Clothes to dye for!

I could never be a naturist! Not that I have any particular beef about naturism per se — if you want to attend Nudefests and retreats, compete in the Naked Olympics, go skinny dipping of a summer’s night, or simply get your kit off and hang out in the buff with your family and mates around the BBQ, good for you. Each to his or her own I say. I salute every human being’s right to self-expression … even if I salute it more if they don’t express this particular form anywhere near me.

No, my aversion is because if I ever had a rush of blood to the head and decided this was the lifestyle choice for me, it would deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures in life — clothes. Clothes (and this is a broad church that includes shoes and accessories) have always felt like an extension of my personality. My clothing selection is as much a barometer of my mood as whether I’m bouncing around like some Latter Day Tigger or in a Garbo-esqeue “I vant to be alone” frame of mind.

When I was a wide-eyed graduate, just let loose on the world, I pondered becoming a fashion buyer and worked in Harrods of London for a few months to try the idea on for size … as it were. It didn’t fit! I hated the place. Before that I also pondered becoming a historical costume adviser for stage or TV. This wasn’t as random as it sounds with an honours degree in Medieval History that included a finals paper on fashion in the English and French Courts during the very specific period of 1330 — 1380. I was mesmerised by the whole concept of the form and function of clothing in defining society and this period is recognised as marking the emergence of recognisable fashion. The fourteenth century saw the introduction of a raft of innovations including buttons and laces enabling much more figure hugging attire than the previous tabard shapes. Imagine the liberation of no longer having to sew yourself into your garments!

I’ve never liked being regimented or told what to wear … or not to wear even. I’m strong on the importance of individuality and uniforms are anathema. I think there is a lot of truth in the saying that there would be no wars if there were no uniforms. At one point the Harrods department I worked in decided to put us in some prissy polka-dot dress with a white collar as our uniform. I hated it with a vengeance — likely the tipping point in my abortive fashion career. But in terms of self-expression, it’s the clothes that are the vehicle not the brand, which can become just another uniform. Reading the coverage of the Tear Drop Ethical Fashion Report this week, which evaluates the performance of leading fashion brands each year, made me glad I hadn’t persevered. The multi-trillion-dollar apparel industry is apparently the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil and gas. These days clothes really are to dye for!

I don’t say this lightly. I went to a thought provoking event a couple of nights ago — Fashun Statement — organised by and featuring some of the inspirational kiwi fashionistas who are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement. It was both uplifting and horrifying. Horrifying because the first half was given over to looking at the state of the global fashion industry. If you have hopes for the continuation of this planet in any form that includes life as we know it, the statistics are mind-bogglingly depressing. As I’m sure you know, the biggest culprit is “Fast Fashion”. This is the design and distribution of cheaply made clothing  “take, make, waste” behaviours.

Fast fashion uses innovative production and distribution models to dramatically shorten fashion cycles by getting garments from the designer to the customer in a matter of weeks instead of months. This has seen the number of fashion seasons increasing from the traditional two main ones each year (spring/summer and autumn/winter) to as many as fifty to a hundred micro-seasons. I can’t find stats later than 2014 but at that time, the average person bought 60% more clothes than they did in 2000 and kept them half as long. The numbers are increasing exponentially as ever more people in countries like China and India move up the economic ladder. Clothing consumption is projected to triple by 2050 requiring three times as many natural resources compared to what was used in 2000. And what happens to all these disposable ‘rags’? On average, garments are worn only nine times before being binned, creating Everests of additional landfill. Oh and don’t be fooled by conscience salving clothing bins. Apparently, many of these castoffs get exported to emerging nations (if anything is done with them at all), often destroying local businesses and jobs that can’t compete with the influx of our detritus.

One of the presenters showed images of inhuman and abysmal working conditions in factory sweat-shops where people barely achieve subsistence wages and rivers are turned all the colours of the rainbow from industrial waste flowing freely from dyeing shops making rivers and drinking water toxic. For all too many of the big labels, supply chain ethics are sill … er … totally unethical and transparency seems to be something that happens in a parallel universe.

Then there’s the industry’s ecological footprint. Issues like the amount of water and energy required to grow crops like cotton which are the bedrock of the industry. Producing just one cotton shirt apparently requires 2,700 litres of water — enough to keep one person alive for 2.5 years. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using about 3 percent of the world’s arable land. Polyester production uses less water but is highly carbon intensive. About 20 percent of industrial water pollution is due to garment manufacturing, while the world uses 5 trillion litres (1.3 trillion gallons) of water each year for fabric dyeing alone, enough to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Let’s not forget the oceans of fuel required to ship the flood of new clothes around the world. Clearly, I already knew some of this, but hearing it was a real wake-up call nonetheless.

To everyone’s relief, after the shock tactics came the uplifting part — hearing the inspirational stories of the presenters. Despite being the co-founder of a start-up myself who has evangelised a new technological product in tricksy places like the Middle East, I can’t imagine the true grit it takes with only a few hundred dollars to go somewhere like Indonesia and find a way to set up a manufacturing outlet that is clean, good for the workers and good for the planet. Other than shared admiration for the David v. Goliath success stories we’d heard, in the networking sessions, there was a lot of talk about the growing demand not only for emerging ethical clothing products but also for clothes-swops, re- and up-cycling, getting back to the good old-fashioned (pun intended) concept of actually mending things, using found objects to make accessories from and similar. Online options like TradeMe in NZ and eBay elsewhere offer unlimited potential for the discerning second hand bargain hunter.

The destructive cycle of unchecked consumerism can’t go on — assuming infinite resources when we all know they’re actually finite is not a winning ethos for us humans. Some fashion companies have already acknowledged this and are testing new models like renting jeans, taking back old garments for re-cycling and incorporating “slow fashion” into their business models for competitive advantage.  The only real answer though is to convince people to buy less. Actually, to buy much, much less.

I want things to change — I don’t want my clothes habit to go the way of so many other things that have become taboo because they’re bad for me or the planet and I am encouraged by all the amazing people blazing the trail towards change. I just hope it’s enough. On a personal basis, I’ve stopped being such an avid consumer — I think much more about what I buy and try to find things that will last and which are from environmentally responsible organisations. I know that it’s not always easy or possible to make ethical choices, but at least understanding what’s at stake is a big motivator.

Coming back to my theme of clothes as a statement of individuality, I don’t see finding your own personal style as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything — that remains 42. But tapping into your inner and unique fashionista can be a wonderfully rewarding journey of discovery about who you are and what you believe in. It’s not about the clothes themselves, it’s more the qualities that set you apart from your peers. It’s about standing for something.  After all, if you don’t know who you are, how can you know you’d like to hang with, love and be loved by, what you want your life mission to be or what your position on religion, politics or any of that stuff is?

Perhaps this all sounds very superficial? Obsessing about clothes when many older people can’t afford to stay warm in the winter and a large chunk of the world is starving does seem frivolous to the point of indecency. Believe me, I’m checking my privilege as I write, but you don’t need money to find make your own statements as the incredible 98-year-old New Yorker, artist and performer Ilona Royce Smithkin (featured image) has shown over the years. To me, she epitomises self-expression with elan and flair. This short video about her take on this is well worth watching. I think that if more people were like Ilona and sure of who they are and were prepared to stand up and be counted, not huddle together like so many sheep in the rain, we might be able to actually do something about all the troubles in our world. As Vivienne Westwood famously said, “you have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes.” I’d substitute “individualistic” for “impressive” but thinking about the redoubtable Ms. Westwood’s fashion journey, I get what she meant!

Featured Image — check out this wonderful portrait of Ilona Royce Smithkin and many others equally good at HayDave, to whom thanks.

 

@shitcreek #nopaddle

Taking stock at the beginning of a new year, I have to admit that 2017 was largely shit! No really, it was! This is not something I’m particularly proud of I can tell you. It felt like I was mired in miasma of misery and mental fatigue and couldn’t fight my way clear. In fact, I was languishing in (at?) Shit Creek.

It has to be said, Shit Creek is a place with which I have had some familiarity at other times in my life so you’d think I’d be able to recognise the warning signs and take evasive action. But no, it’s the same story every time. There I am, enjoying a leisurely paddle in my trusty (metaphorical) canoe along some tranquil, pristine waterway, full of hope and anticipation about where it will take me. Somewhere along the way, without me realising it, I’ve unaccountably veered off course up a tributary that looks superficially just like the main river itself. But the previously crystal clear water sliding past the canoe has inexplicably morphed into a brackish morass and it becomes progressively harder to keep making way. Despite all the growing evidence of imminent disaster, I struggle on determinedly until I’m irredeemably bogged down with nothing but the brown stuff to be seen in every direction. And where the hell did my paddle go?

It’s not as if anyone thinks,‘what do I want to do today? I know, I’ll paddle upstream to Shit Creek for a bit of a nosy around, drink in the aroma, have a relaxing slurry bath and head home for a well-deserved shower.’ Well, you don’t do you? You make what seems like a great decision or series of decisions, and it’s not till later you realise they were actually crap (sic) choices that should have been avoided like dog poop on a walking trail because your gut was shrieking ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’ Yet, you pursue logic at the expense of your strongest instincts and oops, there you are back in it up to your gills. Or, to follow the analogy, trying to scrape it off your shoe with a stick. Merde alors!

We’re taught that logic trumps (in the card playing sense rather than the bozo in chief one) everything else. Societal conditioning in this regard is very strong and accepted wisdom is deeply engrained. After all, it stands to reason that basing critical decisions on analysis of  facts and figures should offer a better steer for decision making than relying on intuition and inner truths with their overtones of new age woo woo. And yet … that amazing warm glow when you make a choice that just feels innately right. The antithetic dread when you decide to do something that tears at ‘your truth’, to paraphrase Oprah at the Globes last week.

So at the beginning of another year, I am mindful of the definition of insanity — doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. I’m all for going with my inner truth. Facts and figures, probabilities and statistics, logic and rational thinking will always be part of the deal in terms of making decisions. They have to be, because they are important. But of equal importance is how I actually feel about the decision under consideration. In future, where logic and intuition are at war with each other, I’ll give the casting vote to intuition — after all, intuition’s much more likely to have my has my best interests at heart and let’s face it, logic hasn’t entirely delivered. If I do this, I’ll be swooshing happily downstream — going with the flow as it were — instead of fighting my way against the current and landing back where I started; pooped and bewildered in the waiting room for the next Shit Creek Express.

Thanks for the image to http://illegaleldredtwplanduse.blogspot.co.nz/2017/

 

All I want for Christmas is …

A couple of days ago, a colleague who has one of those ill-timed birthdays just before Christmas, stormed into the office the day after her birthday with a face full of thunder. This somewhat melodramatic entry resulted in one of those impromptu discussions common to small workplaces. Her birthday experience got us debating one of the abiding themes of Christmas.

You might be mistaken for thinking that we discussed the meaning of peace on earth. But no, our philosophical dive was even deeper than that. You see, her husband had just committed the ultimate crime. For her birthday, he bought her … er … well … none of the things she’d flagged so carefully as being acceptable — the gorgeous silver bracelet, a painting she’d fallen in love with, a bottle of her favourite fragrance, tickets to the Nutcracker etc. No, he didn’t buy any of those. He bought her one of those slim-line stick vacuum cleaners. What was he thinking? So many issues there. The domestic goddess thing exists only the Nigella’s dreams. For most of the rest of us the gift of a bit of cleaning apparatus, however beautifully designed, has eerie echoes of Stepfordwifery!

After we got over the horror of it all and revived once of the more faint-hearted among our small group with smelling salts, we exchanged worst present stories and had a good laugh. Of course the terrible offerings received over the years from our various ‘Hims’ morphed into a bleat about the minefield that is buying presents for the men in our lives. Why is it so difficult for both parties to recognise a fundamental and universal truth; buy them what they say they want, not what you think they want? Of course, being single, I’m spared the soul searching that goes with selecting a gift for THE man in my life. But I do have men in my life and while they are a little less problematic than buying for a HIM, the challenge still feels a little like a blank Sedoku puzzle (I’m crap at Sedoku by the way).

Few of us are strangers to that ‘oh crap’ moment that sets in as we realise that his or her birthday is imminent. And Christmas? Well, Christmas can move from being a time of goodwill to all to one filled with axe murdering rage as the pressure mounts, the budget gets blown and we approach the big day with trepidation — be still my beating heart — will he like it?

I’ve had a few fails over the years, but I’d say the epic one among them was a few years back. I’d just come back from the UK equipped with what I thought was the perfect present for the then man in my life who pretty much had everything and had the means to buy himself anything he didn’t have. I had thought what I’d found was an inspired choice. Who wouldn’t cherish a sterling silver olive spoon based on a design made for King James I? Consider the perfection of my gift. A tiny, exquisitely-formed runcible-spoon with which to fish an olive out of a jar or bowl, the runcible feature (aka the built-in holes) allowing for drainage of the unappealing briney stuff olives usually float around in, preserving one’s clothing from drips and similar. What more could a man want?

Truly, I thought this gift had everything: novelty value, cute quotient, implicit statement to new man about my towering good taste AND expensive enough to impress, but not be overdone. Imagine my surprise when my beloved looked at it for a nano-second before moving on to fuss endlessly about some cutesey thing his young daughter had given him. I sulked for about five minutes then grumpily acknowledged to myself that perhaps it was one of those gifts that were really all about me and what I’d like. Of course, it was consigned to that Bermuda Triangle at the back of the wardrobe (every house has one) where unwanted presents get sucked in, never to be seen again. … why, oh why, didn’t I take it with me when I left? I loved it. So my point?

“What would you like for Christmas, darling?” we say.

“Buy me books … music … chain saw accessories … a subscription to Model Engineer … a drone… Oh, and those new mags would look so cool on the car,” he replies with the fanatical light of the obsessive lurking in the depth’s of his pleading eyes.

And what do we do possums? That’s right, we ignore him. Or perhaps we do buy him the current D.I.Y best seller — How to dismantle a toaster and put it back together in world record time — as a token gesture. Then we go and buy a little romantic something else because we can’t believe the D.I.Y. snorefest, however much of a masterpiece it may be, is a proper gift because it’s not what we’d want to get. Where’s the romance in it? We simply can’t imagine that he can really be happy if we give him the ‘blokeish’ thing he’s asked for. Of course the outcome is as predictable as my inability to say no to chocolate; he hates it and we lurch from (at best) utter incredulity and hurt feelings at his lack of gratitude to (at worst) relationship-threatening outrage.

So my point is, buy him what he asks for … unless it requires sacrifices or participation on your part that is distasteful to you or downright illegal. Surprising him with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses delivered to his work place on Valentine’s Day, or dimming the lights while he opens the elegantly wrapped package containing Dupion silk boxers is not necessarily the way to his heart. If he asks for a widget, it’s probably what he really, really wants. If you buy him a widget you will be spared the disappointment of seeing his bewilderment as he unwraps your carefully chosen object d’art with a “wtf?” look on his face.

If you want the same treatment, don’t just give him hints in code that would have furrowed the brows of the Enigma team. Be very clear. Be clear to the point of pushy. When he asks you what you want, tell him. Don’t fall back on the cruise for a bruise idiocy of “I’ll love anything you buy for me.” That path leads to stick vacuum clearners!

But really, what a ‘first world’ problem to have! It’s all so shallow. I’d love it if we could get rid of the commercial madness that is Christmas (or pretty much any other festival), and all the brand-led conspicuous consumption that is par for the course. The endless coveryer belt of consumer crap that no-one either wants or needs — let’s axe once and for all the ‘landfill’ shopping and find some deeper meaning in our lives.

Stranger in a strange land?

My sister and I launched a satirical magazine for women a few years ago. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle.

As part of this, we created frankly ridiculous quizzes for people to complete, spoofing the absurd ones in some mainstream women’s media. You know the type — Which Disney Prince Is Your Soul-mate? Can You Tell The Difference Between A Designer Handbag and A Cheap Knockoff? Does This Sexy Body Part Belong to Luke, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? While it’s actually tempting to linger over the Hemsworth hiatus (Chris for president I say), my point is, it’s all such utter bollocks.

Ours were so much better… Is My Mummy The Queen of England? Should I Wage War On My Neighbours? Are You Wonderwoman? Flicking through these old mags again recently, the one I liked most was Is My Partner An Alien? In fact, I liked the idea so much I found myself burning to find out. Then I remembered the inconvenient truth; I don’t currently have a partner. Undeterred, I decided to answer the quiz from my own perspective to see if I myself was an alien (forgetting for a moment that we had invented the quiz and therefore it was as much bollocks as the ones in the other magazines).

Much to my astonishment, my answers provided conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, an alien. I was quite taken aback by this. If true, clearly I’ve been suffering from whopping amnesia about why I’m on earth amongst humans — some sort of deep under-cover operation? If so, I have no sense at all of the otherness that I figure I should be feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Most of all I wondered where the space ship was parked.

In all seriousness, in the current international climate, the question “Is your partner an alien?” is no joke. Setting aside for a moment the Close Encounters extraterrestrial type of alien in our quiz, down here on earth, in law, a human alien is a person who resides within the borders of a country and is not a national of that country.

We all like to belong. To fit in. To identify with others. Be recognized by our kind and recognise others like us. We like our tribes. Us humans have a prime-evil, almost visceral need to identify with kindred spirits. Unfortunately, looking at the world scene right now, for many this goes beyond the simple comfort factors of a sense of belonging to  issues like identity politics, fanaticism, bullying and terrorism against people who are different or believe differently.

I’m an expat, but an expat by choice not circumstance and living in a place with a lot of similarities to the country I left. Even after more than two decades, I still miss aspects of my previous life deeply but there are no barriers to going back and I can visit as often as I wish or, more realistically, can afford. In some ways, I’m lucky enough to have two countries that I think of as home. I can only imagine the anguish of people who have no place. Refugees running in fear of their lives, forced to leave everything precious and sacred behind. What must it be like to have lost everything you hold dear? Then there are ‘over-stayers’ who’ve built lives that are as fragile as butterfly wings in a gale. Living lives that force them to be constantly looking over their shoulders, stalked by the fear of being torn away from their friends and families and deported.

Particularly at this time of year, my heart goes out to the people all over the world for whom life turns on the whim of others and who feel alien on a daily basis. I just read a heart-rending article about the atrocities suffered by Rohingya refugees who’ve fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh with whole villages burned after soldiers butchered the men, raped the women and girls and mutilated and burned babies. And yet despite their horrendous ordeal, there is no happy ending in sight for these ‘aliens’. Bangladesh doesn’t want to take them. Nor, apparently, does anyone else and there are even suggestions that the best option would be repatriation!

From the bottom of my soul I believe we should treat such people with the milk of human kindness. But it’s complicated. I watched as my birth country, the UK, absorbed waves of aliens, many arriving with religious belief structures as their guiding stars and for whom adherence to religious law was more important than adherence to the law of our land. We lived in a duality where everyone knew there were places — whole cities even — where the law’s writ didn’t fully run. The clashing cultures of nationality opened up deep divisions and dislikes. Un-crossable Rubicons flowed where political correctness enabled and then tacitly ignored horrors in our midst like ‘honour killings’, where there was often no justice to be had for many and discontentment bred the shame of home grown terrorists.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I don’t believe we can just shut our borders and lock out any and all outsiders. I hate the ‘Little Englander’ mentality that spawned BREXIT or the isolationist America First thinking that is gaining ground in many western countries with its underlying shades of white supremacy. We need to be better than that and find ways of getting over our tribal affiliations with their deep-rooted prejudices.

Maybe salvation will ultimately come from the intervention of some as yet undiscovered but highly evolved extraterrestrials who’ve found the answers! Perhaps said ETs could helpfully start by removing for scientific experimentation fanatics and cavemen leaders like Trump and their offensive Banyonesque henchmen who fan the flames! Particularly at this time of year, I’m reminded of the age-old and still highly valid concept of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

I’m in with the in-crowd

Well actually, I’m not really, but it felt like an attention-grabbling headline and I could do with some more followers! Before anyone feels aggrieved, let me say quickly it’s not completely ‘fake news’. I do know a few people who know important people and in my life I have rubbed shoulders with the odd great or goodie from time to time; junior ministers, MPs, TV/radio types, musicians, sports celebs, poets and scientists laureate etc. After 13 years in London and now 12 in the capital of a country like NZ with a population of only 4.7m, you’d have to be some kind of hermit for this not to be the case. In any case, to justify the title, I did once sit at a table next to the glorious Mr. In-Crowd himself, Bryan Ferry, in an Indian Restaurant in Kensington. Pity I didn’t know I was sitting next to him at the time!

It’s hard to get away from the sheer, unadulterated joy in having bragging rights on an in-crowd moment. My personal best story undoubtedly is the time I swam with the All Blacks (New Zealand’s legendary national rugby team and current world world champions). Think about it. Most people only aspire to swim with dolphins. This wasn’t a sort of sponsored event to raise money for the team. No one took me out on a boat seeking a pod to cosy up to. It was much more prosaic. I was a member of the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington for several years and used its pool most lunchtimes. Said hotel is where the ABs (when you’ve swum with them, you’re allowed a bit of familiarity I’d say) stay when in Wellington. Imagine if you will. You open the doors to the pool and there they are. A posse of glorious young men rotating between the sauna, the ice bath on the edge of the pool and the pool itself. You can imagine, dear reader, the flight impulse and unwillingness to unveil the then fifty something body was very strong. But I toughed it out and took the plunge … as it were. In the end, it was a lot of fun. They were utterly charming to everyone there. A story to dine out on forever.

But there’s also the in-ness of knowing someone who knows SOMEONE. The whole concept of reflected glory. A few years ago, the brother of a good friend dated a very (VERY) famous woman who was the ex-wife of an even more famous man … and at least one other not quite so famous one before him. Nearly wrecked the brother’s life, what with being followed and spied on and generally paparazzied (if that’s not a verb, it should be). Not altogether surprisingly, the relationship didn’t flourish and the very famous women somewhat predictably went on to marry another notorious A Lister. Don’t think my friend’s little brother was either famous enough or rich enough to cut it as a permanent fixture, although he certainly was a little of the former by the time his wonder woman jumped ship, and he wasn’t exactly a pauper to begin with. He just wasn’t in the same league as her hat trick of celeb spouses.

It was mind-boggling hearing about the media frenzy that surrounded their affair. My friend’s family was described very patronisingly as ‘socially anonymous’. They weren’t super-wealthy or super-successful or super-anything other than, to my mind, super-nice, but nice doesn’t sell column inches and so they were of utterly no consequence to the editors of prurience. It wasn’t an uplifting experience for any of the family or friends. I was reminded of this story whilst watching the endlessly repeated footage marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in August. Love her or not — my jury has always been out — it has always seemed a cruel and pointless waste of two lives to end up in the mangled wreckage of a Merc in the small hours of the morning because your drunk driver has smashed into the wall of a Paris tunnel speeding to evade a baying pack of papps.

While my friend’s brother was able to retire to relative obscurity when his relationship ended, his experience at the time was yet another example of the collateral damage accompanying the cult of celebrity that’s endemic in our western societies. The Princess Diana story is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the high price of fame. Even though she was alleged to have manipulated the press big time and was therefore something of a poster girl for the ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale, no-one deserves the obsessive stalking that she endured.

It’s not just the stalking, there are also all the expectations to be lived up to. How do you retain self-esteem when every inch of you and everything you do is examined and picked over by the media on a daily basis? Having a barrage of cameras shoved in your face every time you venture out is unthinkable to anyone who values a degree of privacy. There’s also the fact that if you in the public eye, you have to compete with your Photoshopped publicity look. Great to be displayed on bill boards and front covers at your air-brushed best, where blemishes have been evened out and even the contours and proportions of your body might have been changed. But how would you ever leave home as the real you?

It’s not surprising people under this sort of scrutiny succumb to diet fads and eating related disorders including bulimia and anorexia. Again Princess Dianna is the poster girl here, but there have been so many others. People who are convinced that 40kgs is the ideal body weight are on the slippery slope to long-term health complications if not pointless and premature death. Then there’s the Siren call of the party scene that’s been a trap for many of an unwary in-crowder and I’m sure the sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle is a blast … until it destroys you.

For many, achieving any hall of fame can entail making some unpalatable choices. It’s become all too apparent over the last few weeks that the Weinsteins and Moores of the world use their power base to pray on the wide-eyed people trying to get ahead in their orbit, generally women, further down the food chain. It’s a sad right of passage if you have to run the gauntlet of sexual predation from powerful men whose fame and commercial bankability has, at least until now, protected them from being outed. How many aspiring women have had to put up or shut up to rise through the ranks? Worse, how much talent have we missed out on as women have walked away from promising careers to avoid conflict?

For sure the rich and famous seem to have everything anyone could ever want, but conditions most certainly apply. I know no-one promised famous people a rose garden and they chose to go down the path that led to the red carpet, winning on the international stage, awards, unimaginable wealth and similar. But looking at the price of admission, who in their right minds would want to be in with the in-crowd? I’d much rather be socially anonymous and free to lead my life as I wish. Having said that, I like to have a bit more of the rich bit in my relative anonymity — Croesus levels sprint to mind. It’s the fame bit you can keep!

I blame Coco Chanel!

Clearly I don’t blame La Chanel for everything! She probably can’t be held responsible for Altzheimers … or global warming … or weapons of mass destruction … or reality TV … or Weinstein, Trump et al … or … etc.

In fact, in many ways Coco Chanel was entirely admirable. She had a phenomenal impact on womens’ lives leading their liberation from the constraints of the ‘corsette sillouhette’ to a more sporty casual look that became the standard of feminine style. There was the classic Chanel suit, the ‘go anywhere’ little black dress. Oh yes, and bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, turtleneck sweaters, trench coats … the list goes on. She also made costume jewellery fashionable.

At its peak, the Chanel couture empire employed 3,500. Coco Chanel is the only fashion designer listed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and her achievements have provided inspiration for aspiring career women and female entrepreneurs over the decades. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ultra-chic and oh-so-famous Chanel must take the blame for some things. To be clear, I’m not talking all that stuff about her being a collaborator and shagging important Germans during WWII, which somewhat un-gilds this otherwise fragrant lily’s legacy. Rather, I’m talking the fact that she has been attributed with making the sun tan fashionable.

With New Zealand heading into summer and the winter outer layers of camouflage clothing being peeled away like so many onion rings, the inconvenient and inescapable truth rears its ugly head; you really are what you eat and drink. After a winter of over-indulgence, I’m contemplating the somewhat depressing and inevitable results and the looming horror of skimpy summer clothes. Clearly, it’s time to reach for the self-tanner and attempt to conceal some of the evidence. But why do I think that being tanned will be an improvement? Fashion that’s why, and it’s all Chanel’s fault!

Chanel regularly vacationed with all the beautiful people in St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Monte Carlo and the other sun-laden playgrounds of the rich and famous that make up the French Riviera. The legend has it that during one of these celeb hangouts on a cruise to Cannes 1923 she unintentionally got sunburnt. Hard to imagine this ultra sophisticated woman all lobster red and peeling, but that’s the story. By the time she got back to Paris, this unwanted blight had turned into what we now know as a tan. This happened at a time when Parisians had also fallen in love with legendary singer Josephine Baker, described at the time as being “caramel-skinned”. The combined social currency of both women sparked a trend; tans became cool and synonymous with health, wealth and luxury in western society.

Cashing in on this new trend, Jean Patou lunched the first sun tan oil “Huile de Chaldee” in 1927 and started a whole new industry of tan-related products. These were designed to help the tidal wave of people who wanted to look as if they were in with the in crowd but didn’t have the in crowd’s available leisure time or money to achieve the desired bronzing. This new trend was a stampede away from the previous peaches and cream beauty standard for caucasian society women who wouldn’t even consider going outside without a parasol — their privideged whiter shade of pale differentiated them as ‘quality’ from the laboring classes with their telltale ruddy complexions from too much time spent outdoors. Many of them even lived in far-flung outposts of empire where they had to contend with the blazing sunshine of tropical climates. For these women, preserving their complexions was a Herculean task, which they stuck to with the tenacity of my late and much beloved Springer Spaniel Oscar on the scent of a possum.

Of course, once the tan became fashionable, there was no going back. Beach clothes shrank in size —disappeared altogether on some beaches — and tanning became a leisure time activity in its own right. The obsession with being tanned led to sun beds, self-tanners, spray on and brush on tanning lotions. Thankfully the ones available now are a vast improvement on the eyesore tangerine tones first on offer and generally associated with those 70s and 80s-spawned medallion men with curly perms. And Trump of course, the leader time forgot, who seems to be stuck in an 80s time warp on just about every count.

But it all still comes back to fashion and perception. Fashion dictates, so shall it be. There was a reason for all those open-shirted men exposing their hairy chests. Fashion! So what, you may well ask? Well, the trouble with fashion is that it’s so easy to become a slave to it. The whole self-image thing for people with less than sculpted bodies springs to mind. The tyrany of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-polka-dot-bikini is one thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, a tan just seems to improve any pale skinned body no matter how fat, thin, wrinkly, wobbly or droopy it might be. But people can also become fashion victims. In the context of tanning, there’s the accelerated ageing effects of too much intense sunlight. It is likely that wrinkled wasn’t something most of us aspired to be when we grew up and over-exposure to UV rays is a sure-fired way of ending up with a face that looks like a relief map of the planet.

Vanity is a wonderful diffuser of logic. I’m thinking the received wisdom of ages — you have to suffer to be beautiful. But risking death in beauty’s name takes this concept to a ludicrous extreme. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.To be fair to Chanel, in common with many other fun things that have been rumbled over the last few decades like smoking, drinking and sugar, back in her heyday, getting a tan wasn’t ‘scientifically proven’ to be bad for you. She wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of the co-relation between sun and skin cancer. Nor did she live in the Southern Hemisphere under a hole in the ozone layer where burn times in high summer can be as little as 12 minutes and the prospect of melanoma is an everyday concern. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.

In any case, and somewhat paradoxically, sunshine in the right quantities is very good for us. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin D and the feel-good factor of summer and sunshine is hard to underestimate. It’s even — allegedly — an effective aphrodisiac. But the best thing is that sunshine is an equal opportunities commodity. You don’t need to be wealthy, educated to within an inch of your life or live anywhere special to enjoy it — although some places have a lot more than others. It’s an option for old and young, fat and thin, socialist and capitalist, man and woman (on either of their separate planets) and people from any ethnicity or minority group — why else would there be Birquinis? Such irony in the French response to those!

The tan retains its allure but nowadays conditions apply. Parents slip, slap and slop sun block on their kids and bundle them up in rash suits to keep them safe from the sun, whilst still benefitting from it. All cosmetic ranges have products with built in UV protection. The basting sun oils are still there, but 30+ sun blocks dominate the sun cream categories and there are great cosmetic products that can achieve a ‘natural glow’ as if from the sun.

I still love sunshine. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m heading out into it. But times change. In my tan-obsessed youth in London, we actually swopped tactics about how to get and stay tanned. These generally included a cheap, early summer ‘bucket shop’ holiday with a drift of friends at one of a number of Mediterranean resorts to get the all important foundation tan that would set us up for the summer. A week of serious sloth, spot-welded to our sun loungers, basting ourselves and turning on our bodily axes like so many roasting chooks, then falling into the water when the heat and boredom got the better of us. OK I exaggerate, but I’m sure you get the picture. After that, through the summer we would continue to chase opportunities for ‘topping up’. Topping up consisted of ‘pegging out’ as we used to call it, on our roof decks or in back gardens slathered in frying oil on any sunny day that happened to coincide with a day off work or hitting the park nearest to work at lunchtime and shedding as many clothes as the standards of decency in the 80s allowed.

This was at a time when it was still considered a bit ‘not done’ for female professionals to go bare-legged to work, even in extreme heat of the summer. My peers and I were in the vanguard of the change, with hard won acceptance based on baring legs that were bronzed (naturally or artificially) rather than the sort of blue white so beloved of washing powder manufacturers. The getting of a tan at times seemed like an obsession and certainly an intricate part of our then beauty regimes. Not being tanned in summer was as unthinkable as …er … that we’ll all wake up and find that Brexit was just a dream.

These days, my sun worshipping is more muted and often limited to a long walk in a wildlife sanctuary where the dappled sunlight filters through the beautiful native bush and makes exotic patterns on the pathways. I still get the benefits from the all-imporant vitamin C without the risks. In any case, in this part of the world, it’s hard not to get tanned simply by spending any time outside. That’s good because I will always prefer the suntanned look to the alternative. The preconditioning runs deep. But while I am clearly a still a bit of a slave to fashion, I certainly don’t intend to be a victim to in. Pity I didn’t have so much common sense earlier. Might have had a few less wrinkles!

A man’s a man for ‘a that

I’m a Scot and a lifelong fan of the poetry of Robert Burns, a pioneer of the Romantic movement. While Burns is more often remembered as something of a ladies man, “the greatest hours that ere I spent were spent among the lasses o”, he was also a towering advocate for social equity.

Reading the headlines over the last few days, one of my favourite of Burns’ poems A Man’s A Man For ‘A That written in 1795, has been often in my mind. More than two hundred and twenty years after his death, the insight and aspiration of the piece remains profound.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

 AMEN!

Carpe Diem Baby!

Sometimes I feel that my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m nearly sixty — how on earth did that happen? I don’t feel old and we live in the world where 60 is the new forty don’t we? So, clearly I’m not. In any case, my soul or whatever you want to call the internal entity that feels like some sort of mini-me remains obstinately and happily oblivious to the passing of the years. Seems there’s a reason why they’re referred to as our ‘inner children’! I think of mine as my inner-Barbie because — like Peter Pan, she seems to inhabit some sort of Neverland where she is forever young. However, unlike the redoubtable Pan who remained a child, my Barbie seems to have cleverly arrested her growth at that beguiling mid-thirties stage. That wonderful place where chronology hasn’t yet won, the body is still beautiful and the spirit is beyond the myopic self-obsession of earlier ages and stages.

Just for the record, I do know I’m not stuck in a time warp circa 1995. I kind of get that every time I’m called to the dark side and consider buying a pair of flat shoes. (Instead of the gorgeously impractical and increasingly hard to walk in high-heeled varieties I have been seduced by all my life.) In recent years two schoolmates and a couple of dear friends have died, among them my first love. That’s certainly chucked a bucket of very cold water in Barbie’s youthful smiley face I can tell you, and accounted for a fair amount of the feelings of shrinkage. But I’m now also facing that old clichéé where time is speeding up. When you’re young the minutes pass like hours and there is a constant feeling of boredom because time stretches out to infinity. Now, I’ve got to that place the young can’t understand where the hours, days, weeks, months and years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. So much better than being subsumed in a myopic obsession about some much desired future state. Whether this state is a new job, a palatial home, a more exciting partner, a super-yacht, some publisher discovering you, winning a career changing award, the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given up on baby, running away to live on an Ashram or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems to be just plain dumb. Let’s face it, scenarios like the current Trump’s/Jong-un brinksmanship play merry Hell with all of our aspirations. But I’m still loving that it’s a gorgeous winter’s day and I’m free to sift through the Op-eds and indulge myself in writing this post. No fires to fight, no ferryman to pay. The future can go hang. I’m happy in my moment. After all, WTF can I do about the mine’s bigger than yours thing that’s going on between those two equally unappealing and childish so-called men?

The carpe diem aphorism comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes written in 23 BC. Carpe diem has long been used as a standalone phrase which people like me think of in terms of living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster — “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. Horace’s point being we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds. Not to trust that everything will randomly fall into place.

When I thought about it, the gnarly problem of retirement planning sprang to mind. This is something of a sensitive topic for me at the moment as I’ve taken some significant risks with my financial future by treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has yet to materialise and was looking frighteningly empty for a while. Putting all your financial eggs in the startup basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Bill Gates, but not so flash if you’re a John DeLorean and the expected high returns turn out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. While my investments are currently looking a bit healthier than they were a few months ago for a number of reasons, I still have anxiety dreams about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions round in a shopping trolley — pretty certain that the amount I’ve paid into my pension fund won’t cut it on it’s own.

In all likelihood, Horace’s contemporaries weren’t agonizing about whether their KiwiSaver contributions would see the distance. In those days, apparently if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at 48. That’s a total of 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. Just as an aside, I wonder what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? Must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the dessert as opposed to stagnating in the stews of Rome. Of course there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, it’s thought that less than 5% of the population at any one time would be over 65. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was exactly a trailblazer in the realm of social welfare, so this line of thinking is somewhat pointless. But the Roman equations are interesting in comparison to our ageing ‘Boomer’ reality, which is leaving many people angsting about their financial futures. The upside is that this is a temporary blip. Assuming that the militaristic fat boys step away from their nukes and stand down from the standoff, with the rate at which birth rates are levelling off of or falling in the west, we’ll be back to the healthy Roman proportions of youth to age before you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, for sure there are many variables such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all, not to mention the whole Pandora’s Box of our health. But that doesn’t means there’s no point. Yay, this is where I get to use all those cliches like failing to plan is planning to fail (Alan Lakein after Churchill and Franklin).  Like, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable (Seneca the Younger — and didn’t those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two BTW? Bet their life expectancy was higher than the Romans). Then there’s, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him (Tolkien). For decades business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission and values as the foundation to success. Rightly so. Businesses are much more likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re aiming for. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver than chasing a series of shiny new things down rabbit holes.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring instead to live her life on ad hoc terms. We often used to argue a lot about this. Apart from anything else, it was deeply irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in her total inability to get anywhere on time. This fed my position which was that I don’t think you can actually be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. If spontaneity is your life mission it’s got to lead to chaos because nothing can ever be achieved. In a similar way, having no life plan invites chaos in. Seizing the day is not only  about visualising and working towards a desired future but also about enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As Robert Burns knew so well, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.’ Pity to get to where they’ve gone agley and there’s only disappointment and a black hole which sucked in time passed in waiting. The best bit is that with a vision, the whole concept of retirement planning becomes moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to. That we want our days to end in a Disney Castle or an Indian ashram or somewhere in between. Clearly circumstances do frequently rain on this planning parade, requiring regular recalibration, but to me that offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking before my eyes, I’m determined to make better use this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed a commodity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter. Letting time slip away like Dali’s Melting Watch in the featured image. For sure, I need to do what it takes to get some decent returns from all the time I’ve invested in my businesses so the ageing bag lady scenario remains simply a bad dream. But I’m visualising as I write and my scenario always includes enough money to see me out in style and allow me to do all the other things I have factored in.

In this vision, when the bell tolls for me, I plan for it to interrupt something amazing. To continue the annoying references, I will be living my days rather than counting my years. Go to India and Antarctica. Take the sentimental journey home to Scotland and write my memoirs en route. Get therapy for the rampaging arachnophobia that makes any attempt at gardening feel like a journey to Mount Doom! Actually turn up at my orchestra having done more than one cursory run through of the music. Or better, stop beating myself up if I don’t! You get the picture I’m sure? Carpe diem indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.

About that albatross round your neck

I had a great start to this year. I was on fire with certainty and focus, personally and professionally. For the first time in many years, I’d actually said no to a couple of things, leaving room for a number of pet projects that kept getting side-lined. Following a lengthy drought, I started writing again. Ideas blossomed like desert flowers after rain, some pollenating this blog. I was on a roll at work, striding through business planning like a Colossus on steroids. Quite the little joy germ I can tell you. And then, a few months ago, the wheels fell off and I picked up a business load that someone else had laid down and I’ve been staggering under it’s weight ever since. Throughout, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to see the very large albatross slung round my neck?

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, having an albatross round your neck is a peculiarly English language idiom that has come to refer to a heavy burden of guilt that becomes an obstacle to success. The original guilt-induced burden was toted by a hapless sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner written in 1797-98. Although the idiom is widely used, I would imagine for most of us, the poem that spawned it is only a blurry memory from long ago English classes if it’s known at all. I for one had the vague recollection of a cautionary tale of a dead bird and a lot of bad shit that went down during some sort of voyage somewhere, sometime resolving into some sort of darkly redemptive ending.

Well, that wasn’t really very insightful, so I sent up a prayer of thanks yet again to the Gods of the Internet for Google and Wikipedia and for the ease with which I was able to satisfy my curiosity. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner — let’s call it TROTAM for brevity and because acronyms are so fashionable — relates the experiences of a sailor who has just returned from a long sea voyage. In the words of the author (and what better source could there be really?) it charts the story of “How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.” Still not getting it? Then (to use an expression I loathe but which I think is allowable in the context) let’s take a deeper dive …

The narrative begins with a mariner (presumably an ancient one) stopping some random who is on his way to a wedding in the street and regaling this hapless individual with his story. It’s not actually revealed why he picked this particular man or indeed how he knew the man was on his way to a wedding. The poem wasn’t well received at the time. Perhaps the 18th century reading public was as keen on continuity as contemporary filmgoers who notice things like Storm Troopers hitting their heads on bulk ways. Anyway, I digress. The wedding-guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience to fear to fascination as the mariner’s story progresses. Think I might have felt the same. It’s kind of Night of the Living Dead meets Pilgrim’s Progress. At one surreal point our hero is sporting a massive dead bird strung round his neck on a ship sailed by reanimated corpses. Nowadays of course we would have called them Zombies, but Coleridge was happily unaware of this hugely successful genre. The first known use of the word Zombie in English wasn’t until 1819 in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, Perhaps if he’d called it TROTAM … with Zombies, it would have taken the world by storm instead of bewilderment. Clearly he was ahead of his time or already the opium addict recorded in the last couple of decades of his life.

Oops digressing again … back to the action. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south by a storm, eventually reaching Antarctic waters where it gets stuck in an ice jam. Serendipitously, an albatross soars by and seemingly guides them out of the ice. Quite understandably, the crew is pretty happy about this believing the albatross brought the south wind that led them out of the Arctic. So what does our hero do? At about the time the crew are congratulating themselves for their good fortune, he grabs his crossbow and shoots the bird dead. What was he thinking? Didn’t he know albatrosses are protected? Predictably, his shipmates are a tad irked with the murdering mariner. However, as they sail on, the weather becomes warmer, the mist disappears and all is temporarily forgiven.

Not for long! Killing the albatross appears to bring the wrath of some unspecified and malevolent spirits down on their heads and they transit from “the lands of mist and snow” to uncharted waters near the equator where the ship is becalmed and it’s frankly, hot as Hell. This prompts the one memorable and often quoted line from the entire gruesome load of anarchic tosh, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”. (If you’re a purist, it’s actually “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”).

In anger, the crew forces the mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to show his guilt. Two points here. (1) Why did they still have the dead bird onboard? (2) What a great idea — maybe activist organisations like Sea Shepherd could take on board (as it were) when they encounter idiots doing vile things to marine life!

Anyway, this is all getting a bit long-winded. To cut a (very very) long story short, next they encounter a floating hulk where Death (a skeleton) and Nightmare-Life-in-Death (a deathly pale women) are playing dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins the lives of the crewmembers and LID (Life in Death doh) wins the life of the mariner who … er … yup you got it … must endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross. Even the Sea Shepherd stalwarts might consider this a little extreme? Anyhoo, the crew die, but the mariner lives on for seven days and nights seeing the curse in the last expressions in the eyes of their corpses.

Ultimately, the mariner’s curse is lifted after he appreciates the sea creatures around him, which he had earlier cursed (lot of cursing in this work) as “slimy things” — he suddenly sees their true beauty — “a spring of love gush’d from my heart and I bless’d them unaware”. Abracadabra, the albatross falls from his neck and he is partially redeemed. Good spirits possess the corpse crew and they help steer the ship to safe harbor. Trancelike by this time (and who can blame him after all the trauma) the mariner hears two of the spirits discussing his fate which is to wander the earth driven by guilt, forced to tell his story over and over and passing on his cautionary tale to those he meets.

On finishing his story, the mariner leaves, and the wedding guest returns home, and wakes the next morning “a sadder and a wiser man”.

THE END

And don’t you wish it was darlings? But suck it up because I haven’t quite done yet. As I said earlier, responses at the time were muted, even from his poet buddies like William Wordsworth. Apart from the fact that TROTAM is written in highly laboured ‘olde englishe’, it’s simply not a very pleasant story … all those dead things!

Whether or not there’s any merit in the poem — I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that score — the sad thing is that Coleridge’s story gave the albatross such a bad rap as a guilty burden to bear. NZ is home to 14 species of albatross, including one of the two biggest, the Royal Albatross with an average wingspan of 3m (9.8ft) some more than 3.5m. I was lucky enough to visit a colony outside Dunedin at the bottom of our South Island a few years ago — they are truly glorious birds that can live up to 70 year apparently. Check out our Department of Conservation’s RoyalCam which follows a Royal Albatross nest. OK maybe it’s not as dramatic as some of the other better-known cams like this TigerCam, but hey, we don’t have any large predators on our shores, just this very large squid-eating bird so we have to take our wins where we can.

Coming back to the albatross currently decorating my own somewhat fragile neck, I’m pretty close to having completed whatever self-inflicted penance was required to achieve my own arc of redemption although my story was more one of taking responsibility than guilt. In any case, there is now light at the end of this particular tunnel. As I write, I can feel my albatross slowly re-animating and flexing its wings. I know that very soon it will soar off back out to sea in its element, tirelessly gliding over the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean.