23 March 2013

Gin Before Bedtime

At the end of the working day on Thursday evening I put on my pyjamas. In the office. As did my two colleagues. Our boss opened a bottle or two of wine, and we sipped as we applied false eyelashes, rouged our cheeks and, crucially, rolled curlers into our hair, pinning them in place as the pièce de résistance of our bedtime glamour. Then it was on with our slippers (slightly adapted for city streets) and into a cab.

Our destination was a boutique hotel in East London by the name of 40 Winks. The building is rather nondescript from the outside, a rather run-of-the-mill terraced townhouse on Mile End Road. But we had the correct address, and were all dolled up in the strict though sleepy dress-code. The instructions had stipulated nightwear, and we were to turn up no earlier than 7pm, no later than 8pm. So at 7.30 we were on the steps leading up to the front door, where Mr Carter presided over the arriving guests. Mr Carter is the owner of the hotel and was our top-hatted host for the night. The fourth member of our party was already inside, having arrived a little before 7pm. This meant that she was a Sinner. All guests were to be separated into Saints and Sinners, with the Saints a chorus of hallelujahs and the Sinners bellowing 'hells bells'. As our friend had been dubbed a Sinner, we were Sinners too. Much more interesting.

After popping on the white slippers provided by ladies in nightgowns, we padded up the stairs to the toppermost bedroom where guests were changing into silk and adjusting their jimjams. The bedrooms and bathrooms, stairways and corridors were bonkers and beautiful. Kitsch, chintzy, luxurious, curious, decadent, Gothic; all grandiosity on a small scale in this wonderful mini-hotel. Dark reds, rich creams, glossy black, burnished gold and pearls. A dressing table full of perfume bottles and trinkets stood beside a wrought iron bed, and taxidermy, antlers and tasselled cushions abounded.

From the top of the house to the bottom. Teacups filled to the brim with a gin cocktail were offered into eager hands as we poured into the basement, and hand-painted murals on the walls encircled us gin-drinkers. Top-ups came frequently, gin flowing in arcs from the spouts of tall teapots. Mr Carter did a turn as host, encouraging flirting and splitting the Saints from the Sinners in time for the bedtime stories upstairs.

Gin cocktails. Photo from 40winks Facebook page.

Sinners settled themselves on chaise lounges and satin floor cushions to listen to a black-gowned, red-haired tale-teller. She told us of a woman who wrenched out a man's tongue by the root with her own as she kissed him, then followed this with a shorter tale involving camels and mathematics. I listened in a warm haze of soft cotton pj's, gin and story-spirals. Then into another beautiful room to sit on a different satin cushion and be wholly captivated by Katrice Horsley. Big dark eyes, short corkscrew curls, glittery make-up and physical flair. But all she really needed was her voice. Tumbling words, rhyming, working and weaving in rhythms and refrains. My mouth was open as I listened. Death, love, mouths slurping brains, beads of blood blooming from bosoms, handsome princes, broad-shouldered narrow-waisted devils, and old crow crones. Almost an hour of these wondrous things, told in something like a long song.

From stories to music. A young woman wearing sequined white, decked out in a huge feather and pearl headpiece, played the musical saw and a Victorian children's piano. She ended her set with a version of Abba's 'The Winner Takes it All'. I don't know if it was the gin, the sleepy setting, or the fact that Meryl Streep singing that particular song always kills me, but I could have cried. The musician calls herself The Tiger's Bride after the tale by Angela Carter. I think this very fitting, as the whole evening struck me as something oh so Angela Carter: darkness, fairy tales, the visceral, theatricality, absurdity, decadence and storytelling. Is Mr Carter's surname mere coincidence? See here for more of an idea of the night.

I pulled out my curlers in the dressing room, strode into the cold wearing winter boots, and made my way home to a Turnpike Lane bed which, alas, is not surrounded by boutique-beautiful furniture and soft furnishings and stag antlers. But it is, as everywhere is, surrounded by stories.

11 March 2013

Académie des Femmes

On the day following International Women's Day I journeyed west - by bus, rail and foot - for a party. The theme of this gathering was 'Académie des Femmes'. I strongly felt it was worth venturing to West Ealing for such a soirée.

There was once a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney. She was an American. An expatriate. A francophile. A novelist, a poet, a lesbian, a hostess. A pretty cool woman living on the Left Bank in Paris in the twentieth century. This is where she held her literary salon, a weekly meeting at which people gathered to socialise and discuss literature, art, music and any other topic of interest. French, American and British writers, artists and dancers crowded into her house for these famed evenings where both lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could, and did, crackle and fizz.

Barney wished to promote writing by women and formed L'Académie des Femmes in response to the all-male French Academy. She did also give support and inspiration to male writers, but strove to feature women's writing just as prominently, or more so, than the leading male names of the day. So Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Rainer Maria Rilke all attended her salons, and were welcomed wholeheartedly. But women were given an equal platform, and were arguably the more interesting, intriguing, eccentric characters. Imagine a riverside Parisian chamber after dark, lit up with the likes of Colette, Mata Hari, Isadora Duncan, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall and Rachilde...

I was not in Paris, but West Ealing. However, the well-furnished flat, with its Singer sewing machine, lobster telephone and Playmobil horse bathroom light-pull, held all the charms of the Modernist dream-world through which Barney swanned and scintillated. I was in a new place with  new people, stationed next to a glossy dark-wood drinks table of gin and whiskey and rum and bottles and bottles of red wine, surrounded by top hats, cloche hats, dinner jackets, bow ties, unfamiliar repartee, cheese and crackers. I had painted my lips red for the evening. It may have rubbed off as I drank and ate and chatted, but my husky unhealthy rasp of a voice remained due to a harsh March throat-sore that seemed more alluring than gross for this particular night. We all played pin the phallic symbol on the Freud, and pass the parcel with forfeits hidden in each layer of tissue paper such as having to recite a particularly sibilant line of Stein with a pronounced lisp. I caught two night buses home through the whole of London and fell asleep wearing faded red lipstick in my four-poster bed.

While on the subject of female Modernists, the below photograph is my all-time favourite image. Virgina at Knole at the time she was writing Orlando. Wearing the most glorious outfit and facial expression. Orlando: the biography of a man who becomes a woman, who transforms and is transformative. Literature's greatest love letter, from Virginia to Vita. A love letter from a woman to a woman, capturing all sex, gender, power and magic. The life of a woman. This photograph is in the centre of my copy of the complete letters Vita wrote to Virginia, with snatches of Virginia's replies interwoven. Many letters of domesticity and romance and adventures and arrangements to meet for tea.

Centrefold of one my obsessions
Also for International Women's Day, I thought I would include this treat of a scene. Because it's brilliant. Bathing suits, pizza and solidarity.

In 1921, early suffragettes often donned a bathing suit and ate pizza in large groups to annoy men... it was a custom at the time.

Also, on a similar theme, yet from the sublime to the ridiculous, I would like to end with this clip. It is from A Woman's Place, an episode of BBC Four's 'Britain on Film' series which uses the Rank Organisation's Look at Life documentary shorts to look at British society during the 1960s. It is fascinating (not only for the astonishing hairstyles) and I wish the full episode was still available on iPlayer. A crying shame that the footage is narrated by men with their RP accents and outmoded views, but this does serve to highlight the absurdity of these chaps and the times they lived in, and how awesome women were and have since become.