Facing up to the dentist

Like a lot of people all over the world – hive mind at work – I’m reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She has been obsessed with falconry since childhood, but after the sudden death of her father she takes on a new challenge: training a goshawk. Goshawks are big, wild birds, difficult to train, and extinct in Britain by the late nineteenth century. They were quietly reintroduced by falconers from the 1960s onwards.


It’s an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve found myself reading passages aloud in our empty house, stunned by the rhythm, power and informality of her writing. And – like many thousands of other people probably – I’ve found weird points of connection. The same reference points. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And John Le Carre’s novels. She keeps coming back to the character Jim Prideaux of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Prideaux is the wounded ex-spy, filling in time by teaching languages at a fourth-rate boarding school in southern England: a big, wild, gentle man adored by his students, who wrings the neck of an injured owl without an apparent second thought. Le Carre’s Smiley novels are on our bookshelves, a fairly recent, guilty obsession of mine. Cold War romance. Why do I like them so much?

Helen Macdonald has thought of herself as a spy; her father used to joke about her potential. She is invited to show off her goshawk to the family of the Master of the Cambridge College at which she has a three-year fellowship. She can’t handle it. ‘My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have lost, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost… There’s a hush in my head; it grows louder. “I am not a spy,” I’d told my father, “I am a historian.” But watching everyone around the table, their faces entranced by my hawk, it seems that I am not even that any more. I am the Fool, I think dully… I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.’

That was last night: reading propped up on one elbow in bed before turning off the light. This morning, glumly contemplating a fairly routine visit to the dentist, I remember her words. I don’t know what to wear. I don’t need clothes to express my individuality this morning, I need clothes to get me up Collins Street with its hordes of smartly dressed business people and into the dentist’s waiting room with its neon lights and magazines. I want to look normal, I want to look like everybody else. Clothing as camouflage. Where are the smartly tailored trousers and the good jacket? They don’t appear to have arrived in my life. I’m an ageing woman with messy hair and an increasingly home-made wardrobe. The dentist will be polite and efficient as usual, but I will see myself through his Eastern Suburbs eyes. Eccentric, unpredictable, inappropriate. Once upon a time, I might even have rushed out to spend a stupid amount of money on office clothes, just to get me through the day. And then they would have hung in the wardrobe unworn for several years and ended up at the Brotherhood, unloved.

And the indignity of the whole procedure! Lying on one’s back with a virtual stranger probing the recesses of one’s mouth with sharp instruments, while a whole cliff-face of office windows looks on across twenty metres of city air. There’s a word I keep remembering and then forgetting; Julia Kristeva writes about it in Powers of Horror. She talks about the shudder in her whole body, faced with the skim that forms on the surface of warm milk. I know what the word is and what it means, but it moves out of reach, dances around at a distance, unretrievable. A hawk in a tree, refusing to come down to its handler. Not lost, just stubborn.

Abjection. I had to go on line to find the word. To me, it’s something to do with a breakdown in the surfaces of one’s consciousness, the permeable layers that protect the workings of the mind, filtering the chaotic external world into a manageable flow of information. Helen Macdonald writes about this absence of protection – I could quote on and on, but it’s a book that needs to be read as a whole. Abjection. The moments in one’s life – moments, years – when, as Margaret Atwood once put it, you ‘live like a peeled snail’. As defenceless as W H Auden’s Miss Gee, laid out naked and dead for dissection in front of laughing medical students.

The dentist issue is trivial. It is quite possible, in the later stages of life, to confront a small existential crisis (cool-eyed dentist; city crowds) without dissolving into panic. On this occasion, Donna Karan comes to the rescue. Her designs are the opposite of armour; they are fluid, dateless, comfortable. There’s an old Vogue design, a cowled smock, Vogue 1179, which I have made, I think, four times. One dud, one not great, one too dark for daytime wear for me, and the fourth: a stretchy synthetic with a bit of body to it, in a jazzy pattern of black, turquoise, gold and grey, from Clegs in Brunswick. It cheers me up. It tells the world I’m cheerful. I’ll pass for normal.


The pattern is most unfortunately out of print. Why can’t Vogue keep these things available? They’re classics, people are going to go on wanting to buy them. It isn’t even listed among the out of print patterns on the website. It can still be found on ebay from time to time. This morning it got me out of trouble: off to the dentist in half an hour’s time, not looking forward to this but not in a complete panic. Armoured.


High fashion: an interlude

This blog is not going to indulge itself in any easy cynicism about haute couture. Without the Paris shows, would we ever have heard of Issey Miyake and Junya Watanabe? Without a global awareness of that floppy, recycled aesthetic, would Vogue Patterns go out of their way to continue producing Marcy Tilton’s fabulous Japanese-inspired loose dresses and asymmetric T-shirts?

And where would we be without the encouragement of Clare Sheaffer’s Couture Sewing Techniques when it comes to buttonholes and seam finishes? Dump the machine and do it by hand: there’s no particular virtue in machine work, it’s only faster and neater if it’s piloted by a skilled operator, which takes years of practice for the ham-fisted. Once you’ve had to undo one long machine-stitched seam in an unforgiving fabric, and counted the extra three hours into the production time of that garment, hand sewing – or at least a careful process of tacking, trying on, untacking and trying on again, incorporating perhaps a line of machine stitching for the seam itself and then oversewing the edges by hand – begins to look like a time-saver.

Nevertheless, most of the fashion shows are less than irrelevant to me, now and also at other, better-looking phases of my life: mostly to me they are boring. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who see this year’s subtle innovations in colour and shape and draw their own creative conclusions. Usually I glance at a photo or two in a newspaper and move on. Nothing to see here.

Balenciaga’s latest, however, gave me a little visual shock. Look at this young woman. OK: she is extraordinarily beautiful in a pale Tilde Swinton sort of way, and presumably immensely tall and slim, and she’s wearing a small fortune’s worth of exquisite gloves,  interesting and dramatic neck ornament, and unwearably high platform boots, and she’s carrying an excellent bag a bit like a sheet music case – but apart from that…


That shirt. OK, the designer has chosen to crop it on one side at the front, and what I thought at first was a charming untuckedness is actually an irritating little bit of self-indulgence. [Later: looking at it again, sorry, yes, I think it’s a charming untuckedness.] But it’s a classic mannish cotton shirt, oversized and perfectly crisp and ironed. It appears elsewhere in the show with all its bits intact under an oversized denim jacket, whose well-worn twin may well be lurking somewhere in Savers in Sydney Road, Brunswick.

Balenciaga denim

Both models are wearing prim below-the-knee skirts in tweed or corduroy – the kind of thing that says to me: 1970s London feminist off to her day job, trying to look respectable. At home, she has a selection of dungarees, boots from the long-gone Olof Daughters, dangly earrings from another long-lost shop, Detail in Covent Garden, and a fine collection of political badges. And another thing: those incredibly beautiful young women, like the 1970s London feminist, appear not to be wearing any make-up on their faces at all.

Things that go on forever. I have that shirt. Got it at the very down-market K-mart many years ago. It was languishing in an unloved area within Womens Fashions, and it was pure cotton, no frills, and had a useful arrangement on the sleeves that keeps them hitched up when you’re cooking. It was so cheap that for once I did the sensible thing: went back and bought two more. They’re still going strong, worn every winter in combination with singlets underneath, jumpers over the top, shirt-tails out and trailing if the jumper is short enough to show them. I suppose it’s a uniform that dates me dreadfully.

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Here they are: three K-mart shirts, newly ironed believe it or not, only very slightly marked in one case by, perhaps, simmering tomato sauce, but all still in good nick otherwise. I’m so glad that this year the loose mannish shirt is having its moment in the sun.

And, by the way, I want to acknowledge the skilled and anonymous Chinese women who sewed my three cheap shirts. Also, come to think of it, the people who picked the cotton, delivered it to the mill, and worked in the mill where it was cleaned, spun, dyed and woven. Also the workers in the factory that made the metal snaps that have lasted all these years. I hope, optimistically, that you’re all working a maximum forty-hour week for decent wages in reasonable working conditions.



Dressing up, dressing down

As cool weather arrives, so does the usual wardrobe crisis. What to wear when the temperature drops below 20˚? No idea. Good to see that the wardrobe is slightly less populated these days, thanks to a clothing swap and also thanks to a vast bag of stuff cluttering up the bedroom floor, shortly to make its way to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. However. The T-shirts of the last few months will not be enough this morning. What was I wearing in spring?