Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Telling Stories

I grew up in a story-heavy household. Greek myths rubbed shoulders with the Brothers Grimm. Margaret Mahy sat on the shelves next to Enid Blyton. On the landing we had collections of folklore from around the world: Czech, Japanese, German, Australian, Welsh (all translated or retold, of course. I speak nothing else beyond very, very bad GCSE French). I mainly remember them in snatches now, the odd character or detail. What remains is that sense of being immersed in numerous worlds – falling into the pages and inhabiting whatever landscape was present, be it forest, castle, bustling city or an early 20th Century England filled with plummy accents and dastardly criminals.

A little later on, I discovered Alan Garner – first via The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (set in Cheshire), then The Owl Service (set in a remote Welsh valley). I’ve since filled in the gaps with Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and his excellent set of essays The Voice that Thunders. Garner’s sense of place informs everything. The landscape is not merely interwoven with the story. It is the story. He draws on some of the eeriest mythology and imagery you’ll find in children’s literature (well, if you count it as children’s literature, which it’s really not. Go read him now, regardless of your age). He writes with bite and earth. Each sentence is perfectly weighted, each book unnerving and wonderful - somehow both ancient and timeless.

I’ve been thinking about Garner again, on two counts. First, I’m currently writing about one of his essays for some coursework (picking his images and observations apart is a laborious joy). Second, last month I went to a talk in Oxford titled Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the “English Eerie”. There his TV episode To Kill a King was discussed, alongside a variety of other things: archeology, poetry, rituals, folk horror, films. With the latter, we saw three short pieces by Adam Scovell – small, self-enclosed narratives filmed on Super8, brimming with shaking reeds and mysterious shadows. The theme of the evening was a sense of unease and of Otherness’ specifically located in the English landscape. It was marvelous - full of flickering points and embers of ideas to consider further.  

When I left, I cycled home in the cold, poured myself a large glass of wine, stuck on PJ Harvey, and began scribbling copious notes. I’m not quite sure why the event had this effect. Perhaps because it articulated lots of the things I want to read and write more about: psycho-geography, the aesthetics of decay, the complex relationship between literature and place. Perhaps because it linked to all sorts of creative projects I can’t wait to explore when I have the time. Mainly though, I think, because it tapped into some type of nostalgia: Robert Scovell’s beautiful adaptation of Robert Macfarlane’s Holloway filmed in a different part of the country to the one I grew up in, but still recalling the thrill of the area where I grew up. I too trekked up little gulley-ways and splashed along river-soaked furrows hidden behind hedges. The sounds of shivering leaves and cooing wood pigeons and the dripping of rain from trees are all intensely familiar. Nothing makes me feel calmer than the fall of late afternoon light on woods (well, quite a lot does – but it certainly does help…)

There was another link too: this blog. Despite there being a distinct lack of unease or spookiness here, I've always enjoyed dressing up in eerie, unusual, vaguely spectacular ways: donning a white 50s lace wedding dress to haunt a crumbling cottage; pretending to be both Snow White and Rose Red; hanging out under weeping willows in a black ball-gown with voluminous sleeves; emulating Kate Bush (regularly); standing on a rugged hilltop in long grey skirt and long grey cloak; getting chilly in a 70s synthetic wedding dress (notice a theme?) at twilight; spending time at Orford Ness under a glooming sky; wearing green satin next to a tumbledown farmer’s shed with a corrugated roof; adding a home-made crown of ferns for some impromptu photos next to a Welsh waterfall (in fact, the photos are broadly split between English and Welsh surroundings). All of them are about momentarily fantastical stories: the stories of places I was in, the stories I played at inhabiting with particular clothes and poses for half an hour or so. All of them are stories about and in the landscape too: full of spindly trees and green brooks and piles of rocks that once formed the boundary lines of a home.

All of this has its own distinct form of selective nostalgia attached, too. It’s easy in retrospect to forget the biting cold that accompanied the poses, the flinches at wind hitting bare skin, the absolute relief of throwing back on a jumper, coat and boots at the end (something I wrote about here). What remains afterwards is the image. Me, in a variety of costumes in a variety of places over the last six or so years: my face changing shape, legs lengthening, body shifting from lines to curves, hair getting incrementally shorter and curlier, style changing subtly. Nervous, elfin girl through to confident young woman. Teenager unhappy at school through to student looking towards the end of her degree. Some things remain though: I'm still someone who bloody loves a good costume, a good character, a good narrative, a good excuse to pose at the top of a hill in ridiculous heels and a vintage ball-gown. Long may that continue…

This vintage dress (temporarily stolen from my mum) is the most ridiculous, glorious thing ever. The sleeves alone could be written about at length. I shot this when I was back home last month. I'm already looking enviously at that carpet of yellow leaves - so bright by comparison with the current grey of November. Here I opted for sensible boots rather than impractical heels. All the better to stomp and swirl around in. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Moments of Pleasure

I’ve been thinking about pleasure a lot recently.* Joy too. All the kinds of feelings that leave a sense of deep-seated satisfaction in their wake - electric thrill or quiet contentment settling somewhere down in the middle of your ribcage. It doesn’t need to be dynamic. Could be as simple as the self-enclosed delight of some small action, an immersive moment, a well-made choice, an hour or two spent in the company of someone else.

Recently my specific moments of pleasure have included too many martinis on a Tuesday evening (oops…), a night of dancing until 3am in sequin hot pants, a walk along the river admiring a sky as grey as silk and smoke. The knowledge that my writing is being honed incrementally, with each new thing I work on. Taking deep breaths about thrilling stuff ahead that now requires planning. Composing and snapping a bloody good selfie (Rachel Symes just wrote an essay/ opus/ great set of reflections on this. Read it). All of them about an appetite for celebrating the good, the significant, and the immediate.

I’ve also had several conversations in the last fortnight about clothes and pleasure (well, it had to circle back around to style/fashion somewhere…) Conversations with women who felt guilty for deriving so much fun from what they wore. Conversations analyzing the ins and outs of why this, above other forms of gratification, gets singled out for attack. Conversations about the sheer excellence of knowing you look good, embodying that knowledge in the shade of your lipstick and the way you hold yourself.

A particularly memorable one involved chatting with a friend about the detailed choices we make when getting dressed each morning. These decisions work on an almost innate level - that process of balancing up shapes, colours, patterns and proportions happening about an inch below conscious thought. “This skirt is high-waisted, therefore I want a cropped, tightly fitted jumper with it…” “I love this dress, but it’s slightly low-key and muted – I’ll ramp up the power with some outrageously fancy necklace.” “Polo necks will go with everything and make me feel sassy.” “If I choose this velvet top, I can wear my velvet DMs to compliment it.” Writing out those passing thoughts in full sentences doesn’t quite capture the process. Same principles, but most of my decisions (at least) aren’t really articulated to myself while I’m doing them. I’m too busy rifling through my drawers in search of a particular pair of checked wool trousers that I just know will sit perfectly alongside a baggy white silk shirt.

I am more and more fascinated by the ways we buy and wear clothes. I feel like I’ve been finessing my own outfits recently, choosing combinations that confer extra confidence. I am assured in my knowledge that a blue vintage velvet jacket does magic things – lifting a difficult day, improving it by a notable margin. Playing with your appearance is a way to enact transformation, spectacle, boldness, invisibility, quiet satisfaction.. So many directions. So many possibilities. 

I ended up considering all of this with a little more care when perusing my wardrobe ahead of this shoot with Grazia.it (photos by the wonderful Sara Reverberi). You can see the full set of images, and my interview, here. I wanted to choose four outfits that looked good – but more importantly, felt good, affirming the subtle strength to be found in bold sartorial choices.

*I started thinking about/ working on this blog post before the appalling events of last Friday, and that has obviously thrown into relief many different thoughts on pleasure – especially, in the aftermath, as an act of defiance for the people of Paris. I'd also already chosen the title of this post. It's from a Kate Bush song, which (sadly apt for now) includes these beautiful lyrics: 

"Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive"

Friday, 6 November 2015

All Things Ophelia

A family friend of ours used to skip school and hightail it from her home in the suburbs to central London. Her destination? The National Portrait Gallery. Or, more specifically, Millais’ portrait of Ophelia. She’d sit there for hours staring at the gown, the flowers, the face we all know to be Elizabeth Siddal’s. This was years ago now. The anecdote has a delightful grandeur to it – a sense of unwavering adolescent purpose.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about it recently. The other day I had something published on Broadly (which I’m thrilled about, as I love their articles!) discussing the cultural history of Ophelia. There’s a lot about Millais in there. Also plenty on art history, mental health, gender, sexuality, photography, and the modern phenomenon of young women re-envisioning that famous death scene. It’s a long story, and a fascinating one too – stretching from the 17th Century stage to Victorian asylums to 90s self-help books about teenagers to present day Tumblr and Pinterest.

Back over the summer these ideas were still vague and wispy, but definitely in the air - as evidenced by the shoot pictured. To me, this was something of a subversion of the Ophelia trope. I wanted to wear a ballgown in a river, but to be very much alive and kicking (and swimming!) throughout. Last time I did an Ophelia inspired shoot, I was 14. You can see it here. This felt like a pretty thrilling update – one much more vivid, confident and assertive. Just as chilly as before though... 

It's wonderfully circular really - thinking about Ophelia, doing these photos, then having the chance to research her image and iconography with a proper sense of depth, and now, finally, bringing it all together. 

The dress was from a jumble sale, last seen on this blog sported by the glorious Flo (as a mermaid, obviously). All jewellery is vintage. I've also been posting lots of the visual references I looked at for the piece over on my Instagram


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Taking Up Space

The phrase ‘taking up space’ has ricocheted in popularity recently. We talk about how, as women, we shouldn’t say “sorry” all the time, or lament the phenomenon of man-spreading (one too many times now I’ve ended up on the tube with my legs clamped tightly together while the guy next to me commanded a small cavern between his knees).

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’ve used that phrase without quite knowing what I wanted to get at. What does it mean to ‘take up space’ beyond literally sitting or standing somewhere, thus ‘taking up’ some small portion of the world? Is it just about planting down your feet and being wherever you are, job done?

Well, yes, pretty much – but only if those feet are planted down with a sense of ease in being there. Some people walk through the world as though they’re entitled to everything it has to offer. Plenty don’t though, feeling like their presence is a burden – or is judged according to harsher criteria. Too loud? Too unladylike? Too talkative? Too quiet? Too fat? Too outlandishly dressed? Too presumptuous? Who does she think she is? Obviously it’s not always gendered, but women are often taught to be more apologetic, to take up less space, to be grateful for any kind of attention.

I was reminded of a project put together for the BBC titled ‘Women Who Spit’ – a series of poems by female performers on subjects from mirrors and bodies to the power of writing. I suggest you all go watch/ listen/ fall into a slight reverie over the words and ideas assembled there. Vanessa Kisuule’s contribution is titled ‘Take Up Space.’ She quickly instructs her listener, ‘don’t wait for permission or approval.’ As she ranges around London in the video, her poem ranges around from dancing to eating to speaking. It is a poem about being joyful and doing things because you want to, without shame. She gloriously advocates living and sweating and not giving a damn.

Taking up space is about the way you walk into a room, or anywhere else, believing that you have a right to be there. It’s about knowing that your voice is a valid one (though it’s worth remembering that sometimes the right thing to do is listen – rather than speak over others). It’s about taking pride in being whatever size you are, sticking two fingers up at a culture which suggests that there’s an ideal amount to weigh - and thus a literal amount of (usually slender) space to occupy. It’s about having pleasure in being who you are, rather than lamenting all that you think you might lack.

It’s also about continuing to make an absolute ruckus about the ways in which women’s ability to take up space is still limited: from the lack of female politicians, CEOs, scientists etc etc (see this ELLE video if you want to get riled at the lack of women in high places) to fear of walking home alone late at night to trolling of women in online spaces to distressing rates of harassment on public transport. On that last point, we also need to talk about how ‘taking up space’ isn’t just about gender, but race too. Take Siana Bangura’s recent experience being horrendously racially abused on a train, with the rest of the carriage staying silent. When she spoke up, someone told her to “stop making a scene.”

We, as a society, need to raise a fucking scene about the fact that things like that are still happening. We need to change our spaces, as well as take them up.

To return to the ‘taking up’ bit though, whilst writing this I began to list words that might be useful: bold, defiant, unrepentant, brave, daring, direct, assertive, self-assured, secure, not-taking-any-bullshit (definitely a single word). They all describe a state of existing without apology for that existence. I like that. It’s a state we should all have a right to experience.

How do I personally take up space? I make sure to stride. I weave in and out of crowds, practically bounding along the pavements. I go to events by myself and (try to) assume people will think the best of me rather than the worst. I also get nervous – but these days I remind myself that it’s not a failing. Mostly though, I relish having a sense of presence: of dressing with joy, wearing red lipstick, speaking back, standing tall, living well, and proving with the way I hold myself that I’m at ease with who I am.

This first appeared as an essay on the ace Emma Gannon's blog here. The photos were taken in Sweden over the summer, and I'm now craving sunshine and lakes to swim in.. My dress was from one of the branches of Beyond Retro in Stockholm - someone described it last month as having all the power of a "visual espresso." I (temporarily) stole the shoes from my mum. 
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