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.

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.