Sunday, 21 October 2018

Tail as old as time

We are living in a re-enlightened age. An age of unicorns and mermaids. They echo through our fashion, our makeup, our breakfasts, our social media, our favoured multi-billion-dollar companies. They arrived in around 2016 and we've noted them every year with renewed gasps of pleasure and surprise. They aren’t costumes or lifestyles, but presentations, practices and amulets against an increasingly disenchanted existence. They are a belief system and an ethos, a symbol in daily life rather than a lived daily life. ‘Bra sales down 800%, shell and double-sided tape sales up 800%’ is not a headline I expect to see in my lifetime. Nor is ‘Huge increase in lateness and also bruised elbows as women flop along the ground everywhere in their mermaid blankets’. Nor is ‘FORKS THE NEW HAIRBRUSH?’, though I continue to hope. 

The trend for mermaids and unicorns is a divisive one, and can draw huge amounts of ire on social media from those less enchanted with the everyday mythical. I tend to see it from the same people who complain about ‘vocal fry’ and ‘like’. The insinuation is often that grown women are regressing into a kind of stunted childhood- or worse, teenhood. Mermaids and unicorns aren’t trends that especially appeal to me, as I have never been into either horses or fish, but I fully support my aquatic sisters in all of their transgressive land-based endeavours. As someone who was raised Catholic, nothing makes more sense to me than to pass one’s days in a world at once mundane and magical, embracing anything symbolic of both sorrow and freedom. The church I went to as a child had an enormous floor-to-ceiling mural of New Testament scenes which took up the entire front interior, characters repeated and filling the wall while disobeying all spatial and temporal laws. Jesus sits in the top centre strip below the ceiling, bearded, artfully draped, and clutching his cross. Six feet below that Jesus is another Jesus, springing joyfully over the tomb, as a Mary in blue stands slightly back and to the side, looking up at Jesus #3: Being Raised Up On The Crucifix Jesus. Ceiling Jesus is surrounded either side by bearded men draped in robes of differing shades of pastel and holding an array of poses: pointing, beard-stroking, harp-holding. The large square of wall to the right of Jumping Jesus is an apparently 20th century baptism scene, but in the foreground hovers a medieval figure holding a large platter of hams. 

This artistically bewildering, if undeniably immersive scene, would house weekly soporific sermons inside a tight 57-minute service, after which the congregation were free to roam the gift shop, which did a roaring trade in pastel rosary beads, translucent bottles of holy water in the shape of Mary, and illustrated books of the saints in a strange and vaguely Pre-Raphaelite style: all jewel-toned robes, tumbling hair, red parted lips, and blue eyes turned sorrowfully up to God. The stories were heavily sanitised for children, which left me with the vague impression as a child that the greatest women through time were those who loved their wicked parents, peacefully gave roses to invading soldiers, possessed some kind of indefinable aura that drew wicked governments to them like moths to a flame, and died happily young, safe in the knowledge that they would be with God forever in their emerald and crimson robes. I spent my childhood waiting for my mysterious holy aura to be sensed and viciously persecuted by Tony Blair, and when that didn’t happen I turned 13, discovered the church’s stance on abortion, women, contraception, and LGBT rights, and fell into the arms of my other brightly-coloured suffering icons, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.

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But back to mermaids and unicorns. Women’s fashion has always cycled through strange and inclement weathers, and teenage girls’ fashion has always matched it weirdness for weirdness. When I was wearing baggy athleisure trousers that disguised their basic comfort origins with a clip-on chain and the words ‘sk8r boi’ on the bum, women were wearing torn vests and cowboy jeans and skinny trailing scarves. No sooner had we finished buying our fluorescent expressions of anti-conformity from Claire’s Accessories than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were on the scene, dragging adult and tween alike into a world of velour tracksuits, minimal amounts of fabric, religiously straightened hair, and pink everything. Their fashion was almost anti-fashion in its strange lines and patterns and ugly mishmashes, and clothes were worn as a knowing salute to all things little girls were made of, even as they strove to undermine it with everything you wouldn’t want to be photographed doing on the front page of the LA Times. Teenage emos performed an almost perfect inversion of this concurrently, and my schoolfriends spent their weekends in countercultural hotspots such as the canal and the indoor market, their black outfits and hair adorned with coloured streaks, and frilly-edged The Nightmare Before Christmas hair ornamentation. Children’s things can be inherently dark, and dark things can come in beautiful packages, is what my friend’s myspace pages and later my third-year children’s literature module taught me.

Now adult trends embrace the wholesome but imaginary innocence of what we’d give our children, and children charge headlong into their adult wardrobe. I work at a primary school, and regularly find myself in a sea of 8-year-olds in crop tops and jumpers saying #SELFIE and NEW YORK and LA and CHILL and SASSY and BE UNIQUE and UNICORN QUEEN. Unicorn backpacks and unicorn waterbottles and unicorn charms and unicorn headbands (a large and impractical decoration permissible on the child’s birthday only). Children and adults have formed a kind of tacit agreement to believe again, to throw one’s whole blank canvas into stating that magic is real again and that wholesome things don’t necessarily have to be ironic. With all the disgusting things happening in the world right now, the trend seems to demand, you begrudge people their sincere love of a sparkly horse with wings and a decorative yet lethal forehead appendage, or a blue sealady with very soft and shiny hair?

Mermaids are, literally, a different kettle of fish. Women in water as a trope come with a lot of complicated baggage of their own. Women in the water tend to have ended up there in tragic circumstances, and women from the water to tend to be dangerously naïve at best and vain murderers at worst. I’m thinking of that story written for adults in the seventeenth century about a little mermaid who traded her voice for legs and every step she took was like knives in her feet and she was ordered to kill the prince she loved with a dagger in order to save her own life. She refuses, and after turning into seafoam she returns as a ‘daughter of the air’ – well-intentioned creatures in purgatory who earn entry into the Kingdom of God after 300 years of good deeds. The spirits can shorten the 300 years by floating unseen into the houses of good children, but encountering a bad child makes them weep, and each tear adds a day to the trial. It’s understandable that Disney took that out in favour of some merry calypso beats and a wedding instead.

Mermaids also feature in another Disney classic, Peter Pan. Peter Pan is a truly fascinating book, a propaganda piece in favour of an eternal childhood that manages to make childhood a nightmarish proto-adulthood, in which little boys survive and thrive because the little girls around them will always know how to be mother. It’s the most realistic book I’ve ever read in my life. The two fearsome patriarchal figures of the story, Mr Darling and Captain Hook, are traditionally played by the same actor. Misogyny and a reluctance to allow women a central voice in their own narratives begins, like charity, at home. Captain Hook is described in the novel as “never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding; and the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, showed him one of a different caste from his crew.” Towards the end of the novel we find Hook pacing the deck of his ship, contemplating his hour of triumph. The narrator reveals that, “Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze; but as those who read between the lines must already have guessed, he had been at a famous public school”.  So far so contemporary, a predilection for dressing like Charles II aside. 

And Mr Darling? Mr Darling “used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved him but respected him.” Mr Darling “often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.” Mr Darling “had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so of course they had a nurse.” Mr Darling, unhappily surveying his dog-nurse, wondered if they neighbours talked, because “He had his position in the city to consider.” Mr Darling “was determined to show who was master in that house, and when commands would not draw Nana from the kennel, he lured her out of it with honeyed words, and seizing her roughly, dragged her from the nursery. He was ashamed of himself, and yet he did it. It was all owing to his too affectionate nature, which craved for admiration.” And then, just in case you thought peak 2018 had been achieved in the 1911 world of Peter Pan, we find Mr Darling a celebrity in Nana’s dog kennel, where he installed himself permanently in a flamboyant performance of remorse. He is carried in his kennel to his daily cab to work and returns home in the same fashion at 6pm. The narrator praises him for his bravery in this public display of contrition, before noting, “It may have been quixotic, but it was magnificent. Soon the inward meaning of it leaked out, and the great heart of the public was touched. Crowds followed the cab, cheering it lustily; charming girls scaled it to get his autograph; interviews appeared in the better class of papers, and society invited him to dinner and added, ‘Do come in the kennel.’”

Well, quite.

And Wendy? Doing the best impression of a mother she can. She has flown away to an enchanted land with her siblings, and after the young boys have spent a long day fishing and hunting and killing anonymous pirates, she welcomes them back with dinner and homework, and when Peter returns from an adventure with his head bandaged she “cooed over him and bathed it in lukewarm water while he told a dazzling tale.” She fails to make friends with the mermaids in the lagoon, being irritated by their lazy haircombing and tailsplashing, and is almost drowned by them after being rescued from Hook, when one gently pulls her off the rock and into the sea. It’s hard not to fancy a life of hedonistic mermaidry after reading Peter Pan. They play football with special bubbles made in rainbow water after rainy days, utter “strange wailing cries” at the turn of the moon, and never once have to send their children to spring-clean Peter’s house when he’s out killing pirates.

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Femininity in fashion is constantly being twisted into something that is either self-aware or ironic to be acceptable. For every sincere Cath Kidston range of Tinkerbell merchandise we have a Snow White/Lolita mashup. Madonna’s song What It Feels Like For A Girl opens with a sample from the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden. “Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading.” This is a sentiment that rears its head through each new cycle of women’s fashion or analysis of women’s place in popular culture. The guardian article about “90s ladettes” being best placed to take over Chris Evan’s radio slot. The backlash against mermaids and unicorns. The “Be an [X] rather than a Kardashian” motto of the Madonna/whore binary supporters. Lady Gaga’s haute couture outfits pushed staples of female fashion to impractical and often unwearable extremes. Shoulder pads that reached eyebrow height. High heels that could only be worn from lobby to car and required the support of three men. An armoured corset dress made of actual metal, the bubble skirt doubling as tassets. The continuous and unambiguous self-commentary prompted a hypocritical backlash- tryhard, gimmicky, pretentious. There are kudos to be gained in being Not Like Other Girls, but it must follow the template set down by all those who are already Not Like Other Girls. result for lady gaga corset dress

There’s certainly something to be said about the capitalist restraints on mermaid life. How, in order to present the best version of mermaid life on instagram one would ideally have the time and money for a high-quality balayage session, food dye to get that vivid blue mermaid toast, more food dye and great blenders for that mermaid smoothie, and somewhere to show off the results of those pricey mermaid makeup palettes. The fact that sponsorship means the Miranda Priestlys of the world are no longer always in the room where it happens, and a tv channel with a new show about mermaids can buy an article on a women’s pop culture site with the subheading “Mermaids are the biggest trend of 2018!” But the problem is absolutely not that grown women have decided to embrace something mythical, something associated with childhood, something bright and unashamedly girly and creative and glittery. It’s certainly not any worse than the highly meme-friendly idea that women should constantly be counting down to gin o’clock, nature’s sparkling and dainty alcoholic numbing agent to the everyday pressures of life.

Besides, everyday magic and self-expression can be found in embracing exactly as many colours and patterns and accessories as one feels like. Mermaids are, not to confuse things, just sitting ducks. Ugly Betty served look upon look every episode so that we could be our messiest, brightest selves. She may never have gone to a music festival with three different shades of green in her hair, but she painted with all the colours of the wind every single day.

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At work, a kind of witchy injoke has taken root. The girls count my rings, swirl my hard cloisonné bracelet around my wrist, tug the tassels on my earrings. They slide the largest ring off my finger as I pretend not to notice, and then shriek gleefully into my face that now they have my magic. “You’re magic” is a common greeting, a feminine conspiracy. The boys take a more didactic approach. One boy says, “Miss, will you wear the black necklace with the white circle tomorrow?” Another boy says doubtfully, “Miss, are you wearing sports socks with a dress?” (Reader, I was not. It was a skirt.)

In one of four drawers assigned to me by the class teacher live my black work trousers, bought for a trial day cleaning rooms at a Travelodge in Hounslow, now nestled between hundreds squares and multiplication worksheets. They are my most sensible clothes for my least sensible work - the 6 gross motor skills sessions I run every week. They say, of course I’m ready to crawl around on the floor pretending to be a dog. They say, when I shout ‘runner beans’ we’re going to lift our knees up high, and when I shout ‘jelly beans’ we’re going to wobble our whole body like this. Surely if mermaid fans are as irritating as all that, then all fashion should be worn with a Declaration of Intent safety-pinned on somewhere? ‘Please don’t respect me in my deceptively utilitarian black, I’m about to take off my shoes and demonstrate stomping like a giant, whilst shouting FEE FIE FO FUM’? ‘I’m 19 and not yet in possession of a capsule wardrobe or an adult’s sensitivity to season, and that is why I am wearing a polkadot rah-rah dress with glittery silver tights and glittery gold mary-janes to this chilly February group therapy session’?

To criticise women for wanting to sparkle would be to open Pandora’s Box for the second time, with all of the double standards and internalised misogyny that already roam free, and let Hope out too. As a very wise sea creature once said, just keep swimming.

SIDENOTE 1: A lovely person gave me a gift of mermaid makeup brushes and I genuinely love and treasure them. They are extremely cute and colourful.

SIDENOTE 2: As accurate in many ways as the Ian McEwan/Madonna quote is, let's not pretend that people who look like unfeminine girls don't get a HUGE amount of shit from ignorant strangers too.

SIDENOTE 3: Although I'm in no rush to dab silver sequins on top of artfully ombréd turquoise lips, I do love tragic and mysterious water ladies in art. Three of my favourites are in Manchester Art Gallery. Sappho, looking furious and brokenhearted and majestic. Hero, looking tragic and noble. Ophelia, looking like a highly hormonal teenage boy painted her, which was indeed the case. Other magnificent women-in-water art: the video below is a short behind-the-scenes look at artist Isaac Julien's film installation Ten Thousand Waves, a masterpiece you can read about here because I wouldn't do it justice, which interweaves the story of Mazu the sea goddess with the city of Shanghai, the 1934 silent movie The Goddess, work in the rural Guangxi province, and news footage of the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy. I saw this earlier in the year at the Whitworth in a dark room with three large screens, and watched it for 90 minutes until we had to leave to make the free parking. It is incredible and I recommend seeing it if you're ever near a gallery showing it.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

It's Me, Hurray

Two of my favourite occupations- accessorising, and the art of being deeply irrational and to an extent dysfunctional- have overlapped unexpectedly over the last week or so, thanks to the publicity surrounding necklaces which say 'anxiety', 'depression', and 'bipolar'. I feel the same way about those jerseys of the mid-00s which said Xanax and Adderall on the back, which is "These have the potential to be awful and I also secretly want one". They're two extremely different examples, but similar in that, to quote what was said approximately fifteen hundred times in the first year of my English degree, you must consider what a text excludes as much as what it concerns itself with. You can't say what a group or a concept is without saying what it isn't just as clearly. The stereotypes of Xanax and Adderall users (or rather, abusers) - rich, neurotic, high-maintenance, high-functioning - works in tandem with what an American football jersey represents- aspirational, influential, popular, elite. Crack, meth, angel dust, bath salts aren’t what get private school teenagers through Ivy League courses or celebrities through intense press junkets and meetings. Nobody ever wanted to be seen huffing glue at the Chateau Marmont. The jersey line had to use those specific drugs to highlight a weird moment in pop culture because the irony had to jar but it also had to make a certain kind of sense. 

Similarly, what I find complicates the issue of the necklaces isn’t just the idea of a diagnosis as a decoration, but of why those specific three were chosen. What are the visual semantics of a necklace saying ‘anxiety’ in gold, and how do they differ from the gold necklace saying ‘bipolar’? Are people with schizophrenia given the same kind of respect and safety in our newly ‘tolerant’ ONE-IN-FOUR-PEOPLE culture that would make it okay for them to go out wearing a ‘schizophrenia’ necklace, and does the idea of a gold necklace carry the same connotations for all these issues? The politics of living with anxiety is different from the politics of living with depression is different from the politics of living with bipolar. If I have one or all of these am I meant to be curing them, or medicating them, how much work should I be doing in therapy to change myself, how much should my friends and my family and my work need to adjust to accommodate what is making my life difficult, and what am I trying to say with a necklace? Accept me as I am? My behaviour or personality displays a combination of a specific set of criteria and you should expect that if we interact? My behaviour or personality is more than just a combination of a specific set of criteria and you should not expect me to be different if we interact? The point is that there isn’t a definitive answer to any of these, yet jewellery by nature is meant to make a definitive statement. I’m married, I’m widowed, I’m rich. It’s not meant to be ephemeral and it’s not meant to be ambiguous. If I buy a necklace that says ‘depression’ in gold to remind myself that I’ve conquered it, that I’m better now, that even on my most high-achieving, successful and gregarious day that I am still a person who used to be the opposite of those things, I still cannot stop a stranger looking at me and thinking she’s really going through it now and this is a cry for help. If I saw someone in a gold ‘bulimia’ or ‘anorexia’ necklace, two disorders that are notorious for attracting self-destructive and self-perpetuating communities, I’m not going to know if they’re proud to have conquered it or if they go home every night and update their ana/mia blogs and their #thinspo tumblrs and their forum posts about how Rooney Mara is actually quite the heifer. The fact that there aren't eating disorder necklaces and that if there were it probably wouldn't be a good idea proves that there is some kind of murky and indefinable set of parameters around what a necklace 'should' be allowed to say, and what a necklace means by saying anything at all.

It’s not that people shouldn’t be able to choose what forms a prominent or explicit part of their identity, or what they want to share or to celebrate or to de-stigmatise. I just don’t know how to feel about the fact that these necklaces seem designed to make a statement rather than start a conversation, and with something as complex and misunderstood as mental health, I don’t know how to feel about a format that makes it so easy to make an ambiguous statement and so difficult and unlikely to start a transparent conversation. At best you can see someone wearing a necklace of something you have too and give them The Nod, but I don’t know if that’s adequate payoff for all of the uninformed hot-takes and exposure to derogatory and confrontational opinions.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Food glorious food

One of the things I am worst at in life is cooking. I cook frozen sausage rolls at 5:50am to take to work for lunch, forget about them, and tip them hastily into a sandwich bag with one hand while brushing my teeth with the other, the rolls now deeply brown and flaky after an extra 18 minutes in the oven. I buy "DO NOT BOIL" soup and then boil it because how else will I know it's hot enough? I don't believe that meat is thoroughly cooked unless it tears unceremoniously in two as I jam the utensil under it to try and prise it off the baking tray. When I was an au pair, the more precocious twin would take the tiniest bite of her food before asking delicately "And who was the cook?", perhaps to confirm that her mother hadn't lost her mind and tried to poison her, it was just the incompetent northerner being incompetent. As for baking, I never advanced beyond coating cornflakes in melted chocolate (my mother still has to help with said melting) and putting them in the fridge.

Further complicating things is that I sometimes still need to make a conscious effort to trust and appreciate food.That you can have it because you want it, that it's okay for people to see you eat, that's it's not a reward or something to be compensated for, that you don't have it because you think you've been a good person or skip it because you feel like you've been a bad person (or a boring person, or an unattractive person, or a lazy person, or a or a). Because this is an exhausting instinct to unlearn daily I still dream of a pill eventually replacing food, even though I am now at a point where I savour good meals, can go to a restaurant without advance warning to prepare myself, and buy biscuits and chocolate without 3 false starts of putting them back and then going back for them and then putting them back and going back for them, and then putting them back...

With all of that said, I seem like the antithesis of a Food Network fan. I don't cook for friends, I don't cook for fun, I'm not on the lookout for recipes, and I don't ever retain anything I've learnt (except that if you don't have X then store-bought is fine).

And yet the Food Network is my go-to happy place. It has the kind of alien charm you get from watching cartoons in hotel rooms in languages you don't speak. They're visually and inherently familiar, but you don't catch the semiotics. That channel is WALL TO WALL people enjoying food, very slowly and very sincerely, all the while maintaining intense eye contact through the television with you, and never even the slightest hint of shame or regret or compromise. For these people, a food diary would look something like "Dear diary, today I made the most goshdarn delicious cheese grits with a trifle for pudding, and I can still taste the almond flakes", rather than something like "breakfast 0 lunch grapes (62) and apple (52) dinner peas (81)".

Without wanting to exaggerate, the chefs are basically a potent combination of wizards, artists, and scientists. There's a money shot (sorry but it is) every 90 seconds or so: sugar raining down into a bowl, egg yolks sliding across the top of grainy flour peaks like Vincent van Gogh's burning stars, milk splashing into a bowl as an unbroken waterfall, dough being kneaded and stretched and cut and dusted and spaced out, and every possible texture being poured, grated, sliced, stirred, blended, whisked, shaken, grounded, mashed, and spread. It's like a brain massage. You don't need to think, just fe-e-e-el it.

As if the food weren't mesmerising enough, the personalities are freakishly soothing. You know how occasionally you meet people with formidable people skills? They sound so confident and warm, they never mumble or accidentally start off too loud, or say something that doesn't sound like a joke but is, or say something unclear or unhelpful that forces you to ask for a clarification. You feel like you're bathing in the golden light of their exclusive attention and love, that nothing you say or do could disappoint them, and it's kind of a shock to realise how profoundly charismatic people can be (sob). This is the community that peoples the Food Network. Superschmoozers. They can say "gosh" and "yummy" and "goodies" without sounding ironic. They beam happily down the lens while they wait for their electric whisk to finish in a way that feels like transubstantiation in action. They're often Southern, and say things like "It doesn't git any better than this", and "This is one of my favourite things to make when we have guests over".

The language of the Food Network is brimming with kindness and diplomacy. There isn't a direct command in sight. Recipes aren't instructions, they're suggestions. "At this point you could put in", or "And here I like to add a little", or "And why not try?". Every new ingredient is like Dale Cooper's little daily self-gift. "I'm going to add in some white chocolate chips, because those are my favourites!" "I like to put in a pinch of cinnamon at this point too, because it gives it such a delightful kick!" "I'm putting in X, but you can use this, or that, or anything else you've got in the fridge."

Another thing I love is the mundane nature of the plots. The format follows classic reality tv techniques: dramatic zooms, voiceovers commenting with hindsight on the action that's currently happening, talking heads confessions and opinions from within a large comfy chair in a setting that is never seen otherwise, a slow build narration, and a clear conclusion. If you watched it on a split screen with, say, Police Camera Action it would be very structurally similar. The actual action, however, is never anything less than charming and uncontroversial. Often dinner parties are being thrown. The guests arrive at the end of the programme and seem to find in the strawberry mousse-coated ladyfingers the same kind of spiritual nourishment that the cold villagers are gradually thawed by in Babette's Feast. The Pioneer Woman, a character new to me, has been baking desserts for a local football game between two teams, a rivalry that apparently stirs up some interesting drama in her otherwise perfect nuclear family. In the next episode, she was preparing a snack box for her daughter to take to school to eat after an exam.

They exist in the moment, working towards an end goal in a way that resembles Peter and Jane books, and is a million miles away from my tendency to gulp food while thinking about how hungry I am and what I'll eat next and how my day has been and what my life is like and what I haven't done that I need to do and what I did do that I shouldn't have done. Whereas with them, it's like: Charlene is looking forward to making a cake for her mother-in-law's birthday. Charlene gets the ingredients ready, and is really excited to begin because it's such a fun recipe. Charlene follows the cooking steps, adapting and advising where necessary, and making the viewers feel like stars just for existing and watching. Charlene's aura is definitely a buttery yellow. Charlene hopes her husband will be back from work with the napkins and table decorations in time. Charlene is taking a little break to stand outside on her ranch/hilltop/2-acre garden, and say something wholesome. Charlene takes the cake out of the oven because it's done now, and then says something wise about icing nozzles. Charlene has kept up a light pleasant banter the entire time that I think I would find exhausting trying to maintain with even my closest friend. Charlene's husband arrives, then Charlene's mother-in-law arrives, then Charlene's 3 plaid-wearing children appear, back from mowing the corn or plucking the cows or sifting the leaves or whatever country people do with their time. If this sounds judgemental or snippy it isn't meant to. I'm just genuinely fascinated by their ability to embody the concepts calm, wholesome, mindful, unhurried. I could practise for years and I would still pour cream onto a cake like a man was holding a knife to my family just out of shot.

Something that I do love - something, in fact, that people are absolutely sick of me talking about - is fashion. I know what I like, and I could spend all day looking at haute couture and streetwear and uniforms and wedding dresses and opera costumes and Victorian pieces and Carnaby Street footage and red carpet arrivals and instagram and etsy and screen tests and full-length Netflix documentaries and 5-minute black-and-white youtube compilations and period dramas and runway videos andandandand. Stanley Tucci as Nigel, the true star of The Devil Wears Prada, tells Andie at one point "What [the designers] did, what they created, was greater than art, because you live your life in it. Well not you obviously, but some people." Well, this is the same ethos and the same stimulus that the Food Network offers. Any type of food you could care to live your life in. Cakes with the girls, cupcakes for weddings, tortillas with family, desserts, snacks, feasts, meals, breakfasts, lunches, brunches, second breakfasts, margaritas, iced tea, three-tier cakes, four-tier cakes, cheeseburgers, iced buns, lobsters, churros, soup. Food that squelches, that oozes, that drips, that snaps, that pours, that crumbles. Food you can't wait to make and food you know you'll never get to try. Food made by a barefoot woman for the gay couple next door, food chugged by a man in a flaming shirt with frosted tips and sunglasses indoors. There are people whose everything is organic and homemade, and people who eat out in t-shirts and shorts, where the population is 1,006 and the cook knows them by name and their plate is 40% a pool of grease. I never love food so much as when I'm watching the Food Network, and I never love people so much as those moments either. Every day I wear exactly what I want to, however overdone or out of place or ill-advised, and I can feel this mysterious channel pulling me towards that same ethos for eating. I want to be someone who is brave enough and clever enough to cook. Who can bring joy to others through something I've made, who can deal with disappointments and misses and underwhelming results maturely, who can savour the food as it's there without applying a moral or emotional angle, just relishing a purely sensory experience.The people I know who already do that have all of my love and admiration.

I've rambled enough. The Pioneer Woman (in my fourth episode of the day) has just said "This is going to be a masterpiece, I'm so excited" while pouring something brown and glittering with the texture of paint into a mixing bowl, and I need to catch up. Good eating whatever you choose to have today, friends.

Friday, 29 December 2017

What do you consider fun? Fun, natural fun

Today has been a day of failing to do any of the basic tasks I need to get done soon: buying presents, sending emails, writing essays, tidying my room...anything at all really. I did watch two films, and a series of half-Glee episodes (remembering midway through each that I'd seen it), have 2 stressful dehydrating naps, and video a puddle under the little blossom tree. The Internet Peoples were very kind and full of warm and caring advice and I am forever grateful to them, the good eggs. I was about to go to sleep and have a fresh start tomorrow, when I saw the illustration below in an article link from the New Yorker. I've been back to look at it 3 times now and thought I should just be kind and do a post here, rather than blitz everyone with another thread. Also I always feel a strange sense of accomplishment after clicking 'Post' on here, even though I've done nothing but bash the keys until the page is full of everything I've been thinking, which is rarely share-worthy, dumped unceremoniously into the laps of people who have better things to do with their time.

I haven't clicked on the article because I'm not interested in anybody's feelings about casual sex. I think the capacity for casual sex appears in one's psyche without warning one adult day, like the ability to tell the waiter if there's a problem with your order, or phone a company without sweating. Personally speaking I'm incapable of doing a single thing casually, from eating a slice of cake in company to putting on my shoes, so I can imagine how little the article would speak to me about my life.

The ILLUSTRATION however is a thing of unconfin'd joy and cements my belief that sex is sometimes the dullest part of sex. Here are some particular highlights:

The Lone Sock
Socks having no place in the bedroom is just something we instinctively go with. However in this kind of outdoor orgy socks are positively encouraged, and why not! That one little white sock waving happily in the air in the top-left corner is the kind of free yet practical abandonment we need to bring with us into 2018. Anything could be going on, we just don't know, but some clever soul at the New Yorker has managed to convey utter bliss in what seems to be quite a scare-mongering article with just one little trembling foot, and a shadow to indicate it flailing merrily in mid-air. You don't even need to be doing the casual sex to bring that same pleasure into your own life. Just put on a sock and kick. I bet it's the most therapeutic thing since mindful colouring.

The Waving Woman
She probably isn't waving directly into camera like the characters at the end of Grease despite what I'd prefer to believe, but she's having a great time anyway. You know how hard it is to writhe like that without it being terrifying? Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan certainly know that struggle. That strange feeling when you think someone's smiling or waving at you and you instinctively start beaming even though they mean nothing to you because they were actually looking at someone behind you? Same thing here. I don't know you or what you're up to precisely, grey-haired lady, but your happiness is my happiness.

The Man Between Situations
He's standing partly behind the rather suspect pillar, with a wry little smile, just having a think, maybe wondering what he's going to do next; maybe just looking around enjoying the atmosphere. There's a sense of deliberate unhurriedness to him which is really appealing. An experiment that sociology students are sometimes asked to do is to stand in public doing nothing. Not in a waiting kind of way, just standing there purposely not doing anything. Apparently it's unsettling. This is something that I can't do, doing nothing. As soon as I've finished eating in a restaurant I worry that we ought to get the bill quickly. If I have as long as a 4-minute wait for the tram and I'm not sat on one of the seats I end up shifting from leg to leg, wondering precisely how uncoordinated I look. I lean against the thick lamppost pole, sometimes at a slightly ridiculous angle if I'm tired, and then I'm too paranoid to stand up quickly in case I look like I'm about to spring an attack or something. The idea of just standing there like this guy (but with more layers), casually swinging my arms, completely unconcerned, is but a pipe dream.

The Runners
It's hard to know where to begin. They were jogging, but now they have better ideas? They were never jogging, but are just so darn enthusiastic they literally sprint from one coital activity to the next? They've got their socks on because they're one cool and casual pair who like optimum circulation and clean feet at the end of a shenanigan-filled day, and they're an inspiration to us all. I also don't want to patronise them, these fictional illustrations, but how darn good is the representation too? Clearly the fun don't slow with age. This has got all the motion and beauty of Matisse's Dance, or any of the seventeen times a strong woman drags a helpless man across the sand in 'Mamma Mia!'

Three's A Crowd
Bottom right corner, living their best life. Nothing more to add.

The Good Listener
Someone in some very clingy shorts is perched on top of the rock that our two runners are about to duck under, and with them is the most patient and engaged listener I've seen in all my years of watching First Dates and WLTM (bring that one back please). He's leaning on their knees in a tactile and affectionate way that makes me want to tell stories from a great height just so that someone would lean on my knees in the same way, and he's risking the mother of all aching necks to maintain eye contact with a friendly smile as he cranes. This is the kind of amiable yet focused demeanour that we should all be bringing to our dates, family visits, brunches, meetings, interviews, and clubs. He's saying, in the words of Queen Clarisse Renaldi, thank you for being here today.

It's now 2:32am and I'm going to go to sleep because I've been waking up at 8 which is late for me, and the later up I am the more lethargic I am all day, so on that exciting and attractive note: good night.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

is where I want to be

A Merry Christmas to anybody reading this, first of all. I hope you have a chocolate-covered face, 3 layers of scratchy dense fabric covering you, and toasty toes.

I didn't go for a walk yesterday because that would mean putting myself as far as twenty minutes away from food and books and beautiful, ridiculous family. Today I was back on my walks. I don't do walks on weekdays because I get enough exercise just travelling to work and back, and weekend walks are more about forcing myself to experience fresh air and moving from one place to another that isn't just from bed to the kitchen to the settee and back to bed. Walks in the holidays are supposed to compensate for the fact that I am not getting my regular weekday exercise, and also can no longer be bothered flinging myself around the living room in a hot pink Victoria's Secret sports bra and 'I Hate Running' vest to the admonitions of a some eight-pack with a face on the tv screen, clumsily thrusting my face towards the floor as my leg rises jerkily, like a hungry sparrow being hoisted by an invisible deity.

Because I am never walking to anywhere with any real purpose, I find banal obsessions springing up. Imagine the guy who first invented the bonus coin-collecting levels of platform games trying to pitch that. "You have to move as fast as you can, making sure to force the character into the path of as many spinning gold hoops as possible, sometimes having to jump in the air." "Why would you want to, though?" "Because they're there and you can." Some days I am just dragging my feet along, listening to my audiobook and forgetting to look up at anything. Somedays the sky is nice or the leaves have been a good colour or I have a particular craving for the few green spaces, or certain types of building. Somedays I'm only out walking because I have a real urge to listen to Beyoncé or Britney or J. Lo or Gaga or, or, or, as loudly as possible and pretend that the person I know so well in the bright, sexy, sharply-choreographed videos is me.

Even through all of that fog, however, I find myself absorbing new patterns or textures or angles in the town around me. I photograph litter A LOT. Sometimes it's 6 red vodka caps and a lot of beautiful twinkling smashed glass. Sometimes it's two blue lids and one blue wrapper. Sometimes (in January and again in July) it's an entire sheaf of revision notes, soaked and scattered and moulding themselves around the stairs, the branches, the railings. I once spent 3 weeks amassing 14 photographs of empty cans and bottles so I could make a "onze, douze, treize, quatorze cans" joke in the caption. It's noticing every time a new dick appears on a subway tunnel wall. A staircase that reminds me of trying to get back to the tube station from the Barbican. Flytipped furniture is a particular favourite. That weird indoor/outdoor mix. A sideboard on the pavement, smashed green glass, a hole in the dark wood, 20 feet away from a small mechanics. Iron gates sealing off back alleys with a multitude of stained plush cushions and three-legged chairs all over the grassy path between two rows of back gardens. It's as if items from people's homes have drunkenly staggered out in the night and don't know where to go next, with no one else to stay with. My usual variety of walking routes allows for various combinations of 7 subway tunnels, and I like and dislike things about each of them. One has beautiful dirty blue tiles. One always has the prettiest graffiti: hearts, crowns, names. One has a huge scorch mark on the wall which never fails to make me think of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. Until my phone gallery hit almost 3000 pictures and I stopped being able to download songs on Spotify I had close to 20 pictures of Tescos or B&Q trolleys that had been dumped in subway tunnels, at the end of footbridges, on grassy slopes, and on their back in a field.

Early in the morning I like to brush past the very edge of the town centre, steering away from the shopping centre and bingo hall and nightclubs, and just cutting past the shutdown Sainsburys leisure centre, and my nearest tram stop. There's a neon closed sign, bright lights outside the leisure centre, a crowd of warning signs all over the Sainsburys, and a view of the flyover from the car park. The flyover with its towerblocks in the background (two grey, one red) looks like something from Life On Mars. I like to listen to Cher in that car park as I'm looking at the blocks. Because it rains a lot there are often big puddles, and because puddles are reflective I can often see tree branches or road signs or high walls or rusty flaking gates on the puddle surface. I'm always out walking early, so the streets are empty enough that I can sidle backwards and forwards in front of the puddles until I've found a distance that yields the maximum amount of object reflection for my photograph.

Why I like to take the photographs that I do isn't a mystery to me. I like accidental colour schemes, neon lights, birds, trees, symmetrical buildings, crumbling buildings, square tunnels, and boarded-up houses. I like being able to break the random chaos of buildings, roads, pavements, bridges, walls, and signs around me into chunks or hugely magnified details. What bothers me sometimes though is how I ended up liking them so much. Just to be grossly cheesy and reference the lyrics of a Broadway musical for a second, "You pretend to create and observe when you really detach from feeling alive". When I lived in London my photographs were of Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Regents Park, Camden Market, cemeteries. I went to art galleries, museums, the shops, supermarkets, the cinemas, the parks. When I wanted exercise I walked all around Dalston, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, London Bridge, South Bank. I photographed the Millennium Bridge lit up at night, a man playing the tuba and intermittently breathing fire, the Covent Garden pillars. I never once photographed a crushed can, or a bin, or a pile of rubble. I lived in an ex-council block with four tiers of white walls and black railings, and red, yellow, blue front doors and never photographed any of it. I worry, now that I've moved home again, what my 'right' is to the picture that I build up of my surroundings here. I don't go to the hairdressers, the leisure centre, the bank, the Nandos, the post office. I rarely have any actual cash on me. I avoid the town centre because I don't go to those kinds of shops anymore. I haven't done a cornershop run in years. I feel, on some level, that I've moved back to a toy town, and I don't want to go to places or spend money on things for the sake of feeling like a real person who has an entire real life there. I'm still chasing beauty and feelings and landscapes, but they really come from lives that aren't mine. I don't drink vodka in the street, don't use the mechanics with the piles of bricks and weeds outside, don't steal trolleys for fun or know anybody who does, don't have friends who live in the towerblocks behind the flyover.

I absolutely don't intend my pictures to be commentary, or indicative of what Oldham is 'like'. The trolleys make me laugh because they sit there like little quirky sidekicks. The blocks look neat on the skyline. The litter is purely a colour thing and the tunnels and pillars and puddles belong to everybody. It's just hard, when I'm already stuck in a bit of a rut and finding it hard to engage, to wonder if I've divided the town into places that ought to be 'for me' and are thus to be avoided, and places that aren't mine and can therefore be a kind of time-out that I don't have to locate myself in.

There's no conclusion because there was never any point. I love building sites? I love out-of-place objects? I guess, anyway that it takes all types to make a town. Having looked at the photos again to narrow them down, I can feel how much I love these places and these things, and that just because I'm being a bit of a weird, hermit-y human it doesn't mean that I'm not being a proper human. MTV, welcome to my world(ish).