Sunday, 31 July 2011

Man for all Seasons

Lotions, potions, pills, procedures... the high street bursts with cosmetics aimed at an eager male audience. As GQ's yearly 'grooming awards' prove, looking good counts. Are gentleman taking the 'fix up, look sharp' mantra to unsightly extremes?

Obsessive masculine preening is hardly a modern occurrence. In the fifteenth century, males indulged in fashion: shapely calves were displayed in revealing stockings, towering wigs were de rigueur, and manhood-enhancing codpieces were tucked subtlety inside breeches to deceive the ladies of the court.

The twenty first century has brought with it an emergence of experimentation and humour on the men's fashion scene; Comme des Garcons, Vivienne Westwood and Etro have recently sent lads in flowing skirts down the catwalk. It took half a century for society to accept women in trousers; surely we should respect men who crave the same liberty of dress?

But I may take this open minded statement back if highly experimental fashion choices become the decisions of most males (lads swishing to Sainsbury's in flowing Westwood numbers, legs clad in Mark's and Spencer's nylons to keep out the January hills are visions that spring to mind)- but, on the whole, I believe a man who takes an interest in fashion is to be admired. In my opinion, the only truly unattractive element of the innovations in men's cosmetics and fashion is the level of vanity involved, vanity which screams of self obsession and low self esteem. Anyone, male or female, who blatantly spends an unhealthy amount of time and money on their appearance loses some of their visual appeal, as, to the close observer, they are obviously intent on presenting a fa├žade.

Intent on showing off more than just the up-do, Brand strikes a pose...
Kurt Cobain, for example, broke a few men's fashion conventions when he dressed in Courtney's dresses- but it was cool, because it was spontaneous, not over-considered, and in this satirical, spontaneous attitude, it was perhaps even attractive. Likewise, take the bed-head hair thing, a slight tousled effect on the back and sides- fab! What makes Russell Brand's explosive barnet so unappealing is the knowledge that he's spent hours being laboriously conditioned, back combed, tonged, crimped and gloss-sprayed. It's a problematic contradiction; whereas we love to see men looking good, smelling reasonable and dressing somewhat uniquely, we don't want to see any signs of effort on their part.

So, fellas, if you've got a tube of gradual tanning moisturiser tucked away in your undies draw, along with a well-thumbed forecast of the trends for Spring/Summer, just don't tell us about it.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Five Fab Folks I'd Like to Have a Brew With

Janis Joplin

Janis was a fat, spotty, misunderstood teenager from the deep South. The blossoming soul sensation wore her feet bare, dressed in boys clothes, and always carried a portable harp, breaking into song whenever she considered it appropriate. “Conventional behaviour at Goldsmiths 2011!” I here you cry. But in 1950s Texas? The girl must've been vivacious. Joplin went on to demonstrate her passion and energy in huskily-delivered, soul-tingling ballads, her colourful dress sense and hard drug habits. Like the recently deceased Winehouse (and, mysteriously, her musical counterparts Cobain, Morrison and Hendricks) Joplin died aged just 27, a victim of her own hedonistic habits.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella's food writing transports us to a a realm of culinary sensuality and ecstasy-inducing flavours, where the humble peanut possesses 'a pleasurable, palette cleaving clagginess', and chocolate mousse is 'like chocolate satin cream...almost shocking in its pleasurable intensity'. Nigella openly celebrates the 'masturbatory' shamelessness of eating alone, and her flawless, nipped waisted glossy-lipped glamour, coupled with her cocoa-spill of goddess locks, has converted a sizable male audience to her cookery programmes (which, by the way, are an absolute scream, overflowing with unmistakeably phallic imagery and squirm-inducing oral suggestions). Despite being chided for the 'pornographic' quality of her presenting, Nigella ignores feminist criticism of her work. Actually, Nigella is a role model for any aspiring writer, presenter or glamour-puss, becoming world renowned and extremely wealthy despite self-confessed crippling shyness, harboured from a childhood overshadowed by her MP father and beautiful socialite mother. She's graduated from Oxford, held regular columns in top newspapers and become synonymous with the finer things in life: oak panelled kitchens with designer mixing bowls and fairy-lights, silk robes, and caramel croissant pudding at midnight...

Kit Williams

You long to fall into the dream worlds conjured in Kit William's captivating paintings of enchanted countryside and humanoid characters, and they're executed with such skill and detail, you almost feel you could. After leaving the navy, Kit travelled Britain for ten years, alone in a dilapidated caravan, drawing inspiration from his surroundings. William's favourite subjects include agile, nymph-like beauties in outfits emulating the flora and fauna of William's beloved countryside, and elderly gents twinkling with wisdom and mischief. As you'd expect of a chap with such a sparkle in his eye, William's work tends towards the cheerfully cheeky; take Patience and the Passing of Time, where the viewer peers into key-hole shaped frame at a respectable middle-class lady, playing solitaire with nudey-lady playing cards. In 1979 Williams revealed even more creative ability, casting a delicate hare charm from gold and precious stones; every page of his picture book, Masquerade, offered a befuddling riddle hinting at its secret underground location. Williams combines traditional attention to detail with a fresh wit.

Leonora Carrington

Carrington's literature was a godsend on our explorations course last year, where tales of her legendary peculiarities spiced up a Monday morning lecture. Leonora was expelled from several schools for refusing to work in anything but mirror writing; she would habitually serve house guests omelets she'd bulked out with their own hair, which she'd severed while they slept, for a giggle! And, brilliantly, she allegedly spent the entire social whirl of her coming out ball crouched in a corner, head in a novel. Carrington's life, until she was recently deceased at the age of 94, was tumultuous. She travelled with the surrealist artist Max Ernst, until war separated the lovers, after which Leonora had a breakdown, was institutionalised, and then retired to Mexico to focus on her creativity. Carrington's surreal art and literature draw us into an alternative existence of childish naivety, interjected with anthropomorphic transitions, psychological projection, and underground feminist cults.

Indeed I do Have a Short Grey Beard that Conventional People Would Find Repulsive... Personally I Find it Rather Gallant.” (Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet).

Maya Angelou

I thought I knew enough about the work of Dr Maya Angelou to declare myself a devotee after reading her autobiographical volumes. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings charts Maya's life until the age of sixteen, during which she is sexually abused, becomes mute for five years, discovers a passion for the arts and wins a scholarship to drama school. Gather Together In My Name follows Maya as she drops out of school, has an illegitimate son at the age of sixteen, and proceeds to single-handedly lug her baby around America, attempting to support herself through various means including Creole cookery, concert hall dancing, prostitution, drug dealing, a stint as a brothel madam... all while maintaining a passion for literature and learning. The autobiographies are riveting, almost too action-packed to be believable, and laudable also for their rich poetics. But that's just the surface of Angelou's successes. She's got four further biographies, in which she dabbles in opera and film acting, teaching and journalism in areas as far flung as Egypt and Ghana, mastering the languages of French, Spanish, Arabic and West African. She is a renowned spokeswoman and inspirational speaker, having worked alongside Luther-King and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and lectured in universities worldwide. She's written novels in abundance, a few Creole cookery books, has earned 30 honours degrees, served on presidential committees, directed films, and won three Grammies. She's obviously a passionate and impulsive woman, unafraid to embark on new fixations. In the words of Maya:

How Important It Is For Us To Recognise Our Heroes and She-roes!”

Monday, 25 July 2011

ON REFLECTION... Discoveries of a vain blonde during self-induced mirror abstinence.

A veneration for the unknown, (and a hint of laziness), has lead me to conclude that 'God' is something non-discoverable. Therefore, I didn't expect any spiritual breakthrough during my stay at Taize, a contemplation retreat in the hills of Southern France. Instead of divine enlightenment, I opted for emotional overhaul. I gave myself a final glance in the service station mirrors at Ma'con, before embarking on a ten day mirror detox.

Often, I don't receive my reflection with grace. Mirrors, car windows, kitchen appliances and virtually any other reflective surfaces aren't usually cause for self-admiration, but a safety measure, a reminder to bear my imperfections in mind, and to limit and conceal them best I can. I know I'm far from alone in this consuming self-inspection; genetically, we are disposed to self consciousness and vanity. The average child begins to relate to, (and in turn admire or refute), their own image at the age of just twelve months. Our generation worships physicality; we post images of ourselves online by the hundred. We are suspicious, even fearful, of those who take little interest in their appearance.

I manage to apply my make up without a mirror, relying on plain-speaking friends to inform me of inevitable eye liner smudges. Once, I over-apply blusher, and exit our garden-shed -sized accommodation looking as though I've forfeited my factor 50 in the Southern sunshine. Apart from this, my mirror detox is surprisingly devoid of disaster...I think. I don't really care. Hell, sometimes I don't even wear make up! 

 I conclude that the atmosphere at Ta'ize plays a fundamental part in the ease with which I carry out my detox. Founded in 1940, the  once derelict buildings of the Taize community provided refuge for fleeing Jews in the war years. The architecture of the retreat is based on the original concentration camps, a resemblance intended to remind the community of the compassion and consolidarity that blossomed in those otherwise desolate places. The seriousness of Taize's humanitarian mission  shames the self-focused existence I ordinarily inhabit, of which my conception of my physical self dominates. 

Not that Taize feels at all Austere; it feels like that boarding school I once dreamed of being sent to, when I was eight and reading Malory Towers, or like a particularly lovely prison. Surrounded by absorbing individuals from all over the world, I have little motivation to consider myself physically. And I don't have the time! From the moment I stumble off the coach, I'm roped into kitchen duty, followed by three hours of shared contemplation, before meeting my fellow retreaters at Oyak, the communes tiny bar.

However helpful the open-minded world of Taize may have been, the mirror-detox itself was equally contributory to my experience. Admittedly, many Taize goers are the dread-locked, harem-panted, new-age sort, for whom matters of appearance are ,understandably, secondary to matters of organic produce, energy fields, and Raiki. But  despite this there was a good deal of image consciousness at Taize. Hair straighteners and curling tongs occupied the outdoor sockets at our wooden barracks. Prepping commenced for the evenings at Cafe Oyak, which became a nightly hub of flirtation,  where provocative dancing commenced to a variety of hand-held instruments, despite the alcohol rationing (one unit, per person, per day).  There might have been room for envy or feelings of inadequacy amid this beautification, not to mention the easy, bronzed gorgeousness of my willowy European sisters. 

But, due to my relinquishing of the mirror, feelings of inadequacy could not cloud the richness of my Taize days. As my physical reflection, usually ever present in my minds eye from periodic scrutiny, faded somewhat, and it became easier to approach new faces, without this constant reminder of my perceived faults. Miraculous! Relieved, I felt my self-involvement decrease, and my interest in that outside myself was ignited. The beauty of the medieval villages surrounding Taize; the walls of hollyhocks, crumbling ruins and brightly painted window-shutters, appeared, in my refreshed observance, as if in high-saturation. In conversation, I forgot myself with ease, becoming fully engrossed in the words of my confidants.

Of course I missed it, the prinking and preening that I usually undergo before leaving my bedroom. I looked forward to resuming the decisions about lipstick colour and hem length which occupy so much of my time back in London. We ventured on to Paris, and my reflection greeted me; my endlessly fascinating companion, that unpredictable character, who is sometimes so admiring, and at other times pulls faces at me, begging me to alter. 

I'm grateful for my mirrorless experience, and have come to relate the friendships of my Taize days to those sweet, soulful exchanges, in bars and bedrooms, sprawled on lawns or perched on kitchen tables, where one feels oneself open to another, self-consciousness all but diminished. Perhaps we are drink mellowed, or unfolding with mutual understanding- similarly, mirrorlessness left me far less guarded. I lost my inhibitions, and let down my hair.