Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Five Questions I Asked Santa

It's that time of the year again...

First published in The London Word

Christmas is around the corner and my anxiety is at its peak. I’ve promised – yet again – to spend Christmas with the family. It’ll be super-duper to see them. Really, it will. For a few days, I won’t have to do any cooking or cleaning. I will shlep around in my PJs. I will eat as much as I want, and add a dollop or two of double cream to everything. (If everyone else is doing it, the calories cancel each other out.) 

Is it heaven on earth? It might be – if it weren’t for all the talking. The one-on-one questions from relatives – How’s that book coming along? Have you got a proper job yet? Does it pay? – I can just about handle. From years of experience, I’ve realized that smiling, nodding and praising said relative’s Labradoodle, Christmas tofurky, exfoliated chin, and general outlook on life will win me points and get the attention away from me.

No, it’s the general barrage of noise that I’m scared of. The onslaught, an incessant nattering, that starts at 5.30am on Christmas Eve and then continues all day and well into and beyond Boxing Day. I just know that Auntie B will tell that ginseng story again that will include a series of racial slurs cunningly disguised as worldly wisdom. Cousin J will show me his boils. And Uncle T will make me a spread-sheet on all the ways I’m going wrong in my life. And they will do it all at the same time. All in the same ear.

So, when I bumped into Santa the other day in TGI Friday, a little red faced and frost-bitten from all his toy-shop appearances and global warming respectively, I asked him – Why do I put myself through this every year?

Me: Santa, why must I shop till I drop at Christmas?
Santa (with a saucy smile): Because it is the sexy thing to do! Do you know my favourite author, my dear? It is Sophia Kinsella! The woman has made living on a permanent over-draft – and unpaid bills and mounting credit card debt – sexy! If before the Shopaholic series you felt guilty and a little dirty to do all that shopping, now you feel helplessly feminine, charmingly kooky and flighty – but in an endearing way. [he leans closer and whispers...] Let me tell you a little secret. You’ve asked your mum to tell all the relatives not to buy you presents, because you’re broke (yes, again) and you can’t afford to reciprocate, haven't you? But, you know, everyone will get you a present. They will say that it doesn’t matter that you didn’t get them anything, but it will! If I were you, cupcake, I’d pop in at Lush on the way out and get everyone some soap. It’s good for the economy.

Me: Is it good for the economy?
Santa (taking a few sips of his appletini): Of course! We have to maintain the status quo! Imagine for a minute that Mr. Bank Manager didn’t earn five hundred thousand pounds this year, and you, doll – a writer, did you say? (Spiffing! Really, top notch! Here, have a free mince pie, you look a little hungry.) Where was I? If Mr. Bank Manager didn’t live in a penthouse overlooking Hyde Park, where would we all be? He has to keep on earning, he has to have a penthouse in New York and a holiday house in the Algave. The economy has taken a beating lately, and the government wants us to spend so we can get back on track! So we can get back to being in denial. It is natural to be in denial. Clarity would only bring us down! So, spend, spend, spend! 

Me: Err, right. Okay, so why must I eat till I pop?
Santa: It beats me how you’re supposed to know when to stop! Once you start with the turkey and the roast potatoes, move on through the extra stuffing to the pudding and the cream, why, you have to come back to the potatoes!

Me: Why must I put cucumber in my wine and egg in my nog?
Santa (now a little woozy): Perfection is boring, my little lollipop. Excess, excess! Celebrate excess! 

Me: Gotcha. Then, why must I drink till I – Oh, never mind, I already know the answer to that one…

More William Morris

I want all my clothes to be William Morris prints.

Explore the collections at William Morris Gallery, and events like Social Fabric: African Textiles Today.

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Thursday, 5 March 2015

Staying Power Black British Experience at the V and A

by Charlie Phillips

The Black British Experience exhibition at the Victoria and Albert brings home the exceptional, yet completely everyday, place of black beauty and experience in Britain. A history that is often misplaced in British life. The exhibition is a much-too-fleeting glimpse of photographs from the 1950s to the 1990s, all to do with aspects of black British experience. Hairstyles are just part of the equation. The exhibition shines a light on British Caribbean homes, black jewellery, street life, and celebrations. It takes its name and inspiration from Peter Fryer's 1984 book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain.

Read full article at

Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s
Feb 16-May 24 2015
Victoria and Albert

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Black British Experience, at the V and A

From Series Black Beauty Pageants, by Raphael Albert, 1960-79

Hairstyles of Nigerian women, by JD Okhai Ojeikere

Diary of a Victorian Dandy, by Yinka Shonibare, 1998

Westbourne Park Tube Station, Charlie Philips, 1967
Call me stupid, but it took a passionate discussion of the relevance and place of hair and hairstyles as cultural markers from my black students, to bring it home to me just how complicated African hairstyles are. Actually, I still don't completely get it. But my lovely students explained to me and an open-mouthed, very diverse classroom, that if they let their hair grow out, it would simply grow out and up. That it takes taming, straightening, weaves, braiding, hair extensions, and many, many hours to create the beautiful, complex confections that they wear to class. It reminded me, too, of how normative ideals of white beauty continue to impact people of non-white heritage - the hair straightening, the face bleaching, the tucking in, epilating, waxing, narrowing, tweezing, anorexia, liposuctioning, lip-pulling in, that happen behind the scenes to conform to mainstream, capitalism-prescribed aesthetic and performative norms.

The Black British Experience exhibition at the V and A brings home the exceptional, yet completely everyday, place of black beauty and experience in Britain. A history that is often missed, misplaced, displaced, ignored, misunderstood, or simply turned a blind eye to in British life. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Road to Shimla

“The first time you saw me, you handed me a glass of bubbly and punched me in the face,” Alice says. She turns to study her husband – if he is still her husband.
Jacob pauses in the act of doing nothing at all. “Nostalgia? You? Shocking,” he says. “And anyway, I did not punch you in the face. You took one sip and only bloody choked on it. I was trying to give you a neighbourly thump.”
“More like a neighbourly hump, if I’d only known,” Alice says virtuously.
Jacob reaches out a hand to her, then stops, takes out his phone and starts doing heaven knows what on it. She clenches the steering wheel, and stares out at Kalka, the last town in the plains before the road climbs up to the Himalayas. Life presses in hungrily on both sides of the car. The rain has formed gullies, and there is garbage swimming its way down – onion peel, soggy cabbage, Band-aid, a plastic bag of Amul Milk, a half-dead lizard, hair scrunchies, a child’s pacifier, known locally and succinctly as a “nipple,” a dirty sock, assorted life debris. continued...
The Road to Shimla was published by Inkspill magazine in 2011. Read it here
The Guest Editor Eleanor Perry says, "The Road to Shimla is a delicately-crafted snapshot of cultural displacement, capturing by turns both the caustic and the tender moments in the disintegration of a marriage."

Marmite and Mango Chutney

Auntie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms.

“Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.”

The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or, “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience, or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever.

“The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch, she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite, then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question, she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and rolling them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing.

Read the short story here