Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Telling Tales

This was first published in Lionheart magazine, and can still be read in the current issue number 4 - pick up a copy for a whole array of wonderful and whimsical articles. Also, massive congratulations to the editor Helen Martin, who is now the mother of a beautiful baby. 

Fairytales are often one of our first forays into the world of fiction – a strange place of stories, make-believe and moral quandaries. The characters captured by the Brothers Grimm and other collectors trip off the tongue with more ease than lists of Prime Ministers or previous monarchs: Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel, Gretel, Rapunzel, Beauty. Each demonstrates the power of a name, and the associations that rise with each mention.
The name is usually known from a variety of versions. Any number of anthologies, stand-alone books and (of course) Disney films have either adopted or adapted Snow White and fellow cast. There are subtle differences between the published re-tellings, like different photos of the same subject. It is the framing, light, location and expression that change. Carol Ann Duffy or Philip Pullman’s recent interpretations may start from common ground but wander down different paths in their use of language and characterization.
This is, of course, only appropriate. Fairytales often, but not always, have their source in oral folklore. In the time preceding formal literature, it wasn’t that one story tumbled after another in natural progression, but that tales were assimilated into a continual cycle of birth and death. Protagonists and plots were handed down much like the audio equivalent of heirlooms. The Greek concept of Xenia suggested that a well-told-tale was an adequate gift in return for food and shelter. Stories were a currency that, unlike money, could be spread endlessly with positive consequences. This has a global implication. Every continent and country has its own literary heritage that once existed, according to Angela Carter, in “the memory and mouth” of the individuals that inherited, shaped and told these common tales. Similarities often occur. Cinderella also appears as Aschenputtel in Germany and Cap O’Rushes in Ireland, and that’s just before we move outside Europe to look at the multitude of African and Asian versions.
This diversity demonstrates that the vast majority of storytellers, be they parents or travellers, took pre-existing matter and shaped it according to their own means, so as to entertain or explain things beyond understanding. Language was a tool long before humans learnt to write and place imagination on paper. The spoken word is truly democratic, costing nothing and common to us all.
According to popular legend, all literature in existence can be traced back to just seven archetypal plots. These are simplistically laid out by Christopher Booker as: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. To attempt to slot each fairytale into one of these listed categories may reduce it merely to its skeleton, rather than taking account of the flesh padding the bones, but it does demonstrate that there are certain narrative shapes or arcs common to many.
But are these arcs still appropriate to our age? Feminist criticism has focused on the role of women in traditional fairytales – absent mothers, wicked stepmothers, fairy godmothers (noticing a maternal theme here?), gorgeous princesses and innocent girls awaiting a prince or other hero. Stereotypes have been unpicked, the expectations of male bravery and female passivity torn apart and analysed. As early as the 1950s Simone De Beavoir was observing that “In a song and story… [the girl] is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep; she waits.”
Some have responded to this imbalance by changing or subverting the traditional roles. In Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ Beauty becomes a tiger, Red Riding sleeps with the wolf and a vampiress dies after her first exposure to human compassion. Carter’s work is rife with rich imagery, exploration of relationships, bawdy humour, gruesome (often gothic) detail, startling twists and physicality.
It’s appropriate considering that fairytales can be claimed to allow us to safely explore the dark side of the human psyche. Every rose or drop of blood is a symbol of something else. Dark woods with a malevolent atmosphere are prevalent. Witches, wolves, giants, scheming family members and cruel suffering lurk in the shadows. These motifs surface again and again. They work through allusion, the safe world of the fairytale standing in for the sometimes unsafe world we live in.  Many of the narratives known today have been snipped down from far more violent or unsettling sources and re-tailored into something considered more palatable for widespread consumption. Threat is often implicit in these cut down fairytales – the significance usually recognized when they are read again with older eyes. When young, the joy is in a well-woven story. 
It’s interesting that the language used to describe fairytales shares similarities with the warp and weft of fabric – the stitching of narrative, spinning of a good yarn, patch-working of plots, embroidery of details. These descriptions I use are not new. Many have noted the fact that the seamed story or underpinning theme has become a mainstay of the metaphorical discourse surrounding fairytales and oral storytelling. 
That idea of weaving extends beyond the tale too, aptly encapsulating the way in which fairytales have entwined and influenced contemporary culture. New interpretations are spun onscreen; magazines continue to plunder the vault of narratives for photographic inspiration (particularly in the work of Annie Leibovitz and Tim Walker); we regularly use fairy tale characters as shorthand for various experiences or types of people; thesis’ are written on their significance. We may acknowledge that the fairytale world is sometimes outdated – for indeed it originates from a past of different values and expectations – but it’s surprising how often the content still resonates in our fast-paced, fantasy hungry modern lives. 

I wanted to dress up in a suitably fairy tale style costume. This vintage red lace dress cost the grand total of 99p on eBay, bought by my mum a few years ago. The chiffon sleeves are slowly decaying into shreds, but still lend themselves to the most magnificent gestures and swishing of the arms.

As a quick side note, votes for me in The hClub100 still very much appreciated! All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, for whom I sometimes write, have also been shortlisted. They don't have the resources of some of the others on the list, but deserve every marker of success - they are doing genuinely good, constructive, pragmatic stuff in encouraging fashion diversity. Votes for them will be gratefully received. Thank you also the the ever-inspiring Izzy for this piece on online friendships, the power of communication and connections that stretch across the globe. 

Friday, 18 October 2013


Reverse several weeks. The calm of reading inside while showers waltzed with wind. The lull of a warm living room. That’s where I wanted to stay, not venturing out into the grey with my parents for an hour and a half’s car journey on a quest for the UK’s tallest waterfall. But I was persuaded otherwise, told that I might regret it and that Elizabeth Gaskell could wait. The next morning we drove to Pistyll Rhaeadr.

It was an unplanned interlude for me, but a preconceived idea for my dad. He wanted to swim in the dark pool frothed by falling water and I took my camera in order to snap him in that freezing moment. My mum and I watched from the rocks as he waded in, squawking up a racket until the moment of ducking beneath the surface. I’ve seen him do this many times, but there’s still something magnificent in watching the subsequent explosion of a head emerging from the water in a plume of spray.

Then, this being Wales, it rained. We retreated to the car for a flask of coffee. So far, so predictable. We even had foil-wrapped sandwiches. But there was real pleasure in sitting in a dry space, watching drizzle hit the windscreen and being warmed by the coffee. Mundane moments perhaps, but memorable nonetheless.

When it cleared we pulled on boots again and walked back to the waterfall - a staggering sight. The scale is overwhelming; the continuous motion, the plunge and stretch and power. It suggests something of the concept of the sublime, roughly defined as a combination of awe, grandeur and (sometimes) terror; the acknowledgment of things beautiful and vast.

Aesthetic theory aside, it was also an extraordinarily gorgeous place that shrieked, "great backdrop for a style shoot". Yet I had no make-up on, (and none with me), my hair was barely brushed and I was swaddled in an oversized, fringed cape to ward off the cold. What I was wearing underneath had been flung on between brushing my teeth and grabbing reading material for the journey. And despite the fortuitous mix of lace skirt and velvet jacket (proving previous claims that I really do go hill-walking in the most impractical of get-ups), it needed a little something else. But what?

Nothing to hand other than the landscape around us: damp stones and soft, mossed trees and thick ferns. The ferns were the solution. Mum twisted and tugged a few fronds until I had a sheaf of green to work with. I plaited together three strands to form half a crown, then did the same again, knotting the stems of the two sides together, before wrapping additional leaves around to strengthen the structure. This wet and rather muddy bit of weaving felt like a satisfying achievement when the crown was pulled down over my hair. What better accessory than something created on the spot from 'found' materials? It was one part Cicely Mary Barker, one part Fairie-ality, with a dash of the childish glee found in making daisy chain necklaces or twig tiaras.

Improvisation in unlikely circumstances is exciting. I like the quality of spontaneity required, the on-the-spot creativity. Whether it’s an unscheduled outing, a foraged wild picnic or a quick invention, all are in the spirit of doing something here, now, because you can. And my, how marvellous the experience. 

Everything I'm wearing is charity shopped second hand, from the velvet jacket to the Jones' Bootmakers battered boots. 

Friday, 11 October 2013


An unusually brief bit of text here. Between library inductions and exploring a new city, time is short and distractions ever-present. 
However, I was astonished and delighted to be told this week that I'd been shortlisted for the Hospital Club x Guardian Professionals Network 'h.Club100'. This is "a national search for the most innovative, interesting and influential people in the British creative and media industries." I'm among the thirty chosen for the 'Publishing & Writing' category, which will then be whittled down through public voting to a final selection of ten. It's both shockingly unexpected and pretty extraordinary to appear alongside so many individuals I respect and admire, such as Caitlin Moran, James Daunt and the late Iain Banks. 
Considering the calibre of the list, I have no expectation of making the final ten, but I would very much appreciate it if any readers wanted to complete a quick vote for me. The news was a huge spark of excitement at a time of uprooting and transition. 

You can see the Guardian article here

This gorgeous dress was bought from one of Mary's Living & Giving charity shops in London. I always appreciate the quality of the clothes to be found on the rails. It's originally from the ASOS Africa range, a fantastic initiative supporting local communities and sustainable business. Everything else is second hand and vintage, apart from the Faber copy of Seamus Heaney's 'Beowulf' which was bought in all its new, matt glory for my Anglo-Saxon studies ahead.  


Sunday, 6 October 2013

Marching On

Last week my room became a maze of dresses, shoes, shorts, silk scarves and coats flung over chairs. Requiring careful navigation as I tiptoed around jumpers and scrabbled for paperwork under piles of laundry, this clothes-labyrinth has now been folded away into suitcases. Yet despite packing two months’ worth of outfits in preparation for university, my wardrobe still bulges around the edges. Slightly more breathing space between each coat hanger, but to the outside eye it seems that nothing has disappeared.

Under the circumstances, shouldn’t I be considering thinning out my clothes, not amassing more? It’s a good aim. I managed to root out four boxes of items earlier this summer (now sitting in the loft, waiting to be sold/donated). But I am still too entranced by old ball gowns and ankle boots to dispense with any more. Things will just have to continue surging in and out of my room like brightly patterned flotsam. Fresh items from charity shops and vintage stalls replace their predecessors. 

In addition to my adoration of all things second hand, I’m continuing in my commitment to buying new sustainable items from time to time. Latest on the list is the soldier print shift shown above. A collaboration between Peter Jensen and People Tree, it’s fantastic to know that the cotton is organic and that those who cut and stitched the dress were enabled by their work rather than exploited. Moreover, it’s fun, accessible, versatile and desirable, showing marks of thoughtful design. I wish that more items like this were generally available. The terms ‘ethics’ and ‘aesthetics’ are often shackled together, yet I’d like the two to be more often matched in practice as well as words. It would be so exciting to see more fairly traded clothes that catered to a younger, style-savvy market: clothes that stretched from breathtakingly inventive to casually wearable; clothes that make eyes widen at the sheer beauty of design. At the very least, ethically made clothes that compete head-to-head with the kind of sought-after items found in Topshop and Zara. This dress does it for me.  

At the luxury end of the scale, headway has been made by Livia Firth and others. I was particularly impressed by her latest venture, the GCC2013 partnership with Net-a-Porter resulting in five designers lending their expertise to a sustainable capsule collection. Unveiled at LFW with the support of Natalie Massenet and Anna Wintour, the items range from a Roland Mouret black silk tuxedo-style jumpsuit to an Erdem white satin dress suited to the prettiest of (strong and independent) princesses. They cater for well-heeled consumers, certainly, but are no more expensive than many other gowns on the website.

What Massenet also does so brilliantly through her roles at both N-a-P and the BFC is to support independent British design. Although I can’t afford the clothes, I can at least show appreciation through writing – discussing the artistry of Corrie Nielsen and Mary Katrantzou, or the sharp colour contrasts of Roksanda Ilincic (or looking across the channel to covet the odd Chanel dress). On a more practical level, my next venture is to do more research into British-produced brands.

Fashion as an industry exists on various levels, broadly embodied in the divide between high end and high street, with several steps in between. One isn’t necessarily better than the other when it comes to production, and often it’s reliant on the individual company or conglomerate (Lucy Siegle has an interesting breakdown on what’s finally being done by groups such as Inditex and Arcadia six months after Rana Plaza).

Presently, it's difficult to make every individual clothing choice sustainable, just as it’s almost impossible for most of us to use technology entirely free from environmental, societal or worker damage. But that doesn't stop one trying to make active choices as and when we possibly can. 

People Tree dress accompanied by an array of vintage items and other hand-me-down-from-family accessories. One of the reasons I do hoard certain clothes (such as my late great grandmother's silk blouse worn under the dress above) is because they fit into a versatile 'for ever' category: "can I see myself continuing to wear this in 5, 10, 15 years time?" If the answer is yes, I keep it. I may have a bulging wardrobe, but the contents get well worn. 
Last image snapped very quickly as the only car in 15 minutes hurtled along just as I'd stretched out my legs.
© Rosalind Jana | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig