New feature just published as Nerditorial‘s most recent featured article.
I’m so pleased with my new role as a contributor for this site – hopefully it should keep me writing nice and prolifically…
New feature just published as Nerditorial‘s most recent featured article.
I’m so pleased with my new role as a contributor for this site – hopefully it should keep me writing nice and prolifically…
I cannot believe that three years have passed since I last saw Africa. The montage on my wall is daily reminder of the places I went to, the experiences I had and most of all, the people I met. Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali – to Timbuktu and back. Amazingly, I still miss it. And I still can’t believe I made it to Timbuktu. Here’s some recollections from that little place in the middle of nowhere. [Originally published in Nomad Magazine]
The sun glares down on the legendary, mysterious town of Timbuktu, in the deserts of Mali. The streets are narrow, dusted with sand from the encroaching Sahara. The mud walls of the houses and mosques are cracked and dry, and the few intrepid travellers run for every possible shaded area, desperate to keep out of the sweltering 50◦C heat, even at 9.30 in the morning.
As we enter the old town, we see two men undertaking rather unorthodox construction work. One is standing at the top of a ladder, whilst his partner throws fully formed bricks up to him. He catches them with such precision and in such quick succession that it seems as though some powerful magnetic force must exist between them and his hand. Utterly enraptured by this display, which so dramatically surpasses the building skills I had attempted to acquire over my previous few weeks in West Africa, I suddenly notice a boy my age standing next to me, evidently entertained by the Europeans’ fascination with ‘everyday’ building. Mohammet, who was indeed my age – seventeen – then proceeds to show us around the rest of the old town and the marketplace.
As we walk, he asks me about my journey to Timbuktu. I tell him how I had travelled by tro-tro (a form of minibus that I have every confidence would never pass an MOT) from Accra, on the south coast of Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Mali, where I had taken a land-cruiser down the 10-hour, potholed road into the middle of nowhere, and then taken a boat across the river into the port near Timbuktu. It had taken about a week and a half, if you counted a few stops for leisure and plenty for chaos. ‘So short a journey?’ he laughs. I can’t deny that I am a little taken aback – I had thought my mammoth trek was quite an impressive feat. He goes on to describe his journey to me, from the salt mines, which were 3 weeks’ camel ride away. You see, Mohammet is a Tuareg – a member of a nomadic tribe which crosses the Sahara desert from Mali to Algeria in huge caravans of camels (which I soon learn to be a huge herd of camels carrying goods and people, as opposed to a mobile holiday home). He and his father had come to Timbuktu to sell the salt they had transported across this vast distance. He shows me a slab of the salt, still in its huge crystallised form, glistening in the sunlight. The Tuaregs have been trading salt here for centuries – in Timbuktu’s heyday as a Saharan outpost, it was worth as much as gold.
The culture difference could not be more pronounced as we walk along; I am clad in my linen trousers and H&M top, whilst he wears his turban and blue desert robes. Just as I find the prospect of a three-week camel ride absolutely incredible (not to mention more than a tad uncomfortable), he cannot comprehend the fact that we do not keep camels in Britain.
We carry on chatting in a mixture of broken English and French as we reach one of the Tuareg camps, just on the edge of the city. At the extremity of it, just at the point where town meets desert, a huge monument has been erected. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the base of it is adorned with dozens of rifles and firearms. This, one of the Tuareg elders explains, was a symbol of the ceasefire called in 1996 between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in Timbuktu. The monument – the ‘Flame of Peace’ – stands where their two worlds meet, where the town disappears into the vast expanse of the desert.
Later, we are welcomed into one of the Tuaregs’ desert camps, after a rather uncomfortable camel trek to reach it. After two hours, I am in serious pain, so how Mohammet manages three weeks travelling this way is a complete mystery to me. Here, we discover something of the rich culture of this fascinating nomadic tribe. To welcome us, the nomads serve us their speciality tea, which custom demands you drink in three batches. These signify the three certainties in this world: death, which is bitter; life, which is significantly sweeter; and love, the sweetest of all. As we drink the tea, we barter for silver jewellery, swords and pipes – an age-old tradition. The men explain to us the meanings of the engravings on the silver – the story of the nomads tracing their route across the desert by the stars, until they finally reach the mosque in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, as is Tuareg custom, the women set about preparing the meal and the children attend to the camels. Talking with Abdullah, one of the elders in the camp, I realise what a special and ancient tradition these people belong to. Their route begins in Algeria, where they trade spices and silver. They then travel to the salt mines, and down to Timbuktu, and occasionally as far as the Niger Delta for festivals, where nomadic tribes meet to socialise, trade and arrange marriages for their young daughters. It is rumoured that the Tuaregs are aided in their toil by slaves, but they vehemently deny any involvement in slavery. On their journeys, in the middle of the Sahara desert, huge caravans sometimes happen upon each other, and their leaders trade silver and livestock, exchanging stories, advice and parts of their cultures.
It is utterly incredible to think that in this moment, thousands of miles away, hundreds of people are still living their lives according to these ancient customs. They have remained resistant to and virtually untouched by the changes in the surrounding world; urbanisation, technology, even roads and clothing! What we must hope now is that these extraordinary people can continue with their way of life unhindered by the problems that we in the developed world have unleashed – especially that of climate change. Whilst desertification may not sound like an issue for a civilisation that has lived in the world’s largest desert for generations, it may well have adverse effects on the towns upon which their trade and hence their livelihood depends. The mystical Timbuktu where I first encountered the Tuaregs might be one such example, as the desert inches into the streets of this small town, the last outpost of the Sahara.
On Saturday evening, I was once again running late. This phenomenon no longer surprises those who make social engagements with me, and my flatmates do not seem phased by my mad dashes around the flat in search of some item of clothing or jewellery that I have misplaced and SWEAR is not in my organised chaos of a bedroom. On one point though, they were a little incredulous. In the midst of the usual ‘oh-my-life-I-should-have-been-there-five-minutes-ago’ mayhem, I cry out in exasperation that I have NOTHING to wear. None of my dresses are quite right for the occasion, and it’s really a dress that I want to wear. Too short, too long, too tight, too loose, too formal, too casual, wrong fabric, the only cardigan that goes with it is in the wash. You get the idea. It is seven o’clock, so I know all the shops will be closed, and the panic hits in. I should have planned this better. It is at this point that one of my flatmates turns round to me and asks how exactly this is possible. I have more dresses than she has items of clothing, she argues. I cannot accept this. How could I? I am told to go and count them, and to my horror, there really are more than I expected. I return to the living room hanging my head in shame as I reveal the awful total. Thirty-four. Perhaps I am being a little ridiculous.
But then clothes are one of my things. I remember going through a phase (before the days of paying rent and bills and student loans) where I bought a new item of clothing virtually every week. I always thought I probably would have been even worse if my height and build had not – much to my annoyance – prevented much of what was in fashion from suiting me. I just love clothes. Oh my life, I am SUCH a girl. I tried to trace back to the root of my obsession (running very late by this point) and came to a few conclusions.
1) My mother has more clothes than just about any other woman I know, with the possible exception of my live-in godmother. Admittedly, they have both had thirty years to develop this collection, rarely throw anything away and can pull off almost anything. But that’s not the point, or so I try to tell myself.
2) I have an uncontrollable affinity to fashion magazines, an almost endless source of inspiration. I refuse to contemplate how much money I must have spent on ELLE, Vogue, their American teenage variations, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and other such beauties.
3) Having established my love of clothing for glorified shopping purposes, I saw this dress, back in Alexander McQueen’s A/W 2008 show, which suddenly made me appreciate the beauty of clothes and fashion in a more mature way. It is not just about feeling good – fashion and clothing can be an art form – a way in which we express ourselves. I think this dress reminded me of Swan Lake in a really bizarre way – its beauty and lightness and feminity. I just fell in love with it. Alexander McQueen quickly became my favourite British designer. I love his work – it is artistic, it is unique, it is pretty, it is boldly expressive. And Sarah Burton’s work for the label has been fabulous so far as well. I am a fan.
For the record, I eventually decided to go back to the same dress I had originally been planning on wearing on Saturday night. Sometimes I am such a girl it borders on ridiculous. It was black and white and had two birds on it, although sadly one of the McQueen variety remains in my taller, skinnier, richer dreams.
Sewing, painting, dancing, reading, music, singing, languages and taste. We all know what it took to be considered an accomplished woman in Jane Austen’s day. A checklist criteria that young middle and upper-class women were required to meet unless they happened to be excessively beautiful or wealthy. Of course, this was under the pretext that they intended to make a good marriage, which was of course the basic point of a girl’s upbringing and education. Outdated? Yes. Boring? Quite possibly. Fair? Not really. But at least it was simple – you were either accomplished or you weren’t.
What about now, here in the 21st Century? Society’s preference for the beautiful and the rich has not altered greatly, but for those of us who are not supermodels or millionaires, what is it that now sets us apart? What now constitutes ‘accomplished’?
One might consider answering by asking: ‘What have you accomplished?’ Are we well-travelled? Earning a decent wage-packet at the end of each month? Managing to maintain a successful career and social life? Playing on a certain talent? Finishing a great project of some sort?
Is the accomplished woman the career girl? The Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada figure? She’s glamorous, talented and successful. Ruthless, even. Or is she the one who has it all? The job, the marriage, the home, the friends, the life? Or is she the artistic one? The one with all the answers, who seems to know all about music, dance, fashion, art and literature?
Or is the 21st century accomplished women any of the above? In a society of freedom and individuality, maybe she is just the one who has accomplished what she loves. Maybe she’s a career woman, maybe she’s a perfect housewife and mother. Maybe she’s a writer or artist, maybe she paints her own house, or maybe she just manages to balance the pressures and priorities of modern life. Our lives have more complexity than those of Austen’s heroines, and our society is one that embraces individuality rather than just norms and customs. So maybe there is no longer a set mould for an accomplished woman. Maybe it’s just about accomplishing whatever it is we most desire.
If you have been anywhere near the United Kingdom during the last fifteen years, you may have noticed the proliferation of universities – and consequently students – across our towns and cities. Today, there are more students in higher education than ever before, and because of the sudden surge in student numbers, there are a few changes that maybe we as a society have yet to adapt to. Amongst the most pressing issues for us students ourselves is undoubtedly that of independence in our early twenties.
As students, most of us live away from home during semester-time, during which periods we are free to do exactly as we please. We go out on ‘school nights’ and walk home at 4am. We can skip lectures without anyone either knowing or caring and can request deadline extensions with a simple email. We stay up stupidly late for no apparent reason, downloading movies and baking at 2am purely because we feel like it. We can leave the house with no comment as to skirt length or absence of hat, we eat whatever we like, drink however we please, and take spontaneous trips across town, to other cities, into the mountains or even abroad.
Yet when we go home, we must undergo a process of adaptation. Mealtimes are a more accepted concept. So is a vague bedtime. (At home, it seems to be an accepted fact that nine nights out of ten, everyone will a) be home, and b) be in bed before 1am.) When the snow hits, we are forbidden by our parents to drive. We become dependent on them for lifts. And laundry. Whilst it’s nice not to have to do it ourselves, isn’t it a bit of a pain to have to ask where that black dress you put in the wash last week actually IS? Prior engagements are made for you, disrupting your plans for an evening out at the pub with your friends.
Don’t get me wrong, being at home in the holidays definitely has its perks. I for one adore my family, and there is something wonderful about reading my baby sister a bedtime story before movie nights and popcorn fights with my Mom, Dad and brother. You can walk in from the cold to find a warm house thanks to the presence of actual central heating. Housework is no longer exclusively your domain, and there is a dishwasher to deal with that pile of washing-up that no one wants to do. Your shampoo is bought for you and you can scrounge bus fare from the parental units. You have no worries about what you will eat for dinner as the fridge is fully stocked. Plus there is a widescreen TV. Enough said. It’s just that is can be difficult to balance the comforts of going home with the independence we are used to at university.
But then how far does this independence really go? For members of our generation, it is generally accepted that in addition to the dreaded maintenance loans and part time jobs, the vast majority of us are still dependent on an allowance from our parents in order to pay our rent and basically make ends meet – at least until we graduate at some point in our early twenties. After that, many students have little choice but to move home as they start their careers, simply because they cannot afford to do otherwise. You therefore have a significant proportion of the nation’s twenty-somethings living in a state of forced parental dependency, struggling to adapt to life at home after years of conceited independence in halls or student houses. Is it tragic, or just a reflection of the times we live in? Is it better to lose some of the independence we pride ourselves on than to struggle to make ends meet in a grotty flat above a fish-and-chip shop? Quite possibly. But then the hope is, for all of us, that when we ace our degree courses and land the dream jobs, we can achieve a real independence, free of loans and glorified pocket-money, and make a path for ourselves that our parents can be proud of, not burdened by.
Picture this: it’s late on Friday afternoon. It’s been a long, particularly draining week and you feel unable to face the crowded train just yet, so you decide to have a quick and mildly therapeutic wander through the shopping centre before heading home. You look around, casually browsing through rails of miniskirts and chunky knits and wishing payday would hurry up and arrive just that little bit sooner. Then you see them. They are stylish, elegant, the very epitome of chic. Patent black leather and 4 inch heels perfectly positioned on the table ahead of you: in short, the perfect pair of shoes. When you realise that they happen to be your size, you find yourself incapable of resisting temptation, so you sit down and slip them on, quickly becoming convinced that even Cinderella in her glass slippers could not have looked this good. But before you can prevent it, the dreaded thought of the price tag rudely interrupts the fairytale. Beautiful as the enchanted slippers may be, there’s no fairy godmother to foot the bill. You try to dismiss this particular practicality with all the old excuses you would give to your girl-friends: ‘But LOOK how fantastic they are! They’re so PRETTY.’ And as usual, out of this inner turmoil, you eventually find that the old mantra has returned: ‘I want them. I need them. I HAVE to have them.’
This is the point at which the harsh light of reality, until now just a vague idea on the horizon, finally dawns. Much as we may loathe to admit it, there is a definite line between want and need. Like so many others, my gut reaction when asked if I actually need this ‘one last pair’ of shoes is a rapidly fired, fairly defensive ‘Yes’. Unfortunately, the more I think about it, the more I waver. It’s true that I already own more pairs of shoes than I will admit to counting. And that most of them have been worn, well, once. Yet another pair would only decrease my remaining wardrobe space, which is rapidly dwindling. Incidentally, so is my bank balance, whilst my student debt remains as robust as ever. All of a sudden, I am questioning just how good these shoes will look when I’m stumbling out of a nightclub at 3am tomorrow morning, when my party-worn feet are sticking to chewing gum and various other concoctions on the floor. Then before I know it, I am suddenly looking past the immediate purchase-related adrenaline rush of handing over the credit card, and doubting the ability of these shoes to significantly contribute to my long-term happiness. Chances are, my future well-being will not be entirely dependent on this particular pair of shoes (although if it turns out that I am wrong about that, I reserve the right to be very annoyed). So, no matter how much the irrational part of my brain might wish it were otherwise, it seems that I might not actually need them after all.
Thankfully, this doesn’t stop me from being almost completely justified in wanting them. After all, they are beautiful. They will look incredible. They will coordinate perfectly with an obscene number of my outfits and be suitable for any occasion – from coffee with friends to a black-tie dinner. There are very few shoes with such natural versatility. They will complete the outfit. No, they will make the outfit. This is not to mention the obvious psychological benefits of indulging in a purchase. Few women can deny the feeling of supreme satisfaction and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with successful shoe-shopping. Moreover, the subsequent attentiveness and compliments of others cannot fail to boost one’s confidence. In an age of some uncertainties, whether it’s economic, professional or personal, it does us good to start walking tall, head held high, feeling fabulous. And if it’s 4 inches of sleek stilettoed perfection that helps us on our way, I personally have no issue with that. In the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw: ‘It’s hard to walk in a single woman’s shoes. That’s why sometimes, you need really special shoes.’. And if you can afford it, surely the loss of that tiny space left at the back of the wardrobe is a sacrifice worth making…
At the end of the day, like so many things in life, it merely requires a little judgement. Do you really need them? Probably not. But if you can afford them, justify them and potentially promise yourself to become a better person as a result of either your purchase or your subsequent good mood, what’s the harm? However, if the only thing you’ll feel in addition to those extra 4inches of height is a growing sense of guilt and concern about your impending bankruptcy, it’s probably best to walk away and accept that the forty-three pairs (that you will admit to) in the bottom of your closet may just have to suffice.
A questionnaire recently told me that I am a compulsive dieter. As anyone who knows me sufficiently well will know, I have spent the past five years or so constantly on and off different eating plans, or saying that I am ‘being good’ this week – all in the vain effort to avoid the dreaded term ‘diet’, and all its associations with super-thin California girls eating about three lettuce leaves a day or a desperate thirty-something surviving on protein shakes. When all is said, done and not eaten though, I can quite honestly say that yes, I am often on some form of diet. The question I have often been asked is: why?
Now, I am no stick. I am 5’4’’ with curves. I am womanly. But neither am I fat. I am a healthy weight for my height and a UK dress size 8-10. (Well, slightly more often 10 right now, rather irrationally making me feel huge and hence a brand-new ‘being good’ cycle has begun.) I am constantly asked by friends who notice changes in my eating habits why I perceive the need to lose weight. My answer is generally that I do not feel slim enough, especially if I only have a matter of weeks before braving the bikini, a task which I loathe so much it almost hurts. I feel one-hundred percent justified in this, but unfortunately for me, many of my friends seem to disagree, arguing that I have body image ‘issues’ and ‘distorted perception’. Flattering as this is, I – like so many other women – never quite believe them. I grew up with a 5’6’’ size 10 (occasionally 8) mother who has been on and off detox diets since before I hit my teens, despite the fact that she is already one of the slimmest in her friendship group. In no way do I blame her, but having such a slim mother who always looks fabulous inevitably piled on the pressure to look good as I grew up. Watching what I ate became a fundamental part of my teenage years. This was magnified by the quiet but fierce competition to look good in an all-girls school. Incidentally, a recent report found that anorexia and bulimia are more prevalent in single-sex schools than mixed ones, possibly due to the greater pressure (both social and academic) that the girls are put under from such a young age. Add all this to the airbrushed, skeletal glamazons glorified by the fashion world and media over the past decade, and you provide a girl with a seemingly solid self-justification for her somewhat irrational desire to lose weight.
Like many woman, I honestly feel that if I could just stick to my eating plans and exercise regimes for longer, I would be this skinny, glamorous fashionista that I have long longed to be. Unfortunately, I have commitment issues, a hatred of tracksuits and a bit of a penchant for chocolate and cocktails; so I usually slip up, take a week off, and then start the same cycle all over again – a process which I think may have almost permanently screwed over my metabolism. But then I considered it: at which point would I ever feel skinny enough? Looking back at photographs of myself from my teenage years and first year at university, I see that I really was very slim indeed. Skinny, even. But at the time, it’s safe to say I didn’t feel it. At all. I wasn’t any happier then than I am now. Quite the opposite. This begs the question: will we ever be satisfied with the figures we’ve got? If I carry on the way I’m going, knowing me, the answer is probably not. It’s natural to be a little self-critical, but surely this is a little too far. We all have different attributes, and with the world of high-fashion suddenly re-embracing curves, I think it’s time we all (myself most definitely included) should learn to like our natural shapes. A fairly tall order for most, I realise, but one that’s long overdue. Aside from all this, I can’t help but wonder if being thin would actually solve as many problems as I have convinced myself it will? Again, probably not. Nevertheless, it’s far easier to recognise this distorted attitude than to change it.
Here’s a start though… relax a bit. The world won’t stop turning if I don’t lost those pesky three pounds. Sure, be good, that’s fine. Go on the occasional crash-diet if you absolutely must (although take my advice, it’s only a quick fix). Continue to have bikini aspirations if you like. Just don’t let it become an obsession. Because something tells me I’ll really be happier carrying that extra pound or two and free to indulge from time to time, no matter what the skinny little devils on my shoulder tell me. I’ll try to shake them off, but for right now, where’s my skinny cappuccino?