Thursday, 27 August 2009

Use it up, wear it out

A few years back, I decided to give up buying things I didn't need for a year long project. I defined need pretty strictly; you can't just say to yourself, "Well I really need a pair of pair of red shoes," when the ones you already own will do. The problem was that I wasn't ready. I was still searching for things I wanted with which to torture myself and I fought the self-imposed restriction, like a dieter who craves biscuits. It's rather like when a new student turns up at a yoga class and says excitedly, "I've given up smoking." It's usually about three weeks before they lapse. If you think that giving up anything - chocolate, tobacco, alcohol or shopping, or even breaking up a relationship - is exciting, then your heart isn't in it. You think about it all the time; it still has its hooks in you and it will reel you back in.

I mention this because I've stopped shopping again but this time I didn't have a start date; I just noticed that it had happened. I found myself not wanting to buy stuff because I slowly realised that I own more things than I need already. I've enough books to read, as many notebooks as I need to write several books and take notes at all the meetings between now and the end of my career, 20 fountain pens and ink enough to fill them. I'm still drawn to lovely new things, but instead of allowing my acquisitive desires to envelop me I've started to remind myself of all the beautiful things I already own. When I want to give myself a present, I don't have to buy one; I can open the box I keep my stash of special things in. Yoga helps, by the way, although you have to have the right attitude to it; I've met people who just become yoga addicts instead. What I really want more of is floorspace so now I'm spending time selling things on eBay and giving them away on Freecycle.

And I mention that because this is where the 4160 Tuesday come in. When you realise you've collected enough writing paper to send thankyou letters to all your aunts, nieces, nephews and minor acquaintainces until all your 4160 Tuesdays are over, it's time for a rethink.

I've an idea that the constraints of using up what I already own will inspire me to creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that. Let's be fair though; I do still have an awful lot of stuff; when I moved flats once, I sent through my list of belongings - musical instruments, boxes of books, fabric, yarn, sewing machines, yoga kit - and the removals company asked, "Is it a school?"

It's fair to say that I'm quite good at shopping; I give guided tours around London's most beautiful shops to visitors from overseas. But isn't it better to spend time creating than acquiring? Instead of opening my craft cupboard doors and wondering when I'm going to get the time to use up all the stuff inside, I'm going to take something out and make it into something else. (Yes, I have a craft cupboard.) Remember this, friends, aunts, nephews and minor acquaintances, when you get a pair of handknitted socks for Christmas.

(The picture: I uploaded it, changed my mind and tried to take it out again, but failed. I know it's not a masterpiece but it was my first attempt at wet-on-wet watercolour and as it does look a bit like a cyclamen and I did enjoy doing it, here it is.)

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Crystal Balls for Business Writers

"Now that we've all gone casual and chatty when we write," said Mr. 4160 last night, "what do you think will be next? Going serious and using masses of jargon?"

So I had a bit of a think.

Based on what happens in writing workhops - the ones I've been in; I can't speak for the others - I'd predict that we're going to be tidying up our English. At every workshop I've run, I've told everyone that they are not in a grammar class and no-one's going to start lecturing about accuracy; on the other hand, when you're in a room full of people who write for a living, and no-one's going to judge you if you've got a question, it's probably a good time to air your worries. I might ask, opening the shutters a little, "Where would you use brackets and where would you use dashes?" Then it all pours out: semi-colons, it's and its, different to, than or from. Just like which knife and fork to start with, it's not life and death, but people want to do it right.

In my experience, there are two groups of people who say they don't care about where apostrophes go. The first: people with masters degrees in languages, literature or linguistics. The second: the deeply insecure who hate being taught and disliked the way they were forced to learn at school.
Greengrocers care deeply where apostrophes go; they just get it wrong.

The first group talk about the Greengrocers' Apostrophe, the one that turns up in "Apple's £1 a basket" or "Fresh farm egg's". There is a common misunderstanding that apostrophes go in plurals, which they don't if you follow the generally accepted, current guidelines. The outstandingly educated people I know put it all into historical context and talk about the evolution of language; if that's the way the common man writes, then that is the way the language will go. Mind you, they wouldn't be seen dead with their own apostrophes out of place. (For the best ever discussion about this read David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster.)

The second group never seem to mind if their spelling is corrected. It's fine for spelling to be unequivocally right or wrong (although any research into Mr. Shakespeare's or Miss Austen's original works might change their minds) but questioning their grammar and punctuation is like suggesting they work on improving their dancing, driving or sexual techniques.

Nope, I think that the greengrocers do care. Why else would they bother to put them in at all? There's a beautiful mix up I've seen in a cafe window: Tea's, Coffees and Breakfast's. What was it that went through the mind of the signwriter as he or she wrote it? What is it about coffees that makes it exempt?

That picture was in New Look's window in York this summer.
Gladiator sandals was £20. Did no-one ever say, "Ahem, shouldn't we say "were" because there's more than one sandal?" Not one person? In the whole approval process from concept to window, everyone thought it was fine to write was instead of were? I'll tell you who would have kicked up a fuss, anyone French, German, Spanish or Italian who had learned English at school. One of my foreign colleagues recently asked me why a native English speaker had made a particular mistake and the best answer I could give at the time was, "He's doing his very best but he's not as well educated as you are." Rude, I know, but what would you say?

For me, taking time to check that your writing says what you mean is simple politeness. You are hoping that someone will read it and understand it, then act on it. New Look were hoping that people would buy the sandals; the cafe wants to sell breakfasts and they probably will. Only the most severe of Trussites would punish errors by withholding their business.
If you want to check that your writing is clear, pass it to someone else to read out loud; if they trip over the words, then it needs more work. BBC newsreaders say they can read anything, live with no rehearsal, as long as it's been punctuated correctly.

For me, getting it right it not about the writer and his or her ego, their past education, their concerns about where they fit into the class system, authenticity or any of the other excuses I've heard. It's about being considerate, kind and polite.

It's like deciding whether or not to use the indicators when you're driving or sticking your arms out when you're cycling. It's making your intentions clear to others so that they can make a decision based on what you are telling them. If you can't be bothered to give clear signals, whether they are hands, flashing lights or semi-colons, then you are being inconsiderate. If you're misunderstood it's your own silly fault.

Life's too short to waste time explaining yourself twice. Once is bad enough.
If you'd like to check the guidelines go for the Penguin Writer's Manual. It's small, light, cheap and easy to read. It sheds light where there is darkness.

Incidentally, Word's built in grammar checker quite often gets it wrong.

If you'd like to come to one of our workshops, get in touch.
If you'd like us to run one at your organisation, same applies.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Writing workshops coming up. Want to come too?
We'll be at the Swedenborg Society in Bloomsbury on 25th September, 23rd October and 20th November, Fridays all.
Do say if you'd like to come along. (They're extraordinarily good value, full of practical and inspiring ways to keep you writing even on your blank paper days, and make you even better at it.
We also have very good biscuits.
We'll be in a fascinating setting with equally fascinating people and you'll bounce out at the end of the session full of good ideas.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

On perfume. (It’s not Tuesday, I know, but I was busy.)

The word inspiration also means breathing in...

When I was a kid, women had one bottle of perfume and wore it on special occasions. You put it on after your best clothes and your earrings. You dabbed it on occasionally until it had turned into something that looked lovely but smelled a bit like vinegar. (We didn't know in those days that scent deteriorated in daylight so our mums would take it out of the packaging and stand it on their dressing tables to impress visitors.)

My mother had one bottle of Chanel No.5 that my French pen-friend's family had given me to bring back to Geordieland for her. It was massive. There is stood on the modernist dressing table, decomposing nicely until it smelled foul, but as we didn't know what Chanel No. 5 was supposed to smell like, she wore it anyway.

For an ordinary Sunday tea with friends or coffee at a smart cafe, you'd wear Avon or Lentheric that someone had got you for your birthday.

When I was 16 I bought my first bottle of proper scent. We were in Dundee, at a department store; we were holiday nearby. I'd just sat my exams and was about to go into sixth form, sufficiently grown up, I'd decided, to wear a beautiful fragrance. I'd saved up; I had cash. Looking back, I appreciate that the saleswoman was very kind to me. (Since then, I've met some apallingly snooty scent sellers.) She enjoyed my excitement and treated me like an adult with opinions of my own. She let me try several scents, gradually finding out what it was that appealed to me and finally took out her Diorella tester.
"I think you'll like this," she said, "It smells to me of overripe peaches." She was right, super-right, more right than I'd imagined possible. She had found me the most overwhelmingly gorgeous scent. It was simply the most beautiful smell that had ever wound its way to my olfactory nerve endings. I wanted to jump into its fragrant cloud and inhale forever. I was totally faithful to it for four years.

After that I was seduced by Chanel Cristalle, Yves Saint Laurent's Champagne (which was surpressed by France's Champagne producers then reappeared years later as Ivresse). Guerlain's Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat distracted me for a while then I dabbled in sundry citruses.
Decades after I found my partner perfume, I went searching for another. I have many fragrant friends, including the one and only bottle of Lynx Sarah McCartney - really - but I found the liquid love of my adult life in Paris, on another quest, at a small shop that my husband found for me. He tells me he doesn't regret it.

Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle is an interesting place. The chap himself invited the world's top perfumers to create any scent they wanted to, with no restriction on cost. Natural materials vary between £5 and £2000 a kilo. Synthetics are cheaper and that's what you get in most of the 21st Century scents you'll be attacked with as you cross the threshhold of a department store perfumery.

There we were in the small, dark, intensely modern shop. To smell the scents, you sniff a column of pure, fresh air perfumed only with the fragrance of your choice. You smell the effect you will have as you waft by. Once you've sniffed, the chamber is whooshed clear, ready for you to smell the next one. Just like my first time, the assistant asked me to describe the scents I usually like and I told her that I wanted one that reminded me of red berries. She filled the tube with Lipstick Rose and I fell for it instantly. Now, I carry it with me everywhere in a small, black metal tube and sometimes I allow other people a bit of a squirt if they ask very nicely. Their Dans tes Bras perfume reminds me of the way I used to smell at the end of a day at the beach: sea water, suntan lotion, skin, damp sand, sunsets, happiness. I'm very fond of that one too.

I still dabble, notably at B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful, where the stunning scents (also made with no limit on materials costs) are the best value for money that you will find in the world of fine perfumery. I love Superword Unknown and Two Hearts Beating as One. L'Artisan Parfumeur has several that I love, including Bois Farine ("Biscuits!" said my goddaughter, Bella) and Vanilia.

The thing about scent is that is it evocative, hard-hitting in an intensely emotional way. The nerve endings for our sense of smell are unprotected from the big wide world, unlike touch where skin is a barrier between the stimulus and the brain, so it deadens the feeling. The place we first detect a smell is close to the emotional centre of our brains so we are vulnerable to the effect of a stray smell that takes us inawares.

Find a scent that makes you smile, lifts you up and takes you to a pleasant place and you'll have yourself an emotional time-travel machine, an instantly intoxicating, inspiring tool. Dab, inhale, wait, create. I think I'll just have myself a quick helping of Lipstick Rose as I settle down to write. That should last me the morning.

Footnote: the film
Seek out a copy of Jasminum, a Polish film about perfume, love and other things. Ignore the badly translated subtitles and use them as a means to indicate what the characters really meant to say. I'm waiting for someone to watch it and bring out a Bird Cherry fragrance.

Footnote 2: the shops
Buying scent is not everyone's idea of fun. If you'd like me to help you, email and I shall. Really. First stop is Liberty, London W1 and head for the Frederic Malle collection on the ground floor. Say hello to Peggy and Albertino and tell them I scent you. Liberty's perfume collection is marvellous, but the service is unpredictable and you do need help. You might find a helpful, knowledgeable chap, but you might not. Ormonde Jayne in the orange Georgian arcade off Bond Street is just lovely too. Department stores are difficult. People are there to sell their particular brand not help you in your quest. The Arabian perfume shop opposite Selfridges on Oxford Street is an experience, and their scents are beautiful too. When you're in Paris, go to Detaille, Rue St. Lazarre. In New York, you want Bond No. 9.

Footnote 3: I mean it about helping you out. When you find the scent you were born to wear there will always be a beautiful place you can go to cheer yourself up, rain or shine. Now that I've found mine, my quest is to help the rest of the world find theirs.

PS By the way, I recently rediscovered Diorella. Although it's slightly different from decades ago (they reformulate now and again) it's still marvellous and makes me feel as though I've just passed all my O levels and my life is just beginning.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

A generous piece of Lush soap... the first person who can tell me where you can find these little men holding up the handrail on a staircase.
Aren't they magnificent?
It's astonishing the number of people who walk by them every day and have absolutely no idea that they are there. We need these beautiful things to make city life entertaining, don't you think. My friend Benoit once sprayed Parisien pavement bollards pink, got arrested, then got released because there is no law in France to say that you can't make the street furniture pink if you so wish. Allez la France!
I'm not advocating vandalism. I am encouraging public art; I'm definitely advocating noticing the trouble that people have gone to to make our urban environment inspiring. This weekend, engage your inner observer; notice something for the first time. Let me know what it is.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

At the Proms

On Sunday night, we were at the Albert Hall to see a Promenade concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We got some Beethoven (4th Symphony - which I'd heard before but couldn't remember). First there was a very modern piece which used three sets of timpani and the biggest collection of percussion I've ever seen, plus two harps which you couldn't hear for the percussion. Fun to watch though. You could observe the action while listening to the sounds, and let your mind wander off to the music and see where it took you. It sounded like a film score, passing through a ghost story, science fiction, a bit of 1950s black and white cowboy film (the bit where they're parched with thirst in the desert) ending with some huge explosions as the goodies triumph in the end. During the interval, we compared notes, and we'd all pictured the same things: Nick, who doesn't normally listen to orchestral music, Alex, (18) who's got a place at the Guildhall and performs classical music, and me, who got grade 8 clarinet in 1978 and was brought up on the stuff.

After the interval we got Berlioz' Te Deum. The choir had at least 300 people in it. 100 boys, 100 men and 100 women that I could count and I couldn't see them all. We'd a huge orchestra, four each of the woodwinds, five horns and trombones, two tubas, four(+?) trumpets, a row of side drums and one of cymbals. Watching the cymbal players was fantastic. Once every 15 minutes or so there'd be a couple of huge crashes, then the four of them would sit down again, carefully placing their kit into their custom-made stands. The trick was to spot out of the corner of your eye when they stood up, when they lifted the cymbals out, lined them up, then wallop!

At the back was a bloke with a substantial stomach who sat perfectly still for at least 40 minutes, then started to twiddle with his cufflinks. Then he opened his book and finally stood to sing. A wonderful tenor voice wafted around this huge space.

The best bit was the loudest; call me crass, but I'm standing by my claim; if you go to hear Berlioz, you want noise. The Bertie Hall organ is not to be messed with. We were way, way up, so high that if we lobbed a peanut off the circle it would take a good few seconds to hit the promenaders on the floor below. When the organ crashed out a huge chord, from bass pipes so massive you couldn't wrap your arms round them, and all 300 voices, basses to trebles, hit their notes, I burst into tears. I always do.

I count things. I think that there were around 3000 people in the audience (400 or so were the choir's mums, dads, brothers and sisters), but there were still some spare seats. I've not been to a Prom for years and yet it's only a 20 tube ride from my house. It's the biggest orchestral music event in the world, it's on my doorstep, each concert is wonderful. Yet along with another several million Londoners I don't shift myself off my office chair to go there often enough. The Albert Hall is glorious in its Victorian opulence, with its red and gold garments and its curiously intimate feel for such a vast space. Human civilisation started in the mud and several billions of years later it comes together in a round hall in SW1. The choir was singing to the glory of God, but for me this was the glory of the Big Bang and aeons of evolution.

Why don't we go? Well, because we've seen the Last Night of the Proms on television, all union flags and prats jumping up and down to Rule Britannia so we think it's for the white middle classes. Or we think it'll be sold out, or we think it's expensive. It's none of those things. We paid £11 each to sit down and Alex stood in the second row from the front for a fiver last Tuesday. It's less than the cinema. You can listen, you can watch, you can panic a bit when the organ player starts to flip his score backwards and forwards and you think he's lost his place! In front of me there were a couple of young teenage boys I bet had never been to a classical concert before; they'd come to watch their brother in the choir. At the very, very end of the final applause, when the choirmasters had been on and off three times and the tenor had been on and off twice, and the conductor finally left the stage and indicated that her orchestra could pack up, one of them clapped and clapped until he was sure he was the absolute last one. I leaned forward.
"You won," I said to him.
"I know!" he said delighted, "I was trying hard."

Which is why everyone should grab the chance to get down there. It'll fill you to bursting with things you've never felt before. It made me want to spring the Symphony 1010 clarinet from its case, make red and gold clothing for winter and unpack the spare speakers so I can have music in my office. Even if it just inspires you to be the last man clapping, don't miss it.