Sunday, 28 July 2013

Writing and reading









This is the age of words. All sorts of them. Angry ones in newspaper columns; disgustingly abusive ones on twitter; stacks of them in magazines. Printed, strung across screens, blazoned on adverts, sandwiched in book pages. How many do we see in a day? What percentage of them are we generating ourselves? But maybe the most important question: how many stay with us and actually mean something?
It’s a topic that’s been on my mind ever since I read this polemic on being an author by Anakana Schofield in the Guardian, in particular this observation:
“There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely.”
As a young person growing up in an age where it seems that creative writing workshops are around every corner, but the book deals of the future are scant (and payments shrinking by the hour), it was a timely article. The kind that I really needed to read. The kind to be printed off and stuck up somewhere prominent.
Schofield asks three questions, each elaborated on in paragraphs full of quips and points as sharp as a fresh pencil.

       1.)   “Why do the media care so much about the novelist… when they should be concentrating on the novel?
       2.)   Why can't I get paid for many of the articles I write?
       3.)  Why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel… when the more important thing is how to read one?”

The transition to a media world that focuses on authors' personal lives, an industry that doesn’t pay proper wages and a society desperate to get published (but not buying books) suggests to me a struggle between visibility and invisibility. In this context, being the author of a published novel (or, in fact, writing anything available to a wide audience) can become a way of being seen. It is a type of visibility that is then linked to status - as though the idea of being published has displaced the importance of what is being published.
I have had articles in national newspapers and magazines. Some of my peers were more interested in the platforms than in the subjects I discussed. It’s not surprising. To have respected publications on a CV gives gravitas and legitimacy. It’s also useful for the writer when it comes to pitching further articles, being part of the way the industry works. But is there a line between the desire to write, and to be seen writing? 
Visibility is alluring – and, for some, addictive. I’m part of the generation fed on a click-click-click diet of instant access where worth is measured by prominence. It’s like a new version of the American Dream anyone-can-do-it philosophy, but based on web traffic and the hope of something going viral. Thus we must be witnessed doing things – to be gaining twitter followers and keeping them up to date or to be blogging and maintaining as many page views as can be mustered. There have been suggestions recently that visibility is the new currency. And as this happens, prestige begins to be placed above (and also to undermine) monetary worth.
 By contrast, reading is private. No one is watching you do it, apart from fellow commuters on a train or friends and family sharing the same dinner table. It’s a solitary activity where the ego must be set aside for the mind to become receptive. Where writing for an audience can become a way of being visible, reading is about invisibility.
It can also be communal. My mum is a member of one of those strongholds of communities – a book group, where snacks are provided and themes debated. Using a different forum, whenever I finish a novel, I try to sum it up on my twitter in a few words; e.g “Finished reading John Saturnall's Feast in the small hours of this morning. Sumptuous language, riveting plot,” in the hope that it might open up a dialogue with others who might have read or thought about reading it. I’ll also talk to (and sometimes at) my parents and friends.Of course there is a huge irony in thinking about and articulating all the things mentioned above on my blog! But the truth is, I do enjoy engaging with many aspects of social media.
I am just beginning to establish myself as a freelance writer. My career ambitions extend in the direction of fiction, but there’s plenty to learn about the artistry of novels and short stories. The only ways to move forward are through practise of technique and exploration of bookshelves. Both yield fulfillment but require commitment. They take time. One of my concerns is that I have no idea what kind of a publishing industry will exist by the time I’ve finished learning.
For me, writing is a part of who I am. What Schofield’s article solidified for me though were the reasons why I should spend even more time in the tangible, prolonged company of books rather than skimming websites.

What better prop in the accompanying photos than a Penguin copy of Swann's Way by Proust? It was an eighteenth birthday present, and I'm looking forward to diving into it. All items I'm wearing are second hand, the location our garden - partially neat and mainly disorderly, filled with tortoise paraphernalia and all the tools my brother needs to modify his tree house. 

As well as writing excellent articles, Anakana Schofield's book Malarky has just been released - see more about it on her website. I need to buy myself a copy. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Swimsuits are for Swimming








I began typing this sitting on a sun lounger in Spain whilst sporting a slightly faded floral bikini. Yellowed by chlorine and with the elastic slowly deteriorating, it's not going to be making it into any magazine lists of ideal swimwear. However, it was designated the 'sun bathing' bikini, perfect for lounging. My vintage St Michael striped blue and lime number above, being a bit more robust, was the one used for swimming. One stringy where the other was shaped. Neither was accompanied by make up, hair products or shaved legs. One of the more pleasant aspects of a holiday is foregoing (or in my case forgetting) the rudiments of personal grooming beyond showering and brushing teeth. It’s a hiatus from everything – internet, beauty standards, the lot. Besides there's no point putting on eyeliner when the day is divided between dipping, diving and splashing in water, eating huge amounts of food, skimming through Victorian novels and sleeping.
Spending a week in little more than panels of stretchy fabric means that I have been sporting what is known in some media circles as a 'bikini body'. I like Hadley Freeman's list of steps towards embodying this term:

“1. Take one body, probably yours.
2. Take one bikini, probably yours.
3. Put bikini on body.
4. Go to pool, beach or other bikini-meriting place. (No, the park does not count. To be discussed another week.)
6. The end.”
I do like the way my fifties-style bikini makes my body look. It has all the predictable associations of old shoots from Vogue, and of films where the decade can be guessed from the clothing. It has the potential to be styled glamorously: the high-waisted bottoms giving definition to the lines of my shape. But it is also functional. It was perfect for snorkelling in the sea (leaving me with an amusing striped tan on my back) and for playing elaborate versions of blind man's buff in the pool. The only accessories were flippers and insect bites.

I don’t object to idealised fashion shoots where the models look like they wouldn't dare get their hair wet. That's what I did here. The first few images show an imagined scenario, created using the location to hand. It was the first (and only) time lipstick appeared on holiday, while my feet grew used to being either bare or in flip-flops - not buckled into tall sandals. Thus, these shots suggest a level of glitziness never quite found outside the confines of the camera. I liked the stylized drama of it. 

The second set of images are a tad more truthful, although still planned rather than impromptu. Any image shown here is, of course, a version of my appearance: chosen, possibly cropped, expressions checked and poses scrutinised. Even within the naturalism, I haven't presented the snaps where I’m grimacing or coughing because I accidently swallowed water. If you wanted an accurate representation of the week, it would just be a lot of wavy blurs – much of each day spent wriggling around underwater. There would also be big red lines across my face from goggles. Nonetheless, here I am wearing nothing but a bikini. No additional enhancement thanks to mascara or concealer. Just me and the pool. I wanted to illustrate the divide between a swimsuit shoot, and the act of swimming. One is about presenting a visual identity or image, the other an act of setting loose the self and letting it float away.

Fashion shoots are not true to life. This is the line used by many within the industry to justify the augmented ideal of beauty held up in ads and shoots. And it’s true. We don't look at Tim Walker’s photos and expect our world to be filled with pastel cats and cable-knit cars (more's the shame). But the problem lies in seeing a slender adolescent model sporting a selection of bikinis by a sea so blue it looks painted, and then confusing that (and the photoshopping) with one's own personal reality. Some who write for certain women’s mags are particularly keen to tangle up fantasy with actuality. Those unreal images are taken as the scale by which judgment is measured. Slightly more flesh than a lithe teenager? Time to diet! Boobs too big? Invest in a really, really expensive bikini! Hairy/stubbly armpits? Traitor to femininity! Feeling ok with your self-esteem? Great, time to laugh at these famous people who’ve inadvertently shown that they possess cellulite!

People who might see you in a bikini are: partners (who are likely to have seen you in a greater state of undress), family (perhaps including your mother who gave birth to you), friends (not worth the effort if they think merit is based on appearance) or strangers on a beach (who have much more important things to consider than the size of your hips). The only arched eyebrow of judgment is the media. And the collective of magazines, websites and commentators aren’t going to be watching your holiday shenanigans. They're all much too absorbed in tracking down celebrities who dare to perspire on beaches, or in breathless coverage of the royal baby. The problem is that this external source affects internal commentary. This is what needs to be switched off. But then, isn’t that what holidays are for? 



Sunday, 14 July 2013

Golden hours







Sunshine is a rarity in Britain. Glimpses and flashes, sure; rays pushing through grey clouds perhaps, or light filtering past trees. But heat with enough strength to support a day of swimming outside? It's a more elusive treat.
The first half half of the week I've just spent in London passed in a state of sunned-up, active idleness. It was full of picnic rugs spread under trees and afternoons sitting cross-legged with friends. The body is used differently in the heat - sprawling and lolling or lying with eyes closed, mind roaming. Everything slows when there is the space to unravel.
The British press welcomes high temperatures like a rarely seen royal. The arrival is heralded by a glut of photos to accompany editorials that discuss summertime's apparel of ice creams and Pimms with glee. There are motifs by which weather is marked: by swimming costumes and crowded tables outside pubs; by floppy hats and blistered feet; by cool drinks and hot evenings. A kind of collective mentality emerges in urban areas. Every park bench and patch of green is occupied come the weekend. To stay indoors is to waste the day.
I had the pleasure of staking my ground at Kenwood Ladies' Pond on both Sunday and Monday. One of three freshwater pools found on Hampstead Heath, it took several wrong turns and a tramp over Parliament Hill before I got there. Almost entirely concealed from the rest of the Heath, tall hedges hid both swimmers and sunbathers from the curious eye. I slipped through the gate and marvelled at scenes of relaxed contentment.
Despite a name that suggests thirties' bathing suits and hair piled high in silk scarves, the atmosphere is much earthier. Sunbathing topless is the norm, varying amounts of body hair no issue. It is a wonderful place to observe the many varieties of the female frame. Short legs, thick thighs, long shins, small feet, slip-of-a-thing waists, broad shoulders, round hips. All are present and all are accepted
And the swimming? Oh, the swimming! I've had little exposure to the shock of cold water this year, so assumed that initial contact between skin and pool would be a surprise. But despite the slight frisson of  first immersion, it was more serene than expected. I kicked out past buoys and groups of young women with hair pinned up out of the water's reach, eyes level with ducks and leaves. I spent just long enough swimming to fully relax into the pond's hold. All around was activity. Old women did lengths, younger girls splashed with their friends. As I hauled myself out again with wet hands gripping the rails, I knew that 'Middlemarch' and a towel warmed by the sun were waiting for me.
But where the pond was a place for reading and solitude, the rest of the week was sociable. As the sun draws out the bikinis, so it also draws out plans between friends. The outside is there to be used. I invited the delightful Dvora over to my grandma's flat for an afternoon. We sat, shaded by trees in the shared garden at the back. Several golden hours of chatting and snapping passed by. She took the photos above, some of my favourites to have been caught this year. I feel that they accurately reflect the stage that I'm at - the cusp of complete independence, but enjoying the sunshine for now.

This was posted from Spain. Links not working as I am on my ipad, but the photos were taken by Dvora of Fashionistable. No internet for a week now. Relish the sunshine, wherever you are.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Who Made Your Pants?








Tracing the origin of clothes is tricky. At most one might be given a vague idea of the country where the garment was produced. But if you try to narrow down the knowledge to a city, a factory, an individual worker, then the most likely outcome is a yawning blank. Of the five W’s, the who, the when and the where often remain unanswered.
Luckily all three are covered by Who Made Your Pants, a worker co-operative providing jobs for refugee women in Southampton. Set up by Becky, lover of both lingerie and human rights (read more here), the business produces a selection of knickers that are equal parts delectable and practical. At present coming in two gorgeous styles named Aimee and, my personal favourite, Rosalind, with a kaleidoscope of colours on offer, the initiative took flight in 2009.
I met Becky for the first time a few months ago. Communication through twitter and email culminated in face-to-face contact at the wonderful Women of the World festival. She is warm and animated in person, deeply driven by her work. WMYP is not a charity or a company, but an Industrial & Provident Society. This means that her workers have direct input into influencing their own working lives. It exists for their benefit, giving back power to the producers.
Why underwear? It was a decision sparked by Becky undergoing counseling at her local rape crisis centre. She realised that her desire to help the “women most marginalised” in her area might be constructively combined with her desire for “nice ethical pants.” Several years later, over 65 women have been involved with and received training from Who Made Your Pants. At the moment there is a “core team of four”. Each tissue-wrapped pair of beautiful knickers comes with a tag naming one of the team who made them. The ‘Something Blue’ style worn here by me is labeled ‘Samia and friends’. Teamwork and shared responsibility are key to the business.
But where labels detailing the creators are integral, some of the labels attached to WMYP by other areas of the industry do no favours. For example, “we don’t position ourselves as an ethical brand”, Becky notes. “When the mainstream public hear ‘ethical fashion’ they put it in a ‘weird’ box.” It’s a salient point. In the UK, such terms are still frequently othered and set apart from what we might see as everyday fashion. They are often perceived as niche, out of the price range; perhaps out of touch with reality. And even though WMYP are highly sustainable, using leftover fabrics from underwear factories to create their goodies, Becky says that some of the “ethical market won’t buy our knickers because they’re made of synthetic fibres.” Not so much between a rock and a hard place, but between opposing attitudes of uncertainty and judgement.
So WMYP has dropped the categorisation and instead focused on promoting what makes their work so valuable. The website is clear, informative and seamed with humour. A highlighted customer review states: “Your pants did not ride, slip, chafe or go up my bum.” They aim to cater to a broad market. Of all the styles on offer, it’s the black working week set – the simplest of the lot - that just “sells and sells and sells.”
For a single set of underthings, some might think them expensive. But the cost reflects the quality and consequences of the work. Becky has had people say “I could feed my family for the price of those pants.” Her response? “You’re helping someone else feed their family.” Monetary gain is not the aim here. Instead it is about creating viable opportunities for those least likely to seek or find them. As Becky concludes, “we don’t make jobs to make pants, we make pants to make jobs.”


I went for a superwoman-meets-1920s-style-dancer-warming-up-for-a-show look here, adorning the t-shirt with a sequinned collar and a brooch or two. A second hand trilby, several pairs of thick black tights and some patent shoes with ankle straps (that make me want to tap dance!) completed the creation. The pants (or panties/underwear if you're reading this in the US) are the Something Blue style. 





Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Matchy Matchy









Daahlings, daahlings, gather round. An important piece of fashion news has fluttered my way, and it seems best to pass it on. I heard that it’s considered a bit of of a faux pas these days to be too matched. You know, ensuring that the colour of your shoes complements hat and gloves and the like. All much too démodé to modern taste, isn't it? So banish the twinsets and bring in the clashing patterns!

I like the occasional fluffy outburst of Absolutely Fabulous inspired sentiment. Somehow the use of ‘daahling’ allows every word that comes after it to walk the right line between sweetness and sarcasm. The style-snobbery shown above is entirely imagined, but is the kind of thing I can picture Eddie saying in a melodramatic tone while waving her hands about.
The outburst was inspired by some idle research into ‘matchy matchy’ – a term I had thought was as vintage as the contents of my wardrobe. However, Google corrected my assumption. Apparently it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 after popping up like a well-dressed rash across various fashion blogs. It had lingered in the industry long before that, but rose again when aired on the internet. It's a clever term, the double use of the word 'matchy' echoing the practice of repeating a colour, pattern or texture in an outfit.  
Yet it's often used to belittle or pass judgment. A search for the phrase “too matchy matchy” yields any number of style rules stipulating avoidance of such a fashion gaffe. This sentiment is then exemplified on catty gossip websites picking apart ‘celeb’ style choices. God forbid there was some continuity between accessories! 
Others have revelled in it. The term was pulled from the pejorative pile in this article by Jess Cartner-Morley from 2012, while according to Bethan Holt matching two-pieces has surged again for AW13. My motto is "wear what you want, when you want", but there is a strange fascination in charting the wax and wane of trends such as this. 
I don’t know what the historical precedent is for the practice of matching clothes. Great to envisage the first fledglings of mankind discovering the unity of bone bracelets, necklaces, anklets, nose rings and other forms of adornment, or using leftover scraps of animal hide for some matching (and pretty fetching) slippers to keep feet warm in the caves. However, that's all sounding much more Flintstones than factual history. 
The common images of what we might term ‘matchy-matchy’ tend to apply to the last century. It suggests fifties' housewives dressing daughters as smaller versions of themselves and men with socks and ties of the same colour. But perhaps where it was usual then – part of a more uniform decade where suits and smart clothes were expected – today it is a choice.
Now the concept of "match-matchy" can be manifested in various ways. There is the subtlety of red lips reflecting a belt or a bag or brooch (or for a select few the bottom of a pair of Louboutins). Then the gradation of scale slides from something such as bold-but-elegant matching shirts and shorts, through to the scrumptious outlandishness of every item worn inhabiting the same part of the colour spectrum.
Going further still is finding someone else whose clothes will mimic your own, like this couple who have worn matching outfits for the past 35 years. Seeing two people dressed similarly is always intriguing. Was it deliberate? For what purpose? Does it work as a look? Sometimes it is just fluke. I once turned up to meet my friend Merlin, only to realize that my purple blazer and velvet black trousers resembled his purple jumper and black trousers a little too closely. At least we looked eye-catching. 

Here I began with the rhododendrons and matched my clothes accordingly. I went from toying with the simplicity of the silk dress to piling on all the shades of purple I owned. From mauve tights to plum coloured boots to the vintage feather hat, it was an exercise in unrestraint and luxurious fabrics. All items second hand, with a slight clash of colour provided by the Chanel lilis nail polish.