Saturday, 27 October 2012

Stories of Suffolk

We emerged from inside, towels tied over swimming costumes and trunks. We crossed the garden, slid down steps and headed for the estuary. I was hesitant, tempted to return to the sluggish warmth of bed. Here it was crisp, a bite in the mud beneath my feet. For a last minute I lingered, offering a single toe to the water. Early morning stillness was broken by dad as he flung his towel over a grounded canoe. He waded along the partially submerged jetty and crouched down into the water. I followed, shivering but determined.
There is always a moment before yielding to the cold when everything feels foolish. There is a barrier to cross, a line between land and sea. But when it is broken, and the far-off town seems to be floating on the horizon of soft water as you swim, it is entirely worth it. More than worth it – worthy of celebration, of being alive. Submersion allows the world to be seen from a different perspective, sky and shore framed by every stroke. The boat anchored several meters out is now a target to be reached. Planks rear up and away from the water and frayed rope is passed whilst arcing back to land.
Dad and I were swimming in Suffolk. It was the third day of our family summer holiday and we were feeling brave. We reveled in the smell of salt and the smooth, fabric sheen of the estuary. Coffee and bacon waited back in the barn. It had been rented for the week. We were marking our brief territory: in the sand that returned with us on our feet and in our hair; in the books and papers we scattered on sofas; in the toothbrushes in the bathroom. My parents had decided to return to an area they had loved and visited when they were newly married. The names of towns were remembered and revisited: Aldeburgh, Snape Maltings, Southwold, Orford.
The last on that list offered the location for these photos. Orford Ness is a shingle spit sitting a short ferry ride away from the coast. It is some ten miles long, with a striped lighthouse crowning the outermost edge. It is an otherworldly place combining beauty with extreme bleakness. Desolation may be traced to the spit’s tangled military history. It used to be property of the Ministry of Defence, with the site used to test radar methods during WWII and, in the Cold War, atomic bombs. Echoes of this heritage are not just gleaned but actively amplified –explanations offered in the information center, with most of the original buildings still in place. Many are out of bounds, but their presence is enough to unsettle. The National Trust has left them to decay. Roofs sag and moss grows as entropy eats at history. As brick and metal subside, visitors follow the carefully marked paths around the island. We spent several hours exploring. Where soldiers and scientists had trod we now followed. Charcoal clouds were overlaid with sunshine, light and dark co-existing in much the same way as the stories of the spit. See Robert Macfarlane's piece for further meditation on the place. 
Across from Orford Ness sits Shingle Street: a coastal hamlet we had already visited one evening. While there, we had noticed the glow of gaslights through the windows of a lone house on the beach. It was a pilgrimage – a return to the place we had stayed at twice when I was first baby, then toddler. It had been easy to be washed to sleep by the sound of waves on stones. I have little memory of the place beyond the yellow swimming costume I wore to paddle in. Dad filled gapped recollections with accounts of the walks, the writing, the laughter that had taken place there. It was a location rife with the resonances of extended family – of my grandma joining us on holiday, of my uncle (who died before I was born) spending time there with my dad in the late eighties. Together they had sought out the best food in Suffolk. We followed similar routes this time, with plenty of googling and research leading us coffee and lunch all over the county. Pump Street Bakery ranked high on the list, while numerous flat whites were tried in the course of the six days. The week was full of golden moments: hiring bikes and coasting through the countryside, walking along the paths that criss-cross the mud flats, wrapping newly bought smoked fish and cheese to carry in backpacks, taking photos, eating freshly cooked Thai food in a pop-up street cafĂ©. We created our own memories and moments. The images we hold of Suffolk now have double exposures: new overlaying the old.   

The outfit is best summed up as impromptu - merely being what I had decided to wear on the day of visiting Orford Ness. All items were second hand, dug out of my suitcase as I was being told off for not being ready sooner. But in some ways I rather love the way that the landscape took precedence over the outfit. Dramatic colours and shapes were not needed when facing the expansive, extraordinary location. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Sweet Rose

My great-grandma – Nana - died this morning. Ever since I can remember, she always called me her “sweet rose.” She was ninety-five: born in 1917 as the last flames of the First World War flared. She lived through almost a century of history, but to her it wasn’t history – merely life. She had a sweet, loving heart that was squeezed by her upbringing. Her father was a Methodist minister, and she grew up being taught that other people’s needs were more important than hers. Her parents expected their only child to have a smile for the public, practised in front of a mirror and then worn at all times like a paper cut-out. If she showed preference for certain toys then they were taken away and given to someone else deemed more needy. Her treasured dolls' house was a casualty of this process, something she never forgot. She was forbidden from forming any meaningful friendships – for if she favoured one girl then her parents claimed she would upset the others.
These rules and expectations echoed through the rest of her life. Nana had no space to flourish, and so developed a tendency towards self-destruction.  She was an extraordinarily talented painter and pianist. Despite such talents, at nineteen she was told she could not continue a study of music as it was time for her to become engaged. At twenty-one she married the man to whom she had been betrothed at birth. He was five years older than her, and had held her when she was a few days old – their parents setting out the future for the two of them. Nana was a product of the times; property handed from father to husband. She was expected to fulfill the twin roles of housewife and mother.  But there was luck. My great-grandfather was a considerate, sensitive man who had no desire to assert his power, and the two of them lived in a sibling-like relationship. He was a primary school teacher, on his way to becoming a head teacher, but joined the RAF at the start of WWII; making use of his Cambridge maths degree to train young men in radar use. He was barely home for six years, with only sporadic visits back to his wife and only child (my mum’s mum). But this was no exception, merely the rule of a time when everyone was working through varying degrees of personal loss and trauma.
At this point my great-grandma moved back in with her parents, who had an open-house policy for all servicemen passing through Stratford upon Avon. It was perhaps one of her happiest times, with the duties of war giving Nana a defined role. She had purpose - helping out in the canteen, and spending her evenings driving around a projectionist who set up film showings for troops. Once a young couple arrived at her parents’ house with nowhere to stay. They had been married that day, rushing into matrimony before the RAF pilot returned to duty the next morning. Nana gave up her bed – laying out fresh sheets and flowers – so that the newlyweds might have a proper wedding night.  It was a moment of true selflessness, my great-grandma wanting to be the agent of someone else’s brief happiness.

For the seventeen years I knew her, the last four were characterized by extreme dementia. She still referred to me as her “Rose” when I saw her, but she was confused – asking my mum how my career as a high court judge was going (when I was sixteen), and whether my brother enjoyed his job as an engineer (at age eleven). Her days were full of fantasy – populated with television personalities she regarded as personal friends, and family members who had long since died. There were flashes of warmth as she said “thank you duckie” or referred to my mum by her nickname. But she was frail, hanging onto life with ever-aging hands. The news today was sudden, but not unexpected. 

When my mum was with her this morning, she described Nana as looking like a “tiny alabaster saint”. It’s easy to glorify those who have passed away, as though the tensions and problems of previous years are cancelled out. But this is not a hymn to my great-grandma. Instead it is a folk-song: a narrative recalling her in all her beauty and her unhappiness. She was both extraordinary and ordinary, as perhaps we all are. She saw a country change from gas lights and horse-drawn milk-floats to the internet and fast cars. In fact, in the late 1970s she insisted that my great-grandpa bought a bright yellow TR7 sports car for them both to drive – upgrading from the rather more mundane mini. This is one of the many snapshot tales that define her. It is part of remembering and celebrating someone to share their stories, and we keep them as heirlooms – carefully folded; ready to shake out and to pass down.  

She is survived by her only grandchild (my mum), two great-grandchildren (me and my brother) and a niece.

Roses seemed particularly appropriate for this post. The vintage dress I'm wearing (in shots taken a few months ago) is very similar to one that we have slides of my great-grandma wearing. And at the moment there is a framed photo sitting on our kitchen table, the image showing my great-grandfather in his garden, framed by banks of bright flowers and roses. Nana had it in her bag when she was taken to hospital for the final time. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Two Minds

Marcus Dawes for LFW Daily

The Topshop Tumblr

Cognitive dissonance is a phrase used to describe being in two minds at once – the ability to hold entirely opposing views at the same time. It’s the perfect definition of my current feelings towards London Fashion Week, and by extension to the industry in general.

I love fashion. I wouldn’t have this blog if I didn’t. I think that dressing up is magnificent, with personal style a powerful and satisfying form of creativity. It can be playful, whimsical, dramatic – whichever adjective is best suited. My friend Stella claims that: “every outfit reflects a bit of me, a piece of art that I have created.” ‘Expression’ is an over-used term, but it captures the essence of the potential found in clothes. What you wear can tell a story, convey personality (or obscure it), provide an antidote to routine and make life a touch more joyous. I have a wardrobe pregnant with velvet and tulle, seventies dresses and kilts, printed shirts and fringed tops. Hats cover every surface, jewellery drapes the dressing table and belts hang like creepers on the back of my door. My room is glutted on style, and I relish the prospect of getting dressed each morning.
I’m also entranced by those designers who elevate cutting and stitching to an art form: the late Alexander McQueen placing models in Russian princess style costumes, Mary Katrantzou enlarging a type-writer print on a cape that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bodleian library, Corrie Nielsen tailoring dresses to mimic flowers. The brilliance of fashion is demonstrated in these designs – in the colours, the structures, the narratives behind the collections. It is an industry of rich heritage – from Schiaparelli’s avant-garde creations to Chanel’s casual couture – with new innovators emerging every year.

And yet, beneath this beautifully trimmed exterior, there are elements of the fashion industry that I am less comfortable with. I’m uneasy in the knowledge that many clothes (high street and high end alike) are produced in factories where workers are exploited and rivers stained with dyes and chemicals. I have qualms over the body shape that models are expected – nay required – to conform to. I’m aware that there is something suspect in the success and celebration of a luxury market at a time when unemployment in the UK stands in the region of 2.56 million. These are brief generalisations, but typify a few of my recent multi-layered thoughts. How do I reconcile promotion of and immersion in a world I don’t always feel proud of? Can I enjoy certain aspects of the industry whilst criticizing others?

The short answer is ‘of course’. As humans we naturally hold conflicting views and are fickle in switching when suited. Opinions evolve and change. But these chattering questions became clamorous at London Fashion Week. The experience is always intense – both incredible and ever-so-slightly unsettling. As usual, I was swept away by the theatricality (which I discussed in an article for Lionheart magazine) - with the combination of collections and well-dressed attendees providing a visual feast. Bora Aksu’s show was ethereal and fairytale-like; Fyodor Golan suggested both fragility and strength in a corset of shattered porcelain; Ji Cheng’s pieces inspired by Chinese tea-brewing rituals were airy and earthy. I eyed up Pachacuti’s hats in icecream shades and stroked Junky Styling’s practical, boy scout-esque capes.

I also had fun planning what to wear – with Charlotte Taylor silk prints on one day, and a second hand Moschino floral-embroidered blazer on another. However, I left LFW feeling a little ambivalent about the nature of street style. I’ve listed a range of talented photographers before – Dvora, Vanessa, Candice and Marcus among them – whose work I value and enjoy. LFW affords the chance to dress up in the company of other people interested in aesthetics. Nonetheless, this season I realized that I subconsciously judged my outfits according to how many photographers asked to snap it. It’s a precarious point to be at, where self-worth (or at least satisfaction) is reactionary – informed by the opinions of others. I like to stress the importance of doing things for oneself, but it is easier preached than practised. The outfit pictured above roused the most attention, and as a result I felt happy with it. It has no more intrinsic worth than what I wore on the other two days, and of course style is also in the eye of the beholder, but does that mean that it stands out as being the most ‘successful’?

There has been a general cloud of chatter around street style this season, focused primarily on two criticisms: outlandishness and commercialism. The former is harder to define, as some of the best-dressed people I know are deliciously outlandish. But they are authentic – not ornamenting themselves purely for the flash of a camera. The latter, commercialism, is manifested in the showcasing of the ‘latest’ heels or the ‘hottest’ handbags on the arms of show goers. Again, I know there is a gossamer thin line to tread. I  asked to borrow a Charlotte Taylor top because I completely believe in her vision, and wished to wear one of her beautiful pieces. I received no financial compensation, and chose the cabbage pattern as being something I would want to buy and wear myself. But there has been a general shift from street style as a celebration of creativity to a further form of (often covert) advertising.

This is neither a full-blown criticism of the industry, or a defence of it at all costs. I like to challenge those who claim that fashion is frivolous or without substance, but also want to acknowledge that it is by no means a perfect business. The first step to change is discussion. I haven’t suggested any ways to rectify the issues I have raised (although I certainly hope to explore this in the future). I just wanted to air them – shake them out and hold them up in full view. 

Dress - sixties' vintage (a Christmas present), felt hat - vintage (Oxfam), chelsea boots - charity shop, socks - formerly my grandma's, pale grey long jacket - Max Mara (charity shop), belt - great grandmother's, jewelry - family hand-me-downs, small blue satchel bag - charity shop.

By the way, I finally set up a Clothes, Cameras and Coffee Facebook page - a little empty at the moment, but hopefully not for long. 
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