Thursday, 23 April 2015

Chasing Nelson.

I am currently sat in a coffee shop in what could be considered my neighbourhood, or perhaps not. Is a
twenty minute walk considered your neighbourhood? I never seem to be one to keep things simple, I see the place where I live as a point between many aspects of London.

I live in Pimlico and the normal reaction is to go "ooh very posh". Then I explain I live on a council estate in Pimlico and people tend to scrunch up their nose a little. Then, if I choose to, I can explain it's a privately owned top floor apartment in a very nice estate with the best view in London. Perception is everything.

If I walk for twenty minutes I can be in Chelsea, the heart of opulence. Or I can be in Belgravia, with impossibly lavish homes. In the other direction, Battersea Park or Vauxhall. I can walk towards Victoria which is a little more neighbourly, a small village of pensioners, immigrants and tramps nesting around the brilliant white of Victorian columns.

As it stands, on this overcast morning, I am in Westminster. To be precise, I am about five minutes walk away from Parliament and in the heart of British bureacracy. This coffee shop is not full of tourists or students, it is full of men and women in important looking suits tapping away at their keyboards or having deep eloquent conversations about things only their own kind will understand. Amidst the jargon, conversations about weddings, mortgages and commutes.

The place I'm in, although a large national chain, purports to be authentic Italian fare. In case you didn't quite get it, you are treated to rows of photographs showing traditional rural Italian life. It's not too different from where I grew up. Gibraltar may be a mini concrete metropolis but there are still parts of the old town with the narrow winding labyrinths between buildings from the 1800s.

Look up and you'll see washing hanging up from one side to the other, someone leaning out of the window to look at the world. If it's around lunchtime, there'll be mothers and grandmothers screaming that it's time to eat, the smell of stew in the air, a radio or television on just a bit too loudly to the lunchtime news. Doors will be slightly ajar to let in the breeze, a dog or cat looking for a scrap of sunshine.

There's a time of day just around 2pm when the world sighs. The streets are somewhat empty, everything is quiet and the sun has gone behind one building after peeking up from the other. You can turn a corner and suddenly you're the only person in the world. I call it The Lull, and it's a phenomenon mostly lost to somewhere like London. The world here moves at a million miles a second, everyone's packing themselves in and out of trains endlessly revising their perfectly timed schedules. I don't understand what they're looking for. Is it power? Money? Happiness? Purpose? Everyone lives and dies equally, and I've been wondering if the culmination of your life should come from that business document you put together that only you and a handful of people will understand, however many millions it can possibly make you.

The first time I left Gibraltar, I gave it the finger. Quite literally, I walked up the steps into the plane and turned to privately raise my middle digit to a place I felt had suffocated me for my entire upbringing. That is not a reflection on my family and what they have provided for me, and if I could move them to be close to me tomorrow I would do it in a heartbeat. I think they agree, that the place can be suffocating.

My experiences are my own, and I suffered through a school system that wanted me to be something I was not. My only escape was literature class, and the world of arts I could bring to my doorstep by ordering it online. I felt like Yentl, longing for a piece of sky.

Twelve years have passed since then, and I've made my peace with the place a little. Seeing an older generation pass on, I am becoming increasingly anxious about preserving a piece of the past. So much of what it means to be Gibraltarian is wrapped up in politics, in mob mentality, on what can and cannot be said. I want to have a piece of the culture, a piece of history and way of life and I want to see it translated into a wider world. I want that life to have an audience, I want to be able to stand up and say who I am and where I'm from and not have anyone tell me what I can and cannot be from any angle.

British. Not British. Spanish. Not Spanish. Gypsy. Not Gypsy. Portuguese. Not Portuguese. My English is not very good. My Spanish is not very good. I'm too light to be Hispanic. I'm too dark to be British. I look Italian. I look French. Iberian. Mediterranean. Immigrant. Colonial. Native. My experience is not relevant. My land is not mine. I was born somewhere else anyway. The Thames. The Mediterranean. The exile. The return. The home.

And endless fight, an endless story I feel ready to tell. Nelson looking to the South from a column in the heart of London, and in the South his body brought to the shore in a barrel of rum, soaked in blood and seawater.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Longest Winter

When you die there is nobody else there, so what is regret for? He saw a man having a heart attack
on the corner of the street. Seated from the top of the bus, it was like a judgement from Heaven, observing but with the will granted, no fear of intervention.

The paramedics had arrived, the man was slumped against a filthy wall with torn-off posters promoting yesterday’s events. On this crawling pavement with passers-by looking, this is where the man would die. A story for dinnertime, a Twitter update, somebody else’s story but not your own because you are dead and cannot tell it.

So those final moments, are they so precious? You spend your entire life saying “I don’t want to get to my deathbed and regret”. Yet all you are doing is racing against inevitability, if you have the luxury of a deathbed at all. Maybe one day you walk outside of your street and someone runs you over, and there you are, you are finished on Tuesday afternoon at 2pm and the world carries on without you. Or you find a lump and feel sick, no matter your age two weeks later you are in the ground. Someone has pulled the plug from the back of your neck and you don’t wake up in a cocoon, you don’t wake up at all. We are not televisions, switching us on and off and on again. That button does not exist for humanity.

Death is a concept for the living. We are selfish creatures who contemplate our own mortality through the end of others. We do not mourn death, we celebrate that we are still alive, that our narrative continues and we are somehow important. Like we don’t all end up the same way. A million dollars in the bank and a house in Chelsea, you’re still going to be in the ground a world away from you dying alone and broke on a roadside.

This is why life matters, because it’s the only thing that there is. You get up and you run every day and you do what makes you happy, because there will come a time when you will not be happy, staring death in the face. You will not feel accomplished, there is always more, life is everything and there is no satisfaction in death.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Oh Heaven, Oh Alexander.

Today felt like the first day of spring, with a brilliant sunshine that makes London look like a different city. More so, the neighbourhood around Cromwell Road, with red-brick houses that seem washed clean by the blueness of the sky.

You can come at the Victoria & Albert Museum in stealth through Pelham Street's narrowness (the automated bus voice pronounces it Pel-HAM but I'm sure the residents beg to differ) while the time offers a deceiving laziness to the morning. Just before ten o'clock means the locals have rushed to their crammed tube stops about an hour ago, and the tourists are just beginning to think about setting out for the day. The stealth of approach does not last long before the tower of the Victoria & Albert bursts through the trees and announces your imminent arrival upon Cromwell Road, a grand stretch of business that takes you in and out of London towards Heathrow airport.

I knew the heavily anticipated return of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition had provoked a frenzy of ticket sales, but I thought at this time of the morning it would be fairly quiet and I could sit and wait for the museum to open at ten. Instead, I am directed to a queue of ticket holders, flanked on the other side by a much larger queue of non-ticket holders. I am not asked what exhibition I am attending, I am asked if I have tickets to the McQueen exhibition. This seems to be one of the hottest tickets in a city built on a constant barrage of hot tickets. Give a Londoner a queue and a "sold out" sign and they will kick, scream and stand in the rain for as long as inhumanely possible.

The queue itself is an event. I have decided to wear my Alexander McQueen by Puma shoes because this feels like more than an exhibition to me. I want to feel connected to this genius who I have admired since I was about ten. Others feel the same way. I see a plethora of skull scarves in the breeze. A woman floats up and down the stairs in an exquisitely embroidered McQueen coat.

Alexander McQueen is very in right now. A couple of biographies have surfaced, including one charting his rise along with John Galliano's, the bad boys of 90's fashion. There's a photographic exhibition at the Tate Britain, uncountable articles on his work and legacy. The Duchess of Cambridge was married in a McQueen dress, something probably considered unthinkable at the beginning of his career.

His legacy even lives on in his fashion house, who although not pushing the boundaries of innovation the way Alexander McQueen did, continue to design in the house style of metal, embellishment and dreams. The diffusion lines are tasteful and considered, there seems to be no rush to throw everything into sunglasses and perfumes. The Puma collaboration is a work of art, designs I would not have considered possible for an affordable line within a sportswear collection, but it works.

It makes me sad, however, while I stand in line and see his name emblazoned on the side of one of the greatest cultural institutions on Earth. While I see people queueing to see his work, not just the elite who had tickets to see his shows during fashion week, but people who are appreciative of art and talent. It's a strange set of images when you consider the reality, that this beautiful, supremely talented man died alone in his apartment, unable to cope with the continuation of his life. I know things are never that simple, but had he realised the love and impact he could have on people's lives, if he could pluck the appreciation of his talent out from the endless carousel of seasons and collections, would it have all turned out differently?

When I was around ten, I stole my aunty's copy of Vogue and obsessed over the depictions of life in London. It was a world within a distant city, a gleaming metropolis of spires and red lipstick where everyone was beautiful and exquisite, where everything was available at any time and style was appreciated and revered above everything else. I was too young to consider the darkness bubbling under the surface, all I wanted at that age was a freedom denied to me by my age and my geography. I lived in the shadow of a barbed wire fence, a symbol that had all my neighbours stupidly convinced that it granted them security in exchange for freedom, a shelter from the outside world where "things happened". I seemed to be the only person who actually wanted things to happen. Ten years old and already nihilistically bored.

I worshipped at the altar of Naomi Campbell, a woman I wanted to be. Yet the narrative that took my developing mind by the horns was that of Isabella Blow, Kate Moss and Alexander McQueen. British fashion was emerging as something to watch out for, and although I had no concept of design or context, all I knew was that the women walking down the catwalk looked empowered, provocative and beyond anything I had ever seen in my little town. I would later find out what I was looking at was McQueen's controversial Highland Rape collection.

I abandoned fashion for film, music and comic books as I grew up. Fashion was scary, judgemental, and made me profoundly body conscious. I found it hard to keep up with what was in fashion and what wasn't, and I preferred to spend my money on media than clothes. I am very glad not a lot of photos exist of me during this time. Moving to London's Kings Road for a while at the age of nineteen made me feel more fashion conscious, and by the time The Devil Wears Prada was released I was fascinated by the industry.

It wasn't until the age of twenty-five, when I lost a ridiculous amount of weight and could finally fit into the clothes I coveted, that my fashion life blossomed. I wrote articles on the history of fashion for magazines, always more interested in how we got to where we are than what next season will be. Even now, it is the history of fashion that interests me the most. Running from collection to collection seems exhausting, and spending some time as a fashion intern proved to me it can also make you tremendously lazy. Peel away the layers of champagne and air kisses, get to the clothes. It looked to me like few people actually working in fringes of the industry have a real interest for that.

It was pleasing to see an exhibition encapsulate one man and his work. During Press Week last year, I had been dragged from PR office to PR office looking at what was next, speculating on which bag was "it" and would make the front cover, talking endlessly about things being "really nice" and not much more. The Savage Beauty is laid out like what it is, an art exhibition, a moment in time that can be breathed in reverentially and deals with the artistry, nothing else.

Going early in the morning was a great plan, the crowds are staggered (hence the queues) which leaves a wonderful amount of breathing space. I had a practically spiritual moment on my own in the dark with a Kate Moss hologram floating wistfully in the ether. The first collection you are confronted with is Highland Rape, juxtaposed with McQueen's voice talking about his collection. I was practically in tears.

When I was younger and broke (or more broke than I am right now) I thought that "making it" meant moving to London, and having enough money to buy a Louis Vuitton bag from Westfield White City. By the time I actually worked in Westfield White City and had enough money to afford a Louis Vuitton bag, I was also paying rent, and a month's rent on one bag seemed ridiculous to me. Instead, I used my parents' birthday money to visit the Alexander McQueen menswear store on Savile Row and buy a ponyskin wallet I had wanted for a long time. I left the store with my McQueen bag, a wallet lovingly contained within a delicate box. I was twenty-eight years old , I had crossed the waters of my desires and arrived at the reality. Here I was, living in London, doing exactly everything I set out do (other than have a book published, which to be honest is because I haven't really tried).

Alexander McQueen "made it". From Savile Row apprentice to Central St. Martins student to one of the world's most respected fashion designers. His work goes beyond clothing, it transcends into literature, sci-fi, visions of humanity's past and future, a prophet and historian, a prismatic filter of society through golden ostrich feathers and an encrusted headpiece.

Jennifer Lopez's costumes in The Cell are pure McQueen. Givenchy's bizarre nightmarish renaissance continues to feed from the McQueen imagination palace. Any science fiction blockbuster or historical epic trying its best to bring a sense of grandeur has more than a flourish of McQueen's designs. When Lady Gaga was at the pinnacle of her career, reborn to the world as a dystopian empress in the music video for Bad Romance, that owed itself more to McQueen's singular costumes than Gaga's vision.

I walk past Savile Row often, passing from the basement of Gieves & Hawkes where Alexander McQueen started his apprenticeship, to the menswear store bearing his name that is only a few paces down the road. I see his name on the front, now a logo to a movement more than a surname belonging to an individual. I think of Gabrielle Chanel, and Christian Dior, of Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace. It seems a given now that any successful fashion house transcends yourself and carries on, with many going on to be sold to conglomerates who do much to market and little to connect you to the person who first grabbed the needle and thread.

I wonder what Alexander McQueen thought of his life, his career, his fashion house and the beautiful monster that had grown out of his mind into a million-pound empire, one that continues season after season even after his death. I found my answer on the walls of the Victoria & Albert Museum:

"When I'm dead and gone, people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen." - Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010)