Friday, 23 November 2012

The two worst words in the English language ?

If you work in an environment where the sick and dying are never far you are naturally reminded of your own mortality. However I like many readers of this blog I am intrigued and fascinated by decades gone; I’m a Historian. I’d like to think of myself as having one foot in the past rather than one foot in the grave.  It is curious however, that in an age of ever increasing life spans and good health we seem less equipped to deal with the passing of time and our mortality or more to the point living the life we have fully. I’ve been struck in the last couple of months about how cautious and guarded people are: with their time, their affections and their passions. Those who are older seem constrained by what has happened to them already, often rather than learning from the past they are living by it and seem constrained and over analytical. 

More curious however is the conservatism of the young, is it a generational thing this strong sense of caution? Perhaps the post-Thatcher generations, technology savvy and entitled have been hit harder by the recession and the removal of things the baby-boomers (I’m not one) saw as ‘rights’.  It cannot be because I become from a particularly privileged group generationally (1980’s working class Britain was quite grim) that it appears that we were and remain somewhat livelier. I did always think that recession resulted in a greater appreciation of the things that matter in life: love, friends and living. Is technology to blame? After all enough money for a half pint of strongbow in a pub, an evening of leaping around in a darkened room with a noisy band or tearing around London causing mayhem were all you could do to alleviate boredom in the 80’s. No computers, no internet, no Nintendo WII. The best freely available entertaining activity generally simply required another reasonably attractive human being who was ‘up for it’. No accident that we were all fairly slim too..

Now many life decisions appear to be sadly reliant on one of the worst words in the dictionary: ‘caution’. I’m not complaining about common sense but caution- that mealy-mouthed Daily Mail of a word. The word that stops people from trying things, jumping in feet first, asking people out, having fun, staying up late, taking a punt, having a fling, placing a bet. Caution results from being scared, nervous, underestimating yourself and others and every time it wins it results, to my mind, in a small death. 

I don’t mean you should do things you don’t want to, or dangerous things or that you have to be some insane loud lunatic throwing dice in the air although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The phrase: ‘throwing caution to the wind’ has a meaning of liberation and freedom  for a good reason. Caution is not ‘taking care’, rather it is not caring; a flattening of experience. So we end up with corporate clothing, corporate lives, dull lives. I’m not known as a cheerful soul myself but I have made the trade-off between hard work and wealth in favour of useful work and enough to pay my way. Enough to spend a good weekend (just gone) at Rhythm Riot, the rockabilly weekender with hundreds of people who were together and determined to enjoy themselves. Every single risky decision I have made has done me no actual harm, caused no regrets and more often than not enriched the life I have managed to have so far.

In the happy bus at Rhythm Riot (picture courtesy of Bex Shaw).

Enjoyment and pleasure in others, the world, your surroundings is an admirable aim not an irresponsible one. If you can help others to feel the same even better if this can be done without causing problems or at cost to others. Because if one truism really is a truism it is that life is very, very very short.  

NB: the other word I dislike is ‘Stilton’

Thursday, 1 November 2012

All Tomorrow's (and yesterday's and today's) Parties.

It is only appropriate now that Halloween has just passed us by like a phantom in the hallway and the festive season fast approaches that I find myself having read two very different books on the subject of parties: Suzette Field’s ‘A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature’ and Angel Adoree’s ‘The Vintage Tea Party Year’. One is concerned with the literary form the other with the literal..

A Curious Invitation
In literature the party can indeed be a curious thing. As a device it is extremely useful yet demonically difficult to write. Try it. The combination of ambience, multiple characters and narrative are a challenge. Most of us can rely on the anthropological mesh of convention to hang our own idea of what an event is upon: weddings, Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs. The party in literature is a crucial route in writing to bring characters together in a way that we can recognise and personally I find it far more convincing than the convention of accident. For me it is more natural that an Austen heroine should be made to wince at a Ball than be scooped up by a handsome stranger in a storm. Where would the traditional British crime novel be without the cocktail party, surely as essential to the genre as a locked room? We all, love them or loathe them, find ourselves in a party at some point in life and they provide a microcosm of all the loving and loathing and hating and joy life provides. 

It is therefore surprising that a book on this subject has not yet been written and fortunate that it has been written by someone so well qualified to do so.  I used to go to a lot of parties, events and balls before I was ill and it is how I am acquainted with the writer. She was and is involved in throwing parties, soirees and events that sometimes frankly defy description.  It may be that throwing a good party requires the same insights as the creation of an imaginary one and I feel that this reveals itself not only in the quality of the writing in this book but the choices the author makes. You may, like me, find there are some included that are surprising and others that are omitted. I was delighted to see The Masque of the Red Death Party from Poe's eponymous work, The Beverly Hills Party (Hollywood Wives, Jackie Collins) and Satan’s Rout (The Master and the Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov) included in the selection.  I would have added one of Anthony Powell’s or Ford Madox Ford’s parties myself, there are several memorable examples. But this is one of the points of the book, it makes you think about what you have read and how novelists write about the party. It would be a good read for a book club; another kind of party.

Suzette Field (photo Sin Bozkurt)
The party, the get-together, the piss-up.  These may be viewed as ephemeral, flippant and superficial to some degree in literature. Suzette Field’s book is a firm reminder that this is not in reality the case. Cinema gets this. Think of the wedding in The Godfather, or a film such as Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief His wife & Her Lover. Even Star Wars contains in its early scenes characters partying away in Chalmun’s Cantina.  

It does seem that we plan our parties today with less attention, less finesse. The excuse is ‘lack of time’, but this cannot be true. Do we have less leisure time than our grandparents? I look back at photographs of knees ups in the depressed twenties and wartime Britain. Decorations, special food, special clothing and special drinks. My favourite picture is of my great grandparents in early fifties austerity Britain wearing jaunty cowbow hats decorated for some reason with bells. Now we have more time, more money but we farm our events out to ‘planners’, buy in all our food and decorations, the latter often cheap and shiny.  The holding of an event is a chore rather than a pleasure and one of the most endangered social creatures at present seems to me to be the thrower of parties for the sake of it, the salon hostess, the master or mistress of ceremonies.

The Vintage Tea Party Year

The other book about parties I have read recently is Angel Adoree’s The Vintage Tea Party Year. Don’t be too taken in by the ‘vintage’ element of the title, this book is not another field guide to polka dots, cupcakes and penny black nostalgia. It contains recipes, but many are meaty, strongly flavoured, unusual and historic in origin and flavours. The book is quirkily and charmingly designed and suggests ideas for parties, not necessarily tea based. There is plenty of alcohol involved too. What is refreshing here is Angel’s mission to suggest that flamboyance, imagination and not too much effort should be put into holding things. I commend her suggestion that written invitations should be used (we all rely too much on the horror of the Facebook invitation) and that any kind of object can be brought in to make a party memorable. It is really not a case of spending money, showing off or making your life stressful. I can vouch for the recipes which are makeable, some are simplicity itself. This isn’t a prescriptive book, it is creative and inclusive, I particularly enjoyed the chapter which suggested that, shock, horror, the boys might want to play with tweed, alcohol, savoury food and male fripperies without a frilly petticoated girl-wife in sight. Despite the physical charm of the book there is something subversive here; don't buy it, don't do it the way the glossies tell you to do it, don't get new stuff, make it, grab stuff where you can if it suits....

Any one can make a cheese and pickle sandwich...
I think the books actually work quite well together, even though they are very different. I’d be delighted to receive both in a hamper with a bottle of champagne, a waitrose voucher and an exhortation to ‘have a ball’.  In these mealy-mouthed times of corporate boredom, mass-produced living and sheer ennui our contribution to ending the recession should be to spending our time making some investment in our social lives and trying to make life a little less mundane.

 'A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature. Suzette Field (Picador 2012)
‘The Vintage Tea Party Year’ Angel Adoree (Mitchell Beazley 2012)

Both hardback, both available on Amazon.


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