Living immortal in a mortal world

I’m compelled to write about the strangest phases of my life, when I feel that time is continuous, and there is no urgency to act, because nothing is of any consequence beyond today. At these times, the world is full of fleeting wonders and I can find a home anywhere and no-where. Death feels unreal, a whimsical walk in Highgate cemetery. I stare at the stone tombs, unable to believe that I, or anyone else will ever join them.

I feel most timeless in November, the month after my birthday, when it seems as though I'll never have another...
I feel most timeless in November, the month after my birthday, when it seems as though I’ll never have another…

I was raised by self-conscious mortals who frequently alluded to their impending deaths. The call of the Underworld was strongest when I dyed a costume in my father’s bathtub, turning it blue, or when I disappeared on a night out, without calling home. When my grandmother actually died, eleven years ago, it took months before I could really register that she had gone. Part of me thought that she was just pretending again. Death seemed relative, not absolute. Life was made up of more deathly and less deathly things.

Grandma spent half her time saying that she would die one day, and the other half convincing me that she belonged to this immortal tribe. (the  classical Nereids)
Grandma spent half her time saying that she would die one day, and the other half convincing me that she belonged to this immortal tribe: the classical Nereids.

For me, the deathliest things were commitment, sacrifice and responsibility. When my parents described life as a series of plans and stages, I would interrupt and say that this was pointless, as  I might die at any moment. my mother would cross herself and scold me for being so blasphemous, while my father laughed and warned me that if I survived, I’d better have a plan so I wouldn’t have to live off my poor parents.

There were times I’d work towards my future as though it mattered. But sometimes, I’d drift off course, not deciding upon anything or anyone. Work-wise, immortal phases were characterised by enchanting short term projects and obsessions. There was the metaphysical poetry immersion in my last year of undergrad, the scalpel-cut dragonflies for a mad Irish visionary’s event, the Christmas pop-up shop, the summer of playing a Georgian lady at Kew. All were intense and magical, but none had a lasting impact. Now that I’m finishing a PhD and have to lavish attention on every last footnote, I long for a skittish escape…

Not seeing beyond today, immortals rarely have well stocked cupboards, and subsist on offerings. In my time I've beguiled away chocolates, berries and cherry tomatoes.
Not seeing beyond today, immortals rarely have well stocked cupboards, and subsist on ‘offerings’. In my time I’ve beguiled away chocolates, berries and cherry tomatoes.

In immortal phases, I preferred flirtation and romance to anything mundane that would stick. Once, I liked someone that I saw almost everyday for  two years. Although he was single during this whole time, I never told him how I felt, because it would be so final, somehow. A bit like death. Instead, I preferred the bizarre, yet unthreatening predicament of seeing other men and rushing back to tease the hell out of him.

Immortals are sometimes delusional enough to believe that the world revolves around them. On some level, I thought he would always be available for me. Of course, predictably, when I finally did confess my feelings, he had already begun to date someone else. I put two and two together, and calculated that a man who unfailingly  ate berries at midnight and fried fish on Wednesdays, would be with his new girlfriend forever.

The sense of lost possibility overwhelmed me: not deciding, not risking anything was not so inconsequential after all. I was discovering that the other side to immortality was sleepwalking through life. I made a resolution to take chances, not to be afraid of my dreams, the big ones.

An immortality complex can make a ghost of you.
An immortality complex can make a ghost or a goddess of you.

Now, I’m leading a double life, where I feel  mortal and immortal at the same time. Oddly enough, living as though life will end some day, makes those brief immortal spells all the more precious.




A date with no expectations

redshoe fade

One day, my flatmate* wandered in, looking flustered. ‘I really don’t know what to wear for this date,’ she said. ‘I have zero expectations’. She had her reasons for being so pessimistic: her date had been sending her mixed messages during their brief courtship, and just when she was beginning to forget him, six months later, he texted out of the blue, inviting her to an exhibition.

It was a sultry Indian summer afternoon, but she was not feeling the warmth. ‘This weather is confusing my soul!’ she complained as she scoured her wardrobe for something suitable. She finally settled on a long-sleeved Breton striped top and black jeans, and after I convinced her that she would broil in her chosen grey suede boots, replaced them with open-toed wedges. The date was abysmal. He had shown up 40 minutes late, so hung-over that they had to leave the exhibition half way through, and  made several confused suggestions that included a film, a massage, a drink in a pub far-away and then going home because he felt queasy. When she came back, understandably disappointed, she said again, ‘well at least I didn’t make an effort with my appearance!’

George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar
Comfort dressing. George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar

It then occurred to me that outfits and dates are intrinsically expectant. Clothes are for the most part success orientated: the coat that weathers all storms; the shirt that secures the promotion; the mini-skirt that pulls; the deconstructed trousers that signal alternativeness. Women’s clothes especially, are designed to enhance sex appeal, even when they are masquerading as work or sportswear; a certain neckline deepens a cleavage, while a slyly positioned stripe slims a thigh. Dressing for a date with no expectations is near impossible because you go against clothing’s fundamental optimism.

What my flatmate did, was to present the most armoured version of herself. The Breton stripes are her second skin (she wears them most days), while the black jeans and  boots she gravitated towards even on a sunny day gave her elegance, but more importantly, protection. It was as though she sensed her heart wasn’t safe with this flake, and she had better guard it tooth and nail.  After her absent expectations had come to pass, she was satisfied that her coolly demure outfit hadn’t given too much away. How galling it would have been to wear hope on her sleeve for one with a track record of disappointing her!

Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.
Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.

Having expectations in the very early stage of a relationship has become distinctly unfashionable. While it’s wise to run from anyone who displays a calculated spouse or shag strategy in the first five minutes, the current advice that you should date without attachment or expectation, so that you avoid being hurt, is misery-making. Ironically, by censoring hope that things should go well, we repress the most magnetic part of ourselves and end up more confused and jaded than ever.

Another type of great expectation
Another type of great expectation

But what can you realistically expect in the first few dates? In a few words: mutual attraction, connection and respect. If you don’t have a spark, can’t hold an engaging conversation or are being mistreated, then you should feel deflated. Disappointment hurts, but allowing yourself to hope and lose, rather than expecting nothing at all, puts you in touch with the reality of the situation and your desires. Being self-aware will help you actualise something greater in the future.

If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green
If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green

*Thanks to my flatmate for lending me her story. I’m a daylight robber, not a thief in the night.


Narrative Archetype: The Don Juan


Johnny Depp in 'Don Juan' by Marina Cardoso
Johnny Depp in ‘Don Juan’ by Marina Cardoso

I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that are continually re-told.   These tales often involve odd-balls, who subvert the dominant social code in order to re-shape the universe according to their desires, for better or worse.

The Don Juan or womaniser, is one such selfish, idealistic creature. Of course, the D.J has a female counterpart, (the femme fatale), but she comes with her own mythology, so for now we’ll focus on him. Infidelity is so common, that only those who cheat or womanise spectacularly achieve folkloric anti-hero status. While the one-time interloper, who ruins a relationship often elicits scorn and disapproval, the man who beds and deceives multiple women, often simultaneously, arouses a host of more complex emotions.

A few months ago, when I sat down to dinner with a group of old work colleagues, my friend Amy suddenly piped up ‘have I got a shit-bag story for you!’ The story concerned Amy’s friend, (let’s call her Lucy) and a love-interest  (James) who protested that she was special to him, but wouldn’t commit to being her boyfriend, because, as she later found out, he was bedding a different girl every night and asking his flatmates to clean away the residue from the previous night’s shenanigans before he brought his next conquest home. As Amy’s story unfolded, Lucy wasn’t the protagonist anymore, James was. Our sympathy for the victim swiftly gave way to marvelling at  James’s  grotesque work of deception. How had he been able to get away with this priapic bachelor’s dream and seem disingenuous enough to retain Lucy’s trust? Had she known on some level? Who  were these flatmates who compliantly spruced up James’s make-shift brothel, and then finally summoned Lucy to reveal all in a final U-turn? But most importantly, why were we so morbidly hooked on this anti-hero’s story?

DJ's conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from  'Don Juan', 1926
DJ’s conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from ‘Don Juan’, 1926

On the one hand, the answer was pretty obvious. This story, with its clearly-defined victim and anti-hero provided a bonding opportunity because we were in unanimous agreement that James had acted unfairly and that Lucy, apart from being  naïve, was in the right. All of us had at one point dated men who  resembled James, and hearing Amy’s story reinforced our satisfaction that we had survived and completed the experience. For many of us, dating and relinquishing a Don Juan is a rite of passage, and the narrative formula of a woman wronged, ( in Lucy’s case on a magnificent level) and a cheat discovered, is strangely appealing.

You would think that there is nothing as strengthening for the bonds of sisterhood than a Don Juan story. On one occasion, girls who entered an elite student residence were warned of one womanising resident’s ways: this gentleman did not only bed women by the twelve-dozen but openly judged whether  they were ‘fuckable’ by criteria such as breast tissue (his knowledge of the mammary gland rivalled specialists) and from his sample of two, dismissed Canadians as bad in bed. You get the picture, this resident openly regarded women as sex objects, a view that did not sit easily with most residents’ feminism. There was a silent agreement that consorting with him was absolutely verboten for any self-respecting woman. Still, despite, or maybe because of these restrictions, one new Spanish resident couldn’t resist him. However, afraid of her ‘sisters” scorn, she begged him not to tell anyone that they had slept together. When I heard this story, the dress historian in me couldn’t help but wonder if she wore a disguise on her way to meet him, maybe a Little Red Riding hood style cape – something that provides cover, but projects ingenuity…

batescape cape with domed buttons designed by John Bates for Jean Varon 1960s

I think that our Spanish heroine succumbed to (or maybe even pursued) the blacklisted seducer not only to satisfy her libido, but to actually feel part of the community she had just joined. Not content to obediently look in from the outside, she wanted her share in the adventure; perhaps by being with this man, she could vicariously imbue a measure of his devil-may-care attitude and like him, periodically live on a whim regardless of her principles and others’ disapproval. I imagine that though the Spanish girl initially lost some respect amongst the community, eventually, she was welcomed back , because ironically you have to periodically leave the sisterhood to become a fully fledged member. Our fascination with Don Juan figures and the mythology that surrounds them, stems from a need to occasionally depart from the ‘happily ever after stories’ with their well-suited couples and just rewards, and contemplate behaviour that is as enthralling and capricious as life itself.



Petty fleur
Petty fleur

Over time, the word ‘petty’ has acquired negative connotations. A petty person complains that their soup has the wrong type of croutons in it, dismisses a potential suitor because he has terrible taste in shoes, or in extreme cases, votes for UKIP because their vision of happiness is employing a nice, English plumber and not some foreigner with an accent. Petty people view the world from a distorted perspective, as the trivial becomes enormous and more important things get overlooked.

But the etymological root of petty, is the French petit, or small. And smallness is personal, a way of compassing the vast, unwieldy universe so that it makes sense for us. Petty is also connected to the word pet- it’s interesting to think that while some people keep cats and dogs for companionship and comfort, others retain habits like eating only green olives or exclusively dating musicians, for similar reasons. Who knows, for some people, eating a black olive or dating an accountant might be as traumatic as the death of a beloved pet.

Smallness equates to one’s comfort zone. When people move to London, or any other big city, one of the first things they do is to shrink it to a manageable size. They fill it with virtual landmarks like ‘my hairdresser, café, or night-cap spot’. Like the proud, tribal elder who stubbornly refuses to leave his village, seasoned metropolitan dwellers are often reluctant to stray beyond their personal cities in a way that reveals them to be worryingly uncurious.

We especially think on a small, personal scale  when it comes to our loved ones, calling them all sorts of pet names. My mum has to be the Queen pet-namer. Her names for me and my brother are beyond random: because he liked melon as a baby, or just ate melon once (I can’t remember which) he was nicknamed Bebona, after the Greek word for melon (beboni), and I have had a flurry of pet-names, which have changed according to my mum’s preference in words. My latest ones are Lilo or Lily Pad.  As a little girl, I quickly learned that being called by my real name was a bad sign: I was no longer mum’s pet, but estranged, and in trouble.

The French have long been turning their favourite people and things into miniatures, with the prefix ‘petit/e’. The Romantic novelist Victor Hugo’s  lover Juliette Drouet addressed him as ‘mon petit homme’ (my little man), in her letters. Though this term of endearment has fallen out of favour even in France, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it out at home, I can understand the sentiment behind it. She wanted to  express that this great public figure was on one level, her’s alone. Other French pet-names turn significant others into trifling and even abject things, for example ‘mon chou’ morphs your lover into a cabbage, while ‘ma puce’ (a little sexier) makes him a blood-sucking flea. These words’ exact  meanings are insignificant, but their colloquial, intimate nature is not.

When it comes to choosing our mate, we can be  pettiest of all, as we  judge whether we connect with someone over the little things that seem big to us. A talented artist friend, who puts more effort into Christmas than all Santa’s elves combined,  confessed that she once went out with someone because he made his own wrapping paper and gift boxes. It didn’t work out, but  I’m sure Christmas was especially beautiful that year. I once turned someone down because he had a terrible vocabulary and clearly didn’t read for pleasure. Words like ‘jasmine’, ‘visceral’ and ‘elopement’  escaped him, and no, in case you’re wondering, the poor guy wasn’t playing dumb because I’d made a jasmine-scented elopement a precondition for us getting visceral. Yes, I win the petty prize of the year and maybe the snob one too, but words have been my lifeblood, and I know that a man who doesn’t ‘get’ them, won’t understand me.

But, the bottom line is, pettiness and broad-mindedness (or largesse) needn’t be mutually exclusive. I really think you need both to be happy: a sense of the small things that make you feel instantly at home and the courage to give them up and be open to new, greater experiences.