Playlist: July 2021

Have you followed me closely through the long four years of being caught into list like thistles do make this white stuff, fluffy July of it, caught pale against purple and green indelible sunsets. I appreciate all kinds of writing and sometimes a product has a good line like, rain and dark gold the podium and ringtone, we’ve got to get ready, there are some stones that remain. For memory and in VHS.

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Something happened which I could not write about, and it was scary. Summer is smoky, you see it all around and when you don’t you know it’s still there, if you know what I mean, everywhere you look and don’t see it you know. The smoke grows lilac from the country song and it’s a new one, drawn from the old one, Waxahatchee is also known as Katie and I like how sobriety opens a songwriting and settles. Not that a loss does settle. This is a week and more soberly in the poem, reflecting the dust bits, it’s not clarity it’s cornflake crushed beneath foot. Tonight is my exhibition and a stupid person cutting the lawn, I try to look outside. The curtains are just gauze and Mau texts to say there’s something funny about ‘gossamer sounds / on the porch’ as a line and we agree all spiderwebs are kinky because ‘entrapment / constraint or binding’, and spiders eating their mates and like, how this conversation occurs mint green on lilac as in nature, bad NYC illustration, having whatsapped the last chalice or lapped from, critical, I owe you a whole month of blog there’s a backlog, the real foxes coming around the lot. Joey says a blog is useful if it has a playlist, music is useful. I’ve been reading his pamphlet again, let’s do it, which he wrote for / dedicated to our reading group, and thinking about poetry and collectivity and action. And what you can do on the face of loss. An old woman chides the speaker to not plant vegetables on private land and the speaker replies by ruminating on the conditions necessary for flourishing, I love this line ‘some people think its cool to have / shit / like a forest what the fuck but it doesn’t stop’. I am reading this poem for its labour and dreaming in a flat it’s not mine, for its fight and for what it makes me want to do, this it which is like the it of a pop song, more of a doing and pronoun, Ily, who do you think we are? What do foxes think about music? I hear a gate creak outside as I write this and imagine on the bare patch of grass where the bins are the block became meadowed and fred gets targeted ads for hydrangeas, having told the story of the hydrangea wars one time too many and I also want my targeted ads, if I must have them, to sell me wildflower seeds and the bulbs of potential vegetables. I bought an album and it had two flower bulbs and a cassette tape included, everything wrapped in beautiful tissue paper. Hungover I am thinking about that and about Joey’s writing on the pale yellow paper you sensed was artfully stolen. There are lots of important thoughts in this pamphlet like ‘it’s dreamy to dream when the real & necessary work / is ugly like steps clogged & knotty with nauseous / exhaustion’ and what does it mean to say something is dreamy, I wish I could ask Bernadette and get her poem for an answer like an answer machine where the words are crackled but everything you need to know is in the tone of the voice and the space between sound and how there is a breeze through the line, a wise one. Or just like, the 3 second double space between songs on a playlist where you turn to the other and know. Time pass. Calcined eclipsed as if I scrolled mortality site with its many many awful ads about products for tooth decay and viagra and thinking is this the absolute dramatisation of death on the internet, can we not have something clean, a kind of writing. After our phone call all my targeted ads are for lingerie no person would wear, it makes me alien to say so? Someone tells me that the databases are inordinately complex and there’s nothing a layperson could do to pull out that code and so you have to trust the abyssopelagic practice of software developers. The speaker wants to find things in the gaps and ‘that’s something’ like when knowing your neighbours, I smile at my neighbours say hi, my old neighbours were good we swapped books and furniture and talked about work and what we were reading, one of them was always reading long, historical muscular novels but he also loved Lispector like me. One of them a ceramicist’s apprentice. What of a poem encased in clay, all the animals of this room are poems, more than we could know, as I swallowed the memory of their crumble and form. This pamphlet of Joey’s is always worrying about what poems are and can do even as it stays true to the ethic of let’s do it, we keep pushing even as we question what it is we are doing; I like this, it’s what I want to call ongoingness. It’s poetry that makes me hungry a kind of lush hunger like the dew upon new gardens and sparkling water that is also natural, holding glass to the light and clink and chime, we share a bottle, we share blossom, ‘i only want to read with friends / in the actual field of experience / in the garden of ourselves / exactly not edenic since we built it / in the future’ I want to epigraph, keep this close, eternal bindweed in the garden of ourselves and something to build in the future, let’s do it, like kick off your trainers into the sun, it’s so funny but I’m crying and sneezing. Ever since I moved I keep Gloria’s poem, ‘dig it some no place’, ‘a real-time no-time edited response to Bernadette Mayer(BM)’s “Utopia”’, as a printout by my bedside. I got this from a Zarf launch G. read at back in 2019 at the Glasgow Women’s Library, and I remember wanting to live in this poem in a way that rarely happens, I wanted to understand its address and who was living in it, what was happening. It was a year of climate strikes and the fucked election. I didn’t see any butterflies for a whole year. Joey’s poems make me long for the good things we learned in lockdown and also to be with friends and doing ‘preparatory work’ which might mean learning to cook for ten people or just learning to hold space, be present, show face ‘& we hold it far away’, this garden we built and are building. What can this plant do. How do you like your tea. For a while it is a Zoom garden. The roadside wildflowers are great this year, tall and showy purples and yellows. I ride the wave of heat and instantly miss it to wake up shivering at unsent texts in my dreams; in the middle of being held or not held by you. I learn this Irish phrase about it being so hot the ground’s cracking open or it’s hot enough to split rocks, I don’t remember, and once or twice this has actually happened in the saying of the phrase. Kirsty works in a glasshouse library by a motorway. ‘back in june / when it felt like everything / was cracking open’ and the ‘visceral’ like how I read this poem in February along the canal, like how I walked with it and wanted to do something like punch thru glass or send an email, but mostly I wrote instead and to hover where that scream was, placeholder, what was inside the rock of the day, how I gave it to the air of the field in Lambhill, how I miss those walks. ‘Theories are ok, but what patterns of movements will we trace through the streets as we go about our lives, who will we pass there, and how will we pass them?’ Joey asks in let’s do it. Someone asks me the time and someone asks for directions and someone is asking can I stash my booze in your pannier bags to my friend. I watch the police call children away from the fountain and I sip water and cycle home. Sometimes like the speaker, Joey’s speaker, ‘I’m dissociating from the city’ and I don’t know anything about it, who built this, how am I gonna do a wash or refresh these conditions, how am I gonna drink coffee on a Friday morning and wake up to the songs that I want, how am I gonna tell or not tell you. Nothing anyone can say and being scattered, needing encouragement, our friends are elsewhere, we hold each other through words because it is the flowers we have, gifted or put there, not to wilt, speculative to put anything in the soil and see if it grows the way I write a paragraph on discord, that’s something. Heart fires tripled and inboxed. Joey’s poetry teaches me to go beyond realism but not be complacent about something in the present as if that was enough, the eruption itself as utopic. I’m excited about what happens next once we begin changing, as if by the inward and outward transformation we would get to the place, hug emoji, to speak on the radio against enclosure and the ‘no place’ of Gloria’s poem maybe where you ‘Leave page […] to begin this’, and what Joey says: ‘If this place is so radically unrecognisable that to get there we would lose ourselves, then perhaps this imaginative effort is the beginning of a willing self-transformation, which we might hold onto in the midst of all we do in the hope of its eventual collective completion’. I imagine my face in the mirrors of dust shop windows, becoming something else when you say in the dream We shouldn’t… There is nothing left to buy but time. I am still trying to write about that thing whose impossibility is the basic problem of how I can feel and look around and know you, know me, how we are here and still have breath and like food, and like mornings ahead of us still possible to hold and break fruit and run for trains, share music. I appreciate the way this work is a writing back to itself, as if to reclaim the errata and do more with the adjacent claims and forms and changes — to acknowledge that anything we write academically exists within a context, it has this limit, something weathers through it and what is afterwards done is gonna crash through the words. I wish I was cycling long and hard along the canal today, I wish I was breathless and flush. I like what Joey says of poetry’s ‘glittering / incomprehensibility’ and how it disrupts ‘capitalist (etc) subjectivity’ and how at the exhibition everybody wanted to eat the sparklehorse, Jack’s sparklehorse, like it was this giant animal-shaped sugar plum cake with hallucinatory and erotic properties if you just had a slice, a small bite, a scoop of the horse. People want to imbibe the air magic they want to transform and be more than flesh, I think that’s poetry also the wanting to tip all the glitter right down your throat and come up rosy, aura, in excess of yourself, beyond consumer. Morvern’s dream of white horses on the beach. To read this, you had to be born and you had to feel something opening, hydrated, sapped of sense. In the pamphlet one of my favourite things is the scribbles, curlicues, tumbleweed gestures drawn on some of the pages, the sight of photocopied handwriting turned asemic scrawl — this gesture of something in excess of the language, a tending of the page, a tender unknowing. That I made a mark and remarked it. It is something to long for. Whose hand do you hold when you say let’s do it, not to ask what follows but move into that shimmering space of the it, which is always in motion. I want to work harder, have stronger hands and language. 

*

One day I will be champion at hula hoop or retire from the athleticism of the long poem, the turbulent manner of a short moan, long-term loan, poems to unravel barbed wire fences, and how I had the library book but they lost the library book, found it. Everything turns up sometime. The turnips are good this year is a financial statement for racoons all around us. I want to go slow but I keep speeding up. Riverside champagne and bicycle, some of your Guinness, Pinot Grigio, Cava and fern, curl inside me a thought of the night and night club, lilac book, not yet. Ice rub, hot flush. Everything good in my room is mint green and white and nightly 

I want music to be everywhere, remembering

slenderly the first month in your new place

and all these milestones of 

the lake at twilight, Elliott Smith

you say

“can you play it for me”

I’ve been here a month, I am getting to know the roads

I’m supposed to buy furniture

I get home 

Kind of still drunk at 2am I watch that film about London, 2007, Giddy Stratospheres and it felt really lonely. I longed for more party scenes and more of the beginning running to ‘The Rat’ and you’ve got a nerve, more of a carelessness of the edge of history where you still have money or you don’t, sinking a wine and running for trains in the capital city and not falling asleep and the timeline’s messed up, how did we get there, landfill I die, the country is lonely. I love the whole boy/girl friendship and especially what it means to wait or go meet someone and the thrill of being out with them, swap hats, wrapped around each other, unconditional, laughing and wholesome and immune to other ppl. Platonic hold hands. I’m lucky to have had that. In 2007 I read NME every week and collected a sense of what was happening in London. Squat raves and indie discos and gigs that ended in broken glass and fights and the end of any sort of neoliberal consensus about to be voiced and soon. I was just walking the empty crossroads, smoking menthols. The girl Laura with the peach-orange hair is an artist and wants to claim club promotion as a kind of art, I get her, I get that she should be able to do that and contribute to the living as art, and nobody dies. Anagram of my name is ‘lame red armies’. Clubs always felt total elsewhere it seemed impossible that they really existed and now even more so, what is the fee, but I want to be in them. Who cares about satire it doesn’t care about anyone. You never see her without a hat and this is protection, wearing a beret against the world at the fierce mercy of cab drivers, “look after her yea?”. Everyone is wearing leopard print and looks good. We should be able to do this and nobody dies. Ventilation. The coloured tights and short skirts. Art school. When I cried at this film I cried for the twist, was I prepared for it, the way it screams something

against that hedonism, delusion, but they keep going on. The film isn’t sexy at all and the only sex hinted at is kind of gross, creepy or regrettable. I knew even drugged it had to be better but bad sex in films is so British. I felt the moral message was too strong. The boys in bands are more or less all annoying and druggy, sometimes endearing but mostly dumb, the long familiar ket nights of blurry talk. But the music is good and the guys are fun, it’s just acting. Besides, I miss that. To be a dumb boy in a band with the boys I alight from my slip and reach for the door, it’s always open, do you have a light. Now I go out alone if I go out at all. It’s a lonely film because something of the isolation of the pandemic overshadows it. What does it mean to care for someone? That I watched this on a sofa alone, that it was filmed in 2020 and they had to do artful camera things to simulate a bigger crowd, that we could only get one limited slice of the action. How to ask for help. I wanted bigger party scenes, more of the hedonism, rat sightings, I loved seeing people take drugs more or less constantly. I felt completely neutral, then indulgent, until I didn’t. The film confirmed my fear of bathtubs. That somehow you will never get out again. Some people feel like it’s a womb. And afterwards I was crying for the friend I lost. Everyone is wearing hats and I remember when Camden was full of hats you would go to just buy hats, and everyone looked cute and cared about clothes and music in this way that doesn’t seem possible now, wearing a bowler, there are so many ways to be serious now. What do you take from the film with you, having seen two decades compressed and the living room where you can always bounce.  

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The Long Blondes — Giddy Stratospheres

The Walkman — The Rat

Arcade Fire — Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)

Bleachers feat. Lana Del Rey — Secret Life

Angel Olsen — Gloria

Oneohtrix Point Never, ROSALÍA — Nothing’s Special

Caroline Polachek — Bunny Is A Rider

Porches — Okay 

Sharon Van Etten, Fiona Apple — Love More (By Fiona Apple)

Faye Webster — I Know I’m Funny haha

Le Tigre — Hot Topic

Hole — Softer, Softest

The Sugarcubes — Birthday

Moon Duo — Sevens

St. Vincent — Sugarboy

Billie Eilish — Oxytocin

U.S. Girls — New Age Thriller

Dry Cleaning — Leafy 

Prefab Sprout — I Trawl the Megahertz 

“World War III just broke out. And it’s wearing kneesocks”: Power, Privilege, Plotting and the Panopticon in Gossip Girl

Sex Sells?
Sex Sells?

‘Power floats like money, like language, like theory.’

(Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)

Something happened to me recently and I found myself drifting into the glossy paradise of the Upper East Side; more specifically, that alluring tab on Netflix entitled ‘Gossip Girl’. It’s been a while. I used to watch the show when I was about fifteen, in its heyday. I guess it just slipped away from me and I kind of passed by the whole finale hype back in 2012, but something brought me back to it a few weeks ago. Maybe it was the absence of real-life summer and the promise of a sun-drenched pavement in Manhattan, or maybe it was just Dan Humphrey with his dark mop of curls and deceptively earnest eyes. Maybe it was the cracking soundtrack. Either way, I was struck again by how entrancing the show is, even while it’s kind of terrible.

Déjà vu? I’ve already written an article on Made in Chelsea.

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Gossip Girl: The Early Years. | Source: www.thatdesigirl.com
Gossip Girl: The Early Years. | Source: http://www.thatdesigirl.com

Gossip Girl is a show about power. It follows the privileged, glitzy lives of a group of Upper East Siders, from high school into the land of careers and more sophisticated scheming. There is a point round about the end of Season 2 which most critics concede to be the end of ‘good’ Gossip Girl; all subsequent seasons were just a bit daft. We’ve gone from credible high school bitching and scheming to absurdities on a Skins series 5 & 6 scale. How did we get from petty teen drama and pregnancy tests to Bart Bass falling from a roof and Chuck and Blair rushing themselves through a (gorgeously shot) emergency wedding? From Dan Humphrey as amateur school poet to successful penman of a Roman a clef exposing the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’, as Kristen Bell so enticingly describes it at the start of each episode. The link in all this chaos is power. Power and simulacra.

‘You’re nobody until you’re talked about’. That’s the mantra that seems to crop up again and again, haunting the minds of Gossip Girl’s characters like they’re stuck in some bizarre virtual reality where rumour precedes being, scandal precedes survival (see Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’) – Mean Girls meets Black Mirror, if you will. What distinguishes Gossip Girl from other teen dramas (The O.C, 90210 and so on) is its centring around the concept of ‘Gossip Girl’. Like Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, Gossip Girl is a technology of power. The panopticon was a kind of prison design, created by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It was intended to institute the force of surveillance not just on the individual but on society as a whole, so that in a prison each inmate is invisible to others, but visible to the guard station placed in the centre of the prison building. The point is that at any moment, the individual knows he or she is being watched, and will thus adjust their behaviour accordingly. A panoptic way of disciplining is one in which people are controlled through constant surveillance.

It seems pretty obvious that the outcome of Gossip Girl is constant surveillance. Every remotely meaningful action taken by the big-shot Upper East Siders (Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, their friends and family) is sent to the Gossip Girl server via anonymous reporters (anyone within or outside of the elite circle) and is then posted as a ‘blast’ which is then communicated straight to everyone’s phones. You know, if it wasn’t so familiar it would sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Throughout the show, Gossip Girl doesn’t just record and publish the intimate details of the characters’ lives (think dark secrets, slander and sex tapes) but indeed anticipates things that might happen. Sometimes, characters act a certain way because they are aware of the presence of Gossip Girl, of the probability that their actions will end up exposed through her blasts.

It doesn’t take much to link Gossip Girl to the Twitter generation. The Age of Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or whatever you want to call it. Created in 2007, the show suddenly tapped into a massive cultural shift among young people, whereby our entire lives become archived online, with or without our permission. Yet back in the mid-noughties, we were using Bebo and MySpace to spread gossip and create profiles of ourselves and others. These platforms were still relatively slow, especially as many of us still accessed them via a dialup connection, or by slyly hacking through content blockers at school while the teacher wasn’t looking. Gossip Girl anticipated the sort of instantaneous, life-shattering exchange of information that creates a panopticon effect on our lives. It’s a great plot device (the unravelling of a secret to everyone instigates some serious character crises) but now, in real life, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a nude selfie or a sneaky picture of say your neighbour doing cocaine can indeed be spread around with the ‘blast’ of a single Snapchat message, unravelling reputations in its wake. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘power floats like money’ it does so because, like money, it is transferable, easily shifted, lost and dissolved. Instant, mass communication arguably makes power more diffused: in one minute it’s in Blair’s hands, then Serena’s and then HEY – Georgina Sparks steps in outta nowhere and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. These days, you might say similar things about power and global politics.

Dan at his desk... Source: digitalspy.co.uk
Dan at his desk… Source: digitalspy.co.uk

But is it really diffused? Couldn’t you argue that although different people post in to Gossip Girl, ultimately it’s the Wizard of Oz, the soul behind the screen, that controls the gates – isn’t it that one person that has all the power? Just as Mark Zuckerberg ultimately frames all our communications via Facebook? In the end, we discover that (surprise surprise) Dan Humphrey, the main ‘author’ figure, is Gossip Girl. Dan Humphrey, the ‘impoverished’ outsider, exiled in his trendy Brooklyn loft, banished from full membership and relegated to the limbo world where messenger bags meet the glamour of Blair’s Marc Jacobs and Serena’s Prada. Dan started the Gossip Girl site as a way of literally writing himself into the closed world of the Upper East Siders, fashioning the role of ‘Lonely Boy’ within a fairy-tale, Fitzgerald-esque world of vicious scheming, stinking money and glittering mythology. In the end, Dan gets the girl: as the ‘5 Years Later’ epilogue of the final episode so indulgently shows, Dan marries Serena in a beautiful wedding (interestingly enough, his Brooklynite ex-rockstar father gets with – the actual – Lisa Loeb).

You could argue that there is something ‘queer’ about Gossip Girl. An almost Beckettian obsession with repetition and the endless possible combinations of relationships you can achieve within a group (OK, so maybe that’s more Made in Chelsea – or perhaps Sade?).  In a way, Gossip Girl is obsessed with binaries: good girl vs. bad girl; Golden Boy vs. Bad Boy; virgin vs. whore and, perhaps most importantly, truth vs. falsity/appearance vs. reality. Yet these binaries are never sustained, and in fact the show repeatedly reveals the inherent insecurity of these binaries. The innocent Little J is really just the protective adolescent cocoon from which raccoon-eyed rebel Jenny emerges (more dramatically in real life, with Taylor Momsen becoming a risqué rock princess). There is a whole convoluted storyline about Ivy Dickens, who impersonates Charlie Rhodes (Lily Bass’s niece?) who herself is acting as someone else – ‘Lola’. Ivy, now her ‘authentic’ self, enters a relationship with Lily’s husband Rufus, but little does he know that Ivy is actually sleeping with William Bass (Lily’s ex and Serena’s father) who, it turns out, is only in a relationship with Ivy to get (in a roundabout way) back to his ‘true love’ Lily and the kids. The storylines get so elaborate and implausible (Blair meeting and marrying the Prince of Monoco; Bart returning from the dead) that you lose track of what’s real and what’s really happening; you become dissociated from the notion that any of this is really part of ‘our’ world. Even Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Dan Humphrey, admitted that the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl ‘doesn’t make sense at all’, but that’s kind of okay because (in his words) Gossip Girl doesn’t make sense!’ Sure, New York is always there, in those beautiful, sweeping shots of the city: embracing the characters in its warm glow, looking fantastic in summer, spring, autumn and winter; but the lives of the characters are as twisted, repetitive and as confusing as Samuel Beckett’s television play Quad.

[Imagine this as a symbolic representation of Gossip Girl’s plot. It’s the mesmerising that’s key, not the accurate rendering of reality.]

The queerness, then, (I’m using the term ‘queer’ tenuously, in a more generalised sense – the show can hardly be a banner for LGBT) is in Gossip Girl’s shameless disregard for certain old-school, heteronormative notions of ‘morality’, its distortion of conventional character arcs and its indulgence in various strange sexual affairs which often border on the incestuous (and then there’s that old problem of Serena and Dan and their parents being married for most of the show…). It’s in the fact that characters’ lives seem to follow more of a cyclical than linear path, as they repeat the mistakes of their parents, fall strangely in and out of love while maintaining they were in love the whole time they were also in hate. The whole Blair/Dan/Serena triangle.

Unlike some other shows which run for the length of Gossip Girl, Gossip Girl keeps more or less the same core cast throughout the six seasons, and in doing so transforms its characters into weirdly intangible signifiers rather than ‘real people’. So much of them is based on the need to manipulate the reportage of their lives that we can’t be sure how much we know of their ‘real’ selves. I would like to think that Baudrillard would approve of Gossip Girl much more than The Matrix, because in my opinion, the way Serena, Blair et al plan their lives around the panopticon of Gossip Girl fits pretty well with Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra as the ‘map that precedes the territory’, the ‘reality’ dependent upon representation. Most of the characters’ actions are driven by and shaped around Gossip Girl: the virtual voice who ‘maps’ the lives of Manhattan’s elite.

There is a point in most TV shows where you are able to gage the protagonists’ motivations, but with several key players, Gossip Girl leaves us endlessly guessing, as some very weird choices leave you baffled about who or what is this person who you thought you knew from Season 1. Chuck, for example, is sometimes romantic softie, sometimes nonchalant alcoholic, sometimes downright psychopath. But that’s the fun of it, the not-knowing, the rollercoaster effect of plot after spiralling plot. A show about scheming; that could be another tagline.

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A love letter to New York; that could be another tagline. The city is so lovingly rendered throughout the show that even the actual New York mayor got involved with the set of its 100th episode, and declared January 26thGossip Girl Day’. I wonder how I can start incorporating that into my life…perhaps I’ll start with one of those glorious pastry and fruit-filled brunches and then spend all day sipping scotch a la Chuck, kissing boys in classy bars a la Serena and ending up at some expensive party where everything around me is basically the flashbulb remnant of a photograph…or maybe I’ll just live tweet my actual everyday Glasgow observations  – Spotted: Man with a Farmfoods Bag Disappears into the Bookies. It’s hardly Manhattan amidst golden, burnished fall, but it might just have to do.

***

In the final episode, Serena tries to defend Dan’s (pretty immoral) behaviour in acting as Gossip Girl by claiming that his salacious discourse amounts ultimately to a ‘love letter to all of us’. It’s true: all that reporting of all that scandal, all those razor-sharp character assassinations were a form of mythologising which we can recognise not just in celebrity culture, but now in our everyday online lives. Being mean doesn’t just keep ‘em keen, it creates drama, which is what makes any good slice of fiction. And what is life without fiction?  

For all its raciness, Gossip Girl falls into a pretty comfortable conclusion. Two weddings, a (very cute) baby, a potential political career for Nate; it’s all very white, upper-class and generally heterosexually perfect. But that’s what Gossip Girl’s always been shamelessly about: sure, there’s Blair’s ever-present maid, Derota, but she functions more as a Shakespearean comedy sidekick than as a serious addition to the plot. Gossip Girl has never claimed, unlike say Lena Dunham’s Girls, to be ‘the voice of a generation’; it has always zoomed in on the narrow world of a handful of privileged characters. This is its flaw as well as its strength: there is, sadly, little racial/sexual/religious diversity, but when it does touch on such matters, it does so with its own quirky ease, meaning that it doesn’t trip over itself trying to take everything too seriously. There are nuggets of genuine, ‘emotionally truthful’ storylines in there, and real teen issues like losing your virginity, finding yourself stuck in family feuds and trying to make friends are handled sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with juicily gratuitous melodrama. Blair Waldorf’s bulimia is, in a way, a symbolic symptom of the culture she finds herself in: endlessly consuming, lusting for more information, gossip, power, but simultaneously being unable to contain it, needing to purify, purge, rewind the cycle. Dan longs to be part of the world, but at the same time it repels him; he is part of that societal wastage, the baggage once used then left behind – but he uses his limbo position to his advantage. In a way, the American Dream in all its distorted glory is right there, at the heart of Gossip Girl her(him)self.

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What’s great about Gossip Girl, then, is its ability to take us on a whirlwind of artifice, of phony drama for phony characters, but through the falsity it reveals some hideous truths about contemporary society. The network of New York, as a series of public spaces, of upper and lower ‘sides’, is an inverse parallel to the non-hierarchical communications enabled by the Web, where power ‘floats’ more easily as hackers and smart kids from Brooklyn find themselves running the system. There is, in real life, an economy of gossip, whereby what’s been said about you determines your whole place in the world, perhaps even more so than money (sometimes). It runs in the workplace, the playground, the spidery webs of social networks. There’s a line in the final song which plays at the end of the last episode (‘Kill Me’ by The Pretty Reckless, the band headed by Taylor Momsen, aka Jenny Humphrey): ‘someone get me outta the sun’. I read this not just as a statement of Momsen’s goth/vampire credentials, but as an appropriate nudge to The Sun newspaper and by extension the world of gossip, the sunlit limelight which holds the (un?)lucky few up to fame and fortune and ruin.

There will always be an outsider wanting to get inside, Bell narrates provocatively as the last scene drifts over a street of smartly-dressed school kids, the next generation of Gossip Girl victims. It’s classic Gossip Girl: reminding us that even within the cherry sweet containment of its happy ending, there’s a bitter worm still at work. We’re now in an age where you can never live free of the media, of surveillance and all it entails. An unequal age where even the rich in their isles of bliss are never quite free of the rest of us, the outsiders, the mass exiles of our bulimic society – drawn to the alluring world of the beautiful and damned and then expelled because we can’t afford to be there, we don’t belong. And if that’s the end of Gossip Girl’s rollercoaster, then it’s not just a fairground of pure escapism, but also a biting satire on our actual IRL society.

—A satire which, I might add, trickles right down to the shameless flaunting of product placement:

Chuck Bass and some Vitamin Water. Source www.boston.com
Chuck Bass and some Vitamin Water. Source http://www.boston.com

Perfume Junkie

(So I thought this article was kind of Christmas appropriate, given that in the familiar nativity story, the Three Wise Men bring Jesus the precious scents of myrrh and frankincense.)

***

‘Perfume is like a parenthesis, a moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality in between the disturbances of modern living.’

(Sonia Rykiel)

‘To create a perfume you have to be the servant of the unconscious. Each idea evolves and transforms, but there should be a surprise with each note.’

(Serge Lutens)

Perfume is a strange part of our everyday lives that acts as a channel of sorts. The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumum (smoke). This conjures the image of an ethereal essence which, like smoke, carries through some kind of message. We might think of it as an unspoken means of communication, a way of emitting some essence of ourselves to those who happen to pass close enough to catch a glimpse of our secret aroma. One that releases itself only from certain spots on the body, places we have chosen to let the scent develop. I love the way that glossy magazines and figures of high fashion talk so indulgently about perfume. It’s like poetry: a complete decadence of revelry in words. It’s like reading a wine list and falling for a string of adjectives rather than the taste of the drink itself. Rich, smoky, full-bodied, bursting with dark fruits. The poetry of advertisement aims to seduce. So too does perfume: it is a seduction not only in a sexual sense but also a seduction of self. A seduction of memory.

I was probably about nine or ten years old when I made my first forays into the world of fragrance. Certainly, I was still at primary school. I used to sneak into my Mum’s bedroom while she was eating her breakfast downstairs and try on what she had. Her dressing table was never cluttered with pretty glass bottles (more like heaps of unusual jewellery and hair mousse), but she did have a couple of classic Body Shop numbers. There was of course the famous White Musk, which I started wearing often. I liked the soft but heady smell it had, not too overpowering as a floral but sweet enough to stir your senses with its blend of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, musk and lily. Then a while later, she gave me a bottle of spray she didn’t want, this time the Body Shop’s Oceanus. Or was it Ocean Rain? – no, I am getting confused with an Echo & the Bunnymen song! It was actually quite a strong one, though it wore off fairly quickly. I suppose it was meant to smell sharp and fresh like the ocean, and actually it was quite a nice one to wear at school where P.E. and stuffy classrooms were never conducive to pleasant aromas.

We were of course, forbidden deodorant in P.E. This was at secondary school, where everyone was aware that they had, y’know, adult bodies now, bodies which tended to sweat after exercise (even the half-hearted exercise we attempted in class). The teacher would storm into the dressing rooms at even a hint of spray being used, demanding that the most suspicious looking pupils empty their bag in front of her to reveal the contraband goods. She must have hoarded a whole treasure trove of Charlie and So…? and all those other brands we clung to as adolescents. On such days I would hide my little bottle of Oceanus in a glasses case at the bottom of my bag and spray it liberally once the coast was clear. A sea tide of refreshment filled the room. The contents of that bottle seemed to last forever; in fact, I think I still have some left in my bedroom.

The first perfume that was gifted to me was a miniature bottle of Burberry Touch. It’s a pretty intimate scent, threading together notes which include jasmine, raspberry, pink peppercorn, vanilla and oak moss. It sounds sweeter than it actually is: this is a strong scent but also has an air of sophistication. It feels grown-up and even a bit masculine (perhaps that’s the base notes of Cedarwood and oak moss?). I was fourteen when I got it so it ran out fairly quickly, but I now have a big bottle of it on my dressing table.

I also, at quite a young age, acquired my mother’s bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’. Launched in 1983, this distinctive scent was meant to capture the spirit of Paris with its heady blend of Damascan rose and violet, which after hours of being on your skin transforms into English rose and whispers of mimosa, sandalwood and musk. There are other beautiful notes in there: orange blossom,  amber, jasmine, hawthorne, heliotrope. It’s so complex that I’m still working out whether I actually like it or not. I wore it all the time until I was about sixteen. It’s far too grown up a scent for someone to be wearing at that age, but somehow it matched my wearied spirit. It felt almost exotic, a smell from far away. Something about it matched the impressionistic notion of Paris I had; a Paris which shimmered with the seductions of beautiful art and mysterious, moody people. It was certainly a smell which took you out of the dreary realities of Maybole, if only for that first spritz in the morning. The pale gold bottle with its crystalline, faceted surface and satisfyingly chunky feel still has pride of place on my shelf back home. I’ll spray it every now and again – what’s left of it – when I feel the need for a bit of escapism or nostalgia.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsgutierrez/8778507488
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsgutierrez/8778507488

I like to think that when I’m using perfume I had years ago, I’m speaking to some secret old self, one that got lost in the ethereal tangles of time and change and forgetting. For Christmas two years ago, I asked for a bottle of Chloé perfume. Chloé was the first ‘proper’ fashion fragrance I bought for myself, when I was fifteen, in the Christmas sales of that freezing winter of 2009. To this day it’s definitely still one of my favourite scents. Along with Miss Dior Chérie (the orange one), which I also had as a teenager, it’s a romantic scent, sparkling with pretty florals and a dab of French sophistication. Both bottles are adorned with a ribbon to signify the femininity and lighthearted spirit they intend to convey. Chloé is quite a strange and unusual floral, with rose at its heart, honey at its base and the tartness of lychee as its top note. The blend is very smooth and does not induce headaches like some other more couture brands; it is at once instantly recognisable and also quietly luxurious on the wearer’s skin. When wearing it, you want to be riding a vintage bike through some sunshine street in Paris, where all the lamps light up for you, and your destination is a quiet picnic in the park, or a date with a good paperback under the canopies of a Montparnasse café. The bottle is quite short, almost stumpy in comparison to the tall thickness of Burberry Touch, but this makes it easy to cup in your hand to apply. It sits prettily on my dressing table, even with only a few dregs of scent left in the bottom, amid bottles of glitter nail polish and fragments of hair ribbon. If I had to pick a ‘signature’ perfume, it would be Chloé; a friend once texted me saying she was spraying it in a shop and instantly thought of me, which was sweet.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/idhren/7171470710/in/photolist-aktUVr-8QgRJY-63ty7o-dp8nWE-8N2gQN-bVHEEq-bWrF59-bVHF4w-bVHEoJ-6u9PLc-ea9vW5
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/idhren/7171470710/in/photolist-aktUVr-8QgRJY-63ty7o-dp8nWE-8N2gQN-bVHEEq-bWrF59-bVHF4w-bVHEoJ-6u9PLc-ea9vW5

When I got my second bottle of Chloé, the scent instantly evoked that feeling of being fifteen again. It wasn’t an entirely bad experience, it was a taste of having that smallness, that protected enclave of a childhood world again. Or at least, the experience of being on the brink between the world of childhood and the uncertain future of adulthood. Perfume, I suppose, makes an industry of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’: the idea that under certain conditions, one is transported back to a clear, distinct memory. Not wilfully, but through some item containing the ‘essence of the past’, whose sensory associations stir up the scene of some personal history. For Proust, eating a tea-soaked ‘madeleine’ cake recalled a childhood scene where he ate such a snack with his aunt. For me, spraying Chloé makes me think of warm radiators and school mornings in the cold pits of winter, or getting ready to perform in jazz band concerts, sweating under the hot lights. Leaning against the window of the 361 bus, reading Margaret Atwood. Floating through Ayr on the way to college, stopping always at Debenhams to spritz on their testers. I’d spray the little pieces of cardboard they provide you with and slip them in my bag, so that all my notebooks smelled of my favourite perfume. Sometimes my friends and I would spend an hour or so trying on all the perfumes, until we left smelling like we’d fallen through some vat in a Dior factory, causing everyone in our near vicinity to sneeze violently. I still enjoy doing that, although these days I set my sights on the counters at House of Fraser.

Strangely enough though, the older I get, the more I’ve switched to simpler scents. Part of this is a side effect of student stinginess, but I also like the freedom of buying several scents and being able to choose between them, to suit the weather or the seasons. I guess perfume is just something I tend to waste my wages on, the way that others waste them on Asos, cigarettes or vodka oranges. I have too many Body Shop Eau de Toilettes to count. There’s Chocomania, a very rich and some might say saccharine rendering of lush dark chocolate – perfect for those gloomy winter mornings when already you’re craving your bed and some hot cocoa. The distinctively tropical Coconut, which is, admittedly, more Bounty Bar than fresh jar of cold-pressed coconut oil. Then there’s the clean bright tartness of Satsuma or Strawberry, refreshing for summer. The milk chocolate and almondy sweetness of Brazil Nut. Honeymania, which does what it says on the tin and makes for a perfect late summer scent. I suppose, at less than £10 each, these perfumes make great little gifts or stocking fillers, which last a surprisingly long time. You could mix and match your scents (I like the sound of chocolate orange, brazil & coconut or honey & strawberry), and the small light bottles make them portable for your handbag. And with Body Shop (I swear I’m not a brand ambassador!) there’s always the positive that everything is ethically produced, usually from Fairtrade ingredients.

In a pricier range of perfume, I recently revisited one of my favourite childhood smells, Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’, which I got as a present for my 21st. When I was a very little kid, my dad brought back from a trip to London a velvety purple bag full of Penhaligon’s samples. They had enchanting names, like Elixir, Gardenia, Elisabethan Rose, Levantium (oh to have a perfume with the top notes of saffron and absinthe!). The one that stuck with me was ‘Bluebell’, which felt the most quaint and old fashioned of all the scents. The bottle, for one, is gorgeous, a little bit Art Nouveau, a little bit of simple prettiness. I could easily imagine myself, smelling it now, as a little girl running about in a field of bluebells. It’s not over-sweet or stuffy; it reminds me of the kinds of luxurious scents that would be spritzed around in early twentieth century department stores. I think of Cassandra and Rose in one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle (1948), as they wander through the fairyland of such a store in London and marvel over the bluebell perfume. You see, there’s more than just chemicals and packaging to perfume; it always has some kind of rich cultural and personal history living in its notes.

bluebells in Culzean woods
bluebells in Culzean woods

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Do you remember your first science classes? Most of those memories are probably enriched by the strange smells concocted from an uncertain mixture of suspicious substances. The rotten eggs of sulphur, the acridity of various nitrates. What stands out most for me was a lesson where for some reason we were experimenting with burning different types of foodstuff over our Bunsen burners, to measure reactions to starch or something. Somebody’s Pickled Onion Monster Munch made the entire classroom smell like a Chinese restaurant. The process of perfumery, while aiming for more delicate blends of scent, follows, of course, a similar (but infinitely more sophisticated) chemical process. A perfume will blend natural sources – flowers, fruits, wood, roots, gums and resins – with synthetic productions of those ingredients which don’t produce their own oils naturally, for example lily of the valley. An intriguing guide to the complex scientific process through which these raw ingredients turn into perfume can be found here. I especially like the sound of the enfleurage step, where ‘flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease’. Over time, the grease absorbs the scent of the flowers, like a leaf absorbing rain water, just as expression collects the precious oils of various fruits. Alcohol and water are used to distill and preserve the fragrance. That’s why you should be careful not to spray perfume on your eye, or an open wound – or an open fire, for that matter.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/karen_roe/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/karen_roe/

Interestingly, like champagne or wine, a ‘fine’ perfume is left to ‘age’ to let the blends develop. Maybe this is why Chanel No. 5, for instance, is such an iconic symbol of ultimate luxury. Its yellow-gold colour always dazzles in department store Christmas displays, but it also reminds one of a pale whisky or dark champagne. Like alcohol, it is intense, maybe even difficult to stomach. Infinitely seductive… complex to create…

Perhaps, like aromatherapy, there is a system to the choice of various scents and flavours. A science to how different people are attracted to different things. While some like a fresh burst of citrus, others revel in the dark sweetness of the likes of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume (not a fan). We can all guess that lavender makes you sleepy, lemon is awakening…but maybe there’s more to it all than that. A curious interaction of emotion, memory, desire, sensation… Maybe, after all, it’s the cold December air that led me towards my latest perfume purchase, returning full circle to my first White Musk perfume, only this time with the Body Shop’s newest fragrance, ‘Red Musk’. With its fiery bottle which blends amber, red and black, this Eau de Parfum combines the smouldering notes of tobacco, pepper and cinnamon with a layer of spiced musk. With cinnamon, it’s a dark, shadowy twist on a festive fragrance. Moreover, it’s about time perfume embraced androgyny, as this scent does with its hints of tobacco. Gone are the feminine florals of summer. So while I might be accused of being a hoarder, stashing my perfumes like a witch hoards her bottles of potion, maybe I can justify buying this particular perfume because anything that makes you feel warm (in a flat with single glazing) has got to be good, right?