Monday, 31 March 2014


Velvet is a fabric unlike many others. Some hold a special affection for its luxury, screeching, “I looooooove velvet!” when a particularly choice plum blazer or blue dress is mentioned. You rarely hear people saying, “Oh my, I am the biggest fan of linen!” or “Yes, I collect items made of nylon – can’t get enough.” Cotton and wool are too ubiquitous to merit specific attention, while things like lurex or crimplene attract a pretty niche fan-base. Silk, satin and tweed might provoke similar excitement, comparable in their sense of extravagance, but velvet still rules the roost.

It’s a conversation starter. When wearing my black velvet trousers or red velvet mini-dress, I’ve had compliments aplenty. Several people have informed me that they collect velvet clothing, and they spontaneously reel off lists of what they own. It’s also a tactile fabric, one of the few aside from feathers or faux-fur where it’s acceptable to ask, “Could I just stroke that?” 

A fabric of extremes, it's a texture adored by some, loathed by others. Counterbalancing the appreciation brigade are those who can’t stand the look or touch of it. It’s one of the more common materials to have a phobia of: that strange, slippery-soft feel being repulsive to a few.

I used to be ambivalent towards velvet. It reminded me of my dimly remembered, late maternal grandmother, revisiting a sort of adolescence as she walked around the local town in long skirts and bare feet in 1999; of photos of my parents in their new age phase during the the early nineties. Velvet was the preserve of patchwork trousers and crystal healing, associated with clothes sold on the kind of stalls found at fetes and fairs where other wares included incense, plastic bangles, felted hats and belly button studs.

I discovered its merits later. My mum had some fabulous vintage items squirreled away, including an emerald-green velvet two-piece suit, found when she was a student. Probably sixties in origin, the matching skirt and jacket were a cut above casual evening wear. Other items came to light, more discovered in charity shops and markets: a black fifties gown with a velvet bodice and taffeta skirt, an eighties Monsoon short, green velvet dress with long sleeves and a sweetheart neckline, a bright blue velvet top, various long skirts in shades of mauve and turquoise. It’s a versatile fabric that finds itself shaped into all sorts of accessories from hats and bags to shoes, gloves and scarves. When the quality is good (especially silk based) then it’s gratifyingly lavish.

Even the adjective ‘velvety’ is interesting. It suggests opulence in one context, softness in another. Voices are depicted as velvety, as are smooth lakes and dusky evenings. It can be suggestive, sexy, evocative or (often) clichéd. Restaurant critics use it to describe food; travel writers to convey views. Compare it with: silken hair, satin seas, corduroy fields or skin like old leather. They're all recognizable similes and metaphors, both the visual and cultural significance of certain fabrics lending themselves to imagery we're all too familiar with. 

Another set of photos taken a shockingly long time ago - perhaps last September? However, today I'm thinking about the allure of the fabric as I'm wearing one of my favourite blue velvet dresses. All clothes pictured are second hand - assembled from various charity shops, family members and vintage markets. As a result, I'm linking this in to Bella's #SECONDHANDFIRST  post - you can read more on it here.


Sunday, 23 March 2014


Photos: Jacob Sacks-Jones/ Tinite Photography/

I caught the train back last Sunday. One of those spring afternoons where the temperature  is on the brink of hinting at summer – nudging you in the ribs as everyone bares more skin than seen in months. All the typical Oxford clichés were out: full, pink blossom trees; buildings with warm stone shaded gold; river filled with punts. Already there had been a thinning, with the first wave of students leaving the day before. Boxes had been packed and cars loaded up, buses or trains taken by some, plane tickets checked for others. Not quite a complete dispersal. Plenty remained – exams to revise for, jobs to do, work to complete, for a (lucky) few a city to enjoy for a while without continual, impending deadlines.
I didn’t want to depart. I did, but I didn’t. There were things to look forward to at home: improved sleep, good meals, more head space,  fewer distractions, big hills to climb, friends to visit, adventures with my family. But what about all the adventures I was leaving? I didn’t want to make the transition from city to village, from close proximity to cafes to a car journey to reach the nearest small town, from social life to solitary wanderings.

Now I’ve been back for a week, the sedate routine I’ve returned to feels fitting - natural. It’s like slipping into a pair of well-worn shoes, the leather so soft they mould to your feet immediately; they may not have been put on for months, but there they are, just the same, ready for use once more. This particular half of my life is one that exists on a more expansive scale: more clothes to choose in my wardrobe, more books to browse from endless shelves, more space both in my room and beyond the front door, more food in the fridge, more time for writing, creating, talking, working, walking, and, as always, procrastinating. Yet at the same time it’s smaller. In this split existence, divided between two homes and two modes of being, this is the quieter half. No constant shifts from library to late night cocktails and vigorous dancing. No nagging feeling that every hour of the day should be spent doing something. No writing essays up until two minutes before the deadline. No sense that a night in is a night wasted. There’s still plenty to do right now – I’m balancing numerous projects ranging from academic to professional to creative – but it takes place at an altered pace, in a very different space.

When I'm in Oxford, I can’t imagine being here at home. But when I’m here, Oxford feels far-removed. The evening I got back, I sat down to family dinner, climbed into bed and slotted back in where I’d left off. Of course, it’s not quite the same. Wherever we go, we bring with us the accumulation of what went before. Each time I return home, it’s with a newly tuned perspective and set of experiences – in the same way that each fresh term at university will be informed by what happened in the holidays preceding it. I get to inhabit two lives in tandem. They blur of course, smudging into each other so that the separations aren’t always clear. But I’m happy with that.

For we are creatures of adaptation. Most of us are chameleons. We might not change our colours according to the background shade of our environment (tempting thought), but we can slide between different places, people and pastimes with relative ease. It’s done all the time on a small scale as we flit from one type of interaction to another, altering everything from behaviour to topics of conversation to language used, adjusted between encounters. The situation or type of relationship informs any number of choices we barely think about consciously. What register is used? What responses are given?  Body language? How much of ourselves do we reveal, how much do we conceal? Are we open or protective? Giggling as rude jokes are cracked, or business-like as serious things are discussed? A single day can require all these facets and more. They’re all part and parcel of the same person, but from slightly different angles according to context. None of us have just that one mirror image that captures and characterizes us – for the whole is made up of these multiple, ever-changing, always-expanding reflections. 

These shots are by the very skilled photographer and student Jacob Sacks-Jones (see more of his work on his website Tinite Photography). They were taken for The Oxford Student (one of the university newspapers). It was a rather glorious morning as Alys and I raided the bulging rails of The Ballroom Emporium at the bottom end of Cowley Road, seeking out appropriate items to style. The choice was pretty overwhelming. The shop is divided into two parts - one selling vintage, and the other selling and hiring ball gowns. Our eventual theme was a juxtaposition of masculine and feminine, lighter fabrics offset with heavier coats and, for the final outfit, blue velvet britches. That one did feel vaguely Robinson Crusoe, I must admit. The gold and silver shoes are mine (ASOS). 
The location being on the roundabout, we got our fair share of intrigued pedestrians and bus passengers staring out the window as they swooped past - and even a fleeting cameo from a builder who jumped into one of the frames. 

In other news, I wrote a piece on spinal surgery and my ongoing ambivalence towards the appearance of my back for beauty website ThandieKay - a brilliant platform set up by actress Thandie Newton and make-up artist Kay Montano. 
Also, my friend Flo very deservedly won a Dulux/Guardian competition photography category, with the winning images drawn from her rich, colourful archive of our collaborative shoots. You can see the announcement and photographs here - they will soon be published in the Guardian Weekend too. Rather fittingly, one is from the photo-shoot in the post below this. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Few Favourite Essays

If you asked me to define what an essay means to me, I’d have two separate answers. The first is completed weekly for my course, considering genre or language or fragmented identity. The second type is written for my blog - the careful choice and exploration of a particular subject, topic or issue. Similarly, there are various forms of essay I love to read, both critical and creative (with plenty of crossover between the two). Some time ago, a reader asked if I might give some recommended ones to read. It was a hard list to whittle down, and is by no means a comprehensive overview of all my favourite essays – a tricky thing to compile in an age where the lines between essay, opinion column, book review and blog post have been rubbed out and redrawn. So this is just a small handful of pieces that have influenced, encouraged, motivated, dazzled, provoked and left lasting impressions.  I have given links where possible. 

  • ·      I first read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ at sixteen, thrilled on discovering that a form I'd previously thought dry and analytical could become so alive under the right pen. Charting female literary heritage, changing values and the craft of writing, her essay is a treatise on everything from emancipation to observations that “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built… into arcades or domes.  (See also ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, ‘The Leaning Tower’ and anything else of hers you can lay your hands on. ‘The Decay of Essay-Writing’ and ‘The Modern Essay’ are both fascinating looks at the form itself.)

  • ·      Is there a distinction between autobiography and essay? Hilary Mantel’s reflections on her time in hospital following surgery could qualify as a diary entry or short memoir piece, but also forms a powerful essay on hallucination, pain and being a patient. Her body is stripped back to its messy functions and malfunctions, experiencing “the iambic pentameter of the saline stand, the alexandrine of the blood drain, the epidural’s sweet sonnet form.” (See also her essay on Kate Middleton and the concept of the royal body here.)

  • ·      Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Place Before the Flood’ ruminates on her four-day stay in a boat atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (an installation based on the Roi des Belges from Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’). As gorgeous as the rest of her prose, here she becomes “a slow shutter-speed camera” to record “the tide of people flowing over the tide of the river.” As she sees and captures, “the boat itself bears witness to the unspeakable strangeness of life.” It can be heard as a podcast here.

  • ·      Laurie Lee’s ‘Writing Autobiography’ has been mentioned before, but these concluding sentences further illuminate his mastery of thought and image: “The autobiographer’s self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own – though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours. The dead stick ‘I’, like the staff of the maypole, can be the centre of the turning world, or it can be the electric needle that picks up and relays the thronging choirs of life around it.” (See also ‘An Obstinate Exile’ and ‘First Love’. All are taken from the exquisite collection ‘I Can’t Stay Long’.)

  • ·      ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ demonstrates George Eliot’s sharp intellect and keen wit in criticising the type of ‘silly’ books that “we imagine, are less the result of labour than of busy idleness,” concluding that the novel should be a form “free from rigid requirements… we have only to pour in the right elements – genuine observation, humour and passion.” 

  • ·      I’ve mentioned my treasured second-hand find, ‘A Book of English Essays’ before, discussing Maurice Hewlett’s ‘The Maypole and the Column’ here. There are other essays in the compilation worth mentioning too, particularly William Hazlitt’s ‘On Going on a Journey’, which perfectly captures the serenity of a solitary walk: “I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.” 

  • ·      Walter Pater’s Conclusion to ‘The Renaissance’ is another one difficult to condense into a word or two. It’s an intriguing ‘live-in-the-moment’ manifesto, an aesthetic theory, a stunning piece of writing. The prose twists and turns, yielding comments such as, “the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind,” and “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” and “what we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions.” 

  • ·      George Orwell’s ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ is an interesting discussion of the reasons given by some for not buying books – concluding that, at the time of writing, reading is the cheapest pastime after the radio. This passage is particularly resonant: “there are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost, in terms of money, may be the same in each case.”

Then there are the essays and essayists I am still meaning to read – Joan Didion, for example, and Susan Sontag, as well as the whole volume of ‘The Oxford Book of English Essays’ (ed. John Gross). I’d love other people’s suggestions to stack up on my ‘to read’ list too, so please do let me know if you have favourites that you think worth sharing. 

I thought this outfit seemed somewhat appropriate, as it's the kind of thing I'd wear for a day of lazing around reading essays (although perhaps minus the belt and heels). Everything I'm wearing is vintage or second hand. The photos were taken last summer by the ever-fabulous, always-industrious Florence Fox.  

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