Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness

I love discovering books in unusual ways – the collection of essays bought on a whim, the novel heartily recommended by someone you’ve just met, the poetry plucked from a parent’s shelf. I found out about Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness after seeing Emma Gannon (who has a fabulous blog, by the way) tweet about an event she’d taken part in at Blackwell’s, Oxford. I hadn’t known it was happening, and was frustrated to miss out, as it sounded very special indeed. But a few days later I went along to the bookshop myself, and picked up a copy (a treat to myself on finishing an essay), having a long conversation with the cashier about it as I paid.

The reason for the conversation? Marina Keegan’s collection of short stories and essays were published posthumously. She died several days after graduating Yale in 2012, aged 22.

So much of the media coverage has, both understandably and obviously, focused on the premature, unbearably unfair loss of a life that looked set to continue burning bright. It’s devastating that someone with such a capable and creative mind didn’t have years and years to expand her craft. Yet the stories and essays here demonstrate her growing command of expression, as well as a rigorous approach to self-critique.

I’m a little younger than Marina was, and it’s hard not to draw some comparisons, particularly as someone who writes an awful lot. The zest and drive and excitement for the future that she captures? They’re feelings I’ve had (and have). The kinds of techniques she uses to keep her text supple: the repetitions, the lists for emphasis, the rules of three, the addition of an unusual image in the middle of an otherwise pared back line? Yep. All ones I’m familiar with. The desire to improve, to create, to keep ambition galloping? Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes (see? Rule of three AND repetition).

But maybe I shouldn’t allow myself to compare – maybe that’s crass, a sign of my own youth, or at least a clichéd way to approach this text - and instead I should just read the book as a book, without regard to the circumstances of the author. It’s easy enough to do. Her voice is so fresh and full of clarity; deeply funny at times, carefully measured with pathos at others (seriously, there are so many lines where I pause, going, “damn, wish I could could come up with that.”)

I prefer her essays, but only because a.) I’m very much an essay girl, and b.) They’re so rich in minute observations. Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.

And yet there is something very special in her short stories too – namely their interest in various experiences instantly recognizable if you’re a late teen/ early twenty-something. It was only afterwards that I realized how unusual this is. Most of the short stories I've read are from decades past, or concern themselves with times of life other than being young, being a student, being at the very beginning of things. Whether the focus is parties, relationships or jealousy, the pages are full of sharp, focused insight. I nodded at so many little gleaned instances that resonated – either personally or generally. People talk about the ‘youth’ of this collection. But why not? She sounds young because she was young – but age is no barrier to being brilliant. 

For once, I’m struggling with what to write next. It’s hard to know how to conclude. But I’ll say this for certain - although right now words feel a little lacking, every time I’ve picked up The Opposite of Loneliness, I’ve felt more galvanized than ever to write, write, and write some more. There’s an energy to Keegan’s words, a crispness to her sentences, that’s very inspiring.

One of the most quoted observations from Anne Fadiman’s introduction is the claim that “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” Sadly the two are interlinked, and probably always will be, especially as the literary world is often receptive to those who died before they should. But she is good. Very good. Good in a way that kind of hurts. Her book is one that makes you want to grab life - to do and be and make and reflect. That’s the kind of enthusiasm to nurture, to hold as close as possible.

Everything I'm wearing is second hand - the vintage 60s top recently found in a charity shop, and the velvet shorts cut down from trousers. Both the hat and the brooch on it belonged to family members. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

No New Stories

I’ve become a bit of an Instagram fiend in recent months (shameless promo! Hey, like books, trinkets, records and the odd selfie? Come, follow me). Blame it on the weight of work I’ve had to do. I have this weird inverse correlation with social media where, at times, the amount of deadlines I have becomes proportional to the number of tweets/ posts/ images I also post online. Not always. I’ve been trying to crack down recently. But still the desire to capture and publicise very small snippets of each day has certainly become more compulsive than it used to be…

There’s one knock-on effect that I would never have envisaged though. Since more and more of my ‘real life’ friends have begun following me on various platforms, (and vice versa), occasionally I’ll begin an anecdote, only for them to say “yeah, already seen/ heard about it on [insert form of social media here].” 

Case in point. I caught up with a wonderful mate over the Christmas holidays. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. We were browsing a vintage shop together, and I made an off-hand remark about having recently bought a blue, velvet cape (the one pictured in this post). Her response? “Yes, saw it on your Instagram! I was discussing it with someone else. We’re both envious.”

It happened again the other day. I was with a close friend in a café, wearing a yellow kilt. I quipped that I always wore it the wrong way around, because I preferred the pleats at the front. Her response was short. “I know. You wrote about it on your blog.” We both laughed at the slight bizarreness of an observation like that even being possible…

And those are just the clothes-related incidents. It’s slightly more frustrating when you’re burning to tell someone a particularly amusing tale, but your own desire to get it up on social media first foils the fun of the anecdote.

Yet it’s kind of fabulous at times too, the obvious pleasure being that we get to share and talk about things with a much wider group of people, who we wouldn’t otherwise know or interact with. It’s another space for discussing thoughts and films and food and essays and, well, silk pyjamas.

Naturally, for every story or snap that goes up online, there are also plenty more I reserve for a select few people – hilarious or interesting instances that are perfect to share with a close circle, but certainly not the internet at large.

However, there are occasional unexpected results – like when the online leads to marvelous offline moments. A while back, I wrote a post on my favourite cafes and cocktail bars in Oxford. Among their number was Turl Street Kitchen (somewhere I still spend way too much time/ money, but you know, they play Kate Bush and the Velvet Underground occasionally, and you could stay there from breakfast to after-dinner drinks if you were particularly keen…)

At the end of last term I left the library for a much-needed break, and, as I was queuing in TSK, caught a glimpse of a face that looked slightly familiar. I looked away, looked back again, and found that same person now glancing at me with an equally quizzical expression. So I went over and said, “Umm, hi. Do we know each other through Twitter?" And indeed we did! We had a brief chat, and I asked what he was doing in Oxford (he was on holiday) and how he’d ended up in Turl Street Kitchen.

His response? “Well, partly to do with your recommendation.” Yes, really.

Turns out that he and his girlfriend had taken some inspiration from that post of mine on places for damn good coffee. Then, with the best timing possible, his girlfriend appeared, saw me, and fished in her bag – pulling out a printout of that same blog post! The moment of meeting a stranger and her unfolding my words and images out her bag was… really quite something. I spent the rest of the day walking around with a pretty big grin, and telling far too many of my friends about the delightful coincidence that had just happened.

Just one small story that wouldn't exist without the wonders of online life. So, I think I’m ok with certain revelations/ purchases/ experiences/ observations of mine already being old news to some friends. Besides, we all repeat ourselves and I’m not quite as bad as my dad with multiple retellings of stories from the past (although perhaps that comes to all of us eventually…)

I actually realised after shooting this outfit that all the main parts of have appeared on Instagram over the last two months - the charity shop cape here, the dress (a gift from my fairy godmother) here, and the ASOS velvet boots here. All accessories are vintage. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A Time of Gifts

In our family, it’s become a tradition to make presents for our parents. This ends up happening three times a year – Christmas, birthdays, and mother’s/ father’s day. In recent years, occasionally the realisation that one or the other of these dates is looming quicker than expected is met with a cry of “bugger” and some hiding away until I’ve finished scribbling a poem, or something similar. Unsurprisingly, lots of my offerings these days are rather wordy. I’ve done villanelles, short stories, essays and lots in between. The one thing I miss about uni is not being able to read them aloud myself – relying on email instead, as I’m never organised enough to pop them in the post.

My brother, however, is the visual one. He’s been doodling away for years, and is prodigiously good with a fine-line pen. His cartoons, often poking gentle fun at my dad (the usual status quo in our family), are a bit of a highlight. We’ve been telling him for ages that he should think about doing designs for mugs/ t-shirts/ cushions/ face tattoos (ahem, maybe not the last). So you can imagine the thrill when I unwrapped this at Christmas – his drawings transferred onto a fair-trade, organic cotton (!) tee, specially personalized for me.

And look, look! Not only does it have coffee and a pen and a snazzy high heel on it, but - my personal favourite - a little banner proclaiming ‘equal rights’. This is the cherry on an already beautiful cake – and almost definitely testament to the number of times I’ve ended up talking with/ at him about feminism. He’s a much better informed fourteen year old than I was… (and occasionally comes out with an absolute gem of a sentence about gender, that just makes me want to hug him and say “my work here is done!”)

It’s incredibly special to receive a gift where the giver has truly thought about it – whether that means it’s been custom-made, or bought on whim because it was so perfectly apt. One of my friends at sixth form made me several mix-tapes (ok, playlists, but ‘mix-tapes’ sounds better), interspersing the songs with commentary. Amusingly, as I still have these on my iPod, occasionally the shuffle mode yields a little snippet of him cracking jokes or giving somewhat imaginative summaries of particular bands – his (then) seventeen year old voice spilling out into the kitchen as I cook. It’s either that, or Alan Bennett reading Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure which I prefer, especially when sandwiched in between The Kinks and Goldfrapp.

In fact, I seem to have a bit of a track record (ha, ha) with music now – especially, in recent years, with records themselves. Whether it’s a re-issue of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left (one of my favourite albums ever – and it’s so pretty!) or James Brown being all sexy and brilliant on Live at the Apollo, it’s more than gratifying that my friends know me well enough to buy me vinyl I’ll truly value.

One of the other particularly extraordinary things I received at the end of last year was a record of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love. I’d idly mentioned to a friend that I only had a CD version, and, lo and behold, several months later I was ripping off the paper and screeching (in a rather quiet coffee shop) at the special edition, with marbled pink vinyl. As well my appreciation for the item itself, it was also the way in which a comment I’d made in passing, without thought, had spooled back again, been picked up on, led to action. It was utterly and unexpectedly lovely.

It’s such fun giving these kinds of presents too, whether they’re an in-joke that only a particular friend would understand, something carefully put together with a specific individual in mind, or (another favourite recourse) giving books that you love so much yourself, you want to share them with others who you know will similarly ‘get’ them. 

I’m back in Oxford now, and the t-shirt my brother made for me took pride of place in my suitcase. It’s a little like walking around with a resume or summary of myself on my chest, but maybe that’s no bad thing… At least people will know I’m bloody keen on equal rights.

The fabulous t-shirt was here worn with a polo-neck (theme of 2015 it seems), a second hand maxi-skirt I was given for Christmas, and accessories from a charity shop. I tried to match my shoes as closely as possible to the one drawn on the tee.

I also recently wrote a little piece for Guardian students talking about status games, popularity and concepts of 'cool' at university. You can read it here

Monday, 5 January 2015

Crop Tops, and Other Small Things

Oh crop tops, oh crop tops, wherefore art thou crop tops? is a question Juliet probably never considered – too busy mooning over Romeo and making some very rash decisions. That and the fact that she was a fictional character situated in a century not really notable for midriff flashing or belly button showing off.  

Of course it’s a common misconception that ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ means ‘where are you Romeo?’ – where it’s actually asking ‘why are you?’ or ‘why do you have to be Romeo?’ Substitute the name of a great tragic character for an item of clothing made from a scant amount of fabric though, and you can summarise the difference between two groups of people. The first are thinking “where are the crop tops? Let me get my hands on’em!” and the second group, myself included are slightly more inclined towards the “Whyyy are all these tops cropped? Do they have to be cropped? Where’s the rest of it? That looks chilly!” kind of approach.

I talk from pure, individual subjectivity here. I don’t really wear crop tops myself because they're designed to show an area of my body I’m more self-conscious about – the residual after-effects of scoliosis having left me with a more prominent rib cage than necessary. Of course, no one else might notice. But that’s why it’s called ‘self-consciousness’ – an aspect I’m aware of and feel dissatisfied by that few else would register.

However, I remain fascinated by the ‘comeback’ of crop tops. How have they so quickly become one of the go-to items, whether the activity is clubbing, exercising, going on holiday, hanging out in the office, or pretending you’re an extra in Clueless?

Perhaps one could point to how an item that was first the preserve of a handful of designers circa 2012 and 2013 then filtered down (as is always the case) to every high street chain going. What begins with Marc Jacobs ends up in Marks and Spencer, if you give it enough time.

Then there’s the well-established resurgence of the nineties, in all its jelly-shoed, spaghetti-strapped, backpack-toting regalia. It was a decade where crop tops were the staple of popstars, models and adolescents alike. Think grunge, think Britney Spears, think teen movies, think the Spice Girls, think Rachel from Friends (and then think of lots of other things too, because I didn't have time to collate a more comprehensive list…)

But first, a quick history for the uninitiated. Having first turned up in the forties and fifties, often to rather glorious, tailored aplomb, and adopted by more self-professed alternative communities in the sixties and seventies, the crop top hit the big time in the eighties – zest for exercise translating into items of clothing that could show off carefully toned muscles.

In plenty of ways, I think what we’re seeing now is – if I simplify it vastly - a mix of nineties aesthetic with eighties ethos. Often, crop tops today seem to have a kind of symbolic value. In a society obsessed with skinniness and body size and just how the Victoria’s Secret Angels got ready for striding up and down a catwalk wearing very little, is it any surprise crop tops are selling like (rather undersized) hot cakes? They’re a clever little item of clothing, a kind of social currency, a means of showing off your figure and/or proving that you’ve been racking up the crunches, gym sessions and green juice intake.  

Or maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing, and they’re just worn because people enjoy them and want to have fun. Who knows? 

I wanted to wrap up this ending by making some very clever link between Romeo and Juliet, and Clare Danes – hoping that perhaps the 1996 version of the film had let a sneaky crop top pop up somewhere, so allowing me to suggest some marvelous circularity. Unfortunately, these hopes were in vain (although Danes did wear plenty of them throughout the nineties). However, do you know who does show off a fabulously impressive amount of flesh in the Baz Luhrmann adaptation? Mercutio – in a rather dazzling bralet. Look it up, if you're not already familiar. It’s quite something.

Here I'm wearing a cropped turtle neck top I nicked from my mum. I actually put it on for warmth underneath something else, then realised it would be interesting to shoot by itself. But what a palaver finding the accompanying outfit - skirt after skirt tried on and cast off again, deemed too unflattering or not quite right. Eventually I returned to the very first one I'd picked out, a leather skirt recently bought from a charity shop, then paired with heels from eBay and a vintage satin evening coat. And, of course, the photos chosen here have been carefully selected according to the merit of how they make me look. They're mainly the ones where I was breathing in lots, holding all my (very undeveloped) muscles in place. Note how in some of them my waist looks smaller - the black fabric of the sleeves creating an illusion of another shape that isn't mine. I include both those points for a reason, because I feel I should be questioning my own measure of 'flattering' - because in my head, that word is still mainly synonymous with 'looking slender', as silly, silly, silly as that is. 

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Because a New Year's Post Feels Kind of Mandatory

Have we always had such an urge to review the year that's just been? To summarise everything, picking our highlights and low points? It seems like every newspaper and website is looking backwards - folding down 2014 into a few key grim world events - and they have been REALLY grim this year - or viral articles or outfits or celebrity weddings (or depending on what you're reading, sometimes a mish-mash of all of them, which feels unsettling). And if they’re not looking backwards, they’re reaching forwards, discussing what's on the horizon in 2015.

That's not to disparage these kinds of features - for they often give over space to stories that have spent more time in the shadows than deserved, or allow celebration of what’s yet to come.

Yet I’m particularly fascinated by the compulsion to chart and document and capture all that's happened in the preceding twelve months. It's partly an easy way to generate content - and makes commercial sense. Fashion websites can stuff their homepage with galleries; blogs can round up favourites; newspapers get the chance to return to pivotal events. It’s also a point to dwell on personal achievements and experiences, or to flag up the best writing/ photos/ other forms of creative output you sent into the world in 2014.

Perhaps we've always had this kind of obsession with time though, the desire to quantify and condense life events. It seems natural. A kind of drawing of breath, giving space to process what's been happening. We like to slice our experiences up into these increments, marking the passing of each year with simultaneous retrospection and promises to be better, do more, improve this, and cut back on that in the months ahead.

I don't make New Year's resolutions, as a general rule. I respect people who manage to stick to them, or use the transition from December to January to galvanise change, but it doesn't work for me. Instead, I make my resolutions throughout each year - as and when they feel appropriate. Whether it's making alterations to what I eat, committing to a particular project or altering my outlook on something - when it feels right I'll try to apply as much self-will as can be mustered. Doesn't always work, but part of the process is not deeming yourself a failure if the plan goes awry. It’s the trying that’s important.

Do I have goals for 2015 though? Yes, absolutely. Big ones. Really big ones. But they’re not all going to kick into action the minute the clock hits midnight later today. Instead they’ll be incremental, hopefully the culmination of some bloody hard work - and a sprinkling of opportunity.

It's really easy to trot out trite things about New Year, new opportunities, new challenges. I hope that for all us those things and more are waiting out there - but it’s bloody tough right now for so many people. So instead, let 2015 be what it is – and maybe we can hope for courage and serenity (and effective campaigning!), rather than happiness. 

And if not quite that, then at least let's take a note from Kate Tempest’s instruction to the crowd at her dizzyingly great performance in Oxford: to all “cultivate some radical fucking empathy.”

These photos are actually from one marvellous highlight of 2014 that I failed to post about at the time. I worked on an incredibly fun shoot for Emily and Fin’s AW14 lookbook, indulging my love of vintage-style dresses and pretty patterns to my heart's content. It was a bit of a dream team collaboration, with brilliant Laura Alice Hart taking photos, Ashlyn Gibson doing the styling and Nadine Wilkie on hair and make-up. What better than to lounge around with battered books, old cameras and bunches of flowers? I thought that the glittery details made it all the more perfect for an NYE-themed post. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Festive Note

Life has been tumbling over itself day after day recently. This year Christmas will be a nice little respite - a quick pause for breath in the midst of ongoing hard work. I've had to promise my family that I'm not going near my laptop all day tomorrow...

I guess I'm a festive person in that I love celebrations, good company, great wine, and the warmth of a day filled with eating, talking and laughing. I'm just less of a fan of 'Christmas' as some big consumerist edifice with a build-up of about a month and a half beforehand, complete with cheap reindeer antlers and lit-up snowmen. However, ignore my slightly Scrooge-ish inclinations (if Scrooge decided to wear red lipstick and glittery dresses) - I hope that if you're celebrating, (and if so - in whatever way you enjoy best), it's a good one. And if it's not going to be a good one, am sending my thoughts your way. It's an unfairly tough time for so many - often those who deserve the most love.

Right, I'm off to get ready for the Czech half of our celebrations - complete with the wearing of some huge costume jewellery and a dress that belonged to my grandma. The fish soup is on the hob, we've made the cookies, and there's a handful of presents under the tree. Merry Christmas.

Wearing all second hand, from the Betty Jackson shoes to the vintage skirt to the faux fur hat from a charity shop. Wore a variation of this on the train back home today - I like to think I provided a slightly shiny bauble quality to the journey. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

Flat Footed

I love a good flat shoe. Not surprising, considering that I’m pushing 5’11”. Add on any extra inches and I unfurl upwards to well over six feet. Sometimes there’s a kind of satisfaction in heels lifting me to  tallest girl in the room – leaning my elbow on friends’ shoulders and generally being a little obnoxious about towering above half the boys. Plus, heels make legs look good (well, as we’re constantly told by various magazines trying to convince us of their use).

Yet here are some of the things one can’t do with quite the same ease in heels: run very quickly for something you’re late for, stay out all night without complaining constantly about your feet, go on long walks regardless of terrain or weather, march along the pavement with purpose (and without wobbling), cycle long distances, walk steadily when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and balance is becoming more difficult to navigate, climb over five bar gates or clamber up stairs two at a time, move around without the inner monologue of “ow, bloody ow, this hurts, ow, and I’m slower than I want to be. Ow.”

There are a few people out there who I marvel at for their ability to saunter around in stilettoes without any visible effort. Maybe their feet are made of stronger stuff? Either that, or they’re better at hiding the pain/ remembering to keep gel cushions in their clutches to soften the aches. And yes, heels can be glamorous or elegant or powerful or intimidating or gut-punchingly gorgeous.

However it seems that, to use some abysmal ‘fash-speak’, flats are having a moment. At the last LFW, many designers showcased outfits accompanied by sandals, trainers and lace-ups – the models not strutting, but strolling. To those of us who make our sartorial choices independent of what the industry deems on-trend (i.e., I suspect, most of us) this may be a case of “so what? I’ve been doing this for years.” But it’s interesting that functional footwear is being seen as important enough for plenty of brands to be promoting it.

It seems to be something of a growing movement too. Hannah Rochell’s recent book ‘En Brogue: Love Shoes. Love Fashion. Hate Heels’ (the title taken from her fabulous blog) is something of an ode to all things flat. A playful publication, it’s full of delicious information and illustrations.

I remember being in my last year at secondary school, sick of the ballet pumps worn by all my female peers. I decided that the way forward was brogues. However, although now ubiquitous in every shop you you pop into, at that point they were much harder to source. All I could find were flimsy, thin-soled shoes playing at being brogues. So I switched tack and began scouring the men’s section in charity shops. Eventually I found a pair of St Michael shiny size 6.5 black brogues – made of stiff, dependable leather. I wore them until they fell apart.

I’ve continued the tradition since by buying plenty more pairs of brogues and loafers for men (I swear they’re usually better constructed), although I do have a deficit of flat shoes that can be worn for evenings out. (Instead I usually end up pairing my lace dresses with Chelsea boots). But it means I can remain later and dance longer, unhampered by pinched toes or sore heels. To me, as much as the aesthetic of a heel appeals, flats are ultimately more liberating – and I want clothes that allow me to feel confident, to stride around and to embody the space that I’m in.

Here I'm wearing some rather glorious second hand velvet DMs my mum found on eBay for £15. She's an online shopping marvel (with great taste). I've worn them a lot this term at uni. To complete the look of all-things-tactile, I'm wearing a dress bought from the bargain section of one of my favourite Oxford vintage shops - Reign. It was £8, and has since seen many a trip out for cocktails, dancing, and, at the end of last term, punting along the river in the sunshine. Photos taken mid September.