Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A new kind of alchemy

A few months ago I had the pleasure of shepherding a group of excitable seven-year olds around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The highlights of our trip, according to the consensus view, were Guy Fawkes' lantern, a mummified cat from ancient Egypt and the contents of our packed lunch. So when a glass case of Eastern porcelain caught my fancy, I knew I was going out on a limb. There was a typed notice inside the case that particularly intrigued me: 

East and West: a difference of opinion
In the West an object is considered more beautiful and valuable if it is in perfect and original condition. Contrast this with the Far East where imperfections and repairs can be considered to enhance the beauty and significance of ceramics. The dish [below], showing the rising moon, has been mended with gilded lacquer. The gilding draws attention to the restored area. A Western mender or restorer would have aimed to create an invisible repair.

Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699
Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699 
The rim has been repaired with gilded lacquer using a technique known as maki-e

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

All hail the new House of Winser!

People watching:
Kim Winser, OBE and founder of Winser London

So what do Yasmin Le Bon, Emma Watson and David Beckham have in common? In one way or another, they have all modelled clothes for Britain's very own queen of retail, Kim Winser. Yasmin is currently the face of Kim's newest and eponymous label, Winser London, while Emma Watson was snapped last year in a Winser trench coat (yes Winser, not Burberry!) on her way back from the Oscars. Back in 2000, when Kim was boss of Pringle, the Scottish knitwear manufacturer, David Beckham burnished the brand by choosing to don a Pringle sweater for the launch of his first book.

Yasmin Le Bon in a Winser London Milano coat
Yasmin Le Bon in that coat!
Many of us love poring over what the stars choose to wear, but sometimes the more interesting story is the person behind those clothes. Kim Winser, who has earned a reputation for reviving ailing brands, such as Pringle, Aquascutum and Agent Provocateur, has set herself a fresh challenge: to turn Winser London, her 2013 internet start-up, into a global brand. 

Kim founded Winser after she spotted a gap in the market. "I was passionate about an area... that was not being fulfilled, the area of fashionable clothes with a great luxurious quality but at truly amazing prices," she told me in a recent interview.

Although the brand started out two years ago as an online business, the clothes are now available in John Lewis and two of Winser's own stores in Gerrards Cross and Marlow. After running more established businesses like Pringle and Aquascutum, Kim finds she is back to being "seriously hands on" as she sets about transforming her vision into tangible success. "My whole career has been a learning curve for launching Winser London." 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A book in flight

Yesterday was a significant day for me. I sent my new novel out into the world on the wings of an email. The laptop even made that little whooshing noise to signify that my book had finally flown the nest. My domestic thriller about a woman trapped in a ruinous marriage in 1970s Jakarta was off to make its fortune... perhaps.

Balinese dancer
My new novel, The Puppet Master, is
inspired by my childhood in Indonesia
I have been writing this new novel, The Puppet Master, off and on for nearly eight years and earlier this month I decided it was finally time to send it off to a few literary agents. As I published my first novel, A Sister for Margot, independently, the decision to venture once more down the traditional route has caused some angst. Would I be able to deal with all those rejections when they come bouncing back?

Hope is my antidote. The Puppet Master has enjoyed rave reviews from my harshest critics (my husband and my mum) so I'm feeling confident... or at least I was until I pressed the 'send' icon on the email. Whoosh! and suddenly the doubts came crowding in. Should have done one more edit, should have tightened up the third chapter, should have waited a bit longer... damn it!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Princesses in the tower

When I was about 11 years old, I wrote a story about an Arab princess who escaped her home country by driving over the border to a new life. My family was living in the Middle East at the time and as a child I watched the local women, wrapped in their black abayas, with growing fascination. They would waft about Abu Dhabi's shopping malls with haughty disdain, leaving a cloud of perfume in their wake. Perhaps it was just my Western sensibilities, but I liked to imagine that one or two of them were desperate to break free from the swathes of black material.

A fort in Oman
New frontiers for women of the Middle East?
With the death last week of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, stories are re-emerging of real Saudi princesses locked up in palaces, unable to enjoy a normal life. According to various reports, Princesses Sahar and Jawaher have been held under house arrest in Jeddah for the last 10 years by their father, the late king. Their sisters Maha and Hala are also believed to be held at separate complexes nearby. 

The apparent crime of these young women was to speak out about human rights abuses and restrictions placed upon women in the secretive kingdom. Last March, Princess Sahar reportedly told Channel 4 News in an email, "We suffer on a daily basis... Our father said that we had no way out and that after his death our brothers will continue detaining us." The women claim that they have been starved and drugged by the regime. Princess Sahar's mother, a former wife of King Abdullah who fled to London, is campaigning for their release.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Don't need no education...

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mum

Quiet One has sex education coming up at school. Hopefully not a demonstration of whips and fluffy handcuffs (one never knows in this post-fifty-shades-of-grey era) but more of an educational exposé of the birds and the bees. I'm told that it's all about relationships these days - understanding what's allowed and what's not cool (in parent-speak: verging on abusive).

I have always been candid with my children about sex, answering their enquiries in an age-appropriate manner (of course). So we talk about 'special hugs' and how Middle Child's magic 'seeds' will eventually turn into babies. Jack and the Beanstalk has got nothing on us.


The birds and the bees
Ploughing my way through the birds and the bees
©  | Dreamstime.com
Still, I can't help wondering if Quiet One is in good shape for her Sex Ed class. I take pride in making sure my kids are prepared for whatever life throws at them - call me a snowplough parent if you will, Mrs Farr.*


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Mum's the word

Minutes before the dawn of the new year, I found myself locked in a dispute over gender. As our wineglasses glittered in the dying candlelight of 2014, my friends and I duelled over the dining table, debating whether there were innate differences between men and women and how these might determine their career choices. 

In the heat of our exchanges, there was no time to make resolutions about taking up yoga or cutting back on Facebook. There was barely enough time to rush over to the television to watch London explode in fiery delight as Big Ben tolled in the new year.


Image of girl mixing tubes in a laboratory
Her mum said it was okay
Credit: ©  | Dreamstime.com
Oblivious to the passing of the years, we had been preoccupied with the need for female role models in male-dominated professions (such as fund management or engineering) and the possible virtue of using a quota system to employ more women in these bastions of male achievement. 

We also wondered why women gravitated to professions such as primary-school teaching. Was it because women were more nurturing? Or was this simply social conditioning at work? Despite our inebriated fervour, we fell short of putting the world to rights. Time was not on our side. There were more questions than answers.