Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Ten things I learned from clearing out my wardrobe

I cleaned out my wardrobe in the 32° heat this weekend and it was horrible and melancholy and stifling, but never mind, because I have managed to turn this trivial process into an excuse for lengthy, tedious introspection!

Ten things I learned while clearing out my wardrobe:

1. When, for any reason - heartbreak, anxiety, illness, infatuation - you become unexpectedly, dramatically thin, you will be tempted to go out and buy heaps of new clothes. Suddenly everything looks good on you, things you couldn't have imagined buying before, tiny skirts and bright colours and fitted shirts, make sense. You feel like a small child in front of the mind-blowing plenty of Woolworth's pick 'n' mix: you must have everything. Resist this temptation. This is not the time to buy £600 Temperley dresses, or supertight designer jeans. Remember, you're thin. Surely you can enjoy this short-lived phenomenon without serious new clothes? It won't last and when it's over, you aren't going to want horribly expensive reminders of how thin you used to be. (If you ever get thin again, you probably won't remember, or care, about this but it needs saying anyway).

2. Made-to-measure bras: this seemed like such a brilliant idea at the time - you're a funny shape! Finally something will fit! You can choose the colour and the shape and stuff! Well guess what: it really, really wasn't a brilliant idea. It turns out breasts change size constantly with pregnancy, weight gain, weight loss, contraception.. Short of some kind of supernatural shapeshifting Avengers style bra, or surgery to replace your tits with that memory foam they use for pillows, this is a hiding to nothing. No one needs an extravagant hand-stitched memento of the time, in a long distant life, in a far-off country, when they were once a 30D (Ha. Hahahahahaha). Never do that again.

3. As you clear and excavate, some things will shine through with the reassuring weight of perennial truth. You really, really like stripes. You will never give up on black opaques. You look good in a boat neck and three quarter length sleeves. Forgiving dark dresses with all the fit and shape of refuse sacks make you happy.

4. Your wardrobe is where all your mistakes and vanities come to die, that's why clearing it out is so miserable. All the times you tried on another identity: avant-garde gallerista (that pointy shouldered Issey Miyake cardi, like a Klingon uniform on you), your innately, brilliantly stylish friend Kate (almost everything bought in 2005-6. She looked so great though), Katherine Hepburn (all those Margaret Howell wide legged trousers! Katherine Hepburn was tall, you forgot). All the times you bought fancy underwear for a rendezvous that never happened (that ludicrous Coco de Mer bra that made you look like a bag of giblets wrapped in duct tape still has a price tag on), or it did happen and now you kind of wish it hadn't. All the lacklustre garments you convinced yourself you absolutely, positively, couldn't live without (those two Max and Co dresses: what kind of spell does that shop cast over you, making you buy things you'll never wear?). Don't feel bad, or at least, don't just feel bad and don't cast them swiftly aside, embarrassed, declaring to yourself that that part of your life is over. Force yourself to look at them a little tenderly. All those mistakes brought you here. You'll make more. Loads more.

5. Related to the above: you know all the things you regret buying, the ones that got away, like that Joseph dress you nearly bought in Liberty twelve years ago but couldn't quite afford and still think about? Well, most of them would have ended up like that too. Dated, dusty, boxy, their former appeal utterly, unimaginably distant. Let them float away. It was 2001, for god's sake. You wouldn't fit into the bloody dress now anyway.

6. It's harder to forget the things that you've loved and lost. Their absence haunts your wardrobe: that kitten soft cashmere oatmeal cardie, like a hug in garment form, where on earth did it go? The heavy slubbed silk blouse that had just the right Gillian-Anderson-in-The-Fall vibe. Dad's ancient cricket jumper. The fallen soldiers of the 2007-2008 Moth Wars (dark days, comrades). In memory they're all perfect.

7. Sometimes a thing not fitting any more is devastating, a betrayal; it feels personal. How could you, you think, tearfully, fighting with a zip or a button then throwing the offending loved one across the floor. Not you. I trusted you. Sometimes when this happens, it's ok to tell yourself it shrunk in the wash. Sometimes it's even true.

8. The hardest clothes to deal with are the ones that are just slightly, maybe just 5 or 10%, too small. The trousers you can still button up, just, as long as you don't breathe. The tops that pull slightly across your chest, or the shirts that gape. The hem that sits funny because now the dress it's attached to is taut over your hips. You stand in front of the mirror and pull appraisingly at it. You wouldn't have to lose much weight, you think. A couple of weeks with no booze and no pudding might do it?

Think about the shape you are now and what it means. It means you wake up in the morning with a (relatively) clear head and (relatively) good skin, without that iron band of a headache and that hollow feeling in your chest that used to mark your mornings. Think about your energy, your libido, your health. Think, more than anything, of how much mental energy, how much time used to be taken up with losing weight; dodging carbs, refusing cake, choosing the absolute perfect time to weigh yourself each day or finding a discreet loo to throw up what you "shouldn't" have eaten, avoiding the next social event where you might have to eat a potato. You've freed up all that space on your hard drive now for normal things, better things. Eat a biscuit, don't eat a biscuit. Whatever. Nothing hangs on it any more. Isn't that amazing? Isn't it, actually, wonderful?

Now think about the Pringle dress again. It's a bit formal, really; something you'd wear in the kind of city office you never have occasion to visit any more, or for a graduation. If you slimmed down that crucial 8%, that half kilo, you might get to wear it twice a year at most. But if you step back on the weight loss treadmill, all the space in your head, for writing and cakes and jokes about lipstick and nights out and even kindness (it's hard not to be very selfish when you're constantly starving), will be eaten away with the dreary repetitive mumble of disordered eating. There's no competition. Fuck the dress. Give it away. If you really can't do that, hide it away on the highest shelf and try to forget it's there, and if, for any reason, you end up thin again after some catastrophe or sadness (because usually, you know, that's how you get dramatically thin; something awful happens) you can get it out again and, I don't know, pretend to be an accountant for a day or something.

That doesn't mean give up and eat all the crisps. There's a fine line between healthy acceptance and giving up and this is the one you have to negotiate now. Still, it's a better line than the one between morbidly enjoyable deprivation and wigged out osteoporotic psycho.

9. You get a free pass for some things. The ones that remind you of people, or the ones that the mere idea of makes you happy. Your mum's stuff, if it does that. That paper fine Indian cotton blue dressing gown you thought was a great idea to take into hospital to have your first baby (um, not so much), even though it's ripped all along the seam, as fragile and transparent as antique lace. That one shouldered bright red Jaeger party dress you couldn't resist, even though you haven't actually ever dared wear it. You still might. It's hanging there, like a dare you haven't turned down yet.

10. Once it's done, you're going to be drunk on the glory of your new, pure wardrobe. The colour-coded bras. The neatly rolled paint-chart-perfect vest tops. The jumpers, clean and lavender bagged and hung on padded hangers. You'll want it to stay like that forever. Enjoy it for a moment, keep it nice for a moment, but accept that sooner or later (the smart money's on sooner) you're going to be tired one evening and you'll leave your jeans on the floor with the pants still down the leg. You'll shove balled-up jumpers with soup on the sleeves back into the cupboard unfolded, and give up on the boring business of pairing your socks. Because your wardrobe is like your life, messy and cluttered and dotted with mistakes and incredible memories. You wouldn't want it any other way really, would you?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sagging pre-holiday nonsense

I cannot be doing with any more work today, it is hot and bothersome and I have been wrestling for too long in the steaming entrails of a uncooperative corporate CMS. I imagine the circles of modern hell will be populated with giant Excel spreadsheets and glitchy, uncooperative CMS and vast screens projecting scrolling social media feeds of your enemies being ultra-successful and going to enviable parties and being thin. I suppose there will still be the traditional demons with pointy sticks disembowelling you too, because that kind of thing has perennial appeal. Maybe we should check with Francis. I understand he is doling out indulgences on Twitter now, which is a shame as he may undercut the online simony business Mrs Trefusis and I have been planning for the past five years. It is like the nap pods and Philanderers dot com all over again, we have the ideas but fall down on the execution.

So. Here I am. High summer in Belgium, and the country is grinding lethargically to the traditional mid-summer halt, barring the possibility of some high kitsch abdication/national holiday high jinks this Sunday. Everything is slow and lazy, including me, and I have no partners in crime with whom I can go and sit on terraces and drink shoddy mojitos. This is a crying shame, but the consolation for you, is that here I am, updating my weblog with tales of pretty much nothing whatsoever (aren't you lucky).

My news, in vast, exaggerated, inverted commas:

- I currently have a huge swollen purple ankle courtesy of falling over whilst running for a tram. Never run for a tram, kids, because the tram has nothing to lose and you do (dignity, mobility, the potential for wearing skirts).

- This was considerably more painful than falling off a horse which I have also done recently, faceplanting dramatically in a sandy riding school. Actually, it was less of a fall, more of the horse (my great friend and soulmate Noblesse) falling over, which as noted above, can happen to anyone, especially if they are needlessly running. Nevertheless, I could not really do up or undo my bra for several days, so I just slept in it because I am inventive like that, and felt grateful it wasn't much worse.

- I have been to London for a couple of days, where I mainly rolled in a vast, luxurious pile of weekend newspapers JUST BECAUSE I COULD. No dog. No children. At one particularly amazing point in the weekend, M and I found ourselves fortuitously in a cocktail bar at an unexpected happy hour and ended up sitting outside in the blazing sun with FOUR cocktails in front of us (we really had to idea it was Happy Hour, or we would have ordered more strategically).

(If you would like to know what nail varnish M is wearing, I cannot tell you because she is wearing about 7 different ones after a demented trawl around Liverpool St Boots, where I managed to upset a whole display of deodorants and bought nothing)

I also went to the Grain Store because it is très chic and immensely convenient for St Pancras. It was very delicious though the portions were terribly small if you come from Belgium (which increasingly, I am forced to admit I do). I had divine grilled asparagus with some species of tasty green sauce and tiny slivers of melba toast and prawn and courgette falafels (no, I am not sure how this is a 'thing') and raita, and a cocktail with elderflower and vodka and champagne which I learn from the dreaded Instagram today is Kate Moss's favourite. I did not take any pictures of my food even though it was very pretty, because I am trying not to be that person. I was actually sent to a bar to take an Instagram picture of a cocktail for a paid job last week, so I have a great deal of penance to put in, social media twattery-wise.

Interestingly - this is a grave misuse of that word - this was the first time I returned from London without a giant bag of Marks & Spencer food. Either I have finally accepted my Belgian lot and no longer crave Colin the Caterpillar cakes and Cherry Bakewell Trifles, or, and this is more likely, I had eaten so much the prospect of sourcing even more food was unbearable. I returned home rather fat with nothing more alluring in my possession than 2 M&S minimiser bras, which I fear have their work cut out after all that eating.

Also in London I met the Relentless Laundress, who as you would expect from her blog, was extremely funny and delightful. She bought me THIS:

I have stashed it in the fridge.  Actually stashed them, there are two of them. Perhaps we could do a sort of live unboxing post here sometime next week? Is there anyone out there who has tried this thing? IS IT SAFE?

- There is New Facegoop on facial moustache waxing. Why not join the party (and by party, I mean, disgusted Guardian commenters telling us we are immature twats bringing shame on a once great institution)?

- Reading news: I downloaded the JK Rowling thriller the day before it was revealed she wrote it, and now I feel a bit thwarted and that the knowledge is colouring my reading of it. Damn. I am not wholly sure about the detective himself, but the detective's sidekick is very well-done. I like her and want more of her and will probably finish it tonight. My stepmother has lent me Rod Stewart's autobiography (joy, I hear it is a corker) and the 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared (yes? No? She and my dad both adored) and I have also read and loved - though it made me very anxious and occasionally sad - Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.

- Holiday news: this time next week we will be on the boat to Hull, Yaris stuffed with cagoules and sensible shoes, weepette sedated in the hold, which is surely a promising start to any holiday. Two weeks. Remote Yorkshire moor. No phone reception or wifi. Distant, half-remembered places that I have a vague sense I thought were brilliant thirty years ago but will probably prove unable to locate. I have written something about this for the Guardian, but it is appearing when we are actually there (27th, I think) so I will be unable to draw your attention to it at the time due to said absence of phone/Internet. My dad was very sporting about his appearance in the piece, and noted I had forgotten in my listing of rural miseries to mention "the bleak chill of Leyburn market and the rats in your bedroom ceiling". Indeed.

Your turn. Good reads? Strange foods? Foolish accidents? Vision of contemporary hell? Yorkshire isolation survival kit suggestions?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Adventures in greater Belgium

I wish I had some glamorous and escapist things to relate. I have been admiring other people's lovely lives (bloody Instagram again) with some wistfulness. The macarons! The make up! I have nothing remotely like that for you, though I have at least left the house. I met a grotesquely fat cat down an alleyway last night and put that on Instagram. I am totally getting the hang of this.

1. Yesterday we went to Oostende (I like it with the Flemish extra 'o'. You only get an Oo with Oostende!), along with 87,3% of the rest of Belgium. I still hate the beach after 38 years, and sat huddled fully dressed under a wide brimmed hat, the hem of a bath sized towel tucked under the rim of my sunglasses and the rest of said towel covering every inch of my body and scowled at the sun while the children dug holes and went in the horribly cold water and so on. Occasionally we would sit while they warmed up and admire the seagulls who were circling very, very low and very, very deliberately over the beach, biding their time while they chose a child to carry away. Oostende was papered with jolly warning posters about seagull antics, featuring a vulpine and terrifying seagull head and a disembodied (quite possibly literally) finger unwisely proffering a chip. The seafront is populated not only with death gulls maddened with blood lust for surimi batons and fingers but also by nine thousand beered-up and sunbaked teenagers in fast, low cart things called cuistax whose goal for the day is to play chicken with other people's shins. Even getting back the 2km to the station felt like an exhilarating brush with death. I have rarely felt so alive.

2. Oh, I have also been to two festivals in under a week, which on reflection was probably a little more festival than I am ready for at my time of life. At the first one (world musak festival Couleur Café) I ate the worst food in the chequered history of Belgian food (grey friterie meats, I am looking at you), a dish of "curry" so grey, lukewarm and sludge-like that it made me quite hysterical. I should have Instagrammed the fucker but I was rendered incapable of anything whatsoever simply by the presence of the paper bowl of malevolence. It was like food kryptonite, if kryptonite were very faintly cumin scented porridge. After that we strayed into the aural assault range of a group called 'Die Antwoord' who seemed to be extremely angry about everything, possibly someone had prevailed upon them to try the curry. All choruses featured the work "fuck" shouted repeatedly at high volume, like a South African, electro version of Father Jack. I also took several taunting pictures of white dreads (of which there were legion) with which to taunt Madevi.

The second festival is miles away in the Flanders countryside, through an endless succession of long, unlovely sprawling towns and villages full of garden ornament shops and elaborate and ill-advised villas of the kind you find on Ugly Belgian Houses. It was full of happy, pissed, loud, dancing teenagers, cheerily throwing cups of beer in the air and pissing in hedges, which is the kind of thing you have to be in the mood for (the mood being "highly pissed yourself").

I went mainly for Vampire Weekend and they were, as ever, polite and slick and wonderfully musical and in-tune and possibly the cleanest looking group of musicians I have ever seen. So clean! Such nice boys! They were quite hard to enjoy, however, due to the teenagers insisting on having loud vocal fun throughout (you can see I was not entirely in the spirit of the thing, narrowing my eyes fruitlessly at the square dancing youths in the monkey onesies). The rest I was more relaxed about: I quite enjoyed what little of Bloc Party I could see across 9000 sunburnt shoulders and lots of Dizzee Rascal, though I was forced with regret to conclude that "HOW THE FUCK YA DOIN' BELGIUM?" will never quite have the ring of, say, 'Vegas' or 'Ibiza'.

On the way home, somewhat mellowed towards the youth by a couple of lukewarm beakers of wine (2,5 tiny paper tokens each. Tell me, the rest of the world - do your festivals require you to buy a strip of tickets from an officious ticket counter in order to procure victuals? Or is this a Belgian peculiarity? I don't even know any more), we relinquished our wristbands, highly illegally, to two enterprising teenagers who conducted an ingenious trick involving putting my hand in a cheese Doritos bag. I felt quite edgy for about four seconds.

3. Today I got back on a train to go to Ghent to be initiated into the ways of Beer. In preparation for this, I bought four different kinds of beer at the weekend and hated all of them. There was "the unbearably bitter one", "the disgustingly sour one", "the unpleasantly sweet one with the nightmarish Santa on the bottle" and "the other one that I can't remember, can we stop now". See these glasses?

That is how much of each beer I managed to drink. Pathetic.

Thankfully today's selection was considerably better, though that is not really saying much (the beer expert laughed heartily when I told her about my brush with this bastard and said it was "probably the worst beer you could have chosen to start off with", so that was unsurprising). My train on the way back was delayed by nearly an hour and featured the trifecta of transport torment that is: a furiously arguing and volatile couple of the kind that could quite easily decide at any second to reconcile and turn on you, a barking dog and an inconsolably wailing baby.

"What do I win?" I emailed M.

"You win .. this magnificent headache!"

In conclusion on 1-3, leaving my house and venturing outside of Brussels is an activity fraught with strangeness. I am used to the particular, familiar weirdness of my neighbourhood: the man with the multipurpose bench of lunacy (currently piled with sheet music and books about canaries), the sociologically interesting and inexplicable local practice of buying ice creams then sitting in the car to eat them, the hairdresser's window. The strangeness, however, of the wider Belgium, always throws me. I like it, but I sure as hell do not understand it. They speak another language, in which I can only describe a house or say "order 98 is ready at the butchers" (thank you Colruyt). Everyone wears earplugs to listen to music. They drink beer that tastes like the concentrated essence of misery ("yes, yes, it's supposed to smell like socks"). You can go on walks guided by a pig (I am, predictably, hell bent on doing this). I am, however, encouraged by the enduring strangeness, because it means there is still plenty for me to explore. I mean, I still haven't been to the festival where the initiates swallow live fish and then pelt the audience with pretzels! What have I been doing for the past seven years?


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Seven Reasons I Should Be The New Queen of Belgium

Tonight Albert II King of the Belgians has abdicated in favour of his son Philippe who is inconsiderately not called either Albert or Leopold, which I think he will find is a big mistake (has no one taught these people about brand recognition?).

Bye Bye Old King

Hello New King

If only he could have chosen his younger son Prince Laurent, who is a bit like one of those 18th-century lunatics you read about sometimes who ride bears and make their horses drink port and hunt their own children (do follow that link if you like those kinds of stories). He is like a Belgian Boris Johnson, a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying oaf, always getting into amusing scrapes by getting the Army to build his house or going on unauthorised trips to the Congo. We wouldn't get bored with Laurent, though he might very well sell Belgium to a Nigerian spammer.

After all the free beer and extra holidays that will surely be coming our way in the next few weeks, I would like to throw my hat into the ring as alternative sovereign, because in 2013, in an enlightened democracy like Belgium, surely primogeniture is a bit, eh, old news? A bit retro? Let's run this thing like modern civilisations do and elect a new monarch via a TV TALENT CONTENT AND RIGGED PHONE VOTE. 'Rex Factor' suggests Berlaymonster, or 'Who Wants to be a Belgian Heir'.

Failing this, here is my manifesto for royal elevation:

1. I like horses. I REALLY like horses. I would happily marry one if it would ensure dynastic stability. I can make that sacrifice. Easily.

2. I can describe a house in Dutch, thus proving my amazing multilingual credentials and making me a useful tour guide. A palace shouldn't be too much more difficult, I'll just add in a few more 'verdiepings' and 'kamers'.

3. I am really good at sitting still for long boring ceremonial occasions thanks to my many years of training at hour-long silent meeting at Quaker school.

4. Willing to change my name to 'Leopold'. Leopold Beddington Saxe-Gotha IV. Yeah. It has a ring.

5. Familiarity with wigs meaning large, Fabiola style hair is a very real and immediate possibility.

6. Willingness to reinstate the old system of giving people a driving licence as a royal gift on their 18th birthday without any form of testing. It can't make road safety any worse than it is now.

7. I am already feckless, spendthrift and functionally unemployable, so will fit right in.

I am stopping at seven because I reckon I need to get my candidature in early to maximise my chances. Would you like to be King or Queen of the Belgians? What qualities would you bring to the role?