5. 25 March 2017 so to my next guest writer ….
Saying goodbye to old Soho and his season ticket for Craven Cottage journalist and raconteur Jonathan Futrell moved his shoes and vinyl collections, and his humidor, to an Edwardian red brick house overlooking Cornwall’s windy north coast. Between endless beach walks with his artist wife Kim and their dog Asta the former travel writer has scratched the surface of this maritime idyll to reveal a community of peripatetic likeminded immigrant ‘locals’.
Strangers In A Strange Land
by jonathan futrell
I can see her now, over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now. In a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect.
The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete gingerly stepping over the pebbles towards the shallow waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors, sat open the foreshore, and my wife and I unseen on the windy path from the town. She cut a lonely figure slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky.
She was there every day of that holiday, apparently impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic whatever the weather (and there is a good deal of all kinds here), swimming slowly but strongly against the current for two minutes. Her gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship. Indomitable. Fearless.
Asking around I discovered that our siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades prior, dazzling the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town.
In a region popular with retirees whose sole ambition is to sit by the window in zip-up fleeces, and gaze upon a platinum horizon until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin this chic immigrant, with a dash of rock ’n roll, had sought life on the Cornish coast not death. Her journey west was for her a beginning, not an end. She’d sought somewhere to feel alive in. A place to sharpen the senses. Be seduced by the elements. Where the colours of the big sky in the sea are never the same twice. Not for her the last resting place of grey daytime television mediocrity.
Monica chose the relentless Atlantic that ceaselessly forges new beach contours and reveals sunken wrecks. A place where distant forests disgorge coal and timber to feed the stoves that scent the winter air.
Her name is Monica and she is sat in front of me. We are in a room that I always imagined Miss Havisham inhabits in Great Expectations, where brass and wood garnitures are linked by drifting cobwebs. There is a fire at one end. Alcoves of leather bound volumes. Solid settees and heavy frames. There is a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, and the aroma of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china, factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles of most of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. No attempt here to create a Disneyesque faux maritime world. Monica doesn’t need a clothes rack fashioned to resemble a rowing oar, or an occasional table purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China).
Much is made of locals from “back along”, whether Cornish or Cockney; the descendants of people born, raised, and subsequently themselves rearing within yards of their ancestors. I, on the other, admire the ambulatory itinerants. Those who choose to live miles from where they grew up. People who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and taken them where the wind suits their clothes.
Of course many have no choice where they end up; they up-sticks and move for work. Or they are driven by war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step off the train for no other reason than to be in a place like this, surrounded by an ocean at the edge of the world. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Ok, maybe. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have the edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
My town is peppered with Monicas; not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but there are of many from very different backgrounds, each lured by the freshness of the salty air and the shifting scenery:
Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live, on a budget. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five a side football.
The entire building is leaning towards the sea with every piece of furniture on the west and eastern walls kept on an even keel with blocks of wood. John is from Portsmouth and fell in love with a Cornish maiden. Sue, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia, keeps house for the local gentry in a magnificent pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in the old coffin store halfway along a ginnel that runs beneath and between ancient homes. There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts. Sue was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s was the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out in Czech and Speake.
Tamsin divorced and followed her son here, hooked on surfing since his first holiday on the north coast. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities is running an exclusive and very bohemian cinema club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Los Angeles who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way every Americans does) by redesigning the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value.
Then there is the local musician and raconteur, Paul from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night soiree in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants in a number of guises hereabouts; sometimes with his daughter on jazz vocals, and on others with Big Dave or The Lost Yankees.
Monica grew up in East Anglia, where she must have given those muddy farm boys sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlins’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked. By all accounts never given it much thought. She’s been too busy being beautiful and reading to do anything so plebeian. She reads everything she can get her long decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her long shadowy home of bitter memories. Books line the stairs. They fill the alcoves. And although I’ve never seen them there are many more she says beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night an illuminated dredger boat throws Christmas lights on her ceiling.
Monica reads everything, although she tends to avoid novels. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence a wonderful book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous strativarus that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains as a passage about I am pledged to recite at her funeral, heaven forbid. In the book Sebald follows the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling on many places I have visited over the years. I particularly like the section in the Seaman’s Mission and another about a palace near Lowestoft. Sebald’s previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged California for the blustery tranquility of Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States.
Monica is alone much of the time. Her family is all gone. Just her with her sepia photographs and books, and her dogs who share her passion for beach walks, and dunes, and long nights by the fire.
She told me once she’d found that black swimming costume I’d seen her in that first time, on the beach. In fact, she has a wardrobe full of swimming costumes, hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave by an immigrant from back along.
4. 8 March 2017 . its seems apt to post another one of my guest writers today – as its international women’s day, who can be more inspiring than my friend Debra Bourne – as she quietly goes through her days challenging and progressing the rights, needs and feelings of the female, she is forever dividing her time, spirit and good sense amongst all her family and colleagues. deservingly she has just been publicly rewarded – read her fine words.
If there’s one day to celebrate the arc of female accomplishment, it’s surely today. Wednesday March 8th 2017. The 118th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Although technically speaking, Woman’s Day didn’t become an international affair until 1911. Inspired by the prior activities of American socialists, this was the first time that over a million women from Austria, Demark, Germany, Switzerland amongst other nations, signed up to the strategy to promote equal rights for women, including suffrage. Having participated in London’s spirited Women’s March earlier this year, even after a hundred years of activism, there’s still a whole heap of issues for us to address and improve upon.
I love and respect men, but I deeply love being a woman. Equality and the respect for difference have always been incredibly close to my heart and as a founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk (www.allwalks.org), which challenges the industry’s dependency on unachievable body and beauty ideals by promoting diversity in fashion;these values remain pretty central to my life today.
So that said, before any further ado, please may I encourage you, whether you are male or female to sit back, relax and grab a cup of tea before taking a moment to truly appreciate either yourself or any of the wonderful women in your life: Mothers, sisters, friends, daughters, grandmothers, role models or simply generous strangers. Let’s give it up for the multitude of acts; big, small, heroic or tedious, (in my book, tedium particularly warrants some love), that have touched your life over the year.
At this point, I’d like to share my appreciation for my dear and longstanding friend, Christina, who as the creative energy behind this gorgeous blog invited me to write this piece. In addition to both working in creative-led industries and sharing a mutual love of modernism, design, ceramics and photography, we’ve been close friends since our children; Maude and Johnny were three years old. Now, with our kids in their eighteenth year, I continue to admire Christina’s tremendous thoughtfulness, generosity, many talents and impressive time-management, juggling skills. Thank you Christina for your love and friendship.
The qualities of friendship, solidarity and feminism strike me as both distinct and somewhat interwoven. Love, trust, harmony and respect; all values at the heart of true friendship are core to the spirit of solidarity, albeit that the context is societal, rather than personal. So how do we express our values as women in society? In our many roles? And in return, how does society value us?
These questions are clearly too big to fully answer here, but they flag an invitation to share one of rules that I personally try to live by. I respect that you may not share my belief here, but taking a lead from the classic proverb, “charity begins at home“ which points to a person’s first responsibility is to the needs of ones own family and friends”, I feel its crucial that the first celebratory pit-stop on the road to a fulfilled womanhood begins with a responsibility to meet my own needs and find time to celebrate myself.
To know ourselves. Trust ourselves. Love, accept, pleasure and respect ourselves, as women, whether that be physically, emotionally or mentally, may sound like a simple and vain task, but in reality it’s a frame for a lifelong, conscious commitment.
Valuing ourselves as women is a serious business. If we don’t take ourselves seriously, then who will? Let’s not dismiss our dreams as dizzy ideas, but pursue them doggedly. To practice a path of self-love passionately, might even safeguard our bank balance. Given that some say that today’s psychologically astute society willfully targets and exploits female vulnerability for immense commercial gain. L’Oreal Paris was ranked the worlds number one in 2016, worth a record breaking, $13.69 billion. Not exactly small fry.
Rather than fear aging, our years of accumulative experience contributes to a reassuring sense of self-knowing. When we arrive at a place of true female maturity, our secret gift is not a puerile self-absorption but a wise liberation and deeply sustaining self-confidence that removes or significantly reduces the need for other people in our life, to be holding an affirming mirror up and this is immensely empowering. Each of us has the potential to become a well for our own wise-womanhood. We just have to willingly choose to drink its water.
Through my work in education or campaigning, I am often faced with younger generations of women who’ve feel inadequate and anxious. They have mistakenly given the responsibility for their self worth, fulfillment and general happiness, over another entity, whether that be a significant other, a partner, a job or a powerful cultural force like celebrities the fashion world or pornography. In addition to its’ role in marketing and selling clothing, fashion is a powerful carrier of messages about our bodies, our identity and self- esteem. An area of wider impact that it’s not generally keen to take responsibility for. As a global authority on appearance and taste, the fashion industry has the power to seduce way too many young women, particularly those intent on relating to such a reductive and literally superficial version of their womanhood, by prioritising appearance and an external sense of self. Without any attention to the beauty of inner growth, it’s no wonder that the fear of ageing, even in ones twenties can be the cause of such consternation.
I can’t help feeling protective over our young women. I want them to give them an helpful pointer. Having psychologically dethroned their mothers, as most of us did, during the required separation space of adolescence, many teenagers will step out into the world looking to become their very own ‘different from their mum’ woman. Disguising their financial interest in these adolescent consumers, fashion brands are particularly sophisticated at shape-shifting, morphing itself continually and pertaining to be the oracle of female happiness. “Come over here and we will tell you what it means to be a woman.” Aside from the occasional editorial gems, freely giving valuable insights, conditions generally apply; namely economic ones. And whilst the promise of happiness and attraction is proffered, It is essentially available if you are willing to endlessly subscribe to: do, buy, groom, eat, not eat, change and wear the following…and this list is the short version.
Compliance with dedication might buy a short shot of feel-good female status but not for too long. It’s in the commercial self-interest of these self acclaimed authorities on womanhood aka the fashion, beauty, diet, or even fitness industries, to swiftly adopt ever-changing trends and enthusiastically re-instruct you with new and improved rules that potentially bind you in dependently maintaining a lifetime of perfecting femininity.
Don’t get me wrong, I can love fashion, it was my industry for over 25 years and I know its power to magnificently adorn the female form. Fashion can be fun. However, it’s not fun when it’s at the expense of ones’ autonomy. Fashion can be a great tool for self-expression, but again, it’s a concern for the emotional vulnerable among us; Those who ask the wrong stranger for directions and whilst seeking self-validation, unconsciously fall prey to its’ demands. This is why, amongst other reasons, I enjoy spending my time, in whole-heartedly encouraging women to not give their power away and walk tall and savvy.
So without wishing to deny International Women’s Day of any of its’ valiant remit, whether that be female empowerment, international protest, political activism or addressing other global urgencies that touch all our hearts and lives in some way or another; I invite any women who have graciously stayed with me to the bottom of this page, to take a quality chunk of this 118th, IWD day, to stop, value and deeply appreciate the woman under your own nose. She is unquestionably worth it and not because a billion dollar brand says so. Use International Women’s Day, to begin an intimate relationship with our best friend – Yourself. Once your well is full, sure, go conquer the world and stand in solidarity, but please, do not advance from Go, without taking a deliberate dose of self-loving kindness to quench the thirst of your own being. In the name of solidarity, please offer a drink to a sister. Then, my friend, the world is most definitely yours.
3. 1 March 2017. here’s the third piece in my special guest edits, Robert Ryan is an acclaimed author and journalist, and travel is one of his specialities.
I would wager that most visitors from the UK to New York rarely leave Manhattan, except maybe to check out some unbearably smug place to eat in Brooklyn. I was one of them until recently, when I decided it was time to head north into NY State, up the Hudson Valley and (eventually) to Woodstock and the Catskills. But you don’t have go that far to have a good time away from the city – a short train ride will bring you to good food, fine beers, lovely landscapes and, perhaps surprisingly, great art.
You might think there is enough art on Manhattan to keep you going for decades, and you would probably be right, but there are a couple of unusual galleries that are worth a day’s excursion. And one of them comes with the bonus of catching the Metro North train from Grand Central Station up the Hudson Valley – the same line used in the (lame) movie version of Girl on a Train. For views of the mighty river, sit on the left hand side on the carriage going up, right on the return.
Your first destination should be Beacon, which was once a local byword for industrial decline. Although still rough around the edges, Beacon is now yet another example of the power of contemporary art to inject life back into a decaying urban corpse.
The Dia:Beacon gallery (001 845 440 0100, http://www.diaart.org; £12) is accessed by shuttle bus (not Sundays) from the Beacon Metro North station, a stop on the Poughkeepsie line. Dia is housed in an old Nabisco factory on the banks of the Hudson and its closest equivalent is probably Tate Modern, although to be fair it has nothing to match the Turbine Hall. What it does have is light, lots of light. With its capacious galleries bathed in only that natural light, it is filled with the kind of works – especially the white-on-whites of Robert Ryman, the grey mirrors of Gerhard Richter and Robert Morris’s pile of muck, called Untitled (Dirt) – that will confirm your view of modern art as either inspirationally challenging or emperor’s-new-clothes fraudulent. I’m of the former persuasion and I am hardly alone – Dia pulls in enough visitors that once moribund Beacon has become a thriving little town of galleries, restaurants, hotels (the old mill that is The Roundhouse at Beacon Falls being the best – 001 845 765 8369, http://www.roundhousebeacon.com, doubles from £145 B&B) and bars (try The Hop at 554 Main St for excellent craft beers).
Thirteen miles west of Dia is The Storm King Art Centre in New Windsor (001 845 534 3115, http://www.stormking.org, £14.40). This is the kind of place only a country with vast tracts of land to spare could create. It is a massive outdoor sculpture park, with rolling hills and fields dotted with gargantuan works, many of which, especially Mark di Suvero’s installations, look as if they are the remnants of the industrial artifacts of a race of long-vanished Brobdingnagians. There are more low-key works by dozens of artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro, Henry Moore, Richard Serra and, represented by a sinuous dry stone wall that weaves in and out of the trees, landscape specialist Andy Galsworthy.
Storm King is slightly trickier to get to by public transport that Dia, but there are details of coach day trips from the city or train/taxi options from Beacon on the website. One thing is for sure – it’s not the type or scale of art you’ll find back on space-hungry Manhattan.
If you are making a full day of it, there are two things to detain you at Poughkeepsie, just up the river and along the Metro-North line. One is The Walkway Over the Hudson (001 845 454 9649, http://www.walkway.org; free), a restored railway bridge that is like an extra-elevated version of New York’s Highline. It is a stunning platform from which to view the changings seasons, especially as the blaze of autumn creeps down from the Canadian border or the green shoots of spring heads north, but when I last visited it required a rather long detour to reach the start of the ramp that would take you onto the main span. A recently installed glass elevator has solved that problem.
Close by, in Hyde Park, is the CIA. Now, I have to admit a frisson of excitement when it was suggested by a friend that I might like to visit the CIA, which only faded slightly when I was told it was the Culinary Institute of America (001 845 452 9600, http://www.ciachef.edu), not Spooksville (which is of course in Langley, Virginia). Set on a handsome riverside campus, this CIA is one of the most prestigious cookery schools in the USA and it has three restaurants (French, Italian, American) that are open to the public for lunch and dinner. The food in these restaurants is very accomplished; service, maybe not so much – but then everything is prepared and presented by the students, so you have to make allowances for the odd missing piece of flatware. It is also well worth taking a guided tour (£5.25) with a student, because it’s like walking through a vast Masterchef v Bake Off mash up.
I carried on north and eventually to Woodstock, where I came face-to-face with a bear (but that’s another story; trust me, The Revenant it ain’t) and deep into the Catskills, where many formerly moribund towns are being colonised by burnt-out Manhattanites.
Daytrippers, though have a choice of heading back to the city from Poughkeepsie by Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) or Metro North (www.mta.info/mnr). The former is quicker, more comfortable (and expensive) and deposits you at the rather gloomy and depressing Penn Station under Madison Square Garden. The more quotidian MNR is slower, scruffier but you arrive back at the cathedral to rail travel that is Grand Central, maybe in time for oysters downstairs (www.oysterbarny.com or, if you are feeling very flush, the Scandi-Icelandic cooking at easy-to-miss Agern (www.agernrestaurant.com), which is also housed in the terminal. I know which I’d rather do.
2. 16 February 2017. a writer who loves to tell a story with a great sense of humour
Manchester by the Sea, Why Some People Just Can’t Beat It.
by Jacqueline Palmer
If grief was a thing of beauty it would be illustrated by Kenneth Lonergan’s remarkable film, a story of addiction and loss, brought to life in powerful performances. It’s both gritty realism and a work of nostalgia, cutting from what was, and might have been, in a brief longshot of Lee (Casey Affleck) and his young nephew Patrick, (Lucas Hedges) fooling around on his brother’s fishing boat, to the vacant Lee of the present. Working as a janitor in a Boston suburb, performing repetitive tasks, shoveling snow, mending pipes, replacing bulbs, unclogging toilets, with a lack of affect, as he enters the intimacies of other people’s lives, while they seem invisible to him. He moves as if through mud, encased in his own isolation, but a call catapults him back to the place of his memories, with his brother’s death, and an unwelcome job as guardian to his now teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
It’s a world where people are permanently at odds, misunderstand one another and never get the joke, as Patrick navigates his way through girls, sex, school and the loss of his father. Lee’s brusque monosyllabic exterior shows scant sensitivity to Patrick’s pain and confusion. An excruciating visit with his mother, now in recovery, is another loss for Patrick to bear. When he turns to his uncle as the responsible adult, Lee shies from the role, unable to cope or support him, or find a way to show up for his nephew’s conflicting emotions. Lee is caught in his own grief, despair, and self-recrimination, poised between sleepwalking and a bubbling rage waiting to erupt. Flashbacks to Lee’s former life with Randy (Michelle Williams) invite the audience to inhabit her experience, while the film’s sleepy coastal town of the title acts like another character, one whose seen better days, and envelops Lee in its history, its waters, and its arms.
A journey of healing begins as Lee begins to find a way towards his nephew, while Patrick begins to see his uncle caught up in a battle he cannot beat. The film offers no easy answers or happy endings, depicting the impact of alcohol and drug use on families and partners. Equally there are no rules for mourning, and some find it impossible to find their way back.
Not for the faint hearted, but for those who can bear to witness. Go and see it on your way to your nearest twelve step programme.
So Robert opens my new section of quality writing – a journalist, storyteller, husband and father, he is the most essential part of my life!
- 26 January 2017. MUMBAI by Robert Elms
A city smaller geographically than London or New York but with a population larger than both of those great metropolis’s combined, Mumbai is the noisiest, dirtiest, most crowded, chaotic, and frantic place I have ever visited. It is also one of the most gloriously life affirming, a perpetual riot of colour and clamour, a cavalcade of humanity in all its pungent glory, at all times in all directions.
Like both London and New York, this former Bombay is a hustling port town, a waterside trading centre, confident in its cosmopolitanism and strident in its commercialism. A relatively modern creation, its colonial past has bequeathed an array of ornate Victorian architecture, elegant clubs and verdant cricket fields, which contrast with the blizzard of modern high-rises which have sprung up without plan or reason from its sprawling morass. Slums too, slanted and blighted are everywhere, in every angular gap between the new-found wealth.
Poverty in extremis and in your face is one of the aspects of Mumbai life you have to contend with. Multi generational families living on the street, children sleeping on the cracked and broken pavements, the disabled and disadvantaged paraded for alms. Yet despite the sometimes gut wrenching poverty there is an energy and optimism, an almost tangible desire for improvement which permeates from every grimy crack and corner. Music, movement, momentum, buy and sell, hustle and bustle, here and there. A wedding, a shrine, a feast, an ablution, a holy man, a cow.
To enjoy this fervour of perpetual motion you need a retreat, a haven of sanity and serenity, and our hotel, The Taj was just that, and more, much more. Right by the Gatweway to India, overlooking the boats in the bay it is both the epi-centre of Mumbai life and the perfect antidote to it. Calm and cool, yet big and important, with elegance and charm backed up by exemplary staff, handsome rooms and fabulous bars and restaurants, a lovely pool and an array of shops, you could spend days here without leaving. Great days they would be too, but wasted ones.
For Mumbai invites you to venture forth and revel in the madness. It is indeed like London and New York when they were newer and in their noisy, noisome prime.