Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Oblique midwinter

I grew up in an extraordinarily cold house, where getting dressed under the bedclothes in winter was essential, there was frost on the insides of the window panes, and we used to put the gas oven on with the door open to get a little heat in the kitchen. Probably as a result I am miserable in cold weather and have a powerful addiction to the moment when you step out of the cold into a warm room.

I walked to the end of the road this morning, my last day in London, to pick up the newspaper. It was that kind of bone-chillingly cold day I'd forgotten all about, where your ears and face start to hurt with it just walking along; like any visceral pain it's impossible to remember it properly when you're not experiencing it, and it made me appreciate once again the fact that I live in a climate where it never gets colder than 10 degrees.

Every day there's some sharp reminder of how lucky I am to live in a bubble; today on the front of The Guardian, a picture of a man in Gaza with greyed and bloodied face, reaching for help from the hole he's buried in. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, focuses on something much more important; the headline shrieks about benefit claimants PAID 20,000 NOT TO WORK and you have to wait till page 6 to read anything about Israel.

I hate to sound trite, but this seems to be a time to work out what really matters: the people you love, little things that make life better, being positive even if there's uncertainty ahead. To quote Harold Pinter (1930-2008) out of context: what else is there?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A love of nature keeps no factories busy

I went shopping in Edinburgh today amidst huge discount signs; everything is on sale already. Something about the abundance of clothes on the racks gives the shops an almost jumble sale feel, which I must admit fills me with torpor. I particularly resent the implication that consumers are somehow expected to spend our way out of the recession. Why is no one suggesting that it might be no bad thing for us to stop consuming? Before the crisis started to become inexorable Ben Bernanke said that "the main source of imbalance in the global economy was not excess spending at home but, rather, excess saving in China and other developing countries, where consumption was artificially low". This sort of self-deluding myopia is what caused all the trouble; and I am definitely liking neither the idea nor the reality of consumption at the moment. But nonetheless, in the kind of contradictory gesture I'm often guilty of, here are some more ideas for my trenchant critics to get their teeth into:

Alexander McQueen, from Net-a-Porter: sky high heels to make anyone feel good;

Issa, from Matches (something about the casual way they display the clothes is accessible and at the same time a bit downbeat); and

Vivienne Westwood from Net-a-Porter.

Um meiner Zähren willen

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas past

After my parents divorced in the 1980s, a new, mostly amicable family tradition emerged, which is that every Boxing Day, the whole extended family (my mum (Marg) and her partner, my dad (Chris) and his wife, plus half-sisters, siblings, aunts, and anyone else who's around) spend Boxing Day together, alternating between Chris's house and Marg's. Particularly in the early years, and also particularly when it was Chris's turn to be host, this was a rather fraught event, for a number of reasons as well as the usual toxic festive mix of everyone being hungry, and having had too much to drink instead, and the usual family fortunes.

Twenty years ago, at Chris's, I had a furious row with Marg which ended in crying and screaming. Flight PanAm 103 had just been blown up over Lockerbie and Marg's then boyfriend, Rob, had gone to Lockerbie in his car, because he worked nearby, and had wandered about the hillside where the debris was scattered. I didn't like Rob much anyway, but when I heard the story being told in hushed tones about how traumatised he'd been by what he'd seen there, I forcefully pointed out that given that the emergency services apparently couldn't get to the scene because of cars packed with sightseers blocking the roads, and even if what drew him there was just human nature, I didn't think that he deserved any sympathy. A plane exploded in the sky and 270 people died; of course it was going to be bad.

Marg was understandably defensive and I was adamant and probably not particularly nice about it, so this discussion was never going to come to a happy accord; pictures taken afterwards show me red-eyed and puffy-faced, and I still remember that sense of dismay at an argument gone too far, with everyone else looking on helplessly.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shiny shiny

In honour of the cavalcade of festive gewgaws adorning Hong Kong (what is it about Christmas that allows for, even encourages, major lapses of taste and decorum?), here are a few of my favourite things. The best advice about wearing jewellery: before you leave the house, take some off.Amethyst ring, Marie Helene de Taillac.

Silver cuff, Plumo. Verdier crystal earrings, Fashion Conscience.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Family fortunes

When I read The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, I liked the first line so much that I memorised it: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent”.

There’s something about the rude vigour of it (and the book that follows) that reminds me of the gypsies who lived behind our house for a few months. We thought of them as gypsies, but called them “The Bussies” (and in my mind, somewhat unfairly, they were connected with a fantasy family that my sister and I used to tell stories about as we lay in bed at night, called “the Slummies”, living in a tenement and roughly based on The Broons); they called themselves “travellers”, and they moved in one day out of the blue, because another neighbour had been keeping an ancient, yellow, single-decker bus (“the Bus”) there with a view to selling it. The travellers wanted to buy it, or so they said, but ended up living there for a while with no money changing hands, with much hand-wringing around the neighbourhood but no one willing to do anything about it.

That site behind our house, next to the woodshed, ironically enough had once housed a real gypsy caravan in the ancient style with awnings and filigree and once-colourful paint; it belonged to another family friend (whose daughter had trapped her arm in one of those old-fashioned electric clothes wringers, a story that both horrified and fascinated me and which affected the way I viewed that caravan: in my mind’s eye there is, illogically, a clothes wringer inside it), and it gradually collapsed in on itself until it had to be towed away to the dump, to be replaced not long afterwards by the Bus.

We were fascinated and frightened by the travellers: there were about eight of them, including children, but their numbers seemed to be very fluid with new people arriving or departing regularly; they were obsessed with Elvis and within hours of arrival had bedecked the Bus with pennants and red and gold banners proclaiming He was King. When I went out the back with the wood basket, to collect wood for the fire, I was a bit scared of what the travellers might do to me. This must have been around 1978, when I was 10. I have the clearest memory of a girl a bit younger than me, with ruddy cheeks and long black hair and a stern expression, who spent her time pushing an equally ruddy-cheeked toddler around in a pushchair. One shameful day I followed them into “the dell”, a scoop in the hillside that the road passed through on its way to the village, with a stream at the bottom and trees all around; in the quiet, with no adults around, I pinched that little toddler’s cheek very hard, to see if he would cry (he didn’t) as the pair of them stared at me fiercely (and with good reason) but without a word being exchanged between us.

The travellers disappeared in the dead of night, after a furious row, and as soon as we were sure they were gone for good the neighbourhood kids swarmed all over the bus to see what they’d left. It was a mess of broken Elvis records, discarded pots and pans, and clothes; they’d broken a window, and the Bus had stopped working so it couldn’t be sold, so it too took its turn to be towed away to the dump.

It seems with hindsight quite a bizarre thing to have happened; but aside from the nasty little cheek-pincher (me) there was a remarkable tolerance (which could, have course, have been engendered by fear, but was more likely just bemusement) of their presence there. We accepted them as they were and everyone got on with it. I don’t even remember wondering where they might have come from or what might have happened to them after they’d gone: they were there, and then they were not, and they didn’t exist outside my solipsistic little world, except that we had some scratched Elvis records and other little souvenirs to remember them by.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Poison pen

Until either (1) the art of letter-writing died out due to the advent of email, or (2) I (sadly) grew out of it, whichever came first (ie up until about 15 years ago), I used to correspond with dozens of people, many of whom I never met: penpals from Middlesex, Nigeria, Minnesota, or Glasgow, the early ones from Tammy and Misty, a girls' comic, and the later ones from a long-defunct Scottish music magazine called CUT. I used to take incredible care with my envelopes, decorating them painstakingly with black and white pictures cut from music and art magazines and using a silver pen to write the address.

I met three of my correspondents in person in the late 1980s, just after I left home to go to university in Glasgow. They were all from the later group and were all completely different from each other. The only one I'm still in touch with, B from Blantyre, I met (by arrangement) beside the Smiths records in HMV in Renfield Street in my first year at university and although we haven't seen each other for a few years, he's someone I think of with great affection as having been a friend when I needed one and as someone I could pick up with again in a second.

The others were more peculiar: William, the only child of elderly parents, ran his father's gas bottle business in Mount Vernon in Glasgow and, as a present, bought me black towels from Harrods which served only to scandalise my room-mate, an uptight Free Presbyterian from Ullapool called Sheena. William was so nervous when we first met he was sweating profusely, and clumsily attempted to kiss me in his father's Nissan Sunny when he dropped me back at my student flat, while I equally clumsily tried to extricate myself. And then there was Tony from Broughty Ferry (the posh part of Dundee), who worked for the Sunday Post - in the advertising department, but he carried himself with the glamour of a journalist. We met in Princes Street Gardens. Compared to B and William, I was quite attracted to him, and we seemed to be getting on well, but it all went badly wrong when we began talking about what each of us had imagined the other might be like. He remarked "I had no idea what you would be like. I was worried you might be a fat Paki".