Friday, 3 November 2017

PhD diary: Wintery renewals

Dear Readers,

It's been six weeks since I officially started my PhD studies at the University of the Arts London. As usual, time slips through my hands like bathwater (warm, with a sense of familiarity), although a quick glance through my diary over the last few weeks reveals pages black with inked appointments.

The beginning has felt slightly passive - lots of people to meet, information to take in, speeches to listen to. And of course reading, endless reading, and not nearly enough writing or output of any kind, really. I had an minor accident at the beginning of October, which resulted in quite deep bruising on my hands and legs. I was in quite low spirits because of that, but also because of the very real isolation that a PhD student endures. In general, I am happy in my own company, and can stand to be alone more than most. But there's nothing quite like the madness that comes from being shut up alone in a small room for a whole day, optic nerves throbbing from too much screen time, printed words blurring on a paper page.

Every month feels like a fresh new start, but I find myself unable to keep to the deadlines that I set myself; the goals I imagined with so much enthusiasm just trickle away in a blur of tiredness and procrastination. That's one of the reasons that I thrive in the education system, and found being self-employed so challenging: an external demand negating choice, forcing output. There's so much to do, and it's so hard to do it all.

Anyway, I'd love to write a monthly PhD blog throughout my studies, but I don't want to commit to anything at this stage. Throughout 2017 I have found my writing practice more slippery and elusive than ever before. I came to accept this eventually, but I truly hope that things will get better as we reach the new year.

Till next time,


Tuesday, 3 October 2017


He said, To be honest white people don't even really ask to touch my hair any more since I got dreads. It's mostly black people asking to touch it like, Ohh lemme feel those matted locks, because I don't look like I have nice locks.

I said, Well that's good then. I can't imagine what it must be like to have people constantly demanding to touch your hair. If I was a black girl, I would be really angry all of the time. I'd go mad!

He said, Well yeah, that's why there are whole comedies written about black people and how you don't touch their hair. If you were a black girl, you'd have anger management issues.


Sunday, 1 October 2017

London, c.1895

He looked at people walking about and envied them because they had friends; sometimes his envy turned to hatred because they were happy and he was miserable. He had never imagined that it was possible to be so lonely in a great city. 
When Philip thought that he must spend over four years more with that dreary set of fellows his heart sank. He had expected wonderful things from London and it had given him nothing. He hated it now. He did not know a soul, and he had no idea how he was to get to know anyone. He was tired of going everywhere by himself. He began to feel that he could not stand much more of such a life. He would lie in bed at night and think of the joy of never seeing again that dingy office or any of the men in it, and of getting away from those drab lodgings.   
from 'Of Human Bondage' (1915) by W. Somerset Maugham. London: Vintage Books

In my writing again and again, I find myself interrogating the topic of city life, and of being a living subject in place where a mass of people struggle not to crash into on another on a daily basis. Reading Somerset Maugham, I am struck by the sense of isolation which he conveys, whatever the place. Our antihero Philip Carey is a lonely person with a tricky personality, at once incredibly sensitive but touchy, tactless, and unable to negotiate his emotions in a satisfying, constructive manner. The book contains nearly 500 pages of hopelessness, despair and difficulty, both in relationships and financially. It is uncanny how closely the London of 1895 resembles London 2017. In the end, the most surprising thing of all is that Philip gets a happy ending. Good luck to him.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Singing and brambling

Francis and I spent a long weekend in Newcastle, reuniting with beautiful Hannah. On Monday afternoon, we took a long walk through Jesmond Dene, searching for blackberries. We picked, and walked, for several hours, singing with each step. I had written an autobiography in verse last year whilst living in Stockholm, and enjoyed singing it together with Hannah very much. Here's us, above, singing whilst picking; and below, just before taking a recording of what we managed to learn.

And here's what it sounded like. Beginnings are where we start. As life continues to take a snakey path round decisions and happenings, I try to embrace what's revealed at each corner.


Monday, 28 August 2017

Deconstructing Fashion episode 5 clothing in Africa, the Carribbean, and South East Asia...

Have you listened yet to episode 5 of Deconstructing Fashion? This edition of the monthly podcast I co-host is my favourite yet. Click here to listen to it.

You'll hear from the director of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora speak about her work tracing dress histories around the world. My co-hosts and I chat about the Costume Society conference, and Sian interviews me about my work researching Chinese dress in south-east Asia. And we discuss the state of fashion research, agreeing that what we all find the most intriguing is stories about people rather than catalogues of expensive garments.

If you enjoy this episode, please recommend us to your friends! 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Melting pot

We rehearse on Sundays, first in an abandoned office block turned into a home on the Grand Union Canal, then in a bedroom turned music studio in a flat above a fried chicken shop. Appearances deceive us, and a ballerina from Paris by way of Guadeloupe thinks that a blonde caucasian flautist is English because of her cut-glass intonation gained at a British school in Holland. We also have a rapping Londoner who arrived by way of Algeria, and a composer who cut his teeth on a true mash up of heavy metal, electronic dance music, Bach, organs, Afrobeats and Spanish classical guitar, who is here thanks to imperial interventions in Nigeria and Guyana, that last one being Guyanese by way of India, Africa and Portugal.

We'll look back on this period in thirty or so years time and feel incredibly bohemian, but I hope that my future self is still growing and learning and humble.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Automatic writing

The best kind of writing I feel is automatic writing. This is something which I am trying to do now, an outpouring of thoughts which form directly in my mind and reach the blank page or white screen immediately. My fingers holding pen or pressing the computer keyboard becomes an extension of my brain's inner narrative. The best work, I find, comes from this kind of automatic writing - that elusive, slippery zone which produces concepts and thoughts that are somehow pure, and somehow perfect in their difficult natural flow. My fingers press away like the veritable wind, backtracking every so often to correct errors in the order of characters, for I've forgotten my touch typing lessons of so many years ago.

I feel that there are two types of automatic writing, which to my mind is characterised by a need strong and irrepressible to form words in the world, to form concrete and even tangible words, you could say, out there on the other side of your cranium. A desperation, a longing, a possibility which is not questionable but simply realised. Firstly there is the pursuit of an idea, an obsession, a concept that sparks something within and therefore with out. And secondly there is the autobiographical narrative, the confessional, the diary. Both are wonderful, but one in particular lifts. I speak the words inside and outside, on my tongue and off my finger tips. Whisper. Lips.