art, screen, words

The Shopping Bag Hat

When someone says they have no life regrets, I inwardly wish them bad karma for having too much good luck. And then promptly cancel the wish, realising that they’re probably just not telling. No one has an uninterrupted back catalogue of solid gold hits.

Alexander McQueen's Horn of Plenty Fashion Show - photo by Nick Waplington
a bin bag for a wimple

The No-Regrets tend to have bright eyes. But where’s the weight, the depth, the breadth? A life without grit, is it really worth it? Yes, of course it is. 

And what if people have had the grit and still have no regrets? Possessed, instead, of an enviable forward-looking way of being; one built for living, not labouring with one foot in the past, trapped like a wellington in the mud.

Alexander McQueen's Horn of Plenty Fashion Show photo by Nick Waplington
the shopping bag on my head is made from the finest silk

The woman in the shopping bag hat is a photo from Working Process at Tate Britain. The behind-the-scenes photographic project by artist Nick Waplington chronicles Horn of Plentyfashion designer Alexander McQueen‘s final autumn/winter collection, from 2009. McQueen committed suicide in early 2010.

I didn’t exactly rush to see Working Process* The reluctance wasn’t simply, pah, it’s just fashion – although there was that too – but more the suspicion that the exhibition might use McQueen’s passing as borrowed gravitas and proof of depth: he killed himself, right, it’s got to be art.
Guy Bourdin photo of a woman's leg in red rights growing out of a plant pot
Guy Bourdin finds style growing out of a plant pot
McQueen asked Waplington to record all the stages of producing a fashion show. His photos cover research, sketches, fabrics, mannequins and stitching, through to studio fittings, rehearsals, backstage on the night, and the runway show itself. This record of fashion in the making is mixed with Waplington’s signature images of rubbish and recycling, reflecting the themes of destruction and creative renewal that were at the core of the Horn of Plenty collection. 

Nick Waplington photos of waste and Alexander McQueen costume
landfill vs fashion

Horn of Plenty turned out to be an irreverent retrospective of McQueen’s life in fashion, recycling standout motifs, ideas and fabrics from previous career highs. This may sound self-aggrandising, but the intention was apparently otherwise – a stinging commentary on excess. 

The penultimate room at Work in Process features striking images of gangly, fright-faced models sporting super-heavy lipstick. Several are draped in ‘recycled’ fabrics and fake refuse sacks for clothes. The luxury trash aesthetic is hardly the most subtle critique of high fashion. But cleverly hung in a darkened room for maximum effect, the images are undeniably striking and impressive.  

Alexander McQueen's Horn of Plenty Fashion Show photo by Nick Waplington
all this houndstooth is making me rich

McQueen’s jaded characterisation of fashion as a bit dodgy boils over into a rant in the exit room, where a long angry statement in large print takes up a huge chunk of wall space. McQueen describes the Horn of Plenty collection as a ‘sackable offence’, a ‘caricature’ of both ‘the silliness of our age’ and ‘rampant, indiscriminate consumption’. The recession was in full swing at this time and McQueen condemned the obscenely priced decadence of fashion. But this was the industry in which the designer shined brightly as a leading star; and was also a second home, a place where he had found meaning and acceptance.

black and white photo of Alexander McQueen wearing a scary handkerchief around mouthThis kind of bind, where someone is wedged in a contradictory fix of simultaneously loving and loathing the same thing, can prove unliveable and self-annihilatingMcQueen’s words reek of regret. But when it gets this bad, regret turns to something darker – as our life choices, what we’ve done, or haven’t done, what’s happened, what hurt, as all of our regrets start to bunch and mass and snowball into a kind of bleakness, or depression, where everything feels wrong. Not only is it no longer possible to construct a sense of a future, but memory has turned on you – becoming a torment, a litany of lost things and stuff gone bad, where dead loved ones drive the train on the Tube, or take your coffee order at Pret.*

Interior Photo of the Octagon Lantern Tower of Ely Cathedral


After Working Process, the culture continued with a trip to Ely, from Kings Cross, on a windy Monday morning.

I’d never been to Ely Cathedral, with its fabulous long nave and octagonal lantern – just admired it on the train going past: always on the way to somewhere else. We once broke a journey at Ely station – me, Vela (Ex No2) and the boys. We were on our way to a week-long summer break. I walked past the bench where we’d sat awaiting our connection five years ago. The four of us were happy that day – excited and chatty. The usual vacational trouble and strife hadn’t landed – yet.

I picture a cute cinematic trick with the five-years-ago me watching the current me leaving Ely train station with the wind piling at my back.
I could try to describe the cathedral, but celestial architecture is a bit like Venice – where it’s impossible to say anything about the incredibleness that hasn’t been said already (as the writer Mary McCarthy has previously written, and the critic Geoff Dyer has already quoted her as saying).
The Ely octagon tower with its timber fan vaulting apparently stumps architectural historians. They don’t know for sure how 15th century masons were able to get it up there in the sky. 

picture of cows at pasture in the Cambridgeshire Fens with Ely Cathedral in the background
a cow admires Ely cathedral from a distance

At the far end of the nave, the West Tower rises 70 metres over the Cambridgeshire fens. You can climb to the battlements by joining a guided tour. 

There were six of us taking the tour. Half way up we stopped at a landing to admire some pointed gothic arches. The guide gestured towards an example of intricate stone carving and I leaned against the parapet and stupidly looked down. The hard stone floor was a long way below. My tummy dropped to my shoes and my skin screamed like in a Tex Avery cartoon. I briefly pictured the version where I fall – with my CSI chalk silhouette spreadeagled across the floor. 

I pulled myself back and held on tight to a piece of wall. I hadn’t realised the fear of heights thing had got this bad. We still had a long way to climb to the top. The stairs were narrow and winding and not built with future tall people in mind. 

And then it was time to brave the battlements. The guide repeated that it would be very blowy out there. She took off her glasses and zipped them away in her coat pocket.

We walked out into a raw gale.The flag up the flagpole snapped like a loud gun. And then did it again. I’d wanted to stay inside, but knew this would look ridiculous. I’d already told myself to be brave and stand up straight. But that didn’t last. One glance over the fields, with the grass racing away, and across the rooftops far, far below, and I was sitting on the lead roof, fists bunching under my legs. I didn’t even want to look up – too much sky. 

An American tourist asked me if I was sick.

Picture of a Fairground Big Wheel and the Dreamland Sign in Margate

How did this start? Who knew it would happen? When I was 18, I went up the Empire State Building and rushed out onto the viewing deck to stare at the human ants below. I ascended the World Trade Centre and the Rockefeller too – and didn’t feel the slightest gut drop.

I used to love big rides at the fairground. I remember a trip once to Dreamland in Margate with friends, and the big wheel stopped for several minutes as we reached the highest point. Our car hung in the air and I stood up and started rocking us back and forth, like an idiot. A woman sitting opposite buried her head in her coat. She looked like she was in pain. I didn’t understand.

I do now. Something shifted inside. The shift feels physiological, but I don’t get how that works. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes vertigo as part of our existential code. I can’t decide between I sort of know what he’s saying and I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. 
a green and stoney hill side with trees and grass and a blue sky
a tall Greek hill

In the early 90s, four of us were on holiday in Crete, when one day we decided to climb over a small hill to get to a remote bay. The guidebook said the bay had an idyllic beach with a bar. But the small hill turned into a much larger hill the higher we climbed. And then the larger hill actually grew to resemble a windy mountainside, and a friend sat down and reported that she couldn’t go any further. She said this was too far up and that she didn’t like heights. But I didn’t understand. She and her boyfriend climbed back down and we continued to the bay without them. They said later they’d feared we were about be blown off the edge of the mountain, to land on the front page of the newspaper, as another tragic tale of a holiday gone wrong.

Picture of an open book
The same summer I started a small part-time role at a prestigious publishing house. I read the slush pile – and so gazed into another kind of abyss. 

The job felt insignificant and I was envious of an upcoming editor who had a full-time position with prospects and sway. I heard him discussing a new author with the managing director. He was about to offer her a first deal. Her name was Bridget O’Connor and she’d just won a short story competition in Time Out magazine. I’d read the story – first with interest, and then admiration. It was more a sketch; a fast, spiky sketch of a street criminal doing his business. O’Connor already had a strong voice and her own view on the world. I wanted to write a fast, surreal short story like hers; but realised that I never would. The best I could hope for was finding a job where I could get writers like Bridget published. But gazing into the bottomless slush pile, this seemed pretty remote.
The envy didn’t fester. It transmuted into something different. I started reviewing books for a weekly news magazine on the side and watched out for the release of Bridget O’Connor’s debut collectionThis way I got to be a part of the creative event.

I wanted it to be a solus review, but the books editor at the magazine insisted I cover Bridget’s collection as part of a batch. He chucked in a young Canadian short story specialist and two American writers who, compared to Bridget, were significantly further along in their careers. Bridget’s stories looked raw and callow alongside. I started to wonder if maybe it was too early for her to be in print; that perhaps she was still a work in progress. I wrote in the review that her collection was good, but disappointing in places, and felt uneasy as I faxed it in.

Front Cover for Short Story Collection Here Comes John by Bridget O'Connor
By now my main job was as a commissioning editor for a small publisher. The owner of the company read my review and said I could’ve been more generous to Bridget on her first publication, and I knew he was right. Although I hadn’t totally left the slush pile behind (you never really do, I still have dreams about it), I had moved up a few career notches to getting books published on my own say. A few months after reviewing Bridget’s book, I got a new writer to edit a collection of short stories about drugs. He had several ‘name’ authors lined up to contribute, but asked if I could help him source some new blood. I suggested Bridget, and she wrote a good story, and this felt better all round. 
William Burroughs in a Suit Holding a Gun
William Burroughs was a writer who took a lot of drugs – he also owned several guns

A year later, I went to the launch party for the collection. I never liked publishing parties. A lot of people say this, but I really didn’t like them. The experience was borderline painful. I used to gird myself to be social and to appear confident. I arrived late and the venue was packed with writers. I found a space at the bar, and a couple of people to cling onto, and got busy drowning a string of drinks for fuel

People I knew came over. And then the guy who edited the collection made a speech. He stood on a chair in the middle of the room and thanked all the authors, then he thanked his agent, and his partner; and finally he thanked me – effusively. It felt great being highly praised in a room full of needy writers. Several more drifted over to chat. I was suddenly having a good night. The editor joined me. We were talking about reviews for the collection and I asked him if he knew if Bridget was here, as there was something I needed to tell her. 

The editor said sure, he’d just spoken to Bridget. But, when he scanned the room, he couldn’t locate her. He said he’d look out though. And then he got pulled away and suddenly I found I was alone at the bar. 

I think you’ve got about 30 seconds to a minute before being stranded solo in a gathering becomes a problem. I let it go past the minute, and still stranded, heaved myself up, grabbed my glass, and prepared to take a plunge into the crowd. 

But just then a woman emerged from the group of bodies on the right. She came over and stood directly in front of me. She was small and held out her hand. 

But it wasn’t Bridget. I’d seen Bridget’s picture. This woman had a small pixie face and short blonde hair. She told me her name and my nose twitched. She was the culture editor for a broadsheet newspaper. I’d once written to her asking for freelance review work, but she’d replied saying the authors I’d mentioned, and the kind of books they wrote, bored her. 

It was a harsh thing to send. She could’ve just written the usual guff – thanks, will keep an eye out for something, blah blah. Instead she’d taken the time to type something mean. And now there she stood, staring up at me, and said she wanted to apologise for the letter. And I peered down and did a peculiar thing. I shook my head and said, what letter? 
She frowned. I shrugged. Her frown got deeper. 

She looked over my shoulder. I gazed into my beer. Clearly our chat was already over, and she drifted away. 

(I never met her again. But I still look out for her journalism and often read her stuff. She’s a very good writer.)
I can’t tell for sure why I lied – it was a long time ago. I didn’t decide to, I just did – it was reflexive. I think it was because I was having a good time at the party and her bringing up the letter soured the mood.
I started talking to someone else. But my head wasn’t really there. I was distracted by what had happened. I’d mislaid my up. I spotted a book editor nearby who used to give me work. We’d only ever spoken on the phone and now was the right time to go over and introduce myself. But the usual shyness had returned and was back in command. The un-solid, cobbled together social confidence was wobbling – a bit, and then a lot – and I went to the toilet and just sat there. And then I snuck out from the party and went home, slightly drunk, and a bit cross. 
I didn’t say goodbye to the man who edited the short story collection on his big night. And I didn’t say sorry to Bridget.
Official Film Poster for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - picture of Gary Oldman as George Smiley
George isn’t feeling very Smiley today
Years passed, as they do. One grey Sunday I went to see the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). I saw it at a local cinema at a noontime screening on release weekend. I’d been looking forward to it and had booked two tickets in advance. But Vela (ex No2) turned out to be less keen and decided not to come, choosing to stay home and sleep instead. Going to the cinema alone, mid-day on a Sunday, is close to breaking my rules as to what singles can and cannot do. And, no surprise, there were stacks of couples in the cinema, making lots of couples chitter-chatter as the lights went dim.
I don’t usually eat popcorn with films and so end up reading the opening titles closely. It said the screenplay was by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. I saw her name, noted the coincidence, and got on with the film. Which was good.

Le Carre‘s spy story may be period now, but remains an enduring tale of cold war espionage and betrayal – complicated, grey, ceaselessly labyrinthine – where the truth is a lost cause beyond straightening out. The director Tomas Alfredson’s previous film was the moonlit modern vampire drama Let the Right One In. With Tinker, Tailor, he deploys a visual scheme where old London offices with smudged edges teem with spies in grubby suits plotting and conspiring, before going home to beige flats with brown sofas to drink large tumblers of Scotch. The performances were the usual good British screen acting – although the guy off Sherlock was a bit wobbly. And atop of all this, the adaptation was clever and well written. 

I was glad I’d braved the couples to go see the film.

film still from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with a group of spies round a table looking tense
before this film has finished one of you will betray me

At the end, at the top of the credit roll, there was an onscreen in memoriam to Bridget O’Connor, Born 1961, Died 2010. I felt a tremor.

I cycled home and woke Vela up and told her about the film. And she told me about her dream. Then I looked on Wikipedia. It was the same Bridget O’Connor from years ago. She was dead. 

She’d done so well. And then had died so young. She’d done more books, and written plays for the radio, as well as for the stage. She’d co-authored the screenplay for Tinker Tailor with her husband. They had a young daughter. She’d done so well. But then she’d died young of cancer. 
Didn’t matter that she’d just done the screenplay for a major film with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.*** That she was on a career high. That she probably felt a sense of so much more to come. She got cancer and died. 

This was a life cycle tragically abbreviated, but also super accelerated. There she’d been lying dormant in the memory, as this young woman of promise just starting out, the short story competition winner with the debut collection. And then one morning I’d gone to the cinema and found out she’d co-written a major film. Only for two hours later to find out that she’d already passed far too soon. 
You don’t realise when you’re starting out, in your 20s, that this can happen. Well, you do, but not really. That’s why I always watch out for young drivers when I’m cycling. They often don’t know to take care, because they don’t get mortality yet. 

The four lead actors from TV show The Inbetweeners
give us another series!

I regret not knowing some things sooner. But would this knowledge have made a difference? 

My annoying son is shy. I told him we’re all shy; but he didn’t believe me. I said over a lifetime most people acquire the skills to pass for not shy, and may even appear sociable. I said there’s one simple social fact that I wish someone had told me when I was his age: that in any given crowded room, most of the people standing there are also feeling  unsure.
There’s a group of students at the Annoying Son’s school who are known as the ‘Populars’. (They should copyright that.) The Annoying Son isn’t part of this group and seems reconciled to this fact. I tell him that what the Populars don’t realise is that these are their best years already – that it’s all down hill from here as they face a lifetime spent reminiscing over how great school was. Meanwhile the Inbetweeners still have it all to look forward to. The might even even take over the world
The Annoying Son feels that the Populars don’t see him at all. And so he doesn’t want them to ever notice him. He had an event at school where he was required to speak in front of his year. He was adamant he wasn’t going to do it. We told him shyness in front of an audience is not a sign of weakness, but courage; and that vulnerability, even red-faced blushing, can be endearing. He listened, and seemed vaguel interested, but unconvinced. 
But at least someone told him. He won’t regret that no one ever said it – that he just never knew, and wish that he had. In this sense regret bears fruit – something positive comes out the things you wish had gone differently all that time ago.

* The Working Process exhibition closed last week. Late again

** Or, in the case of the recently released film The New Girlfriend, a bereaved woman is reunited with her departed friend in the shape of the dead friend’s husband, now dressed as a woman – as director Francois Ozon channels Claude Chabrol channelling Hitchcock’s Vertigo

***   O’Connor was posthumously co-nominated for an Oscar for the Tinker Tailor screenplay