Reading With Pleasure and Resistance: Chosen Scripts (Vol. I)

I’m one of the lucky ones. I spend about an hour and a half on trains every day and rarely in rush hour, so I usually get a seat. I have access to a communal garden, which tempts me out when I have a spare half hour on warm days. I have a couch and bed for cold days. This means I actually have time and space to read books, some doorstopper thick and unportable, some sleek enough to go everywhere. The books I have on the go (typically two at a time) offer a commentary on wherever I happen to be, whatever I’m doing. They’re closer than friends, and their words revisit me inadvertently at unthinking moments… Sometimes, on a day like today, when I’m mildly hung over, I’m walking to the tube stop and the line  ‘…My Paris/ Was only just not German’ (Ted Hughes, ‘Your Paris,’ The Birthday Letters) interrupts me for a reason I can’t completely understand.  Why do I need this relatively unremarkable line right now?

My Paris/ Your Paris
My Paris/ Your Paris

When I get home, I find the poem. Hughes’ autobiographical account of how the Paris he remembers from his time as a soldier in World War II , (a city occupied by the Nazis where ‘So recently the coffee was still bitter/ As acorns’), differed from the experience of his wife Sylvia Plath, who tried to distract herself with ‘American’ Hemingway and Fitzgerald fantasies from the pain of her own memory of being rejected by a former lover in the city.  The phrase I remembered is preceded by another forgotten one: ‘I kept my Paris from you’ (Hughes to Plath). These 6 words take me back to where I accidentally found The Birthday Letters the second time, in Word on the Water, a secondhand bookshop in a tugboat, on leafy Regent’s Canal in July.  I was falling in love, and at the height of my giddy infatuation, my reunion with The Birthday Letters in such a poetic surrounding felt like kismet (his word not mine). Of course, The Birthday Letters document a love/hate dynamic, a narrative of intimacy and misunderstanding,  and I could have seen them as a warning. What started out as passion and the immense desire to share everything, turned into hurt and privation, something being kept from me. Not a city, but a story it was thought I would never understand.

It’s funny, but Plath and Hughes volumes seem to jump off the shelves at me whenever I embark upon a cliched passion-motivated affair like theirs. Something about the dissenting voices, the sensuously acrid imagery, reflects something real right into my soul. Their words and my own satellite relationships  give me no shortage of thrills, but  leave me a little raw and hungry.

Shelf-full of Sad/e, Senate House
Shelf-full of Sad/e, Senate House

Seeking rootedness, sunshine and inspiration, I turn to my other relationships, and a trip to San Francisco. As I’m walking in the city’s Sunset District, I become intrigued by a neoclassical-fronted public library, guarded by marble lions and walk in. On a table I spot a book called Fairyland by Alysia Abbot. It’s cover is illustrated with a black and white photograph of a slick, elfishly handsome man in a dark suit, holding a white magnolia. Behind him is an earnest, exquisitely-featured little girl in a long chintzy white nightgown. It must be magic realism, a modern fairytale, I think, and turn it over. But when I do, I find out that it’s a woman’s memoir of growing up in San Fransisco with her gay father in the 1970s and then nursing him through Aids. I’m not sure I can read this right now- It feels a little too close to home when I’ve recently been overwhelmed with the news of one close friend’s serious illness and another’s bereavement. I put the book down- it belongs to the library anyway, so it’s not like I can take it away. But then the day before I’m due to catch the ten-hour flight home, I persuade my friend Nikki and her mum to go to touristy North Beach, and drag them into City Books, (Jack Kerouac’s favourite, incidentally), where all I want to buy is Fairyland.

Ten minutes of Fairyland in St James' Park when I'm early to a meeting...
Ten minutes of Fairyland in St James’ Park when I’m early to a meeting…

It’s beautifully written, searching and honest- I like how Abbot pilfers through her father, Steve’s poems and private correspondence to conjure up his side of the story as a counter-narrative to her own. Poetry, bohemianism and love are prominent, but Abbot doesn’t brush over the mutual inconveniences of their family unit. Her presence as a demanding child and bratty teenager damages Steve’s credentials as lover, and there are times when his flamboyant homosexuality and hippiness embarrass her.  Abbot’s account of her search for a life of her own as a young woman as Steve’s illness advances, is especially moving. Much of this is related through their  letters, precious documents where they exchange ideas about life as well as reports of their everyday experiences. I’m reminded that dying and living aren’t the opposites that they’re generally seen to be, that a sick person may be languishing in body, but enjoying a vivid mental and spiritual experience. This book, which has made me a little less afraid of sickness and death, ends on a tender, marvelling note:  ‘This place Dad and I lived together, our fairy land, wasn’t make believe but a real place with real people and I was there.’

While my foray into the life and death theme was accidental, over the past few months, I’ve been consciously  drawn to makers’ narratives. It’s essentially the same story told a little differently told each time. A person with big ideas, a smattering of talents and scattered means, makes something of their life.  I’d been meaning to read Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects for a while, and found it in the Camden Waterstones last month. It’s a weighty tome with a midnight blue waxy jacket, gold lettering and a comely aloe smell. I could only read it at home or on journeys when I knew I wouldn’t be walking much. Anyway, I found Lutz’s account of how the Brontes created their famous stories in and amongst their possessions, chores and life crises strangely comforting. Books doubled as storage units, presses and even writing paper, when the latter was scarce and expensive, and someone had a story idea that just had to be captured, even if there was literally marginal space for it. Plots were discussed around pudding bowls, and developed in breaks from sewing-  an accomplishment the Bronte girls wanted to keep up, so that they wouldn’t become decadent, unfeminine literary types. I like this idea of creativity amongst stuff and busyness rather than ascetic vocationalism, not only because it’s realistic, but because it’s generous and intricately woven into life.

Book As Press, Natural History Museum, London
Book As Press, Natural History Museum, London

The figure of Emily Bronte, the wildest of the sisters has always intrigued me the most, and it horrified society to think how this ‘slim, wick of a girl,’ a clergyman’s daughter nonetheless, conceived a hero as violently savage as Heathcliff. As far as we know, she had no such lover, or even character in her life; but Lutz speculates that Emily’s familiarity with Lord Byron’s works, as well as her affinity with the untamed moorland and acute observations of dogs, (pre-Chiuaua-era they were much closer to their lupine cousins), would have been enough. About one hundred years later in Paris, people would marvel at how the seemingly innocent eighteen-year-old Francoise Sagan (real name Quoirez) could create a novel as candidly racy as Bonjour Tristesse. Anne Berest’s focused study of Sagan’s life in 1954, the year of Bonjour Tristesse’s publication, is another account of how a green young woman possessed the sensitivity and acute powers of observation to write beyond her personal experience, and get published. I think that Emily and Francoise’s examples stand out in my mind, because there are things that I want to achieve where I can envisage the result, but not the next step. So many times, writers are told to draw from their own experience, but Emily and Francoise didn’t have that much, so they took what they had, and with a dash of inspiration,  jumped into the unknown.

Creativity in between... Chalk on Blackboard, Unisex Toilet, Cheeky Parlour
Creativity in between… Chalk on Blackboard, Unisex Toilet, Cheeky Parlour

Reading List

Alysia Abbot, Fairyland (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013).

Anne Berest, Sagan: Paris, 1954 (London: Gallic Books, 2015).

Ted Hughes, The Birthday Letters (London: Quality Books, 1998).

Deborah Lutz, The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).

Archetype: The Lady and the Tramp

The lady and the tramp aren’t real, but they’ve followed me my whole life. The lady is to the manor born, the tramp is a wanderer, dispossessed of any nicer quality. I can switch from one to the other in seconds, with the lilt of my steps, the carriage of my neck and head, the tone of my voice. And so can many of you.

Quite a pair
In a manner of switching. Fragment from a July Notebook

The charm lies in what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss termed ‘techniques of the body,’ skills like one’s mode of walking, handling objects and people, that are not natural, but learned through everyday social interactions. These bodily techniques create an illusory social presence.  For women, alongside their behaviour, these corporeal traits have long informed how they are judged, which narrative category they fit into: Lady or Tramp. Will they be contained within social expectation, or drift on the margins? This is the question that surrounds the heroine of Henry James’ nineteenth-century novella ‘Daisy Miller,’ and unfortunately, one that still defines how women are perceived today.

Pretensions to ladyhood begin with a girl's first steps. Pollyanna Shoe Shop, Parsons Green
Pretensions to ladyhood begin with a girl’s first steps. Pollyanna Shoe Shop, Parsons Green

The lady is above all moderate, distant and admired. She entered my life when I was around 5, in my mother’s advice to avoid clashing colours and prints, and soon after that in my grandmother’s admonition that my cousin and I couldn’t tear the fluff off blankets and throw it at people from the pulpit at church,  because we were ‘ladies’ now. The lady is always on her best behaviour, wanting to please and placate, not make a scene. She’s convenient in those social situations when you don’t really want to be there, just float above things on your good manners. She’s always watchful, of herself in the glass, and of other people. Who are they, and what are their intentions towards her? Because of her extreme choosiness, fussiness if you will, she comes across as sensitive and vulnerable. These impressions are enhanced if she is actually petite- as I am. There are times when  my ability to pass as a lady has kept me safe from the worst that people can do. One man told me that a lot of women could ‘take it’ – his, shall we call it errant love?-  whereas I was ‘delicate’, could be easily damaged and therefore had to be protected. Did these ‘tough’ asbestos-skinned hussies really exist, or whether they were a convenient invention for this man?  I was suddenly put in touch with some inverted nineteenth-century system, where my apparent fragility became my strength.  My ability to be read as a lady was an unfair, guilty privilege, but could also shroud me from experience and isolate me.

The ladies from the tramps... why should he decide? c.1960 illustration of Oscar Wilde's 'The Nightingale and the Rose'
The ladies from the tramps… why should he decide? c.1960 illustration of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’

The Tramp is a nomad, who rubs up against the world in as many ways as she can. As a little tramp I pretended to be orphaned, and trailed around my other grandma’s garden barefoot with tangled morning hair, in her electric-shock inducing, nylon nighties. These 1960s satiny relics, coloured in lurid shades of pistachio and confetti pink that had long died out, liberated me from my navy blue and polka dot uniform and made me Queen of a slatternly kingdom. With nothing better to do, I  daydreamed and played solidly until noon, when I was taken on some educational outing or other. The tramp is giddy with freedom and permissiveness- she strews her possessions (and other people’s) around her in meandering disarray, masterminds pranks that she may not get away, with and appears not to care what you think. She gives into the impulse of the moment, using her present vitality and her future death, as an excuse. She spills a lot- laughter, tears and the occasional obscenity.

Meandering flora, Backstreet Passage bordering Chelsea College of Art
Scattered flora, Backstreet Passage bordering Chelsea College of Art

At best, she’s  mysteriously creative, like Emily Bronte who trekked across the moors, sparred with dogs and wrote a melodrama beyond the capacity  her meagre life-experience, or as in touch as Juliette, Brigitte Bardot’s character in And God Created Woman, who repeatedly kicks off her ballet shoes so that she can run better, love better, feel the warm ground beneath her feet. At worst, she’s the heroine of that Rolling Stones song, Backstreet Girl, a slave to her passions and socially marginalised. She’s too ‘common and coarse’ to be part of the singer’s ‘world’, but there when he fancies having her ‘around.’*  Folded into the song’s lulling cadences, is the dismal fate of ‘some chick’ Mick Jagger knew, someone who strayed right into the trap laid for her by narrator. I’d like to think that in the style of many a tramp, she escaped and found a way to tell her own story, in her own words

Chez Tramp... The French House, Parsons Green
Chez Tramp?… Yard, the French House, Parsons Green

Lady and Tramp stories are continually re-interpreted and re-invented for a new age. I recently saw two London exhibitions that inadvertently referenced the subject.** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery  pays homage to woman who bought some trampiness into static notions of ladyhood as she continually evoked the Cinderella narrative of rags to riches, whilst retaining the rag-girl’s waifishness and pluck. Hepburn’s appeal lay in her enormous doe eyes (blue, not pitch black with twin globes of reflected light, as some photographs suggest) which gave her a vulnerable, expectant look,  and her encyclopaedic range of expressive movements: ungainly coltish strides and tumbles metamorphose into dynamic spirals and gaited runs, and back again. Like many revered 1960s icons, Hepburn projected  a tramp-like pep and emotional freedom, whilst having a proverbial briefcase of ladylike tricks to fall back upon. In Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961), she plays a prostitute, but holds herself like a ballerina, while in Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957) her awkward adolescent persona is a mere shell for the sparkling, gracile woman inside. Trampiness here acts as a spice, something that can be delicately added to a textbook lady for flavour and interest.

All in the techniques. Jane Fonda and Unknown 'Suitor' by Peter Barch, 1967
All in the techniques. Jane Fonda and Unknown Suitor by Peter Barch, 1967

The Foundling Museum’s The Fallen Woman exhibition tells the stories of women who strayed from Victorian ideals of female chastity and then as a result of a pregnancy, were found out. The success of these women’s petitions to have their illegitimate babies adopted by the Foundling Hospital depended upon an all-male panel’s judgement of the mother’s virtue. The letters exhibited, demonstrate the pressure to prove that the pregnancy was a result of chance, violent encounters with the unnamed ‘F’ who ‘would have his will.’ While there is no doubt that many women were raped, not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy, and some accidents were a consequence of prolonged consensual affairs. As exhibition curator Lynda Nead has explained, evidence of the mother’s sexual agency or desire, was completely eradicated from the story. Instead, the mid-nineteenth-century paintings on display, obsessively meditate on the luminous swell in the woman’s drapery, which barely conceals her bump or bundle. The shamed women were repeatedly portrayed braving the elements in flapping cloaks, so unlike the insect-shaped upholstery that their respectable peers wore. Here, the journey from lady to tramp seems a formulaic game of consequences. But it’s important to remember that each experience of straying was unique, and that some women subverted the paintings’ prescriptions in their flights from convention.

The lady and the tramp are close, so close, that they sometimes turn up in the wrong places . The lady has embarrassed me at edgy parties, where she stands ballerina-erect, preciously wrinkling her nose at the weed on the football table. The tramp arrives half an hour late, breezy and provocative to a sober meeting with work superiors. In these situations the lady and the tramp feel less like personas than perfumes, diffuse, concocted and potent.

Gamine sketch from a borrowed Vogue, c.1951, at the National Portrait Gallery
Gamine sketch from a borrowed Vogue, c.1951, at the National Gallery Cafe

*Mick Jagger, who wrote this song in 1966, said the ‘French cafe style’ melody and lyrics about some ‘chick’ he knew, came easily. Its strangest line goes: ‘Please come right up to my ears, you will be able to hear what I say…’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWrPuehVrWc

** Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/hepburn/home.php

The Fallen Woman http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/fallen-woman/

Practical Feminism: Sexual Equality and People I Know

Any fairly liberal-minded person can convince themselves that they’re a feminist. They preach sexual equality, advocate that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies, and champion female role models in politics, sport and science. Great. But what about the everyday choices that shape our modes of self-expression and our interpersonal and intimate relationships?

It’s here, in the unwieldiness of life that feminism is really put to the test and can fall through the cracks.  We end up with dazzling contradictions: the female rights campaigner in an abusive relationship; the man who devotes his career to Gertrude Stein, but is stringing two women along in his personal life; the housewife who supports her daughter’s career in astro-physics. Are people living out these contradictions by choice, or have they fallen into them by chance?

I decided to ask my friends and extended social network how feminism played out in their daily lives and whether they thought they were living up to their ideals. What I ended up with, was a diverse collage of experiences from both more evolved (diehard) feminists and less evolved (newbie or reluctant) feminists. Despite their differences, everyone agreed that in the context of centuries of patriarchy, feminism is hard. For some it’s definitely not second nature. Even for those who identify themselves as feminists, it’s often the brave, controversial choice rather than the easy, instinctive one.

When it comes to matriarchal civilisations bees have an edge. 'The Historie of Bees' by Charles Butler, 17th century
When it comes to matriarchal civilisations bees have an edge. ‘The Historie of Bees’ by Charles Butler, 17th century

WHAT WE WEAR, AND HOW IT MATTERS

Self-expression is a key area of feminist debate. For the most part feminists advocate that women should be judged on what they do and say, rather than by how they look. Iris*, who works at a Montessori nursery school told me that everyday she is faced with girls as young as three who want to ‘advertise’ and ‘define’ themselves by how they dress. She feels dismayed that her young pupils are already copying an image of decorative rather than active femininity, and says that her challenge is to break this stereotype ‘without making it a fight. Every day I chose to ignore their comments and mention what they are capable of, not what they look like.’

There can be no doubt that Iris and other early-years educators like her, play a vital role in shaping girls’ self-perceptions and mitigating the tide of feminine stereotypes coming from the media, families and friends. However, some women  feel that their sartorial choices are part of their self-expression as feminists. They have said that dressing: androgynously/for comfort/ modestly/ eccentrically etc. means that they look as they wish, rather than satisfying the male gaze. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with such statements, because they create divisions amongst women, indicating that some are more procurable than others just because of how they look and express themselves. Differences in how women relate to their body and sexuality should be respected, rather than overly scrutinised and judged.

Clothes... it's what you do in them that matters. Notting Hill Carnival
Clothes… it’s what you do in them that matters. And where they come from. Notting Hill Carnival

Instead of obsessing over hem-lines, if you would dress like a feminist, consider the provenance of your clothes. Garment factory workers are overwhelmingly female, but the majority in today’s globalised fashion industry struggle to earn a living wage. This means that despite working long hours, with few breaks and draconian discipline, many do not earn enough to feed their families. Shockingly, the majority of high-street retailers underpay their factory workers, and even the most progressive still have a way to go before all their staff receive a living wage. Ethically-produced garments can be prohibitively expensive, but the tide is slowly turning, and we’re not completely powerless as consumers.  Two ethically-minded friends have recommended the website ethicalconsumer.org  for helpful information on different manufacturers’ human rights credentials. If enough of us boycott the most exploitative manufacturers and continue to campaign for workers’ rights, then perhaps we’ll reach our most feminist sartorial state yet.

FEMINIST INTERACTIONS IN DAILY LIFE AND AT WORK

Those I spoke to were conscious that feminism is achieved in our everyday acts and interactions, and not merely in theory or activism. Diana, defines herself as ‘a whistle blower of feminism,’ who makes a direct stand against inequality when it directly affects her or those she knows.  Diana feels that her sense of justice was instilled in her from a young age by a family who raised her to ‘believe that as a woman’ she was ‘entitled and allowed to have all things that are available to men’ such as an ambitious career-path and sexual freedom. She anticipates that if she has a child, she will negotiate arrangements for childcare with her partner, depending on both of their career needs. Crucially, she believes that ‘what is feminist is the platform for discussion, open mindedness and hearing each others’ needs without making’ one partner’s ‘perspective superior or righteous based on traditional gender norms.’  Personally, I feel that Diana has hit the nail on the head – feminism is not a solution to inequality, but an ongoing discussion, the ability to critique established models and come up with a workable solution.

Natalie has been challenging established norms in her male-dominated consulting firm. She has been vocal in pointing out that the established practice of taking on too many projects in a short amount of time results in missed deadlines, mistakes and employee exhaustion. While a male colleague acquiesces to the client’s every unreasonable demand, is willing to plough on until 3 am on a regular basis, and claims he gets sick if he has more than 4 hours sleep, Natalie’s sense of balance, and perhaps even pragmatic common-sense,  rebel against the system. Her unofficial protests against the sometimes austere sausage-fest that is Workaholics Anonymous, have included wearing pink at interviews and presentations, collapsing into tears of exhaustion and eating chocolate by her boss’ desk. However, when she recognised that her rare skills were essential to the firm’s success, Natalie used her negotiating power to request a more humane work schedule, and organised a meeting to put this in place. Natalie’s crusade, if it pays off, won’t just benefit her, but her colleagues and the firm’s future employees. Though Natalie’s protest isn’t directly about women’s rights, I consider it a feminist intervention because it’s a challenge to the patriarchal prioritisation of profit and results over the staff’s sense of well-being and pride in their work. She’s bringing previously under-considered factors into the equation, and thereby envisioning a new model of work.

Beware the head that wears the flowery diadem... she's coming to transform your enterprise
Beware the head that wears the flowery diadem… she’s coming to transform your enterprise

MALE FEMINIST CHALLENGES  IN EVERYDAY INTERACTIONS

The men I spoke to related that they had to challenge their biological biases and time-worn assumptions, when interacting with women at work and in non-relationship contexts. Joseph, a self-described ‘straight guy with relatively macho traits,’ who works in the female-majority environments of tourism and teaching, finds the ‘totally male focus’ of sports a refuge from ‘thinking about girls.’ Joseph’s use of sports as a niche for homosocial bonding, where he can drink, swear, banter, etc. with a liberty that he feels isn’t available to him in the co-ed world, isn’t unique amongst the men I know. Nevertheless, Joseph’s recent experience of watching the Women’s World Cup, which he enjoyed no less than the men’s one ‘confirmed to me I’m a feminist, as I all but forgot it was women I was watching- they were just footballers and I got as tensed up watching them as I do the men!’ I have to confess I didn’t watch the Women’s World Cup. I hated PE at school, and my jolly hockey-sticks PE teachers even more: I would have happily busied myself with an embroidery sampler over being forced to pay a repetitive game of ‘fetch’ in the cold, any day of the week. But Joseph’s genuine shift in perspective after he witnessed the female footballers’ skill and drive at the Women’s World Cup, reinforces how important media exposure of women’s achievements and activities is as a counter to the vast swathes of material focusing on their appearance.

Male niches... fast-dying sanctuaries where a bloke can feel like a bloke!
Male niches… fast-dying sanctuaries where a bloke can feel like a bloke!

Phillip classes himself as a ‘sexist feminist’… Raised by a working mother and stay-at-home father, Phillip considers that his wife, Laura’s career is equally important to his own, and maintains that housework and childcare should be divided equally. When Laura pointed out that his porn-watching habit was at odds with his support of fair-trade and human rights because porn-actresses were objectified and often demeaned, he went cold-turkey. (Don’t read into that metaphor)

Nevertheless, Phillip says that he struggles to be fully a feminist, owing to his extreme heterosexuality.  He had virtually no latency period, and from about the age of four, ‘did my best to get laid… I think I failed more than I succeeded.’ He still feels ‘like a predator’ every time he sees an attractive woman: ‘everything completely disappears, only the cleavage or butt.’ (When Phillip told me this, I couldn’t help but think he saw women like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which periodically disappears, all but for its toothy grin: so I’m calling this Cheshire-Cat syndrome)  Phillip is aware that this response ‘must colour my first interaction with women,’ and he has to physically remove himself from the situation, diverting his eyes, or making tea.  He’s not sure whether his Cheshire-Cat syndrome is biologically or culturally determined: probably both. ‘I wish I wasn’t so much a man!’ he exclaims, conscious that his initial objectification of women stops him being a feminist to the core, and truly relating to them as equals. But he’s consciously making an effort. A pragmatist as well as an idealist, Phillip recognises that Laura may also be attracted to other men- it’s only natural- and he’s fine with it, confident that they can both stay ‘disciplined’ if they’ve come from a happy home.

Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel. The Cheshire Cat disappears part by part, until only its smile is left.
Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel. The Cheshire Cat disappears part by part, until only its smile is left.

FEMINISM IN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS

Practical feminism is most put to the test in intimate heterosexual relationships, where biology and feudal-era customs dictate that attraction is based on gender difference. Some women I talked to openly expressed the need to feel ‘feminine’ as well as equal in relationships. They want their partner to value their opinions and intelligence, and also recognise that they are different from him, and prefer him to take the initiative, making them feel ‘special,’ ‘protected,’ and even ‘small’ or ‘delicate.’ Interestingly enough, these women felt that the old-fashioned ‘masculine’ qualities of decisiveness and integrity were in short supply amongst the men they  dated, whereas modern ‘metrosexual’ attributes such as versatility, interest in arts and culture, and flakiness were pervasive. None of them thought that feeling feminine and being a feminist were mutually exclusive.

Diana went a little further, arguing that ‘one of the “safest” and perhaps the only appropriate instances where gender inequality MAY exist, is in the arena of sexuality… if we are just talking about sex, ergo fantasy (or a platform for fantasy and fulfilment)…It’s all about communication.  If a woman likes the idea of a hyper-masculine male, and that turns them on, then go for it!  I believe that same woman can then look at other realms of her life and say, the inequality is exciting and satisfying here, but doesn’t have a place in these other areas.’ Diana referenced the psychoanalyst Esther Perel, who posits a ‘European’ model of gender complementarity as opposed to the ‘American’ model equality, which apparently results in ‘boring sex.’ I question how far a couple’s sexual and non-sexual communication can be diametrically opposite. From my experience, elements of the sexual relationship inform non-sexual communication and vice-versa. I can’t help but think that if you wanted a relationship that was equal in all areas but sex, you might have to draw up a virtual Fifty Shades style contract, complete with terms and conditions.  Some people might find that a turn-on, I suppose…

Dreams of complementarity, mid-century romance, the works... A garage in Russian Hill, San Francisco
Dreams of complementarity, mid-century romance, the works… A garage in Russian Hill, San Francisco.

What I’m curious about, is how this culture that still idealises notions of masculine strength and feminine delicacy, and consciously unequal relationships ( albeit relegated to the arena of sexuality ), feeds into the lives of women who find themselves there by accident, out of a mistaken feeling that passes for love. Inequality can take many forms, but includes: physical or emotional abuse; verbal put-downs; being objectified, strung along, or used for sex; your partner engaging and disengaging with you on a whim; being treated as though your opinions and feelings are irrelevant. Of course women can be the perpetrators, and men the victims of these malpractices.  But in the context of centuries of feminine subordination, and continued media and social preferences for yielding, seductive peacemakers, women sometimes struggle to stand up for themselves in relationships with men, and to leave situations that are depleting them. Regardless of her successes in other areas of her life, no-one can be truly empowered when she’s accepting to be treated as though her thoughts, feelings and well-being are irrelevant. I don’t believe these unequal relationships benefit men either, because by denying their partner’s full potential, they’re stunting not only the relationship, but their own human growth.

Some women, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a built-in bullshit radar and precise mode of expression that commands respect and leaves anyone who would mistreat them quaking in their boots. They take the initiative in leaving situations where they’re being treated unequally.  Others of us, who are less assertive, and perhaps witnessed our mothers take the guileless, gentle role, are getting there by practice. Just as Phillip has to battle with the Cheshire-Cat syndrome that compromises daily interactions with women, I’ve had to challenge the primitive part of me that softens in an argument and strives for easy reconciliation, and listen to the small voice that says: ‘Speak up, it’s important, I’m important.’

'To the other maidens, he gave a white rose.' Try winning Pictionary when you have to draw that!
‘To the other maidens, he gave a white rose.’ Try winning Pictionary when you have to draw that!

IN THE END…

Feminism is a struggle, and exists amongst many contradictions. But it’s encouraging that so many people have spoken up about their difficulties and triumphs in feminism on both macro and micro levels. What’s interesting is that everyone I talked to related some kind of vision for a fairer, better world within the stories of their everyday feminist challenges. Just as theoretical feminists talk about feminism being the alternative to accepted patriarchal norms, the practical feminists I interviewed were committed to doing things differently. Feminism isn’t a blanket solution, it’s a discussion, and it begins with all of us.

* All names have been changed.

Fantasies of the Cholerically Repressed*

The other day I was leafing through an old notebook and came across a doodled ‘conversation’ that I’d had  at a conference. It was a hot June afternoon in a stuffy lecture theatre, the previous chair had let everyone overrun by ten minutes, and the room twitched with restlessness and passive-aggression. The current chair however, wasn’t having any of this, and boldly raised herself up to her full five feet two inches when the speaker had ten seconds to spare. The speaker rambled on even as the chair was swiftly advancing before the pulpit. In arts academia, this is the closest you get to physical conflict- and it shook me out of my stupor. ‘Catfight!’ I scribbled, and slid over my notebook. Trying not to laugh, my friend and I exchanged cartoons of the chair and the speaker bashing it out- punches, karate-chops and insults that were more Real Housewives than Shakespeare. What actually happened, was in a way more awkward-  the speaker insistently scrambled through her final paragraph, and the chair immediately cut to questions without thanking her. Still, our doodles channelled something of the repressed discomfort of a room full of thinkers who had been made to stew and fester in other people’s ideas for too long.

If only you could see the secret offensives cerebral folk like Hipster Gregory bring with them to conferences. All illustrations are by Janice Holland for Andrew Lang's 'Yellow Fairy Book' of 1949. This particular copy once belonged to the borough of Hackney, but now it's mine.
If only you could see the secret offensives peace-loving  folk like Hipster Gregory bring to conferences.
All illustrations are by Janice Holland for Andrew Lang’s ‘Yellow Fairy Book’ of 1949. This particular copy once belonged to the borough of Hackney, but now it’s mine.

If you think that an anger is an odd response to have towards someone who is trying to enlighten you for just that bit longer than they promised, (how generous of them), you clearly have never been to a conference. I’m even convinced that some people go to these things with the intention of being offended.  At the last one I attended, a notable speaker provoked ire and scorn for simply pointing out that her institution cracked onto a good idea before a rival. Tim Hart territory this was not, but it’s not a gathering of great minds if it doesn’t leave you seething through your pasted-on smile. Unsurprisingly, passive aggression predominates in thinking or creative disciplines, which churn out mottos such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ or the Photoshopped smile more winning than the genuine grimace, etc. We’re of course enormously lucky to not work in places of actual physical violence; though I’m not sure this underlying frustration and ill-will is much healthier. But how else do we channel anger, that inconvenient, heterogeneous emotion that arises from feelings of powerlessness, frustration and the desire to make your mark? And anger is as real in cerebral workplaces as it is everywhere else.  It comes in the form of unspoken resentment towards the colleague who stole your idea and ran with it, the manager who misguides and neglects you, or the finance people who have delayed your payment yet again. When exploding publicly is verboten, and words and reason only get us so far, our anger, which must take some form, becomes a fantasy…

She drained his best vintage, while he contemplated camera angles for the latest internet sensation.
She drained his best vintage, while he set about ‘researching’ camera angles for the latest internet sensation.

Just as it’s often the most sexually repressed who are into the seediest erotica, those of us who forcibly subdue our anger imaginatively concoct potent revenge scenarios. Some of them are basically violent-  I remember one acquaintance who talked about wanting to bang his dopey colleagues’ ‘fucking heads together,’ and  another who worried that if she were left too long alone with her malevolent sister,  she would have to strangle her.  But disturbing as these are, they’re in a way less interesting than another common fantasy- the showdown. Showdown fantasies are often triggered  by the drive to show-up a well-respected but useless individual. A mild-mannered and eloquent friend who works in publishing, has laboured for years under a boss who though essentially kind-hearted, is disorganised and unempathetic. When my friend’s job is rendered unbearable by her boss’s neglect, she fantasises about confronting her in a more aggressive manner than the gentle but persistent entreaties she is accustomed to: the words ‘bitch’ in bright red lipstick scrawled all over her office door.

There’s nothing high-brow about my intellectual friend’s ‘damage to property’ reverie- it could be pulled straight from a Taylor Swift video or a daytime television soap-opera. But this is fantasy, not art- and her only wish is to make an impact far bigger and more spectacular than any she could in real life. Let’s face it, Taylor or Rihanna or Nikki with their bolshy expletives, red paint, and golf-club-to-sports-car-window melodramas make an ado of their anger as no pedestrian woman legitimately can, either at work or in her personal life.

What's she doing up a tree? Being passive aggressive, sad, weepy, anything but angry...
What’s she doing up a tree? Being passive aggressive, weepy, hormonal, anything but angry…

Because women aren’t supposed to show anger, not really. And do the feminine, softly-spoken ones even generate it? I recall this Disney spoof Enchanted, where saccharine  princess Giselle is accidentally thrust into gritty New York City life,  stumbles upon an unfamiliar feeling of frustration and heat, before finally entertaining the possibility that she is actually angry. Weirdly enough, this fairytale scene resonates with me. I sometimes find it hard to know if it’s anger I’m feeling, something that isn’t helped by others repeatedly telling me I’m ‘sad’, ‘hurt’, or even ‘tired’ ‘instead. ‘You’re not an angry person, though… this is too trivial a matter to be angry about, ‘ I keep hearing. It’s as as though there’s this patronising universal agreement that anger is too martial and dangerous for the likes of women like me. No, it’s more palatable for me to be sad and weep large tears into my lavender-scented hankie…

But when my brother broke my already ailing laptop on Christmas day, and the advent of my PhD hand-in, to watch the crap version of Sherlock Holmes and I belted out an eleven-letter term of endearment at him, no-one could mistake what I was really feeling. My mother ordered me to behave in a more ladylike manner, and to this day consoles herself with the thought that I was a different person that night. I knew it was anger though, because I was back to my ‘sweet’ self the very next day, while I sat for three hours laughing and joking with my brother as he drove us to get the laptop fixed by my cousin, the computer programmer.  Yes, I was a different person, but becoming that fury even for a short while, allowed me to return to a more familiar version of myself, unmarred by dogged resentment. Sometimes anger is nothing more frightening than a tempest that blows through you, and then eases once it’s done its job. So why are we still so afraid of it?

That torrent rising from your pool of tears... it might just be anger
That torrent rising from your pool of tears… it might just be anger

* Choler is an archaic word for anger. Medieval folk believed that a choleric temperament was caused by an excess of yellow bile from the liver.

9 Lessons from my Father, Annotated

As we approach Father’s Day, we’re inundated with reminders to celebrate the man who taught us how to ride a bicycle, balance a budget or send an unwanted suitor running home to his mummy. The adverts range from predictably cutesy – the start-up promising to deliver a gift ‘as unique as he is,’ to  bafflingly creepy- the Aramis cologne advert that reminds you it’s father’s day, and swiftly follows up with the clip of a James Bond-type eyeing up a girl in a swimsuit from behind. Who can bear the thought of their old man as a player? Are they seriously suggesting that you hand him a bottle of Aramis with a wink and ‘Go get ’em Tiger?’

Dads are blown up to heroic proportions on father's day. Here's a gift suggestion from the British Museum.
Dads are blown up to heroic proportions on Fathers Day. Here’s a gift suggestion from the British Museum.

Anyway, though my dad  and I love each other to the moon and back, he didn’t teach me any of the practical things that the cutesy adverts promised he would.* (Luckily, I never caught him acting like the ‘dad’ in the Aramis advert either!) Still, his words and actions can be mapped into life lessons. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the beliefs I inherited from my parents, and how my own experiences have either confirmed or challenged them. More and more, I realise that truly becoming an adult is taking responsibility for your  life and learning to trust your own judgement. Yet so many of us struggle with the living legacy of our parents’ beliefs. We oscillate wildly between reverence and rebellion, rarely taking the time to think about where we actually stand. So, I thought I’d list and evaluate the things I learned from my dad, to see what should be treasured, and what in the words of my spooky masseuse, Kryztina, should be ‘sent back into the universe for recycling.’

1. Read Homer, quote Homer Simpson.  Dad’s favourite Homer quotation is ‘Don’t try kids, because trying leads to failure and disappointment.’ 

I think that Dad means you should be learned, but not a humourless arse. I’m fully on board with this, and  especially feel shortchanged when people give conference papers without the flair of Homer or the ribaldry of Homer Simpson. How dare they take away half an hour of my life, not seek to entertain and move me!

2. People who grow up in conflict-zones (like him) are risk-averse, but people who grow up in relative peace and prosperity (like me and my brother)  are adventure-seekers.  

Learning this has been invaluable to understanding my Dad, and more cautious, as well as brave and resilient people like him. However, I’ve also seen the opposite: risk-averse squares with stable childhoods, who want carbon-copies of their parents’ lives, and folks who live on a whim because they have never had stability.

3. Days range from bad to exceptionally bad, but that’s the way life is, so be cheerful about it. 

I’ve learned that dad’s combination of pessimism, sensitivity and humour is actually quite rare.  I once dated a supreme pessimist, and was very naively waiting for him to laugh at his tortured soul, but he never did. There are no two men alike, and looking for someone like your dad, however unconsciously, is futile. The best you can hope for is someone who is wonderful on his own terms.

4. People who love you can disappear and go silent for a while, but they still love you will reappear when they’re ready/ when it suits them. (In the past, my Dad was periodically absent, but he always came back)

Guess what, people who don’t love you can also imitate these behaviours… And life is too short for an eternal game of hide and seek! I still struggle with comings and goings, if I’m honest.

5. Strong, resourceful, intelligent women are far more valuable than the delicate and girly ones. Dad loves telling stories about his infinitely practical mother and martial grandmother.

I admire the feminist sentiment here, but don’t feel that you can polarise women in this way.  From my experience, strength and delicacy are not mutually exclusive, and the brave, creative women I most admire are also exceptionally vulnerable. I am somewhat delicate, girly and impractical – maybe as a means of rebelling against my dad’s ideal- though I retain my share of grit.

6. Decisions are final, and have fairly predictable consequences. Dad likes to say ‘Is that what you want?, because that’s what’s going to happen!’ 

Only in a fairly predictable universe, so unlike this one. Actually, not all decisions are final, and the their is never what you think it is. However, you can hypothesise from patterns in your past.

7. Good books rely above all, upon a solid, stimulating plot. Homer’s epics are timeless, whereas Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness rambles will eventually become irrelevant. 

I disagree, but not as much as I used to. Woolf’s fluid narratives are of course vital because they convey the experience of living and being connected to other lives. They have already stood the test of time, and will continue to do so. But for the most part, beautifully-textured sentences can’t save a boring course of events, and there’s nothing like a pacy plot or fascinating character to make twelve Piccadilly line stations seemingly dissolve into three.

8. Vogue** and other lifestyle glossies are damaging because they plant unrealistic expectations of life into (usually female) readers’ heads. Dad imagines a scenario where a girl, usually one with the wits of one of Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s secretary characters,  goes wildly into debt for the love of a Chanel handbag.

Over three centuries ago, the proto-feminist Mary Wollestonecraft expressed similar fears about the expectations of women who read novels. Dad, Ms Wollestonecraft, it’s OK, women read for reasons other than to imitate the lives of It girls called Cressida, or Gothic heroines called Emily. I once tried to explain to Dad that people don’t read Vogue like the Ikea catalogue, with a red marker in hand, drawing rings around covetable items, but for escapism and inspiration. He wasn’t convinced.

9. You can be stingy with yourself, but not with others. Dad only updates his wardrobe when his clothes fall apart, but considers scrimping on food and wine for his guests a major social faux pas.

Agreed- though I’m not especially stingy with myself, and don’t buy the most expensive wine for parties where the primary purpose is to get lashed.

Questioning your dad's advice can feel like turning conventional wisdom on its head.
Questioning your dad’s advice can feel like turning conventional wisdom on its head.

Over the years, I’ve wrangled with my Dad’s lessons, some of them preached, some of them gleaned from his way of doing things. They’re my inheritance, to be dipped into like a wise, if sometimes exasperating favourite book. Yet there are other books to read, and perhaps even write. It’s been liberating for me to learn that I can be open to my dad’s love and advice, and simultaneously form and trust my own opinions.

* Mum taught me to ride a bike and balance a budget, and Madame de Lafayette gives some elegant tips on dealing with unwanted attention.

** By some weird coincidence Dad shares a birthday with the formidable American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. They’re both intelligent, ‘take-charge’ Scorpios. That’s about all they have in common. 

Accidents happen

Accidents happen when things or people collide. If accidents didn’t happen, some of us wouldn’t be here (on this planet), and almost all of us wouldn’t be here (in this situation, relationship or place). Though I liked the idea of entering the world as a little bombshell, completely unexpected, I actually wasn’t an accident. When my parents got married and bought a cat, their parents complained that this four-legged creature was no replacement grandchild, so they dutifully supplied them with me. My grandmothers began knitting as soon as the pregnancy was announced, so an entire army of immaculate tiny clothes preceded me.

I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the dirtiest Air bnb flat in New York. It reminds me of my childhood
I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the filthiest Air bnb flat in New York. I was this sort of girl, up in the clouds like a bird, but often stumbling into the dirt!

But despite this cushioned beginning, my young parents just weren’t ready for me, and I grew up a sensitive, accident-prone child, susceptible to viruses, collisions with sharp objects and overwhelming impressions. My feeling that I was always on the precipice of disaster, made me retreat into a world of my own making. It wasn’t all bad, though, the surprising people and situations I encountered daily, helped me become creative, empathetic and always ready to laugh.  Interestingly, a friend who was almost aborted, because he was initially deemed superfluous, grew up so much more stable and resilient. I’m in awe of his expert handling of risk – he works hard, has antennae for good opportunities, and a knack for minimising misfortune.  Both optimistic and pragmatic, this child who almost didn’t make it into the world, sees it as a place brimming with possibility.

Life’s randomness can be unfair, but it is also beautifully invigorating. At their best, accidents can save us from a sleepwalking through a lifestyle that no longer serves us. When I asked my friends about accidents that had transformed their lives, they overwhelmingly spoke about encounters with new people. Polly* had been working part-time in a cafe to fund her career as a musician, when a customer told her that she would get a better wage in another nearby cafe. Following this stranger’s advice, Polly changed jobs, and soon realised that she and the owner,  Luke were attracted to one another, despite her engagement to another man, Adam. This inconvenient attraction was the catalyst for making her realise not only, the gaping holes in her relationship with Adam, but that she no longer needed to remain in a city that she hated, to pursue a now out-of-date dream of becoming a musician. Fully awake to her revelation, Polly broke off her engagement with Adam, gave up her teenage vocation, and moved back to the countryside, where she resumed her old job in an antique shop, and now talks about opening up her own vintage tea-house. Some months later, Polly wonders whether without these two encounters- first with the stranger who suggested she change jobs, and then with Luke- she might have married the wrong man and remained in the wrong city. While she’s still unsure of the future, Polly has more confidence in the present, and maintains that you grow by being open and trying things out.

Cinderella couldn't tell whether this surprise odd shoe was benign...
Cinderella couldn’t tell whether this surprise odd slipper was benign… But she thought, she’d try it on anyway

Another friend, Pedro once saw a beautiful girl on his commuter train, but was too shy to approach her. Taking the train everyday, he expected she would be there at some point, and kept rehearsing what he would say in case she showed up. Some months later, when the girl finally made an appearance in his carriage, he mustered up the courage to talk to her. He later learned that the girl almost never took that train, and had only done so on that occasion because she had taken a day off work.  Had this been a Hollywood rom-com, Pedro’s chance meeting with the girl would have culminated in a relationship that fulfilled his initial infatuation. In real life however, the girl wasn’t interested in him romantically, but introduced him to a friend, who introduced him to a friend, whose friend, Roberta, (the fourth in the chain), would become his girlfriend for eleven years. Roberta, a highly motivated graphic designer, brought a much-needed sense of stability into his life, which in turn, gave him the determination he previously lacked. Pedro had worked several jobs, but failed to make any headway in any because he felt adrift.  When Roberta began to take him seriously, Pedro began to take himself, and  his interest in literature and languages seriously. He became a a translator, got a Masters in literature, and then eventually moved from Brazil to the United States to start a PhD. Although they are no longer together, Pedro describes his relationship with Roberta as the defining feature of his adult life, and marvels that he would never have met her, had he not taken a chance with a stranger on a train.

My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or it might have been of the little white dog.
My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or I might have liked the little white dog.

Commuter trains, with their sliding doors, subterranean trajectories and hordes of passengers are picture-perfect locations for prophetic encounters (Just think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the films Sliding Doors and Brief Encounter).  Hearing Pedro’s story reminded me of my own frenzied train   meeting a few months ago. Suffering from flu, balancing four deadlines and realising that I had no time to apply for what I thought was a unique job, I was sitting on the tube feeling helpless, and the tears just streamed down. Two people approached me- first an older lady, who told me that sickness and death were the only true disasters, and that I was too young to suffer so, and second, a man with brilliant green eyes, a Northern Irish accent, and an odd smell, who tried to comfort me, and then just before my stop, get my number, because I seemed like an interesting person.  Part of me wanted to, because he seemed kind and sort of attractive, but in my pitiful state, I also worried that he was an opportunist with a damsel-in-distress fetish. I was also bothered by the smell. So, I thanked him sincerely for his kindness, and got off the train. When I got home, I wondered for a while if I’d done the right thing-  but let it go, because with accidental train meetings, only certain Pedros in this world get a second chance! However, my next chance meeting was strangely wonderful, but that’s another story…

An accident waiting to happen...
Twilight, cherry blossom and a bicycle. An accident waiting to happen…

* Names and places in this article have been changed for privacy reasons, but the essence of the stories are true. Thanks to my anonymous sources!

 

 

 

Practical Medicine

I’ve just become a doctor, and not the healing kind, but I’ve long been writing prescriptions for sentimentality and exhaustion: Plenty of sunlight, fresh air and exercise; Gin, dancing, etc to re-animate a tired body; A supportive entourage, and the right to refuse propositions from certain individuals who summon you like a genie and drop you like a stone. Most of all, something to awaken the curiosity, make you want to get up and go.

Floating woman disease.
Floating woman disease.

This has been my standard prescription for maladies that go unmedicated: heartache, headache, and the strange dizziness I contracted last year, that made me feel like my feet didn’t touch the ground for months. A friend who was similarly afflicted, told me that in Victorian times our predicament was termed ‘floating woman disease,’ and to this day, no scientific name better describes it. While an MRI scan revealed that there was nothing seriously wrong with me, the white-coats couldn’t do anything to alleviate my lightheadedness. So a friend recommended that I see a cranio-sacral therapist, Mika. Unlike the doctors with their standard medical education,  Mika had been a hand-model, an actress, and the inspiration behind a popular love song, as well as a healer. She spoke in dulcet tones and occasionally swore. But, Mika’s touch gave her a clear advantage over the medical graduates: with the lightest pressure she sourced and gently released the tension in my body, enquired about my life, identifying toxic habits, relationships and thought patterns, and frankly advised me to make changes. I can’t help but feel Mika’s personal,  holistic approach was the catalyst for me literally finding my feet again.

Choose your species of healer...
Choose your species of healer…

Michel Foucault reflected how in Ancient Greece medicine was considered an art because it comprised ‘a form of knowledge and rules, a way of living, a reflective mode of relation to oneself, to one’s body, to food, to wakefulness and sleep, to various activities and to the environment.’  Though pills and surgery are far more advanced than they were in ancient times, the idea of medicine as an art that affects every part of our lifestyle is stronger than ever. With the National Health Service under so much pressure and the realisation that we’re likely to live for decades yet, many of us feel responsible for our own health. We look to the media and our peers and conjure up our own prescriptions for all areas of our lives: Fortunes are spent on protein supplements that promise to make us perform like warriors, and his n’ her’s diet and exercise regimes are followed with the hope of enhancing intimacy. Professional healers can guide us in this, but we ultimately have our own ideas.

The texture of a GP's waiting room. Do you want a chlamydia test with that?
The texture of a GP’s waiting room. Do you want a free chlamydia test with your eye drops?

When medicine is an art as well as a science, the therapist’s manner, appearance, voice and immediate environment contribute to our perceptions of how healed we are. Visits to the GP always fill me with dread: the tepid waiting rooms with their feverish, drooping crowds, and then the often vague diagnosis once you do get seen, feel borderline macabre. Yes, I know we’re so lucky to have free healthcare in this country.

Heck, I even prefer going to the dentist than the GP. My dentist is pragmatic, clean-cut, and wears  immaculate navy blue trousers. On my last visit,  I went to him to replace my one filling, and had completely forgotten the procedure. (Sorry, there’s no avoiding the innuendo in the next bit). The anaesthetic that turned my mouth to jelly, and the drill, I expected. The blue rubber gag-type thing, I did not. For a second, as I was lying there, gagged, and semi-stoned from the anaesthetic, I wondered if this was a 50 Shades special to coincide with the film’s release. I started to giggle because  Heart Radio was playing, and things around me were clean, so I knew I’d be safe, but I had no idea what was happening inside my mouth. Afterwards the dentist told me I’d been a very good patient and that I’d be ‘sensitive’ for until Friday. His diagnosis was refreshingly spot on.

There is such a thing as too much advice...
Cures come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone has their opinion. But sometimes you have to block your ears and watch the fireworks…

Bewildered by the uncertainty of life, like many people, I’m an unqualified doctor, prescribing cures for those around me. Passion, rest and balance are my bywords.   But life is messy, and quick-fix cures seem trite. Sometimes sadness and confusion are necessary, and you have to marvel at the chaos, emerging from it when you’re ready.

Secrets are back: here’s why

marilyn 2
Marilyn Monroe by George Barris. The breeziest way to wear cashmere.

Max Mara’s 2015 Autumn collection, imagined what Marilyn Monroe might have worn to her secret life as a literature student at UCLA Night School. Night School was a place where she could hang up her sex bomb stilettos and indulge her intense curiosity. The visual inspiration for this freer Monroe was George Barris’s playful photo of her on the beach in a clinging cashmere blanket. On the catwalk, models  in the guise of Monroe, with wind and water textured curls, rose from a blue ocean background, and clasped luxurious camel coats to their waists, merely hinting at the slinky flesh-textured clothes beneath.   One of the most intriguing outfits  layered a quilted teal strapless cocktail dress over a translucent gauge knit, and was accessorised with black-framed glasses. This was Monroe in transition from spectacle to student, and the diamond patterned quilting implied incubation and mystery.

The collection moved me because it celebrates the private, meandering passions that drift off the main course of one’s life, but ultimately fertilise it. As I’m writing in a springtime cold snap, I see the coats as cocooning, they give the catwalk Monroes the space and warmth to nurture a secret life, to adapt, without feeling exposed and naked.  As they rise from the sea, like Venus, they do not so much reveal their bodies as their occult creativity- I can’t help but think they are on the verge of pupating into something new.

A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015
A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015

I’ve wanted a secret life ever since I could read and write, which is funny, because if anything, writing is communication. But the people in the books I read always had secrets, and they would reveal them slowly and artfully. Like them, I wanted to have a layer beyond what was immediately obvious. Secret-sharing for me and my school friends became an elaborate ritual, which incorporated a hushed tone of voice, the highest room in the house, or the bottom of the garden, and a promise to swear on your mother’s life that you wouldn’t tell, with all ten fingers spread before you, to show that you weren’t crossing them. I remember the heady rush of adrenaline that came from revealing a secret, or being amongst the chosen few to hear it.  There was also devastation when a third party gatecrashed your secret, and shame when you’d revealed someone else’s, and had been found out.

How high the moon. Where to spill the beans
How high the moon. Where to spill the beans.

Oddly enough, as we grew and had more to conceal, some people gave up on secrets. The taboo and the banal were splashed about on the bus ride home, and the unsuspecting friend of a friend who had tagged along, might learn everything without any major trauma. Those of us with overprotective parents or artistic pretensions still cultivated secret lives – I remember the mini skirts rolled up into my friend’s rucksack, or the times I would disappear off on some adventure without telling anyone where I was going.

Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015
Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015

When Facebook first came about, I regarded it with the suspiciousness of an ugly fashion fad. Why would anyone want to seem so accessible and obvious all the time? For a few years everyone was posting everything, and the secret threatened to die, along with the thousand, thousand anecdotes that perished because they were too ubiquitous, and no one was interested. Still, some learned the art of post-tease, sharing elusive things that led people up the garden path about their lives, or hinted at something important.  The experts hit Monroe’s sweet spot of public mystery.

From Somerset House's 'Invitation Strictly Personal' exhibition
From Somerset House’s ‘Invitation Strictly Personal’ exhibition of vintage fashion show invitations.

Of course this virtual life is a bland foil for the sadder, more complex, infinitely richer  lives that people actually lead. But the private self continues to thrive, as a space where we can experiment with new ideas and identities before they are wholly exposed to the world. Secret hopes, dreams and fears are shared delicately, with a few choice confidants, and often face to face. I’ve even seen some of my childhood secret-sharing rituals return: clandestine lovers and crushes are nicknamed, and scrutinised in pubs that you’ll never return to; creative projects in embryo are coded after a single letter; and there’s a Wednesday afternoon that you won’t account for, but leaves you smiling.

Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton, 1920s.
Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton under glass, 1920s.

Academia: between Solipsism and Activism

An existential crisis in A6.
‘The world as I know it is ending, and yet I must retreat into my bunker and perfect my swans…’ An existential crisis in A6. What you can see in the background, is Itsu, where I still found time to go.

I spent this January cloistered away from the world, finishing a PhD on a very niche aspect of Russian ballet. The day of the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march, I sent Parisian friends a message of encouragement, and then holed up in my London kitchen, refining my views on the relationship between humans and swans. It wasn’t entirely unenjoyable.

The Greek elections similarly passed me in a blur: the night of, I went to a Turner show; and the next day, I saw the result pasted on the front of a fellow tube passenger’s Daily Telegraph, while I was somewhere between a daydream and an anxious contemplation of my bibliography. I then had to stifle a whole bestiary of feelings, while I focused on the final 48 hours before hand-in.

January in my kitchen. A refuge from political turmoil?
January in my kitchen. A refuge from political turmoil?

Throughout the month, I kept feeling that I was marooned in some strange backwater, cut off from what was vital and important. One Thursday afternoon, as I was relaxing in my local ‘convict Vegan cafe,’* eating a cake that was made from pressed flowers and vegetables, I wondered how this small, intricate life had come to be mine, or rather, how had I chosen it?

In another life, I might have been an activist, championing democracy, the environment, or gender equality.  But instead, as an aesthetically-minded historian, I’d directed my curiosity to a specific aspect of the past. A PhD isn’t so much a document, as a lifestyle. For exactly 3.3333333 years, the thesis was a vague North point on my compass. Grateful for the focus, the supervision and the funding, I planned my life around research visits, conferences, interesting meetings and chapter deadlines.

I had a marvellous time, both in and out of the archives, but I sometimes wondered about the larger point of the whole thing. How would it ever matter in a world of terrorist attacks, FGM, and climate change? The promise that I was furthering an academic discipline for an interested few, just wasn’t enough. While many of my colleagues were espoused to the noble pursuit of knowledge, some shared my restlessness. A close friend’s knee-jerk reaction to studying the lives of ‘dead people,’ was to join a national campaign, and fight for the rights of the living. I could see her point.

'I see dead people,': a common complaint with historians
‘I see dead people,’: a common complaint with historians

Now, almost a month later, I’m still questioning everything, but have a little more clarity. I’m a writer and researcher, not an activist, because I deeply care about the particulars’  of individual lives, and how they interconnect, sometimes in art-making. I want to tell, and be part of their stories. Some of these people are dead Russian dancers, but their experiences of art, exile, selfhood and community, have the capacity to move and inspire people alive today. I’m interested in showing how these dancers, who faced great odds, and were marginalised by their ethnicity and gender, became spectacular artists.  These past three years, I’ve found most satisfaction in my work when some aspect of my practice has made someone happier, or simply more inquiring, dragging them out of a deluge of self-pity or workaholism.

The enrichment of people’s experiences, inspiring them, making them curious about the world, and each other,  is my activist goal. Turner achieved  this with his elemental paintings, my great grandmother, with her wit and piano. My dancers’ stories are simply my medium.

'how absolutely, how inordinately these slimnesses insist on mattering.' Henry James, Preface to 'Portrait of a Lady'
‘how absolutely, how inordinately these slimnesses insist on mattering.’ Henry James, Preface to ‘Portrait of a Lady’

* In case you’re wondering, according to one local newspaper, the owner of this cafe spent some time in gaol. His animal-sacrifice-free cafe represents a wonderful new direction.

Which dreamed it?

'Now, Kitty, let's consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that— as if Dinah hadn't washed you this morning! You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course— but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty? John Tenniel
‘Now, Kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all. This is a serious question, my dear, and you should not go on licking your paw like that— as if Dinah hadn’t washed you this morning! You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course— but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty?
Text: Louis Carroll. Illustration: John Tenniel

When Alice wakes up from her dream at the end of Through the Looking Glass, she wonders whether the Red King was part of her dream, or whether she was part of his. I’ve often felt that way about memory. I’m never sure whether a memory is truly mine, or part of some collective consciousness. Some good memories, especially, feel like they belong to a universal wish list.

Holiday decorations are memories materialised. The hanging pair of  silver skates I bought on December 1 this year, are souvenirs of skating on a frozen pond, one Christmas long, long ago. But whose memory is it? And is it a memory at all, or some collective Winter fantasy? My favourite skating memory didn’t involve skates at all, but was a spontaneous glide in my boots, across a frozen stream in Potsdam on New Year’s Day, while my 6’7 friend threatened to crack the ice.

Magical, what skating should be.
Magical, what skating should be.

But I’d recently seen a  black and white film of fleet-footed ice skaters c.1900, carving mesmerising figures of eight, across rinks fringed with firs. The slender, silvery decorations, sourced among the foliage of a Primrose Hill florist, reminded me of the celluloid ice rink’s sparkle and the fluid delicacy of its skaters. I bought into it, this memory that was half mine. It seemed authentic and hopeful.

As for my own precious memories, a lot of them are shared with others. One of them might be on loan from my mother. I remember watching The Great Gatsby in my English class, aged 15. There was the scene of Gatsby’s party, and then this Charleston music started, with lyrics that went something like ‘Yes Sir, that’s my baby, No sir…’ I’ve danced to that, I suddenly thought- in my great grandma’s lounge, when I was about 5, and I think there was a ginger cat there, too. Dancing to my great grandma’s piano playing is one of my happiest childhood memories, and every time I revisit it, something appears differently. Realistically, I don’t think I could have danced the Charleston, because where would I have learnt it? At 5, my favourite dances were the twirls and leaps I copied from cartoon princesses and their animals, or simply spinning until I got so dizzy, that I fell on the floor.

What dance feels like, when you're 5.
What dance feels like, when you’re 5.

My mother always used to tell me that she danced the real Charleston in my great grandma’s lounge though, with her dad, who taught her the steps. He was a good dancer, and I adored him up until the age of three, when he died, and I immediately forgot him. To this day, I can’t picture him, though I sometimes dream about him. Mum says that my great grandma did play the piano for me, but she can’t be sure about the Charleston, and there was no ginger cat. I think I stole him from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

What dance looks like, when you're 5. 'Snow White and The Seven Dwarves,' Disney.
What dance looks like, when you’re 5. ‘Snow White and The Seven Dwarves,’ Disney.

And then, in an old, undated, journal, I came across something from a day I can’t remember. There’s this sketch of a girl, armless like the Venus di Milo, in a cone hat and long flowing gown, escaping from something. The barely legible caption beside her reads ‘as much as it kills you walk, fly, three-legged-race if you must, away from false (k)nights engaged in onanist (sic) pursuits.’ On the diary page, she’s between another girl in a cone hat, warning her not to be a Damsel in Distress, and a picture of two guys with what appear to be light bulbs on their heads. One wears glasses, the other does not. Neither looks especially predatory.

From an old diary. The text reads: 'As much as it kills you, walk, fly, three-legged race if you must away from false (k)nights engaged in onanist pursuits'
When you’re that impassioned, arms are unnecessary.

I think the girl represents me- a sublimated alter ego in Medieval princess garb, but I really can’t identify my two male tormentors,  I don’t know what caused me caused me to draft this little scenario, but  the brackets around k in (k)nights indicates a pun: I could have been angry at being slighted and deceived by a guy I was now accusing of self-pleasuring, and worried that I myself was pining away in nights of lonely fantasy. My urgent need to escape, though indicates that I might have received unwanted attention. The possibilities are endless, because I can’t remember what led to this hurried, hysterical sketch, which seems more fairy tale than fact.

The word onanist, by the way (a noun, used incorrectly as an adjective), shouldn’t be taken too literally. I had probably just come across it, and was trying it out as a more damning, dramatic version of ‘daydreamer.’As for the medieval get-up, I can only say that I have always liked cone hats, and found it easier to mediate my feelings through fantasy. Weirdly enough, the one thing I can vaguely remember, is sketching the princess, and consciously deciding to leave her unembellished, so she could look like anyone.