Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Guerlain, The Myth

Recently Elle Magazine ran a competition to become an intern (Paid!) for a year, working at both The Elle Beauty Deparment and Cussons PR. To enter you had to write 500 words about a beauty brand (not a product, a brand) which you love.

As readers of this blog know, I love fashion, beauty, myth and all things pretty with an edge, The 'Look Closer' element of something, initially pleasing, but which conveys a darkness, sexuality, even seediness when you look up close.

The Iconic American Beauty poster, very pretty, but 'Look Closer'   

I like the twisted sensual beauty of Nabokov's Lolita, the vulnerable adolescent beauty of  the Lisbon Sisters in The Virgin Suicides, the desperate manic beauty of mad women in Literature, such as Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Due to this I couldn't choose a straight forward beauty brand, one which specialies in prettyfying, and little else. Yes, Benefit makeup is very lovely, Lancome have a nice range of colours, Chanel is very chic, but none of them compare to Guerlain, the brand who created the packaging of their most innocently named lipstick 'kiss kiss' in the shape of a totem pole. Even with colours, such as pushy pink and Rouge Taffeta, evocative of parties attended by sweetly coquettish young women in their lovliest clothes, there is an underlying darkness to this lipstick. Totem poles were traditionally a symbol or mortuary structures, so the young girl applying her lipstick in the mirror, might give a shudder when the coolth of the lipstick touches begins to melt into her lips

Very pretty, very bubbly, the lipsticks seem to say, but this is temporary, and beauty is stronger for the fact that it must die. A classic 'look closer' piece of design, transforming prettiness into something deeper, darker, something which deserves the name of beauty.

The 'Precious Colours' are not just prescious in a gift wrapped, ribbons curled with the blade of a knife way, they are actually precious as they are so fleeting.

As my Elle/Cussons piece was only 500 words long I couldn't include this, I did however write about the many reasons why Guerlain is more than just a beauty brand

See what I did write here

Scheherazade weaving her magic, which is with us even now, in the perfumes and makeup you wear

As a child I was entranced by an illustrated copy of 1001 Arabian Nights, which I would pull from my parents' bookcase long before I was able to read. The midnight blues and golds of the palaces, Sceherazade with her khol-rimmed eyes and corageous nature, the Sultan, genies and
flying carpets, were all bound in this deep blue book, where an unjustly condemned wife tells nightly tales of love, heroism, revenge  and desire, to pique her husband's interest so he will spare her life.
In one of these tales the heroine is Nahema, a spirited beauty with long dark hair and a silk dress the colour of fire.

I was sixteen  a grungy teenager, all oversized sweaters and limp hair, when my Mother bought a bottle of of Nahema, by Guerlain, but when I lifted the pale gold bottle and sprayed it on my wrist and
throat I felt something startling, potent, heady. Suddenly I remembered the sumptuous illustations and the girl with a dress like fire. This was the moment I realised the potency of cosmetics, the way
 they could transport you, transform you, and make you part of a legend.

I love Guerlain for the way in which it evokes myth. All their lipsticks, like their perfumes, have a story attached. Mitsouko is the name of a sweet Japanese girl who had a tragic affair with a soldier
in Claude Farrere's novel La bataille, Shalimar, that of an Emporer's beloved wife, who died young, and still haunts the gardens near the Taj Mahal. Apres L'Ondee, a pop-art pink, translates as 'after the
rain shower' and is evocative of spring, of kisses in bandstands, of the beginning of love.

Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castlenuovo in  Les Parapluies Des Cherboug, a pop art masterpiece of a film, about first love and umbrellas. The film instantly came into my mind when I saw the lipstick Apres L'ondee.
Shalimar Pink, deeper and bolder than you could ever imagine, but still playfuly pink
The Shalimar girl

Guerlain, founded in 1828, understands the continuing power of mythology, of evocation, of stirring memory, of creating desire.

The packaging too is reminiscent of how Guerlain's long history is interwoven with stories, both real and fairytale. Rouge Automatique, a lipstick you can open with one hand, was created in the art deco
style, it's symmetrical functional lines reflecting those of the Empire State Building,, while the bottle containing Samsara is modelled on an sillouhette of a Khmer Dancer, seen in The Musee Guimet
in Paris.

Just as the audacious pink of Shalimar lipstick avoids being Barbie-dollesque through the tragedy which surrounds it, making the pink suddenly dark, intense and not at all fluffy, so the Golds and
silvers of the Guerlain packaging do not say bling, but speak of austerity, of a tradition rooted in history and fantasy. They have been written about by Jean Rhys, Colette and Bulgakov. Their muses
have included mythological heroines alongside real women, such as Catherine Deneuve, and  their current model, Natalia Vodianova, who stares out from their adverts, beautiful as any mythical heroine, and continuing the tradition of the Shalimar girl, who will have many
faces, all beuatiful, bold and dreamy.

I imagine her walking through an exotic garden of luscious greens and pinks, before glancing over her shoulder one last time, then turning to go.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Summer Palace Duck Egg, or how I came to hate my ugly curtains

Summer Palace Duck Egg Material by Laura Ashley, which I am planning on having curtains made out of  
I have always been a sucker for beauty, motorway road bridges which are just the perfect shape and give you the feeling that you're on a massively exciting journey, beautifully cut dresses which hit you in all the right places, walking behind someone with beautiful hair, all these are things I love. I guess the reason I read Vogue is for aesthetic beauty, as well as the strength of some of the prose (the last issue has a piece written by Freida Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which is fascinating as well as gorgeously written.)

I guess my love of poetry, of writing, of Nabokov, also stems from a love of beauty. Who cannot fall for the cadence of a perfectly cut sentence, the rhythm of a book of these, gripping you, whilst telling you a story? Who cannot love T.S Eliot? I really need to devote a whole blog post to these people, but anyway, my point is, I love beauty in everything, pretentious as that may sound.

Until recently however I have not got into interiors. Beautiful pans, lamps, curtains simply didn't interest me, they were there to servr a purpose, that's all. My Mother always said 'one day you will love interiors like you love fashion' and I was just like 'nah.' Yet recently something has happened to me, something has changed, I suddenly need to make my flat as beautiful as possible and fill my room with lovely interiors, and the kitchen with gorgeous pans (on a very limited budget.)

Maybe this is because this is the first flat where I have felt properly settled, happy, safe. Unlike previous bedsits and university accomadation it doesn't feel like a stop-gap home. Also, I think that recently my nesting instinct has kicked in. Although I have no children and no intention of having any til I have a decent living wage and all that which will probably be when I'm thirty, I find that as I hve got older I have wanted to created a nest, a safe haven, for myself, and my friends. I have a desire to feed people, to look after people, to nurture people, and also to nurture myself, and I think that my desire to make a perfect home is linked to this, although I am still messy I am lessy messy than I was.

I guess all this has led to the desire for new curtains in my room. My curtains are ugly, they are a pale green colour reminiscent of those disgusting mints you can suck in the back of the car on rainy days when you're a kid and you're bored, and they have chaotic white spirals on them, drawn as though a token design, a scribble done in a warehouse 'can we sell this as curtain material?' 'Just do a doodle on it and it'll be fine.'

In short. I hate my curtains, and this hatred is pretty intense, so intese that I'm thinking of taking them down and living without curtains until I can find a new pair. They seem to scowl at me every time I see them. an insult to my crispy cotton bedsheets, my lovely mirror with the lace scarf draped over it, my wardrobe full of somewhat tatty but beautiful vintage dresses which |I love. It's sort of like having a spot, a massive one you can't stop thinking about or picking at because it's somewhere stupid, like right under your eye.

With this in mind I started looking for new curtains, at first I looked in Argos, which was a mistake (argos mighthave okay pans and bedsheets but curtains: nope.) I considered other places which do ready made curtains but none of them seemed right, plus there's the issue of them fitting, then, browsing the internet I came across the Laura Ashely made to measure curtain service.

I know, Laura Ashley are expensive, almost expensive enough to warrant an exclamtion mark, if I didn't hate the things. Yet, the fabrics they offer are so beautiful, and they also take the exact measurements and make them to fit perfectly, offering you a choice of trim as well as heading, the name for the top bit of curtains where they attach to the rail (there's a name for that?)

Suddenly I was fascinated by which material and which heading I wanted for these fantasy curtains, these curtains which would complete my den, my lare, my nest, whatever you wish to call it, these curtains which would blow gently in the spring breeze next year and smile upon me as all my dreams come true.

I browsed through the fabric swatches on the website for an indecent amount of time, focusing mainly on the bedroom has a bit of a blue thing going on, not through my choice but because like a woman has colours which suit her, which flatter her and show her complexion in the best light, so do rooms, and my room is happiest in blues and creams, perhaps due to it's proximity to the shore, and the gulls which can be heard constantly from the window.

Eventually I found a fabric swatch with which I fell in love. It's called Summer Palace Duck Egg, and I found myself loving the name, reminiscent of fairytale splendour and T.S Eliot's Journey of The Magi -

'There were times when we regretted the summer palaces on the slopes, the terraces
and the silken girls bringing sherbert' 

Who would not wish their room to be thus adorned? The imagery. The thoughts. Could I be silken girl, in the summer palace of my room?

Yet also I love the design, the pink parrots with the golden necks, the butterflies and flowers and branches, reminiscent of a fairytale world, as well as being similar to material, my Mother made into dresses for she and I, when I was a child of perhaps five. This material was pale blue and was covered in fairytale castles on clouds, and exotic creatures, associated with travel. Like these light summer dresses, which I associate with seaside holidays and bare feet, this material is evocative of travel, of possibility, of magic.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Snow-Queen within every girl

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,   
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,   
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,   
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

T.S Eliot

It's not snowing yet, and it's only a week since we had gorgeous weather, with people lying in the meadows, with bare arms. Still, those days have passed,a final air kiss blown to us from the hand of summer,an adieu, a bientot, I will see you next year Darling.

Yet already I am dreaming of snow. Last year it started snowing in late November. A friend and I got cheap tickets to The Marriage of Figaro for under 26-year-olds, on a freezing cold day, when we came out of the Festival theatre the ground was covered in a gentle dusting of snow, reflected by the lamps. It didn't stop snowing until January, by which time everyone was thoroughly sick of it, and the sludge had none of the romance of early winter, yet still I cannot hate snow when it is an abstract concept. I still associate it with childhood, with christmas markets, sledging, thick gloves, cocoa, the diamond panes of the windows in the cottage where I grew up catching the fine white dust.

I also think of Raymond Briggs snowman, which I had from early childhood, of the old collie dog we had who used to love chasing snowballs only to bite into them and find them crumble, icy in her mouth.

Yet I also always find myself thinking of 'The Snow-Queen'  a fairytale I remember for it's icy magic, as opposed to the finer details of the plot, so much so that I had to wikipedia it for this article, but as I read the entry the story came back to me. You can read it by clicking above, but the one thing which surprised me was that in the story Kai gets a shard of glass in the eye, as opposed to a shard of ice in the heart, which I had always believed, perhaps due to my Mother always telling me that to be objective a writer had to 'keep a shard of ice in their heart at all times'

I think I was always enchanted by the frozen beauty of snowqueens, from the original one in the Hans Christian Anderson story to the terrifying opponent of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I always longed to be somehow similar to these women, with their coolth and ability to make people follow, and wished that I could somehow mould my puppyish please-like-me nature into pure Ice.

Yet as I grew up I learned from films that Ice queens are not always evil, not always cruel, but that they are beautiful women dressed perfectly for cold weather, battling the elements bravely and somehow managing  not to get pink faced from the cold.

Iciness is all very well, but the counteracting force to this is warmth, so now I think of snowqueens as women of great warmth, beauty, tenderness and perhaps a single invisible shard of ice in their heart, because afterall, a girl needs to protect herself somehow.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Breakfast in Autumn

I have a lot planned for today so we're going to need a good breakfast, you wander into the kitchen bleary eyed to see the striking colour of fresh orange juice in a wine glass, and a steaming pot of coffee, with two cups, please feel free to help yourself, while I stand by the cooker making the porridge.

My parents have a lot of books at home, so many there's not room for them on our six (I just had to count then) bookshelves so a lot of them are still in boxes, cases, dusty yet appealing. In these books they keep drawing by my siblings and I as children, letters from friends, an old photograph, an obituary of a writer or musician they admired, and when you open these books these neglected yet treasured pieces of paper tumble out, sometimes so old they crumble in your fingers as you seek to unfold them. It was in one such book that I found the following magically wintery recipe for porridge.

It is by a food writer called Lesley Wild, who apparently wrote a book called A Year of Family Recipes a book I might actually get in spite of it's wholesome title

The following recipe serves two hungry people and sets you up for a long autumnal walk

100g porridge oats each
a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 
half a teaspoon of allspice
600ml full fat milk
2 Handfuls of dried fruit (Lesley suggests raisins, apricots and currants, however I would like to try this with fresh bramley apples)
2 Handfuls of unsalted nuts (almonds, cashews brazils) broken but not completely crushed (I'd just put them in a bag and hit it with a rolling pin, but just because I'm not advanced enough to own a pestle and mortar)

The recipe is simple, you place the oats in the pan with the cinnamon and spices, pour over the milk and a pinch of salt and stir. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and allow to gently simmer for five - seven minutes,  stirring constantly to ensure it doesn't stick. Add the dried fruits (or chopped fresh apple if you want to play with the recipe) and the crushed nuts, mix it all together and serve with demera sugar

While I stand by the hob stirring (NO, I don't want any help, I find it therapeutic) we chat about our plan for the day, and our conversation continues as we sit down and eat our steaming porridge.

Season of mists....and my Mother's Biba frock

It is always with a sense of sadness that I welcome Autumn. Yes, I do love the way the trees change colour, the crispy blue September skies, the dappled shadows on the pavements, but there's also the sense of something winding up, coming to an end. The slight chilliness is not like that of early spring evenings, when you wrap your light bolero a little tighter round your shoulders and bravely stride forward, there is none of the sense of promise, of being on the cusp of something, of waiting for the year  to come to life. No the coldness of autumn has to be tackled with thick tights, cashmere jumpers, winter coats, hardy boots (and if you live in Edinburgh you better use a suede protecter too.)

Yet there is also something comforting about Autumn, just as it doesn't have the edginess of spring or the headiness of summer, it does have something more relaxed, more chilled out. Autumn whispers to you, why go out tonight if you don't want to? The Autumn skies are beautiful, and if you lie stay in you can wacth them as they change colour, also as the leaves become crisper your bed suddenly seems more appealing in the evenings.

There is also the soft magic of autumnal walks, the desire that everyone knows from childhood to kick up leaves, and crunch them underfoot. I also still feel a childish thrill at seeing a large conker, shiny like a perfect chocolate, nestled amid a sea of yellow and orange, and I still feel the desire to pick it up, to feel it  cold in my hand and to know that I am the finder.

Yet in Autumn I miss summer and spring, I miss daylight, I long for the days to stay long, to stay bright, for it not to be necessary to put on hat and scarf, even a hat and scarf from Topshop.

I don't know how many people feel the same as me about Autumn but below I have written about a perfect Autumn day in Edinburgh, from morning to night..this day will appear in anstallations on my blog, because it's kind of long, and some of you may want to pick and choose which parts of this fantastical journey you accompany me on

Firstly we get up at eight, or I do anyway, you can lie in bed a little longer whilst I prepare the breakfast in the lovely light kitchen my flat has, overlooking the water of Leith

Saturday, 30 July 2011


A celebration of one of life's greatest sensual pleasures

I love food, love the smells which come from the kitchen when something is cooking, the exotic (to me) aroma of the herbs in thai curry paste, the scent of a lemon sorbet - so slight you have to put your nose right down into the icy crystals to smell it, the garlic and thyme and basil you smell in home made pasta sauces...a leg of lamb slowcooking in the oven on a sunny day. Did I mention I love food?

Yet, like a lot of women (and even men) I have been known to have a slightly screwed up relationship with this delicious pleasure. Food is beautiful, wonderous, amazing, associated with banquets for kings, the queen of Sheba reclining on her golden couch and reaching a lazy hand for another grape, yet it is also the stuff of sin, of evil, it gives us cancer, we are told, it makes us fat, it stops us being attractive, it gives us spots...and so forth?

Remember the apple in Eve's Eden? In some versions it is a pomegranate, which I find far more convincing a tempation, remember Persephone who ate six pomegrante seeds in Hades and was consigned to spend six months of the year there? Six months in Hades, an expulsion from Eden...look girls, that's what you get from eating!

Magazines are also full of 'lose a stone in three weeks' and 'get bikini ready' features, which don't really help, while skinniness is held up as something to aspire to. A slim woman is attractive, we are told, she is in control, she has power, she deserves the world's approval and approbition. I am ashamed to say that this is an idea I buy into, and whilst I would never consciously judge another person for being overweight (dear God, I've been there) I am still supercritical of my own figure, and sometimes the figures of others (and then I have to force myself to snap the hell out of it.)

I'm fairly typical, uk size eight to ten, yet I torture myself about food, about eating. I look in mirrors and imagine I am fat...I know logically this is not the case, but I see the flesh on the top of my arms, my round face, my chubby cheeks. My BMI is 21, I know that this is healthy, so why do I long to be the low end of healthy. Why do I think -'if only I was eight and a half stone' instead of almost nine? And why do I, like a lot of women I know, use one of life's greatest pleasures to torture myself?

So many of my friends do the same thing...depriving themselves when they are hungry, denying their natural appetite and making rules about when they can and can't eat - I know women who eat very little during the day and then let themselves go at night, this isn't cool as it leads to them thinking 'Shit, this is the only time I'm allowing myself to eat' and therefore shovelling food down with complete disregard to appetite. I think that our fucked up relationship with food is one of the main reasons for weight gain, and that if food was something we accepted, enjoyed, cherished, and never apologised for, then food would reward us, not only with intense pleasure but also with the body we should have naturally. Any man will tell you that the female body is a beautiful thing, and yes, some people are programmed to be skinny and some less so.

Sophie Dahl, the beautiful beautiful supermodel who wrote a cook book said 'sexy is having the energy to romp with you beloved.' I completely agree, sexy is also however enjoying food, enjoying life and enjoying your body. Taste buds are practivally an erogoneous zone.

I am therefore deciding here and now to become a self-confessed gourmet....a gourmet is not greedy, a gourmet doesn't binge on crap (something I have been horribly guilty of), a gourmet doesn't binge on anything, but eats beautiful foods, explores ingredients, reads cooks books as sensually as one would read the kama sutra, and cooks things which are in season as oftenas they can.

Therefore I am teaching myself to cook beautiful flavoursome things. I'm currently addicted to The BBC's Good Food Website which has over 7000 recipes, as well as features about seasonal ingredients...fresh pea and runner bean risotto is only one of the mouthwatering things on the list. I am already saving recipes into a file, and dreaming about the circumstances in which I will make these beautiful dishes....

In summer I will revel in fresh vegetables. I will cook with oranges, lemons, basil, rocket (God, I love the bitter taste it has.) I will cook with Fennel - I've never cooked with Fennel before - but I will make the following luscious recipe for a friend and I, and we shall relish every bite, as we sit drenched in the summer sunlight.

I have already composed fantasies about so many of the recipes I have read. The slow cooked stews I will make in winter, before I leave the house for a three hour walk up Arthur's Seat, Blackford hill and along the beach from Portobello, before coming back, freeing, to smell the juices coaguling, and to know that I will be warm.

Of course, I am never alone in these fantasies. Food is something which should be's a way in which you can give pleasure and recieve it, without any of the weirdness which comes with sex. Although, saying that, cooking for someone you lust after would be one of the best things ever.

Have any of you seen 'Like Water for Chocolate' where the girl, not allowed to marry her true love, pours all her emotions and frustrations into the food she makes, causing everyone to weep uncontrollably when they taste the cake she has made for the wedding of her beloved to her sister?

I imagine filling a thai curry with love, with desire, with longing, which an invisible he will taste and feel with every bite. I am therefore looing up how to make a genuine Thai Curry paste, so I can say to him, when we meet 'why not swing round for supper sometime'

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

In Memory of Geoffrey Holloway (1918 -1997) - Poet and Friend

         He wrote me poems when I was born, phrases of which I remember sporadically: ‘Tiny hijacker, ’ ‘Learn me, my gentle name,’ with a tender rush of gratitude that someone wrote those beautiful words for me.
  He and his silver-haired girlfriend were friends of my parents from way back, too far back for them to remember how they met and became friends, as though the two couples had always known one another and always would. They would always, it seemed, sit around and chat and sip red wine, she curled up like a silver cat on our sofa, his hand touching the cashmere shoulder of her jumper every now and then as if to say: ‘I’m still here, just checking you’re still real’.
They would talk about poetry and life and people they all knew, and they would laugh and their faces would pinken from the food and wine and flicker in the shadows cast by the tea lights my mother always lit, and when I floated downstairs in my nighty he would shout - ‘a little ghost!’ - as I ran across the carpet to his embrace.
As I remember he was a very tall man with silver and black stubble on his face and when he lifted me up I was high enough  to look straight into the face of my great great grandmother’s wall clock which was pinned high up on the wall above the fire place. My Father recently told me that his friend was of average height, however from my small child’s three foot something recollections, he will always be tall.
They came to look after me several times, once when I was being kept off school with a cold. I would have been about six-years-old, and with his help I wrote my first poem, it was about winter being all pretty and frosty but making you sneeze and cough a lot. I knew he was a professional poet, but I did not at that time find it at all remarkable that he took my poem seriously, writing it out for me with all the words spelled correctly so I could copy it and present it to my Mother when she burst through the door with snow on her nose.
I soon got to an age where it was okay for me to stay up for dinner parties and be given a small glass of wine often mixed with water to make it look like a full glass. I used to love it when they came over, she with her beautiful hair, soft clothes and the way she smelt when she bent to kiss me, he with his warmth and the books he presented me with. They would always talk to me as though I was another adult even at seven and eight. If they were talking about a book he would turn to me and ask what I was reading and whether or not I was liking it, and it was often the case that the entire table would enter into a discussion of children’s literature, which eventually turned into a debate which went beyond my understanding, although I still  enjoyed just sitting back and listening to the rising and falling of their voices, as it fell into a steady lilting rhythm, almost like a poem, I thought.
Then there were the self-involved years of early adolescence when my parents friends didn’t seem to matter. I have no recollections of seeing either of them between the ages of eleven and thirteen, although I suppose I must have done at some point.
My last memory of him is of visiting a too brightly lit hospital ward where he lay in bed, thin and frail, the veins on his arms sticking up like jutting blue pathways. My father did most of the talking and my mother some, but I didn’t know what to say, rendered awkard by the strangely clinical atmosphere and the proximity to death. I regret that now, I would have liked to have spoken to him more. As we left my Father said to one of the nurses: ‘You know, that man you are looking after is a brilliant poet.’ She was totally disinterested and my Father left hurt by her attitude. 
I didn’t come to his poetry until several years later, and then it was with a sense of revelation and loss. I did not know before how brilliant he was, and I, like the ward nurse, was too busy with my own concerns, too disinterested to find out. Yet I feel he would have understood, he would have known that I would come to his words later.
‘Words were foreign, message clear,’ he wrote in his first poem to me, perhaps knowing how long it would take before I could truly grasp his poetry.

You can read  Geoffrey's obituary in the Independent here. You can also find the full text of his heartbreakingly beautiful poem The Lovers here.