Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Perfume Paparazzi

Whiling away some time before meeting a friend, I ended up browsing in an upmarket department store. I admired the socks (how much?), drooled over the handbags, and then found myself on the brink of an area I usually avoid. Yes, it was the perfume section, a place where sprayed scent forms a dewy mist in the air and staff eye shoppers with the keen intent of hungry lions spotting antelopes. I hesitated on the threshold, uncomfortably aware that hesitation attracts lions quicker than anything else, and then took a deep breath, choked, and breathed again. I was going in!

The reason I avoid this section comes from a fear of being shown up for being clueless, and a shyness of being pursued by staff dogging my faltering footsteps. I want to be left alone to get to know perfume, not randomly sprayed by every scent under the sun and then glared at for not parting with my hard-earned cash. But I have been gradually getting more interested in pleasing scents by reading the delightful evocative perfume descriptions by Rose in her lovely blog A Rose Beyond The Thames. Rose has a special flair for matching perfumes with their real life or literary figure equivalent – see her blog post here about Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings. Gorgeous.

And so, into the perfume den I slunk. I stopped at the first counter, and looked with interest at the little cards laid out. Were they pre-sprayed, or there for me to spray what I please and then wander around flapping it by nose? Were they free? (I sadly have to think of things like that). Will someone pounce if I…

‘Can I help you Madam?’

Damn. I shake my head and put down the little card, that clueless feeling starting to waft up from nowhere (or perhaps from a cunningly disguised bottle). I back away smiling, and scurry around the next counter. Phew. Coast clear, I then examine the collection of gleaming potions. I hold one to my nose, but am too scared to spray it on my wrist, into the air or onto the shelf like I may sneakily do in Boots with Impulse deodorant. Somehow I suspect different rules apply over here, so I just sniff at the bottles, hoping to get an idea of what lurks inside. Water, I decide, as I smell nothing. Potpourri, I cough, backing away from others. I clearly have so much to learn. My nose is uncultured, I decide sadly. (The rest of me is fine of course.)

‘Are you interested in (insert name of famous expensive perfume)?’

Darn, another one popped up from below the counter. Alarmingly, the smart-suited man leaves his side of the fence and walks quickly around to mine. I smile and demur, hoping to put him off as I again back away.

‘Can I ask what perfumes you usually are interested in?’

Agh! Another one has trapped me in a pincer movement. The strong aroma of Eau-De-No-Clue is making me panic – what perfumes do I wear? I wear whatever anyone buys me, which is probably why I don’t particularly invest my attention in any as none are quite ‘me’. But now there has been a question asked, and annoyingly the only perfume I can remember is when I begged my mum for ‘Exclamation!’ when I was fourteen.

‘Just browsing!’ I cheerfully say, and then do a feint to the left that would leave footballers proud. I quickly scurry onwards, but am now aware that more and more sales staff seem to have clocked my existence, their gaze following mine with a slight condescending expression. ‘Look at ze poor uncultured one go,’ that expression says to me, somewhat surprisingly in heavily accented French. ‘She cannot afford ze prices, she should ‘ave stuck to ze tat zey sell in Boots.’

I pick up another bottle out of sheer desperation by now, happy to give anything a try if it smells nice – perhaps like lemon, or apples, or light and fresh and appealing – but instead choke on a scent that is so heavy it robs my breath. I concede that perhaps it is time to call it a day, before the lurking perfume paparazzi hunt me down any further to get their sale. Next time if I am brave!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

London Open House

September is always a favourite with me, as it hides my birthday (been and gone, spent gorgeous weekend in Cornwall) and I absolutely adore autumn with its beauty in decay, encroaching darkness, and the scent of change in the air. It also helps that one weekend in September is given over to London’s Open House, where normally private buildings open their doors, and public buildings let exploring visitors in for free. This year me and good friend R donned our walking boots and got to see five buildings – rather more than the two managed last year (The Linnian Society and Marlborough House). And in 2007 I went to see Churchill's secret underground bunker, so this year it was time for something different.

We started out with the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in Southwark. This 18th century oddity was set up in the attic of St Thomas’ Church, which served as a chapel to St Thomas’ Hospital. The hospital wanted a place to dry and cure medicinal herbs – including foxglove, myrrh, and willow bark (early answer to aspirin). The operating theatre was created in 1822, up until then ‘operations’ (and I use that word very loosely indeed – more like ‘cutting experiments’) were done on the ward itself.

After looking at some of the early implements and potions used on patients I am amazed that anyone ever lived through this pioneering time of medicine. You really wouldn’t want anything more serious than a headache back in those times – little wonder they tried every cure in the garden if the alternative was being admitted to hospital. I just love their attitude to medicine back then...

Picture a moustached doctor giving medicine to forlorn patients standing in a line.
“Willow – yes that works, nettles - yes, nightshade…”
Sound of patient hitting the floor.
"Hm, let’s rename that one deadly nightshade shall we? Right moving on…”

It is amazing that any of us are here today seeing what mothers-to-be had to go through – some of the items used to induce birth look more like giant whisks. And men don’t get off scot-free either. The wooden operating table itself had saw marks grooved into either side – and this with no anaesthetic, no antiseptic – and operations were done by men in frock coats. On the back of the wall there is a Latin inscription that says ‘Miseratione Non Mercede’ – ‘For Compassion, not for Gain’. It should have said ‘Omnem dimittite spem, o vos intrantes’ – ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’. Most of the patients wouldn’t have understood Latin anyway; it would have been a nice little private chuckle between the surgeons.

Emerging feeling blessedly lucky to live in this day and age, we went to Borough Market for some food and ate our organic salads overlooking the Thames. After marvelling at how high the Thames is considering three weeks ago we could walk on the uncovered stones that form Bankside ‘beach’, we pressed on to the second visit of the day – The Rose, the first Elizabethan Theatre established in 1587. This is an archaeological site, and the remains of the theatre were discovered in 1989 when an office building above was demolished.

There is precious little to see. The remains were preserved mainly thanks to the marshy ground that was reclaimed from the Thames, hence uncovering it leads to problems, as the wood cracks and it would only take a little while for it to return to dust. So the site has been carefully flooded, although red lighting shows where the stage and the audience area would have been. There was an interesting talk about Elizabethan theatre, interspersed with clips from the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’, and appeals to give money to save the remains from sinking back into the past.

I cannot help but feel some things were never meant to be preserved, and yet this contradicts with how much I love the past. When things are living history (like hedgerows) and sturdy history (like Stonehenge) – then these things I feel were meant to stay the course of time. But when places need so much life support to even vaguely be seen, then I do wonder. But without the Rose, they wouldn’t have known the detail on which to base the Globe, so everything does have its role. I’m just not sure where I sit sometimes on preservation like this.

From the Rose, we crossed the Thames and paused in the shadow of St Paul’s cathedral having a chocolate break. Here and there we saw people on their own Open House trail, green booklets in hand as they scurried on to their next discovery. But we were bound for something that had eluded us last year because of the hefty queue – 120 Fleet Street, once the gorgeous Art-deco home to The Daily Express.
To my amazement there were only five people in the queue, so within minutes we were in and gawping at the shiny interior. It was as if the team from Blue Peter had carefully brushed bacofoil over the entire surface, and it was absolutely spectacular. The obvious influence was the Hollywood of the MGM Musical era, with the same style of grace as the Oscar statuette design. The building was completed in 1932 – described at its opening as ‘Britain’s most modern building for Britain’s most modern newspaper’.

The Daily Express left the building back in 1989, and how sorry they must have been to leave their flagship behind. But Fleet Street had declined, and it was time for the journalists to head for pastures new, leaving the new conglomerates of anonymous industry to take their place. It was also time for us to head to pasture new, feeling relieved we had beaten the large queue that had built up behind us.

Next on the list was Dr Johnson’s house, but the queue for this snaked all around the courtyard. Considering it costs less than a fiver to visit normally, we decided to give the hour long wait a miss and instead admired a gardening feat of a ‘living wall’ in a nearby courtyard. We then decided to head back to the river, and on the way passed the Royal Courts of Justice. The green Open House sign beckoned, and there wasn’t a queue! In we scurried.

Since this is a Royal Court after all, there was security to pass through at the door, and a ton more organisation and thought had been put into receiving the visitors of Open House. There were talks in court rooms, stalls explaining legal procedures, costume galleries, and an area about probate that displayed the last will and testament of famous folk – Princess Diana, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, John Thaw, George Harrison… I found that a bit ghoulish, but it was still rather fascinating.

We poked our heads in a packed court to hear a snippet of a talk. The court room was rather small, relied heavily on wood-panelling and red velvet, and heavy books lined the walls. Iron bars caged the area where the accused stands, and the witness box is a small raised box on the opposite side. Apparently all the books in a court room, no matter how ancient-appearing, are in use, and at any time can be requested by a judge. The atmosphere was musty and dry, and I can imagine how oppressive it must feel to the accused and to witnesses.

We left the courts behind, and continued on our walk to the river. We were stopped by race marshals, who told us we couldn’t cross the road as there was a cycle race on. It was actually the Tour of Britain, on their eighth and final stage (won by Michele Merlo of Italy). Although our cycling knowledge was nil, we whooped and cheered like we knew what we were doing when the racers whizzed past us, and then crossed the road as something had caught our eye. Yes, it was a green flapping Open House banner!

We couldn’t believe our luck! It was HQS Wellington, home of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Last year the queue for this stretched down the Embankment, but this year barely ten people were waiting for the next tour. So in line we scrambled, and only had a few minutes to wait before we were walking up the gangplank.

Formed in 1926, this is a fairly young Livery Company (the Bakers Guild, for example, is over 800 years old) and it had problems finding a Livery Hall. The solution was to have a floating Livery Hall – most appropriate for a Company of seamen – and so the HMS Wellington was converted, and moored on the Victoria Embankment as HQS Wellington (HQS meaning Headquarters Ship).

On entrance, the ship has a narrow corridor lined with portaits of past Master Mariners. It is funny how the older black and white photographs have a sense of gravitas that colour simply cannot imitate, even if the subject is suitably stern. We were soon led down into the ship, and I was amazed at the size of the interior. Three carpeted floors of intricate model ships and shipping artefacts, and various areas set aside – such as the Committee room, and the Court room. When it became clear each model ship would be lovingly explained, we decided to make our excuses and slip away. After our long day of discovery, I had no room left for anything else but dinner, and possibly a large pint of shandy.

It strikes me writing this that I should always be thankful to have this time in London, no matter if one day I settle somewhere greener. All the things we can do and see in one day – London really can be a beautiful place to wander around. I never cease to be fascinated and grateful that there is so much history within our grasp.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Monster chapter!

Okay, hands up. Who has been feeding chapter seven pies behind my back? A few weeks ago chapter seven consisted of mild innocent looking pages that had been nibbling ryvita and cottage cheese. Yet tonight I discover that in actual fact chapter seven has been woofing chocolate and cakes at every turn and is now so lardy it has split its pants.

Is this redrafting, is it? The point of editing is cutting down surely, not giving chapters steroid injections.

It is that whole ‘show not tell’ thing that is coming back to haunt me. Of course I want to show things, but not everything. I want to keep some sort of subtlety about the proceedings. I don’t want chapter seven to be standing there nude swinging nipple tassels like some bawdy old stripper, which I fear it is doing at the moment. But the only way I can see to get around this is to plod on to the encore in all its glory and then I will be able to see which parts of the act to cut.

It probably doesn’t help that I am tired. I fear I am ‘writing by numbers’ this evening, and all I am doing is scene-sketching – he said, she said, etc. This part of writing for me is like sketching it out with a pencil, but I tap it straight onto the computer. The bits I like come in afterward – the descriptive turn of phrase, the better wording – the grammar! But it does come together eventually. I hope!

Monster Chapter’s Vital Statistics

Height: 30 pages
Weight: 7368 words
Weight toned so far: 4351
Weight left to lose: 3493 words
Favourite food: The word ‘said’.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I am a limp noodle

As you may have guessed from the title, I went to Bikram Yoga again tonight. I have been very bad the last month, and instead scurried home every potential yoga night on the grounds that it was ‘too hot’. Since Bikram Yoga is done in fixed sauna-like temperatures, it doesn’t matter a cooked fig whether it is a sunny day out there, as I knew full well even when making excuses to myself. I just wanted to eat naughty food and flop around the house watching TV.

Sadly there is a downside of naughty food and flopping, and it was with a heavy heart that the heavier me stomped off the tube at Portland Place to haul myself into yoga. It didn’t help that I had five minutes to throw myself out of my work clothes and into what passes for my yoga outfit - I aspire to one day have an outfit that matches from Sweaty Betty. Until then, I slink into the hot room in a pair of sport shorts I bought in the early 1990s and a vest that was my mum’s. I never really think these things through.

The first hurdle was the fact that the 6pm class is packed. It is always packed, and if you get there too close to the start then the only spaces left will be for the super bendy at the front. I am scared of the front row. They all sit with zen-like calm concentration reflected back at them from the front mirrors, yet at the drop of a head-band they will all twist into yoga contortions last seen when I twisted my Sindy doll the wrong way. Luckily I avoided the front row, but the only space was in the second row, which is just as bad. People expect the second row to be at least able to do the full series of postures without collapsing into a heap on their mat. I took my place, fearing that people might be rather disappointed with me.

The first series of postures are fifty minutes of standing exercises, and by posture three I am feeling rather good. I can twist, I can bend, I can crouch low down, I can balance on my toes. Go me! And then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything aches – I can feel every single one of the missed classes. Why doesn’t my body remember and snap back into shape like an elastic band? Why do my arms sag? Why has my hair gone into a frizzy enormous halo yet everyone else’s looks sleek and normal? Why am I here when I could be lolling around at home eating chocolate? Why for the love of God why?

By the time we get to the forty minutes of floor postures I am as weak as a cooked piece of spaghetti. By now my main challenge is staying in the room and not running for cool freedom. If I at least stay in the room then I have achieved something, even if I haven’t managed to do all the postures. And so I stay, dripping sweat, and feeling once again as lively as a hot damp slug. As soon as we are released I stagger out, and have to sit outside for a while before I attempt the crush at the showers. I am so flummoxed by the fact I have forced myself into exercise that I almost lose my locker key, forget my water bottle and put my top on the wrong way around. Also why is it that after yoga none of my clothes will fit when I try and put them on again? I force my fat self into my work outfit, which someone has sneakily swapped for a size 8 in my absence, and then slap out of yoga with the usual shell-shocked expression and wild hair.

I get the feeling that the love affair may sadly be over! But I will go again tomorrow just to see... the second class of the week usually goes a lot better than the first. And aching is good, isn't it? Tomorrow I'll probably wake up all refreshed... *flops into bed*

Monday, 7 September 2009

Monday irritations

It is funny how tiny little things can influence a day’s behaviour. I have spent most of today slightly sad and withdrawn all because my toe is poking through a hole in my tights. I’ve tried to shuffle it around so it won’t poke out, but it appears my toe is in desperate need to rub against the inside of my shoe like some love-starved dog.

This is combined today with the dreaded half-sleeve / jacket situation. Every time I put my jacket on I have to spend ages fishing around for the end of my sleeve so it doesn’t bunch up somewhere around my armpit. This also makes me feel slightly sad, as well as every so often looking rather demented.

Another bad decision today was the sleepy thought last night that my hair could go another day. I should never, ever have this thought. When this thought occurs, I spend the next day with hair scraped back off my face looking as if I am auditioning for the part of Constance Hardbroom in a new theatre production of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch.

The final nail in today was pairing suit trousers with trainers all because I woke up late and had to run to the train station. Got my train, but not sure my old battered Sketchers really go with pin-stripe. Still, all the better to run home again and plan to be more organised for tomorrow.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Glamour in Shoreditch

Yesterday I attended the inaugural event of the Scandalous High Socie-Tea, which was a vintage swinging affair held in the dark heart of Shoreditch. The style! The glamour! My hair! Let’s re-cap…

I’d somehow managed to drink inappropriate levels of red wine the night before, so woke up Saturday morning feeling less than clever. My hair-rollers suddenly looked like a puzzle to be assembled on the game show Krypton Factor. Although I went into it thinking ‘remember to roll them all the same way’ somehow down the line this turned into ‘roll the little blighters any old way as long as they stay in’, which I totally forgot was the route to all sadness when I last attempted rollers at fourteen. Still, I’d remembered to use tissue around the ends, curl cream (whatever that is), and felt a lot more sophisticated this time around. That is, until I unravelled them and there was a lot more going on around my head than I’d anticipated. Quelle horreur! I was once again fourteen, about to leave for school, and stuck with hair reminiscent of a poodle. Luckily there were a few clips to hand, and by the time I’d swooshed back the frizzy bits I looked acceptable to be seen in public. Hooray!

The Scandalous High Socie-Tea was held at The Fox pub, and was filled with glamorous ladies and gents. Once I got over my shyness I had a nice chat with organiser Fleur (who is just as lovely in person as on her blog - diary of a vintage girl) and spent much of the night people watching and admiring lovely vintage outfits. The pub swung to the sounds of the Sax Pastilles (and with a name like that you’ve got to love them), and we drank pink gin and ate yummy cupcakes from Roaring For Teas. There were also four burlesque dancers, although I only managed to see the one who shimmied from under diaphanous butterfly wings, and that was by peeking around scarves and pin-curl hair-do’s. It was great fun – go to the next one!

There is something about the city at night. It breathes neon, sparks electricity and the darkness is kind to the dingy streets. Story after story is told and re-told – the old men bartering over brightly lit fruit, people spilling out of clubs, an argument, a kiss, a drunken stroll home hand-in-hand. We drove home that night through a city that was pulsing and alive, a source of endless fascination. There is a hard beauty to be found in its concrete casing. I think I like it best when I am observing the world with my seat-belt on.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Some days

I came home from work with the express intention of doing a few more pages on chapter seven. I turned on the computer within five minutes of flinging my bags down on the floor. I clicked open Word. I started reading over the last few pages. I did everything right…

And then I decided to cook some dinner. And then I ate it while watching The One Show. And then I had to wash up, tidy up, and sort out the cats. And then I chatted with mum. And then I made tea and prowled the kitchen for biscuits. And then I came back upstairs, wrote a few emails, and played with Twitter. And then I turned the room upside down looking for some stamps, and then I had to tidy it back up again.

And now look at the time! It’s past ten. It’s too late for me to do anything on chapter seven now. I’ve just quickly looked at the bit I wanted to do, and I so want to get cracking, but know, oh I know that by the time I do only a paragraph it will be eleven, and too late for me on a school night.

So I sadly close Word again. The weekend, I promise it. We’ll get together then, make a date. It will have all of my attention. Until then, there is just about enough time for something mindless before bed.