Love Note – A friend in need

This post is dedicated to my oldest, most haunted friend who is going through a hard time at the moment.

Hey Lozenge,

You are amazing. Sure, you’re in Slytherin and you have Sarcasm Overdrive Syndrome, but you are amazing. And anyway, those two things aren’t so bad because in the end, they make you you.

Whilst honouring the fact that this is a really difficult time, I want to remind you that you haven’t always felt this way and you won’t always feel this way. It’s in times like this, when shit has hit the fan and the ground has shifted underneath our feet, that it’s important to remember our greatest hits. You are funny, ridiculous, smart and discerning and you have given me and so many others so much joy. That much is still very, very true.

Like when you fell off your chair in the archives room.

Like the half sleepover.

All the times we ate all the Hula Hoops and cherry tomatoes.

Skiing in Keystone.

Lusting over Heath Ledger at Showcase Cinema.

When you were convinced you were being haunted by the ghost of Michael Jackson.

When you fell off your chair in General R.S.

The ‘synoptic’ we did of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, discussing the free-spirited nature of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly.

How you had a terrible bout of glandular fever, were off school for weeks and still managed to ace you’re A Levels.

That adorable photograph of you wearing wellies and holding an umbrella.

Washing your hair in yellow water at the youth hostel in Ypres.

Being in a cinema surrounded by French kids on a school exchange and a trailer came on for GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra where the Eiffel Tower is blown up and they all started yelling.

The time you nearly died laughing after inhaling some nitrous oxide.

For being the best hide and seeker I have ever met (I still can’t get over the curtain).

When you were sent to the front of our Geography class because our teacher had a ‘bad feeling’ about you.

Sound of the Underground.

Your manifesto for polar bear safety in your English GCSE speaking and listening exam.

Struggling to walk up hills and measure soil acidity in the Peak District.

Your squeaky laugh.

Watching The Virgin Suicides, which has become one of my all-time favourite films.

Going for dinner at Zizzis in Covent Garden to decompress and gather ourselves the night after we were mugged in Kennington.

Going for heavily discounted dinner at Café Rouge in Holborn to celebrate the last day of my internship in London: getting pissed, terrorising the National Theatre, getting home and doing shots of gin and whiskey (what were we THINKING?!), before throwing up our discounted dinner and having to go to work the next day very hungover.

You lent me Born To Die thus beginning my Lana Del Rey fandom.

Annual trips to see Harry Potter for your birthday.

All the times you made sure all our friends’ siblings were included in our games: you never wanted anyone to feel left out.

Watching you fail to throw a shotput but being excellent at hockey.

The endless number of phone calls where we have laughed, cried, consoled each other and put the world to rights.

Even though you are in a lot of pain right now, I want you to keep these words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind: ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce’.

Lots of love x

New Zealand: music we listened to

Spending six weeks driving around New Zealand with my partner opened up a lot of time to listen to music new and old. We got round to the albums that we really should have heard by now and wallowed in songs that have been ringing around our heads for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few here. Out of all the albums we downloaded (thanks Spotify), two really stood out the most, demonstrating some of the very best song writing around at the moment.

SZA – Ctrl

SZA-CTRL-album-cover

The first time I came across SZA was when she featured on ‘Consideration’, the opening song of Rihanna’s 2016 album Anti. Her voice has the gravelly soul of the great Lauryn Hill, coupled with a gorgeous raspy softness, and I was definitely interested to listen to this 2017 solo effort. The opening track, ‘Supermodel’, is breath taking, and I’m finding it hard to think of another first song that is as arresting, intertwining musical simplicity with lyrics that epically twist and turn with the complexity of the person singing. Beginning with the unflinching bravado of ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’, SZA swings between a gutsy, devil-may-care façade and a piercingly sensitive portrait of an insecure young woman newly and unwillingly single. Here’s an extract just to taste:

‘Ooh just get a load of them

They got chemistry

All they could say

We like brother and sister

Look so good together

Bet they fuckin’ for real

 

And they was right

That’s why I stayed with ya

The—the dick was too good

It made me feel good

For temporary love

You was a temporary lover

 

Leave me lonely for prettier women

You know I need too much attention

For shit like that

You know you wrong

For shit like that

 

I could be your supermodel

If you believe

If you see it in me

See it in me

See it in me

 

I don’t see myself

Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?

Wish I was comfortable just with myself

But I need you

I need you

I need you’ – ‘Supermodel’, Ctrl

Vulnerability palpitates here: she clings to the glorious image of her and her ex, looking at their relationship through the eyes of others and consolidating how well matched they were. What is so subtle but revealing in the next verse is the caesura of ‘That’s why I stayed with ya / The – the dick was too good’. Even when SZA’s words are telling one story or conveying one apparent response, the caesura indicates that there is something more powerful underneath, disrupting the lyrics and their delivery. The break between ‘the’ and ‘the’ comes across as a stumble or a stutter, as though she catches herself before she lets her emotions flow through again, shifting awkwardly back into the almost traditionally masculine bravado of physicality. It’s not convincing at all that she just stayed with her boyfriend for sex; the hesitating break suggests that by referring to his dick she is attempting, perhaps unconsciously, to obscure her emotional distress over the break up, or distract from the pain of it. In her attempt to show a lack of care, she demonstrates that she cares very, very much and herein lies the song’s heart-wrenching vulnerability.

This becomes even clearer because her bravado does not last long: the caesura is followed by the chorus, which comes with a series of repetitions, for example ‘see it in me’ and ‘I need you’, and a question, ‘Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?’ She is aware that she has a desire to be secure within herself, a desire to not feel lonely even if she finds herself alone, but she is nowhere near there with her self-esteem or her emotional independence. She implores with her ex that she could be his ‘supermodel’, perhaps suggesting that physical beauty is an important thing to him, something he values in a relationship. It also, however, suggests that this is something that she values too, because she wants him to see outstanding physical beauty in her. She is hurt by the fact that he has left her for ‘prettier women’, suggesting that there is something lacking in her beauty that meant she couldn’t make him stay. It is incredibly moving listening to a woman grappling with why her boyfriend doesn’t want to be with her. At times, she tries to be the archetypal strong, independent woman who needs a dick and not a man; but at the same time she is crippled by self-criticism and constantly looks beyond herself for happiness and acceptance in superficiality.

And so the album begins. It is truly an outstanding way to set the scene for the rest to follow, with my particular favourites coming in the form of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the trippy ‘Doves in the Wind’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, which reminded me of Lamar’s ‘YAH’ from his Pulitzer-prize winning album DAMN. It has something of the Frank Oceanic about it too. The most famous song from the album, perhaps, is ‘Weekend’ which was given a Majestic Casual-esque makeover (sic ‘Funk Wav Remix’) by Calvin Harris. Whilst I am here for as much soul and funk as possible, the remix does lose some of the carefully crafted vulnerability of the original; the delicate mingling of devil-may-care and crippling self-doubt, where a young woman tries to embrace the freedom of temporary, flexible romance but definitely wants more.  Overall, SZA is one of the artists I am most excited about at the moment. I am rarely convinced by portrayals or depictions of love and relationships in pop culture, but SZA’s raw songs are fresh and original in their sensitivity.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

masseduction_st vincent

This was the album we listened to by far the most on our trip. I had been aware of St Vincent for a long time: the first song I can remember of Annie Clark’s was a collaboration with Grizzly Bear called ‘Slow Life’ from the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says, the Twilight films were shite but the soundtracks most certainly were not. The soundtrack from this film, in particular, introduced me to Bon Iver, Band of Skulls and Thom Yorke); however, I had never taken the time to actually listen to any more of her music.

Initially, I got the wrong end of the stick with the title, reading ‘mass education’ and not ‘mass seduction’. This made the eponymous song, with its list of fetishes that get St Vincent hot under the collar, mildly confusing when I’d been expecting a manifesto on the importance of accessible, state-funded schooling. When I learned to read again (how ironic) it quickly became clear that this album is as passionate in its engagement with our hyperactive, hyper-sexualised pill-popping culture as I thought it would be about teaching. The tongue-in-cheek characterisation of sex, vanity and indulgence in songs like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Sugarboy’ and ‘Savior’ are met with Jack Anatoff’s signature pulse-racing, electro-heavy production, creating a wacky Willy Wonka ride through the obsessions and repressions of modern romance.

These, however, are immediately offset and intermingled with songs that convey a real sense of desperation, the comedown after all the hype. Where individual grappling with anxiety, loneliness and regret, explored in songs like ‘Hang On Me’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Young Lover’ and ‘Slow Disco’, is projected onto a collective future that is severely bleak. In ‘Fear the Future’, St Vincent demands an anonymous ‘Sir’ to confront the seemingly inevitable prospects of war and swelling oceans which, I think, is a blatant address to President Trump.[1] The awareness of personal and political turmoil rubbing together and creating intense heat is centre stage on this album. They fuel one another and create a fast-paced, energetic trip that makes contemplation and reflection both necessary and unavoidable.

MASSEDUCTION excels because whilst heavy with complex synths, dark discussions of mental health and demonstrating palm-sweating horror at the damage we do to ourselves and others, it is never far from a wry wink or a cheeky elbow in the ribs. Much like the pills St Vincent describes raining down on us and propping up our lives, I listened to this album compulsively.

Other albums we listened to:

father john mistyIsolationKendrickBLL

‘Pure Comedy’, Father John Misty – emotional encyclopaedia that is also warmly scathing in its criticism of humanity’s current condition: Trump, misogyny, religion, social media, cultural revolutions all take beatings.

‘Isolation’, Kali Uchis – the love child of Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. The happiest sounding sad songs I’ve come across in a while.

‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar – I miss the challenging, experimental narratives of ‘Good Kid, M. A. A. D City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but Lamar’s lyrics have never been so performative nor complex than with this punchy, powerful album.

‘Melodrama’, Lorde – we couldn’t not listen to Lorde whilst in New Zealand (she’s from Devonport, Auckland). This album has become a certified modern classic and I would have loved for it to have been around when I was 20 and a mess. The sound engineering is great (see Jack Anatoff again) but the lyrics are gratingly immature at times; she’s perpetually self-deprecating but everything is always someone else’s fault too.

‘Konnichiwa’, Skepta – ‘Your ex plays in the Prem but you never see him taking a pen / ‘Cause if you can’t hit the G-spot when it comes to the spot kicks / Manna gotta wait on the bench’ is one of my favourite lyrics ever. More rappers need to pay attention to female sexual pleasure, please.

‘Ultraviolence’, Lana Del Rey – my go-to, come rain, shine, hell or high water. Del Rey and Dan Auerbach magic from beginning to end.

‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack – we listened to this so many times. A comprehensive textbook of blues and dream pop, featuring Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis Presley, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Agnes Obel, Alabama Shakes etc.

Personal playlists: featuring the likes of Tom Misch, Barney the Artist, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Jamie Woon, Sade, The Beatles, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Enya (yes, really), Ann Peebles, Eminem, Whitney Houston etc.

[1] Released in 2017, MASSEDUCTION is one of a string of releases by American artists in that year who are seething and incredulous at the political fallout of the 2016 presidential election (see also Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey).

‘Tender is the Gelignite’ eBook launch

Merry fucking Christmas bods. My novel Tender is the Gelignite is now available to buy as an eBook.instagram post_ebookw

Get your copy here >

First and foremost, thank you to all those who have supported me so far by purchasing the physical edition of the book. I received lots of photos of Tender is the Gelignite on people’s bookshelves and breaking free from Amazon packaging. The whole situation literally made my heart sing. Thanks as well to those who have written reviews on Amazon, I really appreciate all your readings and perspectives. If you’d like to add one and haven’t already, please feel free to do so.

As a special treat, all those who have a physical copy of the book should now be able to download the electronic Kindle version completely free. This is true for anyone who plans to buy the physical book in future; you’ll also get the eBook for free.

Nothing screams Christmas like a foul-mouthed down-trodden young woman setting her workplace on fire. For the rest of December, the eBook of Tender is the Gelignite will be available for just £1.99, after which time it will go up to £3.50.

Publishing the novel as an eBook was pretty much a no-brainer because I want Tender is the Gelignite to be as widely available and accessible as possible. There were also a few other things that we needed to consider and which I want to share with you:

1) Making physical books is expensive, and Amazon likes to take a lot of credit for it (by way of $$$). Buying the eBook is an equally valid way to support me, your new favourite author, for the price of a coffee.

2) The eBook can be lent to a pal through Amazon for up to 14 days – share the joy/pain of reading my novel with others.

3) Whilst the book is a pretty thing, having the eBook available means you don’t have to lug your copy around everywhere. If you do not have a Kindle, you can still download the digital version of Tender is the Gelignite from Amazon’s Kindle Store and read it on a device that you do have. Amazon has Kindle reading applications available for Windows, Mac, iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry.

Thanks again for all your amazing support.

Download your copy of Tender is the Gelignite here >

 

‘Tender is the Gelignite’ – 0.5 preview

Introducing the first chapter of Tender is the Gelignite

0.5

Definitely not the best idea to stare at the rain when you’re crossing the road.

First, no matter how calm and relaxed and dreamy you feel, your mug will form a snivelling sneer. Second, it’s likely that a pretty-car will knock your block off. Unintentionally for once.

A black shiny pretty-car screeches to a halt right up by my hip and I blink and jump back onto the pavement. It careers off again straight away, with a tuneful ‘fucking stupid, miserable, crazy, fat, dick-flapped cu-…’ stringing out of the driver’s window. I wrinkle my conk. The watchtower looms over the dim and dingy rows of red warehouses, prickly coils of barbed wire lacing over obtuse bleacher roofs.

In the UK there’s what I call UMAY, laws where you literally may pick whatever Uniform you like. Any clothes any style any arrangement. Which is great. Freedom and choice and all that. I like knowing who and what I am. Just so long as you stick to it afterwards mind, that’s very important.

Me

Feet: Laced-up bovver boots.

Bod: Black jumpsuit. Jersey.

Coat: Woollen, blood-coloured.

Choker: Scarf, like a blanket. Black, white, yellow.

I crunch my way through the downpour, the chopped fragments of glass, grit and sodden cardboard, squishing, mingling and munching in the thick soles of my bovvers, a firm barrier between my digits and the grindy, grimy slop. Careful: scantily scattered used condoms are a slippery risk, always best to avoid splurting skins.

Completely out of control Conscript.

This creeping crisis always begins when I first start walking to my Employment. At the beginning, I step into the hustling muscling city Centre-For-Work. Buildings are tall, sleek and clean. Dull sky is reflected beautifully, pavements are fresh and clear, streets are pedestrianised for bods, odds, sods, Conscripts, capitalisers, Employers and bods. Not many Poor Ones but they constantly hang about unseen. Clacking from the soles of hard-heeled shoes clash with snaps and spits coming from the Autogrammers, their portable ze-cams and ze-phones capturing the commute. Autogrammers aren’t just some nuisance bods that you need to dodge with their flashes and their cracks; they fill the city Centre-For-Work, providing photographic evidentials of everything and every bod all the ploughing time. That’s why you’d better stick to your all-important Uniform, especially during the day. Otherwise you’ll be Unrecognised and, well, that’s always a mess waiting to mong.

Walking through the city Centre-For-Work is void and impersonal; bods autogramming, staring at hologrammed ads or news stories on the roof tops or plodding along in a misshapen and miserable manner on their way to some office box or other. But there’s some comfort in seeing other like-feeling shittos living out the communal curse, no matter how vapid and sophisticatedly superficial the surroundings.

But crossing the ornate nineteenth century old old cold bridge into Strangeways, like I do and did every sodding day, you want to see as few bods as possible. You can never trust anybod driving them BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes Benz around a god-forsaken No Bod’s Land shit-hole dump like where I work. But you see them there a lot. What has a nice pretty-car got to do with a place so crap? A place so measly, oozing with muck, sweating like a foul ponging cheese or cold sore on the way out? Them BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz form a clean, cool contrast to such a mildewed patch: the rotting decaying roads and alleys; prozzes clopping about in puffer coats, flashing over-worn underwear and grotesque kitten heels as they perch on corners or fumble after these luxury-wagons, these fill-your-bovvers cock-on-wheels succulently-leather-arsed motor machines. Drug dealers dally at an angle to the prison, the tell-tale trainers lobbed over the disused ze-phone wire, hanging in a still brooding manner over the grids of warehouses.

I hate to see those cars. I hate being mistaken for a prozz. They crawl up alongside you. Even though you can’t see the toads inside you can feel the goggly woggly globes scanning your bod like you’re a slab of meat hanging in a blood house. Except they want to fuck you instead of eat you. Same thing really though, no? Tell me I’m wrong. I fantasise everyday about smashing them up. In my head, I take one of the slippery slimy waste bricks that has been lying chucked about round here since who knows when and pummel it into the pretty-car. The windscreen doesn’t stand a chance against my bricky blows, with Odious Toadious inside bricking his denim dick-casket as glass shards are cast in all the directions. He screams and shouts ‘you crazy betch’ and I shriek with delight at his panic, taking my big booted bovver foot to the hood and kick kick kick.

TAKE THAT YOU FILTHY FAT FUCK

No pretty-cars lurking today. I crunch on unwatched.

I pass the same bod every day. I think he must actually live in Strangeways or something because he’s always hurrying down the hill, every fucking day. He’s Asian, with a kind pleasant mug. We glance at each other every morning. I get the feeling he’s a nice bloke. You can tell who the nice ones are around here. The ones who keep their heads down and plough on; not the serial strutters, the swaggering shits who are proud to be a big-shot in a piss-pot like this.

Welcome to the hub of the UK’s fashion industry, the old Hell by wholesale.

*

Final Coer JPEG

Tender is the Gelignite is now available to buy from Amazon. Get your copy here >

Copyright © Elizabeth Harper 2017

‘Tender is the Gelignite’ – personal thanks

Tender is the Gelignite is now available to buy from Amazon. Get your copy here >

Final Coer JPEG

I wanted to write something separate to a few very special people who helped me to bring Tender is the Gelignite about:

Thanks to Annie, Char and Fiona who read early terrible drafts and still thought there was something to work with. The encouragement you gave me when I mentioned I had a mere idea for a novel was mind-blowing.

Thanks to Emily and Izzy . You are so inspiring and wonderful and I have always felt so lucky to have you as friends.

Thanks to Jess and Hayley for being wonderful blads. I don’t get to see you guys enough but when we do reunite, it’s utter magic. Laura, you still haven’t got rid of me yet, for which I am thankful. Also to Katie, Cate and Helena who I can’t do without.

Thank you Jack Sullivan for all the times, one recent favourite being when we got pissed in that Sam Smith’s in the West End, chatted for about 9 hours and then terrorised the greeting card department at Liberty’s London. That was so much fun.

Thanks Zoe for allowing me to air my thoughts about one particular passage that I really wanted to get right. Our discussion really helped.

Thanks to my former colleagues at ACN Europe UK and Rotterdam: Suzanne, Steve, Liz, Teun and Kim for giving a chatty randomer the opportunity to write a book whilst being able to afford rent and bills and things like that. Looking back, I must have sounded totally insane and you really didn’t have to give me a job, but you did and I am very, very grateful for that. I learnt so much with you guys and also developed a stroopwaffel addiction. Thank you.

Also thanks to Daisy, Krista, Jane, Joe/Josephine, Graciela, Agnes, Amy, Nat, Hannah, Benedicte and Oksana for the encouragement, the laughs, the food and for helping me to realise that I could find life-long friends in a totally unexpected place. Thanks also to the Crazy Cows for your encouragement and kindness… they know who they are and I love them all.

Thanks to Mollie, Joe, Claire, Sue, Jeb, Chris, Jo and all the grandparents for being so kind and supportive.

Thanks to my parents. To my Dad for being super chill and encouraging and my Mum for being terrified at what I was doing. You guys sure know how to keep a child balanced.

To Grandma: I dedicated this book to you but I don’t think you should take it to your church group.

Thank you Nicole. There really are no words. You are the best person on the planet. And also Mark 2, you really are a very cool cat.

Mark. You helped with the cover design, the formatting, the PLAN, the research into distribution, pretty much everything that requires some enhanced brain cells. I literally couldn’t have done this without you. But also, I couldn’t have done this without you.

Get your copy of Tender is the Gelignite here >

‘Tender is the Gelignite’ – publication and notes

I am delighted and terrified to share that my novel, Tender is the Gelignite, is now available to buy from Amazon. It is available worldwide, so no matter where you are (hey former Dutch colleagues!) it will be shipped to you.

You can get your copy here >

Final Coer JPEG

 

‘A spark goes off in my tum and my limbs ring and zing with nervous energy, like they do when you’ve just had a fucking fantastic idea’.

A young woman in a shiny city // post-industrial wasteland called Manchester decides to set her workplace on fire.

 Pursued by the militarised and mechanised LAW FORCE, she encounters a cast of weird, wonderful and wasted people and realises that survival may not be as desirable as she first thought.

Tender is the Gelignite plunges us into a brutal potential UK that is both darkly humorous and eerily recognisable.

This is my first novel and I decided to publish it myself using Amazon’s CreateSpace service, with the unparalleled help of Mark Williams. Over the past couple of years, I have been juggling writing, editing and proofing with a full time job, which has been both exciting and exhausting.  Self-publishing gave us many different freedoms with the book, in particular regarding the font, formatting, cover art and cover design. Going through the publishing process independently has also been challenging to say the least; so many issues were thrown up that might have (and did) go extremely wrong. Very late on the night before publishing, I had a phone call with a nice man at CreateSpace in the USA to resolve a huge accidental mess I made in the final processing.  I was on the phone to CreateSpace again first thing the next morning to follow-up on the said mess. In spite of this, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to make my own decisions, deal with my own fuck-ups and, most importantly, I haven’t had to sell out on what I am interested in writing about or the way in which I chose to write, for fear of not being considered ‘commercially viable’.

I have come to learn that the primary motivation driving publishing today is a guarantee that money will be made; for the publisher, for the manufacturer, for the distributor, for agents, for everyone involved, with a little bit left over for the writer. I think it is symptomatic of our current cultural moment where risks, challenging ideas and small but ambitious projects are increasingly curtailed to protect profits. I wrote two years ago about Disney consuming itself in a bid to recuperate billions of dollars lost on box office flops (see here) and I think this safe money-making agenda within the arts has become even more paranoid in the meantime. Experimental work is unreported and glossed over with an endless series of cash cow re-makes, sequels, prequels, covers and spin-offs by power players in the worlds of film, music, literature and fashion.  At a time when world politics is in such a dire state, it baffles me that as a society, we cosy into complacency: what we know, what reinforces our ideologies and what makes us feel safe. It is this attitude coupled with the desire to preserve wealth that has helped to fan the hatred, violence and destruction that is destroying people and planet. Effectively, the cultural machine sees things wrong with the world and chooses not to use art to reflect, express and critique the horror that we continue to unleash on each other and on the environment.

I have attempted to write about the world we live in, in a way that some may find uncomfortable or challenging. It’ll be up to you to decide how successful I have been and whether Tender is the Gelignite is any good or not.[1] I am aware that this book may not be to the high standard of so many great writers I have spent years of my life reading; but in this crucial time, when I see cultural industries doing little to challenge so many devastating orthodoxies, I’ve tried to do something with my bit of a book. It has been both a joy and a slog to bring it to this point and I now happily send it off out of my sight and out of my mind. I’ve got a new novel-thing-project-situation that I’m going to start working on and I’m thanking my melons that I am now free to explore and inscribe something else.

Me with book

Get your copy of Tender is the Gelignite here >

[1] Please find here a link to Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ because it sums up everything I feel about the process of writing and reading. You will, however, have to forgive Roland’s excessive reference to authors and readers as ‘he’; a lot of old and current creative minds are tragically part and parcel of patriarchy.

http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/Gustafson/FILM%20162.W10/readings/barthes.death.pdf

Lana Del Rey: music, fans and commercial mayhem

Anyone who knows me knows that Lana Del Rey is one of my all-time favourite women. Her music found its way into my life in 2012 at a very interesting time and over the years, I have enjoyed her intricate and very moving play with enigma and persona, and her excellent storytelling. Her second LP Ultraviolence has particular significance for me: her collaboration with Dan Auerbach, of one of my favourite bands of all time The Black Keys, was what my dark, gritty dreams were made off. Moody and intertextual, casually referencing A Clockwork Orange, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, The Crystals, Virginia Woolf, Nina Simone and Lou Reed, the album, for all that it was pared back compared to its Lolita-infused predecessor Born to Die, was still sumptuous and cinematic. It told the post-Lolita story, revealing the stony and unsettling aftermath of a narrative that was previously fizzing and overflowing with youth, hubris, desire and mournful chaos. Ultraviolence shows us that Born to Die as a concept was only ever going to be fleeting, that it’s flipside was dark, serious and dangerous. It was initially jarring for many fans and critics, with the Guardian famously indirectly berating her during the initial promotion for her extra-marital involvements and for dwelling on death.[1]

I felt, however, that Ultraviolence was the perfect continuation, the only continuation of the story; and she famously culminated the whole trilogy with Honeymoon, a similarly intertextual record that oozed with malaise, deliberation and a bittersweet sense of an ending. Indeed, in the videos for Freak and Music To Watch Boys To, Del Rey was flocked by a gaggle of young Born To Die-esque beauties and there was an uncanny sense that whilst Del Rey sipped her Kool-Aid, she was passing the waifish, young, naughty, nymphet baton to the next generation. This trilogy of Born to Die (including its Paradise EP), Ultraviolence and Honeymoon are modern classics and we have been so lucky to have a woman tell such a captivating story of self-awareness, femininity, sexuality, danger and maturity so publically and with so much success. She is a master storyteller and her mountains of lyrics and intricately produced tracks are a testament to this.

On Ultraviolence, Del Rey wrote a satirical song called ‘Money Power Glory’ that documented a young down-and-out, bitter about being poor and yearning for dope, diamonds and an affluent, aspirational land far away. The song works well as a critique of the neoliberal culture we live in that revolves around these three eponymous entities, yet sardonically laughs at the fact that in spite of knowing that these things don’t make us happy, we still ardently and avidly crave them.  Over the past few days, however, Del Rey threw her fans into a capitalist chaos that I don’t think reflects the satire of her previous viewpoint and that has slightly jolted the way we should approach her new era.

On Wednesday 18th June, posts went up on Del Rey’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts announcing that she was doing a surprise show at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton for the following Monday 24th July. Considering Del Rey has only performed once in the UK in the past 4 years, at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull in May 2017, there was a huge appetite for this gig and it immediately attracted a lot of attention. I was unable to go because I am out of the country next week, but wanted to help my younger sister, an equally avid Lana Del Rey fan but at the time delayed at an airport in France, to get to Brixton. In the end, it proved impossible for me to buy her tickets for her because O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. As I would be out of the country, neither of us could go. I must admit I was temporarily embittered but, you know, I’m going to Greece next week. It’s cool. I was still, however, witness to everything that unfolded and it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fans who wanted access to the pre-sale had until 5 o’clock on Wednesday 18th July to register. This involved pre-ordering a copy of the new album Lust for Life, due for release on Friday 21st June, for around £9.99 in exchange for a pre-sale code.  At 9:00 the next morning, Wednesday 19th July, pre-sale tickets went live and sold out in a matter of seconds. General sale tickets went live at 12:00 and, again, sold out in a matter of seconds. Social media was completely abuzz with hundreds of fans disappointed and frustrated that within moments of the clock hitting 12:00, ticket vendors were refreshing and declaring that there were no tickets left. Barely minutes afterwards, tickets were appearing on Viagogo selling for £600 a go. This puts fans in another bind because, as previously mentioned, O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. Touts are, inevitably, selling on tickets at extraordinary prices to fans who won’t be able to enter the building with them anyway. This is something that Ed Sheeran has actively addressed in relation to his up-coming string of gigs by cancelling around 10,000 tickets.[2] It has not been announced whether Del Rey and her management are addressing this.

From the beginning, Del Rey and her management were capitalising, literally, on the enthusiasm of fans desperate to see such a rare show. By asking people, mostly young and whom she appeals to with a clear direct ‘you’ in new songs like ‘Love’, to put up money at little notice in exchange for privileged access to tickets seems mean and underhand.[3] These are people who have spent and probably will continue to spend money on Lana Del Rey and her merchandise in the future and it wasn’t exactly a generous gesture. It became increasingly unfair as the number of people registering for pre-sale swelled massively making it increasingly unlikely that many of these fans were even going to get tickets. After pre-sale and general sale, it appeared on social media that fans were being charged £52 a ticket which, again, on 24 hour notice for a gig next week in one of the most expensive cities in the world, seems ridiculously unfair. It suggests that the fans who could pay the most, by pre-ordering Lust for Life and then stumping up £52 for a ticket, were the ones who got to attend. This is isn’t exactly au fait with the pseudo-hippie aesthetic of freedom, love and lusty carefree youth that Del Rey’s new era is embracing. Instead, she created a virtual stampede, reminiscent of the kind of materialistic commercial madness seen on Black Friday, that was desperate and undignified for those involved.

I understand that many people frequently feel disappointed about missing out on gig tickets and that Twitter will fill up with moaning, weeping and various other melodramatic emotional responses as a result. But when young fans are played with and cast aside for commercial gain, where the artist and management are profiting so heavily from (a) creating multiple financial barriers to gigs and (b) subsequently pitting fans against one another, I find it hard to completely justify and get on board with it, no matter how much I admire the artist. It’s not the sort of marketing tactic I would expect from someone who claims so often that she deeply cares about her fans. Sure, this is all part of Del Rey’s mysterious and unpredictable persona that I’ve so enjoyed up until now, and I’m sure the online furore that has been triggered is happily feeding the myth, but it ultimately shows disdain and an emerging disrespect for fans. Del Rey knows she will be flocked wherever she goes, and her management have taken decisions to rinse as much money out of fans as possible using the mystique and desirability of the artist as fuel. If they were really serious about making as much money as possible, as shown in the strategy to release tickets, then Del Rey should just do a pre-planned tour, giving more people the opportunity to see Del Rey and with ample notice to get tickets. Instead, fans were served with a last minute rare appearance, charged over the odds and ultimately leaving many completely in the cold.

This comes within a week that a song called ‘Groupie Love’ has been released, focusing on the obsessive nature of music fans who see themselves as special and at one with their icon but are just part of a crowd of other likeminded groupies. Del Rey presents herself as being a groupie in the song but after the closure of her Born To Die, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon trilogy, this seems outdated. She has claimed that Lust for Life is for and about her fans: she has previously hinted that she’s ‘cooking something up for the kids’ and in an interview with Billboard said, ‘I felt like it was more wanting to, like, talk to the younger side of the audience I have’.[4] We can, therefore, argue that ‘Groupie Love’ is a nod to and an acknowledgment of the behaviours and naiveté of her fans which she can happily temporarily adopt and play along with. It seems slightly cynical, however, that one moment Del Rey is lauding and romanticising her fans for their groupie mentality but then plays on that very love and obsessiveness to ramp up pre-order sales and to sow financial divisions amongst them. I was then also reminded of an Instagram video Del Rey uploaded on the 22nd September 2016 where one bearded friend jokes that ‘Lolita14 is following [me]’ and another bearded friend  claims, ‘I need one of those’, before joking that he should ask fans who direct message him asking to meet Del Rey to send nudes as payment. In the video, Del Rey laughingly calls them ‘gross’. I think talking about fans in this way is distasteful verging on predatory, but also flippant and exploitative of a fan base who have been whipped into obsessiveness generated by the Lana Del Rey myth-machine in the first place; the level of attention she gets shouldn’t be surprising and something to scoff at. Del Rey has said that she no longer sings the lyrics ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’, because she no longer sees it as appropriate or acceptable, but then will happily upload a video encouraging fans to send nudes, even if only in jest.[5] It is undeniably hypocritical.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that some of Del Rey’s fans can be bratty nightmares. By saying this, I refer to the leaking of songs and material that have continuously plagued her career, including the leak of Lust for Life just two days before its official release. Del Rey famously called the fans sharing the link ‘U little fuckers’ and it is understandable that she was angry at such a violation of her privacy and of her agency to share her art when and where she wanted to. I can appreciate that when fans border on the obsessive to such an extent, it must be infuriating. Ironically, however, it served as the perfect counter-balance to the commercial, money-driven hysteria of the O2 gig tickets sales simultaneously unfolding, and many fans took the opportunity to download the album from a spectral link on Twitter. It is important to say that many also did not, choosing to respect the release date and openly condemning the leak out of loyalty to Del Rey.

I am so excited to listen to Lust for Life on its release today and I want to see where the story is going next. I embrace Del Rey’s collaboration with uber cool cats A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, and currently love her meditative outputs ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ and ‘Summer Bummer’. But there is something that isn’t sitting quite right with the way the campaign for Lust For Life has been run. There has been an arrogance to the treatment of fans that has focused on profit and controversy instead of kindness, understanding and respect. It’s creating a toxic relationship whereby fans are whipped up into a frenzy by last minute rare appearances, clambering over one another figuratively and financially to get tickets; whilst at the same time, Del Rey’s music is leaked without her permission and much to her visible indignation. I’m not getting off the Lana Del Rey train just yet and I don’t suppose I ever will. But for an artist who quotes and reveres Nina Simone’s mantra of reflecting the times, I hope that Del Rey forsakes the capitalistic, commercial trappings of the pop industry and instead, holds a mirror to these very things. She can continue to be elusive and enigmatic whilst still being generous to the people who keep her in the position she is in.

[1] ‘I wish I was dead already’, Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 12th June 2014 [accessed 07:02, 20th July 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-album

[2] ‘Ed Sheeran cancels 10, 000 tour tickets being sold on re-sale sites’, Huffington Post, 17th July 2017 [accessed 21:16, 19th July 2017] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ed-sheeran-tour-tickets-touts-resale-sites_uk_596ca344e4b03389bb18b6b9

[3] ‘Look you kids with your vintage music […] Look you kids, you know you’re the coolest […] it don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love’, ‘Love’, Lana De Rey 2017.

[4] ‘Everything we know about Lust For Life (so far)’, Billboard, 29th March 2017 [accessed 22:40, 19th July 2017) http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7743538/lana-del-rey-lust-for-life-album-everything-we-know

[5] ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: a conversation with Lana Del Rey’, Pitchfork, 20th July 2017 [accessed 07:10, 21st July 2017] http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness-a-conversation-with-lana-del-rey/

Open Letter to Nancy Rothwell

Dear Nancy Rothwell,

As an alumnus of the University of Manchester, I would like to congratulate you on the appointment of George Gideon Osborne as the new Honorary Professor of Economics at the university. I did my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in English Literature at the university and have many friends currently undertaking doctoral research and teaching in a variety of subjects and fields there. I believe this is a watershed moment for many of your students, both past and present, because what we have seen develop over the past 7 years has finally become general public knowledge: this university cares more about private interests, profit and image than it does about students and an excellent standard of academia.

A university that once boasted some of the most brilliant minds amongst its staff, that was a world-leading centre for ground breaking research, sharp critical thinking and progressive, socially responsible teaching has opted for a shallow neoliberal poster boy for austerity as an educator, with a poor economic record in government and generally despised by those who have suffered and borne witness to the suffering that his policies have brought about in this city and beyond. That is before we even mention the fact that this man is responsible for the rise in tuition fees that have made higher education a luxury both in Manchester and around the country, instead of a public right and service. Whilst many other decisions made by you and your management regarding the funding and structure of the university have been crassly cynical, including the many cost-cutting mergers of schools and faculties across campus, this is the most overtly cynical and offensive yet. Finally, the University of Manchester is showing its true colours and its true contempt for so many of the people currently working and studying there. You and your management care only for the superficial. This mockery of the university is completely unacceptable but it is finally coming to national attention.

The first and most obvious issue to be taken with this appointment is the terrible correlation of the hiring of our new Honorary Professor and the proposed cutting of 171 academic jobs within the university, leaving up to a 1000 members of staff uncertain of their future.[1] These cuts are supposedly being implemented to benefit early years’ academics, giving them sought-for opportunities and teaching experience; yet, the actuality is that this is an overt cost-cutting exercise whereby young academics will be systematically ripped off and overworked with unfair contracts.

This is already an on-going battle at the university, where, for example, many Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures, have had to fight hard for their right to be paid not only for the contact teaching they do, but also for the hours of preparation and assessing they do for their students. Unfair temporary contracts for young academics provide no stability and security, bogging them down with arbitrary administration. This prevents many from having the valuable time to research and publish the work required to secure a fixed-term position. It is shocking that within this context of unfair contracts and low pay, which has already been simmering under the surface at the university for a long time and which is going to have a catastrophic effect on the university soon when the job losses and inevitable staff shortages come into force, that George Osborne is being offered an Honorary Professorship. This man has overseen the greatest attack on public services in modern times, and his outdated, ineffectual but utterly devastating economic ideology is something progressive institutions should be resisting, not applauding. By offering him an ‘Honorary’ position, the university is condoning his government’s and party’s express desire to privatise and profit from public institutions, bringing services to their knees through a constant undermining of staff, their pay and their working conditions. The University of Manchester is condoning, adopting and perpetuating this very ideology with its own staff and it is outrageous. Ultimately, the unjustified cutting of jobs at the university will see satisfaction deteriorate whilst the quality and the quantity of world-leading research that is produced by those left behind will be seriously impacted.

Across the country, the arts and humanities have been suffering for a very long time in higher education, thanks in part to the cuts inflicted upon universities by our Honorary Professor’s government. The University of Manchester is no stranger to this: the Archaeology department is fighting for its very existence; I easily recall students competing for tiny amounts of money within the School of Arts Languages and Cultures to attend conferences; and Visual Anthropology students were struggling to showcase their final projects due to the lack of a couple of hundred pounds to do so. This is whilst our science, business and engineering peers were showered with seemingly endless funding and equipment, travelling as far away as Hawaii for all expenses paid conferences and receiving free iPads and e-readers along the way. Indeed, science and engineering are the main beneficiaries of the new so-called ‘Campus Masterplan’, with ‘iconic’ new buildings creating a ‘Northern engineering powerhouse’, a direct reference to the lacklustre and patronising pet project of our new Honorary Professor whilst he was still in government. The Arts buildings, on the other hand, have settled for some re-arranging and re-modelling. The arts and humanities are not taken as seriously at this university as the allegedly ‘useful’ scientific disciplines because they are not guaranteed money-makers propped up by industry. I think this is hardly surprising: in the humanities, we are taught to identify, critique and analyse social systems, structures and ideologies, challenging the powerful and rigorously giving attention to the disenfranchised. It’s little wonder that funding is stripped from these areas of research, so uncomfortable for those in power, when they are so very threatening to the hegemonic orthodoxies perpetuated by those like the university management and our new Honorary Professor of Economics.

Having spent time with doctoral students within the schools of Chemistry and Biology, I have found that there too the treatment of students is as disturbing as the institutional negligence of the arts and humanities. Whilst I am still angry that science students are given preferential treatment over those studying the arts and humanities, I find the interference of industry and private business in the funding of science research and equipment sinister and, ultimately, a threat to the integrity of the research conducted and produced by the university. This is seen explicitly in one of the areas of science that you and George are so proud of: your beloved National Graphene Institute. Whilst it features in all the press releases and marketing information about the university, the National Graphene Institute remains an enigma to many students. There are few opportunities for students to work in and use the facilities that the National Graphene Institute houses because it is so heavily funded and owned by private companies and industry. Whilst students from the School of Chemistry, for example, can easily collaborate and make use of the facilities owned by the School of Biological Sciences, to use the National Graphene Institute requires patronage from industry, successive meetings with supervisors and limited accessibility. Companies like Dyson, Seimens, Samsung, Rolls Royce and Tetrapak are gearing research towards their own profitable ends and, in the process, are alienating doctoral students and academics who should have access to the facilities available. It is not a collegial or collaborative enterprise except for the private businesses who are hoping to make money from graphene, and it is not fair for all the money being spent on graphene to not be seen or used by the vast majority of students.

This brings me back to the inherent artifice and superficiality that the University of Manchester is constantly constructing for itself. On the outside, graphene has been a big financial success story for the university yet students are not seeing the benefits of this investment and instead watch their lecturers and teachers become at risk of losing their jobs. Similarly, the university has invested in a new 326 room hotel on campus in conjunction with the Alliance Business School.[2] It seems that the university management has forgotten that the university is a place of public learning and progressive research, not a leisure park for Honorary Professors and business people in suits to jet in for a masterclass or two. I do not see how a hotel and a shiny graphene institute, bankrolled and annexed by private businesses, are supposed to contribute to the vacuous ‘student experience’ that the university is so keen to market. George Osborne’s appointment as Honorary Professor of Economics is part of this same desperate grab for superficial international attention from a university that privileges profit over the people working and studying there: it has overseen a huge rise in tuition fees for home and international students; senior management have received significant pay rises whilst blue collar workers have been shafted on zero hours contracts; and it continues to slap Alan Turing’s name and face all over campus as a marketing ploy when it remained silent  in the 1950s when he was forced to chemically castrate himself for being gay.

The University of Manchester is not a corporate business, and yet it is being run in such a manner. Flashy appointments and flashy new hotels and research centres on campus make a stark contrast to cuts to staff and an authoritarian contempt for students. The appointment of George Osborne has brought this fact into daylight. His position on campus will, I hope, be met with resistance from students and alumni alike for the length of its duration. I am sure you are both currently basking in the attention that this announcement has received but I believe it is ill-advised, tone deaf and damages the brilliant reputation that the University of Manchester once had, ‘furthering the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching, but also contributing to the well-being of its region and society more widely’.[3]  In its quest to hungrily make money and to become arbitrarily aspirational, for example ranking as a ‘world-leading university’ by 2020, the University of Manchester is diving into the depths of ideological infamy and history will not look kindly on this new frontier. [4]

[1] ‘Over 900 jobs at risk at University of Manchester as university announces major cuts’, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8775/Over-900-jobs-at-risk-at-University-of-Manchester-as-university-announces-major-cuts

[2] ‘University strikes hotel deal as part of £1 billion campus master plan’, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=12495.

[3] University of Manchester: Vision https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/vision/.

[4] ‘KPI 1: To be recognised as one of the 25 leading universities in the world, with 20% of subject areas in the top 20, as measured by our position in international league tables’, http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=25548.

Skull Money

Skull MoneyI remember standing in a queue at a cafe

Or getting ready to get onto a bus

Faffing with coins

And I told Annie

‘I don’t want to use this one:

It’s new and shiny’.

What. Why.

‘It’s pretty. I like it! I’m keeping it’.

She promptly told me off

For fetishizing money.

It’s true:

It’s all a fabulous golden fiction.

Who cares if it’s old or new, pretty or worn.

It’s all alloy and rotten

And irrational.

By accident I was given two skull coins

By two faceless strangers

And that felt more appropriate

To fetishize.

True, they are trying to

Commemorate William THE BARD Shakespeare

and some kind of pre-historic pre-coinage

Neanderthal person who lived in British Gibraltar;

But it feels quite alright

To keep two shining nothings of death and capital

Together and bright

Jingling about in my pocket or purse

Waiting, like my life, to be spent.

 

Photo: @E_S_Harper Instagram

 

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.