Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Vocabulary


An Irish friend this weekend mentioned that when she was younger she met several members of the IRA, who were immediately recognisable, she noted for their 'coldness and arrogance'. These two characteristics I suspect, are what you need to make a terrorist. For while millions have grievances, often legitimate grievances, it takes a specific type to turn that grievance into a plan to execute in cold blood civilians on a large scale. The numbers, in fact, are very small, though their impact immense.

On the news the terms 'militant' and 'terrorist' have been used interchangeably. As George Szirtes points out,

People who deliberately focus on civilians are simply murderers. If they do so for a political purpose they are terrorists and murderers. Not militants. Not an army. They are murderers with a vastly inflated opinion of their own honour and righteousness. which also makes them hypocrites.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Mumbai Update 3

The Guardian has published the following account of Harry's son and girlfriend's ordeal in Mumbai. It is incredibly harrowing reading and even worse than I thought.


For Will Pike and his girlfriend, Kelly Doyle, a night in the Taj Mahal hotel was meant to be a treat to round off a two-week holiday in India.

Instead it ended with Will, 28, lying in a Mumbai hospital intensive care bed, his back broken in an attempt to escape the bullets and choking smoke by climbing down an improvised rope made from bedsheets, curtains and hotel towels.

They had checked in at 6pm after arriving from Goa, ventured out to the Leopold café - later to become the first place in the city to be attacked - then returned to their room intending to go down to the bar. As they got ready, the sound of explosions echoed up from the lobby: the terrorists were bursting into the hotel, throwing grenades and firing automatic weapons.

For five hours, the couple, from Camden in north London, cowered in their room, listening to the sound of approaching gunshots while the terrorists roamed the corridors, apparently firing at their fellow hostages.

read on

Mumbai update

Thanks to all readers who sent Harry their good wishes and thoughts, which he has read. The situation is as follows: his son and his son's girlfriend were on the final night of a two-week holiday in India. After a couple of weeks on the beach they decided to blow the budget on one night in a luxury hotel in Mumbai before flying out the following day. Unfortunately they chose the Taj Mahal.

After hearing gunshots in the hallway outside, they barricaded themselves in their room for seven hours until a fire on the floors above them and grenade in the next room compelled them to try to leave through a third floor window, using knotted bed linen. Unfortunately Harry's son fell and has multiple fractures. An operation on Thursday was successful but it will be a long road to recovery. Harry has now managed to get to Mumbai, arriving this morning.

On a personal level I am stunned at the minimal help offered by the Foreign Office, British Airways and his phone company (who had blocked calls to India and then said it would take 24 hours to unblock them). The practical support he has received has come through a network of friends who have been able to provide essential contacts in India, including doctors and Mumbai families.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Thoughtful Dresser: The Book


Publication is late February. You can pre-order now


I hope to have further information about a US edition soon

Mumbai: alert

Thoughtful Dresser contributor Harry Fenton's son and girlfriend were staying in the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai during the ongoing terrorist attacks. His son has been seriously injured. Harry is going to Mumbai later today. Any helpful information will be gratefully received

UPDATE I had always been under the impression that if you were in this situation you rang the Foreign Office number the BBC gave out and everything kicked in, including BA sorting out your flights. As I have now discovered, you ring the number, and someone gives you another number which no-one answers. You're on your own.

UPDATE Thanks to all readers who have sent their messages to Harry which he's read and which are greatly appreciated. Things have been ironed out now and he'll be on his way to Mumbai in a few hours. We should have more to report in a day or two.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The big men's creche on Regent Street



Egged on at the weekend by my sister and nephew who were laughing at my Iron Age iPod Nano, I went and bought an iPod Touch (at John Lewis, of course, home of middle-class, middle-aged electronics).

I am absolutely thrilled to bits with this piece of kit, but could not set up my main email account on it so I took in to the Apple store on Regent Store. It only took two tech support guys an hour and twenty minutes to set up my email during which I had plenty of time to observe that I was standing in a vast men's creche. All along Regent Street and Oxford Street women were shopping, having dropped their men off at a place where there were lots of toys to play with and play-leaders who would teach them how to use them.

Were these men shopping No! Shopping is a girl's activity, they were . . . well, what were they doing? I believe Harry has been known to frequent the Apple store, so perhaps he can tell us.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Harry Buys an Iron





Well, of course I already had one. But whilst recently struggling to get a sharp crease on a shirt sleeve it occurred to me that maybe the iron I was using was really not very good. Like the majority of our household appliances I fondly imagined that it was bought , my memory unreliably suggested, in a vague period called ‘a couple of years ago’. Which of course was wildly inaccurate. So maybe the iron was underperforming because of old age ( though why that should be the case I can’t imagine)

This domestic reverie prompted a recollection of a conversation I once had in Milan. I was in the company of a stylish ( well, obviously) creative director ( advertising not fashion).
Older than me, and with a degree of gravitas and that ‘not quite beard’ look that is quite difficult to carry off. A charming and quite taciturn chap.
I had worked with him for a while, so we knew each other.
Which is the kind of qualification I need to make before I say that I, a man, dared to ask him, a man, about clothes. ( This is an unusual conversational area for older males to venture into).
How, I asked , do Italian men always manage to look so stylish and well turned out? I went on: Italian men seem to gravitate toward what I see as being classic, almost anglo clothes. Tweed jackets ( which indeed Paolo was wearing) and nothing faddish . Understated and stylish, but managing to make the average Brit wearing similar clothes appear scruffy by comparison.
We were in a very recherché enoteca. As a solo visitor I would not even have noticed this tiny establishment. A small dark wood panelled room filled with wine bottles. A few stools. And rammed with Italian bourgeoisie quaffing a glass of wine at the end of the working day. Stylish to a man ( and woman).
His answer was very simple. We buy, he said , good quality clothes. Not many. Each season a new jacket , a coat, or trousers. That are well made, and fit. And then , he said, (rather pointedly I felt), we look after them. He admitted that he didn’t have an enormous wardrobe , but everything in it was immaculate.

So that was the difference! My thoughts immediately turned to my wardrobe. With many less than immaculate items that had seen better days. But which I was still inclined to pull out and wear because of some undisciplined notion that they still passed muster.
Well, the wardrobe remains full of sentimentally preserved schmatte. But I do make more of an effort to have the right creases in my shirts nowadays .

Monday, 24 November 2008

How to behave in a recession: haggling

I am the world's most unsuccessful haggler. I just want to hand over my money and get out of there. I have never asked for a better price (or an airline upgrade, for that matter) and got one. With the exception of the rug bazaar in Isfahan, Iran, where if you offered to pay the asking price they would make you a higher offer out of habit.

And so I am delighted to see this piece in which the author suffers a series of failures:

Nearby, John Lewis is full of customers in anoraks staring at rails of anoraks, but still I scent blood. It was reported last week that the store's sales are down 9.7% on last year. In the rug department, a man detaches himself from a silent group of salesmen. I express interest in a beautiful, pale pink rug with a big flower on it. It is £500. Will he take an offer? I heard sales were down; in fact, the sales in this particular store were down 9.1% last week. "We are not a concession store," the man replies. "We do not accept offers. The price is the price." I feel as if they will talk about me in rugs when I am gone. And, for the first time ever, I feel sad in John Lewis.

Selfridges is stuffed full of shoppers too. They are everywhere, like materialistic bacteria, grabbing handbags, stroking shoes. I ask for 25% off bags in Dior and Gucci. "No. Never. No," the women say. The lovely bags are whisked away, as if the grubby discount seeker will soil their perfection. So I corner Peppe in the Vivienne Westwood concession. "If I see anything I like," I say politely, gesturing at all the Westwoods, "would you be able to knock anything off? Maybe 20%?" "No," he says. 10%? "No." 5%? "No." It isn't acceptable to bargain in the UK," he says. "Try Italy."

"Haggling is just another form of negotiating," says clinical psychologist Cecelia d'Felice. "If you go in with the feeling that this is a difficult negotiation that will cause you embarrassment and loss of face if you fail, you will feel rejected if you do fail." And so? "Don't take a firm position, such as 'I want 20% off'," she says, "because they will immediately assume a firm position to combat it and you will be in conflict." And conflict, she says, breeds shame.

"Follow your interests instead," she suggests. "See it as a chat. 'Isn't this a nice dress? Has it been in long? I can't afford it. What a shame.'" She pauses. "Establish a narrative and build a relationship with them. Then you will have common ground you can cover." The British are, apparently, lousy negotiators. "We are so trained not to lose face and our society is so geared up to everything being right or wrong that we don't understand that it is fun to play games. And women in our society are supposed to give everything away in our role as nurturers. We are looked down on if we ask for more."

"

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The man who saved Parisian couture

Lelong evening dresses from 1946. Which unknown designer in his employ might have designed them?

This is my piece from the Telegraph about Lucien Lelong, who stood up to the occupying German forces and saved Paris from being moved to Berlin:

Paris struggled on, but when war was declared on 3 September 1939 the couture houses closed down, some for ever. Mainbocher and Schiaparelli left for America. Vionnet never reopened. Lelong was now president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and, after the invasion, it was his job to negotiate with the occupying German regime. The Nazis wanted to move Paris lock, stock and barrel to Berlin by any means, including violence. On 20 July 1940 five Nazi officers arrived at the headquarters of the Chambre Syndicale on an 'inspection'; five days later they broke into the building and requisitioned the archive.

Under the Nazi plan the Paris ateliers would be moved to Germany or Austria, where they would train a new generation of German dressmakers. The designers would also be moved. Within a generation, the Nazis expected, couture would be German, not French. It was a breathtakingly arrogant ambition to believe that they could appropriate a whole industry.

Lelong pointed out that the plan was unworkable. French fashion was dependent on thousands of skilled artisans in tiny ateliers, each specialising in one small detail of finish, such as embroidery. The skills, he explained, were unteachable. You could not transfer them, and it took decades to reach the necessary levels of craftsmanship. The intransigence of the Germans was nothing compared with that of French couture. Lelong asserted the right of each country to produce its own fashion and argued that it was their home environment that allowed the workers to do what they did. The Nazis backed down and returned the archive, and Lelong negotiated to keep a supply of fabric that would maintain production. The only fall-back the occupiers had was to conscript into the army its labour force. They started by demanding 80 per cent; Lelong got it down to five per cent.

Initially, after the liberation, there were murmurs that Lelong had been a collaborator, though it was Chanel who had spent the war living with a German officer. His case came to trial, but he was acquitted. The judge ruled that Lelong had co-operated only minimally with the Nazis to save France's cultural heritage and the jobs of its workers.

Friday, 21 November 2008

In which it turns out I have something in common with Hitler

A movie must


Earlier this week I had a piece in the Guardian about Israeli cinema. There is absolutely nothing, not even the US elections, more guaranteed to induce flame wars on the internet than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless I am going to stick my neck out and commend to British readers a film which opens here nationwide, today, Waltz with Bashir.

The film which has had outstanding reviews across the board, is a documentary in the form of an animated graphic novel about the events which occurred in 1982 during the Lebanon war when Christian Phalangists aided by the Israeli army who turned a blind eye, entered the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp and murdered 2500 Palestinians to avenge the assassination of their own leader.

Ari Folman's film is seen through the eyes of himself and his friends, men now in their forties, married with children and careers, attempting to look back at their nineteen year old selves, 25 years ago.

The film is primarily about memory, the recovery of suppressed trauma and personal responsibility. It's an anti-war film, and it understands that all wars are fought by young men, and all wars are really rock and roll wars.

The distributors, Artificial Eye, have taken a huge gamble on this film, hoping to attract across the board critical acclaim (it has) and a large audience for a subtitled film.

I urge you to go and see it if you can. You won't be disappointed

Thursday, 20 November 2008

How to be British 101


Here in Britain there is a reality tv programme (note not tv show or program) called Strictly Come Dancing. In it, celebs pair up with real ballroom dancers to learn how to dance and to compete to beat all the other celebs and their partners.

Each week, viewers call in to say who they want evicted from the show. The bottom two are then voted out by a panel of judges.

In this series we have BBC chief political correspondent, John Sergeant, described by Jeremy Paxman (click for clip of Sergeant doing the tango) as having 'a face like a wet weekend.' John cannot dance. John just entered for a bit of fun. But John's utter ineptitude on the dancefloor has endeared him to to the nation, who each week vote to keep him in and themselves entertained. Last week a vexed actress called Cherie Lunghi was voted off, despite working her socks off while John lounged around, according to one of the judges reading the Guardian.

Cherie was upset, the judges were livid. True talent and hard work were going unrewarded because of the British public's love of a loser.

John decide that he was in danger of winning and he better resign from the programme (try saying, 'Oh jeez, I think I might win this sucker, I'd better step down' in an American accent.)

At once there was an outcry. 2000 viewes complained to the BBC. Jeremy Paxman on newsnight complained that democracy itself was in peril, as have many bloggers

Democracy is the right of the public to reward failure.

And that, my dear transatlantic cousins, is how to be British.

ps It has been whispered that John pulled out because he was booked to go on a cruise and had not expected his stint on the programme would go on so long.




he has a bit of a reputation for being accident prone

Some words on how to behave in the current economy

Over at the Bag Snobs, Kelly wonders if she should buy a Banana Republic Bag which looks to be a knockoff of a Balenciaga.

OK, the Banana one does not have the cool stingray medallion but is that really worth $835? I mean, to be perfectly honest, the Banana clutch is nice and cleanly made. But am I so much a snob that I can't "lower myself" to using a Banana Republic bag? I mean, I wear the clothes, I have this orange silk dress that gets more compliments than I ever did for any of my Balenciaga dresses. In the end, I could not get myself to compromise, not even to the extent of getting the actual Balenciaga knowing that the other one is out there. The difference is slight yet it is separated by a vast pretension that I cannot bridge.
Several readers point out that it is more likely to be a knock off of the Anya Hindmarch Lautner (I have one of those) but some who signs herself RC responds:

who do you think you are esp at times like this when people can't afford basic needs anymore? "lower yourself" because you were considering a BR product?? you should be thankful that we even click on your site so that you can get your monthly income to be wasted on your stupid HIGH END bags or do you use your husbands money. i cant tell.

To this, mq cb, whose moniker I recognise from comments over here, adds what I regard as a definitive rejoinder:

OK, this is a bit much. You may not agree with Kelly but she was honest and as it's her site and it's a free country, she's at liberty to give her opinion on a purchase that she was considering making. This decision affects no one other than her and her family. So why be abusive? If you don't like what she says, then click away. No one forces you to come here.

And on the subject of what a client of mine recently called with masterful understatement the "current challenging economic climate", it's up to each of us to decide how we respond. I see no reason why your rationale for making a particular purchase should not be decided by the same criteria that should always have applied: whether you can afford the item and whether you want it at that price. What does anyone else have to do with it?

You may consider that people are having trouble with meeting "basic needs", but there is a vast difference between what constitutes a "basic need" in the US and affluent West and that which might apply elsewhere in the world. Some people have never been able to meet their basic needs. Maybe I am thoroughly selfish, but I have never once considered not buying something because in India, there are children whose parents can't afford to allow them to attend school, or elsewhere people are starving. Why should it make any more of a difference that someone who never considered themselves poor before may now have difficulty buying petrol and instead may have to take the bus or suddenly can't afford a cellphone?

You could look at it the other way and say, buy the bag and take a cab home and at least you make sure that it is more likely that the sales assistant and the cabbie keep their jobs a while longer. Or not, as you please. Once you've paid your taxes, and made whatever donations to charities you consider appropriate (including perhaps those ones that supply food and/or schooling to those who can not afford it), whatever else you do is up to you. To me, a more relevant consideration is whether you get into debt because of how you spend such that you become a burden to others, than whether your spending offends someone who has less disposable income than you do since I don't really see why it's any of their business in the first place.

In the end, however and whatever you spend, a little more generosity of spirit and tolerance for each other's differences can not go amiss, don't you think?

To which I have nothing much to add, except that the last time I looked (and contrary from what you might be led to believe by Fox News), I live in a capitalist society which is based on consumer spending, and if everyone suddenly stops spending, then large numbers are thrown out of work.

The Clothes On Their Backs - US edition released

You can now buy the US edition of The Clothes On Their Backs in trade paperback


or hardback


Just click on the links and it will take you straight there

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Teenagers save the economy


For several days there's been a story, first anecdotal, then gathering evidence, that in the current economic mess women my age have stopped shopping but the under 25s continue to do so with the same reckless abandon.

Sarah Mower in the Telegraph has a piece on thios, separating the non-spending women from the girls. Basically, if you want to buy wet look leggings, you're still roaming the high street. If you're looking for classics, you're at home:

The latest retail figures show how the generational guillotine falls. Asos, the second-biggest UK online fashion retailer, which sells branded fashion to under-25s, has just reported its sales up 68 per cent in the last seven weeks. Next, the bellwether of safe, middle-aged taste, and owner of Britain’s largest online business, by contrast, is down 4.4 per cent, and planning redundancies.

Sir Philip Green of Arcadia Group, in his last results, noted the same divide opening up between the young and middle-aged brands he owns: while Bhs, Dorothy Perkins and Burton have slowed down, Topshop and Topman, arguably the country’s best-tuned fashion vehicle for girls and boys, was streaking ahead.

Should there be any lingering doubt about which side of the gap you stand on, I suggest a simple test: take a look at wet-look leggings and react. Every fibre of an adult female’s being (not to mention thighs) will scream “No!” at the very thought, but if you’re 15 to 20-ish, “absolutely!”

Asos (alone) sold 2,000 pairs of them last week and can barely keep the things in stock. And if you’re in that bracket, why not go for skin-tight leather trousers, rock Ts and super-micro-mini prom dresses into the bargain? And the multicoloured false eyelashes, hair pieces, over-the-knee socks, trilby’s and giant plastic glasses frames for going out. And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the boyfriends: without the skinny Topman suits and winkle-pickers, they’re dead.

The spectacle of youth spending on such fashion insanities is guaranteed to drive adults to fits of disapproval and covert envy. But it could be argued that these young people are unwittingly behaving like the exemplary New Keynesians. As they pour their pocket money, baby-sitting earnings and student loans into the tills of Topshop, H&M, American Apparel and Urban Outfitters, perhaps we should see them not as spendthrift twits but as public-spirited youngsters doing their bit to keep the economy moving. Long shot, I agree, but in these upside-down days, worth a passing thought.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Gentlemen! How to dress like Obama

A step by step guide, here to dressing like a President

Rachel-lite




While I know, of course, that Rachel Green is a spoilt Long Island Jewish fictional character in a television series called Friends, and Jennifer Aniston is a Greek-American actress living in Los Angeles, in my heart of hearts I do not really believe that Jen is not playing herself. Because that would mean that Rachel does not exist. Which makes Jen's current situation so disheartening.

As Rachel Johnson (who I like) says:

OMG, you have to check out the catfight between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. It all started when Ange told The New York Times that she had fallen in love with Brad Pitt on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith in 2004, when he was supposed to be totally married to Jen. So now Aniston’s gone for Jolie’s jugular and the latest is: Brad’s so annoyed that he called his ex and chewed her out.

Yes, I know that it all sounds very Jerry Springer but it may be useful at this point to recall the actual words that Aniston used to cause this headline-grabbing three-way stropathon.

What Aniston said was: “There was stuff printed there that was definitely from a time when I was unaware that it was happening. I felt those details were a little inappropriate to discuss. That stuff about how she couldn’t wait to get to work every day? That was really uncool.”

Well, here’s the outrage, in my humble opinion. A woman six years younger with huge pouty lips takes your man, because she can, leaving you to face 40 alone and childless . . . and “a little inappropriate” and “uncool” is the best you can come up with, Jen? Oh dear.

I would have said that the situation called for some full-fat, industrial strength, venti-sized bitching. What you gave it was small, skinny and decaff, and that got me really worried that maybe - my voice drops to a concerned whisper - you’re not really that okay after all.

Monday, 17 November 2008

How to wear a long scarf


Like this

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Understructure

When I was being dressed by Avsh Alom Gur for the Booker he told me to bring along my 'understructure.' Now we may think that what our mothers used to call corsets are really uncool, but according to Av, there is not a woman who treads the Oscar carpet without major 'understructure.' Beneath the Chloe and the Chanel, there lies the mundane control garment. A selection of ratings of which can be found here. Spanx comes out on top. I'm not providing a picture, they're not supposed to be seen. This is what Av sent me to John Lewis to get, and it does work, very well and not especially uncomfortable.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Are you cold? Are you poor?


Then, my dear huddled masses, you should Get 10% off the brand new Pure Collection range!

Liars and poets

Would I tell you a lie?

I went last night to the launch of George Szirtes' collected poems, a reading at the Savile Club on Brook Street followed by dinner in the very grand chandelier-hung dining room.

At the reading George asserted that novelists were liars and poets told the truth.

He then read a marvellous poem called and about esprit d'escalier, the French phrase for the brilliant rejoinder you only think about when you are going down the stairs leaving the conversation. In his poem he is on the top deck of a bus when he speaks aloud that I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that-at-the-time remark, and realises that the man sitting behind him is doing the same thing, and looking out of the window of the bus the whole street is full of people saying aloud what they wish they had said.

During the Q&A after the reading, I resigned myself to asking a question about the influence on his work of living in East Anglia for many years , and waited until dinner to refer to the remarkable event in which everyone on the street and on the bus was suddenly saying aloud their esprit d'escalier which he could not have invented not being a lying novelist. George had the good grace to burst out laughing. At this point we were joined, in a case of dinner musical chairs, by the poet Ruth Fainlight, who is married to the novelist Alan Sillitoe (happy 80th, Alan).

I have nothing at all against anyone saying that the novelist is a liar, since this is demonstrably true, but I could not quite understand how in the case of the poet, his imagination produces truth and in the case of the novelist, lies.

George maintained that the poet is solipsistic, always writing about himself and his attempt to understand why a cup is a cup and not, say, a saucer. When a novelist tells lies, he is asking the reader to willingly suspend his disbelief, to believe that the lies are true; he invents cups that aren't there. When the poet lies, the lie is obviously a metaphor, and is not to be taken for reality, it's a vehicle to say something else. The novelist, however, is trying to hoodwink you into believing that there is a cup, saucer, entire dinner service, real and actual.

But by this time we had eaten some very good duck with mashed potatoes and drunk a lot of wine and I went home. I hope George himself will be along in a minute to sort things out further.

UPDATE
and there he is in the comments, below and at greater and very interesting length, at his place

Moi? Eccentric?


Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer


'Please don't write that I'm eccentric," says Vivienne Westwood, who is dressed in a holey black dress with what looks like bits of flesh-coloured tights woven in and out of it, a pair of scruffy old trainers and a knitted hat pulled over her hair, which is the colour of clementines. She has drawn her eyebrows on in red pencil. "It's always, 'aah, this eccentric woman'. I've heard that story so many times." She pauses and looks out of the window of her office. "I suppose I don't mind, I have to take it as a compliment in an age of conformity


and there's much, much more

Friday, 14 November 2008

What to wear

By Lisa Armstrong, whose judgement I trust:

Checklist: Autumn/Winter 2008

1. High-waisted, 7/8th-length trousers. Try: Whistles.

2. Cropped jacket or blazer. Before buying, try it on with a pair of the above. You'll find that what complemented hipsters may not work with the new geometry. Try: Jigsaw.

3. Military or wrap coat or one with slit short sleeves for layering. Try: French Connection.

4. Concealed platform shoes or ankle boots - we're over bondage - and a pair of flats. Try: Office and Kurt Geiger.

5. Polonecks and other fine knits for layering and tucking into high waists. Try: Pure Cashmere and Hoss Intropia.

6. A leather jacket - biker style. Wear it with classic, simple pieces for extra edge. Try:Topshop.

7. A rococo-style necklace. Try: Mikey.

8. A narrow belt to thread through the loops of those high-waisted trousers. Try: Gap.

9. Longer-length skirts - either pencil-shaped or slightly gathered at the waist are the newest. If you can't bear calf or ankle-length, don't worry, knee-length refuses to die and there are even some minis. Try: Zara.

10. A fitted or semi-fitted sleeveless dress: this winter's sophisticated antidote to the put-it-away or give-it-away smock dress. Try: M&S Limited and Jigsaw.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The living hell that is a writer's life

My friend Imran Ahmad depicts the terrible things that await the unwitting young person who embarks on a career in literature

Harry on Cover Art

I’m more of a New Yorker reader than a reader of Vanity Fair.
It is something of an indulgence. Well, reading restaurant reviews of places I’m never going to visit is maybe just pointless. But the point about the New Yorker is enjoying the writing. And the cartoons. And sometimes the cover just hits the spot.
They ran a very relevant and witty homage to Steinberg during the election .

And the issue I bought yesterday is notable. Dated November 10 it obviously went to press just before election day.
There isn’t any other magazine that does this sort of thing.
It’s creativity of a very high order.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

What to do when you get inside a shop


Hilary Alexander speaks in a Daily Telegraph video about the new collection by Comme des Garcons for H&M which arrives in UK stores tomorrow.

What strikes me about the shots of the young Japanese girls who stood in line for 12 hours in what I assume is the Tokyo store, is how they know how to shop - grab as much of everything you can and sort out what you want later. This is the key to shopping in a sale or sample sale. If you leave it on the rack, it will be gone when you come back.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Pixel by pixel


I have a subscription to Vanity Fair and when it arrived yesterday I was a bit baffled as to why they had printed some ancient photos of Catherine Deneuve and Sharon Stone.

But it turns out to be Kate Winslet. I might as well just buy my own version of photoshop, take some pix of myself with my mobile, send them out to the media and never leave the house. Yes, I actually do look like Bianca Jagger in her 20s, of course I do.

** The shoes in the picture are the ones Avsh Alom Gur gave me for the Booker which I couldn't walk in.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Back to London: My new big crush


Vince Noir of the Mighty Boosh

The mask on the head


I was once walking along the street in London on my way to a party with two friends, one Armenian-American, the other British-Jewish, when they suddenly began a conversation in which I had nothing whatsoever to contribute: hair straightening products. Both my friends had frizzy hair and I, who have, fine, wavy hair had no idea of the various chemical assaults available on the market to force frizzy hair into a different definition. I learned that hair straightening was a life-long quest and lifelong torment. I have on occasion very mildly observed that I liked both of them with their hair au naturel but was met with such withering scorn that I stopped saying it. In the Sixties it was cool not only for black women and men to wear their hair in an Afro but the rest of us (particularly men, as bizarre as that now seems) ran out and got our own hair permed to imitate them - leading to that creepy phenomenon, blond dreadlocks.

But today black men tend to keep their hair very short (see Obama himself) and black women go to colossal expense and time to make their hair look as much like white women's as possible.

Writing in the comments, African-American Sable indicates what challenges Michelle Obama and her daughters are going to confront as they present themselves as First Family:


It may seem a silly prospect that something as benign as hair can carry such weight, but it can have great meaning among black women and how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. There is often the overriding notion that you must fit in and not call attention that you are different from other (white) women. I have worn my hair in many styles from relaxed straight to curly afro or braids with extensions. I can honestly say that when I wear my hair relaxed straight I feel (operative word here, feel) that I am more like everyone else and more likely to fit in. However, I also feel less like my authentic self. It's as if I'm wearing a mask and I resent that I have to change who I am to fit in. Not to mention the damage that relaxers cause to the hair and scalp. Several years ago I chose to cut my hair short and wear a curly afro. A very good friend of mine, who happens to be white, asked me what kind of statement I was trying to make. She said that my hair made me look militant, like I was trying to make a statement. I explained that it was much easier and much healthier for me to not change the natural texture of my hair. I was not attempting to make any type of statement only to simplify my life. BTW, it was a very neat and well groomed afro. My guess is that a lot of white women don't realize what a difficult and politically and career altering decision hair can be.


I think that most of us here agree that women in the public eye and political life have a considerably harder time than men, and yes, that does include Sarah Palin. It may seem trivial, on the weekend after such a momentous election, to talk about Michelle Obama's hair, but what happens in the White House over the next four, possibly eight, years will alter the perceptions of African-Americans forever.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Obama speaks out on menswear: 'You look tight, man'



Money quote: 'Brothers should pull up their pants.'

Friday, 7 November 2008

North Carolina in two decades

Lunch counter sit-in North Carolina 1960

Presidential election, 2008

Last word (you wish) from the baby boomers

Gail Collins in the New York Times


Finally, on behalf of the baby-boom generation, I would like to hear a little round of applause before we cede the stage to the people who were too young to go to Woodstock and would appreciate not having to listen to the stories about it anymore. It looks as though we will be represented in history by only two presidents, one of whom is George W. Bush. Bummer.

The boomers didn’t win any wars and that business about being self-involved was not entirely unfounded. On the other hand, they made the nation get serious about the idea of everybody being created equal. And now American children are going to grow up unaware that there’s anything novel in an African-American president or a woman running for the White House.

We’ll settle for that.

'I do sense there is a change in the air' (not the US elections)

My old friend Louise Chunn, whom I first met when she was managing editor of Elle in the late 80s, went on to become women's page editor of the Guardian, then deputy editor of Vogue, then editor of In Style, and is now editor of Good Housekeeping. I went to Louise's 50th a couple of years ago and we stood around marvelling at the whole - my god, we're in our 50s thing.

Today, in the Guardian, she writes:

I do sense there is a change in the air.

If that means that we are seeing the end of ironed hair, featureless faces and cookie-cutter looks that come straight from the catwalk without an iota of personalisation along the way, then I will be a happier woman. I think fashion is at its most boring when it is all about that nanosecond's looks and labels, and not about the joy women get from putting themselves together differently every day.

And the thing about those women who are over 40 (or 50, or 60) is that they have wardrobes that go back a long way - and the confidence to haul something from the back of it and give it another whirl. They may not always pull if off, but in a sea of sameness their chutzpah is admirable - and now it's also fashionable.

. . .

What makes the over-40s stand out from the fashion crowd is their sense of style and self. They're not slaves to every trend; if something doesn't suit them, they won't go near it. Some are as keen to show Pilates-ed flesh as any twentysomething, others are keener on age-appropriateness. They stick to opaque tights if their knees are looking pudgy; they like a sleeve to hide the dreaded bingo wings.

Madonna, who recently celebrated her 50th birthday, is to my mind an exception to this story. She's the Dorianna Gray of our times. Modern technology keeps her too-thin face from caving in, but can do nothing about the veins and sinews on her over-exercised arms and legs. Yes, she's at the front with every new trend, but has she never heard the dictum of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, "Elegance is refusal"? It's time to say no to flowery frocks that give the air of a woman stuck in girlhood. And to realise that just because you are one of the few middle-aged women who can wear leotards without showing any wobbly bits, doesn't mean you should.

For real women over 40, the knowledge that a few of their comrades are making the fashion grade is a much-needed shot in the arm. So many magazines and shops do nothing but cater to the youngest (and slimmest) part of the market that continuing to follow fashion can be a most demoralising pursuit. Finding trousers that fit, or evening dresses with sleeves, become the holy grail for women who no longer fit into H&M's view of the world.

Personally, I find it quite shocking how ageist we Brits have become. In my 50s, I now understand Germaine Greer's comment about middle-aged women being invisible. But on a recent trip to Rome I came away feeling quite fabulous for a change - Italian men don't appear to discriminate so clearly on the basis of age.

Black is beautiful (at long bloody last)


Anna Wintour is booking Michelle Obama for a photo shoot for US Vogue. This is a tradition, to do a shoot (eek!) with the First Lady and Wintour was a long-time Obama supporter.

But as others have presciently pointed out, this may see the end of emaciated lanky bloodless blonde Latvian models and women of colour in every sense of the world becoming on trend.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Britain's next prime minister?

See his first campaign speech here

Now we are one and a quarter

While I was in Toronto, The Thoughtful Dresser celebrated its first anniversary, and some time in the small hours of this morning will mark its quarter of a millionth visitor.

Ready For A Brand New Beat

Harry reckons the time is certainly right for Martha and the Vandellas




And I am immensely cheered to read the following account from today’s Guardian:


I emerged from the subway in central Harlem at half-past midnight to what sounded like the seconds after the whistle at a World Cup final. (One of the many subsidiary victories being celebrated was the death of ice hockey as the country's presiding sports metaphor). On Martin Luther King Boulevard the traffic congealed around thousands of pedestrians, who rapped on car windows to embrace the inhabitants, climbed on to fenders and generally met and exceeded every cliche of mass public joy in existence, including the D-day celebrations and the final scenes from Fame.
Every stereo in the neighbourhood was jacked to full volume; every car bonnet drummed on. People weren't dancing with but at each other, in undulating circles that admitted new members as they flowed up the street and must have looked, from the air, like cell biology. Three women climbed on to the roof of a bus shelter and gyrated outwards to a roar from the crowd, and as I walked east past the Apollo Theatre, a man came towards me engaged in what might just be the prime indicator of emotional overload: banging two saucepans together. ( Read the whole piece here)


The pear-shaped public profile


For the next four years (hopefully eight) we are going to have a lesson in how to dress the pear-shaped woman. At our election night party someone said, you know she shops at H&M, and peering at her red and black dress I said I rather doubted it. The dress is Narciso Rodriguez. SS09.

Here it is on the runway.
Interesting to see how it looks on a woman with hips. Interesting, too, to see how a dress is altered for production - the side panels added and the lace removed.

But whatever you think of this dress (and I loved it) I can only commiserate with any woman who has had to spend weeks shopping for a dress to wear for her big night.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

It's been a long time coming

An email from a 23-year-old in London:

The moons have aligned, and my personal faith in the United States ability for self reflection, examination and evoloution has been restored and re-energized.

I'm not going to blab on, analysing the importance of what's just happened, cos your all more intelligent than me enough to understand why I'm so happy today.

This post-racial man is already a symbol and an icon for so much- but he's not Guevara, or Ghandi or Mandela, not yet. He is a politician and a man before any of the T-shirts, badges and rapper endorsements, and will continue to be now that he is president. I only hope that while America has been bold enough to provide an example to the world by electing Obama, they are now patient enough to allow him the space to learn and grow as we must all do.

I won't say no more except to bless you all with a song that has already become a cliche, but the best god damn cliche I've ever heard in my life.


'America is so racist it would never vote for a black president' and other urban legends


Thank you America, for finally shutting up every pub bore who smugly informs you that 'America is so racist it would never vote for a black President.'

Thank you Americans for standing in line for many hours to prove so decisively that democracy functions exactly as it should. Thank you to the low-income workers who lost pay yesterday because they had to wait in line so long. Thank you to African-Americans who came out in record numbers to vote, often for the first time and to white Americans who put centuries of bigotry and prejudice behind them to vote for America's first black president.

But very selfishly, thank you America for releasing me from eight years of being a minority. A minority among my anti-American friends, who believe that no good can come from America.

Thank you America for your optimism, your belief in the future, the vitality of your language, your literature and yes - your television (The Sopranos!), for Jon Stewart and the Onion, for Studs Terkel, who didn't quite live to see this, for Philip Roth and Toni Morrison and Houdini and Robert de Niro and Donna Karan and Betty Friedan and Ms Magazine and Goldie Hawn Marvin Gaye and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. For frozen yogurt and Barney's. The list goes on and on.

Yes it can. Yes it did. Yes it will.

(And a minute ago a DHL courier came to the door with the first copy of the US edition of The Clothes on Their Backs. Which has a starred Kirkus review coming up.)

America still reinvents itself, and that is its promise to the world.

World to America: Thank you





And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.


It's 6 am in London. I have stayed up all night, with two American voters, one of whom did her duty in Dade County Florida. I'll have more to say about this part of President Elect Obama's speech tomorrow.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Walt Whitman on American democracy




This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name - the still small voice vibrating -America's choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen - the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)


and the rest here
via Norm

The Great American: Studs Terkel 1912-2008

Obama Landslide (in Dixville Notch)


The voters of Dixville Notch NH (pop 75, registered voters 21) cast their ballots at midnight. See the sensational result here

Non-political corner: a woman goes out with no make-up

I travel make-up free on long haul flights and am confronted with the 'real me' in the mirror of the creepily lit plane toilet. Beauty is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder, as Harry might have noticed when he thoughtfully popped round yesterday to bring me a a carton of milk and some Jaffa cakes as I caught up with my post Canada sleep. Here's a woman from the Times


The morning passes uneventfully and most of the women I see on the bus, or on Oxford Street, don't seem to be wearing make-up either. When I catch sight of myself in the mirrored lift at the BBC I realise that I look a bit rough - luckily I am doing only radio - but apart from that, I don't really think about it again. It is only when Gill the photographer from The Times turns up and shoves her giant lens practically up my nose that I begin to feel stressed and self-conscious. The closer she comes to me, the closer I come to punching her lights out.

Later, I telephone the clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia d'Felice. She is very sympathetic. “Women wear make-up because it makes them look and feel more attractive and there is something very masochistic about forcibly stripping that away and not allowing yourself some protection. It's human nature.”

I totally agree. I've left my make-up bag at home in the interests of the experiment, but a quick trip to Boots and five minutes in front of a mirror puts a smile on my face again.

I lasted all of three hours without my “face” on, and it cost me fifty quid to feel normal again. Rather than liberated, I felt robbed of the right to make the most of myself and I suddenly understood why the Miss Naked Beauty contestants felt so vulnerable. To be honest, I feel disappointed in myself. Why can't I love my unadorned face? To compound my sense of failure, when I speak to psychologist Oliver James, he tells me that the credit crunch will make me think twice about the amount I spend on unnecessary cosmetics. He believes that the recession will challenge women such as me to distinguish between real “need” and the artificial “want”.

'You've got everybody here in your hands'






Monday, 3 November 2008

'It's easy to let the best of yourself slip away'

America Week on The Thoughtful Dresser

The love affair started with this record which was one of the few my parents owned in the 60s (until the LP of Fiddler on the Roof, of course)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Interview in the Toronto Star

with photo - so what do we think about that £60 foundation that Mary Greenwell made me buy?