Thursday, 13 October 2011

Things I'm glad my mother taught me



Before I left home, my mother gave me a sort of short-course in self-care. Having grown up in the sort of house where books teeter in piles in every corner and picnics in the garden end up with a rotting rug and some soggy crumbs three days later, I was a bit surprised when, before I went to university, mum came into my room weilding a bottle of Cif and a sponge and saying 'right, darling! Time for you to learn how to clean a bath.' Turns out, though, that learning how to do stuff is really useful. These are the things that have served me best in my adult life. They make me feel capable and self-sufficient, calm and in control. Thanks mum.

1. How to clean a bath. Weirdly important, this, for feeling grown-up and pristinely clean. I'm now so attuned to it that I actively notice if there is so much as one stray hair against the otherwise gleaming enamel.

2. Cooking. Being able to cook is seriously useful for impressing people and feeling cosy. A good cook need never be lonely. And if you've done the cooking, you don't have to do the washing up.

3. Wearing a coat. I'd always thought that coats were the symbol of the bourgeois system, only for nerds and conformists and not for free spirits like me. What a mistake. Wearing a coat keeps you warm, and being warm enough is key to happiness.

4. Small luxuries. I don't need mink coats or holidays to Jamaica... not much, anyway. But a new bottle of Floris bath oil or a delicious supper can make the world of difference to mood.

5. Attitude. My natural take on the world is mildly cynical. But if you look at life in a spirit of cheeriness, and not one of sardony, it does seem nice. And that's nice.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Port Eliot

Port Eliot is a lovely, tiny, cosy festival. It's full of bookish types, is in the grounds of one of the most beautiful estates in England and is pretty small. All of these are good things.

In fact, everything was pretty good: the sun shone all weekend, I didn't get too many mosquito bites (when I went in 2009 I counted 37 on one leg before I gave up), and the loos had lights, flushed and were continually supplied with fresh loo roll. I saw Caitlin Moran, who is a complete heroine. I bumped into lots of nice people. I felt smug about being the only person on my literary pub quiz team who knew that The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was actually written by Gertrude Stein. I was with two of my best friends who I adore and we drank and danced and giggled a lot.

And yet... I sort of hated it.

My festival days are drawing to a close. For one thing, I hate big crowds (even Latitude seemed overwhelming) and being fenced in and herded. I also suffer from hypochondria so intense that being more than a mile from an A&E department is enough to make me break into a cold sweat and imaginary heart attack - it's the main reason I love living where I do at the moment, where the nearest hospital is so close I'm pretty confident that even if I had a stroke, I would be able to drag myself there.

But, basically, I am too old for festivals, and too middle-class. This may mean that I am boring - if so, bring on the boredom. I mean, I like staying out late and being naughty as much as the next girl; but I also like having the option of not. Of staying in with some horlicks, a BBC documentary and some actual hot running water and actual soap. And then go to sleep in an actual bed that isn't on a slope and doesn't have rocks underneath two very thin layers of plastic and isn't accompanied by the sounds of a stranger's snoring.

Try as I may to be broad-minded, I can't help but slightly disaprove of hippies who bring their brood of children (why do they always have so Goddanm many of them?!), sedate them to sleep and then go and take alarming amounts of MDMA for three days straight. Or the yobbos who leave their lager cans on the grass and rip down the art installations. Even the normal seeming, sweet and well-educated people in their mid-twenties meet with a bit of scorn - why the hell, I think, neglecting to remember that I rank among their number, are they actively choosing to be dirty and cold and surrounded by drunk stangers for a weekend?

So that's the end of that, then.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Heeeerrrrrrre's Violet

All change, please.

Since I last wrote, I have left the bookshop (which is very sad indeed and I miss A, J, D, S, C and F almost constantly) and got a lovely new job at a magazine, which I adore and means lots of writing and giggling: I spend my days mainly discussing Pippa Middleton's bottom and doing things like researchnig the cost of renting a helipcopter to take you from Nice to St. Tropez and so on.

I have turned 23, which is weirdly A LOT older than 22. At 22, you can still be precocious and enormously over-acheiving: people are downright amazed that you have got a degree AND a master's AND a job at such a tender age. By 23, however, it's the norm and tales of your success, which would have met with wild applause mere months ago, are suddenly rather dull. This is very annoying, especially for me, as I love being praised. Man cannot live by bread alone, but I reckon I could get along just fine with nothing but compliments.

Anyway, off to the Port Eliot festival this weekend with O and A. Slightly dreading it as have just remembered that a) I hate festivals and b) I don't have any gum boots, but hey-ho. I'll get all erudite, like, and fill y'all in next week.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Brothers: mine, Roger Goldman's and Jack Yeats'.

I just finished reading Barbara Trapido's 'Brother of the More Famous Jack' and seldom has anything given me so much pleasure. It is the most heavenly book, with exactly the atmosphere of how one would imagine Cath Kidston's house to be, maybe with the addition of some heavyweight literary and philosophical conversation, a handful of freshly-picked daffodils and a few cracked plates.

There was a passage which particularly delighted me, with its combination of idealistic youthfulness, pure English eccentricity and scholarly puritanism. I will copy it out in full: Jane is the mother and Jonathon the 17 year old son who has just been given a detention:

'You are cheeky, Jont,' Jane says without concern. 'I consider it part of your charm, but you cannot expect others to do so.'
'The bloody fool asks me to paraphrase "heaven's cherubin, horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air",' he says, thumping about. 'What's the fucking good of paraphrasing it? It sounds better the way it is.'
'What did you say to him, Jont?' Jane says insistently.
'I said if he didn't understand it he shouldn't be doing it with us.'
'And?' she says archly.
'He said if I was so clever would I like to take the class. So I took the class. A bloody sight better at it I was, too, but he made me stop after about ten minutes because it showed him up.'

It reminded me completely of my own brother, the lovely G, also 17, who is the sweetest and gentlest person I know but who also has absoutely zero respect for authority, and is too funny and perceptive to ever be quiet for long. His school reports always say things like 'G is a very bright and able pupil, but would do better to spend less of his time in class distracting his peers'. Or, 'G shows great promise but his contributions to discussions would be more beneficial to him and his classmates if they were less tangential.' The best thing he has ever done, in my eyes, goes like this: he was in an English class and put his hand in the air to answer a question. His teacher, mistakenly, thought that he was making a rude gesture and snapped 'Right, G, I've had enough of this! Detention!' to which G replied, solemnly but vehemently, 'Don't be ridiculous.'

Never have I been so proud.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Idler and Idler

Went to the opening party for the 'Idler Academy' which has just opened in Notting Hill on Thursday night. It was a fabulous party - lots of beautiful and interesting people and 'slebs (including Emma Thompson who I elbowed in the face, accidentally, obviously). Saw someone I thought I knew and kissed them hello (on the cheek) before realising it wasn't someone I knew, it was just someone who comes into the shop sometimes. Got called 'Violent' for about two hours by a drunk man. Kept needing to pee. Saw the Latinist and author Harry Mount and quite fancied him. Managed to walk in my high heels all night EVEN THOUGH they are very high and the floor was very uneven and I was very drunk. Told A and S that I loved them about a zillion times, which is true but perhaps didn't need to be stated quite so often. Spent a lot of time walking from the front of the shop to the garden at the back in case there was someone fun I was missing. Flirted a lot. Left party and weaved around the surrounding streets with a group of other hungry revellers looking for an open restaurant, couldn't find one, went to a pub, felt very cross when the last order bell rang almost instantly. Then went back to local friend's house and insisted on him slaving over a hot stove for forty minutes to make me food, didn't eat it and fell asleep in my dress. All in all a lovely evening, and one which precipitated much idleness the following day.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Things that don't suit me and never will

Body-con dresses: I am too womanly and fertile i.e. pear-shaped and pot-bellied.

Palazzo trousers: particularly sad as they look so darned comfortable.

Neon pink lipstick: emphasises that weird patch on my chin that's a different colour to the rest of my face.

High-waisted jeans: see 'Body-con dresses' above.

Beanies: in fact, any hat. Or headband. My face needs to be mostly obscured by hair to be at all presentable. This can create problems in the winter - maybe a balaclava might be the solution.

Sexy lingerie: makes me look cheap, however expensive it is.

Cropped t-shirts: see 'Body-con dresses' above.

Pink, purple or red eye-shadow: makes me look like I've been in a fight / crying / have conjunctivitis / all of the above.

Those adorable plaits above one's head like a German milk-maid: try as I might, and believe me I do, I can never get these to look good. It is the thing about me that most disappoints my mother.

Bikinis: see 'Body-con dresses' above.

Monday, 14 February 2011

I Dream of Spring

It's that time of year again... After four months of being constantly swaddled in winter clothes (I'd like to pretend it was all fine-knit cashmere in biscuit colours, but actually it was moth-eaten Barbours and long-jonhs under jeans), I am ready once again for tea-dresses and bikinis. The fun bit of winter is over - Christmas and its attendant snows have come and gone, New Year's Eve is a distant (and blurred) memory, mince pies are, alas, no longer readily available.

Now the dullness sets in: the February detox (going cold turkey in January isn't the done thing any more); the unrelenting, unrepentant cold; the momentary hope in the morning when one sees a clear blue sky, only to step outside and be plunged instantly into icy misery. All any of us want is summer by now, yet God refuses to give in even a little bit and shift it back to earlier in the year. And, worst of all, spring itself is such a false dawn - yes, things look prettier and you're less likely to die of hypothermia on your way to buy a pint of milk, but - let's face it - England doesn't really get warm until mid-June, and even then not really and not for very long.

So, a little cheering up is necessary. After my woes of last week, I have been on a self-care mission, modelling myself on my friend B from school who is undoubtedly the most sorted girl I know. She recommended tom yum soup as the perfect comfort food: my fridge is now replete with nam pla and chicken stock. I have been having hot baths with lavender-scented bubbles and going to bed by ten every night. Treats include leave-in conditioning masks and trips to art galleries. I have been reading up on Jung and have just ordered Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity'. There has been lots of DVD watching - currently, the boxed set of The Tudors which is utterly compulsive in a sixteenth-century-Gossip-Girl way. I have been wearing my nicest silk blouses and high heels instead of leaving them languishing in the back of my wardrobe. I do yoga stretches before bed, for goodness' sake!

And I am feeling absolutely fantastic. The feeling of potential inherent in waking up every day without a hangover is perhaps the greatest revelation of my life. My mind, soul and psyche feel nourished (yes, I know this is bullshit terminology, but it's good for all of us to suspend our cynicism every once in a while). My body is my temple (utter bullshit). I feel bright-eyed and bushy tailed and a whole host of other insufferable clich├ęs. Instead of hankering after spring, I am living in the moment in a very zen way, embracing winter's root vegetables and maxed-out central heating. Best of all, I bought a fabulous bright yellow top with scalloped ruffles from H&M. Even in the zenith of non-materialistic self-care, what girl could resist a primrose coloured t-shirt?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

From the mundane to the silly

Feeling rather down at heel as I left work yesterday - hungover from a heavy weekend, tired from waking up at the crack o' dawn to catch the milk train from the country and with a streaming cold to boot - I was cheered up in a most unexpected way. Walking through central London towards the bus stop, feeling oblivious to everything except the need to get home and into bed, I suddenly felt a tug on my pocket. Looking down, I saw that the loo-roll I had nabbed from the bathrooms in the office to cope with my copious nose-blowing had fallen out of my pocket and unwound itself all the way from the middle of Bond Street to Piccadilly. Tears sprung to my eyes, but so did laughter to my lips. An amused queue outside a cash point started giggling as the loo-roll was whipped by the wind and fluttered across the window dispays of Moschino, Armani and the like. A Chanel clad woman with a dog-in-a-handbag got some caught in her hair. Some wound itself around the railings outside a smart hotel. There was nothing for it but to laugh - and in those moments of laughter, as the wind blew the white stream up towards Oxford Street, it blew my blues away too.

Friday, 4 February 2011

T. S. Eliot Prize

The weekend before last, I went with my dad to see the shortlisters of the T. S. Eliot poetry prize reading their work at the Royal Festival Hall. Due to various inanities on my part, we missed the first two speakers (Simon Armtiage and John Haynes - I was particularly bitter about the former, on whom I have harboured an enormous crush for years, despite the fringe). The performances we did catch were all wonderful, though; I particularly loved Robin Robertson's wonderful descriptions of the natural world, as in these lines from 'Abandon':

That moment, when the sun ignites the valley and picks out
Every bud that's greened that afternoon; when birds
Spill from the trees like shaken sheets: that sudden loosening
Into beauty...

Heavenly, too, was Daljit Nagra's charming and witty reading of the winner Derek Walcott's poems. In the car on the way home afterwards, my dad and I discussed the power of poetry, and all the things that it can do. It is at once utterly superfluous and completely necessary for the soul, we agreed; the medium where sign and signifier seem closest, where emotion and intellect are fully in harmony. We both found ourselves inspired to write poems in the next couple of days. Mine was profoundly silly about the Queen taking a taxicab, but my dad's was absoutely lovely. So, here it is:

Letting Go

You gave me a poem,
a pebble warmed by your hand.

Words smoothed
by the reach of moonlight on water,
or the dappling of sunlight
on the shoulders of a girl.

Words that carried their own weight
polished by the use of others,
but in them, you set a spark
like a striking of flint
a fire set alight
passing from one to another.

What was certain,
what confirmed this transaction
was the light.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Brideshead Rehabilitated


In my mind, I miss Oxford. I miss the width of the streets, the quality of the light, the smell of the Radcliffe Camera LRR. I miss the view of the Dragon School playing fields from my bedroom window, the sandwich shop where I didn't even have to say my order out loud they knew it so well, putting my hair in a high ponytail and feeling smugly academic. The parks, the pubs, the libraries.

So it was with great excitement that I went back on Sunday to visit my best friend R and her brother for tea in the Union. It was a beautiful day for a train journey - clear and crisp with a premature hint of spring. Steaming away from London, snuggled up with a hot chocolate and the Sunday Times' 'Stlye' supplement, I felt like I was leaving horrid, hectic modernity and returning temporarily to the Waugh world of Morris Minors, champagne picnics, naked river swimming and all the other charming attrirubutes of louche undergraduate life between the wars.

Imagine how bitterly disappointing, then, to find Oxford not nearly as nice as I'd remembered it. The buildings are pretty, yes, but that cold biting wind! Oxford has always seemed to have a microclimate that renders it much chillier than yer average town, perhaps because of two rivers meeting there. Or something. I have never been so cold as when I lived in Oxford, when me and everyone I knew would wear at least five layers until mid-July, when it was generally safe to come down to three for a few weeks.

And Cornmarket - urgh. The blandest, ugliest shopping street in Britain, yet full of people even on a January Sunday afternoon. I'm talking Oxford Street levels of people; I'm talking - wait for it - Christmas shopping levels of people. The confluence of two fast food joints in ten metres lends the street an ungodly smell of deep-fried fat - chips, burger buns and chicken nuggets squelch underfoot.

Worse still, far from the Dior-New-Look bedecked gilded youth of my imagination, the students all seemed so... young. Slightly hopeless looking, generally quite spotty, all clutching books about biochemistry to their too-narrow chests. Where were the glorious men declaiming Tennyson and the fillies fainting at their feet? The eminent tutors deep in conversation about the nature of the soul? The champagne corks puncturing the air?

The conclusion I'm forced to reach is that Oxford lends itself to a peculiar, particular type of anachronistic nostalgia. The mythologising around the city is such that it is impossible to see it clearly when you live there, or when you think back to it. It is only by visiting it that you can realise that, yes, it may be the greatest university in the world, but as a town... it's not up to much. And as a fantasy of a town it stands up even less. Or maybe I should've just ignored everything else and gone straight to the Bodleian.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A few things I have done recently

Last Friday evening, I went to the launch party of Frances Welch's new book 'The Russian Court at Sea: The Voyage of HMS Marlborough' at a venue called 'The Horse Hospital' in Bloomsbury. It's the real Victorian London deal - cobbled floors, a ramp to walk down to the basement, old iron thethering rings on the walls. And a fabulous place for a party. There were lots of interesting, bespectacled literary types (including my no. 2 crush, Ian Hislop, who alas I didn't speak to) and trendy youngsters - also in specs, but of the huge-frame-no-actual-lenses variety. I drank champagne galore and tripped over a lot (having ignored the recommendation on the invitation to wear flat shoes), and ate canapes which were served rather oddly on see-through sealed trays which had plastic breadsticks and pats of butter in them; I would greedily reach out for a carb-n-fat mouthful, only to find myself with a dainty bit of grilled courgette or feta cheese in hand. Later in the evening The Vagabond Trills - Frances' daughter Tallulah and her band - came on and sang delightfully, cheered on by Tallulah's cousin, singer Florence Welch (who was, to my joy, wearing even higher heels than me).

Then on Monday night I went to (well, sold books at) the 5 x 15 event at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill. The line-up was fantasic: A. C. Grayling, Tiffany Murray, Susan Greenfield, Emma Forrest and Edmund du Waal. All the speakers were brilliant, funny and touching in equal measure. I'd never been to a 5 x 15 before but I loved it - lots of nice people, cheap drinks (although my gin and tonic was actually gin and soda water), some intellectual stimulation and still time for supper afterwards with my wonderful friend M and his beautiful new girlfriend K. Better yet, while discussing it afterwards in The Wine Factory - where they do actually serve food, for those worried that I am getting my calories in entirely liquid form these days - we made friends with the people sitting next to us who had been as well. I love making new friends.

And finally (drum roll), last night was the launch party of Emma Forrest's new book, a memoir called 'Your Voice In My Head'. Emma is like the sixth-former that you had a crush on as a year 7: beautiful, tiny on a proper porcelain-doll level, super friendly but very obviously much cooler and cleverer than you will ever be, successful and with the most heavenly collection of tea-dresses in pastel colours and lovely prints. In fact, so enamoured of her am I that I'm going to go now so I can finish reading her book. She walked in this morning while I had in my hands, and I felt exactly like Manny in that episode of Black Books when the explorer comes to the shop. Cue girlish giggling and hair flicking. Cue au revoir.

Friday, 14 January 2011

What's on my bedside table...




'After Claude' by Iris Owens
My lovely colleague A let me borrow this book, which I read over the weekend. It is rather fabulous and very funny, but I found the voice of the heroine, Harriet, slightly grating. As she descends into madness it becomes harder to empathise with her, and the final scenes of the book are disturbing and impossible to credit. Worth a read for the descriptions of 1970s outfits and hippies, though.

'Working the Room' by Geoff Dyer
A writer friend of mine was sent four hardback copies of this, and gave one to me. So far I've only read a few of the pieces; they're rather dense and humour-free, though interesting enough. Couldn't disagree with him more about Lorrie Moore's 'A Gate at the Stairs', though.

'A Girl Like You' by Gemma Burgess
This just came out and I read it in two sittings of about an hour each. It is chick-lit at its very best: funny, sassy, wise, cheerful. And, like Burgess' first book 'The Dating Detox', it's as much about friendship as boys. Which is lovely. The perfect thing to combat the winter / single blues.

Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' trans. Arthur Golding
My wonderful and very dear friend L gave me this book, and I am obsessed with it.
Orpheus to Hades and Persephone:
' All things to you belong,
And though wee, lingring for a whyle, our pageants do prolong,
Yit soone or late wee all to one abyding-place doo rome.
Wee haste us hither all; this place becomes our latest home....
The use of her but for a whyle I crave,
And if the Destnyes for my wyfe denye mee for to have
Releace, I fully am resolved for ever heere to dwell.'
Nuff said.

'The Golden Notebook' by Doris Lessing
This is the 'proper' book that I am reading alongside all the others (I usually have four or five on the go). It was recommended to me as a good girl-power book, which indeed it is proving to be. I am utterly in awe of Lessing's restrained emotions, her ability to describe entire characters through their gesticulations, her knowledge and insight. But it's pretty heavy going, and I can't quite get to grips with all the Communist stuff.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

My Sunday Afternoon


Last Sunday afternoon, I had plans to meet my friend D. We were supposed to go and see the Diaghilev show at the V&A - it was the last day - but, being the last day, it was completely sold out. So we went to the Natural History Museum instead.

Neither of us had been since childhood, and I was super duper excited. Like an overactive eight year old, I dragged D towards 'the Vault'. To get there we had to go through the 'Minerals' room - I spent the first few minutes in there tugging on D's sleeve whinging 'I'm bored' before discovering a 'learn for yourself' board, which told me that amber is less dense than water, the names of several seaside pebbles and many other such fascinating facts. When we finally entered 'the Vault' at the back of the room my heart stopped: there, glittering on every wall, were diamonds, emeralds, rubies, gold and saphires. Particularly spectacular was the Devonshire Emerald - a rock of Scott Fitzgerald-ian proportions and luminous, glowing green.

By this point, D was becoming a bit jewelled-out, so we went to look at the trunk of the giant sequoia tree, which really was huge. The tree was nearly 1,500 years old when it was felled (Kodak moment comment from a little boy standing next to me: 'is that even older than granny?'). But even better, you get to go right up close to the ceiling of the museum's enormous entrance hall and look at the beautiful hand-painted and richly gilded panels, each showing a different exotic plant with its Latin name.

Next, I wanted to look at the water invertebrates. On the way to the room (yes, there really is a room called 'water invertebrates') we passed the life-size model of the blue whale. I felt just as thrilled and awe-struck as I did when I first saw it, aged five. Nature rocks. Anyway, I have always had a morbid fascination with lamprey and hagfish. The lamprey's mouth (see picture) looks like Freud's worst nightmare of a vagina dentata. They are horrid little buggers who latch those grisly teeth onto other fish. Hagfish are equally ew-inducing: they can transform one third of their body weight into slime, so if they are caught they can just slither away while simultaneously blocking the gills of their attacker with musucs. Yuck. I also love those weird fish that live so deep in the sea that they are almost completely white and have more hidden gadgets than 007's cars. D showed me some pretty species of star-fish and we both got calamari-cravings looking at the Vampire Squid. And then it was time to go home.

So, the moral of the story is this: if you want to entertain a young child, or an easily amused 22 year old, look no further than the Natural History Museum. It's pretty darn cool.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Honey, I'm Home

After a VERY long break, during which I successfully completed an MA (even the really difficult Paleography bit, hurrah), moved to London, got a job and became a little bit more grown-up, I am back in the blogosphere. Expect non-stop scintillatingly witty posts from now on.