Thursday, September 22, 2011

Zero History, and other style notes

Zero History

I am lolling on the couch in my favourite denim, a heavy right hand twill, but not, I'm afraid, selvedge. Nor is it slubby, unlike my partner's long sleeve t-shirt, an irresistibly slubby item.

I know all about slubby thanks to William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, which has as its major (ahem) thread the search for the maker of a secret brand of jeans, Gabriel Hounds – and no doubt like every other slightly obsessive William Gibson fan, I now find myself googling slubby denim and wondering where I can get me a pair of those mythical Hounds.

Which is fascinating. I am not one of those women who usually spends a great deal of time thinking about clothes. I have my uniform – black or blue jeans; black or blue scoop neck top with or without subtle horizontal stripes; grey or blue jacket; coordinating scarves and sleevies for chillier days – which I almost always wear. These clothes are rarely from the high street or the mall; instead, I buy them second hand, fair trade, or from local makers. I'm hardly the stereotypical fashionista.

Yet I do have fantastically strong opinions about what I will and will not wear. I hate it when clothes fall apart or stretch out of shape; and I loathe the way garment makers are so often treated as slave labour, rather than as skilled workers. Too, I must admit that when my clothes are well made and suit me, I feel good; and when they aren't and don't, I feel self-effacing and grumpy.

So I spend time searching out clothes that are sturdy and timeless; and when I can't find or afford them – which is usually – I look for quality second hand. Then, of course, I often give up and head to the mall; but I dream of finding clothes which are made to last.

In his magnificent book Local Wonders, Ted Kooser writes about the experience of putting on a shirt his mother made for him when he was 14. Sixty years later, it still fits and still has wear in it, unimaginable to this child of the throwaway generation. It is, however, imaginable to the maker of Hounds, who is fascinated by the clothes that once were commonplace in America: 20 oz selvedge denim, and shirts and jackets so sturdy that they endured for decades; these are the clothes she is re-inventing.

Zero History is about the power of this secret brand, which has as its only advertisement the quality of each garment. It is also about the hunger of an advertising agency to find the genius behind such a simple yet powerful marketing tool; and the way even this brand is taken on board, in the end, by the fashion mavens. Concurrent themes include the way US military style has so deeply informed street wear; the phenomenon of pop up shops; and the cross over between the worlds of music, art and fashion. Just to keep it all ticking along, there are also eccentric private hotels, a few high speed chases, corruption in high places, and a performance art skydiver.

William Gibson's last three novels have investigated in one way or another the influence of branding on our lives and the infiltration of the military on general society, and while Zero History is perhaps not quite up to Pattern Recognition, the first of the three, it is still a thought provoking read and a terrific romp.

I must say, too, that it gave me quite a fillip when one of the characters revealed that he had bought his Hounds at the Rose Street Market in Fitzroy; I have bought a heap of clothing, bags and notebooks there over the years. Nice to know that one of my locals gets a mention in a novel set in London, although it gave me a jolt to realise I may be very slightly cooler than I thought.

On another fashion note, I had a weird moment this week. Having just read Zero History, I was trying to work out why some outfits make me feel terrific a la Hounds and others make me slope around. I was thinking, too, about how I almost always wear the uniform mentioned above, and so I found myself flipping through Secrets of Style at my cousin's house, To my astonishment, I discovered that the editors of In Style magazine think a uniform is good, and that it is better to have a few quality items in one's wardrobe than a mountain of ordinary clothes. They also recommend buying up big when an item suits one well, and I puffed up in pride at the thought of my three identical t-shirts and three identical black singlets sitting in the wardrobe.

The main difference between their wardrobe and mine appears to be sticky fingers and budget. Thus I wear not cashmere turtlenecks, but wool; not tailored pants, but denim; and not low heels, but amusing flat shoes. But it was an odd moment when I realised the editors of a style magazine were on the same track as William Gibson and his imaginary maker of Hounds, and me.

It was especially surprising given the waste of an industry which has as its focus the generation of desire, which leads to our insatiable and destructive hunger for the new. But once I recovered from my astonishment, and my general embarrassment at reading a style guide, I must admit Secrets of Style was very helpful, not least for giving me permission to stick to my grey, black and blue wardrobe of things which are not particularly fashionable. It was full of good tips, too, on which cuts suit which features, and what to look for when buying clothes (fabric, shape, length, stitching, seam width, and more).

Spring is here, and if you're like me you'll have just discovered you have about three things to wear. My modest tips, diffidently proffered given the lamentable state of my own wardrobe, are to read Zero History and have a think about fashion (anyway, it's great fun); flick through the style guide, which will help you send all the clothes that make you feel awful to the op shop, and understand which clothes may suit you; scroll through the ethical shopping guide I put together here; then forgive yourself for anything you have to buy new from a sweatshop reliant chain store. Just buy the best quality you can afford, so you only have to buy it once.

And look out for something slubby.

(I have decided to crosspost my notes on books from Lost in a Story here. They will still appear at Lost in a Story, along with all the previous reviews.)

The New Secrets of Style: The Complete Guide to Dressing Your Best Every Day Pattern Recognition Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The power of a sleeping baby

Picture this: a young baby sleeps peacefully in the arms of someone who, we know, feels no peace... the sleeping baby is the medium of God’s passionate and pastoral love. It communicates a powerful message of acceptance and worth to a fractured adult. In so doing, the baby is engaged in pastoral care. (The Priesthood of All Believers: An exploration of the ministry of children to the church and its implications for congregations, Paper S186, Zadok Papers, Spring 2011).


If you need a little light holiday reading, the Zadok Institute has recently published my paper on the ministry of children to the church, all 12,729 words of it (plus a few more for endnotes).

Interested in such things? You can order a copy for the princely sum of $4.00 ($2.50 for the pdf copy), plus $2.50 for postage and handling, from Zadok; this is less than .0003c a word, a steal at twice the price! Download an order form here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

This piece appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 111 (Winter 2011). The Spring edition is out now, with my reflection on praying into the night.


Mortimer, Mohammed and Me

Every Friday, I spend a few hours reading with kids at a local school. I listen to each child read their reader, and then I offer them a choice: they can go back to the classroom activity, or they can have a story read to them, which they choose from the books I bring in. Mostly, they want to listen to a story; and mostly, they choose a little book by Robert Munsch, called Mortimer.

Mortimer can’t sleep, so instead he sings loudly (‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’) and drives his family crazy. Person after person comes upstairs to tell Mortimer to be quiet, but as soon as they reach the bottom of the stairs he starts singing again. Eventually, the family becomes so agitated that they start yelling at each other; and while Mortimer waits for someone else to come up, he falls fast asleep.

As you can imagine, it is a very loud book. I have to sing Mortimer’s song four times; and mimic the sound of lots of people coming upstairs and shouting at him; and evoke the noise of Mortimer’s mother and father and seventeen brothers and sisters and even the police yelling downstairs – this book is a riot.

Meanwhile the listening child sits, spellbound; sings Mortimer’s song along with me; and almost invariably gets the giggles.

I read Mortimer aloud fifteen to twenty times each week; and at times I find myself wanting to rush. They’ve all heard it before, many times. There are very few volunteers and lots of kids, and I would like to read with every child every week – but I can’t. I find myself thinking that if we hurry this story or read less of the reader or maybe even give up reading stories but focus on the readers instead, then I’ll get to one more, and one more, and one more, child.

Yet the whole point is to give these kids, mostly refugees with very few books at home, the opportunity to wallow in stories just as my own children have wallowed. We can’t do that in a rush.

So I work hard to breathe deep; to sit on the class list so it doesn’t catch my eye; to read fast when the story begs to be read fast; to read slow when the story begs to be drawn out; to make room for quiet spaces and expectant pauses; and to look at the face of each child and etch it onto my heart.

One Friday, I was reading Mortimer for perhaps the seventeenth time, as always achingly aware of the kids I wouldn’t get to and wrestling with the impulse to race. I glanced at Mohammed, listening with rapt attention, and I suddenly realised that we were on God’s time.

Between two words, I dropped into that great yawning space, that vast universe where there is more than enough time for love however long it takes; and in this spinning dizzying sense of the infinite I was surrounded by a great rumble of belly laughter, a deep chuckling, love wiping its eyes in hilarity at the story of Mortimer and at all the little boys and girls who drive their parents crazy, and at all the crazy adults who think that love can be scheduled or rushed.

And then I was back at school, where I found myself sitting on the carpet singing ‘Bang-bang, rattle-ding-bang, Gonna make my noise all day’ and beside me Mohammed was now singing, his face aglow, and I started to hoot and he got the giggles and a classmate joined in and another picked up the thread of song, and surrounding us all were the floating filaments, the echoes of heavenly laughter.

(The boy’s name has been changed. Robert Munsch has a fantastic website where you can look at his books and listen to stories; Mortimer is here.)
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