Saturday, 30 June 2012

How to be a Woman

(Hugely tenuous outfit link: I was told that this outfit - comprised of a second hand dress and vintage silk shirt & straw hat - made me look vaguely Virginia Woolf-esque. Despite the author's dislike of the word 'feminism', she keenly detailed the double standards and problems facing women during the 1920s. She was one of the first writers to spark my interest in feminism. The photos were taken nearly a year ago by my lovely and talented friend Rosa.)

When we talk about feminism today it's hard to know what is actually being discussed. Once one brushes aside clich├ęs as flimsy and old as cobwebs (bra-burning, men-hating, women’s libbers with no concept of appearance seems to sum up the stereotype), then there are still a huge number of definitions or interpretations of what feminism really is. I’m a liberal feminist, meaning that I believe in equality. For me, feminism is about re-addressing balances and inequalities between the genders – and not just the ones where men have power over women. It’s being brave enough to challenge rape jokes or casual sexism; to feel that I have control over my own body; to believe that everyone has an equal right to a voice. It’s nothing to do with thinking that women are somehow better or deserve special treatment.

Feminism now seems to be a rather subjective umbrella term covering numerous areas. For some it's a political word, for others a practical one. Perhaps it has to be what one makes it. Although it can only be positive that it has spawned so many offshoots and groups, I wonder if this has dissolved the power of the word itself. Or if not dissolved completely, then diffused – having been applied to everything from female politicians (Margaret Thatcher does not deserve to be called a feminist) to pole dancers. These are quite extreme examples (although perhaps representative of two areas that feminism is currently concerned with), but both demonstrate the confusion surrounding the word. I am one of very few teenagers I know willing to define myself as a vociferous feminist. Many my age have little interest in the concept, or somehow assume that it has outgrown its use. Although we (in the UK) admittedly live in a much fairer and more equal society than ever before, this does not mean that feminism is defunct. If anything, new pressures emerge and evolve all the time – from the media’s fixation with body image to the debates on abortion or the appalling statistics on sexual violence. And yet, the ‘get back in the kitchen’ jokes aren’t exclusive to the boys. Some girls join in with this insidious misogyny, apparently ignorant of all the advantages, possibilities and choices that various feminist movements have given them.

Caitlin Moran, in her excellent and hilarious book ‘How to be a Woman’ (part memoir, part feminist manifesto) asks her readers to stand on a chair and shout: “I am a feminist”. I love the idea of requesting blog readers to do the same – even if it’s only a whisper as you stare at the screen. Moran is brilliant not only because she is genuinely funny and willing to talk about so called ‘taboo’ subjects, but also because the feminism she promotes is so readily accessible. I hope that she has had a considerable impact on many who didn’t define themselves as feminists or those who thought they had little interest in equality. For her, a feminist is described as anyone who has a vagina and wants to "be in charge" of it. It’s a good definition, but fails to take into account the fact that men can be feminists too - although she does mention them later. Male feminists are absolutely brilliant, and I have huge respect for anyone who describes themselves thus (in fact male feminisim will be the topic of my next post).

My view on feminism is that it should never be a case of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (ie women vs men). This is as simplistic as the Hollywood representations of ‘Goodies’ and ‘Baddies’.  It’s unrealistic, formulaic and insulting. One gender doesn’t take precedence over another. Feminism was a response to  patriarchy, but some women are pretty good at victimising each other too, and can also victimise men.  The statistics suggest that women are more liable to experience violence, but that doesn't negate the evidence that 1 in 6 men also experience domestic abuse (the figure is 1 in 4 for women, according to this report in the Guardian from 2010). Men are somehow expected to brush off such things,  to treat them less seriously than female counterparts. Furthermore, startlingly effective campaigns such as this show that the stigma and shame surrounding rape is something faced by both genders. Thus, pitting one gender against the other is counter-productive and ignorant, whatever the circumstances.

One of the joys of learning about feminism, however, is the availability of so many books on the subject. Moran’s ‘How to be a Woman’ was described as "The Female Eunuch from a bar stool" – referring to Germaine Greer’s seminal feminist text. Greer has done much to popularize feminism, and for that I applaud her. When she was writing in 1970, her thoughts were revolutionary and refreshing. She was willing to say what others wouldn’t. And yet, it strikes me that she has also done much to provoke ire. Her writing is brilliant rhetoric – engaging, angry and extremely well-informed -  and yet sometimes also saturated with sweeping generalisations: ‘men’ are treated as a collective whole; shopping is a form of enslavement; the medical industry hates women. In my opinion, this tendency towards such broad judgments is reductive and undermines the more rational, thoughtful parts of her work. There are certain statements she makes that I completely disagree with, and others that I nod along to as I read. Nonetheless, sometimes it’s a good idea to read feminist literature that you might not necessarily agree with all the time – as it helps to strengthen and clarify your own stance. I would recommend Greer to anyone interested in feminism, alongside Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. I also have Mary Wollstonecraft, Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir on my reading list, and am currently enjoying a book called ‘Feminism: A very short introduction’. I read the brilliant Vagenda blog regularly, and also occasionally visit the The F-Word. Suggestions for other websites would be much appreciated. 

What does feminism mean to you? I'm very interested in any discussion on the topic and in hearing diverse opinions. This is the first of four posts I have planned on the subject – a ‘feminist fortnight’ of sorts. 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Making Hay in the Rain

(My outfit worn to Hay Festival on the third day comprised a vintage skirt and hat, second hand boots and a bell-boy's jacket from a Parisian market. The film camera was quite gratuitous considering that I was using my Canon 5D at the festival, but I thought it was a suitable prop.)

The feeling of Hay Book Festival on a sunny day is hugely exuberant. Colourful flags ruffle and flutter, the book shops are crammed and the stretch of pavement between the town and the festival site flows with a never-ending current of people. Over at the ‘How the Light Gets In’ festival, one can buy the best chai in Hay and listen to any number of philosophical debates and talks. For ten days, the whole town is soaked with thoughts and ideas.

I must mention however that for me, the scene described above was exclusive to the second Saturday. The previous two days threw down abysmal weather. I spent much of the Friday stomping across muddy walkways with a heavy bag, defending myself from car splashes with a half-broken umbrella as I wished for sun. My task during the time I spent there was to take street style photos for Oxfam (the results of which can be seen in Part 1 here and Part 2 here), which was made trickier by the fact that storms and fabulous outfits don’t mix well – as one guy quipped, the overall ‘look’ of Hay was “mud”. However, with a keen eye and a fair amount of lingering in book shops, I managed to snap some wonderful individuals. From an Oxfam volunteer who claimed she was 'just wearing her winter woolens' to a delightful pair of sisters whose outfits subtly reflected each other, the attendees of the festival proved that sideways rain and wind couldn’t quell the desire to dress up.

With the clouds tucked away on the last Saturday, the anoraks came off and the groups of book-readers emerged. These people were united by passions - for literature, for history, for philosophy, for art, for languages, for technology, for music – with the festival serving up a menu to suit all tastes. In the course of my three days there, I saw lectures, listened to debates, laughed throughout comic Dylan Moran’s set, and brought home several books signed by their creators. I was inspired, startled and challenged by the range of events. Here are some of the best.

Stefan Collini’s event, linked to his excellent and thought-provoking book ‘What are Universities For?’ felt like the most important talk I attended. I completely agree with his worries about the university-as-a-business model (something I will possibly expand into a post of its own over the summer), particularly in the path this paves for students to be treated as consumers, rather than individuals who want to take part in “unfettered intellectual inquiry”. Collini defined the purpose of University as being a place of “extending and deepening human understanding” – which goes some way to explaining my own desire to spend three years studying English literature. However, as I pointed out during a question I posed at the end, the way that University is ‘sold’ to us at Sixth Form is as a way to increase our employability and wages, to give us new experiences and ensure a sounder future. The issue of whether or not one is genuinely passionate about a subject barely figures – and woe betide anyone who decides that university is not the right choice for them! Such a decision goes completely against the expected norm and must be justified to all the careers advisors and teachers. Collini is a wonderful and persuasive writer, thinker and advocate of the need for universities, and I cannot recommend his book highly enough.

Another interesting event was a debate on authors in the digital age. Again, I could devote a whole article to this – and am tempted to do so at some point – but felt the questions about content, skill and readership to be very timely for someone interested in writing as a career. The Internet gives unprecedented global access to a huge audience (something that I’m fully aware of writing on my blog!), but perhaps lacks the editing or rigour of formal publishing. Writing needs to be accessible, but there were some disagreements on whether making content free was canny or counter-productive. Although no one pays to read my blog, and the only revenue generated is through an occasional item of clothing or in modeling/ writing for somewhere else, I'm of the opinion that professional writing deserves a fee. This blog is something personal to me, and pays dividends in the experience, motivation and training it has given me, and yet I still want to work as a paid freelance journalist in the future. We pay the plumber, the electrician and the carpenter for their carefully honed skills, so why should we expect to be given crafted writing for free?

I saw two lectures on Shakespeare – one by Michael Dobson and another by Germaine Greer – that were stimulating and, in the case of the latter, often amusing. Listening to Greer talk about Shakespeare was a most engaging experience. It’s a testament to the power of the playwright that his work yields new talks, productions and discussions year upon year. David Crystal’s talk on Dickens’ language similarly suggested the continuing importance of this great author, with an astonishing range of words and techniques celebrated.

A talk with Madeline Miller and Sjon on updated versions of epic tales left me with a huge desire to go home and write a book of my own. Miller’s re-imagining of the Illiad through the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is a tender, lyrical story that still conveys the brutality of battle. It’s stunning. Both authors pinpointed the relevance of such huge, devastating narratives in times of instability. Whether the Greek gods are embodiments of forces of nature or human emotions, their resurgence in publishing – from Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel: The Song of Achilles, to Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’ – is very indicative of the times we live in. 

I took plenty of photos while I was out 'style hunting' and below are a sample six - ranging from a tailor (David in the second image) to someone I thought looked rather like a young Jim Morrison. The full descriptions of each subject and their outfits can be found in the links to the Oxfam blog above. 


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mother of Mine - John Lewis Styling Initiative

Is it possible to suggest that fashion, or personal style, is in the blood – inherited from a parent or far-flung relative; that certain traits are passed through successive generations, regardless of location or circumstance; that my great-aunt’s brief training in the art of pattern cutting has somehow contributed to my own love for well-tailored jackets?
The phrase “in the blood” is odd. It provokes images of white cells in the shape of tip-tapping high heels, or platelets scurrying through arteries like pillbox hats. It suggests somehow that such a passion is something pumped around the body, through veins as intricate as spider’s silk, carried in velvet-red blood. Of course, it’s a figurative trope; a way to imply that we can inherit the same interests as our ancestors thanks to shared DNA.
But perhaps it’s more a matter of environment. I’m not sure whether my collection of silk shirts would be as extensive if it weren’t for the influence of my mum and grandma in bringing well-dressed relatives to light. Certain themes and professions do stitch themselves through families – ours being entwined with the worlds of drama, science, geology, writing and teaching – but these threads have to be brought to attention. I would have little idea of my rich, clothing-related heritage if it weren’t for the boxes of black and white photos of picnics and days out, or for the dresses and accessories that have been passed on to me. These are the links that pin the past to my present. My paternal grandma’s couture Balenciaga dress bought in a NY thrift store (such a favourite that it is mentioned regularly here) or the fur collars rescued from my maternal great-grandma’s house are the evidence needed to prove that my interest is partly genetic. It’s a combination of the innate desire to collect vintage suitcases, and the sources of information that provide details of exactly what role fashion has played in the lives of family members.
My mum, as mentioned above, has had a key role in this uncovering of the past, whilst inspiring me daily with her own looks. She was my first point of contact, the initial example of the potential for self-expression and creativity held within clothes. I can remember the coat appliqued with fabric leaves that she wore to pick me up from primary school, and the long, cream dress that has now been sucked into my wardrobe. My inbuilt ‘charity shop radar’ is entirely thanks to the woman who dives into the nearest Oxfam or Red Cross at every opportunity. She dresses fantastically, and I think that my own immersion in fashion has heightened her interest too. We share clothes regularly, and often look to the other for approval or opinion of an outfit. Of course, we have many other mutual passions – particularly when it comes to literature – but there is a lot of pleasure to be found in a day out at a vintage market, or in the many shoots we do for the blog. It’s very satisfying to reverse the lens once in a while though, and an offer from John Lewis to treat my blog 'other half’ (also known as the resident blog photographer, although I should mention that my dad sometimes takes up this role too) to a selection of clothes sourced online was a perfect opportunity. A voucher duly arrived and although my mum was tempted by things as diverse as these Berties shoes, or this jacket with a vaguely RAF silhouette, she eventually chose two dresses to style with her own mix of second hand and vintage accessories.

As a woman who never shops on the high street, mum enjoyed the prospect of casting her eye across an unfamiliar array of possibilities - with John Lewis claiming that they have "brands to suit all styles". Knowing also that John Lewis carry sustainable/ethical label People Tree, she was particularly enthusiastic about making a purchase from this wonderful company, albeit disappointed that the Orla Kiely diffusion line was not stocked online. However, People Tree's gorgeous 'Amy' poplin boat print dress matched the soft waves of the Welsh coastline beautifully, the organic cotton soaked by evening sun. Ten minutes before taking the photos I was swimming in the sea – a very cold bliss. The second dress is by NW3, and mum appeared to be sailing through the field of barley as I snapped away, the pleats brushing the seed husks. She chose this one for versatility of wear in all seasons. Unfortunately her very impressive balancing act in precarious heels was hidden from the eye of the camera – although watching her climb over a farm gate in them was rather amusing. 

All the accessories are vintage or from charity shops - with special mention going to the clutch in the first set of photos, which is actually the most beautiful pyjama case I have ever found. The silver 'chevron' necklace worn with the first dress was made by my hugely talented friend Esme (she of the 'backbone' brooch in the header). Big thanks to Jo for organising this initiative. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Process of Writing

Bluebells are a motif both in my life and on my blog. The reason for their recurring appearances in photos is easy to explain – they are glorious and intriguing. They illuminate any image caught during their month’s blooming, but they are also frail, their stalks curving in the evening light; single bells suspended, but silent. They are a symbol of the twisted natural world where trees’ branches bend, shells are spiraling cones and bluebells have hunched backs. All subtly remind me of my previously kinked spine. My vertebrae resembled a bowed trunk or an ivy trail – my torso an example of nature’s unpredictable grasp. Perhaps this is why I return to these structures. They are proof that beauty doesn't have to be symmetrical or perfect.

These forms pop up regularly in my posts, exemplifying some of the persistent themes I return to. Something written in one article is expanded in another, perhaps inspiring a new thread or idea. The writing aspect of each post is my favourite part. It is also the trickiest - a process of taking the real, solid, observable world and translating parts of it into words and paragraphs. Thoughts snatched, plucked or painstakingly dredged become definite on the page and screen. Some are easier to articulate than others. I often feel like I'm grasping at something slightly out of the frame, fighting with letters and punctuation to make them sound and mean as intended.

I am, however, occasionally asked for tips on how to write. I find this hard to answer for several reasons. Although I want to devote my career to working with words, I regularly feel my own age limitations when it comes to what I write – sometimes only being able to outline things in my head rather than pin them down. I have a huge amount to learn and refine, which can only be achieved by continuing to practise, practise and practise some more. I am a novice, or perhaps an apprentice to writing. Also, the process is different for everyone. Some find their ‘voices’ relatively easily, while others struggle for years. I am still stretching out to explore the different possibilities and directions of mine.

But, there are several things that may help generally to improve writing, and they're tips that I try to stick to. The first is to read. Read the great authors and personal favourites to develop critical awareness of different approaches and voices, and then analyse the books you didn’t find brilliant for a lesson in what not to do. Then write. Write and revise, redraft at least twice, re-edit, polish several times, and then again after that. Check whether there any hidden words that snag like a thread caught on a thorn. Remove them. And if necessary, take apart and start again. Half the work is in removing sentences that don’t fit, letting the text become supple rather than slack or overly tense and loaded down. Read out loud and request an honest opinion from someone else. Be prepared to accept criticism, however much it hurts.

Constructive criticism is invaluable. This is not the irrelevant kind found in the one star reviews on Amazon – revelling in extensive moaning or offence – but the type integral to the process of learning to write, or work in any other creative area. Feedback may be painful, but it gives the rigour and technical grounding needed to improve. My mum tells me off for splitting infinitives or for adding in unnecessary adjectives, and slowly this has, I hope, filtered through so that I can pick up on the errors myself. To be able to criticize your own work and see its strengths and weaknesses means that then it can be improved and bettered. Each new piece is built on the foundations of what was written before.  

For me, the compulsion to write is driven by wanting to express my thoughts, feelings and observations about the world around me. I know my work is usually flowery – I am fond of similes and metaphors to conjure vivid images. I also have a never-ending fascination with the countryside, with clothes, with photography, with the past, and these themes seam themselves through my posts – as cyclical as the appearance of bluebells each year. 

My friend Flo, who is a sweet and beautiful person as well as a very talented photographer, took these photos as part of an extended two-way shoot during the recent flash of sun. We concluded the day with afternoon tea, a local play and then wine under the stars. I like the very naturalistic feel to these images, with a vintage dress and second hand jewellery. It's a pleasure to work with Flo wielding the camera, and I can always rely on the results to be fantastic. 
A final point on the subject of portrayals. Below are two portraits of me done by two wonderful artists. The first is by Lisa Jiang, a student with an incredible eye for faces, and the second by Andrea Barja, a South American illustrator whose drawings are often inspired by past decades. The two artworks arrived in quick succession in my inbox, and I was truly astounded that two such creative individuals had taken the time to draw me! Thank you so much to both. 


Friday, 1 June 2012


Mags’ favourite author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. She wanted a life full of glittering parties and scandal – waking each morning to days sewn around the edges with sequins. Hours would be measured by the number of diamond necklaces around her neck and it would be so dazzling that if the sun hit her she would refract, scattering rainbows like petals.

Instead, she was a check-out girl in a yellow fleece and brown trousers. The shabby uniform was a test, a trial to endure for six hours of the day, four days a week, while she served customers. “Would you like a bag with that? Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day”.
 The other three days were owned by her. They were smothered in silk robes recovered from skips, and velvet dresses bought in jumble sales. A cheap wardrobe from IKEA was filled with metallic fabrics and sleek satins. She wore lurex, beading, pailettes, shiny pleats – layering bronze and pewter shades until her eyes hurt. Then she walked in the sunshine, kicking through afternoon flowers alone.  

She spread jewels across every surface, draping them at the end of her bed and piling windowsills with glitter. To walk through her rooms was to hold ones breath, for fear of dislodging a mound of paste brooches or glass rings. The sparkle was a veneer though – any professional would note that the bracelets she clasped shut on her wrists were nothing more than costume jewellery.
It was habit that had begun in Mags’ early teens. Go to the shops, admire the market stall, slip the beads up her sleeve and wander away sedately. She’d felt the hidden items twinkling, and a place somewhere between her ribs had flickered with fear. But she justified these small liberties – told herself that they would not be missed, and were of little value. 'It was a cameo with a ‘£2.50’ label on it, not a Faberge egg'. Tiffany’s and De Beers and the other shops that lined Bond Street were mere fancies. She might occasionally visit a jewellery auction, but only to glimpse the lives of those who could afford Indian emeralds and filigree tiaras. She always assumed the part of course, hidden behind a smart black dress and a shawl, hair twisted and pinned with a starburst slide: like today. 

Mags didn’t even meant to take the necklaces. An auction assistant handed them to her - to “take a closer look at, ma’am” – and then lost focus, listening to the conversation of an attractive colleague. Mags could feel the cold weight in her hands, the way her translucent shawl was slipping down her arms. It was quarter to twelve. No one was looking at her, or listening to the urgent tick of the carriage clock on the next table. She snapped her fingers closed and took three long steps. No shouts or stares. One foot in front of another, shoulders held back, she walked towards the staff doors.

Two hours later, lying on a hillside, she fizzed. Blue lapis lazuli beads were strung around and around alongside pearls, silver and crystal and her sash was pinned by a brooch. The afternoon was full of yellow fields and dandelion clocks. Oh, to fly like the grating rooks or crows darting above her head. A magpie circled. One for sorrow. Another joined it. Two for joy. She stood up – the heat on her face replaced by a breeze. It stirred the edges of her shawl so that light fell through it. She raised a hand. The fabric swelled like water.

Tomorrow morning she would be slumped behind tills, jewellery replaced with the 10p glint of change, or perhaps a two-pound coin; concentric circles of silver and gold in her palm. For now, though, she was here: this day, this hour, this moment. The breeze snagged her shawl again. The necklaces were heavy around her neck, crystals cold on skin. A jay flashed against the blue. Two buzzards hovered. Sparrows swung in and out of sight. Mags was tethered by routines; responsibility caged her. She felt the next few weeks pushing towards her, pulling at her skirt and tangling her hair. Now the jewels were chains. Why had she done it? What had she risked for a handful of glitter? No, no, better to stay here and not to think about it. Or maybe better to flee. Her white wings were eager in the wind. Birds called. With a run and a jump she took off - arms quivering as fabric turned to feathers. A single magpie climbed the sky, joining the others. Five for silver turned to six for gold and they soared together across the clouds. 

'Magpie' - story by Rosalind Jana. Photos by Rosalind Jana. 
 Model - the always elegant Ellen.
 Clothes: all charity shopped or from flea markets. Costume jewellery: family hand-me-downs or   charity shopped.

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