Monday, January 31, 2011

Plumbed, wired and plastered

I daresay you've heard the one about the new sexual position known as The Plumber - you both stay home and nobody comes.
My bathroom renovations contine. Today, six tradespeople - the builder, a plasterer, a painter, a flooring lady and two electricians - all came simultaneously.  

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Widow's weeds

Mourning dress 1880s
... are not, thank god, what they used to be. Nowadays, it's enough to feel your grief; you're not expected to wear it too. But although mourners no longer feel obliged to dress in formal black, most of the 200 who attended Harvey McQueen's memorial service at Old St Paul's on Friday were fairly soberly dressed.  Not so Anne, whose bright red jacket shone out from the front pew. She chose it deliberately because red was Harvey's favourite colour. The sad occasion was also a celebration of Harvey's life so red was every bit as appropriate as black.
Harvey's last blog posting just before Christmas was about his re-reading of Katherine Mansfield. Anne continues her blog on food, but poignantly the subtitle of her other blog, Elsewoman, is now "Learning how to live on my own for the first time in my life."

Anne Else and Harvey McQueen

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing and renovating

Where have you been? I hear you cry. (Don't I?). I've been writing and renovating. It would be hard to say which is the greater obstacle to blogging, but against their combined forces, I've had no chance at all.
What I was writing was a longish review of two recently published fashion books: The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940 by Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault (Godwit) and New Zealand Fashion Design by Angela Lassig (Te Papa Press). It took me much longer than it should have. Partly because it will be published in a journal that has never reviewed a fashion book before, and I wanted to be sure to get it right. Partly because writing is never finished, only abandoned in the face of a deadline, and since I'm co-editor of the journal in question, I kept giving myself generous extensions. And partly because of interruptions due to the afore-mentioned renovations.

This is - or rather, was - my bathroom.

And this, my bedroom.
As you can see, I'm camping in these parts of the house, rather than living in them. Only the toilet is functional, and if I need to use it during office hours, so to speak, I have to ask any number of builders, plumbers and electricians to vacate the room for a few minutes. The icy southerly is whistling up from the basement through several holes in the (ex) bathroom floor; I have no well-lit mirror in which to put on lipstick and insert my contacts; I've been scrounging off local friends for showers and, to avoid making even great inroads on their generosity and hot water, getting back ache by washing my hair in the kitchen sink.
In spite of all that, and the fact that I'm usually something of a neat freak, I love it. Others (I'm talking about you, N) might angst over the dust and mess and general inconvenience, but I find it almost cathartic.
Feeling down? Life not going your way? Want to seize back control? Knock down walls! 
When it's all over I shall have not one large bathroom containing all the facilities, outside the door of which a disorderly queue forms whenever there's more than just me in the house, but those splendidly bourgeois assets, a main bathroom and an en suite. To be honest, that last label induces a cringe; every time I utter it I feel as if I'm channeling a real estate agent. Still, it will have its uses.
Until then, the trademen keep needing decisions and supplies. Do I mind if the heaters have cords? Where do I want the heated towel rails and the power outlets? Shower curtain or door? What about lighting? I seem to be wandering the aisles at Bunnings several times a day, and returning mistaken purchases every other day.
No, I don't know if we're nearly there yet because I don't want to drive the nice builder mad by asking him. One thing I am sure of, though, is that renovation is far less stressful when you live alone. The last time I managed anything like this (only bigger), I also had to manage The X, whose pained expression and martyred sighs were a lot harder to bear than a few piles of rubble and hours of commercial radio every day.  

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shopping on Mars and Venus

A nice young couple among the shelves of photo frames in one of Briscoes' recurring sales.
Her: (swooping) There are nice pink and blue ones here. Your thoughts?
Him: Nice.
Her: Which one - pink or blue?
Him: (after the slightest hesitation) Blue. She knows I like blue ...
Her: Have you seen the pink? The pink is nice.
Him: Either/or. Pink or blue.  
Actually, I hate that Mars and Venus stuff (anatomy is not destiny; I can read a map much better than The X ever could and I hate asking directions), but I thought this brief exchange nicely illustrated two shopping styles and what happens when they meet head on in a relationship.
She inspected everything and, having narrowed down the options, presented him with them. She wasn't against the blue, but wanted to be sure he'd properly assessed its appeal relative to the pink, and come to a considered decision. Her interrogation made him think she wanted the pink, so he immediately gave in.
I didn't hang around to see which one they finally bought. They might well have ended up with the one nobody wanted. I moved on the towel aisles, glad to have no one to consider but myself.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thou shalt not covet ...

Once upon a time pearls stood for everything I disliked and rejected. They were polite, conventional, middle-class and, whatever the age of the wearer, middle-aged. Less an adornment than a marker of respectability.
Before the 70s struck, though, girls my own age of a certain type wore them to university with twinsets, camel coats and pigskin handbags. Just writing that makes my flesh crawl, not because I hated those accoutrements but because I so badly coveted them in order to be one of these girls. No chance. I lacked the money, the private school vowels and the breezy confidence.
When this mode of dress finally went out the window, I was for the first time in my sartorial element. And I would no more of dreamed of donning pearls than reverting to a suspender belt.

Queen Elizabeth II
But the times change and so, Queenie aside, do we.
I've never been much impressed by precious stones, always being more attracted to opals, amethysts, moonstones and so. But I've noticed how even a string of cheap faux pearls reflect their soft glow on skin that isn't as young as it used to be, so that the lovely old-fashioned word becoming comes to mind.
My appreciation was cranked up a notch by reading the new Coco Chanel biography last year, and admiring portrait after portrait of her dressed in black and long strings of pearls.

Coco Chanel

Once a certain level of appreciation is attained, covetousness, I'm afraid, isn't far behind.
Even so, I surprised myself last week on Lambton Quay when, bent on some mundane mission or other, I stopped dead in front of a jeweller's window to admire a long double rope of big irregularly shaped pearls.
I never look in jeweller's windows; their array of gold and silver bores me rigid. But this ... it hung from a plaster neck, heavy, gleaming and quietly gorgeous.
I only looked for a moment, then found myself marching into the shop and asking if I could see it. The young assistant (I think she was French and therefore understood these things) reached into the window. I said I had no intention of buying it and she smiled indulgently and handed it to me. I promptly slipped it over my neck.
They were south sea pearls, said the assistant. That was why they were so big.
"How much?" I asked, fingering the lovely weighty shapes.
She reached for the price tag at the back of my neck.
I handed them back, said thank you and left the shop.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Why would anyone - man or woman - having occasion to wear a polo shirt go to the trouble of making its collar stand up? It was the 80s, wasn't it, when we last thought this was cool? But even then it applied to the crisp shirt, not to this horrible garment. I admit I used to think it pretty damn swift to sport shoulder pads in my teeshirts, but I'm not still doing it.
The collar turner-uppers can only do it because they believe it renders them more stylish. Yet if you cared about personal style, you wouldn't wear a polo shirt in the first place.

I'm not the first to pose this question - it prompts much internet debate, a good deal of it insulting. But I've yet to read anything in defence of the habit from a committed collar-turner-upper. The internet also supplies plenty of images of silly young men striving to look preppy.
The main offenders in my neck of the woods are femmes d'un certain age and sometimes their professional spouses. To me their up-turned collars are the perfect marker of a born-to-rule complacency that's quite out of touch with the world. 
Thank you for listening. I feel better now.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shoe porn

I went into my local independent bookshop for Tony Harrison's Selected Poems (they'll have to order it) and came out with this shoe calendar.
It was sitting right there on the counter. I had a fistful of book tokens (this is how you get paid for Radio New Zealand book reviews and my power supplier seems to find them unacceptable payment) and I said to the nice young man, "I don't suppose I can spend these on that, can I." But I could, and promptly did.
Each separate glossy page is displayed in an upright stand and every morning you move yesterday's page to the back to reveal a new delight.

This was my first - for January 10. Gray and black goat suede. And so delicious I could eat it.

And this, in case you're curious, is a poem by Tony Harrison.

Book ends

Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead
we chew it slowly that last apple pie.

Shocked into sleeplessness you're scared of bed.
We never could talk much, and now don't try.

You're like book ends, the pair of you, she'd say,
Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare…

The 'scholar' me, you, worn out on poor pay,
only our silence made us seem a pair.

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

At night you need my company to pass
and she not here to tell us we're alike!

You're life's all shattered into smithereens.
Back in our silences and sullen looks,

for all the Scotch we drink, what's still between 's
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.


The stone's too full. The wording must be terse.
There's scarcely room to carve the FLORENCE on it--

Come on, it's not as if we're wanting verse.
It's not as if we're wanting a whole sonnet!

After tumblers of neat Johnny Walker
(I think that both of us we're on our third)

you said you'd always been a clumsy talker
and couldn't find another, shorter word

for 'beloved' or for 'wife' in the inscription,
but not too clumsy that you can't still cut:

You're supposed to be the bright boy at description
and you can't tell them what the fuck to put!

I've got to find the right words on my own.
I've got the envelope that he'd been scrawling,

mis-spelt, mawkish, stylistically appalling
but I can't squeeze more love into their stone.

Tony Harrison

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the joys of vulgarity (1)

Linda Grant

The Observant Reader might have noticed that my last blog flourished the word vulgar. It's one I haven't heard, let alone used, in decades, possibly since I left England, and I'm grateful to Linda Grant for reminding me of it.
I'm re-reading her The Thoughtful Dresser. It disappointed me rather when I read it for the first time a few years ago because, although (or perhaps because) I'm vitally interested in the topic, I found its defensive stance frustrating. Her exploration of what dress means, aesthetically, socially and psychologically, was aimed not at the likes of me but at those who believe anything fashion- or appearance-related is demeaning and trivial, if not downright criminal and immoral.
Her website of the same name bears the epigram, "Because you can't have depths without surfaces." A declaration she uttered defiantly down the line from London when I interviewed after her 2000 Orange Prize win for When I Lived in Modern Times.
It's a cute slogan but not a convincing one. Because the plain truth is there's nothing more incomprehsible than other's obsessions - whether it's kicking, hitting or throwing balls around, devoting years to your family history or hours to cooking dishes containing 37 ingredients that are eaten in three minutes. 

Lois McMaster Bujold
Or writing science fiction, in the case of Lois McMaster Bujold. She has apparently said that, "When you can't do something truly useful, you tend to vent the pent up energy in something useless but available, like snappy dressing."
I sympathise with Grant's irritation at the assumption that smart women aren't interested in how they or other people look, and its infuriating inversion: that if you do care you are, ergo, not smart.
It's just that intellectual argument for our own obsessions will always look thin and is in any case beside the point. We're interested/obsessed because we're interested/obsessed. And, so long as it does others no harm, surely that's the end of the matter.

Elizabeth Bowen

Grant quotes the stylish Elizabeth Bowen (who was herself no intellectual light-weight) at the front of her book: "On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else's do."
Which is probably the only riposte worth making to the "serious-minded" brigade.
But look - my defence of the position that an interest in personal style needs no defence has taken enough of this morning's time and energy. I'll have to get to the joys of vulgarity another day.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Sartorialist in the frame

Since millions more know of The Sartorialist than know of Plain Jane it's rather bumptious of me to be introducing him. But for those who don't know him, he's a New York-based photographer who travels widely photographing people on the street whose mode of dress catches his eye. His blog is a gallery of arresting shots, and a must for anyone interested in style.
If you want to know more about him, go here, but in any case this short, nicely shot doco is worth a few minutes of your time.

I particularly enjoy his lack of analysis and pretension about what does catch his eye. He doesn't care if it's "in" or "hot"; he simply walks the streets waiting to be seduced.
What a great defence of stylishness this suggests (and oh yes, it does need defending, but I'll get to that another day) - that to present a stylish appearance is to provide a small aesthetic treat for the hundreds who will see it in the course of a day. Or the millions, in the case of The Sartorialist.

With this photograph, taken in Paris in December, I rest my case. At least for the time being.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the kindness of strangers

Somewhere between Sydney and Guangzhou in October I lost my faux leather rock-chick jacket.
Good riddance, some might say: what on earth is a woman of a certain age doing in a garment like this?
Having fun, since you ask. I'd never owned nor worn such a jacket in my life before and I picked up this one for peanuts in Melbourne's St Kilda a year ago. It immediately became my default option. Whatever I wore it over - jeans, an office-y outfit, an OTT tango frock - I felt great. Note (and I've made this distinction before, but I intend making it again) I said, I felt great. Not that it necessarily looked great. The most I can say on the aesthetic front is that it never seemed to do me any harm.
I was wearing the jacket the afternoon I flew out of Wellington, I was wearing it next morning in Sydney airport, waiting to board the flight to Kunming. I wasn't wearing or carrying it when I disembarked to change planes in Guangzhou (a city I hadn't been in since a peculiar weekend in mid-1986, when, amongst other things, I sustained the migraine to end all migraines, and sought help from the nice hotel medical staff who, within minutes of a complex pantomine meant to communicate that my head hurt like hell and I needed to lie down for an hour or so on their snowy linen, advanced with a massive hypodermic from which I fled without unnecessary explanation. It was the only time in my life I deliberately overdosed on medication - I swallowed four or five aspirin and was right as rain within the hour).
Where was I?
Oh yes, traipsing down interminable corridors towards the Guangzhou immigration desk and experiencing that sudden sinking of the heart that indicates loss of a loved object (a foreshadowing, as it turned out, of how I'd feel when my daypack, containing camera plus wedding photos, iPod, cash, make-up, a gorgeous silk robe I'd bought only an hour before and lots more besides disappeared down a Hanoi alleyway in the back of a taxi that was never seen again).
So anyway. I turned and ran back down miles of Kafkaesque corridors. I met a party of flight attendants, explained about my jacket and one of them took me back through several locked doors onto the plane. Where what seemed like the hundreds of women cleaners turning it upsidedown turned to stare at the mad foreign woman flinging open lockers and crawling under seats.
No joy. I was retracing my steps to immigration when a tall handsome uniformed young woman with terrific English asked if she could help. She said she was a purser, and asked for my mobile number so she could let me know if the jacket turned up. I knew it was hopeless, especially as my mobile didn't work in China, but I appreciated her kindness.
Three weeks later I was home. Among the messages waiting for me was one that, for a few minutes, had me foxed. Then I realised it was from the helpful woman, who'd called several days after I'd met her to tell me she had my jacket. I tried to call the number she left but couldn't connect. I got hold of J and S in Kunming and asked if they would try. After a couple of weeks and a lot of attempts, they did. My jacket was in Guangzhou ready to be picked up. They asked if it could be sent to Kunming. She wasn't sure if it could, she'd have to put in a special request to have something sent to someone who wasn't the person who lost it. More weeks went by. I kept thinking I should ask S and J to ask the helpful young woman to send them a photo of my alleged jacket so that when it turned out not to be mine I could save everyone a lot of trouble.  
Meanwhile I endured every stage of grief for my age-inappropriate jacket: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I had even, in Kunming, rushed into the doomed exercise of buying a replacement. But it wasn't a replacement at all. I rejected it. It suffers in silence in the back of the spare room cupboard.
Then J caught me online a week or so ago and promptly skyped. "We've got it!" he called as soon as I picked up, and waved something in front of the camera - my lovely vulgar pretend-leather jacket.
You could, if you were so inclined, interpret this story as a sad illustration of people's attachment to material objects, and of the superficiality of women or of human beings in general. So go on, and see where it gets you.
What I see is a young woman in another country, who works for and probably isn't paid all that much by a frankly rather crummy airline, who took the trouble to listen to what some tourist gabbled at her about something pretty unimportant and follow through on it, at some inconvenience and for absolutey no reward.
Whoever you are, thank you. And here are some flowers as a token of my appreciation.
Now all I have to do is get my jacket from Kunming to Wellington.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

And a Happy New Year!

After a week at the beach up north, dressed rather less often in my togs than I'd hoped to be, I saw the New Year in  back in Wellington, in the afore-mentioned Keith Matheson skirt. I usually spurn New Year as a social occasion, not to mention frills and diamantes as decent apparel for anyone over the age of 10.
These days, though, usually means BT - Before Tango.
BT, there was nothing like telling me I had to stay up past 12 to bring on an intense longing for an early night. It's different though when you can tango your way to this daft, man-made deadline. You don't have to kill time to the countdown, the toast and the exchange of kisses with desultory conversation or pointless drinking. In fact, you want the time to go slower so you can dance some more.
At one point J approached me with a diamante in the palm of her hand. Yes, it had fallen off the skirt. But I fumbled the handover and spent several minutes searching on my hands and knees under the furniture before it reappeared in someone else's hand.
I was also wearing new shoes. I stayed in S's mother's house up north, and S had warned me of a seductive shoeshop en route. Naturally, when we hit Matakana, I screeched to a halt, located the shop - Heavenly Soles - and plunged in.  I emerged some time later with new tango shoes (not, as I'll get around to telling you some time, a matter of pure indulgence this but a practical necessity if I want to keep on dancing til I can get some custom made in Buenos Aires).

This is my third pair of footwear from Minx, and all three are danceable in. Their shoes are fun, various and reasonably priced, and designed in New Zealand by this clever young woman - Cushla Reed.

I can't speak for her entire range, but those of hers I own are also very comfortable. Three or more solid hours dancing in unbroken leather, though, was bound to take its toll. I'd been distantly aware that all was not well in the toe and heel department but it wasn't til I got home to discover three big, luckily still unbroken, blisters that I realised these body parts had been sending me urgent and repeated stop-dancing messages. But their source had been too remote from my dancing pleasure centre to register. Tango - the ultimate pain killer, good for whatever ails you.