Paris : Pairs

Everything in Paris is twinned, it seems. There are companions, long-sought matches and doubles from different points in time and space. I find an illustrated reworking of Beauty and the Beast  in a graphics shop, which tilts the original, so that Beauty is as sweetened by the Beast, as he is by her. Her charms are obvious, a face of Garbo-like symmetry and intellect; his, soft fur, a pleasing largeness and a great capacity for love. Reading in French, where both words are gendered feminine (la belle, la bête) you can’t help but think that they are cut from the same cloth, are equally vulnerable, receptive and hunted.

B&B
Translation: ‘It was the first time she touched his fur and  was troubled at finding it so soft…’ Is this really a children’s book? Illustration by Violaine Leroy

During my visit, I make other matches. An accordionist is on my heels in that first transition from the Eurostar to the Metro. A serenader, he arches around the wheels of my suitcase and plays – what else? – Edith Piaf. Flattered and embarrassed, I  put down my book and listen. The trouble is, I haven’t a single pièce, only a virgin fifty euro note, which I’m not quite ready to hand over. He shrugs disappointed, when I confess the inevitable. I crane my head in shame and vow that I will be prepared when I meet his match. Who incidentally, is on the Metro the very next day, crooning out her pain in the long notes of a Spanish ballad. Emo as the cloudy Monday, this balladeer slouches obstinately in the doorframe. She ain’t serenading anyone; in fact, gives the impression that she’d be singing regardless.  Her mannish leather jacket and greasy chignon – and are those tears streaked down her cheeks?- make you think her lover threw her out about an hour ago, and she swiped his leather jacket for the running. Half-wondering whether it’s truth or Method, I’m ready with my pièce this time.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
In Degas’ time, young ballet students were nicknamed ‘petits rats,’ denoting their underworld status. Nowadays, pickpockets and street children have a similar reputation for deftness and anonymity.

On the Metro another time, I spot an unmistakeable profile – that of Edgar Degas’ sculpture, the little Dancer, aged fourteen. As bronze as the original, with the same kinaesthetic awareness, she boards the train with her sister. They file off to the available  seats on either side of the carriage; dressed in plaid shirts and ripped jeans, they almost blend in. Other passengers and an aisle are in their midst, but they remain choreographed into the same routine.  Torsos tipped forward in a preparation pose, their feet identically turned out in first position. The woman sitting next to the sister gets up and leaves. In a flash the Little Dancer is beside her- though she doesn’t appear to have been looking. They don’t converse, at least not in words. A bloke enters the carriage, with a sturdiness and milky pallor that I’d pin-point to about Yorkshire. Equally white is his shiny I-phone. And even before he notices, before his eyes twinkle, as though to say ‘Noo luv, not ‘avin’ that…,’  her sister, about a hair of an eyebrow lifting, ‘Him?’ The Little Dancer wrinkles her dainty nose, ‘Nah, not my cup of tea,’ as though they’re just two teenage girls judging a stranger’s attractiveness. But a survival instinct grips them and when the next station arrives, they scarper.

Ferrante.jog
Audiobook display at Gilbert Jeune. Have to love the pixie swimsuit

Just as sisters will always be compared, so will two cafes on opposite sides of the street.  One, named for the lore of tea leaves, is world famous,  enjoying Trip Advisor fame and local acclaim; the other named Les Rosiers for the street where it stands resolutely, less so. The Lore has an Astaire-hipped host who bounds up and down the queue  telling people how long they’ll have to wait, down to the minute; the Rosiers, a lone balding waiter with a towel thrown over his shoulder. Laptops are unwelcome at the Lore: to sit there, you’ll have to be truly part of the cafe, engaged in consumption, conversation or something equally atmospheric. You are made oh-so-tactfully aware that your body occupies a precious space, and that it plays a role in animating that space –  or else here’s the cheque. Weirdly, it reminds me of a socialist play I once read, where the moral was that those who farm the land are its rightful owners; though we are about as far away from an Eastern European potato field as it gets. Anyway, not so the Rosiers – which people hit upon for the most imminent need, or greed for that matter. A student hunched over her laptop, knuckles camouflaging with a white espresso cup; a pair of new lovers holding hands over the dredges of a dry coffee pot  and a rotund-bellied gentleman gobbling a ginormous triangle of pie before his wife catches up with him and smacks an insulin needle into his right arm. Atmosphere’s a funny thing – like love, or that exasperatingly Parisian cliché, je ne sais quoi, it finds those who don’t seek it too hard.

pigeonfish
With its neutral, sculpted exterior and marvellous fish-shaped shadow, this pigeon in the Jardin l’hôtel des senses embodies je ne sais quoi

Even in a city of doubles, some entities remain unmatched. For example, the garments that never walk the streets. Paris boutiques are flocked with dresses more confected and shapely than patisserie tarts. And yet, you never see their like on actual bodies around town. No Parisienne would ever appear so obviously ornate. Who are these magpie-teasers made for? Are they there just to draw the eye and fly out to export?

How to turn into my mother

It’s an ancient cliché that with each passing year, we grow more and more like our mothers. A carefree individual is swallowed into a resemblance of the woman who raised her.  But what truth does this myth hold today,  when women often have radically different experiences from their mothers and self-awareness is at its peak?

Women go through all manner of intricate measures to avoid becoming their mothers: there’s the therapist specialising in pattern recognition; the exercise regime keeping hereditary bulk at bay and let’s not forget the constant self-reprimand to listen, where she would have butted in, or speak up, when she would have stayed silent. We have a lot to lose if we surrender – our youth and identity for one. And yet we love our mothers, hold much of what they did as a gold standard and are anxious when we fall short.

blossomfeet w
In whose shoes?

I was touched to learn that a woman who had a hostile relationship with her tough-loving, erratic mother and dreaded becoming her, found peace in recognising that she inherited her fierceness. Fierceness, an uncommercial trait that the endless tea-parties and pink blooms surrounding mother’s day don’t account for – though anyone who has given birth, watched a wildlife documentary or dealt with a suburban woman trying to get her child through the 11+, knows it’s integral to maternity.

Growing up, I saw my mother as her own person. She worked full-time, while other mothers stayed at home, so I felt part of her life, rather than the centre. Sensitive and loving, she is unapologetically herself. I see myself becoming more like her in at least four ways, though I haven’t yet made the final leap…

1. Suffering fools badly

With the exception of mildly bigoted elders from another era, who must be half-listened to and gently corrected, my mother doesn’t give fools the time of day, let alone allow them to influence her decisions. Controversially, whenever I was upset because someone scolded me for my opinion or cheek, mum would say they weren’t as clever as me. It didn’t matter whether this was my nanny, an older relative, or a Cambridge-educated mathematician. For a young girl, this was as radical as Marx’s comment on religion – it made me think that intelligence had the potential to dethrone authorities.  Taken literally, her stance could make me arrogant or intolerant of different perspectives. It’s vital to listen, but also to have boundaries and know how to protest the most dangerous kinds of foolishness.

paperdew

2. Asking for obscenely wishful things

My mother has never shied away from asking for what she wants and is relentless until she has pursued every option for getting it. I have to admit, this quality embarrassed me when I was younger – I was the sort of person who would rather go hungry than face the awkwardness of asking for a vegetarian option. But now, whenever I have a craving, however fanciful, I will go to lengths to satisfy it.  There is a bench seat in a cafe with a view of a goldfish pond. After work on Tuesday, I knew that I had to go there and write. So, I walk for an hour, uphill, in high heels and when I reach my destination, find  two others have taken the space.  I sit at a neighbouring table and can’t help noticing they are so deep into their digital spheres, the view may as well not be there. Which pisses me off. The guy is wearing headphones, so I figure the girl is a safer bet. Before I can stop myself, I’m asking if we can swap seats, because I came here to draw that view (a teeny white lie). She  refuses, saying she too likes the view and is communing with the fish telepathically as she’s magnetised to her feed. Shrugging, I slink back to my seat. A minute later, the guy in headphones come over and asks, ‘sorry, did you want to sit by the view?’ Et volià.

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I capture the goldfish pond

3. Nurturing a collection of tiny containers

Like every old-fashioned housewife, my mother adheres to the proverb: ‘waste not, want not.’ Like a figure-conscious yummy mummy, she also doesn’t let a morsel of food she’s not hungry for, pass her lips. Hence the tiny containers. She drinks red-wine from a finger bowl she stole from the Eurostar; stores four remaining spaghetti strands in an egg cup and a dwindling stock of Christmas truffles are transferred to ever smaller dishes. She also collects shells and glass bottles with bases so minute, they have to lie on their bellies.

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About a fifth of my tiny container collection

 

4. Never missing an opportunity to practice my latest skill

When mum begins a new hobby, it inflects everything she does. Now that she’s learning French, and determined to maintain her standing as étoile de la classe, she not only texts in French, but pronounces all ethnically ambiguous words and trade names in a French accent. E.g.: I-bu-pro-fén (Ibuprofen) and Có-có (Combined Codeine). She only half jokes that should she wind up on the wrong side of Article 50, she will move to France.*

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Joined Instagram this week and have been finding every excuse to practice using my new app. This abandoned sticker, for one…

5. Miraculously never gathering fluff 

My mother is always immaculate. I have never seen her coats or woollen jumpers pill or attract stray bits of fluff. I think she’s a witch…

labelled cat*This is unlikely, as my mother has the immunity of formerly colonised peoples and decades of residency in this country. Only the likes of Theresa May are safer from deportation. But it’s her dream that counts.

Where songs catch : an anatomy

In the beginning there were two sounds: the Charleston and the chorus. The Charleston was the spring dance rhythm my great grandma played on her piano; the chorus, heavy Greek lullabies that other relatives sung to me until I cried. The first animated my hips and knees; the latter made my throat lumpy.

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First sounds. Picasso Bacchanal, fragment

There’s no question that music moves us, whether to feeling or inertia. Pop songs especially, are infinitely reproducible through lyrics sung in the shower or a beat tapped into the ground. Each song has al/chemical properties, though reactions vary wildly from person to person: the same few bars of a Stones song might make Lia in Florence feel mellow, and prime Mark in Sydney for confrontation.

My fascination with these fluctuations has led me to create an anatomy, of where songs catch in my own body. This entirely subjective map has been conceived from top to toe by someone who loves music, but has had barely any formal training in it.

THE TOP: BEGINNING OF ANATOMY

Medial orbitofrontal cortex, anterior insular and toe nexus

 Some music appeals to my intellect and imagination – it lifts me to my toes as though forcing an escape from gravity. The medial orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insular in the brain are responsible for the recognition of visual, musical and even mathematical beauty.   Mon Amie la rose, a troubadour-style lyric about a young girl’s love for a rose, by the French singer, Françoise Hardy, has the symmetry of a perfectly balanced equation. The austere monosyllabic rhyme of ‘rose’ and ‘chose’ (thing); the gliding assonance, ‘la lune cette nuit/ a veillé mon amie/ moi en rêve j’ai vu/ éblouissante et nu‘* creating gentle echoes throughout. It has a nocturne’s softness to it, and yet for me it is a wakeful, morning song in a long tradition of love-flower lyrics.

pichelochild
Music for a higher plane. Picasso, heliogravure, April 1948

Hypothalmus, brain stem and eyelids

  Childhood memories of boredom, nausea, usually in the car, being driven somewhere. Greek songs playing on the radio, every word drawn out so it has the lifespan of… oh –  at least a guinea pig. The eye imagery -the beloved  described in terms of the singer’s own pair- a continuum from song to song. You might have a chain of: ‘mi mou thimoneis matia mou‘ (Don’t be angry my eyes); tha kleiso ta matia (I’ll close my eyes); thalasses mesa sta matia sou (seas in your eyes) ; ta begalika sou matia (your firework eyes). Pressing  my own eyelids into a car-upholstery-scented dream. Gravity to my scalp, beneath that the hypothalamus responsible for sleep and nervous functioning.  If I’m especially unlucky, the savant driver will rouse me to give an account of the singer’s usually miserable end- alcoholic, penniless and eaten by fleas. But the savant doesn’t think the stories are depressing; merely factual. Moreover, the sonorities that induce sleep in me, move them to courtship or nationalism; nostalgia about seaside rendezvous and the smoking they gave up; a slipped through appreciation of their proximity to the Middle East.

Cheeks, front of throat, skin

‘Johnny, Brooklyn born and bred/ Put ideas in to my head/ Can’t remember what he said/ But I know it wasn’t true…’ The uneven honky-tonk rhythm, clatter of rhymes – plus one anomaly, in Caitlin Rose’s New York is laughter incarnate. I feel my skin stretch and smile. Then, there’s Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters, 70s tunes that diffuse like filmy bubbles, trapping sunshine.

blueface-jog
Sunflower crooner or weeping willow? Picasso, 1940s

Back of throat, sinuses, tear ducts

In a previous life, I think I was an Irish immigrant, displaced to America. I say this, because certain Irish ballads and their folk descendants invoke the saddest memories I’ve never had. Imagine- trying to explain to my then boyfriend the compulsion to go to Connemara (home to the best Irish balladeers, according to Colm Tobín’s Brooklyn );why tears were streaming down my face when a pub quartet sung about Danny going to America and the beeoooo– tee-full Ten-nes-see Waltz. The lone trills of the singer’s voice, the dactylic rhythm (one stressed accent, followed by two unstressed), a fatal dance in itself. In Ireland, a white-haired man sang a hot jagged rendition,  but this version by folk-country singer  Emmylou Harris has a stoic melancholy.

Lungs

 Music paced expansively, so that a tree could branch within you. Good for healing injuries, physical and emotional. Beyonce’s Hold Up literally holds up the succession of breaths, procuring a swaying sense of tranquillity.

Heart

Rock and roll is attuned to the heartbeat.  ‘I don’t know why my heart flips/ I only know it does…’ Buddy Holly sings. The first time I heard Everyday, it was drummed onto the kitchen table by a boy in a green t-shirt. And I’ve not found a better echo of the human heart, or marking time.  Then there is the accelerated heart-beat, in Dusty Springfield’s urgently percussive Anyone Who Had A Heart, which squeezes an excessive number of words into a musical phrase. The refrain ‘Anyone who has a heart would take me in his arms and love me too/ You/ Couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me like you hurt me and be so untrue’ creates a discomfiting sensation of skipped beats and breathlessness.

the-dream
Picasso, The Dream (of Nirvana), 1932

Hip-stomach nexus

 Nirvana drags you along to relentless rhythms, a narcotic wrap around your  hips; unexpected corners that flip your stomach. Belly dance music also awakens hip-stomach energy, throwing serpentine figures into the air around your body, before you’ve even begun to move. Phrases crash into one another like waves- a fairytale embellished with each passing night.

Hip-knee-sole nexus

Finally, beat and a manifesto lyric delivered tongue in cheek- every foldable joint in your body an accordion pleat. Probably jumping up and down, a mirror image of the over-privileged daddy’s girl in the Pulp song, who wants to be like common people. Or perhaps, the boy judging her.

THE BOTTOM : END OF ANATOMY

Of course, there’s songs that flush through; don’t catch at all. And these intrigue me just as much.  Linda Ronstadt, a folk singer who grew up on the musically fertile US Mexico border, once said ‘if I didn’t hear it by the time I was ten, I won’t be able to sing it with any authenticity.’** I half agree – memory has an important function, but so does imagination and the epidemic of new rhythms.

picassobutt-jpg
De mémoire d’homme III, Picasso

*’The moon this night/ Has watched over my friend/ I saw him in a dream/ Dazzling and naked.’

** This was long before any talk of walls.

 

Slinging it

Right at its snaky tail-end, 2016 tripped me up. I skidded on a patch of ice, fell heavily, broke the bone linking my arm and shoulder. New Years Eve’s cocktail was codeine and ibu-profen, the party dress a sling. I don’t know how Venus di Milo does it -asymmetry works better for statues, anyway. I’ve had to give up the ‘go’ for  while, sign off work, move back with my mum because I can’t dress, turn a lock or wash my hair by myself.

greenwash
Chateau Marmont detailing, or so I like to think…

 

Ironically, before I fell upon that bad patch, I was in an auspicious place, grateful for the past year, a mixed bag of new beginnings, discovery and trying things out for fit. The prospect of 2017 left me feeling like I had so much to do- cultivate last year’s fertilest projects, give more and most of all, be part of a world that grows up to face its responsibilities and dreams. Then, I inadvertently slip back to childhood, dependency. Sulking becomes tiresome. I wonder, is my current state, by this indoor orange tree so different from where I need to be?

lulutan
Commuting?  Better call Becky with the good hair…

So I have to move with my healing body’s rhythm and not the abracadabra speed of wishful thinking. As long as it takes. My former routines defined by external obligations and delights make no sense. Daytime naps and waking up at four in the morning to listen to music and read novels, do. I’m also cultivating some more realistic role models: 1) John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who conducted interviews from bed; 2) Tinkerbell the cat – unapologetically lazy. The Romans began the new year in March, anyway…

mooncookie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crazy right-wing ideas are taking over the world. But what can you do about it?

The morning of Trump’s victory a man in a newsagent said that I should be the next Prime Minister. What did I do to merit consideration for the highest office in the country? Told the man serving me that Trump and Clinton were not equally bad; called Trump dangerous and pointed out that those Americans voting for him because he wasn’t part of the political establishment probably wouldn’t accept the services of an unqualified, anti-establishment brain surgeon. Volià – it seems that with a few catchy opinions (and a cool billion to spare) you’re half-way there. It worked for Donald.

doesydoe
Deer in headlights, petrified. A justifiable response to Trump’s election.

Of course it was a joke; who knows ‘you’re fit for the premiership love,’ might become another way middle-aged men chat up women young enough to be their daughter. It was also unfortunately no joke that Trump had actually won. But this little charade in the newsagent and a tweet that appeared on my feed, saying that the best way to fight Trump was to stand up for the rights and values he opposes, made me feel a little less hopeless about the whole situation- a little less like I was watching the brutal abduction scene in Nocturnal Animals and powerless to stop it. I thought if we’re still here and breathing there must be something we can do turn the tide. So I came up with a list, a starting-point for fighting Trump & Co and their venomous xenophobic, sexist, racist, homophobic, climate-change-denying ideas:

  1. Accept that these right wing demagogues have gained traction due to inequality of income and opportunity as well as pure hatred.  We can’t go back to what was; we can only go forward from what is.
  2. Cultivate a diverse network of friends and acquaintances – don’t just talk to middle class, highly educated people of your own age. Do we need any more evidence that preaching to the converted doesn’t work?   Social division creates a vacuum for Trump & Co to spread their messages of fear and hatred.
  3. Speak up against injustice – Catherine Mayer co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party put it best: ‘Here’s how to respond to Trump. Do something today to fight for the rights & values he opposes. Then do something tomorrow and the next day.’
  4. Speak another language – There’s no better way to defy the nationalist demagogues who say: ‘Speak English, revere our dominant national symbols or get back on the boat.’ (Never mind that a unified culture doesn’t exist within the Anglophone community itself). So give the international finger to monocultural propaganda by flaunting your new-found ability to order polski piwogossip in Spanish or pronounce Baile an Bhuinneanáigh like you’re from there.
  5. Hug a tree – metaphorically, because if you deny climate change… well you’re starting to resemble Trump & Co already. And literally throw your arms around your tall, mossy friend because they have been here, on this one earth we share, longer than any of us. They’ve survived the cholera and Hitler years, they’ll survive Trump & Co and forever be an international symbol of grace, vivacity and hope. 

    myomossyfriend
    Spooner’s view of our Trump-defying mossy friend

Balance: Juggling Act or Tilt?

I was raised to fear and shun extremism. Extremism led to wars, terrorists and eccentricity. In my family you didn’t need to join a cult to be an extremist, merely to be fanatical about certain ideas to the point where you lost sight of other parts of life. My parents were raised in times of conflict, which meant that trepidation and sacrifice were a daily occurrence.  My father, a loner geek by disposition, was conscripted into the army for two years and at the end of my mother’s school yard was no-man’s land.

masterbalancer
Master balancer

In peacetime, the  counter to fanaticism and dogma was balance, the juggling of complementary parts of life, never straying too far in one direction.  I interpreted this juggling of opposites as an ideal, both in terms of activities and politics. Here are some contradictions in point: I’m vegetarian apart from the  fish I eat 2-3 times per week and the occasional piece of curried chicken katsu  swiped from a fellow diner’s plate. However, I cringed when an ardent vegan soberly declared that she never ate anything ‘that had a mother’; I gave money to the homeless beardie by Warren Street Station, but walked past Andrey at the Wellcome Collection, keeping my remaining pound coin for the chocolate that would get me through teaching; I’m spiritually open, but balk when someone gives power to their God or makes Richard Dawkins their prophet.  Does this make me a chameleon or a fence-sitter with a splintery ridge up my backside? I’m not sure, I only know that I want to live ethically without cutting off my curiosity.

Once I was extreme: a peacetime fanatic. It was during my final year as a literature student, when I dropped all the balls that weren’t relevant to getting a First in my degree. I explicated sonnets in quantities of 50, the way a gym-goer might do sit-ups. I dreamed in blank verse, when I wasn’t awake thinking about Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady. I cancelled a date to read Keats and was only interested in sex when Thomas Hardy was writing about it. I went to one (Alice in Wonderland-themed) party, that I still remember. The difference between 69 and a 70, a 74 and 75 was everything.  I had less of the juggler’s busy equipoise and more of a dancer’s vertiginous tilt, where every muscle strives towards the realisation of a particular shape. My mother worried that I had lost my mind – it was true- I was on edge all of the time, but it was also strangely thrilling.

yeatsbronze
Tilting towards poetry

My dedication to my PhD, on the other hand, was quantifiable – I had a limited salary and libraries and archives had finite hours, Monday to Friday, 10-4, or something like that. Recognising that the research stopped, meant that I could juggle part-time work; off-topic projects and sightseeing after (or even two hours before) the archives closed. I claimed it was all broadly related to my project, but a friend was unconvinced and nicknamed my PhD ‘The world and everything in it’

As my upbringing and the juggle-touting self-help gurus would have it, the PhD years with their clear boundaries around work and play were healthier than the literature year, which was weighted heavily in one direction. I’ve been challenging this idea recently because there’s no question about which made me feel more alive. A life balancing many things to the point that you can’t fully immerse yourself in anything, resembles my old P.E. teacher’s idea of choreography. Miss Waters, who led our Year 7 class, demanded that all dances should incorporate a turn, a twist, a jump, a step and a pose. Though she wanted to assess our ability to perform various techniques, her rule countered the aesthetics of dance, where the most memorable sequences are lucid shapes in motion.

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Lucid balance in point, Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin

I did abandon the juggling act from time to time, when some guy came on the scene. (He’d mean more than this phrasing implies!) From the outside, it looked like I was juggling work, friends, my new relationship and even yoga, but internally it felt like my life had tilted towards another. He would be the prime object of my thoughts and feelings, an imbalance that was actually heightened by socialising, because some people only asked about him, as though ‘we’ had displaced ‘me.’ So I unconsciously moved towards the fullest expression of that shape, the couple. The obsessive focus didn’t feel entirely dissimilar to the literature year.

The difference was that when things changed and I fell out of the tilt, the old juggling act was less palatable. I found myself missing the extreme, the liberal dropping of assets because I felt rich enough with my life’s bias. The question, ‘what or who can I be passionate about next?’ followed every loss. I juggled, or rather alternated, anxious thoughts – one worry provided temporary relief from another. The ‘Exciting-Life-Changing-Scheme’, which of course I wasn’t ready for, would dissolve in importance by a ruminating on a lost love; the heartbreaker’s sting could be neutralised by planning said ‘Scheme.’By keeping my mind absurdly busy, I tried to avoid the emptiness of loss and disappointment.  What I needed to move on, was to temporarily drop all striving, feel everything I wanted to avoid and take a more grounded balance- to be exact, a mild pelvic tilt, a child’s pose, with my hips bent back to the ankles, head down and arms extended. I had to trust that my vitality would return, unfurling organically.

swangrounded

In the grandest scheme of all, tilts, extravagant and humble are themselves part of life’s juggling act. Moderation and extremes are equally necessary.  The juggling act enables us to have varied, multi-faceted lives; self-care, earning a living and the different loves one may have, can all be accommodated.   But I confess, I live for the tilt, the thing that drives me and keeps me rooted.

 

Subsisting the Muse: Life in the arts

‘I hope there are theatres wherever she goes on to,’ I wrote, when I learned that my mum’s elderly neighbour had died. The afterlife would be no heaven for Pat if it was a mere resting place,  devoid of art, entertainment and gossip.* I don’t know everything about Pat, but I remember this: as a young woman she got into RADA (Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art) and her father forbade her from attending. Something about actresses not being entirely respectable. It was probably the late 1950s or early 60s, when Dames Judy (Dench) and Vanessa (Redgrave) were beginning to hit their stride, an untimely period to squander this opportunity to fear and small-mindedness. Who knows what would have happened if Pat had been allowed to take her place? Her talents might have made her another Dame of the Realm; she could have joined a low-budget  travelling theatre group and slept on cold creaky floors all around the country; or jacked it all in to marry the first Stage Door hound who asked. She might have been happier or less so, or both at different times. I wonder what her ghost will do, if it has a choice.

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A view from the gods, where we’re all headed.

Careers are born when talent meets opportunity. In my view, talent always meets with opportunity; it just might not be the one you anticipated. In the arts, opportunities are rarely tailored to individuals as snugly as Cinderella’s slipper matches her foot. Most art practitioners, curators and academics are clomping around in odd-fitting roles. Sometimes you can feel too big for the tiny, Miss-Havisham-sized boots that have been assigned to you. You’re boxed in, blistered and unable to grow. At other times, your little feet might be pacing through a multitasking army of boots that would better suit a human centipede.  Given the grail-like scarcity of a fulfilling, decent-paying role, square pegs are filing down their idiosyncratically calloused edges to fit the prescribed round hole.  There’s this sense that steady, even career progression doesn’t exist- you have to acquire  training and experience, promote your work and then the rest is down to canniness and fortune. It’s a wonder arts professionals don’t go about with a string of good-luck charms.

shoelast
Sometimes other people’s filthy shoes are found eloquent as they are – without you having to touch them.

There are a disproportionate number of stories about people risking everything for love, but in my lifetime, I’ve seen people do bolder and madder things for art. Here is a select list of impassioned acts: working four days a week, full-time, unpaid, to gain experience, at the same time as finishing a masters (that was me); leaving your well-paid, secure job to make or research something with erratic returns;  moving an ocean and maybe a few continents away from everything you know to pursue training and opportunities which will leave you with unfathomable levels of debt; making a criminally low salary s-t-r-e-t-c-h to cover rent, living expenses and the occasional perk in one of the most expensive cities in the world;  saving money and gaining bohemian kudos by staying in the same room as a couple, separated from them  by a partition so thin, you can tell they’re not having relations; holding out for that one perfect job in your industry, though someone might have to retire or die for you to get it;  setting yourself the task of completing something nearly impossible, whether it be a theoretically nuanced survey of Tudor brooms or an initiative to revive the cod-piece for a new generation.

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Frugal Glamour tip No.1: Wear a fungal fur hat to endure the cold in the (free) reading room at the British Library this winter.

The subsistence theme crops up in almost every example, because most arts practitioners  feel that at least half their creative energy goes into making ends meet. In fact, the stories of how people stay afloat whilst serving the Muse, are often more engrossing than the art itself. How much are people willing to yield to sometimes nonsensical conditions to further their goal? Everyone comes to know their limits. I soon learned that working unpaid for other people doesn’t agree with me. Apparently it’s meant to make you feel beatific with self-sacrifice and gratitude. It never worked out that way for me. Instead, it made me broke, anxious and gluten-intolerant. The latter was especially cruel, because bread and pasta cost less than the lentils and nuts I had to replace them with. (FYI, I was able to eat toast again as soon as the exploitation stopped). But the worst symptom of all, was that a previous delight had become a burden, a guilty excuse for not finding a decently-paying job that served society more transparently.

Some years later, I’m serving a different muse, more a Calliope (epic poetry) than a Clio (history), and have taken earning into my own hands. To the great shock of some employers, I insist on knowing (and sometimes naming) my salary out-right. It can be tight and my tax return, which has to account for so many different income streams, is an epic to work through in itself. But, it’s a path I’ve wanted and was free to choose, where Pat wasn’t.

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Because passion for one’s vocation and ahem, ‘curiosity’ about one’s salary are mutually exclusive…  Not even sandals in winter will fool the Muse.

*As a teenager, I remember my friend saying that she thought heaven wouldn’t be the generic glowing place but the deceased’s personal idea of bliss. For both of us, that  was New York, a city we’d never visited, but had been sold to us through sitcoms, Alicia Keys and advertising. To this day, each time I take my first steps in New York after a hell journey, I float in a jet-lagged haze, where everything, from the fire-escapes to the drains is tinged with wonder. I feel an almost divine rush of energy from my feet to the crown of my head, like I’m priming myself for miracles. And each time I leave, I get depressed because it’s an expulsion from Paradise.

Social beyond the tipping point

The tipping point is the moment from which nothing anyone could say will interest you. I’ve combined the conditional and future tenses intentionally, because I mean nothing in the whole possibility of things to be said (conditional)  will be of any interest from this moment on (future). You’re at an event and your social switch has suddenly flipped to the ‘off’ setting; perhaps you’ve have a concentrated mingling period and your sanity demands that you hermit away for a week; or perhaps, like me, you’re uncomfortable with formality and prefer socialising like a twelve year-old, in pairs and threes.

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Dipping, tipping, (toppled)…

As a fidgety introvert, I like immersive environments that allow me to focus my energy and attention. I’ve enjoyed the following: intense one-on-one discussions; being a bridesmaid in a best friend’s highly choreographed wedding and attending a two-day birthday party with activities and escape nooks as well as boozy chatter. Over the years, I’ve engineered my life so that it includes a fair amount of zany, whimsical dos and a minimum of the formal drinks, barbecues and dinner parties whose lifeblood is appearances and group conversation. What turns me off these events is small talk, constrained spaces and dress codes that usually force me to be colder than I’d like. Moreover, I’m prejudiced that in these situations people are stuck in a muted midpoint between the personal and professional, but reaching the fascination of neither.

My new boyfriend however, takes a different view. He sees formal occasions as an opportunity to wear your nice shoes, catch up with old acquaintances and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t. He’s genuinely interested in what people do, where they’re from and what they think about foreign policy; whereas I gravitate towards their silliness and their soul. I usually arrive and leave in the middle;  he jokes that he’s got a reputation for being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and by the way, would I like to go to a party or two with him?

When I see civilised-looking strangers standing around with drinks, talking politely, I’ve already reached my tipping point, though we’ve just arrived. Conversations are hard to follow and words coming from people’s mouths vie for my attention with song lyrics, background chatter, overpowering aftershave, the glare from the sequins on someone’s dress and the slightly off taste of Country White. Someone tells me where they live and I instantly forget; I have no opinions or knowledge of Thailand’s economic policy, or even anything related; I’m bored replying to a question on what I do, and get distracted by a ladybird crawling on a fence.  I’m squeezed by the competing sensations that there’s an awful lot to take in and absolutely nothing to do. I begin to long for a book to read or colour. I’m not even joking.

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When your shoes hurt, you’re depressed-drunk and generally not in the mood…

Afterwards, barely having scraped through, with my dubiously stained slip dress and ready death-stare, I think back to the wished for colouring book. I interpret it as the desire to solve this problem creatively. What I need to do, is keep myself interested so I don’t zone out, and simultaneously, stop myself from getting overwhelmed. By this point, the socially-adjusted reader will think that I’m developmentally challenged; other emotionally-motivated socialisers however, might recognise some of my anxieties.  This list of mood-altering suggestions is for them:

  1. Preparation : The Debutante Nap vs Running on Adrenaline   If you’re sure that the tricky event will be blessedly short (under three hours) you might consider racing into it from an action-packed day, so you don’t have to think  too much. However, if said ordeal  is likely to last more than three hours, take a nap if you can, or do your choice of endorphin-boosting activity beforehand.
  2. Catch the most interesting talk  Once you’re there, remember that you’re mobile and not glued to your partner’s side or to the poor sod who insists on a detailed explanation of your third PhD chapter. Find the conversation that most piques your fancy, then pay attention and ask about the things you genuinely want to know. Hopefully they’ll do the same and who knows, you might enjoy yourself. Some people advise playing the ‘relatables’ game, i.e.: no, you don’t have a mortgage, but your best friend says getting one is bloody hard etc… I think this is a slippery slope unless it’s a topic you actually want to talk about. If you’re not interested it will show in the dead goldfish expression on your face.

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    Throw a ring round that conversation like it’s a much coveted Pokémon!
  3. Be inspired by a recent Chinese immigrant  Neville*, who is only on his second month in this country, set a shining example of how to socialise. Naturally serious and mellow, he was obviously at ease in his own skin. He talked about things that interested him, responded observantly and casually looked at his phone when the conversation turned to British school boards. I noticed how despite Neville’s lapse in concentration, he remained part of the group – his feet were pointed towards us and his body language was relaxed.
  4. When you meet the worst person in the world Stuart was busy showing off  a camera app on his phone that didn’t only let him monitor his son, but his son’s babysitter and even his wife, so that she wouldn’t go out and shop too much. I would have disliked Stuart under any circumstances, but at a party he wears right into my already short social fuse. My death stare won’t actually kill him, or convert him into a reasonable sort of man, but it will make everyone around me feel awkward. What I can do instead, is try to see Stuart for the hilarious specimen that he is. He is clearly compensating for something. I visualise that he has a petite prick and feel better already. If I’m in a gutsier mood, I might challenge him on the finer points of his spying system: does it cover the toilets as well?; is it in any way democratic? Most importantly, I need to keep Stuart in perspective. He is a single blight on humanity. If I leave because of him, then I make him as important as he wants to be. On the other hand, 3 Stuarts and I’m out!
  5. Drink if you can get away with it and it’s your thing The green fairy (absinthe) and her descendants make everything flow much more smoothly. Some people would put this at number one.
  6. Find on-site distractions when you need a break from the monotony of constant talk. Not everyone is a conversational marathon-runner. Offer to help with serving or setting things up. Playing with children and animals can also give you a breather, ditto pool tables and card games.
  7. Take a luxury break  When you’ve reached your tipping point prematurely and it’s beyond the first hour, say you have to make a phone-call, yes even on a Sunday (your boss doesn’t know the meaning of a day off)  and take a walk. Make this break, all twenty minutes of it, as voluptuous as possible. Go where you’re out of sight and read a chapter of your novel, instagram a few porches or look in the local antique shops. Try not to come back with an entire dining table. You’ll be the re-born phoenix of the party. I reckon you can get away with this twice in a single event.
  8. And when you’ve really had enough, the party’s moved location three times and the crowd has started thinning, it’s time to go. After all, no-one should overstay their welcome.inversion.jog

 

*Names have been changed

 

Café society: Greeks and everyone else

‘I’m a little Greek…’ It’s a line from the lips of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra that accidentally resonates with me. As the daughter of Greek Cypriot immigrants, who grew up in quintessentially English South-west London, and hangs out with mainly British and international friends, I’m slightly Greek too. There was a time when I was more Greek, as a truly bilingual child, who went to Greek school and holidayed in Cyprus. But then when my maternal grandmother, a lady who nurtured any Hellenism I had, died, I immersed myself in other languages and cultures. In them, I sought freedom, the chance to be someone other than who my family had in mind. Nationalism- Greek, Cypriot, English, I found rather naff. Why would you want to be a flag-flying Aristotle or Shakespeare-quoting loony by default when y0u could choose to adopt the teachings of Seneca or Anais Nin? If anything, I saw my identity as European: multi-lingual, versatile, open, but post-Brexit, I wonder if that’s still valid with my British passport.

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How to be ‘a little Greek’: wear sunglasses in every situation you can possibly get away with…

Still, probably because I’m not a true Greek, I find real Greeks, (the ones who  quote Plato, smoke cigarettes and listen to London Greek Radio), fascinating, especially how they behave in public. Though my Greek has stagnated at the level of a lisping child’s my ears are still fine-tuned for the lingo. And do you know what? Greeks are always discussing the scene in front of them; they’re looking at me, scrutinising you. You can’t help but be drawn in.On the train, a girl asks her boyfriend whether he finds you attractive. After staring a while, he responds diplomatically for a Greek, by diverting the question: ‘Why is she eating chocolate? Is it necessary?’ ‘She’s on her period!’ (This actually loses something in translation, because in Greek it’s a one-word explanation) To this day, I wonder if my blush at being thus spot-lit,revealed that I understood. I wonder if they would have even cared… I was probably one of many curiosities in their day.

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Actually, life’s more interesting if you see it like a curious Greek…

 

Yesterday, when I had an hour to myself in an Austrian café in Angel, my thoughts were diverted from strudel by the arrival of a hipstery looking bunch. They hovered outside the café a while, warming up the scene all cigarettes, denim, leather, hair gel and orange-red lipstick (gender dependent) . The swagger; the dynamic gesticulations; the brillantine gloss on their brand of hip : what other nationality could they be?* True to form, their conversation turned to the café: the food, the atmosphere and most of all the clientele. Who were they? What were they doing? Were they worth anyone’s attention? They noticed the trendy couple on the blind date,  the homelier ladies who tea, me as I sat doodling in my battered blue notebook. The girl said she’d like one like that, to write down her thoughts. The guy wondered what I was writing about so furiously. I blushed again, signalling that I had understood, but this time sat up straight, produced elaborate flourishes on my gs and ys, draw intricate marine-life inside a greetings card.If I was being so openly watched, I would be part of the spectacle, play up to the role of ponytailed Sunday scribbler. I think how these people know, to misquote Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, how to ‘be in the café , and of the café’; to treat it as a glamorous watch point, and not a convenience or escape.

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How to arrive like a Greek, even when you’re not!

 

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a little Greek, so I too observe, analyse, eavesdrop, but more quietly. I write about the all-seeing Greeks, the tea-going brigade who point to a gooseberry tart behind glass, claiming that ‘with all that cream’ it resembles birthday cakes in Poland, before retiring to a table, plunging out of the present and laying into a much-hated, absent colleague. Most of all, my attention is caught by the couple to my right on the blind date, their imbalance of vitality.** On one side of the metaphorical see-saw is a pulpy female in tropical brights; on the other, a stoic, pallid male with Buddy Holly glasses, immaculate khaki shorts and white socks. Her enthusiasm could power a merry-go-round; I imagine that she’d balance a spoon on the tip of her nose to impress him. He’s stringent, unyielding as the elastic in his perfect ankle socks. He has a dry American accent and asks her if she’s read anything by Ian McEwan.She answers saucily- one book was okay; another, disturbing. He shuffles slightly. Does he want to get the bill, she asks. He must have work to do. He does want to get the bill, he’s meeting friends. Her face drops to her phone screen though her tone continues to be breezy. I’m saddened, concerned that her bubble has burst, that she’s been rebuffed because she’s not his type. I imagine that he thinks his type is sullen, lank-haired and probably French because he prides himself on being a romantic.

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Ground evidence.

 

NOTES

*Cutting la bella figura is important to Greeks. And beautiful is tightly laced and manicured.  Whenever I go to Cyprus, my cousins lament that I’m too grungy. My hair is un-straightened and un-curled. I’ve only brought a Boho-Brits-abroad suitcase of shorts, jeans and faded floaty dresses. When we’re getting ready to go out for a drink in town (in a casualish bar mind, I don’t own anything flashy enough for a Nicosia nightclub) everything is scrutinised, rejected and eventually something is accepted so that I don’t have to go naked.

**Once upon a time there was a café in Covent Garden called Notes or 1001 Blind Dates as my friends and I thought of it. Providing a chic, understated experience of wine, candlelight and  vintage James Bond, Notes was the meeting of many a Tinderella and her Prince Smarmy. This crossing of expectation and reality, that provided hours of entertainment for everyone involved, has now been replaced with a Korean fast-food joint. Due to rising rents I think…