I realise that fashion has to exist. Well so I am reliably informed. After all if it didn’t, then people could just buy clothes when the ones they current possess are worn out beyond decent repair. Not only that but if there wasn’t fashion, those who produce the ‘classics’ would no longer have their niche because at that point everything would be classic.
But when it comes to fashions and fads in the arts I am less forgiving. One day you’re a jobbing poet, beneath the notice of the literati. The next day you have produced a piece of work and suddenly you are the latest sensation. The irritating thing is that the piece of work that has propelled you briefly to the heights is, in your own considered opinion, neither better nor worse than anything else you’ve been producing for the last decade or so.
Indeed your period of being overwhelmed by the adulation of the cognoscenti and their acolytes is too brief to do any good. You barely have time to cash in on it. You might get a couple of good events, pick up another decent patron you can hope to keep, and then you’re forgotten and life returns to normal. I confess that I now keep a small collection of work ready for publication. Just for the next time it happens to me. I will take work out of the collection to use, but I always replace it. So if you were to publish it now, it is not the same collection that you would have published even five years ago. Between ourselves I think that the technique has its merits. Pieces I have put into the collection, thinking them polished and finished, have always benefited from a further touching up when I take them out, five years later, to use them.
But sometimes you can use this tendency to sensation and novelty to your advantage. I bring before you the Brothers Storand. Tolican and Bratwell Storand were musicians and competent ones as well. They appeared rather abruptly in my life, by the simple expedient of knocking on the door of the barge and asking for admittance.
It was early one evening, they had arrived in Port Naain, found some accommodation, and had then come looking for me. They presented me with a handwritten note from Madam Lastary, a patron of mine in Oiphallarian. She was a singer at the opera house and one of those who has supported my artistic practice on those occasions when I needed to travel for my health. Her note simply said,
May I present the Brothers Storand. They are a pair of fine musicians and are travelling for reasons you would find familiar. Please do your best to find them gainful employment.
Please hasten back to Oiphallarian soon.
Such messages are rare, but because of their very rarity, should be regarded as a sacred trust. I beckoned the two musicians to enter our barge and Shena put the kettle on the stove so we could offer coffee.
Given these were musicians, I avoided small talk.
“Gentlemen, whilst we wait for the kettle to boil, could you play something for us.”
I find that if you keep your instructions vague, it allows musicians to play what they really want to play. This way you see where the heart of your musician lies. They immediately started to play, and it was obvious that they were entirely competent, indeed I might go so far as to suggest, accomplished. They also had the knack of sizing up the audience. They played a lilting dance tune as Shena got up to make the coffee and noticing her swaying to the music, they enriched it until it swirled around the cabin. As the coffee was poured, the tune changed and one of them (I later discovered it was Tolican) broke into a traditional love song.
Certainly from the point of view of their competence, I could find them work. But as of yet I didn’t know whether I could trust them to stay sober.
“Gentlemen, when can you start work?”
Bratwell glanced at his brother, “Given our current cash reserves, working tomorrow would mean we can eat the day after.”
This was a poser. “I’ve nothing for tomorrow, but…” A thought struck me. “The Society of Minor Poets is holding a dance tomorrow evening. We pass around a bucket to collect money to help us continue to feed the poor. Normally for music we just have a couple of poets who can almost play an instrument, but if we do get genuine musicians we give them half the contents of the bucket.” A little apologetic I said, “It’s the best I can do at short notice.”
“What time do you want us and where do you want us?”
“Well if you come to the barge an hour after noon, you can come with me to the old dried grape and carpet warehouse that serves us as a Hall. You can help us get things set up and practice a bit and get used to the acoustics.”
Both men stood up and bowed. “Master Steelyard, you have hired the Brothers Storand.”
I have to report that they were entirely professional. They threw themselves into helping prepare the warehouse for the dance. They swept floors with the same casual competence as they helped put the stage together, and finally they practiced a variety of numbers, asking which we, as the ones who knew the local temperament, would suggest they started with. During the evening they played for as long as people were willing to dance, mingled with the dancers when we had a bit of supper, and then played some more. They drank between them no more than five bottles of beer and seemed happy with their share of the takings. They even helped us tidy up. Candidly, I was unnerved. I tend to work on the principle that when you hire musicians you should expect at least one unfortunate incident, whereas these two were a joy to work with.
What unnerved me even more was when I saw Lancet Foredecks leaving with them. Next morning I got a note from Lancet, he was inviting Shena and me to dine with him and the Brothers Storand at the Flensers. Admittedly the buffet table costs a vintenar but still, if Lancet was investing five vintenars in a project, I was prepared to be both interested and wary. But Lancet didn’t merely pay for our meal, he paid for the wine. I was prepared for flight.
It was when we were well into the second bottle that Lancet laid out his stall. First he’d had the Brothers explain how they came to Port Naain. It appears they were originally from somewhere around the Middle Sea, and had worked in many of the cities there. Meor was mentioned, as was Seramis. Eventually they’d drifted north to Oiphallarian and then the obvious next stop was Port Naain. Their idea was to work for a few months here, recharge their finances, before heading down to Avitas and then across the mountains and back to their more traditional stamping grounds.
Lancet had obviously been giving the matter some thought. As he said, “It’s obvious. If they are two different groups, they can make twice the money.”
Shena put her finger on the problem that occurred to us all. “How can they be two different groups, they could end up with being double booked and people would recognise them.”
Lancet gave a knowing smile. “Ah, but only if both groups played the same audience. My suggestion is that we have one group play for Tallis’s patrons. The other group plays the dance halls and similar events.”
“But when it finally gets out that there has been deception, I don’t want my patrons demanding why I went along with it.”
“Don’t worry Tallis, give me time and I think you’ll find that your patrons ask you to bring them to the events.”
Now that made me sit up. “It’ll be a good trick if you can do it. How on earth will you manage it?”
“Fashion?” That came almost simultaneously from all four of us.
“Yes fashion. Look at them, they wear those big white lace collars that haven’t really been worn in Port Naain in my lifetime.”
“Yes I had noticed. I wondered whether to suggest they did do something about their dress when they had some money.”
“Tallis, you’re trapped in conventionality. I’ve talked this morning to two or three people in Port Naain, thanks to the new mechanical contrivances people have built, they’ve got a lot of lace. They thought that collars like that might well get their lace accepted by society. So by being seen in the right places, we’ll make lace collars fashionable again.”
I could spot the flaw in this. “You can make the lace fashionable in dance halls or with my patrons, you’ll not achieve both. If you get those in society to wear them, then eventually they’ll work their way down. But by the time the shop girl or carter wears one, high society will have moved on.”
“That’s why we want to do something else for the dance halls.” Lancet pulled out of his pocket a handful of buttons, for men and ladies jackets. They were ornamented with coral. “In the dance halls we make these popular. Indeed we can add extra buttons purely for ornament.”
“Coral that red is expensive.”
“I was digging out the foundations for an extension to my tea room. It turns out that whoever levelled the yard got a load of coral that had been used as ballast on a boat coming from the east.”
“Yes, but that will be the rubbish white stuff, not the expensive red.”
“It just takes an appropriate dye, Tallis. Anyway the people we’re selling to couldn’t afford genuine red coral.”
Bratwell asked, “So what happens next?”
“Give me two days.”
In reality it took three days, but on the third day I got an urgent message from Madam Tawgo. I have occasionally appeared at events she has held, but she isn’t one of my patrons. I’d been one of a number of artists invited to provide a balanced evening. I went to see her immediately, and rather to my surprise was whisked immediately into her study.
“Master Steelyard, I believe you know of the Brothers Storand.”
“I do indeed.”
“Is it true they are from distant parts?”
“I believe they have enthralled audiences from Seramis to Oiphallarian. I have no doubt they will not fail the more sophisticated inhabitants of Port Naain.”
“Can you book them for me?”
“Sometime this week?”
I bowed, “Madam, I can only try.”
So it was. Lancet let me have them two nights later and Madam Tawgo was delighted. She was even more delighted at the end of the performance. The Brothers were very good. I’d asked about and had come up with a fair idea of Madam’s musical tastes and had passed this on to the Brothers. They picked their repertoire accordingly.
I was also taken by the comments about the amount of lace they wore. It provoked discussion as to whether it was time for lace to ‘come back.’
Over the next few weeks I managed to get the Brothers for all my patrons who wanted them, and to be honest, I have rarely worked with musicians who were so competent and professional. I also noticed that I was seeing more and more lace. Maids and female domestic staff would all be issued it as part of their uniform. The lady of the house would acquire some, and then her husband would be packed off to work wearing it. When you knew what to look for, it was obvious that the staff and husband would get machine-made lace. The lady of the house would wear something rather nicely and handmade.
There again, when out in the streets I would start to see people wearing ‘coral’ buttons. They became very common around the wharves amongst those who help load and unload ships. I also started hearing tales about two musicians who played at the popular dances. These two, called Tolican and Bratwell, were apparently from Oiphallarian. More than a little curious, I got tickets for the next advertised dance and Shena and I went to it.
It was indeed the Brothers Storand as I expected, but their repertoire was very different. They played music to dance to, and I defy anybody not to dance when they were playing. It was an excellent evening. But I confess I rather stood out because I was one of the few men who wasn’t sporting coral decorated buttons. Similarly, even the ladies would have their bodice ornamented with decorative coral buttons. It appeared that Lancet’s plan was working.
And yet all things come to an end. After a while the Brothers started to get itchy feet and after playing a few especially prestigious events, they made their way to Avitas.
Then there was the issue of coral. Finally, after he’d dug up his whole yard, Lancet had run out of his white coral. At the same time, others had noticed the gap in the market. We started to see not merely reds, but blues, greens and even yellows. I bought Shena a set of yellow hair clasps to keep her hair out of the way when she’s working on out on the estuary.
The lace was the biggest issue. There is a reason why people abandoned large white lace collars. Have you tried eating and drinking whilst wearing one? I know that below stairs a lot of staff would take their collar off before eating. Indeed in some houses they would have a series of hooks by the door into the ‘main house’ and you would put your collar on before you left ‘below stairs.’
Lancet spotted another opportunity here and immediately sprang into action. The answer was obviously the dinner napkin. He went round various of the weavers and discovered that with napkins you get what you pay for. He finally came to the conclusion that what you really needed was double damask dinner napkins. These are not cheap, but to be fair, Lancet had made good money on the coral, and his hope was that he could rather corner the market on quality dinner napkins.
Unfortunately, and somewhat to Lancet’s chagrin, the answer chosen by fashionable wasn’t the dinner napkin, it was to stop wearing the lace collar. In many houses they were retained for servants (who didn’t wear them to eat anyway) but lace collars went the way of side buckled boots and cuir bouilli corsets.
Lancet was left with a considerable stock of his double damask dinner napkins. The extension he was building for his tea room has inadvertently become a linen store. He gave up trying to sell them and is now giving them away as wedding presents, but it could be some decades before he gets that room back.
Should you wish to learn more of live in Port Naain
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As a reviewer commented, “I find there’s nothing better on a cold wet day, than to sit indoors, near a warm fire/radiator, with a hot coffee, some biscuits/cake and one of Jim Webster’s books. So that’s what I’ve done today, with this particular book.
I find the plots intriguing, the characters endearing (even the ‘bad/evil’ ones) and the storytelling style relaxing.
The various threads in the stories are always neatly tied up and the endings invariably satisfactory”