Saturday, 26 November 2011

Bloomsbury Black

Rarely a month goes by without a newspaper (tabloid or broadsheet) smugly declaring that Oxbridge is ‘elitist’. "The intake from disadvantaged backgrounds is too low; the humanities courses designed only for those who think themselves superior; the universities serving as little more than reminders of Brideshead Revisited".
The first point about intake is valid. Unfortunately the standards of teaching experienced do have an impact on grades, and thus on University application. The only solution I can see to that particular problem is for the Government to work on genuinely improving state education (and therefore life chances) nationwide. Pigs might fly. But in some sense Oxbridge cannot help being selective – as they require the best exam results and commitment  - and even those won’t guarantee you a place.
Despite initial reservations over the jaw-slackeningly high fees, I still want to apply to some of the leading Russell Group Universities next year – preferably to study English Literature. I might change my mind again at some point, but I wonder if this aspiration makes me appear almost ‘snobby’ to some – as though my decision to aim high is a personal affront to any other life choices.  

Why do some consider it elitist to devote time to the in-depth study of great works of literature? If I do pursue this, it means I'll leave with a greater knowledge of literature than others might have gained, but I do not accuse a cabinet maker of elitism for understanding more about the construction of a cabinet than I do. Maybe it’s because the humanities and arts subjects – English, history and philosophy to name three – are more concerned with ideas and analysis than practicality. They don’t yield tangible results in the same way that maths and science do. There are no great discoveries that can be publicized and praised by a Government that is only concerned with the short term – the same Government that has slashed Arts Council funding in a way that denigrates the status of the humanities. Let me tell you Government Ministers – my history GCSE exam was ten times more challenging than my science GCSE. The former involved months of revision and preparation; the latter required about three evenings in which I learnt the contents of a revision book by rote, with the information it contained floating straight out of my head the minute the exam paper was closed.
And yet this pervasive anti-culture attitude continues. Those who enjoy art house movies and galleries may find themselves labeled as ‘pretentious’ (although this one is clearly subjective, as there is plenty of modern art – I’m looking at you Damien Hirst – that I loathe), while those who write for and read, say, the Guardian are accused of not understanding the real world.

These musings are centered on what many see as superfluous, as the arts are arguably not one of the necessities of survival. But who would wish to live in world without music, paintings, films, sculptures, dance, theatre, books or poetry? Furthermore, when did it become sadly true that three in ten UK households own no books? Stories are one of the most imaginative and exciting releases from day to day life.They instruct and provoke thought as well as entertain.

One reaction to this criticism is that it doesn’t matter what people are reading, so long as they are still casting their eyes over words in some form.  Really? So basically twitter is the same as Tolstoy? Who needs ‘War and Peace’ when you can instead concentrate on texts and misspelt Facebook statuses? I hate this argument for the simple reason that it makes no differentiation. We don’t equate a three-year-old’s finger-painting, charming as it may be, with Leonardo da Vinci.

One set of individuals who understood the power of literature was the Bloomsbury Group. Perhaps best known for including Virginia Woolf and EM Forster among its numbers, the group expanded and contracted in size during the 20th Century. As a collective they had many criticisms leveled at them, both at the time and in retrospect. One of the words most frequently thrown at the group was ‘elitist’. Maybe shades of this were true – everything has its grey area. I can’t pass judgment, as (much to my regret) I was born far too late to be a part of something like that. And yet, I am unashamedly drawn to the idea of a group of individuals who met to discuss literature, aesthetics, economics, feminism and other current issues of the time. My romantic notion of how I would like to live my life involves a lot of time spent drinking good coffee whilst debating the merits of classics or current affairs.
 Are there any examples of similar groups in the 21st century? I’d be interested to know, as they so far seem unparalleled in their values and aspirations. They lived in a time when a far greater emphasis seemed to be placed on the value of reading, writing and ideas.  

And so to my outfit. The main part, the dress, was probably created at that same time as pacifism and poetry were being vociferously debated by the Bloomsbury Group: the primary outfit inspiration in this post. It is also the final installment of my Bertie’s styling series. This original thirties' translucent beauty of a dress was loaned to me temporarily by the wonderful Bertie's Vintage shop. It reminded me of sweeping staircases and decaying cinemas with velvet curtains. From the collar to the ruffled detailed on the sleeves, it deserved to be styled dramatically. And so I obliged with a simple slip, shoes from a charity shop and the other pair from Next, and for two shots a vintage boater, sunglasses and satin sash.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Autumn Queen

If autumn were a fabric, it would be yellow taffeta. Or perhaps orange velvet mixed with brown tweed. Okay, maybe the analogy would be better suited to a whole basket of material scraps in marinated colours.

It’s a tricky season to write about without resorting to clichés or endless tropes. How to sum up the mists, the leaves, the wood-smoke, without parroting what others have already said? I could quote Keats or Elizabeth Jennings – make some poetic reference. But maybe for once I shall just accept the experience of autumn without articulating every little detail. I love it, and shall leave it at that.
However, as with any time of year, it brings its own sartorial challenges. The temperature fluctuates between balmy crispness and downright freezing. The latter is experienced while slowly icing over at the station in the morning, waiting for a train half an hour late. Thus my attitude to outfits resembles  an onion – endless layers. Cardigans, long socks and faux-fur hats are all utilities rather than style statements. Bulky coats can be taken off when I am red-faced from my trek up the hill to college, while scarves are stowed in bags.
However, in my head at least, I would always dress like these photos once the birds start migrating, taking the warmth of summer with them. I'd wrap myself in gold pleats and khaki silks, adding seventies shoes (though in an ideal world the soles would not disintegrate on contact with the outside world, as these ones do – a worthy sacrifice nonetheless). The jackets would always remind me of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, and I could even artfully arrange leaves in my hair – assuming the persona of an ‘Autumn Queen’ who spends her days drinking home pressed apple juice and jumping in piles of leaves. Hmmm... Maybe. But for now I'll stick to my velvet miniskirts and cable knit jumpers for sixth form.

Just to go back to that Roald Dahl reference for a minute though, the other ‘branch’ to this outfit’s inspiration was the Mulberry AW11 collection. Put ‘British’ and ‘iconic’ in any description and my interest is more than piqued; especially when this is combined with a campaign by Tim Walker (who is still unbeaten in his role as my favourite current fashion photographer) and delectable looking clothes that are one part English aristocrat, one part Owen Sheer’s novel ‘Resistance’ and one part childhood rural fantasy. Famous Five meets Wuthering Heights. (Talking of which – I am really looking forward to seeing the new British adaptation of this Bronte novel in the next couple of weeks. I think it will be worth watching for the cinematography alone).

The two ‘Berries’ of the London/British fashion scene, Burberry and Mulberry, have experienced huge success in recent years. Perhaps I should create a brand called ‘Blueberry’ or ‘Raspberry’ to make it a trinity of labels? A lack of technical skill and general clothes-making ability would be a hindrance though. As would the lack of expertise in fashion design. So, I’ll leave that to the experts and stick to writing and photography and wandering through fields in hazy light...

Finally, if  you haven't already then please take a moment to look at According to Annika. In the last few months I have been honoured to talk to and get to know this extraordinary woman who is stunning inside and out. Annika is immensely encouraging, compassionate and all-round wonderful as well as being an amazing writer. She has already had way more than any fair share of trauma, and so I was devastated to hear that she was very recently diagnosed with cancer. Her situation utterly demonstrates the arbitrary unfairness of our world, and I cannot pretend in any way that I recognize what she will be going through right now. What I do know is that she thoroughly deserves the deluge of love and support pouring from her many, many readers.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

High Society

Lady Tallulah Lock-Likely was jolted out of sleep by a screeching. She opened one hung-over eye to see a fast retreating smudge of brown feathers. A pheasant. How disgusting. This was why she hated the countryside – it was full of nasty, smelly, noisy things. They were only of use when they were being shot at.
She wiped her face with gloved hands. Her upper arms were covered in stippled marks, as though she were the product of an overenthusiastic sculptor. As she stood up, she heard a clink and grimaced. Two champagne bottles and an empty glass were lolling on the grass. That explained a lot.
Tallulah had loved the champagne the previous evening; bottles of bubbly served up underneath neo-classical statues tastefully arranged around a cavernous ballroom. High heels had staggered across the polished floor all night. Everyone who was anyone had been at the gathering: the Smethwycke-Smith-Smiths, the Chatterquales; even the Curlicue-Fripperies had made a cursory appearance.
And her: the Rt Hon Lady Tallulah Lock-Likely the 2nd, in a pink satin dress. Mind you, after her arrival, memory was little more than a fogged camera lens.
There was dancing, laughing and enough air kissing to power a hot air balloon. Then there were some very reckless decisions. Hers was thinking it was perfectly normal to commandeer a horse at 3am in the morning. The members of the party had spilled out into the garden, confetti-bright in their gowns. Tallulah was the first to spot the grey shape in an adjoining field. All it took was a dare, and a call of “chicken!” for her to take her skirts in her hands and vault straight onto the startled beast.

She had been riding since she was old enough to sit upright – as a girl she had not only asked her daddy for a pony, but also a customised saddle and reins, a large paddock, stables, a horse-hand, riding gear from Saville Row and an engraved hoof pick.
However, Tallulah wasn’t so used to holding onto a rapidly galloping horse with one hand, and clutching Bollinger and Moet in the other, while also pondering whether the hills actually did have eyes. The shrill call of voices behind her was soon hushed by the trees she sped through. On and on, until - with a sudden, dull thunk - a low branch swept her sideways. She was lying on her back, listening to the soft thud of hooves growing faint.
For the next few hours she had wandered, finally arriving at the edge of a forest, with unfamiliar valleys rippling dimly under the moonlight. What a squalid place. She hummed to herself.
“What to do darling, what to do?”
Tallulah did what any respectable member of the aristocracy would do – she slept on it.

The honking alarm clock chimed with the rising sun. All around her the birds were doing that awful singing business. Couldn’t they learn something a little more melodic? Mozart, say? Tallulah couldn’t make any decisions on an empty stomach, so she raised the champagne bottle to her lipstick smeared mouth.

Feeling better, she tried a tentative call.
“Hello there, umm, locals? Does anyone know the way to Stipplehuff Hall? No?”
A sheep bleated. Right. Time to put great-grandaddy’s safari skills to use. She was sure there must be a path somewhere, or a sign. She plucked up her fur coat and strode in what she assumed was the right direction.
She hadn’t remembered a stream. Or a clearing. No matter. Her blue blood was used to chilly conditions, and her feet were repulsively muddy. A quick splash would rejuvenate her. She felt like Captain Scott in a dress – going boldly where no lady had gone before. That was what he had done, wasn’t it?

Odd feelings pursued her through the trees. It seemed such a long time since Tallulah had left Chelsea. She wasn’t up to the tweed-jacket-and-dog-breeding-and-weekends-in-the-country lifestyle. Too much bother, too little noise. And yet, and yet... How long had it been since she had paddled in wild water?
There were sunglasses in her pocket - she slipped them on and scrambled up a hillock.

The chilled air was more bracing than any spa plunge pool. No houses. Well, unless one counted the tiny little hovels in the distance that appeared to be – eurgh - bungalows. Her eyes widened at the sight of a grumbling tractor and a hairy looking man in overalls heading in her direction. She doubted she would understand a word he might utter. The only sensible option was to flee back among the trees.

Ragged breaths matched the ripped hem of her dress. The sun hid behind bruised clouds. Tallulah wasn’t sure why, but she had the strangest urge to start spinning: to let the bottles roll away and the feathers in her hair take flight. She tried swishing the dress.
She felt as though she were back at the party – but instead of a muscled arm clad in a dinner jacket twirling her in pirouettes, it was the breeze that gave her a helping hand.  Her sunglasses were whipped away as she shrieked in delight. It all felt so, well, dramatic. Nothing this exhilarating had ever happened before. She could have been in Wuthering Heights; a lovelorn Cathy staggering through the lesser known West Midlands. She was almost tempted to start calling for Heathcliff – but a dignified upbringing did have some use.

The dizzy dancing grew faster and faster - she was a whirring record, a roulette wheel. Her bare foot snagged in a root and she slipped over. Delight was replaced with disgust. Clichéd swaying grass or no clichéd swaying grass, Tallulah didn’t want to know what she had just landed in.

“Ms Looooock-Liiiiikely?”
About bally time. How long did it take to find a befuddled aristocrat? If the rescue party hadn’t brought any freshly ground coffee with them then they’d be sorry. Tallulah put her arms behind her head, stared up at the sky and happily envisaged being found. There would be tears of course, and apologies. She would make absolutely sure of it with the amount of shouting she was about to do...

Disclaimer: No friends were harmed in the creating of this post. The champagne bottles were already empty and merely used as props.
Thank you to my ever-lovely, ever-gorgeous and effervescent friend Ellen for donning a vintage dress and necklace, gloves and feathers from the dressing up box and my faux-fur coat and sunglasses. She has previously appeared in my short photo-stories as a zombie and a painting.

In other news, I was featured on here and the Laura Ashley blog here.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Seaweed Green

The notion of slithering into a wetsuit and battling with towering August waves seems so very long ago now. As does having time to relax on the beach with a book – or rather, ignoring the wind-whipped sand while clutching at pages.
Instead, my last few months have been meted out in a rhythm of food, essays, sleep and choosing outfits for sixth form (oh yes, that last one is just as important!) My inner metronome currently ticks away through word counts and Latin vocab lists, with only the occasional beat reserved for personal writing. I do love my new sixth form college though, despite the limits it has put on my free time.

To recall the sense of summer for a minute, here are some mermaid themed photos – styled with a vintage green dress and hair made curly by salty seawater swimming. My mum took them in a beautiful little village on the Welsh Coast called Llangrannog. The sand under my bare (and I must say rather cold) feet was steeped in recollections. A sprawling set of houses is fronted by a cove encircled in rocks like protective arms. It was the place that my family and our very good friends holidayed every year when I was considerably younger. This summer was the first time I had returned since.
It’s odd re-visiting locations that make up childhood memories. Sometimes the disappointment can be overwhelming – perhaps we would rather keep recollections untainted and free of new experience. On the other hand, I left Llangrannog this year loving it more than ever. I stayed with the same family friends in the same cottage we always used to rent. There was a new kitchen, but the apples in the garden tasted the same. Hairline cracks in the front room showed where I had once inadvertently pulled down the curtain rail and a large chunk of the wall with it (in my defence I was being a “brave explorer”). But my friend Esme (she of the backbone brooch) and I no longer discussed our barbies’ attire, but instead how early we could drag ourselves out of bed to complete a sunrise-over-sea shoot.
The various rooms and furniture in the cottage felt smaller. However, the height hierarchy among ‘the kids’ has remained roughly the same. We re-created a snapshot of me, Esme and our respective younger siblings taken 8 years ago, perching on the wall in ascending height order outside a cafe that serves ice creams tasting of summer. The original photo is blue-tacked in our kitchen at home, with our gap-toothed grins and ice-cream smeared faces offset with faintly tacky t-shirts and jelly sandals. This time I was wearing vintage culottes and a cable knit jumper.

Nevertheless, being teenagers has not hardened us to the delights of childish activities. As the sun melted over the waves on the day we arrived, Esme and I decided the smartest thing to do would be to paddle. This jumping over waves turned into fully-clothed swimming, until our hands and feet were thoroughly chilled. We emerged to eat hot chips, with our wet hair leaving pools in the sand.

Aside from trying to give ourselves colds, and the occasional bout of excited dolphin spotting, our families also re-trod in the echoes of clumping wellies. A journey to the nearby headland, which I recalled as a trek worthy of Scott and a team of husky dogs, was reduced to little more than a stroll with pit stops for handfuls of blackberries. The location reminded me very much of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Blackberrying’:

“Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries.
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks and a sea, somewhere at the end of it, heaving”.

Like the blackberries, my time spent revisiting various places and moments of the past was almost always sweet. The only sour note was a result of coming face to face (well, foot to fin) with a weaver fish – a spiny little beast that loves to hide under the sand on the British coast line and sting people’s unsuspecting toes with a venom that feels ten times worse than that of an angry wasp. Although they are technically harmless, neither my purple, swollen foot nor I were very happy – especially not when faced with the prospect of immersing my foot in near-boiling hot water to draw out the painful poison.
Yet, two hours later and I was back with my family and friends scrabbling around with spades to build an intricate system of moats and sand walls. Our aim was to keep back the tide for as long as possible, but as King Canute could have told you, the water shall always win.

I also recently wrote a guest post for the wonderful and warm-hearted Bella of Citizen Rosebud. I was thrilled when she asked me as I have so much respect for her and her work. You can see my musings on buying vintage here.
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