Friday, 4 April 2014

Narrative Composure

As I've been bobbling down the mountains - big, scary, beautiful, eerily similar from every aspect - I've been thinking.  Occasionally about the "three most important things to remember" - er, leaning forward, leaning valley side and …

I can't remember the third thing.  There's leaning - forward, downhill.  Oh yes, and shoulders - ten and two.  Like driving but fast, downhill and without a brake pedal.*

But mostly my mind has been wandering, and because my mind works in diagonals, starting in one place and ending in an obvious-to-me but possibly tangential spot somewhere far removed (anyone else think the idea of training a dog to ceilidh and asking a friend if they'd help you bury your girlfriend in the woods are on the same spectrum?  No, well there you go - people who coast past the tabloids online will know both of these things have actually happened and for my tuppence worth, my answer would be "do you know what love, I'd rather have a cup of tea" while I discretely called the RSPCA in the first instance and 999 in the second).

And my mind was wondering about the idea of Londoners skiing.  Because I am a Londoner and I'm attempting to ski.  The two things seemed to make sense to think about at the same time.  Admittedly, my little spot of SE London heaven was pretty hilly and, when it snowed, some roads were essentially impassable.  Not least because all the salt went to wealthier boroughs and Lewisham seemed to have to make do with whatever Saxo could spare which was a shame because they're a tremendously efficient borough council in my experience.

Somehow, the book I'm reading to review and the ideas of skiing as a cultural activity (perhaps more than skiing itself) have come together.  The title of this post is a deliberate theft from oral history approaches; it's a mouthful isn't it?  Sitting side by side they give a pause for thought.  I am composed,  I am composing, I am a composite.  And each of those activities ruptures the narrative that we all work so hard to pull together and project.  That narrative, those connections we hope will help us segue easily between different parts of our lives, the syntax that will hold those different sides of ourselves together.  And staring at the people flying down the slopes and wandering around resort brought to mind an article I have read called something like "why do cowboys wear their hats in the bath" which  struck a chord because there are some seriously composed ski ensembles that absolutely speak to the heart of the person as a serious snow bunny.  But this person is probably from Wandsworth and skis for five days a year.  The article is a serious and interesting look at constructed masculinities in the context of American culture.  This is obviously not very serious and perhaps only interesting to me but it is a few thoughts on constructed ski identities and the tension between those and an urban day-to-day reality.  It is also specifically urban-centric and not about those people who've skied since they were toddlers and for whom it has always been a way of life.  There is something determinedly different to me, so I apologise for any sweeping generalisations because offence is not intended.

There is something constructed and composed about a specifically tourist ski identity though.  I've been wrestling with why I'm so excited to be here, and so resistant to it - my feet literally try to escape their boots at the same time that they really want to head downhill. I want to engage with it but I'm also turned off by it.  The culture of skiing sits uncomfortably.  It's a real privilege to be here, and I do see that.  At the same time this is not a democratic sport - it certainly wasn't an option when I was a child although some of my best friends were skiers.

Nonetheless, there was something about the families who could afford it that was unsettling, they represented a closed world, protecting their entitlement to something others could not have.  If they were in, then they were defined as such by the outness of others.  This is not to argue for skiing as indicative of a social issue.  It probably doesn't even signify anything and these are just the ramblings of snow blindness and too much vin chaud.  But that discomfort - and it is more than simply fear, although that's a part of it - remains.  It remains when I see young children experiencing the opportunities that skiing represents, and seeming don't appreciate the luxury of the experience.

And what is that fear?  It is of course in part a fear of not fitting in.  The culture of skiing puts me outside my comfort zone - a long way out.  The culture is one defined by binaries, the inside and the outside.  In the same way that marginalised subcultures might appropriate everyday dress to blend in, deploying subtle signifiers to let the right people know who they are and hiding under the radar of the others, ski culture seems to have a way of letting you know if you are one of them.  So the technical act of skiing is not enough.  The markers are legion and you need to get them right to actively participate.

It has its own language - visual, verbal, behavioural.  And what if you can never learn the language.  Or worse, what if you become fluent but people still see through it, they know you don't really belong there.  The 'C' word is unavoidable in this context.  We might like to avoid it but the rhetoric of class is present in those cultures for whom skiing is not part of the everyday hurly-burly; and I'm speaking from a specifically West London perspective.  There isn't much call for it there as a form of transport or weekend activity like cycling or going to the park.  It's pretty flat there, Horsenden Hill is not a munro.

This isn't to suggest it's malignant or malicious and some people might never realise they don't speak the language and then ignorance probably is bliss.  As a persistent member of the out gang, I am not entirely uncomfortable lurking on the fringes.  Some times are more comfortable than others and at times I've successfully navigated the in(ish) crowd and pretty convincingly too.  That little detail got just right, or just wrong enough if circumstances demanded it.  In fact, chances are I couldn't tell you what did or didn't fit.  Perhaps with skiing it is partly the locked out-locked in geography of it too.  One is, after all, stuck in a small place with an economy dependant upon the wholesale acceptance of the identity of the skier, of skiing.  It may well be different for those who grow up in a country where skiing is just a thing that is done, like football or the Star Wars movies or tiddlywinks or whatever floated your boat when you were learning to be part of mainstream culture.

Perhaps it is also because I felt shut out of mainstream culture, and even this last six months back in education found myself observing - this time impartially and at my age thank goodness for that - the same principles of exclusion and inclusion at work/play.  Where skiing isn't a part of the mainstream though, the lingering sense that some people have access to these things and others do not remains and it is uncomfortable, it should be.  It's not like other holidays for those who get them; those are fun and frivolous and pass in a flash. This requires effort and commitment and time.  Repeatedly.  It is a lifestyle you have to buy, quite literally, into and it is premised upon elitist ideals but at the same time, it isn't a culture that money guarantees you entry into.

I'm not explaining myself very well.  It's just a musing on that lingering feeling of something being great and something being odd that I'm still trying to put my finger on.  Of course, it might just be that I'm trying to rationalise being crap.  And on that note, as if proof were needed of my obvious not in-ness, here is me on skis … note I'm not moving (one too many at lunchtime).  And I'm not trying to have an agenda here.  Although I also wonder when I'll stop apologising for having an opinion, and hardly a radical one at that.  It doesn't 'alf disrupt a narrative.

As an aside, might this have been useful this week …

Also, today I've mostly been kept company by Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Pop Levi.  Thanks chaps …

* all failure to learn how to actually ski = students own and not the very proficient teacher at ski school in Val Thorens.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A day of rest ...

Not actually my gloves - even my giant man hands would be dwarfed by them; but someone else clearly had the same idea of a day off and just downed tools.  These were lurking somewhere near the bottom of a lift.  Today I went for a walk around town and discovered there's relatively little to do here.  There was a cheese market.  Also feeling rather cheated - I've been staring death in the face* every day (and winning to be fair) skiing down to ski school; there's a moving carpet thingummy I can walk down to get there.  My lack of navigational instinct is astonishing.  The first day, I got hopelessly lost and ended up "somewhere down mountain" dependent upon a kindly bus driver who took me all the way back to my hotel.  That reminds me, obliquely, of the story in the paper about the business owner so outraged at increased postal prices that he started sending small parcels by carrier pigeon.  I saw it in The Times and the link is to the Daily Star so it must be true.  As if pigeons don't already have a rotten enough time.

In between the writing, I have actually made a few bits and pieces which I'd forgotten about.  The first is another Audrey which I have to take photographs of but I'm a lot happier with this one.  I used New Lanark Mills DK in Bramble which has a beautiful lustre and colour saturation; it looks purple in one light, blue in another with flashes of yellow and all sorts.  It's also a joy to handle and doesn't split despite much frogging and uncertainty at the outset which resolved itself into a very easy make.  The Old Maiden Aunt alpaca/silk mix I used for the last Audrey was super-luxe but not being keen on negative ease for this version I went up a size and down a needle size which seemed to work to create a really nice 50s silhouette, tight at the waist and a blouson shape for the rest of it.  This time, I also added button bands without button holes.  Instead, using turquoise ribbon I attached poppers and sewed some vintage looking buttons I found lurking around.  It looks great, but you can't see it.  Yet.  Pictures to follow shortly, and will go onto Ravelry.

The other thing I made was a Kate Davies Design, the Snawheid which has found its spiritual home in Val Thorens.  It was rather timidly blocked and needs a more aggressive wet-block on a decent form to  help set the stitch pattern and provide a bit of structure to offset the ridiculous bobble that perches aloft.  Something got'a'hold and the bobble just grew and grew …

Honestly, on a mountain, what?!

Bobbles, up close and personal
The sunglasses AKA "the Wrinkle Prevention Programme" - massive. ridiculous, effective.

Something else I had a tinker with was tambour work.  Partly for coursework and partly because it was a new technique.  What made me curious is that there's actually very little written material on it, and what little there is typically focuses on beadwork.  Anyway, despite best intentions,  I did too because it was quicker.  Tip for the future - use dye-fast sequins.  For about a week my hands were the colour of the Hulk in a really foul mood.

Choosing colours

Sketching a simple design

Wrapping the frame adds tension

Colour plans, stitch directions, working orders
Working the design

From the back

Finished piece, a mix of tambour beading and chain stitch
This week I'm mostly being kept company by Black Kids Partie Traumatic, a couple of Suicide Sports Club tunes I'd forgotten about, the Travelling Wilburys and Jason Isbell.

* a small exaggeration

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Margo on Location

January to now has disappeared and I couldn't tell you where to.  I've been from Glasgow to St Albans and back again almost every week in what is probably the most boring non-world tour if two places constituted a tour at all.  This term I spent more time in Glasgow and enjoyed the space and time alone.  It's a bit daunting knowing my lovely little cell, covered floor to ceiling in books (they should really reconsider the lending limits at the university library - some people have substance abuse issues with dusty old books) is only my sanctuary for another few weeks and after that I'm in one place all the time.  I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Well, actually I probably do but perhaps a tale for another time …

This week I'm in Val Thorens "learning" to "ski".  I use both those terms very loosely because I seem to be incapable of learning how to career down a mountain, graceful as a gazelle without a care in the world.  My head rings with those several gym teachers who (rightly it turns out) pointed out that I'm "not very sporty" and should probably focus my efforts elsewhere - which of course I did once I could legally drink (maybe a bit before) by going out clubbing and drinking and flirting instead and leaving all the sporty stuff to girls called Penelope and Harriet and Pippa who it turns out are genetically predisposed to being sporty and usually especially good at bloody hockey.  They were never the ones who forgot their navy gym knickers or got giggled at by the teacher because they decided that their new rather snazzy basketball boots were more fun than plimsolls (even if not regulation uniform).  Anyway, the socialising side of things doesn't help when one's feet are strapped to fashioned bits of two by four,  you're being encouraged gently to fling yourself down the side of what feels like a sheer cliff face covered in ice and are possibly in the middle of an existential crisis (who wouldn't in that circumstance anyway - although still too young to be a mid-life crisis, yes?)  Actually, at the bottom it seems the nursery slopes are not that steep but it's almost impossible to fall up a mountain (although a friend of mine did once fall up some stairs on our way out of a bar which says something, no?) so my instinct is to mutiny and perch quietly atop the bloody thing and hope someone with a skidoo or a very strong line in piggy backs takes pity on me and carries me to the bottom.  I saw someone carry a toddler to the bottom so I'm not entirely giving up hope although a week of raclette and red wine makes it a fairly hefty proposition no doubt.

And I'm on a hiatus from making things because I've mostly been making words.  Last week I wrote in the region of 12,000 words, some of them not bad and in places even quite interesting.  There's actually nothing nicer than researching and writing; putting ideas on paper putting some body into them.  I'm in the process of reviewing a book for the university publication, and starting to research my dissertation topic in earnest.  A PhD application is slowly in the works too.  Today I spent three hours on the terrace in the sunshine, wrapped in blankets with my book on my lap but managed no work, because instead I became utterly bewitched by the people who actually can ski and snowboard, as they hurtled down the mountain looking utterly wonderful.  It's a spectacle, it really is, and such a privilege to get to see it.  Moaning is a displacement activity for secretly being in awe of people who can overcome what for me seems terrifying, and in the process they do amazing things and see amazing places.  Saying that, there's nothing nicer than sitting on the cable car in the sunshine, chatting to my very lovely, very patient ski instructor and watching the world go by.  Also, otherwise I'm essentially alone the rest of the time and being on my own is fantastic when I'm in places I know and less lovely otherwise because of hermit like tendencies.   Anyway it is always good to meet new and interesting people who give you a different perspective on things, is it not.  Perhaps another good reason to stop acting like the brat, sorry lion, at the top of the post.

There's also something very nice about a snowy place as the sun sets, the windows light up and get twinkly, and the world feels very contained and very cosy.  The sunshine's quite nice too …

Val Thorens and the sunny terrace …