What We're Loving: London Nights exhibition

What happens when the sun goes down? Nighttime can mean danger, excitement, maybe drunkenness, too, or perhaps the possibility of escaping from prying eyes. See the capital at nighttime through the lens of 60 photographers at the Museum of London’s current London Nights exhibition. The images all have one thing in common they reflect the darkness that can transform a city – from the late 19th century to the present day. From deserted streets to dingy clubs, it’ll make you think about the city in a whole new way…

 Mods on the street Borehamwood 1969.  Photograph by Terry Spencer

Mods on the street Borehamwood 1969.
Photograph by Terry Spencer

 Song and Dance from the series London By Night, 1983. Photograph by Tish Murtha

Song and Dance from the series London By Night, 1983.
Photograph by Tish Murtha

 London A Modern Project, 1995, by Rut Blees Luxemburg

London A Modern Project, 1995, by Rut Blees Luxemburg

 From the series Southwestern, 2007-10,  Photograph by Niall McDiarmid

From the series Southwestern, 2007-10,
Photograph by Niall McDiarmid

 Bourgeoisie from Night Flowers, 2014 Photographer Damien Frost

Bourgeoisie from Night Flowers, 2014
Photographer Damien Frost

Ideal viewing now the evenings are getting darker. The exhibition is on until 11 November, museumoflondon.org.uk.

Cocktails inspired by inspirational women: The Zadie Smith

Celebrating incredible women? Cheers to that! Free The Tipple by Jennifer Croll is filled with cocktails inspired by iconic women. This Friday, we're sipping on The Zadie Smith. Here's how to make it for yourself... 

 Illustrations by Kelly Shami

Illustrations by Kelly Shami


The Zadie Smith


1 sugar cube
2 shots bourbon
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
½ shot crème de cacao
½ shot absinthe
Garnish: lemon peel

Put a sugar cube in a mixing glass with enough water to soften it and crush with a spoon. Add bourbon, bitters, crème de cacao, and ice, and stir until chilled.

Take a teacup and pour in absinthe. Turn the glass until the absinthe has coated it on all sides, and then pour out the excess. Strain the bourbon mixture into the teacup and garnish

Some writers take years to make it (and most never do), but Zadie Smith has been a sensation ever since she published her first book, White Teeth, at age 24. Her broad, sweeping novels cleverly and deftly examine race, class, cultural identity, and celebrity, and their beautifully-crafted sentences and engrossing plots have made her a giant of contemporary literature.

As a half-Jamaican, half-English woman who grew up in northwest London, Zadie has long been both a symbol for and an interpreter of multicultural Britain. White Teeth explored that very theme through the tale of three culturally diverse families whose lives intersect in England’s capital. Her subsequent novels considered topics ranging from the nature of beauty to female friendship, with liberal doses of pop culture; Swing Time, for example, included a Kylie Minogue-inspired singer.

Zadie is also a style inspiration and role model for creative, ambitious women. With her chunky glasses, patterned tops, and turbans, she’s made the pages of Vogue, while her ability to consistently deliver gorgeous prose, year after year, has made her the envy of writers everywhere. Her cocktail is inspired by tradition, but isn’t too beholden to it. A chocolatey spin on a Sazerac, it’s served in a teacup — like a proper English cuppa.

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This is an extract from Free The Tipple, published by Prestel. Check out the book for more tasty cocktails inspired by kickass women, including MIA, Frida Kahlo, Serena Williams, Beyoncé, and so many more... 

On Emmeline Pankhurst and Getting Stuck In

 Illustration:  Bijou Karman

Illustration: Bijou Karman

Sometimes we all need a bit of guidance. Writers E. Foley and B. Coates have channelled the wisdom of remarkable women from throughout history for their new book, What Would Boudicca Do? From Hedy Lamarr to Rosalind Franklin, they show you how the examples of great ladies from the past can make your present a brighter place. Plus it’s illustrated by Bijou Karman (whose work also adorns our cover this issue). Here’s what we can learn from Emmeline Pankhurst about Getting Stuck In. 

We live in deeply unsettling times. When ridicu­lous men with access to armies and red buttons seem to be in charge all over the place, it feels very tempting to put your fingers in your ears and shout ‘La la la la la’ to drown out the terrible noise our politi­cians are making left, right and centre. Tempting, yes, but wrong. 

Emmeline Pankhurst, champion for the right of women to have a vote in the first place, would have stern (but motivational) words with you.

Born in Moss Side, Manchester, Emmeline Goulden was weaned on the intoxicating milk of radicalism, raised in a family burning with political passion. The eldest of ten children, she is said to have attended her first women’s rally at the age of eight, and her forward-thinking parents sent her to a Parisian fin­ishing school in which she was instructed in the arts of book-keeping and chemistry, as well as the usual embroidery and etiquette. In 1879 she married Rich­ard Pankhurst, a barrister 24 years older than her and buddy of the great reformer John Stuart Mill. With her husband’s support, Ms P. founded the Women’s Franchise League – one of their wins was ensuring that married women were able to have a say in local (but not general) elections. This was an early step in the struggle for votes for women – before this, you were lucky if you got a chance to pick the captain of the local knitting club – but still, only those women clever enough to ensnare a husband got their minute at the ballot box.

After Richard’s death at the age of 64, Emmeline managed, through the fug of grief, to find solace again in intense social campaigning. She found­ed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 with her three daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. The Pankhurst gang’s goal was simple: votes for women in every election in which men could vote. Frustrated with a lack of progress on this issue across the party spectrum, Emmeline, with her gals at her side, set the political barometer to stormy. Their slogan was ‘Deeds, not words’, and boy, did they mean it.

The WSPU’s dramatic feats included arson attacks, pouring acid into mailboxes, and even (for the Fifty Shades of Grey fans among you) attacking Winston Churchill at Bristol Temple Meads rail station with a riding crop. One woman even took her meat cleaver to Velázquez’s Venus in the National Gallery; she said afterwards that she attacked the most beautiful woman in history as revenge for the government attacking the woman with the most beautiful soul in history – our very own Emmeline. Another, Emily Wilding Davison, ran onto the course at the Epsom Derby in June 1913 and was killed by the King’s horse. It’s worth noting that these high-stakes stunts were too much for some, and Sylvia and Adela abandoned the WSPU in protest, causing a family rift that never really healed.

When war broke out in 1914, the pragmatic Emme­line called a truce. She recognised that there was a greater cause to fight for – and that there was no point chasing the vote if ultimately there might not be a country in which to cast it. She switched her focus to campaigning for women to join the war effort, and as the boys went to the front to fight for Blighty, women began to take on more traditionally male occupations. Suddenly there were female tram drivers, farmhands and firefighters, and the ladies also took on roles in the civil service, police force and factories. It’s no surprise that women began to question why they were being paid less than their male counterparts for identi­cal roles (and it’s frankly bonkers, not to mention real­ly boring, that we are having to ask the same question over a hundred years later). Women’s rights were back in the spotlight and, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to women over thirty with some stipulations: they had to own property; or be married to a property owner; or be a graduate voting in a university constituency. So not much cop for our younger working-class sisters.

Emmeline died in 1928, agonisingly just two weeks before women finally won the vote on the same terms as their menfolk. Some hair-splitting historians have questioned whether it was Ms Pankhurst’s actions or merely the seismic changes of the war that meant that women were finally judged capable of having the vote without frittering it away on fancies. Was it simply that, with so many men dead, it was now impossible for the government to overlook women? In our eyes, Emmeline still deserves our respect, and more importantly we owe it to her to turn up and take part in our democracy – her activism paved the way for a future in which women’s equality has never been off the agenda. Yes, politics today is unpredictable and sometimes depressing, but women have a special duty to exercise a right that was so recently fought for and ferociously hard-won. In fact, we’d go so far as suggesting that the next time you have to vote – in a general election, for a staff rep or for the oddest-shaped vegetable at the village show – you make sure you put your best feminist fashion foot forward and array yourself in the WSPU colours of purple, white and green.

Reading Art

A book filled with art for book lovers – that's our kind of book. Here's a sneak peek inside Reading Art by David Trigg...

 Young Woman Leaning on a Book, Anne Vallayer–Coster, 1784, oil on canvas, dimensions unknown, Private collection. Private Collection

Young Woman Leaning on a Book, Anne Vallayer–Coster, 1784, oil on canvas, dimensions unknown, Private collection. Private Collection

 The Reading Girl, Theodore Roussel, 1886—7, oil on canvas, 152.4 × 161.3 cm (60 × 63 ½ in), Tate, London. Tate, London 

The Reading Girl, Theodore Roussel, 1886—7, oil on canvas, 152.4 × 161.3 cm (60 × 63 ½ in), Tate, London. Tate, London 

 Crown, Wen Wu, 2016, oil on canvas, 30.5 × 25.5 cm (12 × 10 in), Private collection. © Wen Wu. Courtesy Riflemaker London. 

Crown, Wen Wu, 2016, oil on canvas, 30.5 × 25.5 cm (12 × 10 in), Private collection. © Wen Wu. Courtesy Riflemaker London. 

This enchanting compendium celebrates art and reading throughout 2,000 years of art history. And this gorgeous hardback book is a work of art in itself.

Reading Art: Art for Book Lovers by David Trigg. Published by Phaidon. Go to uk.phaidon.com to see more

Reading Art 3D.jpg

An ode to stationery

Stationary Image for social.jpg

words: Jane Audas

As August melts away, cooler weather will bring leaf kicking and the joy of layered dressing in knitted things. This is also the time of year many are preparing to go back to school or college, so buying a new rucksack, pen, paper and eraser. That might be a tad romantic in our time of computers. But even after being out of formal education for decades, I still get the urge to go shopping for a new protractor set when September comes.

I love stationery. The old-fashioned gummed envelope, blue marbled notebook sort. And the washi tape, stickers and improbably cute Japanese cartoon character sort. I like a wall of pens with scribbled on ‘test’ notes lodged sporadically in them. And to find the thinnest nib is my self-appointed, happily accepted, lifelong challenge. So far, I am at 0.03mm.

To my joy, there now exist beautifully created stationery shops. The sort of shop where a notebook with an elastic band around it will cost a pretty penny. But I think something I use every day (as I do a notebook) is a special buy and worth the cost. With age comes the knowledge that four or five cheap tacky notebooks can’t replace the one that really pleases your hand and heart.

I can also be found in more ordinary stationery shops. On holiday I’ll search out both the just-so stationery emporium and the (hopefully slightly dusty) office stationery shop. There I will hopefully find multi-size binders and clear plastic poppered wallets, old paper accounting books with blue carbon copy paper in-between their sheets. If I get lucky there will be a selection of tiny cardboard boxes containing paperclips, drawing pins, small bulldog clips and the like. And if the stars are really aligned, the shop will sell cardboard tubes of different sizes.

A love of stationery began early. As a child I had a Galt Toy post office. This came in a bright red cardboard container, shaped like an old-fashioned post box. Inside bits of paper, a franking stamp and ink pad, gummed stickers, stamps and mini envelopes combined to keep me quiet running a post office from my bedroom.

Growing up with recurring autumnal needs for new stationery set me up for a life in paper and envelopes. One preferably topped off with a tin containing a rainbow of 50 assorted felttip pens. Comedian Victoria Wood had the right of it when she said: “I didn’t want a boyfriend, I wanted a 13-colour biro.”


Our friends at Papier love stationery as much as we do, so they are offering 15% off personalised stationery using code OHCOMELY15 at papier.com. Offer expires 30 September 2018, valid on notebooks, notecards, sketchbooks and planners only

Blooming lovely: Harriet Parry

We love Harriet Parry's floral creations, so we caught up with the artist behind the beautiful blooms to find out where it all began and where she gets her inspiration

Harriet Parry Bloom and Wild.jpg

We're obsessed with your blooms. Can you take us back to where it all began, when did you fall in love with flowers? I grew up in the countryside, so have always been surrounded by nature. My granny had such a beautiful garden, and we would often make flower arrangements to enter into the village fete, along with the cutest miniature gardens. I went on to study Fine Art, so combining the two makes perfect sense. 

When an opportunity arose to work as a florist – from a more design background, rather than a floristry one – I jumped at the chance. I learnt on the job and I've developed my own style ever since. I have worked on lots of amazing projects with the likes of Vogue, and on television and fashion sets. I also collaborate with Bloom & Wild to really show everyday flower arrangers the beauty of styling flowers. We focus on experimenting and using flowers in creative and unexpected ways.

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We also love your miniatures, how do you create them? I create my miniature arrangements by using the tiny parts of different full-sized flowers, arranging them in mini doll's house vases or other tiny vessels – as I would a full-sized bloom. Sometimes, the individual parts of a big flower take on a new life. For example, parts of a wild garden flower in "real life" could be used as a tropical in "miniature life"

The anatomy of a flower is a fascinating thing. When working on a tiny scale you observe and work in a considered way, gaining a greater appreciation for the medium of flowers I'm so lucky to work with.


What flowers are currently in bloom, and what has been your favourite for the hot summer months? Currently in bloom are dahlias – my favourite. I love a bold shape and colour. My favourite summer flowers are also sweet peas, irises, and peonies.

I recently styled a shoot with Bloom & Wild, for their collaboration with the fashion label Mother of Pearl, which featured some beautiful Peonies in fabulous pinks, whites and deep reds. I think everyone loves a peony right?

If you could be a flower, which would it be? A hydrangea, they are always found brightening up people's gardens. They also have an earthy scent, which reminds me of where I grew up.


You work with flowers in such innovative ways, where does your inspiration come from? I get inspiration from so many things. Art, music, fashion, a moment in a film, a particular time in history, or just something that's caught my eye while going about my day. These are often referenced in my designs, which I approach with a painterly aesthetic. People are also a great source of inspiration. I love collaborating with other designers, artists and brands, which really adds magic to my creative process.


What's next? Well, I'd love to have an exhibition of my miniature arrangements. The mini scale gives the pieces a precious, treasured and jewel-like delicacy. I'd encase them all in glass boxes. I think that would be lovely.

Give Harriet a follow on Insta @harrietparryflowers

The fight for 50:50 Parliament


Why should we fight for more women at Westminster? Men currently outnumber women 2:1, but what impact is this having on the UK as a whole? Lucy Skoulding on the fight for a 50:50 parliament.

Frances Scott formed the basis of 50:50 Parliament when her eight-year-old daughter was elected to her school council. "There’s always a boy and a girl from each class," she explained to Frances, "boys don’t understand the decision around whether we should wear skirts or trousers to school and we don’t understand how the boys’ toilets get so dirty. Our experiences are different."

Over the next few years Frances began wondering why Westminster wasn’t the same. She began talking to people about the idea of two-seat constituencies with one male and one female MP.  Time passed, and Frances continued her life as a mother and antenatal teacher, but the burning desire to do something never left her mind. “The experience of giving birth had not got better, even though we knew how it should get better, and no wonder when most people in parliament don’t [give birth to] babies so it’s not an experience they can empathise with directly.” When one day Frances heard Oxbridge professors debating the two-seat constituencies idea on the radio, she launched a petition on Change.org and 50:50 Parliament was founded. 

Embarking on a journey: why we need to fight

Despite gaining less initial support than she expected, Frances worked to promote 50:50’s name. The political landscape began to change and the 50:50 movement grew. Nicola Sturgeon was elected as leader of the SNP and Baroness Scotland showed her public support of 50:50.

Looking at 50:50’s membership now, there are so many different women, all from different backgrounds, careers, and political views but all who want the same thing: equal seats and equal say for both genders at Westminster.

Hannah Philp is a 50:50 ambassador and founder of Her Stories, a charity raising money for women’s charities through art. “I really believe in 50:50’s mission, which is to ensure that women have an equal say in the laws that are made. I also believe that parliament should themselves be more representative of this country,” says Hannah. Currently there aren’t enough women putting themselves forward, for many reasons, but one is the lack of female political role models to follow. 

There is also the fact misogyny is still present in Westminster, as the recent sexual harassment cases highlighted, but it is also fuelled by some of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail ‘Legs-it’ incident is a prime example of this. “Women are targeted more than men and particularly if they put themselves forward and try to do anything political,” says Hannah. Frances continued to build support for 50:50. It wasn’t easy and in 2017 she felt close to giving up after losing her husband and feeling as if she was getting nowhere with the campaign. Then #Askhertostand was born. 

Ask Her To Stand

The #Askhertostand campaign is a practical way of trying to increase the number of women from all backgrounds who are in parliament to make it more representative of society. “Everyday women are signing up to stand and we liaise with the parties to put these women in the right direction,” said Frances.

“What if we all started asking the great women we know to stand and think about politics, to help them change the perception of themselves?” added Hannah. Dolly Theis, a Cambridge PhD epidemiology student, worked closely with Hannah to craft #Askhertostand.“Despite being different political camps, we have a beautiful friendship and by working together on this we could show the world that we could get on! We just want good people in parliament,” she said. “A lot of the work I do is cross party because ultimately we’ve got to all work together. The best solutions come out of that.”

Ask Her To Stand is such a simple way for both men and women to take action and improve representation in Westminster.  It doesn’t cost anything to say to someone - "I think you should be involved in politics,” says Hannah.

It’s time for deeds, not words

The long-term goal for 50:50 is to see a truly equal gender representation in Westminster, but there are many complex layers to this. While 50:50 currently focuses on fight for gender equality, Frances views this as a piece of the wider puzzle. We must fight for representation across all diversities and areas of life. There is also the fact that gender itself means many different things to different people.

 “I would always think about parliament being representative of society, and one that is evolving. The more people who don’t identify as either gender makes the gender issue for those people irrelevant and more about representing a specific viewpoint,” says Hannah.

For Dolly the future is bright, and she is very clear about her ambitions as a 50:50 ambassador. “We want to bump the numbers up big time ahead of the next election. [We need] women of all backgrounds, ages, and stories to stand for election. The commonality is just an incredibly passionate desire to change things.”

You can sign up at 5050parliament.co.uk

Delia Derbyshire: our woman who changed the world by Stealing Sheep

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Ahead of their Wow Machine event, part of The Hexagon Experiment at The Great Exhibition of the North 2018, Stealing Sheep tell us about their enthusiasm for electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire

We first heard about Delia Derbyshire when we worked with the radiophonic workshop on a live score for a 1970s animated sci-fi film, Fantastic Planet. They shared stories about her work in the BBC workshop and sent us some of her unheard foley recordings [the sound effects added to media in post-production] that were found in her attic.  

Delia Derbyshire was an early pioneer of strange electronic music. She recorded “found sounds” during late night Abbey Road sessions. She cut up these tape loops meticulously to create rhythmic patterns that would now be categorised as minimal techno. She tweaked the “found sounds” with analogue effects pitch bending and tuning the sounds to create melodic movements in the music. From what we gather, she was always trying to find human qualities from the machines. Her mathematical brain aided this cut-up tape method. 

Our method of writing music is very similar, it’s just that now this method is emulated by software – we do endless late-night sampling and programme the sounds to the keyboard, setting arpeggiated patterns and sampling each vowel or cowbell note to make interesting musical sounds. We can really appreciate how laborious the work Delia did must have been. Her looped compositions are so simple sounding but host a multitude of technical skills. We feel a special alliance with Delia’s approach because of her commitment to creating organic ‘emotional’ qualities.

We’ve enjoyed listening to Delia’s tapes and have resampled her foley in our work using her techniques. We programme the electronic drum kit with her ‘explosion’ fx to replace the kick drum and use ‘tree falling’ as a loose snare, ‘gunshot’ to create a cool off-beat and a ‘car engine’ starts with her bar to create groove. It’s interesting to approach music like this. 

Delia’s influence is not just musical though. Her presence as an influential female electronic artist is very close to our hearts as we are always seeking female role models and idols that give us courage to do the same. Delia was highly creative but also very conflicted through her life. She was never recognised for her work during her lifetime.

Our WOW MACHINE involves her machine samples, creating organic rhythmic loops that are symbiotically synchronised to choreographed dancers. The music is thematic and vibrant but also goes to deep mysterious places, the dancing is robotic and unifying. It’s an emotional journey but also a visually fantastical one. We have referenced Delia Derbyshire as our pioneering woman through history but also taken a lot of inspiration from Kraftwerk and are hoping that as a female-powered techno electronica outfit we’ll reveal our own kind of magical mystery tour.

The Hexagon Experimentwhich is presented by Brighter Sound, is part of The Great Exhibition of the North 2018. Six free Friday night experiments at venues across Newcastle feature live music, conversations and original commissions from pioneering women at the forefront of music, art and science. Wow Machine, Stealing Sheep’s tribute to Delia Derbyshire takes place on 31 August. More details here

Oh Comely reader survey

Talk to us, we want to know what you think about the magazine, so we can make it the best it can possibly be.


Whether you love us, like us, loathe us, or reckon there's just a couple of tweaks to make us truly sparkle – from our illustrated covers to what we write and who we interview – please tell us what you really think in our reader survey. Plus, you'll be in with a chance of winning one of four £25 Wordery vouchers. Let loose, here.




Issue 44 playlist: late summer

 Illustration:  molly egan  

Illustration: molly egan 

No matter where you are, whatever the weather, there are certain sights, smells and sounds that always conjure up those summers that seemed to last forever. This playlist celebrates those songs that pull you back through the past. It’s the soundtrack to staying out in the park till sundown, sitting out chatting with your friend into the early hours, perhaps a gentle doze in the sunshine. While the heat of summer may be beginning to die down, they’re the kind of memories that last forever. 

Take a listen to our late summer playlist here

Queer prom


Did you go to your school prom? Rachelle Foster speaks to the people reinventing it. Queer Prom is on the first night of Brighton Pride — and they are inviting members of the LGBTQIA+ community to ‘do it right, do it again, do it queer AF’.

It’s two weeks until Brighton Pride, which will shower the city with technicolour in this year’s ‘Colour my World’ theme. In keeping with the theme, Queer Prom's ‘Rainbow Ball’ is on Friday, 3 August. Queer Prom was set up in 2014 as an alternative to an incredibly alienating, heteronormative experience with no real space for people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

 “Queer Prom began as an event designed to rewrite people’s negative prom experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community, it has since evolved into something far greater,” says its creator Vicki Cook. “I think that living under a Conservative government has meant individuals in a position of power and privilege are given much more of a platform than minority groups. We have witnessed a resurgence of fascism on a grand scale, resulting in discrimination and inequality in all forms.”

 Vicki says that even within the LGBTQIA+ community there is still gross prejudice and discrimination, especially towards trans and non-binary people. She makes reference to the anti-trans protest led by Lesbian Rights Alliance at Pride in London recently. The group claim ‘trans-activism erases lesbians’ and wrote a letter to Stonewall calling to remove the ‘L’ out of LGBT.

“As a part of the queer community we can’t ignore the issues that have sought to divide us,” says Vicki. “By coming together and throwing a prom that will change people’s past experiences, we also want to invest to change people’s future and not only will we party the night away, but we will unite in solidarity.”

As a non-profit event, Queer Prom are raising money for projects and services that support the LGBTQIA+ community. Their main charity choice, Mermaids, does tremendous work to support transgender children and their families. They will also be fundraising for Brighton’s LGBTQ Disability project and there will be charity buckets on the night to raise funds for other local causes.

Vicki says she struggles to take the time to pause and bask in her achievements and good ideas, and to see their potential on a greater scale. Her partner Jules Haydon Guaitamacchi saw her vision and helped her to mould it into what it is now. “As well as this, Jules is a PR powerhouse,” she added. Together, they took Queer Prom to the mainstream media and said "Look! Look at this amazing thing that’s happening in Brighton". 

“Jules and I share the same passion and drive, and have skills that really complement each other which makes us such a good team,” says Vicki. There is no dress code for the night, but Vicki and Jules say, "it’s an opportunity to wear the outfit your heart always desired".

“Last year, people came dressed to the nines in Queer Prom realness, some people even had their own crowns and tiaras! Everyone looked like Queer royalty and we can’t wait to see what people wear this time,” says Vicki.

 Creators of Queer Prom, Vicki and Jules

Creators of Queer Prom, Vicki and Jules

 Queer Prom's ‘Rainbow Ball’ is on Friday 3 August. Tickets are available at patternsbrighton.com


Mordant recipe: mineral-based mordant alum and cream of tartar

 Photo: Kim Lightbody

Photo: Kim Lightbody

Turn to page 106 of the late summer issue of Oh Comely to read Babs Behan's tutorial on bundle dyeing with natural materials. But before you begin to dye, you'll need to mordant your fabric – this will help the colour stay on your fabric and not come off in the wash. This mordant recipe is also courtesy of Babs. 

Mineral-based mordant alum and cream of tartar

Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) helps to improve the colourfastness of dyes, so they are less likely to fade from light and washing. It also helps to brighten colour tones. It is considered non-toxic in small quantities, so it is safe to use, but it should not be inhaled, ingested or come into contact with skin as it can cause irritation. You can buy it online or from Asian or South American food stores. Use the exact quantities of alum required for the weight of your fibre, so that it’s all absorbed by the fibre and not wasted. Always work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves, dust mask and eye protectors when working with alum-based mordants. Safety bit over, let’s begin….

You will need:

  • Fibre (washed, scoured and dry – see the instructions in the magazine)
  • Scales
  • Alum
  • Cream of tartar
  • 2 large pots, with lids
  • Measuring spoons
  • Heatproof jar
  • Long-handled spoon
  • Small lid or plate (optional)
  • pH-neutral soap


1 Weigh the fibre after it has been washed, scoured and dried. Use 8% of the weight of the fibre in alum, and 7% of the weight of the fibre in cream of tartar. You should weigh the fibre and calculate the correct weight of alum and cream of tartar to use before you begin preparing the mordant.

2 Place the fibre in a large pot of water and allow it to soak for at least one hour, or ideally 8–12 hours/overnight, so that the fibre is pre-wetted.

3 Fill a pot with room-temperature water. The pot should be large enough to contain the fibre you want to mordant and allow enough water for it to be covered and move around freely.

4 Measure out the cream of tartar into a heatproof jar and add enough boiling water for it to dissolve completely when stirred. Then add this to the pot of water, stirring with a long-handled spoon to mix it in.

5 Measure out the alum into the heatproof jar and add enough boiling water for it to dissolve completely when stirred. Then add this to the pot of water, again stirring with a long-handled spoon to mix it in.

6 Add the pre-wetted fibre to the mordant solution. Bring the solution to a simmer, cover with a lid and simmer for one hour.

7 Stir gently and occasionally with a long-handled spoon. Be sure to tease out any air bubbles trapped under the fibre, as this can make it rise above the surface of the liquid where the mordant cannot reach it properly. Moving the fibre also helps to separate any areas that have been touching, or touching the side of the pot, where the mordant may not be able to reach them.

8 Turn off the heat and allow the fibre to cool in the pot overnight. Then remove the fibre from the pot and gently wring out any excess liquid.

9 Rinse the fibre with cool water, wash with pH-neutral soap and cool/lukewarm water, then rinse again to remove the soap.

10 Use the fibre in its damp state and add it to your dye bath. Or hang out the fibre to air dry somewhere warm and dry, out of direct sunlight, for later use.

Now you're ready to dye! Turn to page 106 of the late summer issue to begin. We'd love to see the results: tag us @ohcomelymag. This recipe is taken from Botanical Inks: Plant-to-Print Dyes, Techniques and Projects by Babs Behan (Quadrille). 

My shade of red

In our midsummer issue, five writers tell us about the personal beauty rituals that have become part of who they are. Here, Amy Abrahams describes her shade of red. 

On the landscape of my face sit two mountain peaks: the twin pink summits of my top lip. They rise sharply, creating a defiant Cupid’s bow; they make a mouth more suited to a bygone era. 

I hated my lips when I was younger. Too pointy, too small, too neat. An austere companion to my rounded cheeks, un-angled nose and unruly curls tumbling around my face. Early make-up experiments avoided the mouth because I struggled to respect its geometry and like a child I could not keep in the lines. Glosses and lipsticks slid out and over, lipliners only made those peaks more severe. Lipstick was not for me, I decided, lipstick was not my thing. 

But when I was 21, that all changed. It was the early 2000s and a friend had introduced me to London’s alternative gay scene, where we danced at club nights named Nag Nag Nag and The Cock at now-long-gone Soho hotspot The Ghetto. Dress-up was encouraged and make-up was another portal to express ourselves. 

So it was that one afternoon, before a big night out, we walked through the hallowed doors of Mac’s Soho store and I found my lipstick soulmate. Her name was Ruby Woo. She was the perfect shade – a blue-hued red that balanced my rosy cheeks and popped against my pale complexion. Best of all, Ruby Woo was matte. It did not slide. The colour stayed put. It did not creep outside the lines. 

Putting it on for the first time was transformative – and its power has not waned since. A slick of bright red jolts you back to iconic old Hollywood, yet it's undisputedly modern too – this is a shade that refuses to let you hide away. My lipstick is warpaint and luxury and comfort and magic in one – it is a benevolent bullet of red-hot confidence I can carry wherever I go. I have worn Ruby Woo most weeks since that inaugural outing in Soho. She’s come with me to job interviews and meetings, to birthdays and dinner parties. I wore Ruby Woo to my wedding, even though someone told me brides “should wear pink”. And when  a best friend died, I wore it for his funeral – I knew he would have wanted me that way.

Yes, I flirt with different shades: a berry tint here, a fuchsia gloss there. But Ruby Woo will always be The One. As age changes the map of my face, these peaked lips of mine morph slowly into something softer, but I shall never turn my back on lipstick.

A smear of rouge taught me to highlight what is unique, it helped me subvert the “flaws”. Lipstick might seem frivolous to some, but to me, it really can set you free. 


Read four other 'made-up' stories in the midsummer issue of Oh Comely, out now. 

Join The Anti-Diet Riot Club

Ahead of The Anti-Diet Riot Fair this Sunday in London, we spoke to its organiser Becky Young about how she came to start her inspirational anti-diet community – The Anti-Diet Riot Club.

Photo 21-06-2018, 18 18 01.png

Almost two years ago, in the first stages of a seven-month trip around Central America, I had (what was certainly not my first but, good God, I hope my last) meltdown about MY WEIGHT. This had been a semi-regular episode since the age of 14, this time triggered by seeing photos of myself a year previously taken on a beach in India, tanned and around a stone lighter (most likely due to consistent toilet and tummy issues over anything else).

But I felt like a failure, like I had once again wasted the opportunity to be thin… a primary goal of mine for well over a decade.

I had spent the last year in the comfortable bubble of my new relationship – eating, drinking, having lots of fun, but not actively "watching my weight" and therefore deserving of the huge amounts of shame, guilt, and self-loathing I felt. So, as usual, I embarked on the mental preparations and planning for how I would do daily HIIT workouts and virtuously refrain from eating all the queso and drinking all the cervezas that Mexico had to offer. It was going to be a fun trip I could tell!

As the days went by, I delved into the depths of the #fitspo world on Instagram searching for guidance and motivation. I randomly – and thankfully – stumbled upon a body positive account (I can’t remember which one now) with a “big-bodied” woman embracing her body in all its beautiful rolls and folds, reclaiming the word fat for herself, and proclaiming her right to live without shame and stigma. She was fat, and she wasn’t planning on going on a diet! It was a complete revelation.


 The brains behind Anti-Diet Riot Club, Becky Young. Photo: Imogen Forte

The brains behind Anti-Diet Riot Club, Becky Young.
Photo: Imogen Forte

When I saw this woman, I saw the kind of person that I wanted to be and the life I wanted to live. I saw an escape from food obsession, from hating my body, from feeling uncomfortable in taking up space, from continuing the cycle of restrict, shrink, regain, repeat. I wanted to be the person that spent time on changing the world, not just changing my physical appearance. I wouldn’t agonise over menus, spend hours watching workout videos, make excuses every time I ate another biscuit (and end up bingeing on the whole packet) and pledge every Sunday that Monday would be the day I started eating #CLEAN once more.

It was this desire that spurred me on to discover more about the online ‘body positivity’ movement  that was flourishing on blogs and Instagram feeds and start the much-needed detoxification of my online feeds. Almost like a juice cleanse but one that actually works… this involved unfollowing all the "clean eating", "bikini body workout", "strong is the new skinny", "paleo" (and so on, and so on) accounts clogging up my virtual world. These were most of the time making me feel absolute shite about my body – due to it not being anywhere near the shape, size or ability that was always represented in these feeds – or guilty for not eating low-carb, low-sugar, meticulously-presented alkaline meals and spending two hours a day getting a Kardashian booty.

This was the first step in a transformative journey that has led me to where I am now; in the lead-up to my fifth event under the Anti-Diet Riot Club project that I set up six months ago. After learning so much from the body acceptance community online, and the books and articles I read, I wanted to contribute to helping build this movement in London and so I started ADRC, an event series teaching people to fight back against diet culture and promote the ideals of Health At Every Size, fat positivity, and radical self-love. Learning to accept my body and give up the pursuit of thinness has changed my life and my aim is to help as many people as possible do the same through regular events, meet-ups, workshops and support.

Photo 15-06-2018, 10 01 32.jpg

The Anti-Diet Riot Fair (resident of SuperCulture) this Sunday 1 July is my next attempt at trying to bring the body positive community together, with a day of size inclusive brands, feminist makers, body positivity workshops, music, cocktails and community vibes! It’s important to me produce events and spaces that are inclusive to those who are fat, as well as just those are into body positivity. The Anti-Diet Riot Fair is all about combating the lack of fun shopping experiences for fat women on the high street, at festivals and at events… where it’s hard to find anything in sizes 16 and above (even though the average UK dress size is 16).

There’ll be opportunities to do some ‘Fuck Size Modelling’ with a body positive photographer, take part in a plus size swap shop, work on your own body confidence with stylist Lauren Jobling @ljstyling and check out the designs of the likes of Venus Libido, Doughnut Sexxii Clothing, Hotties Vintage, Aesthetic Laundry and many more.

Come one and all, and we can stick our middle finger up at diet culture together!

The Anti-Diet Riot Fair is at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, this Sunday 1 July, from 1pm–8pm. Get tickets here.

What We're Loving: solid, vegan foundation

We're delighted that our fave beauty brand, Lush, have made an amazing new, vegan foundation that doesn't have any plastic packaging and is full of natural ingredients that sound like they are good enough to eat. Now, that's our kind of make-up – kind to our skin, and kind to the planet, too. Our editor Alice Snape was lucky enough to be invited to Lush Studios in Soho for the grand reveal...


I am not usually a foundation wearer, but this could convert me. When I put it on, it actually made my skin feel lovely – like it was doing good things for it.

And, excitingly, the cheekily named Slap Stick foundation is available in an impressive 40 shades (see pic above), and made using 45% coconut oil from Indonesia to hydrate and sooth. The foundations also contain Argan oil harvested by a women’s co-operative in Morocco.

"Making foundation solid is a major leap forward to reducing plastic packaging without compromising on quality or effect," says Rowena Bird, Lush Co-founder and Product Inventor. "The dream is that, in years to come, none of our products will have packaging.”

The foundation is partially dipped in peelable wax (sort of like a Babybel, but smelling nicer, of course) and comes in a recycled cardboard box, which you can keep it in or recycle again.

 The foundation comes in 40 shades

The foundation comes in 40 shades

"The products aren't just there to look pretty, they are there for a purpose," says Rowena. "We've used what's called a Zorn Palette, so the shades actually match to skin tones." 

Ten per cent of profits from the purchase of the coconut oil within the Slap Sticks goes towards funding literacy classes and a dentist on the island of Nias.

 We also love Lush's inclusive, non-Photoshopped campaign images 

We also love Lush's inclusive, non-Photoshopped campaign images 


If you want to find out your shade, you can visit the Make-up Swatch Shop at the Lush Soho Studio until Friday 6 July and be colour matched prior to logging on to the Lush Labs on Friday 29 June to buy it for £16.95. The Slap Stick will be on sale on for one month from that date, then once Lush have collected feedback and customers reviews it will relaunch in February next year, alongside a whole range of other make-up including lipsticks and shimmers (which will be as equally kind and wonderful). We can't wait! 



Print! Tearing it Up: celebrating independent magazine publishing

 Happy birthday to us! Our first issue was published eight years ago this month. Look how we've grown...

Happy birthday to us! Our first issue was published eight years ago this month. Look how we've grown...

It should come as no surprise, but we’re print lovers through and through. Oh Comely was created in response to the disappointing options of women’s magazines available, seemingly focused on celebrity, diets, money – and with the habit of making their readers feel worse about their lives. We certainly weren’t alone. Since our first issue, eight years ago this very month, we’ve enjoyed seeing the number of independent magazines being made grow and grow: bringing fresh voices and perspectives to our reading habits.

The current strength of independent publishing is being celebrated in a free exhibition, Print! Tearing it Up, at London’s Somerset House, bringing together some of the most influential and innovative British print magazines of the past, with titles of today. We spoke to co-curators Paul Gorman and Claire Catterall to find out more about the exhibition. 


 Somerset House PRINT! Tearing It Up © Doug Peters_PA 

Somerset House PRINT! Tearing It Up © Doug Peters_PA 

What do you think is behind the current revival of independent print? 

PG: Producing and consuming print offers a more permanent means of expression than a here-now-gone-in-a-minute Tweet or Instagram post. 

Committing to print, whether as a reader or writer/designer/photographer, takes care and consideration, and magazines are the perfect medium for announcing personal and sometimes oppositional views. Indie publishers have also settled on financial formulae for producing magazines independently, making such work one platform of their activities and producing when they are able – quarterly, biannually, annually. 

There is an alignment with the revival of interest in vinyl, but the resurgence of print is more political; that’s why, I think, minority voices and those from the female, queer, trans and non-binary communities have gravitated to magazines and produced excellent titles which deal with identity such as Accentgal-dem and Ladybeard.

It’s a reality that alt-right views and fake news exist almost exclusively online, the preserve of white heterosexual (with the exception of token people such as Milo Yiannopoulos) men. It’s interesting that they balk at producing their own print publications. That’s because that would be a commitment to clearly stating their hateful, unrepresentative views, which could then be easily challenged. These people prefer the hectoring and permanently shifting sands of digital media to cogent argument as set out in cold, hard print. 

  gal-dem  issue 2 © gal-dem

gal-dem issue 2 © gal-dem

What do you hope a visitor will take away from a visit to the show?

PG: Inspiration to do it themselves. If one person leaves with the encouragement to produce their own magazine – for however small an audience – we will have done our job. Also, an understanding that the current resurgence has roots going back through magazines such as The Face in the 80s and 90s, punk fanzines and feminist press such as Sniffin’ Glue and Spare Rib in the 70s, the 60s underground and satirical press from Oz and Time Out to Private Eye in the 60s all the way back to Peace News in the 30s and Wyndham Lewis’s modernist manifesto Blast on the cusp of the First World War.

What magazines, on display, past and present, mean the most to you personally?

PG: It’s great to feature an issue of Graham Greene’s “British New Yorker” Night And Day which was published for six months in 1937 before being closed by a libel suit from the child actor Shirley Temple’s Hollywood studio. Night And Day – whose reviewers included other greats of 20th-century literature such as Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh – set out to examine high and low culture with the same critical eye. In this way, later magazines such as Time Out and The Face and many current publications are part of its lineage.

One of my favourite contemporary titles is British Values, edited by Kieran Yates, who is second generation Punjabi and took the title from a statement by David Cameron to show that, in fact, immigrants to this country express the finest aspects of so-called “British values”. It’s also very funny with a six-pack pin-up of Sadiq Khan and a cover of Teresa May when she was Home Secretary in a hijab with the speech bubble: “Must admit, my cheekbones look banging in this.”

   Oz , No. 29, FEMALE ENERGY © Paul Gorman Archive

 Oz, No. 29, FEMALE ENERGY © Paul Gorman Archive

What notable rarities and curiosities are included in the display?

PG: There are many, including an original copy of the second and final issue of Blast, which was produced in 1915 as the First World War raged; it is packed full of polemic and wonderful graphics and artworks; the Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid loaned us precious copies of Suburban Press, his fanzine which railed against the depredations of urban developers in his home town of Croydon in the early 70s; the countercultural historian John May has loaned such ephemera as flyers circulated outside the Old Bailey when the Oz editors were on trial for contravening obscenity laws; and artist Scott King loaned copies of his late 90s publication Crash! which took on the consumer spectacle of Brit Pop, Britart and Blairite politics.

What can looking at independent magazines from the past teach us today? 

CC: In many ways it’s difficult to gauge the impact of magazines from the past without understanding the context of the times they were produced. You can’t fully appreciate the seismic impact a magazine such as Blast would have on England in the 1910s without fully appreciating how stuck in Victorian times society was.

  Spare Rib  1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Similarly, I think it’s difficult for us now to truly appreciate just how radical a magazine such as Spare Rib was. Women in the 60s were very much still ‘seen but not heard’. To read about women’s issues from a woman’s point of view was hugely important and liberating for many women.

Having said that, you can still get a powerful sense of just how radical these magazines and others like them – Peace News, Private Eye, Black Dwarf ­– were by how fresh and relevant many of the articles still seem today. They don’t seem ‘old-fashioned’ at all, and in some cases read like they could have been published yesterday. So, I think magazines from the past teach us lessons about the power of oppositional thinking and demonstrate, simply by saying things that had never been heard before, how important they were in bringing quite radical ideas into the mainstream and changing our point of view.

Print! Tearing it Up is on at Somerset House, London, until 22 August. Go visit and be inspired – and if you do decide to set up your own magazine, don't forget to tell us about it! 



Voices At The Table


Food, unlike anything else, has a way of bringing people together. It’s the thread that connects our days and ties us to our identities. Everyone can map their lives through food, from childhood recollections to the first thing they ever made for themselves. It allows for a diverse range of stories and memories. Two women making sure all of these stories and voices are heard and listened to are Miranda York and Anna Suling Masing.

Miranda, a freelance journalist, founded TOAST festival in 2013, which led into an annual food magazine. This, in turn, became what At The Table is today, an illustrated magazine that explores British food culture, featuring essays from food writers, novelists and poets. Anna Suling Masing, a writer, poet and academic, and Miranda co-curate the popular event series Voices At The Table.

Their events combine food, literature, and performance in an intimate evenings around London. We sat down with Anna and Miranda to chat about the importance of new voices, women’s writing and of course, why it's important to talk about food. 

Miranda: When we started we didn’t really think about beyond the first event, we just wanted to bring interesting people together to talk and think about food and interesting ideas like women in food or the future of meat. 

Anna: We’d known each other for years and then I wrote a poem for an issue of At The Table. I ran a theatre company for 7 years, moved into food writing and journalism and then did a PhD in storytelling, with food and identity as the biggest aspects. Miranda and I really connected over on food and what it really means.

Miranda: We really wanted to find new ways to tell these stories. Anna invited me to a play where people were cooking on stage, which I found so interesting. I wanted a way to bring the stories in the magazine into life in an event form, to bring lots of different people together from different worlds, industries and backgrounds together to talk about food in a really relaxed way. It’s all part of the oral tradition of storytelling. Everyone gets up and tells a story. It could be from their novel, from their cookbook or it could be something original that we have commissioned for the event or even someone else's writing that they really have a connection with. It’s like a literary food salon.

Anna: The big thing that we’re both so passionate about across all of our work is being a platform for new voices. The food world needs to be really diverse, the writing world needs to be really diverse. We always commission one or two new writers and pay and financially support new work. That's always the biggest feedback from events, that people find new writers to connect with.  

Miranda: Someone might buy a ticket to come and see a big name but they’ll always leave loving a new voice that we’ve featured. I love that people come and can connect with something that they might not usually experience. Food is what connects everything but it's  much more than food – it’s peoples memories, stories and history. Anyone can talk about food, it’s a great leveller for people to connect.

Anna: Food is also complicated and difficult, which makes it a really important thing to talk about. It’s not all joy and light, it’s complex. If you grew up without a lot of access to food, it affects you. Food is political. It’s gendered. It is really valuable to address it and to give people a space to talk about these things.

Miranda: We just recorded a pilot podcast because obviously events have limits on numbers and we want as many people to be able to hear these incredible stories. We’re so excited to get the stories out there. 

The next Voices at the Table takes place at The Coach London on 25 June. Novelist Sarah Winman, historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, actor Kevin Shen and debut novelist Sophie Mackintosh will all be reading, while dining on a three course meal from chef Henry Harris. Visit At the Table for information and more essays on food, culture and why we eat. 


What We're Loving – Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Ahead of its opening on Saturday 16 June, we sent Tahmina Begum to view Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, at the V&A in London... 

 Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932 (c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932 (c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)


"Disability, Strength, And Documenting Yourself: Why Frida Kahlo Is So Representative Of Millennial Women Now".

There are a few times when walking into a press viewing to an art exhibition that women - in all shapes, sizes and colour – dominate the room. But why was I surprised? This is the first time iconic artist Frida Kahlo’s work has left the Kahlo museo in Mexico. With bated breath, London was ready to receive arguably one of the most influential artists millennial women are looking up to...

Known for her style and beauty, possibly more than her art – the red painted lips, her crown twisted and braided with flowers and of course, her monobrow, these details were surprisingly not the centre of the exhibition. Just like the title suggested, it was about what made up the artist – from the physical to the non-tangible.

 Frida Kahlo, c. 1926. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

Frida Kahlo, c. 1926. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

Similar to many millennial women, the painter hated being boxed into one category. She understood how dynamic the human condition was and was even famously quoted: “I have enjoyed being contradictory”.

Wandering around Kahlo’s beginnings and belongings not only felt surreal, but there was a strong presence that Kahlo’s spirit was conscious of everything, including life itself. V&A Co-curator  Claire Wilcox said she wanted the kind of ambience to feel almost like you were in a dream, “we didn’t want it to feel like the past or present but that you were within her life”.

Bed bound after a tram accident when she was 18, disability and illness is often overshadowed by fashion, when really it was a key player in how Kahlo viewed the world. From observation, it was rightly the strongest theme throughout the exhibition – after all, it was this constriction that willed Kahlo to take up painting and in doing so, forced the surrealist (who hated being known for one type of art) to really look at herself.

During Tristram Hunt’s speech at the exhibition opening, the Director of the V&A said that though disability shaped Kahlo’s life through the way she “fashioned her own identity”, it was clear the artist “transcended disability”.

It wasn’t that Kahlo tried to escape the reality of her pain, in the words of Wilcox, “everything in her life was deliberate from her art to her furniture” down to the painted crutches and orthopaedic corsets, it was that Kahlo saw herself through many lenses. One included having to lay forcefully in bed, the other was her marriage to Diego Rivera and her affairs, how her ethnicity (she was German, Indian and Spanish) fit into her Mexican nationality and her complex relationships with the United States.

 Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

If you didn’t know who Frida Khalo was and did a quick google search, you may look at her paintings and think she was narcissistic - self-centred, even – but really all Kahlo was doing is what is celebrated now: exploring all aspects of her identity and documenting it along the way.

Though Frida Kahlo looked within herself, her feeling was really communal, what other people, other women of colour, those with disabilities felt - she just showed the complexities in how we viewed ourselves and what we thought others saw and mandated everyone around her, even those looking at her craft, to do the same.

In 1944, Kahlo sat for a series of ‘mirror’ photographs in Casa Azul by her friend and photographer, Lola Alvarez Bravo. Though this reminds Bravo of Kahlo's painting “The Two Fridas” it’s as though “there really is another person behind the mirror”. Kahlo is a recent but relevant pioneer in understanding that the way you see yourself is beyond you. Though your “I” is fixated it’s not binary.

This all came down to the clothes - from three piece suits passed down from her late German father she wore to push away gender norms to the rebozo (shawl) across her arms and the huipil (tunic) placed on her body to display her loyalty to Mexican traditions - especially during an Americanising revolution.

 Revlon compact and powderpuff with blusher in ‘Clear Red’ and Revlon lipstick in ‘Everything’s Rosy’; emery boards and eyebrow pencil in ‘Ebony’. Before 1954. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums

Revlon compact and powderpuff with blusher in ‘Clear Red’ and Revlon lipstick in ‘Everything’s Rosy’; emery boards and eyebrow pencil in ‘Ebony’. Before 1954. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums

Peering into Kahlo's rouge blush pot and Revlon lipsticks seems surreal but the feeling across the room really is of warmth. The strength that comes from enjoying the blend of life. It echoes poet Nayyirah Waheed’s words: “do not choose the lesser life. do you hear me. do you hear me. Choose the life that is. yours. the life that is seducing your lungs. that is dripping down your chin.” This isn’t just an example of grabbing life but an instruction. Thank you, Frida.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June–14 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland

Elaine Castillo talks America is not the Heart

 Photo: Amaal Said

Photo: Amaal Said

words: terri-jane dow

Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America is not the Heart, centres around Hero De Vera, a woman who has recently arrived in the United States to start a new life. She is undocumented and an ex-member of the communist New People’s Army. As the novel unfolds, she becomes part of the family, and part of the community, in ways she didn’t expect. America is not the Heart is one of our What We’re Reading picks in our midsummer issue, which you can pick up here. We spoke to Elaine about the inspirations behind her novel. 

Our latest issue explores identity – it seems to be a theme that runs through America is not the Heart.

I don’t know that identity is a huge theme – at least, any more so than it figures in novels that are about people living anything resembling a life, and thus about that encounter between the citizen self and the private self, where we’re at once emotional, animal, historical, political. Of course, there are certain communities of people whose lives get reduced to identity discourse, and people whose lives – and identities – get taken for granted; for neutral; for universal. How often are white authors told that identity is a huge theme in their novels? I certainly read books by white authors and marvel at how deeply white their worlds are, how alien they seem to my particular corner of America, how much a glossary would come in handy – and yet no glossaries get demanded for those books despite the fact that hyper-specific questions and assumptions around identity, particularly around the intersection between whiteness and class, whiteness and gender, impinge upon their characters’ lives on every page. But there’s often a silent coding around words like identity or community, as if these terms are dogwhistles, a racialised vocabulary that only applies to immigrant identity, people of colour identity, and so on. 

Did you always know you wanted to include languages other than English in the novel?

I never thought about it as anything other than perfectly banal and ordinary. It’s important for writers, especially writers of colour, to ultimately claim the space for their own banality. It never occurred to me that to write a largely English-language book that was inclusive of large portions of untranslated non-English language was in any way remarkable: I grew up in a majority-minority town, Milpitas, the town where most of the book is set. Something like nearly 70% of the population speak a language other than English; our mayors have all either been Filipinx or Vietnamese since the nineties [Oh Comely note: Filipinx is used as a more inclusive term than the gendered Filipino/a]. That’s an American reality. That we don’t see towns like that portrayed as American heartlands says nothing about those towns, and more about the paucity of our discourse around what constitutes as American.

I grew up in a house where multiple languages were floating around, piecemeal, and the boundaries between those languages were porous: my mother had her own language (Pangasinan), my dad had his own language (Ilocano), they spoke the lingua franca of the Philippines to each other (Tagalog), as well as the second language of the Philippines (English). It was a mundane reality of my life for my mother to start a sentence to me in Tagalog and end in English or Pangasinan; most of my Tagalog had Pangasinan words sprinkled into it, which would confuse Tagalog-speaking friends – I would have no idea that some word I’d known all my life wasn’t actually Tagalog, but Pangasinan. And I was by no means an anomaly in my larger community. I didn’t include these languages in the book to “add local colour,” which is usually how the inclusion of non-English words in English-language fiction is described, fetishistically or disparagingly. This is simply how the community like the one in the book sounds. These are the material, sensual, granular facts of this particular American reality – and if we’re going to have American fiction that’s in any way deserving of that epithet, then we need to both write and read the fiction in a way that is commensurate to those realities, period.

The title of the novel is a play on Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart: A Personal History, [Bulosan was a Filipinx/American immigrant writer, and his semi-autobiographical novel was one of the first to show an Asian American working-class experience]. Could you tell me a bit about that? Would you say that your novel is an update to the Filipinx-American experience; a “Personal History” for your characters?

Haha, to be completely honest, the title came out of a year-long private joke I’d always told myself. Not to make wide cultural generalisations, but being a Filipinx kid, I like a pun – and so whenever I heard Bulosan’s title, especially pronounced with a Filipinx accent, I always misheard it as "America Isn’t the Heart"; it just made me snicker to myself, so I always thought I’d write a story or chapter title with that Isn’tone day, which is why the last chapter of the book still contains the conjunction. It wasn’t this big ambitious intertextual reference or staking out of a literary heritage! Just the kind of dumb joke that makes only you laugh.

But of course, Bulosan’s book remains a seminal text read in high schools and colleges all over the States, mostly in Filipinx American Studies and Ethnic Studies, though obviously I think it should be required reading for American history – for its stark depictions of the miseries and realities of early immigrant life, particularly Filipinx and Mexican migrant labour on the West Coast in the 1930s, its lacerating portrayals of white supremacist discrimination, racist mobs, police brutality, economic deprivation. It was also the first book I’d ever seen depicting the rural poor from Pangasinan, the same province from which my mother comes; Bulosan’s descriptions of the region ring true to stories my grandmother and mother used to tell (when they would tell stories at all; mostly they were silent for years around the subject of their abject poverty back in the Philippines). To read books about Filipinxs that were not necessarily wealthy or educated, or Manila-based, or cosmopolitan – that was a gift. But the dubious accompaniment of that gift is the profound misogyny that is threaded throughout the book: scene after scene of women brutalised, beaten, raped, disappeared. Bulosan’s autobiographical narrator often expresses sympathy and pity towards these women, in a kind of ‘Nice Guy’ fashion, but there’s a conspicuous failure to connect the oppression of those women to his own, and that failure needs to be discussed and indicted more than it is. 

So in some way, sure, the fact that America is not the Heart [AINTH] expressly centres the granular details of women in their fullness – immigrant women, undocumented women, queer women, women who exist in the narrative not merely to be tragic foils or victims of brutal violence – in a way that AINTH simply doesn’t could be considered the beginning of a conversation. But luckily there’s a healthy community of Filipinx American literature that doesn’t need to be “updated” per se – that would sound pretty presumptuous! The history there is long and rich and various, thankfully (though perhaps less known by the wider reading population than it ought to be); and let’s work so it continues in that vein, so we can keep reading different types of Filipinx stories, from different people, classes, genders, regions, universes.

How does America is not the Heart’s relationship to the idea of ‘family’ play into those stories? 

There are a handful of genres that are usually spoken about dismissively, as if they occupy some lower rung of the artistic echelon: the family epic, the immigrant saga, the domestic novel, the romance. No surprises that these genres are often written by and about people in some of our most marginalised communities; no surprise that they’re also often genres, especially the latter two, that centre people who identify as women. It’s always funny to me how quick literary discourse is to absorb certain genres into critical discourse – works of science fiction and fantasy adopted for their larger metaphors around dystopia, state brutality, marginalisation, etc. Or even in AINTH, the parts of the books that often get politicised tend to be the episodes of what we might call legible historical weightiness, things like dictatorship, the NPA, the American genocides in the Philippines at the turn of the century, all of which are of course at the core of how we think about both Philippine and American statecraft, but they’re also not the only sites for thinking through characters as political animals as much as emotional, historical, social.

I often think of both love stories and family dramas as being the sites for some our most urgent and radical political dramas – and yet we don’t offer confer that kind of critical analysis or legitimacy on those types of stories. But why not think through the ways in which a queer undocumented woman meets another queer working-class immigrant woman and gets introduced to romantic manga? What might she think of those stories? Why not think through the ways in which a bi woman who’s been disowned by her parents would have to learn how to be a decent family member to a younger cousin; what the love of extended family members might mean to someone with as fraught a relationship with family as Hero?

One of the things I always say is that for me, I’m not interested in the portrayals of trauma that function as portraits, rather than landscapes. Which is to say, one person in the story has trauma, and everyone else is a handmaiden to that trauma, in the classical sense of literary tragedy. That’s just fundamentally not how I grew up – everyone in my family and extended community had their baggage. And I think that’s how I necessarily come to write love and family and queerness: that people live at the vectors of all these parts of their lives, and all those parts inform the whole. To write about a bi woman, who is also undocumented, who is also living in political exile and has lingering disability from her time in a prison camp, who also has to show up and be responsible for a younger cousin, who also has to be there for a new girlfriend, who has been disowned by her parents, who has to have an adult reckoning with a relative she loved in childhood – who has to be a person in the world, in other words. I think it’s particularly vital to think through those vectors – love, family, queerness – when you’re writing about this kind of community embeddedness, because I’m also, fundamentally, writing about queer suburban people. In my burgeoning youth as a bi kid of colour, I read and loved a lot of queer fiction that mostly centered suburban flight: that you had to leave the town, the community, in order to be fully realised as a queer person. It’s a flight I know well in my life and have huge, abiding love for: but I also know it’s not the end-all be-all of queer stories. 

Especially when you’re writing about someone like Hero, for whom the family is at once a source of absolute abandonment (her own parents) and profound life-saving refuge (her uncle Pol and his family, whom she comes to live with in Milpitas). It’s not as easy to cut ties with family or community when, in a purely practical sense – Hero has no papers – her survival is also dependent on the kindness and material aid of certain family members, the larger consequences of which she has to eventually reckon with. Certainly that was true of my own family; when you don’t have the larger support system of a functioning social welfare state, the people that help you make rent, pay for hospital bills, post bail, are usually your family members.

The relationships in the novel felt cautious and tentative – perhaps especially the relationship between Hero and Rosalyn. I felt that becoming a big sister to Roni was the push Hero needed to overcome some of her caution.

That Roni might be the one who pushes Hero out of her caution around Rosalyn is also part of that idea: that the love story in the book isn’t singular, isn’t just about one woman falling love with another (though of course it’s hugely about that), but also ultimately about things like: how do we even learn to be tender? When do we step up to care for other people, particularly when we’ve been through so much shit ourselves? What does it mean to come through for someone else? I think the reluctance you’re picking up on in Hero has so much to do with a larger reluctance that is probably the book’s real subject, one which most of us will have to encounter in our lives: how searingly difficult it is to be loved and known; to love and know others. And yet how absolutely, earth-shatteringly transformative; how plain; how like nothing else in the fucking world. That goes for our lovers, our friends, our family members. 

America is not the Heart is out now. Buy a copy here



Sunday reading: the real world

 Words and photos by Rebecca Givens 

Words and photos by Rebecca Givens 

Do you spend too much time looking down at your phone? Rebecca Givens takes a break from her screen. (Unfortunately you do have to read this on a screen, but promise us, you'll take a digital detox after...) 

This is my only life. And this is how it really feels.

How much have you stared at your smartphone screen in the last 24 hours? 

On average, we spend two hours per day looking down at our devices. After downloading an app earlier this year to monitor my own usage, I was horrified to learn that I was racking up between five and nine hours daily, spent mostly on social media sites and in addition to spending the working day on a computer. 

This worried me. I knew I received the most joy from things that occurred away from the world inside my iPhone – walking, running, yoga, painting, travelling – yet my existence had become a dreary ritual of screen-time and sleep, screen-time and sleep. Wake, repeat, wake, repeat. 

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Why was I using my phone so much and was this having a negative effect on my mental health? I vowed to explore these two questions by embarking on a month-long social media detox. That evening, I deleted the apps from my phone and logged out of accounts on my desktop. The journey had begun.

I used to be a digital consultant, and I’d long promoted the benefits of social media marketing to clients, but for years secretly feared that our day-to-day usage, as individuals in the 21st century was changing the way we were absorbing the world around us. I had begun to observe my own digital consumption and how it was preventing me from being present in my own life. The events I had watched through a screen, the family members I had ignored over dinner, the holiday memories that were retrospectively hazy because I’d been simultaneously lost in my news feed. 


On day one of my detox, I took the first and most important step, I admitted addiction. I had developed an unhealthy attachment to various un-real digital realms and this was having a negative effect on the way I was tasting the flavour of real life. 

Today, on day 30, I sit here and look back at what this detox has taught me and how it has altered my behaviour. For the last month I have been jotting down these behavioural reflections in a paper journal. That journal represents the start of a brand new chapter, one in which I can reflect on what I missed out on all these years – and what I promise to never take for granted again. 

A month-long digital detox was easier than I had imagined. Yes, it was like quitting anything, and to begin with required willpower and training, but after just a few short days, the thought of spending time scrolling through the news of hundreds of strangers sat uneasily with me. After noticing my changing connection to the physical world, I very quickly became accustomed to a life free from social networking, a life free from sharing big occasions with my network. It only took enjoying one of two outings tech-free to remember what life felt like before the impulse to share took over. There’s something satisfying about relishing an experience phone-free, surrounded by a sea of people watching the same thing through their cameras. Sometimes, you can feel like you’re the only one who has stepped outside of The Matrix. 

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This month was filled with a life-time of memories, tech-free walks and relaxing evenings, doodling memories in my planner, enjoying meaningful conversations with loved ones. The extra hours I gained from not scrolling encouraged me to explore new projects and hobbies. Instead of applying filters, I meditated. Instead of updating my Instagram story, I went for a 20-minute run. Instead of relentlessly snapping photos on my phone, I re-embraced my passion for vintage analogue cameras. Slow technology has taught me that quality is more important that quantity. Now, I take one non-digital snapshot of an experience, refreshing compared to the dozens I would have captured in the past… sifting through, shortlisting, filtering, cropping, editing, posting.

Detached from the social media sphere, my motivations and plans changed, as my enjoyment of events was never driven or shaped by a desire to capture them. I thrived in a mindset of no plans, no phone, no stress and no sharing. I enjoyed entire days not picking up my phone – as I cut the cord to technology I felt a new one attach, to the real moments going on around me that I was able to enjoy entirely. I would reflect on fun occasions weeks later, looking back alone, with a smile, free from checking how many likes or comments that memory had received. 

I slowed down, something I had been trying to achieve for years. I realised that a less-digital life meant a less-stressful one. I had to wait to get my photography developed. I got to know the ladies at the local film shop. My relationships improved. I felt myself become more present each day. I completely ditched the concept of ‘instant’.

Admittedly I also came to realise what I did value about having an audience, an online community to talk to and share news with. I vowed to use social media in the future with consideration. Before, I felt sucked in to a life of endless digital consumption, but my detox had taught me to consider my interactions carefully and to appreciate the value of my time.

My biggest learning from this experiment was that the process should always be more important than the result – when it comes to working, creating and most importantly, making personal memories. I had forgotten what the act of ‘creating’ felt like when there wasn’t a final hashtagged post at the end of it. Only when you’re free from this pressure can you really make your best work, immersed and completely lost in the process. 

For those of us who have used networking sites for years, habits have crept into our everyday without us even realising it. The fear of missing out, the impulse to compare ourselves to others, the desire to filter and alter our memories, the need to focus on the device in our hands more than the people and things around us. Only by taking a step back can we observe these behaviours and the impact they have on our mental health and the mental health of those around us. 

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Research shows that 38% of us believe we use our phones too much (that’s around 15.5 million people in the UK), but only 14% of us are making an effort to change this. After this experience, I do believe that just one month media-free can give us social consumers some great valuable insights, lessons that we can then take forward and practice in our future interactions with the digital world, to allow us to live the healthiest and happiest life possible. 

I wholeheartedly recommend taking a step back from the un-real world for just a short period of time. One month will fly past in the blink of an eye – like it or not, life moves so incredibly fast, so it’s important to stop and take a proper unfiltered look at it every once in a while before it fades out of the feed forever.

Rebecca Givens is a Warwickshire-based writer, blogger, typewriter poet and analogue photography enthusiast. You can read her blog at theanalogueblogger.com.