Happy Birthday, Number Seven!

Number Seven is a make-up brand, found in Boots chemists, which is celebrating its eightieth birthday this year. In celebration, Nottingham Lakeside Arts has an exhibition on the history of the brand. It’s a fascinating thing, not least because it really offers some insight into the history of women. Lisa Eldridge details this overlap in her book (which I reviewed here).

The exhibition showed the sort of society that the 1930s make-up brand came in to for context. Some awful misogyny was on display here from over the years, but it was so awful that it became funny. Here’s the lovely George Saville, in 1688, writing a guide for his daughter:
‘She doth not like her self as God Almighty made her, but will have some of her own Workmanship; which is so far from making her a better Thing than a Woman, than it turn her into a worse Creature than a Monkey.’
Firstly, what does George have against monkeys?! I suppose he wouldn’t have been aware that we are descended from them. I have heard echoes of this sort of thinking being repeated today, which saddens me, but it is important to know that make-up has always angered some men.

So, back to actual Number Seven products, which arrived in the Britain of 1936. 1930s products were more skincare-based, so as not to appear obvious. The following decades would subtly allow for more make-up / make cosmetics almost mandatory.  It was perfectly okay for women to wear non-obvious make-up in the 1930s then, but obvious make-up was for stage actresses (gross!). Look at this dainty box set, one of Number Seven’s first:

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Beautiful 1930s #numberseven #makeup #boots

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My favourite thing at this exhibition was the tower of make-up, seen at the top of this post, with 1930s products at the bottom and going up to today’s products at the top (which I, sadly, couldn’t fit into one photo). You can see how the products became less “natural” and skincare based.
I loved seeing things from the distant past, but also loved seeing things that I could remember. My mum had some of these products as I was growing up, which made me feel comforted for some reason. These simple lipsticks and mascaras can be deeply personal. Also, when you’re doing your make-up you’re concentrating on yourself, which many women are unable to do for the rest of the day. We can become intimate with the cosmetics we choose to put on ourselves.


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Vintage make up at #lakesidenottingham #no7

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My only quibble with the exhibition is that it wasn’t big enough. I would have liked to see more pretty pieces of the past. And I would like to see something of the brand’s little sister, Seventeen, which I used when I was younger (I had a green lipstick from them. They’re still going though!).

This exhibition made me want to buy a red lipstick (which I did). I had always thought that an un-made-up face was giving the middle finger to society, but it’s far more complicated than that. Who would have thought that lipstick could be so loaded?!
As you may be able to tell, I have conflicting feelings on this whole issue. Cosmetics have consistently been ignored and seen as frivolous, or condemned in a slut-shaming way. Choosing what make up to wear, or even wearing none at all, is and always has been fairly political. But, crucially too, these products are beautiful aesthetically. Perhaps I am overthinking a beautiful exhibition, but it has stayed on my mind in the weeks since I went. This is surely the intention of any good exhibition.

‘Inspiring Beauty: No.7’ is on at Lakeside Nottingham until April 17th.


South of the River

I recently came back from a long weekend in London. I find London so interesting and I love it but, after a while, it can start to feel overwhelming. This is because I try to fit too much in. I managed to read a very short book on the train which stayed in my mind throughout the trip. It was The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. In it are collected essays she wrote about London for Good Housekeeping magazine, in the early 1930s, so they are a bit more informal than her usual stuff.

The first short essay in The London Scene is called ‘The Docks of London’. The London Docks were once part of the world’s biggest shipping port and they closed in 1969. Woolf says that ‘the only thing that can change the routine of the docks is a change in ourselves’. And we did change: our demands for things have increased, we want more and we want it now. Boats aren’t quick enough for us anymore. The pace of life has changed; we are sped up. ‘We demand shoes, furs, bags, stoves, oil, rice puddings, candles; and they are brought to us’, wrote Woolf. Now they are brought much faster.

Woolf takes the reader from the sea, down the Thames, to the docks. The docks aren’t there anymore, and the area around the docks has changed dramatically since Woolf wrote about them. On this trip I spent a lot of time south of the river, in Greenwich. From the top of the Royal Observatory (up a steep hill) the view of what would have been the London docks is amazing. Skyscrapers housing corporations and banks dominate the skyline. We just stayed looking at the view of Canary Wharf for a while. I think it looks better by night.

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View from Greenwich at night #London

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I love Woolf’s imagination and artistic thoughts but there’s often a distasteful undertone to a lot of what she wrote. When describing the many different ships arriving from all over the world; she declares that ‘nobody in the docks has ever given a second of thought to’ the ‘element of beauty’ contained there. Naturally, the working classes aren’t equipped to appreciate beauty. Echoes of her snobbery still reverberate around our radically different society.

‘The Docks of London’ is an interesting read. It contains a view of a world which has completely disappeared, a world the writer imagined would last forever. Other essays in this book touch on sights which are more familiar; various old buildings and historical bustling streets that have stayed with us. London is a fascinating combination of the old and the new and it is wonderful to explore it.

Seven Hours in London

When we arrived it was already dark. I hadn’t visited for four years and the rush hour traffic and mass of people on Euston Road – who seemed very sure of where they were going – felt incredibly disorienting at first. We disappeared down a quieter street and I remembered where I was going and I started to feel invigorated. We were looking for the British Museum and we must have come close but we didn’t find it. We walked through Russell Square and wandered around Bloomsbury, looking for the hubs of our favourite publishers.

We just wandered for a while, looking at the lights and the people and realising how much is actually happening in London on any given night. I love Christmas lights because they make everything in the middle of winter look less dreary and cold. We took whichever turn took our fancy and ended up in Trafalgar Square. In many ways, I think that London is almost a giant film set because everything is so famous.

Big Ben

We took a wrong turn looking for Downing Street but we eventually found it. I was more interested in Big Ben and took a lot of pictures of it, trying not to get in the way of locals who are probably sick of tourists doing the same thing every day. After taking pictures of the big clock we decided to head to New Oxford Street, for the reason we had come to London in the first place. We hadn’t come just to walk around in the dark for three hours; we had a party to go to. The Guardian First Book Award party!

I hadn’t been to a fancy literary party before, and this one was wonderful. We were 31 floors up and we had an amazing view of London; of more people going places, of the British Museum (we finally found it!) and other sights. There was an open bar and I was treated to a glass of Prosecco as I walked in. There were other drinks too and my head didn’t thank me the next day for trying most of them. Our reading group met up and marvelled, and I think that we all wanted this party to become a regular thing.


The shortlisted books were dotted around the room together as decoration. We had three out of the five books on the shortlist we submitted as a group, which wasn’t bad. This made me realise how much personal taste can account for winners and shortlists – perhaps there never is truly a “best” book. I thought that the final shortlist was representative and I can see why those books were chosen. The winner was announced fairly early: it was Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, a selection of short stories set in small-town Ireland. Barrett looked very shocked to have won. But his stories were well-written, combining lyricism with gritty working-class life.

Then we circulated a bit and met the very lovely May-Lan Tan, author of one of my favourite books on the longlist, Things to Make and Break. I like that two books of short stories found their way onto the shortlist. I am a fan of short stories.

After that the evening gets a little blurry. We caught the underground and headed to the St Pancras hotel for one last drink before our train left. Luckily we could see the station from the bar. So clutching my Guardian goody bag, we caught the 11:15 home, which was busier than I would have thought. With only a big bag of Doritos and a massive bottle of water to keep us awake we finally arrived home, incredibly tired, at just after two. It was a great night! But it took me a few days to recover. I’m getting old.

My Fleeting Trip to Hay-on-Wye: Things That Aren’t Books

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Hay-on-Wye July 2014 #Books #Wales

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I bought a lot of books in the town of books last week. But there are more things to see in Hay-on-Wye than bookshops (there are a lot of them, though, so I will talk about them a bit). Firstly, it was nice just being in Wales for a bit. I like looking around me and seeing hills, forests, a bit of scenery. It was nice just being away from a bigger town, and have patchy phone reception, for a few days.

I know the title of this post is ‘Things That Aren’t Books’, but bookshops and book-related art aren’t actual books, right? There was a lot of book related art around the town: even the graffiti was somehow about books. A really interesting bookshop was Murder and Mayhem, a crime fiction shop. You couldn’t miss it because there was an outline of a body pointing towards it on the street. The inside of it was decked out too; a lot of thought had gone into it.

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Buy a book at at any time #Books #HayonWye

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My favourite bookshop was Richard Booth’s bookshop. He opened the first bookshop in Hay-on-Wye in the 1960s, and named himself the king of the town. Today his old bookshop has a lovely collection of old and new books, a café where we tried some tasty Hungarian red wine, and a cinema. We didn’t go to the cinema as there was only one film on and it was Belle and I’d already seen it and blogged about it.

Because we were only staying for two nights, and my boyfriend had never been before, we tried to do as many of the bookshops as we could. Towards the end of our trip, however, even we were a little bookshopped out. There are a lot of interesting places to go and see around Hay-on-Wye that we didn’t get a chance to do – go to the Brecon Beacons for instance. If we’d have stayed longer we probably would have had a more varied time (and also tried more pubs).

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Wales, July 2014

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So apart from checking out the castle and looking at the hills and landscape we didn’t really get out to see much else (we only stayed for one full day). We tried tayberries, which I’d never had before. They look like raspberries but they’re longer and they taste much more sour. Also, I discovered that cooking on an Aga isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It was just nice to be somewhere new, even for a couple of days.

My Fleeting Trip to Hay-on-Wye: The Books

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Hay-on-Wye #book haul

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In a quick trip to Hay-on-Wye last week I managed to spend far too much on books. Hay-on-Wye is a small town on the border of England and Wales (it’s on the Welsh side, mostly) and is known for its many bookshops and its yearly literary festival. I’ll talk about the holiday side of the visit soon, now is the time to look at the books I bought.

The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 – I like reading foreign fiction and this looked a good place to start with African writing as it features a lot from all over the continent. Interestingly, a lot is from Nigeria, where Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche are from (two African writers I’ve enjoyed in the past).

Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay – I was looking for Jackie Kay everywhere because I read Trumpet earlier this year and absolutely loved it. Luckily, I found her collection of short stories.

Soul Tourists by Bernardine Evaristo – This is an Evaristo I haven’t read yet. It involves a road-trip and it’s Evaristo so I’ll probably read it in a day or so.

The Virago Book of Love Poetry – I want to read more poetry and I think anthologies are a good way of exposing yourself to new writers. I also just like it when women aren’t solely the object of feelings of love, but have feelings themselves.

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – After reading The PowerBook and Sexing the Cherry I thought I’d read Winterson’s most famous book. It’s based on her life growing up as a lesbian under very religious parents.

The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt – I love Byatt and this looked interesting. Another book of short stories! These stories are each inspired by a Matisse painting. I may read this next.

The Memory Wars by Frederick Crews – These essays published in the ‘90s undermine a lot of Freud’s work. I read some Freud for my dissertation, and am interested in memory and how the brain works, so am intrigued by this.

The Penguin Book of Diaries – From what I’ve read so far I don’t care much for Ronald Blythe’s commentary but I like seeing what people have written in their diaries. I like seeing what they write about, the things that may occupy a person and stay in their mind.

I feel like I bought too many books, but, also, I could have bought a lot more. If I were a lot richer I would have walked away with a rather nice first edition of The Remains of the Day. But what would be the point of that, really, when I would never read it (or even touch it)? There are some wonderful bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, but there are also some which I suspect wouldn’t survive in a non-bookish town. I’d like to revisit in a few years.