Sunday, 27 July 2014

Secret Gardens

I have an enduring interest in gardens. Well, I do when I think about it. Give me a book on garden design or talk to me about plants and I'm more than likely to glaze over. But take me to one - be it the smallest nook or the grandest, most fancy affair - and I'm ever so happy.

I think it started as a child. As may be unsurprising, I loved 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Tumbledown, part-abandoned gardens known only to a few seemed so exciting - satisfying in their suggestion of times past, the way that plants could reclaim once pristine ground. 
Our own garden is small. It's functional - erring over into looking pretty come early summer, but a standard stretch of grass and hedge for the rest of the year. It has been home to dens, a semi-treehouse and many afternoons lying outside with books - but it has never been somewhere I thought of as being magical or on the fantastical fringes of my imagination.

But my neighbours' garden? That was something else entirely. Little paths, a pond, herbs, vegetable patches - all packed into a long, thin strip of land hidden behind tall hedges. But it wasn't for any of those reasons that I used to visit. No, it was for the rose garden. I say 'garden' - it was really more of a little boxed in square patch of ground overrun with thorns and flowers. But I adored it. The chance to stand there and take in big lungfuls of that delicate rose scent. The sight of these bright explosions of petals, soft to the touch. The few pink roses we had trailing in our garden were paltry by comparison.

Maybe that's actually what I love - other people's gardens. I'm nosy as anything (park me in me a room that a friend is absent from and I'll be perusing the bookshelves in no time), and gardens are ripe with the possibility to explore. Growing up rurally, there were plenty of chances to go to 'Open Garden Days' - whimsical little insights into other people's lives. There'd be scones and jam at the village hall, and plenty of green spaces to look around. There's something very special about being invited into a space that's usually private - being given the privilege of sitting on a bench at the end of a winding walkway or peering around corners at greenhouses. From the smallest rockeries to the largest acres of field and garden, it would be hard to get bored. The normal boundaries of what's off-limits and what's on-view are lifted. You get jealous of gorgeous sheds or amused by odd gnomes hidden in the undergrowth.

Take it a step further - the grounds of stately homes. All those massive arrangements of flowers or architectural oddities or trimmed lawns stretching out on every side. There were a few I'd be taken to regularly when younger. We'd spend time looking around National Trust properties, marvelling at the stuffed birds and brocade bedspreads, then be let loose outside. Again, as with open gardens, there's something of a voyeuristic thrill - this space, once a family home or private retreat, now accessible to the public. Yet where once I'd run around and hide behind trees and beg to be taken to the cafe, now I enjoy a slowed pace - with time to take in everything. It's a kind of ripe pleasure, comprised of nothing much beyond the sights seen and hidden treasures sniffed out (and the occasional sigh of "imagine living here!")

Then there are other types of satisfaction. The garden pictured here was entirely new to me, but oh so familiar to my mum. It's part of the grounds of a farmhouse where her mum was once a housekeeper. Now a B&B, (though still in the same family), we booked to stay for two nights. At every turn there were things my mum recalled, or pointed out as having changed only slightly. We spent one of the evenings sitting outside in the golden light, drinking cava and picnicking as she went through her stories from the time she spent loitering there during the holidays while her mum worked. It was a space both old and new, beautiful in its own right but enhanced by these shared connections. We peeked in at the old cider press, sat by the massive pond and pushed open gates that my mum had swung on some 40 years previously.

The dress is an old favourite, first featured on the blog in 2010. It's hand made vintage, from eBay, here worn with second hand Russell & Bromley men's Chelsea boots (from a charity shop in Oxford) and a second hand bag. The necklace was also from a charity shop. 


Friday, 18 July 2014

'A Life' (On Sylvia Plath)

Let’s kick this off with a quick round of word association. I say ‘Sylvia Plath’ – what comes to mind? Here’s a list of possibilities: suicide, Ted Hughes, depression, The Bell Jar, pain, Ariel, fear, Daddy, mental illness, Lady Lazarus, death, oven. These may not have been the first to flicker up for you (and actually I only included the last when it came up as a suggestion for associated search terms on Google images) – but they’re certainly some of the ones that recur frequently, particularly on platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest.

On these sites it feels as though she is sometimes diminished, all-too-often reduced to quotes in faux-vintage typewriter fonts; or a series of faded portraits - all fringe and toothy grin; or numerous book-covers for The Bell Jar (with varying degrees of appropriate-ness); or excerpts from her journals overlaid on angsty modern images. Her work is chopped up into sound bites, her life and the leaving of it passed around as legend. There’s an uneasy sense of veneration, a collapsing of the distinction between Plath the poet and Plath the person - as though the two were one and the same.

I have a complicated relationship with Plath. I adore her work. It is sharp and dark and funny and beautiful. Her poems, her short stories, her novel – I love it all. But this is balanced against a wariness of what ‘Sylvia Plath’ as an entity has become. It’s hard to explain this concisely. The very personal nature of her work makes it a tricky line to tread without upsetting or appearing judgmental and insensitive.

So I’ll begin with some not’s. I am not in any way saying that it’s wrong to write, read, promote or celebrate works that plunge into the dark depths of mental illness. It’s actually key that we do so, and keep up open conversations. I’m not disputing the fact that Plath’s words have resonated and meant a lot to plenty of people, particularly young women who’ve found Plath’s voice to be something of a beacon when no-one else seems to understand. It’s incredible that her thoughts continue to echo and remain relevant so many years after they were first committed to the page.

We all read Plath in our own way. Different parts mean different things to different people. For many, her descriptions of worthlessness, anxiety and struggle to keep going will be familiar - perhaps comforting. A lifeline woven of words. 

For me, with my experiences of spinal surgery, there are other aspects I identify with. Stanzas such as this one in ‘Tulips’ feel particularly close and raw: ‘I am nobody. I am nothing to do with these explosions./ I have given up my name and my day clothes to the nurses/ and my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeon.’ It summarizes the exact feeling of being in hospital, and so I appreciate it on both individual and artistic levels.

So, I’m also not claiming that my subjective opinion of Plath is more important or valid than anyone else’s. There are so many perspectives and interpretations, and mine is merely a single response - and a not especially academic one, at that. More a collation of various thoughts from the last few years. (As a side note, I'm particularly interested in what Maeve O'Brien is researching at the moment - with her emphasis on silence in Plath's work - see her blog 'The Plath Diaries' here). 

But here’s a small list of some the things I do want to try to articulate:
  • Appreciating Plath’s candid tone and confessional mode is very different from citing her work in order to glorify depression or suicide. There’s a difference between recognition and elevation.
  • Depicting Plath as the sum total of her relationships, worries and mental health reduces her down to something much less than what she was. It’s a disservice to her highly skilled craft(wo)manship and composition. As Anne Stevenson commented, ‘her private experiences would be of no importance had she not, in poem after poem… imaginatively transformed, exaggerated and brilliantly dramatized them.’
  • Loving Sylvia Plath does not mean hating Ted Hughes. Both are uniquely brilliant writers. Also, he didn't ‘cause’ anything – he was a shit husband at times (no question about that) – but he isn’t a singular figure to load up with blame. She’d been ill before she knew him.  
  •  The ‘I’ of Plath’s poetry and prose is not the ‘I’ of Plath herself. One can appreciate that Plath mined her own life and suffering to create her art, without viewing her as a straight up autobiographer. She is first and foremost a poet and author intensely focused on rhythms, momentum, sound and image – with access to what Seamus Heaney once called the ‘word-hoard’.
  • There’s a long tradition of seeing female writers as mere mouthpieces for their feelings and emotions – as though all that flowed from the pen was a spontaneous expression of self. There are two tricky opposing things here. One is that it’s really, really important that we value these expressions of feeling and emotion as being just as worthy a topic of literature as more traditionally masculine ‘BIG THEMES’ like war or politics. But the other is to acknowledge that feeling and emotion aren’t all that these writers are about. Plath is also great on character commentary, biting social observations and a startling clarity of description. People rarely mention that The Bell Jar is funny, as well as devastating.

There are lots of other strands that could be picked up on, but I’d like to use this now as a forum. What do other people think of Plath? Are you more interested in her life or her work? Why are we so utterly fascinated by autobiography - and how does this affect our perception of a writer's output? I’d love some thoughts.

I'm aware that in posting these pictures, I'm playing into the trope of the young woman reading Plath in a rather idealised or 'pretty' fashion - here accented by the fifties style dress and hairstyle. I'm interested in how we often represent books or authors in contemporary imagery, with certain texts immediately adding a particular mood or message to the shot. Sylvia Plath is a particularly potent choice. 
The title of the post is taken from a poem of Plath's from 1960. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

In Praise of Lorde

Although my age (19) means that I'm still technically a teenager, it doesn’t feel like it. I think of my ‘teen years’ as really being between about 12 and 16 - but how that interval is defined differs for each individual. I think I was always desperate to escape the label; move beyond the associations of secondary school.

Throughout this time, I can’t really think of a singular role model or celebrity I really admired – at least, none that were current (or alive). I adored Audrey, dabbled with Marilyn, discovered Grace Kelly, and had a soft spot for Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. These were adult women – glamorous, well dressed, clad in technicolour. Others were on the periphery. Kate Bush and Twiggy come to mind. But were there contemporary women, particularly younger ones, who I also admired? I can’t think of any.  

However, maybe that’s because there was no one like Lorde around at that point. Or, if there was, I didn't know of them. Instead of seeking out new bright young things, I was stuck into The Beatles and David Bowie.

That lack of knowledge may be partly due to the way in which communication and visibility have changed. I was perhaps among the last generation of teens who didn’t have the means to follow celebrities or musicians ardently on Twitter or to scroll through their Instagram posts. That level of access, the semblance of an insight into the lives of these profile names, is still so new.

The relationship between celebrities and the internet is a subject explored by many elsewhere. The point here is that I wish I'd stumbled across a figure like Lorde when I was a few years younger. At a point where I was figuring out my identity, I would have found her both aspirational and affirmative. I’d have loved to see someone still in their teens who was not only successful, but also creatively dressed and very outspoken - someone willing to point out when her spots had been retouched, someone who was discussing the significance of feminism, someone with that keen mix of individuality and intelligence.

But here’s the great thing. I can appreciate all those qualities now, and know that there are plenty of teenagers (and adults) who feel the same. I can listen to her music, with those thoughtful lyrics that kind of capture what it’s like being on the cusp of adulthood, the beats catchy enough to dance to around my room. I can get a little bit too excited every time I read an interview with her. For the first proper time in my life, I can admit to being something of a fangirl.

One of the things that really cinched my respect for Lorde was this interview on Rookie. Now there’s another platform I so wish I could have been reading when I was 13. I really admire Tavi Gevinson, particularly in her transition from style blogger to professional in a range of fields. Rookie is fantastic in its range of voices, perspectives and experiences. It covers issues that teenage girls actually want to read about (kissing, sexuality, mental health, DIY manicures), but doesn’t have an age limit. Many of the ideas highlighted and written about in Rookie are ones that are relevant long into one’s twenties and beyond.

In that talk with Tavi, the combination of these two smart, engaging individuals just having a conversation – unspooling their thoughts on aesthetics and confidence and music – was so refreshing. It made me realize how rare it is to have interviews that are primarily about ideas – and particularly ones interested in what young women think about and feel, rather than which stereotypes they either fit or transcend.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about teenage girls – for reasons that will become clearer soon. Lots of time has been spent mulling over how they’re portrayed, generalized and written about, as well as what’s significant and pressing for them at the moment. So it’s heartening to see prominent young women like Lorde (and Tavi) who are creative, who speak up, who achieve things - and wear some damn good outfits along the way. 

I am dressed, of course, in homage to Lorde - complete with vaguely witchy vibes and flat shoes. The dress was from Reign vintage in London - I have a real love for the translucent spotty sleeves. The black Bally men's brogue loafers were from a vintage shop. The ring was my mum's. Realised in retrospect that my lipstick was not as purple as I thought it was. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Vagenda Q & A

I love the funny, frank and sometimes provocative feminist blog the Vagenda. It's refreshing reading articles deconstructing horrible gossip mags, picking up on advertising crap or talking honestly about relationships. I don't agree with everything that I read there, but that's part of the enjoyment - in responding to a range of perspectives and opinions. Sometimes there are particularly pertinent pieces, such as this introspection on the dissonance between writing about body image and knowing how ridiculous society's ideals are, but still wishing to lose weight (something that particularly resonated with me at the moment).

Back in the early days when my first tendrils of interest in feminism were stretching, I wrote a little opinion article for them titled 'Confessions of a Teenage Feminist' - and have done a few others since.

I also relished reading their book which came out a few months ago - the subtitle 'A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media' laying clear the line of argument. From lads mags to marriage to how uncomfortable thongs are, it's a smart and often hilarious read with a more sober underlying message.

The brilliant founders Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter (who both write individually for a range of publications, as well as together) agreed to do a Q&A with me, talking about magazines, fashion and the potential of the internet...

What sparked you wanting to start up the Vagenda? 
H: We started the Vagenda because we’d spent a lot of time together, penniless and bored, buying a stack of magazines and the two-for-a-fiver wines at the corner shop. We didn’t have a lot of money - I was a recent graduate, and Rhiannon was a student - but we wanted a fun night in. What surprised us was how quickly we tired of what we were reading. It was boring, it was repetitive, it was strangely lacking in kink and completely chockablock with beauty products. The turning point for me was a double page spread in Cosmopolitan, where one side was a feature about body confidence and the other was an advert for plastic surgery. At that point, I think we both thought, ‘We have to challenge this.’
R: I had been quite insecure about my looks as a teenager but it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I realised how magazines were negatively affecting my self esteem, especially with all the diet tips and airbrushed images. It was getting worse and worse - some of the weight loss tips they have now would not be amiss on a pro-anorexia website, and we both felt that this was deeply wrong. We started the Vagenda partly because we felt there was no alternative narrative for young women. They are being told to act a certain way and look a certain way and the pressure is intense. We felt there was a space for a website criticising and examining that in a humorous way and that's how we came to the idea of the blog. The low point for me, I think, was seeing a picture of a spaghetti bolognese with the headline: 'SOME WOMEN EAT THIS AND STAY SKINNY.' We'd just had enough, frankly. 
Has your relationship with magazines and the media changed since beginning the blog and publishing the book? 
H: I can’t read them for pleasure anymore! Having spent over two years now making fun of their more ridiculous parts, I now see every section as ripe for analysis. As for the media at large, some have openly despised the Vagenda and some have got on board with it. We’ve had some encouraging conversations with magazines like Elle about how they can make their editorial more feminist.
R: I can't read them for fun either. They still have an effect on me, though. The other day I read a feature in Now magazine that was called 'WHAT THE STARS REALLY WEIGH' and it made me feel truly awful about myself. Just because we take the piss out their content doesn't mean we're immune from magazine manipulation. I'm more discerning about what I choose to read now. I like Elle and Vogue because they still seem to value intelligent women's writing, though I wish they featured a more diverse range of ethnicities and body types. Libertine and Stylist are great as well - I love that Stylist still does books where other magazines have stopped. For teenagers, I actually found ASOS magazine to be setting an incredible example when it comes to featuring models with different looks and styles. In one issue white women were actually in the minority, which was refreshing. Online, I tend to read blogs, but there's Rookiemag, which is awesome. I'd say the main thing is that, since doing the Vagenda, I've become more interested in what alternative content there is out there, and more inclined to seek it out rather than defaulting to the mainstream media. 
Was there a chapter or area that you particularly enjoyed writing about/ ranting on/ picking apart? 
H: For me, I really enjoyed the sex chapter, because we had such a laugh writing it. We got to read through hundreds of ridiculous sex tips and hilariously tear them apart, as well as share some of our most embarrassing sex stories with each other, which was ridiculously fun. But I also feel very proud of the lad culture chapter - it felt so cathartic to hit back at all the UniLad-esque bullshit that was going around, and we were writing it only a couple of weeks after Steubenville, so there was a real sense that this was important.
R: Yeah the sex chapter was probably the most fun to write, but the dieting one is the one I felt most strongly about, I think, because of all the ridiculous fads out there and the impact that such content has historically had on my own self-esteem (I've done every crap diet under the sun). So writing that was really cathartic. 
I particularly enjoyed your observations on body image and fashion (various cutting comments on the latter really made me laugh). I tend to get very irritated when people suggest that one can't be a feminist whilst also enjoying clothes and the cultivation of appearance. What's your opinion on the intersection between the two? 
H: I hate this ‘You can’t be a feminist and X, Y or Z’ stuff. Feminism should be a straightforward belief in gender equality, without any further checklist. You can be a feminist and vajazzle, you can be a feminist and love fashion, you can be a feminist and experiment with clothing and make-up in a way that indulges your creative side and makes you feel happy. Fashion has been going on in one form or another since time immemorial, and just because it’s sometimes been used for anti-feminist means or has sometimes produced serious issues (such as the size zero phenomenon) doesn’t mean that that’s intrinsically what it’s all about. I feel very similarly about fashion as I do about women’s magazines: I love them both, want to access both, and only have a problem insofar as the industries aren’t currently doing women justice. 
R: I love clothes, always have, always will. I don't think there's anything anti-feminist about wanting to express yourself aesthetically. Fashion can be so creative and fun, and it can make you feel great. I think the problem is that women are expected to conform to certain ideals that are prevalent within the fashion industry - such as extreme slimness - that it becomes dangerous. The unethical treatment of workers in sweatshops is a big concern for me, and of course that has feminist implications. I also hate how everyone is put under pressure to look the same. The kind of fashion I adore is when I see women wearing beautiful, ethically made clothes that reflect their personalities in a creative way. I love it when people make the effort to stand out from the crowd, and wish women felt they could do it more. 
With the amount of media at our fingertips and messages blaring about what we should be looking like, how we should be behaving etc, is it just harder to be a young woman today - or are there advantages too? 
H: You’re right that on the one hand, we’re being constantly bombarded with something we used to be able to escape from a bit more. But on the other, the growth of Twitter and blogging culture has given so many people a voice. The Vagenda was started by us two as a labour of love, with no money, using a free platform, and was spread throughout social media by people who liked what they were reading. There was no PR, no printing press, no hidden costs. The fact that so many people responded and were able to get on board with submissions about their own lives says it all. We are increasing diversity in a really powerful way through the internet - no longer is the media solely for one sort of person (who probably has a trust fund and a load of parental connections.)
R: I think there is a generational aspect to it, certainly. I recently wrote an article called 'On Bikini Body Bullshit' that was about feeling under pressure to diet and had a big response especially from young women. I think we've grown up in an era where we've had 'the beauty myth' rammed down our throats in a way that is more rampant than our mothers' generation, as our society has become more and more capitalistic. You'll often get older women saying 'we always thought magazines were rubbish, we don't need you to tell us', but we grew up in a feminist vacuum and realising that perhaps the media didn't have our best interests at heart was a real epiphany. Saying that, we've had some amazing letters from older women expressing real anger that nothing seems to have changed since their day and indeed, things seem to be getting worse. 
Do you think there's any conceivable way that the media might be forced to change in coming years? 
H: I think we’re already seeing this new ‘feminist zeitgeist’ changing the media. Grazia now has a political columnist, Elle staged a debate on feminism, even Cosmopolitan tried to make ‘the F word’ trendy. The media can’t ignore a huge resurgence in feminism, or they’d look out of touch. I think all sorts of things are currently changing, and will continue to change, because of that. The consumer has more power and more of a voice now, too, so we can put the pressure on for change to happen faster than it might have done otherwise.
R: I think it will change in the coming years mainly because of competition from the internet. Celebrity magazines will all but die out because Mail Online and others are simply able to disseminate the news at a speed that Heat and Closer just won't be able to keep up with. I'm not saying that's a good thing because at least Heat and Closer have narratives, even if they are often cruel ones, while the Mail thinks a flash of sideboob or a woman getting changed is headline-worthy. So the change will be because of market forces, not because of feminism. But I think sites like the Vagenda have proven that there is an appetite for funny, intelligent content for women and media companies will be trying to appeal to those readers. Also social media has increased pressure on media outlets to be ethical, which can only be a good thing, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself. 
Any plans to set up that ideal magazine you outline in the conclusion? 
H: Not quite yet! That’s a financial impossibility for us - plus we’re taking a short breather after writing the book(!) - but there are some people out there who are producing some truly fantastic mags that we’d love to read. The latest one I got hold of was one we promoted on the Vagenda. It’s called Juniper and was produced by a young girl during her course at Northumbria University. It’s forward-thinking, feminist, and full of fashion tips. I think it’ll really take off.
R: We can't afford to but all power to anyone who's out there doing it. My friend Hannah has a zine called Queen of the Track which is also a fantastic read, and Libertine is brilliant too. There are some fantastic independent magazines out there for women if you look hard enough!

I really enjoyed doing these (ever so faintly) subversive images to accompany the Q & A - with a Barbie in tow. Take what you will from the visual message. I dressed in colours to emulate the book, naturally. The skirt belonged to my late grandma. She actually wore it to my parents' wedding! The top is a dress (from a charity shop) and everything else is second hand. 
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