angle by Paterson and Behan, which advances all manner of arguments about female pheromones being partly responsible for this success. Hugh Falkus, in his introduction, also cites the willingness to learn and the sheer determination of women when placed in a competitive situation at which they are supposed to be slightly less capable, all of which fits very powerfully with the character of Coco Chanel that builds through this book ... and who knows what perfume she was wearing too.
In the end I emerge with a sense of Coco as a chameleon-like figure, capable of blending to her surroundings whether it be the 1920s and 30s Parisian milieu of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Picasso, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway or her post-war fashion revival in America, and you too may be as surprised as I was to read of the presence of Chanel couture at a very pivotal moment in twentieth century history. But Coco Chanel could blend whilst never losing sight of her individuality or an unshaken confidence in her own unique, sartorial style and sense of chic. Perhaps these became her defence mechanisms, her unchanging suit of armour, because scratch the surface and beneath I feel sure would be revealed a shaky sense of self-esteem and those self-doubts would become evident, that sense of unworthiness and a precarious dependency, but if Mademoiselle was good at one thing it was maintaining that armour intact.
Few people ever scratched beneath, but those who did later in her life saw her vulnerabilities,
'her emotional scars, her loneliness, her sense of loss and failure at never having her own children.'
Plagued by that loneliness, the end when it came was always going to be heart-rending and like Coco Chanel's life also shrouded in mystery and intrigue and Justine Picardie wisely leaves any speculation to the reader.
So a great read for me, the biographies are certainly winners this year, and any minute now Justine will be answering a few of my questions about the book and the writing of.