A Week in the Country

A curious week in the country www.ShopCurious

This week our intrepid style guru gets scrubbed, pummelled, prodded and poked on a trip to the countryside…

Where were you on the day Margaret Thatcher died? It may turn out to be one of those occasions you will never forget – like JFK’s assassination, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 or 7/7.

I spent last week in rural West Sussex, not much more than an hour’s drive from where I live, though actually a world away. The bluebells aren’t flowering yet, but the daffodils, primroses and wood anemone are. I heard a woodpecker for the first time in years – and saw several… one right outside my window. I saw blue tits, buzzards, pheasants, and the fattest thrushes I have ever seen. I even watched a barn owl hunting for its prey.  There were plenty of sheep too, though I didn’t spot any lambs – I hope they haven’t perished in the freezing weather.

I visited an old railway station, now a private home, which was used in a 1957 BBC adaptation of the Railway Children. I stood on the remains of an ancient pagan temple. I was snowed on, rained on, enjoyed the sun streaming into my room, and got my wellies and walking boots thoroughly caked in mud.

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I was staying at Alliblaster House, the venue for detox retreats, run by an organisation called Simply Healing. The early Victorian house, formerly a gentleman’s country residence, is a sprawling affair – full of cosy sitting rooms, log fires and the pervasive aroma of woodsmoke. The décor is chintz-meets-New Age circa 1985, with crystals, knick-knacks and artefacts from the owner’s travels to the spiritual epicenters of the globe liberally scattered throughout. The atmosphere is warm, homely, relaxing and unbelievably peaceful.

Here my body was scrubbed, pummelled, prodded, poked and bandaged up like a mummy. Meals for the week consisted mainly of fruit and vegetable juices, with a token salad on day seven. Every evening I sat down with my fellow inmates to a welcome cup of ‘potassium broth’ – vegetable soup with the vegetables removed. If that weren’t enough, there were colonic treatments too. The mind and soul were also treated to hypnotherapy, meditation and healing sessions – plus the occasional talk on a relevant subject.

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A nutritionist told us about Jeanne Calment, the French woman who lived to 122. She took up fencing at the age of 85 and decided to give up cycling at 104. She remained in her own home in the south of France until she was 110, when a cooking incident, resulting in a small fire, signalled it was time to move into a nursing home.

Of course, she grew up in an era when junk food didn’t exist. Her freshly prepared food came from local markets, along with her cherished olive oil. She never worked, drank a glass of port every day and ate a kilo of chocolate every week. It also says on Wikipedia that she two smoked two cigarettes a day between the ages of 21 and 117.  Scientists discovered that Calment had a total immunity to stress. She did everything she wanted to in life and had no regrets. Her philosophy was ‘if you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.’

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I’m not sure I’d like to live to 122, unless all my faculties are still fully functioning. Margaret Thatcher had a good innings, though latterly not in the best of health. It’s a struggle for any of us to balance the demands of the modern world with a healthy regime for living. But I certainly feel a lot lighter in mind and body – and definitely healthier – after a re-energising week in the country.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Easter Curiosities

Clay creatures by Shinichi Sawada at Wellcome Collection www.ShopCurious.com

Belated Happy Easter! Television highlights of my Easter weekend included Easter at King’s and Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn (holder of a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). By far the best entertainment was provided by a friend’s 86 year old mother, who played the piano and sang like an angel after lunch on Easter Day. Over the weekend I also discovered that I could wedge a book against my iMac using the keyboard. This makes quite the perfect bookstand.

My (Oxford educated) husband enjoyed the Boat Race, which he deemed to be more like a procession than a race. I wonder if the requirement for ‘all roundedness’ in the race could be relaxed in favour of stricter rules relating to the age, weight and origin of the participants.  How about more British undergraduate rowers for starters?

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One of the television commentators described the boats as looking like “giant eight-legged creatures.”  This reminded me that the Wellcome Collection currently has a collaboration with Pestival – “a cultural organization exploring our relationship with insects and the natural world.” A gastronomic insect feast and Insects Au Gratin workshops are on offer, alongside other entomological events.

My own encounters with insects have, thankfully, been rare. As a child, I recall being stung on the head by a bee whilst sitting on a bus – and finding an unusual bee fly, which I kept in a box (it was dead).

Later in life, on Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands, my bathroom was invaded by giant flying cockroaches every night for two weeks. At a St Lucian hotel, between the Pitons, a scorpion lay in wait under my wash bag. And I once saw some pretty nasty creatures emerging from a drain outside the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

But these were nothing compared to the insect I happened upon in the business class lounge at Lusaka airport. I picked up my hand luggage and underneath was something large, black and nightmarish. It looked like a cross between a praying mantis beetle and a prehistoric monster. I’ve no idea what it was, but I hope I never see anything similar again.

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If insects aren’t your thing, I can highly recommend the Wellcome Collection’s Souzu: Outsider Art from Japan (see photo above) – one of the most surprising and heart-warming exhibitions I have seen in a long while.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Designs for a Modern Life?

Designs for a modern life www.ShopCurious.com

To la Poisonnerie de l’Avenue, where courtesy of a generous friend, we dined on a feast of melt-in-the-mouth asparagus – followed by a succession of beautifully presented seafood dishes, reminiscent of Elizabeth David five decades ago. My oeufs a la neige (which predictive type keeps trying to turn ‘beige’) au caramel were bursting with flavour (‘flavor’) and retro fabulosity. Though David derided “tacky caramel” as “a recent development, and one which quite wrecks the innocence of a dish that should be frail and pale as a narcissus, just white meringue and creamy yellow crème anglaise.”

Dinner conversation turned to Cyprus, and one of the guests suggested that we are currently in a situation akin to “being in the final stages of a game of Monopoly, where one player has all the remaining pieces.” She surmised that the winner could well be of Middle Eastern origin…

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“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” – Virginia Wolf (sic) was scrawled on the blackboard outside a decidedly empty-looking café on Battersea Park Road. A warm glow emanated from within, but no one had bothered to stop on this wet and windswept stretch of road. I wonder how so many of these places still survive on London’s increasingly deserted shopping streets. I suspect many small businesses all over the country may well be on their last legs.

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The world of fashion journalism was very much a closed shop until recent years. Most of the old guard trained as professional journalists and rose up through the ranks to command the unassailable snugness of their positions. Indulged with cherished invitations and fashion freebies, they enjoyed a certain smugness too.  Then, when fashion-blogger-young-guns started muscling in on the action, many began to feel threatened. But now they are making a comeback: fashion editors are re-emerging as online content managers. Unfortunately, their reinvention coincides with a rather disturbing trend, whereby both newspapers and magazines are being turned into online shops – along with high street stores.

Top fashion journalists are no longer expected to be independent of their advertising departments (if they ever were?) In any case, advertisements are now ‘campaigns’ in the form of online videos. I was surprised when Grazia’s Paula Reed defected to become Fashion Director at Harvey Nichols. But I wasn’t at all surprised when Hilary Alexander retired from The Telegraph in 2011 (though she still contributes on a freelance basis). The Telegraph’s fashion section now resembles a glorified glossy, where you can purchase all that you see. Curiously, Alexander has recently resurfaced in the newly created role of per una fashion consultant at Marks & Spencer, where she will also have a weekly column on the brand’s website. Meantime, I read somewhere that Sunday Times Style magazine has just launched a shop – is that for subscribers only? And mega-publisher Conde Nast has bought a stake in online fashion emporium, Far Fetch.  Whatever next? The Tesco Times, Sainsbury’s Sun, Morrisons Mirror and Ikea Independent?

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On the lookout for unusual finds, I visited the Mid-Century Modern fair held at Dulwich College just over a week ago. I wasn’t so much wowed by the fare on offer as the venue for the event.  Sale items were exhibited beside ex-pupil Sir Ernest Shackleton’s boat, the James Caird – overlooked by pieces of history, and portraits of previous masters – along with modernist fixtures far grander than any available for purchase. I did buy something… a Vallauris-style ceramic coffee set – the likes of which I am a hoarder collector. But there were also some fabulous ex-Miami hotel fittings, including a pair of wonderful Lucite table lamps, which I probably should have jumped upon. Of course, I was saving my pennies for Selvedge Spring Fair at Chelsea Old Town Hall, where I bought a dress and a bag – more stuff I don’t need, but all in a good cause.

I also visited the Designs of the Year show at the Design Museum. Of all the finalists, I rather favour the Little Sun (see above left), designed by Olafur Eliasson – a low-cost solar powered LED lamp that emits up to 5 hours of light when fully charged. Around 1.3 billion people worldwide do not have access to mains electricity. This sun-shaped lamp is specifically designed for people living in rural communities to enable them to work, study or cook at night. Due to our recent weather (and fortunes), we Brits may well be in need of a sun lamp soon.

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My travels along the Battersea Park Road were brightened up by a passing funeral procession. At first I assumed this had something to do with Kenny Ball, whose funeral I think took place on the same day, though probably in a different part of town. So was this extravagant send-off in memory of another jazz performer? An ethereal carriage, drawn by white horses (decked out in feather plumage – see above right), was preceded by black musicians playing the saxophone, trumpet and trombone. As the cortege processed down the street, I had to blink… but it was for real.

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I’m not so sure about the curious art gallery-cum-serviced office in a godforsaken part of Victoria I visited, to behold Kerry Richardson’s “acclaimed video work, The Erudition.” I stood in a four-walled room – an image projected onto one of them, of “a lunar-esque landscape … consisting of holographic trees blowing in simulated wind… a barren, computer-generated landscape” (above top right). I didn’t need to see this, being already in close proximity to the barren building site that is the top end of Vauxhall Bridge Road: I could just walk out into the freezing cold north-easterly wind and swirling sleet to feel the portent of environmental desolation. I thought I’d pop into Westminster Cathedral to warm up on the way home, but a madman was running around shouting obscenities, so I made a speedy exit.

Is there life on Mars? I have no idea, but I can confirm that David Bowie Is at the V&A – and well worth queuing for. 

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Girl Trouble: Fashion, Feminism and Vanessa Feltz

The girls of St Trinian's 2013

A couple of weeks ago an issue of Sunday Times Style Magazine appeared to be dedicated to the feminist cause. There was an article by Camilla Long on the relevance of feminism today, accompanied by comments from Caitlin Moran and a number of media-savvy younger women involved with female causes. At the end of her piece, Long quoted Whistles Chief Executive, Jane Shepherdson saying, “feminism is not about shaving under your arms, it is about being equal to men.”

The article was immediately followed by an advert for Thierry Mugler’s Angel Eau de Parfum, with Cindy Crawford lookalike Eva Mendes massively airbrushed into a Jessica-Rabbit style dress.  A few pages later came a feature on ‘screen idol vintage inspired fashion’ to ‘bring out your inner showgirl.’ Christopher Kane’s ‘ruffle corset dress,’ £2,395, Vivienne Westwood’s ‘jewelled corset,’ £2,400 and shorts £355, and Balenciaga’s pom-pom coat with knickers, total price £7,200 did little to dispel the notion that we (women) have barely progressed beyond the confines of our Victorian past.

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It is very easy to be distracted when sitting in front of a computer. Once the inbox is opened, it throws up all sorts of unexpected temptations. One of these was a YouGov survey – thrillingly devised to arouse curiosity as to the questions. As it turned out, these related mainly to trust.  Okay, I thought, I may as well plonk down a few digital dots. Do I trust journalists? No. Do I trust BBC journalists? No. Do I trust ITN journalists? No. And so it went on – with teachers, police officers, MPs and other public servants all getting a look in.

After I’d done the survey, I started thinking about the questions. In fact, they should probably ask people to do a second survey a couple of hours later to see what the results are then. On the subject of journalists, I found myself wondering if there are any I do actually trust.  How about Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy? I suppose I trust their reporting skills, but I probably wouldn’t trust them with my daughters (if I had any).  In fact, it was difficult to come up with any journalist I could trust… with the exception of Vanessa Feltz.

Sometimes, usually when driving, I tune into her show on BBC Radio London and never cease to be drawn in by her hypnotic and mellifluous voice. She stands out like a delicious fairy cake in a sea of turkey twizzlers. Here is a lady, all hair extensions and voluptuous curves, who speaks the Queen’s English beautifully, thinks on her feet (or in this case from her seat) – and whose range of vocabulary is a constant source of wonder.  Although I’ve never met her, Vanessa was a contemporary of mine at Cambridge, so must have been in one of the first intakes of women at a formerly all-male college.  She’s as bright as a button, she speaks commonsense and… Omg! Could this have the makings of an overgrown schoolgirl crush – whatever would Vanessa have to say about that?

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Feltz came to mind when I visited Robina, a boutique in New Bond Street, for an event organized by the Lady Taverners. Today’s gowns are very unlike the first proper evening dress I purchased there, whilst I was still at Cambridge.  Mine was the simplest and tiniest of LBDs. But now, in a section of the street blighted by Crossrail construction works, bagged-up flounces of wedding wear (up to size 22) hang on dusty rails behind the store’s tired looking façade. Robina is closing down after 42 years of trading. I only went along because I felt nostalgic, and sorry for the owners. Though I ended up buying two long dresses I didn’t need – they were such a bargain it seemed silly not to. And at least it was near Mews of Mayfair, where I celebrated Pope Francis I’s election with my godmother over a glass of champagne, or five.

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Never mind the recession… I read a Business of Fashion (BoF) blog post this week on the subject of Bond Street’s coming megastores.  A wave of new openings of larger-than-life luxury stores, “costing tens of millions of dollars each,” are going to be opened by Spring, 2014.  I had clean forgotten that, until relatively recently, Bond Street was closed on Saturday afternoons. Formerly known for its family owned antique shops and art dearlerships, the street will soon be filled with the vast, gleaming frontages of luxury brands like Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Ermengildo Zegna and Belstaff – all paying record breaking amounts per square foot. Louis Vuitton already has a flagship ‘maison’ in the street – described by (partly LVMH owned) BoF as, “a gilded emporium teeming with blue-chip contemporary art, a private VIP apartment, a concept bookstore and the constant sound of clinking champagne flutes.”  With the help of Crossrail and an influx of tourists from overseas, Bond Street is set to become a premier global destination for luxury shopping: “a super-scale showcase that can generate super-scale revenues…” A bit like Westfield, then, but without the parking.

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Sometimes where the world is going scares me. But perhaps that’s being short-sighted? This is a concept social historian Carol Dyhouse considers in her latest book (launched today) – Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women. Popular hysteria has often accompanied the progress of girls over the past hundred years or so. Dyhouse’s fascinating study of the evolving opportunities and challenges for girls starts with the ‘white slave trade’ – an urban myth that kept young women imprisoned in their homes and oppressed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white slavery became a synonym for prostitution and the sexual slavery that men subjected women to. Late Victorian moralists either saw girls as innocent or fallen.  Marriage was a sort of economic bargain, with the wife being kept in return for sexual services – rather like Doris in Mr Selfridge.

As soon as women tried to do something about their powerlessness, they became ‘revolting daughters’ and ‘rebel girls.’  But with the advent of better education, women grew more adventurous. The word ‘flapper’ originated for a slang term for young prostitute. The Girl Guide movement set out to lure aspiring flappers away from the “temptations of the eyebrow pencil, the lip salve, the rouge pot, young men and sex.”  By the 1930s, Hollywood screen goddesses provided the inspiration for women’s clothing and hairstyles – including revealing bathing suits. There were worries that girls, “seduced by their desire for luxury… might become restless gold-diggers, painted hussies… scornful of homely virtues.” There was even seen to be a link between confectionery and immorality – and buying sweets was associated with delinquency (at least for girls).

Things were different in Bohemian and literary circles, which were open to experimentation in sapphism and homosexuality. But the punishment for ‘good time girls’ was severe. Approved schools for girls attracted “a disproportionate amount of public interest” and girls tended to get into trouble not because of criminal activity, but because they were oversexed. These girls were generally highly intelligent, but seemed to spend an unusually large amount of time adorning their faces. “Criticism of young girls’ appearance, their hairstyles, make-up and mode of dress is common in post-1945 accounts of wayward girls,” says Dyhouse. She also points out anyone who googles ‘reform school girls,’ will probably discover a pornographic website.

Later on came the horrors of beat girls, dolly birds, mixed race dating, juke boxes, readily available contraception, the ‘permissive society’ and Essex girls. The various film versions of St Trinians (between 1954 and 2012) show increasingly sexualized versions of schoolgirls. Natasha Walter has written at length on a return to sexism in her book, Living Dolls. Yes, some women choose to have silicon implants, or frequent ‘thinspiration’ websites. But this obsession with our appearance is nothing new. Okay, ladettes can now compete with men in terms of bad behaviour. And our examination results are better than boys’. But, on the whole, we’re still partial to occasionally painting our nails.

Time has not made women equal. Men and women will always be fundamentally different because of our physical and psychological makeup.  And women’s love of fashion will continue to be inextricably linked to feminist issues.  “Do we need to see the colour pink as demeaning – or is the condemnation of girlishness in itself a subtle form of misogyny?” asks Dyhouse. I wonder what Vanessa thinks…

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Birthdays, Blasphemy and Blogging

The Book of Mormon www.ShopCurious.com

This week Susan witnesses some top-class profanity at the West End’s hottest new musical…

If my father were still alive, he would certainly have walked out after only a few minutes. After all, he banned me from watching Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son because of the swearing. Despite every other word being four lettered, The Book of Mormon has to be the most hilarious musical I’ve seen in years – at least since Jerry Springer: The Opera.

The stage backdrop (behind the dramatic curtain, above), pleasingly painted to form the torn pages of an antique book, is a work of art in itself. The cast perform dexterously choreographed dance routines and enunciate clearly enough for every profanity to be perfectly comprehensible.

And what comes across is not so much a satirical attack on Mormonism, as a questioning of all our belief systems/religions – chief among them the American  Dream. Generosity of human spirit and the value of friendship triumph over ideology in this production. It’s a showcase of the power of creativity too – the imagination of the individual, versus the stultifying effect of an authoritarian regime. If you haven’t already booked to see it, you should.

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Are lots of babies born at this time of the year? For some reason I seem to have a surfeit of Piscean friends. One of them even holds an annual dinner that she calls the “birthday boys’ bash,” which has grown to a considerable size, and now includes several women as well as men with birthdays in early March. This means I have to rustle up gazillions of birthday presents. Some of them will invariably come from my stock of vintage accessories, but the other day whilst I was in Selfridges looking for a new suitcase, I thought I’d see what they had on offer, apart from socks. The prices were extraordinary: with the exception of ties at around £85 upwards, there didn’t seem to be many men’s gifts costing less than £150.  Even a silk pocket-handkerchief came in at around that mark. Meanwhile, Tom Ford’s £275 silk evening scarf was positively cheap compared to Burberry’s £1000 barely there creased-up looking cashmere number. I’m still in shock…

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Having dug myself into a very deep hole, with last week’s post incurring the wrath of my mother, I was forced to make amends by way of a slap-up Mother’s Day lunch at a restaurant on her freezing cold side of the M25.  Going to Brocket Hall reminds me of my errant youth. After visiting the local pub on a Friday night, a group of us (in our late teens at the time) would play a variety of silly games. In the summer months, on moonlit nights, we’d visit a wheat field on the edge of the Brocket estate – long before any Ferraris were buried under Capability Brown’s gently undulating landscape. We would proceed to roll around on the ground, creating what some might call crop circles… though ours were more contemporary art. On other occasions, we played sardines in a local churchyard, hiding amongst eerie tombs and behind ancient gravestones. I doubt we would have chosen these pastimes had we been stone cold sober.

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I’m currently working on a new blog with more of a magazine style format, and recently purchased webhosting from an outfit called Laughing Squid. Companies used to have self-explanatory names like Smith’s Engineering, British Rail and Amstrad Computers. These days corporations opt for irrelevant names like Yahoo! Blackberry, Apple – or choose meaningless words like Skype to describe their business. There’s even a creative naming service called Wordoid to help conjure up words that are purposely devoid of any meaning.

Perhaps Dabblers have some suggestions for the corporate names of the future?

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And, in case you are feeling the urge to do something crazy, last week a friend sent me details of The Insanity Workout – a 60-day total body conditioning programme to provide the ultimate ripped body by ‘exercising in your own sweat.’ Think I’ll give this one a miss.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Advance Warning of Mother’s Day…

Philip Treacy hat www.ShopCurious.com

Susan makes an error of judgement and finds herself in Westfield…

If I had a pound for every time I’ve clipped my alloy wheels on a badly designed car park entrance/exit, I’d be a wealthy woman by now. The other time this seems to happen is when my mother is in the car, wittering in my ear, as I’m trying to park.  Last Sunday, I was planning to take her to the Hammersmith vintage fair, but in a moment of madness, I decided to go to Westfield instead. This is something I never wish to repeat.

Why on earth do people flock to a large building, lacking natural light and air, and full of chain stores – when they can shop online for the same goods from the comfort of their homes? It reminded me of a down market version of Heathrow Terminal 5. Unfortunately, the champagne bar, located in a section bizarrely named The Village, bore little resemblance to a first class lounge. This soulless enclave of ‘luxury’ shops appeared to have more staff and security guards than customers, whereas some of the other stores were struggling to meet demand – in one case, heaps of discarded clothes were strewn across the floor.

I wanted to ask visitors why they were there. Perhaps it was a place for people from the local council estates to keep warm on a cold winter’s day? Though the number of cars parked below told a different story. This is obviously a ‘destination’ – a haven for tourist shoppers, material girls, their friends… and mothers.  Luckily, I managed to find my car and get out asap – thankfully without scraping my wheels. Both QPR and Fulham were playing at home. The traffic was a nightmare.

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Talking of which, my mother sold an old autograph book in a sale at Bonhams last week. In it were signatures from the likes of WG Grace, along with cricket and football teams from 1907-8. It made me wonder how people choose a team in the first place. Might your favourite colour, for instance, affect your decision to support a team? Perhaps a brand that appeals – like Emirates, Samsung, or Pirelli?

Or, how about a family allegiance?  Mine came from North West London, so were naturally Queen’s Park Rangers supporters. But when my grandparents moved north, they started following Arsenal. So is it location? My father was a lifelong Arsenal supporter, and I duly inherited his football ephemera, including dozens of match programmes. I now live within striking distance of both Fulham and Chelsea – and, because I can see Chelsea stadium from my window – especially at night, when it is lit up like a giant glow-worm, I feel that I should support the blues (even though I’ve absolutely no interest in or knowledge of how they’re faring). But what accounts for the huge global following of teams such as Manchester United?

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Befuddled by motherly multiloquence, I ended up traipsing to the London College of Fashion for talk that is due to take place in a month’s time. Nevertheless, it provided for an encounter with some curious hats (see above), which could come in handy if your mother is visiting. Later in the week, I fought back tears on a visit to the Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition at Somerset House.  In its final week, the show was almost as busy as Westfield… full of power-dressed women elbowing each other out of the way to catch a glimpse of tulle, georgette and crepe de chine. Some of the handcrafted creations were so breathtakingly beautiful that I came over all emotional. Though, on reflection, it may just have been relief that my mother had finally gone home. 

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Fancy lunch?

Food, glorious food www.ShopCurious.com

Solo Twister, fried chicken and good old heterosexual tactility in Susan’s diary this week…

‘Rebecca – 3 miles away’ keeps popping up on my computer screen, looking for a date – I’m just trying to work out why. I understand that men have occasionally been known to feel attracted to women. I’m not sure I’d fancy Lord Rennard playing footsie with me, though I may well be flattered by the attention. Pervs and misogynists aside, what’s wrong with a bit of good old heterosexual tactility?

Some years ago, at a lunch at the House of Lords, I was persistently kicked under the table by my host. The first nudge of brogue-toed shoe against stockinged shin was somewhat soup-spluttering – but I was soon battling to restrain giggles, whilst conducting a serious conversation with a totally straight-faced Japanese businessman. It reminded me of being back at school.

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As did the huge lunch I had the other day at a pub called The Crabtree (in the same street as the River Café, where for a huge amount of money I could have enjoyed a more minimalist and certainly much tastier meal). I was with a girlfriend who lives around three miles away (no, not Rebecca).  My friend really should write a blog, as she’s quite an authority on food issues – or at least issues she has with food. She informed me that Waitrose use halal lamb in their readymade meals, without ever mentioning so on the packaging. She also volunteers at a food bank run by a charity. People on benefits are given vouchers they can use there. One chap came in his car to collect two weeks’ worth of food. Another woman with Afro hair extensions and elaborately manicured nails was annoyed that they’d run out of disposable nappies for her three year old.

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Meantime, according to The Mirror, more than 7000 adults in Britain are being paid sickness benefits because they are too fat to work. The taxpayers’ bill for their welfare payments came to £28 billion last year. Last week a leading doctor suggested that obese children should be offered stomach surgery.  Having been a chubby child myself (with all the associated bullying) I feel well qualified to comment on this subject. My own obesity was largely due to pure greed – though my parents’ attempt to love me to death may also have been a contributory factor.

And my response to endless taunts of ‘fatso’ was to become a fitness fanatic. My weekly exercise regime now includes two bouts of pure torture – one, branded as bootcamp pilates, uses something called a ‘reformer’ machine to stretch the body into submission; the other, a dynamic yoga class, is strictly for die-hard (as well they might) yoga enthusiasts. Last week, I received an intriguing email from the House of Yoga, inviting me to a ‘flying into arm balancing workshop.’ Having recently had a cortisone injection in one shoulder, I wasn’t tempted, though it looks rather fun – a bit like playing Twister… by yourself. I just hope state funding is still available to replace multiple joints in my body when that time indubitably comes.

A healthy dose of of constructive criticism may help more of us get off our fat arses. Parents should be educated on what constitutes wholesome food and sensible portion sizes –  and it would also help if school exercise sessions were regular, and fun. How about Zumba-style dance classes and aqua aerobics? Or making exercise a daily ritual, like they do in China? Plus, compulsory home economics lessons for all. And no more glorification of chicken nuggets, please…

I managed half of the day-in-a-life of a chicken shop show the other day before switching off. As much as I wanted to cosy up to the media world’s average man on the street, I just couldn’t. I grew up eating fried chicken and chips, but soon learned better. In view of the surfeit of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall et al on television, I’m surprised anyone is inclined to eat fast food. Is it ridiculous to suggest that horsemeat should be used to feed the poor? It’s surely more nutritious and less fattening than fried chicken?

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That being said, the Victorian poor lived on basic fats and carbs – bread, dripping, potatoes, beer and tea – but were rarely fat. And wealthy Victorians consumed gargantuan amounts of food by today’s standards, yet many lived to a ripe old age – probably with very little exercise at all.  As for hygiene standards, hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects. A dirty house was seen to produce dishonest people. I discovered this on a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum – a great place to go if you’re in central London with an hour to spare… or a bit longer, if you want to indulge in tea and cake in the adjoining café.

I enjoyed being temporarily transported back to 1837, but seeing the Dickens’ kitchen, scullery and wash house helped me appreciate the modern day luxuries we so often take for granted… In a bid to avoid the invariable grocery substitutions, I finally managed to go food shopping this week, instead of ordering online. But I opted for the convenience of home delivery – so bags of spinach arrived looking as though they’d been ironed – and Greek basil (above), as if it had been used to test aircraft engines.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Feeling, flying and fashion

LFW Feb 2013 www.ShopCurious.com

It’s London Fashion week, voluptuous mutations and pilots who sound like Roger Moore for Susan this week…

Perhaps you can help me? I am trying to think of a suitable caption for this photograph. Incidentally, the logo on the front of the man’s sweatshirt says ‘Dope Chef’. I love living in the swirling soup of global diversity that is cosmopolitan London. You really notice this at London Fashion Week, with its eclectic and intoxicating mix of designers and visitors.

I’ve also spotted that a lot more men seem to be attending London Fashion Week these days. Many of them look to be in their teens, and quite a few seem unsure of their gender. However, Dabblers may be interested to visit Grey Fox, the website of a chap I met who specializes in fashion and style for the older man.

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I love London even more when the sun shines, but earlier in the week was a different story. Another snowy day, another trip to Paris. This time for the faceless side of fashion. A warehouse wilderness of several thousand screened-off stands masquerading as an international fabric fair.

This is where many fashion houses and designers choose their textiles for collections to come. Whilst we at Fashion Week in London, are buying made-up garments for a season hence – ie Autumn/Winter 2013, visitors to Premiere Vision order fabric a year in advance, for Spring/Summer 2014 – and trend forecasters offer suggestions for a season beyond that.

Meantime, security guards closely protect the fabric samples, lest anyone should dare to photograph, or throw food at them. Though everyone is allowed to touch. Ah, yes… the textiles community is very touchy-feely. NLP practitioners would place this group in the box of kinesthetic people. How are you feeling? Are you getting to grips with this concept now? Never mind, if you’re not, just hang in there and you’ll get a handle on it eventually.

By the way, trends are usually given names. ‘Voluptuous mutations’ was one of the more original. As I sat eating lunch opposite a morbidly obese man, whose face grew larger and redder as he drank his way through a bottle of red wine, I began to get a handle on where the organisers’ inspiration was coming from.

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There was another encounter with BA too. Despite my appreciation of global diversity, here’s an admission: The reason I mainly fly British Airways is that I am reassured by the pilots’ voices. Nine times out of ten I feel at ease because the pilot sounds like Roger Moore. Only once have I been on a plane with a female pilot, which threw me a bit. And it’s okay if the pilot has a Scottish accent (so long as I can understand him) or – heaven forbid – is Welsh. But if the accent is Geordie, or too strong, or anything other than vaguely British sounding, then I begin to fear for my life. Why is that?

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The provincial outpost that is Charles de Gaulle continues to dumbfound me. Lost in a maze of renovations, whilst the airport is converted into a (deserted) luxury shopping mall, I finally found the BA check-in desk. I’m not sure why I bothered, as I’d already checked in online. But when they scanned my boarding pass, it was deemed necessary to swipe my credit card.  Not just the one I paid with, but two others as well. There seemed to be something wrong with their system because none of them worked, so it was “okay anyway.” How did I feel about that? Not entirely okay.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Shopping, Scoffing and Sunshine in South Africa

Curiosities of Cape Town www.ShopCurious.com

Susan’s been globe-trotting again…

Arriving at the luggage reclaim in Cape Town, I couldn’t spot a single black face among the passengers from our plane. South Africa does seem to attract a certain type of tourist – less package tour, more ‘comfortably travelled.’  There’s an air of middle-England Middletonia about the place. Elderly gents in floppy-brimmed cricket style hats accompany floral-dressed ladies to afternoon tea. Aspiring businessmen meet aspirational divorcees over cocktails on the lawn. Fine looking, suntanned young men hang out with fresh-faced, longhaired girls on yachts and safaris.

After an overnight flight from the UK, the first thing most visitors want to do is to crash out on a sun lounger by the pool.  I did this and promptly fell to sleep under an umbrella. I forgot that the sun was moving, so half my body ended up being scorched under blisteringly hot rays. The next day I looked as though I’d been folded in half, like Harry Worth in a shop window – one side of me was white and the mirror image was lobster red. “British people always roast themselves in the sun and end up looking so stupid,” announced a passing American hotel guest loudly to his Cara-thigh-gapped companion.

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Our hotel’s emblem was a seal – many of which were seen lolloping on the wooden deck beneath our window. Increasingly bronzed (on one side), and fattened by some splendid meals, I began to identify more and more with my blubbery brethren. Sadly, many of its inhabitants struggle to afford a decent meal, but Cape Town has plenty to offer les gourmands Anglais (a name kindly bestowed upon my husband and I during one legendary holiday in France).

Top on my list of restaurants visited are: Blues in Camps Bay – one of the oldest established eateries in the area, serving fabulously fresh seafood, overlooking the beach; Gold – a converted church in an offbeat part of Greenpoint, with a delicious set five course Cape Malay menu and lively African entertainment; Belgian tourist trap, Den Anker, on the Waterfront – which offered me a bib to eat shellfish (I took a photo before and after my piri-piri prawns just to prove I’d made no mess whatsoever)… And The Roundhouse – an ex Dutch East India Company guardhouse and former hunting lodge overlooking Camps Bay (magical at sunset), which serves some of the finest contemporary cuisine in South Africa. Try the organic ‘vegetable patch’, poached salmon trout, fallow deer and passion fruit soufflé with coconut sorbet.

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There was no escaping the French on this trip either, as a French frigate was also parked beneath our hotel window. I’m not talking about a bird here, but a warship – with guns. For several days people scurried to and from the boat. One night there was a party involving whistles and elaborate naval hats (were several admirals on board, perhaps?) The day the vessel left was the very definition of a military operation: l’hélicoptère was spectacularly unveiled and prepared for action. Tugs, cranes and macho operatives worked with absolute precision, as marines lined up in salute, and a fanfare of trumpets marked the boat’s departure. The following morning, a Cayman Islands registered 303 foot super yacht called Tatoosh moored in exactly the same spot.

Due to one of BA’s all too often re-boots of their media system, I’d watched half a French film on the way out too. The Intouchables is based on a true story of a wealthy French quadriplegic and his black carer. Fortunately, I caught the second half on the way back. It was moving and funny – and testament to the Earth Wind and Fire effect (When I was at university, one of my fellow students visited her doctor complaining she was feeling depressed. He didn’t prescribe any drugs, but suggested that she listen to as much Earth, Wind and Fire music as possible.)

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As for shopping, there are a variety of malls and craft markets in Cape Town. In the Craft Market and Wellness Centre, you’ll find an eclectic selection of stalls with psychics, crystals, jewellery, handicrafts and books – such as My Life as an Apple Tree and Stalking the Tricksters. Forgetting to take a book with me, I opted for one called Top 5 Regrets of the Dying… a slow and far from uplifting holiday read, if not a regrettable purchase. However, it made me recall something I discovered researching a book of my own – that poor Africans, faced with the ever-present threat of death, are much more philosophical about it than we are. And, perhaps it’s something to do with the sunshine, but everyone I met in Cape Town was smiling and wanted to share a joke.

Also on the Waterfront, The African Trading Port has a stunning offering of curiosities from all over Africa, ranging from stuffed lions, metal and stone statues to traditional carved wooden artefacts, furniture, contemporary sculpture and artworks. Plus, Woolworths is still alive and well… in South Africa. The store is a sort of cross between Marks & Spencer and Zara, with clothes that actually fit (unlike M&S – too large, and Zara – too small) and unfussy home accessories. There’s a great selection of knickers, including plenty for those who find thongs excruciating and big knickers ugly. And, because of the relative value of the Rand, you can buy these for less than half the price of their UK equivalent.

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I’ve visited Cape Town and the winelands before, but on this occasion took my first trip up Table Mountain – and to Robben Island. I would strongly recommend both. On a fine day, the views from Table Mountain are simply breathtaking. I made it my mission to get as far away as possible from the chap who, having reached the top of one of the oldest mountains on earth, decided to have a cellphone shouting match with his bank. A trip to Robben Island, where many political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held captive, is both humbling and inspiring. But the prison-museum turned out to be less scary than a modern day medicine man jabbering dementedly in Zulu at his mobile phone for fifteen minutes on the ferry ride.

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Anyway, to sum up, Cape Town offers great weather, a wide array of natural and manmade wonders, fantastic food and excellent value for money – so long as you can stomach the hefty airfare and the inequality.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Dentists, Design and Dumbing Down

Modern messaging www.ShopCurious.com

This week Susan faces the dentist’s drill and observes some Olympian sell-outs…

What sort of a person becomes a dentist? I was pondering on this, whilst my hands gripped tighter and tighter around the arms of the dentist’s chair (the only other time I do this is when a plane takes off).

Mine’s a gruff northerner with a no-nonsense approach that some would classify as positively brutal.  I much prefer him to my previous Chinese dentist, who was constantly asking me if I was okay – “am I hurting you,” “can you feel that,” “let me know if you want me to stop,” and so on. I’d rather bear the momentary pain of the drill than suffer a face-numbing injection and spend the rest of the day drooling from the corner of my mouth. The Chinese chap replaced wonderful Mr Weir, my favourite dentist of all time. Weir wore white clogs, was curiously camp, and spoke with a lilting Scottish accent – not unlike Stanley Baxter’s.

I actually count a couple of dentists among my friends. One is a cat loving ‘celebrity dentist’, who once appeared in an episode of Mr Bean. The other enjoys shooting defenseless birds in his spare time. Though, of course, modern dentistry is all clinical and computerized. It’s not at all like dentistry of my youth, which was more gas masks and spattered blood. On one occasion, when a couple of teeth were removed, I suffered nightmarish hallucinations – the dental nurse became a witch, and the dentist a clown. I must have screamed an awful lot, because my mother bought me a Barbie Doll on the way home…

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Visiting the Design Museum’s latest exhibition made me wonder about contemporary design. Has everything already been created – the doll, the toothbrush, the chair, the wheel and the phone? Are there any totally new designs?  And will future inventions continue to be pretty useless – by that I mean not really adding any functional significance. Do we need a device (like the ‘pop phone’ by Native Union, pictured above) that turns our mobile into a retro looking, analogue-style phone? Do we need a nail varnish vending machine?

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Everywhere I went last week Louis Smith’s face stared out at me from giant posters. He towers above the Wandsworth roundabout and envelopes the IMAX cinema. Are these locations above a subway – or perhaps near a Subway – a place Where Winners Eat? Is this the branding designed to inspire a generation? (A generation of lard-arses perhaps?)  My local branch boasts a smashed window with an eviction notice and bailiffs’ details posted on the door. However, Tom Daley’s poolside posing pouch seems to still be pulling in the crowds. Thank goodness Jessica Ennis hasn’t sold her soul to the fast food eating, celebrity worshipping masses – at least we still have a female role model. 

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.