Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Bluebells









I turned seventeen last week – celebrating with a picnic, a healthy dose of vintage clothes and a walk in the bluebell wood. This last activity didn't start out as an intentional tradition, but in the same way as a well-liked phrase may quickly become a mantra, so a stroll in the evening light has become a required part of my birthday. Wandering through the blue hush is a fitting conclusion to the day’s festivities.
This year the walk was shoehorned together with some photography. I climbed over fences in a vintage Parisian dress from ‘Les Marches aux Puces’, complete with a netting underskirt that scratched my legs and caught on the barbed wire as I scrambled. The heels came off to scale the huge water tank though. It stands like some kind of monument, the arrows pointing off towards trees and blue flowers.
Bluebells are bright crests to the grass waves. They are somehow unexpected wherever they grow – appearing in forests, along roads and spreading out thickly across hillsides – enhancing the location wherever they pop up. The atmosphere in our favourite wood during bluebell season is hallowed. It's the kind of place where one can imagine lying down and falling asleep for days, perhaps curled up under the base of an uprooted tree, such as the one pictured. It certainly lends itself to fairytale fantasies – although I like to subscribe to the Angela Carter school of thought, whereby the heroine can rescue herself from scrapes and mishaps without assistance. This wood was not full of wolves or witches though, and the only scrapes were the ones found on my shins. 

The English landscape is usually characterised by greens and browns. Bright tones appear in the wild flowers that tumble down lanes and across banks: pink clover and ragged robin, or yellow buttercups, dandelions and celandines. But these are still not quite as startling as a blue flower. Candia McWilliam, in her breathtaking but relentless autobiography ‘What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness’ describes them as such: “… [blue] flowers are frail like faded, worn cloth or like those patches of sky. They are remote, as though glimpsed. They are slips of things, a hint, like young people in the one summer when they know they are lovely but do not know the effect of it, or the sea around the next bend, or fresh water between mouth and thirsty throat. They are half-seen. Once you have lived for a certain time, a blue flower makes you both satisfied and sad.” Her use of imagery is masterful, and the story told is truthful, persistently self-analytical and as brutal as it is beautiful. I bought it from Primrose Hill Bookshop during a fleeting trip to London, recognizing McWillliam's name from an Oxford podcast I had listened to the previous week. I was mesmerized by the way she spoke in her lecture, and even more impressed with her writing when I flicked to the first page. I cannot overstate the thrill of discovering a new author or novel among shelves and tables heavy with offerings. I would happily work - or even live - in any independent bookshop, particularly one such as Daunt or Persephone (speaking of which, I was shot in the latter for Elle Japan – the photo will be on my press page shortly!) However, I now have enough books of my own to open a small bookshop or library, with new birthday additions including Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’ and Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’.

You can tell the age of a tree by the number of rings inside the trunk. As humans we don’t have a similar marking system – there's no new blotch or line that appears on the morning of each birthday. It's  a more subtle process, body and face growing and ageing incrementally. This is matched with gradual internal change. The self, like a bluebell, can grow and wither and experience renewal year on year. My hope is that the twelve months ahead are filled with opportunities, experiences, interesting people and creative endeavours.  

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Turbulent Indigo: What Does Mental Health Awareness Week mean for Young People?







(Monochrome photos by me)

1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue this year. What does this actually mean? Although words such as ‘depression’, ‘OCD’, ‘anxiety’, ‘panic attacks’ and ‘bipolar’ are widely known, the conditions themselves are often misunderstood – treated with a fear and shame not generally attached to discussions of physical illnesses. Perhaps this is because we view the mind as something ‘controllable’, while being educated to expect that our bodies will go wrong. Responses such as “pull yourself together” or, “stop being so selfish” are considered appropriate reactions by some to depression, where it would be entirely insensitive if said to someone with cancer or pneumonia. Furthermore, mental health terms are often misappropriated. Observations such as, “this weather makes me so depressed” or, “he went totally schiz”, (ie schizophrenic) still pepper conversation - lessening the impact and understanding of what these medical conditions actually mean.

The shroud of judgment and lack of knowledge is one of the main reasons for ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ (21st - 25th May), an initiative started by the Mental Health Foundation in 2001, with the aim of raising awareness and removing stigma.

There is no single age group or portion of society that can claim to be the most heavily affected. Businesspeople fear being judged as ‘weak’ if they have panic attacks, and teenagers face a lack of understanding if they admit to peers that they are clinically depressed. But the latter group faces the additional challenge of navigating their way through a mystifying and scary experience with little information provided on how to recognize symptoms requiring specialist help. There are doctor-referred NHS counselling services, and some colleges do have well-being centres or nurses one can approach – but to access any services, the individual not only has to admit that there’s a problem, but also needs to know where to look. Student Jemima*, who recovered last year from a prolonged episode of depression and self harm, observed that,It’s very sad that so many people fear depression and mental illness…. Many suffer alone because they refuse to admit they might not be mentally healthy. People need to learn to understand that mental illnesses are natural. I think that in the UK especially we view depression as a weakness, or something that is the fault of the individual.”

By its very nature, adolescence is characterised by intense change, emotional turmoil and an increasing awareness of future responsibilities. It therefore becomes harder to distinguish between what is merely a feeling of justifiable anxiety, and what is a clinical illness requiring outside help. Although definitions of depression can be found with a quick Google search, it is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of symptoms. Besides, common descriptions of ‘sadness’ and ‘discouragement’ are simplistic. For many, depression cannot be articulated so easily, and is instead identified through emptiness, worthlessness/ guilt, or even a complete lack of feeling. Seventeen year old Daisy* recounted “constantly feeling tired and hopeless - I would describe it as having a tap on my foot and somebody turning it to let all of my energy out.”  It can distort motive to the point where normal activities such as getting out of bed are impossible. It originates in the limbic brain, but the effects may be felt in the whole body – it’s a physical illness just as much as, say, diabetes.

The differences between teenage angst and genuine illness also blur and smudge the impact of depression. On the Internet in particular, it has become not only a misappropriated term, but has been almost idealised in some forums. For example, the glamorisation of suicide in photography makes me distinctly uncomfortable – the re-blogs of bathtubs and blood, or self-harm scars, or Anna Karenina-esque suggestions of jumping under trains. As much as one can understand the compulsion to share or explore emotions and experiences (and we do need to talk about these conditions), self-inflicted death is not a warmly-tinted, film-grained, floaty-dressed event like Sofia Coppola’s film ‘The Virgin Suicides’ - as beautiful as the cinematography is. Romanticising such a traumatic, destructive action is not positive. Relatives on both sides of my family have committed suicide. Climbing a tree to throw oneself onto electric cables is not glamorous. Plunging from a bridge is not glamorous. It's a life sentence for those left behind. It's a last resort, often described not so much a wish for death, but as a desire to stop living. For those of us who have never experienced the completely altered state of mind that drives a suicidal impulse, it is impossible to fully understand the depths of despair and hopelessness that drives it. Therefore, in my opinion, to glamorise it is misguided.

Depression can be genetic, but is often provoked by either a longstanding problem or a major life event. Daisy talked about habitually bottling up her feelings, combined with caring for her mum (who had experienced a period of depression in the past), while Jemima traced the start of her depression back to a difficult relationship with her mother, who divorced her father when Jemima was a baby. Both girls’ experiences of depression are very different, and yet they similarly feel that as a condition it is not tackled enough. School PHSE lessons teach teenagers how to identify and prevent STI’s (on the basis that 1 in 4 sexually active teens will contract an infection), but the fact that 1 in 5 adolescents experience mental health problems is virtually ignored. As yet, there is no programme that has been rolled out nationally to all UK educational institutions. Thus, one way of raising awareness is to talk. Conversation is a vital tool in challenging misinformed attitudes. Jemima said: I can definitely discuss [my depression] with my friends now. I think there is a stigma surrounding depression, but I usually ignore it. I sometimes find it difficult to stop once I've opened up!” Her candour is refreshing. It should not be made obligatory to discuss the inner workings of our health – mental or otherwise – but genuine honesty is an important first step in reducing the ‘taboo’ nature of mental ill health.

See Young Minds for helpful information and support. 

*Names have been changed

This post was provoked by watching a loved family member go through six crippling months of very severe depression. All I can say is that I'm thankful that for some, the complete debilitation can be slowly addressed through a combination of medication and therapy. But, if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that depression and its treatment is different for everyone. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Outside Over There









Children’s books hold a very special resonance – associated with the intense joy of bedtime reading and trips to the local library. They are little, secluded worlds. The smudging of time means that memories of beloved texts are often partial, but the impact remains. I think we have an attachment to these books that differs from the more mature passion for the printed page. The brevity of picture books, combined with the illustrations (or the extensive descriptions in texts for slightly older readers), means that they are often imagined and remembered visually. 

My favourite childhood authors included Margaret Mahy, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Eva Ibbotson and the late Maurice Sendak. All these writers, alongside others, created characters I wanted to talk to and places I wished to visit. It was a privilege to experience their ideas and stories. Of course, I didn’t realise this at the time – I just took it as a given that such tales existed, with no thought of the exciting (but grueling) process of actually creating a children’s book. Some might think that short sentences and basic language are signs of an easy, quickly finished job. On the contrary, the restrictions imposed by writing for a younger audience make it a long and tricky task. It also appears to have become harder in recent years as the confines of children’s publishing grow narrower. I delighted in the cheeky wit of books such as ‘Reckless Ruby’, in which the protagonist refused to grow up and marry a prince – instead rebelling by performing daredevil stunts and smoking cheroots until she was sick – and loved the surreal and strange plot of Sendak’s ‘In the Night Kitchen’. I wonder if either would be published now? These were stories that didn’t shy away from or ‘sanitize’ life, but instead reveled in it – both the good parts and the bad. Many fairytales may have removed the real endings in which Cinderella’s stepsisters have their eyes pecked by birds and mermaid Ariel dissolves into sea-foam (the latter dubbed excessively cruel by Sendak), but Max lives among monsters in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and Ida’s baby sister is stolen away in ‘Outside Over There’. They are fantasies, but ones that explore very real feelings and anxieties.

When I was little, I went through phases of concentrating on a single book for several weeks, before switching allegiance to another. I spent at least a month on ‘Outside Over There’ – whose title has similar connotations to ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, with both examining the danger and monsters that exist beyond the safe boundaries of home. I asked for it to be read to me every evening, and then lingered over the pictures during the day. The faceless goblins terrified me, but I was bewitched – perhaps fascinated by my own fear. There is a particular image of Ida in her “mama’s yellow rain cloak” that is extraordinary. I’m not sure if it is the detailed folds of fabric, the expression on her face or the view beyond the window, but the illustration is haunting. ‘Outside Over There’ was Sendak’s favourite work, despite its neglect in comparison with its better-known counterparts. It is the most extraordinary, and the most disturbing, of his picture books.  

(Image from 'Outside Over There')

It's easy to start analyzing these stories from an adult perspective, and they certainly do yield all kinds of suggestions and interpretations. They are also just as rich on subsequent readings – losing none of the magic that sometimes rubs off with age. But Sendak’s books were primarily written and drawn for children, and that's the part of the self that they should call to. When I was younger they excited my imagination, entertained my senses and gave a snatch of the large, scary, exhilarating world. Now, I see them as very powerful and fragile, but also beautiful. Sendak took complex themes and simplified them. He understood the mindset of a child, as demonstrated in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, tapping into the desire to escape and run around a strange land.

I felt that my outfit fitted well as some kind of fashion hybrid of the two books mentioned here – full of the colours and layers that a style-conscious ‘wild thing’ might wear, with a cape from my grandma thrown on top like Ida’s in ‘Outside Over There’ (although mine is a little less impressive).  The shirt is Aquascutum (a present), and the dress, sleeveless cardigan and belt were all from various charity shops.

Emma Hill of Mulberry cited ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as the key stimulus behind her AW12 show, and that title seems to have become the byword for anything vaguely furry, shaggy or feathery. I’m not sure how Sendak would have felt about his work being used as inspiration for a collection, but there is still something rather wonderful about seeing such a beloved book re-interpreted in fashion form. However, I think that the belted scarves, woody shades of honey and brown, soft leather, shearling and messy patterns of the Mulberry show could appear in only the most elegant of rumpuses – and, although I thought the floral dresses were delectable, I doubt that they would survive a mad dash through woods and brambles (especially not in those heels!) I’d suggest a pair of sturdy Chelsea boots, like mine from a charity shop, for exploring and adventuring.

 Maurice Sendak was a fantastic artist, writer and man – as well known for his irascible nature and outspoken views as for his work. The many tributes, anecdotes and articles describing favourite books are a testament to his lasting impact on so many lives. His contribution to children’s literature was incredible. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

I am a Bird Now









“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom
of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in
his riding
of the rolling level underneath him steady air”.

It’s hard to post only a snippet of this celebratory poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s like trying to stop music in mid-flow. Hopkins’ affinity with the shape and sound of words is apparent in every line that rings with internal rhythm. (The rest of the poem may be read here). 
The poem also perfectly encapsulates the feeling of watching a bird hovering and diving. It's an almost vicarious pleasure – as though by observing the darts of movement we may glean a sense of what it means to fly. It’s a dizzying prospect.

I've noticed that there often seems to be a favourable connection between birds and fashion. Bird prints grace fabrics, and (sustainably sourced/ vintage) feathers prove a fine trim or texture for all manner of garments. The image of Ginger Rogers swirling across the set clad in ostrich feathers in ‘Top Hat’ demonstrates just how seductive a material they are. The bird is also an appropriate metaphor for the process of dressing – especially when concentrating on colourful and exuberant wardrobes. Many of us are creatures who, myself included, enjoy choosing and showing off our plumage. Tassels, trims, sequins, buttons and ribbons are all forms of adornment. Aside from the practicality of dressing for warmth, the human body presents a myriad of ways to be clothed and decorated. Unlike birds, we change these feathers on a day-to-day basis – transitioning from sparrows to parakeets according to mood or whim.

Whenever I use the words ‘birds’ and ‘fashion’ in the same sentence, my head immediately flutters to Alexander McQueen’s SS01 show (although birds were a repeated motif throughout his career).  The images of a model, head bandaged, stuffed birds attached to her shoulders, are striking. Her attackers are suspended mid-action – a stunning taxidermy nightmare. Their talons are bound by teal fabric; the skirt suggesting movement in a heavy lightness of layers. Like many of McQueen’s best pieces, it evokes a very sinister beauty. Birds are both a source of fascination, and, occasionally of fear (one needs only to think of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’).

McQueen once stated that: “Birds in flight fascinate me… I try and transpose the beauty of a bird to women”. He understood the importance of plumage – or perhaps even of dressage. He also recognized the capacity clothes hold to both inspire and disturb. There is a sense behind every crafted corset, behind every padded hip, behind every bead and stitch of embroidery, that there was an intelligent, highly imaginative thought process. McQueen’s collections were not merely a grouping of dresses, but a narrative. His designs told stories. They weren't always pleasant or pretty ones, but the depth and unpredictability was what distinguished him from many of his peers. Tales can be gruesome or scary, but it's the manner of telling that distinguishes the good from the memorably great. McQueen ‘told’ his collections with such talent and craft – a master tailor and storyteller.

This scarf similarly tells a narrative. The print even has a name - it’s ‘Meet in the Park at Night’ (although I must say that, due to my location, I thought it more evocative of nocturnal flights through woods). It is part of the ‘Front Row Society’ initiative – a website dedicated to “fashion democracy” that encourages designers to showcase their prints, with the public voting on which patterns are then produced as either handbags or scarfs. It aims to be 100% sustainable in the near future, and a small proportion of each purchase is currently donated to the Ethical Fashion Forum. My scarf was designed by Jennifer Dayrit. It arrived along with a small card detailing both the stimulus behind the birds' motif, and a short description of Jennifer, who trained in fine art before specializing in accessories. These personal touches make it an enticing package, at the other end of the wingspan from the plastic bags and mass marketing of the high street. Many thanks to the PR Jenna for sending it to me, and for alerting me to the website. I wanted to style it in a variety of different ways, and so the rest of the outfit was very simple. The black velvet shorts were cut down and customised from trousers, the top is from a charity shop and the towering wedges (so precarious that every other shot was of me staggering around and falling over) are from eBay. 

It’s apt that the scarf design takes birds as an inspiration – as they are, of course, part of the natural world, and thus lend themselves to ethical endeavors. Maybe it’s a case of great minds thinking alike, but Olwen Bourke’s latest collection – entitled ‘Paradise Lost’ – also takes birds as one of its recurring themes. Each hand-made item uses re-claimed fabrics in part of the design. The use of a birdcage in the video is interesting. Birds are the ultimate symbol of freedom, but become poignant metaphors when in captivity - one of the messages also found in Alexander McQueen's SS01 collection. Some concepts are never old. 

Thursday, 3 May 2012

These Are a Few of my Favourite Things






Vogue and other magazines occasionally publish lists along the lines of ’50 Fashion Adventures’ or ‘101 Unmissable Ideas’ filled with gems that I can only assume are satirical such as – shock horror – using jugs of tap water instead of bottled! (Only with sprigs of mint and lemon slices of course, darlings.) I thoroughly enjoy reading these outlandish proposals. Several have always stood out to me, such as the idea of climbing a New York fire ladder in 6 inch heels and a mini-dress, or wandering through the Parthenon with the early morning light catching the hem of a couture-made ball gown. Both suggestions rest somewhere on the scale between ridiculous and deeply desirable. I think it is the juxtaposition between the setting and the outfits – of the startling images suggested in placing ‘high fashion’ in real locations. These lists are wonderful precisely because they offer beautifully dressed escapism, coupled with a glimpse through an archway into another world. Like Alice, we as the readers kneel at an impossibly small door to witness the wonder of the garden beyond. It's unattainable, but the idea is enough.

Neat bullet points and numbered lists are a satisfying way to order, collect and arrange things. However, my family and I came up with a slightly more sprawling list when recently walking in the rain, ignoring the drips sliding down our necks and damp rising through our socks. We compiled a collection of favourite activities to complete while out and about in the wilds. It's tailored to our own quirks and interests (there were many references to classic comedy series), but I felt it worth sharing.

So, here are a few of my favourite things:
  • ·      Marching down a hillside while singing the Monty Python Philosophers’ Drinking Song word-perfectly, or reciting other favourite sketches such as the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ and the ‘Argument’ scene. Bonus points are given for sounding exactly like John Cleese, or for performing an updated ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ routine.
  • ·      Gathering up wild garlic, mushrooms or  berries - according to the season. Blackberries spin purple-lipped grins, while bilberries are dark beads, threaded along a path.
  • ·      Skipping as fast as possible down a slope or quiet road – the steeper the incline, the better. The after-morning aches are worth it.
  • ·      Making a den using dead branches and leaves.
  • ·      Ferocious stick fights.
  • ·      Playing at ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with a large umbrella and plenty of puddles to twirl around. The extension of this is a rainy picnic, details of which can be found here.
  • ·      Alternately, an impromptu sunny picnic in the nearest field/park with a bright blanket. Food scrounged from the fridge and iced drinks drained into plastic bottles are always cheering.
  • ·      To continue on the al fresco food theme, I'm looking forward to trying out a ‘midnight picnic’ once the days are longer - candles, warm food and tall wine glasses for clinking together while waiting for the sun to rise.
  • ·      Plunging into mountain streams and rapidly retreating to the comfort of jumpers and flasks of coffee.
  • ·      Making fires at night and watching sparks spitting up towards stars.
  • ·      Taking a book and finding a sunny nook on the nearest hilltop.
  • ·      Or, attempting to read and walk across a field in a straight line at the same time.
  • ·      Spending a bike ride remembering and telling the rudest possible jokes.
  • ·      Climbing trees: negotiating rotten branches and tricky gaps as knees are scored with scrapes.
  • ·      Gorge-walking up rivers or streams in completely unsuitable footwear.
  • ·      Leading one person ‘blind’ across an obstacle course of brambles, bumps and potholes.

I thought it appropriate to post this list (and the photos) today, as Britain is still officially in the midst of the 'wettest drought' possible. Fields are slicked with water while rivers are brown roars. The steady tap-tap-tap of drops has been the soundtrack for the last two weeks. As much as I love jumping in puddles, I am loathe to do this when carrying my college bag and two heavy folders. Instead I hunch my shoulders and march against the wet, dull skies.

What suggestions might you add to this list? Any traditions, favourite activities or brand new ideas for driving away rainy thoughts? 

Everything I'm wearing above came from various charity shops, including the umbrella - which was a matter of serendipity, as it just happened to be in the car when we climbed out to find yet more storm clouds overhead.