Thursday 25 May 2017

A spritzing blitz in London with Tara and Undina: Day 1 - Bloom Perfumery, a fried food frenzy, and a trickyHotel

Langley Court, home to Bloom Perfumery
Tara of A Bottled Rose and Val's daughter Hannah, aka the Blondeswunder, recently posted about their meet up in London earlier this month, including a sniffing, skincare and make up spree, some tasty street food, and a tour round Highgate Cemetery (not including George Michael's grave, as the guide was at pains to point out). For health reasons I wasn't able to make it down to join them for 'the graveyard shift', as it were, and though I was very sorry to miss Val, I had the opportunity to hook up with Tara last Sunday, along with Undina of Undina's Looking Glass and her vSO, whom I had not seen since our 2013 rendez-vous in Paris. They were spending a whole week in the capital, so it seemed like a golden opportunity to see them, given that they live over 5000 miles away in California.

Now I usually manage to pack quite discreetly for my trips, but Truffle happened to catch me in the act of fetching a case out from the cupboard under the stairs, whereupon the human's intentions were out of the bag, swiftly followed by my clothes going into it.

'I know those triangular things with clothes on, and they don't bode well.'

I think she also smelt a metaphorical rat at the sight of outfit contenders hung over the bed rail, and might reasonably have inferred I was going away for a week rather than one night. Hence her 'hangdog' look in the photo below. I've got all the animal metaphors going on, it would seem!

According to my time-honoured tradition - and despite considering myself a seasoned traveller - I forgot several things this time: antihistamine tablets, shampoo, and plasters (beyond the prophylactic ones I was stood up in - that were on my heels, I mean - which I knew would not survive a good wetting in the shower).

The journey to London was supremely slow, for on a Sunday the train wends it circuitous way through the little known outposts of Northamptonshire. I mean, whoever heard of Long Buckby, never mind wanted to go there any day of the week?

Tara and Undina had already got a few hours' sniffing under their belts and had lunch before I joined them around 4pm, though not before making a detour to my so-called easyHotel to check in. They were about to put me in a room on the ground floor when I reminded them that I had asked for an upper floor in the 'Special Requests' box, explaining that with the ground floor there is a risk people in the street might walk past your window and look in, possibly as you are getting dressed. So the hotel promptly put me in a room without a window instead, which I did not see coming. 'No chance of her being overlooked there', I bet they thought.

'The key to an easy night's sleep'...hohoho!

And not only did my room have no window, but it also lacked any furniture whatsoever apart from a bed - nor did it have any hangers, a bin, or a bedside light. Moreover, you had to choose between 'having the benefit of electrical current', as the estate agents say, and an unrelenting electrical hum. More on this anon, along with the geographical shortcomings of the electrical sockets. So yes, I am renaming the chain: 'reallyquitetrickyHotels'. And it is not as though I haven't stayed in this chain before, for example in Berlin last December, but the hotel in Old Street raised the bar in its testing of the customer's resourcefulness in the face of such compact and minimalist accommodation.

Having quickly freshened up (after a fashion ;) ), I made my way to Covent Garden, where I was due to meet Tara, Undina and her vSO in Bloom Perfumery. I was early, and popped into a nearby branch of MAC cosmetics to gaze in awe at the myriad shades of lipsticks that spanned several perspex display boards. I was drawn as ever to the pinky brown nudes of which I already own half a dozen variants, and accosted several young people eyeing up the same fixture to ask them to read the shade names that were in tiny lettering on the underside, before being momentarily sidetracked by two rows of astonishing Smartie-like colourways in purple and mauve, magenta and blue. I certainly did not need to know their names.

After a quick swoop on Holland & Barrett, where I picked up a bargain pack of sesame sticks and succumbed to an explosive piece of crystallized ginger they were giving away free at the till, I assumed a lookout position on the corner of Long Acre and Langley Court, the little alleyway in which the Bloom store lies tucked away. People-watching in London is as rewarding in my book as visiting any of the official tourist attractions the city has to offer, and even a ten minute stint didn't disappoint. I noted an emerging fashion trend for cut off bell bottoms-cum-sailor's trousers, while the sleeve style du jour that I can best sum up as an 'arm peplum' was also in evidence. And then all of a sudden Tara & co were there! Of course they arrived from the Floral Street end, so I didn't see them coming either...

Once in Bloom - notable for its open glass displays, exposed brick walls, and steel 'customer ladder' for reaching the uppermost shelves - Undina scoped the fixtures for brands that were either on her hit list or otherwise caught her eye, and got stuck straight in. My own MO was more desultory and haphazard, reflecting perhaps my current plateau phase in this hobby. I was genuinely curious about the Zoologist line, however, and tried a handful from that, including the upcoming addition, Camel. With a name like that it surely has to be a tobacco scent - as one of the others may be able to confirm. I do remember that my erstwhile nemesis Civet was surprisingly approachable, while 'floral fruity gourmand' Hummingbird by Shelley Waddington was a standout favourite.

Tara, looking winsome in 'Little Mermaid' pose

Later in the trip Undina rightly pulled me up for writing the name of a perfume on the same end of the blotter that I had sprayed with the tester. (Let me say right off the bat that I LOVE being 'straightened out' by Undina - she could do so all day long as far as I am concerned, with her uniquely endearing blend of common sense and motherliness.) Then additionally I see that I sometimes write on the opposite end to where I have sprayed, but then my writing may get jumbled up with the logo of the perfume house or store in question, such that I can barely make out the name later on. And occasionally, I do both ie spray and write on the end that already has writing on it.

We also had a browse through the Imaginary Authors range, whose bottles with their vintage scrapbook-like labels appealed to me, along with one or two of the admittedly quite straightforward - and inexpensive! - scents, though I am blowed if I can remember which ones now. I remember being intrigued by a perfume whose ingredients included 'the month of May', and marvelling at how they had managed to fit the whole of May in the same size bottle as the rest of the range. February might have been marginally less ambitious.

Then predictably the Beaufort range, which we briefly sniffed from the nozzle, only made me squeal ever louder with each one I tried. I am guessing their target audience is not lovers of dreamy summer florals like Songes. We also dabbled in the Dusitas, and I was quite taken with Issara, though I don't remember it reading as a fresh fougere, particularly. I also found myself muttering darkly over and over again that the sumptuously feminine floral, Melodie de l'Amour (featuring gardenia, tuberose, honey, peach and jasmine, to name some of the more punch-packing notes), would most likely give me a headache. 'Ooh, that would give me a headache....definitely give me a headache...oh yes, headache...mmm, headache...', and more of me banging on in that general throbbing, cerebral vein.

It was at that point that we spied a wrench** lying on the work surface, which is not something you see every day, least of all in a perfumery.

After about an hour Undina's vSO - who had peeled off to check out the menswear stores in the immediate vicinity - rejoined us, and we set off in an easterly direction in a bid to avoid the worst of the tourist crowds and find a quiet spot for a proper cup of tea (and coffee). Patisserie Valerie came up trumps, even though they expressly barred us from sitting at the far end of the cafe, for reasons none of us could fathom. Some kind of technical explanation was proffered - that involved opening a window, I think - but there were vital connecting bits of information missing such that whatever it was that they said simply didn't compute.

With the working week looming, Tara headed home after tea, while I led Undina and her vSO somewhat erratically on a walking tour of Holborn and Soho (the Holborn bit was accidental!), before we finally lit upon an inviting looking tapas restaurant just off Regent Street, where we had dinner. There was much ribaldry about my inadvertent menu choices, which turned out to be resolutely fried, from the chicken to the courgette to the cabbage and the parsnip fries.

A piece of fried chicken too far

And because our order as a whole was delayed, the management threw in some complimentary patatas fritas with that, which turned out to be...ahem...more fried food, clearly applying my pinky brown nude lipstick principle to Spanish cuisine.

'Have some fries with that, why don't you?'

After the meal, we said goodbye at Oxford Circus station, and went our separate ways until the morning. Back at my evermorechallengingHotel, I had the difficult call to make of whether to charge my phones overnight and put up with the electrical hum, or have a silent night and dead appliances in the morning. In the end I went with a compromise: silence till 5am, then I put my phones on charge and my ear plugs in. I was too perturbed by the claustrophobic concept of a windowless hotel room to sleep much anyway - in vain did I try to pretend I was on a ship!

Editor's note: I have just been informed by my bathroom handyman that these are in fact 'waterpump pliers'.

To be continued...

Thursday 18 May 2017

Plumb crazy and round the U-bend: the ups, downs, and 'I'll know better next time's of a small bathroom renovation

'Just do it, Mum.'
I have already blogged about the problems that beset my newly refurbished bathroom shortly after its completion back in January - multiple leaks that were compounded that same week by spontaneously cracking plaster throughout the house (except the bathroom, as luck would have it, where the plaster was new). I did say at the time that I would write an account of the whole process of renovation: partly because I am myself curious about those 'before' and 'after' kind of transformations and figured others may be too - that's transformations of houses, and also of people in extreme makeover programmes like 'The Swan' - did anyone ever see that? Looking back, such a radical reworking of a human being all in one go, to bring them into line with contemporary conventions of 'good looks', was probably ethnically questionable, but certainly made for compelling viewing. Meanwhile, there is no doubt whatsoever that my bathroom was long overdue a good overhaul. Here is the  relevant snippet from a 2014 'Scent Crimes' post (on that notorious old chestnut of perfume bottles and bathroom storage):

"I have a scratched cast iron bath that is 104 years old at a conservative guess, an extinct model of lavatory that had the local plumbers merchant poring over their catalogue of 'archived designs' to locate a compatible loo seat, plus the bathroom is painted an aggressive shade of peppermint topped off with a mood-disturbing ceiling of bottle green."

You are lucky you can't see the ceiling

Then the other reason for doing a post about the bathroom refurb is simply to share some of the (many!, painful!, occasionally expensive!) lessons I learnt along the way...Some of these will have been peculiar to the size, geometry, and plumbing architecture of my house, while others may have wider relevance...

To manage or not to manage - that is the question

The first decision I had to take before embarking on the work was whether I wanted to use a 'turnkey' bathroom company, or project manage a team of tradespeople myself. I did speak to a couple of the former, but quickly sensed that they would have steered me towards the particular brands of sanitary ware etc that they dealt with, whereas I wanted the complete freedom to put together my own 'look' from scratch. I had compiled a mood board of images from home interior blogs and Pinterest, toured the bathroom showrooms of the West Midlands in my quest to find the perfect fixtures, and even lain in bath tubs and stood under showers without feeling the least bit foolish.

So between that and the fact that I already had a good plumber in mind, who came with a good joiner and electrician, I concluded that solo was the way to go, and proceeded to 'audition' the other trades I needed to complete the set (plasterer, painter & tiler - the 'blind man' and handyman/'shelf putter upper chap' fell into my lap later, as it were). Obviously ignore the above if you happen to be very handy at this sort of thing yourself, but I have no practical skills beyond knitting - and though there are patterns available to knit your own Jeremy Corbyn, Madonna, or even the whole Royal Family, complete with corgis, I have yet to see a knitting pattern for a bathroom, let alone a crocheted one, for porosity reasons you can well imagine.

The old airing cupboard was a tardis in the room!

Research within reason (which this may not be...!?)

I should point out that the amount of research I did into the complete look of the bathroom - from the wc and sink down to the smallest accessory such as a hook that looked like a tap head (the one I liked was sadly discontinued!) isn't really necessary. I have a friend who let her builder design several bathrooms almost entirely off his own bat - which is unthinkable to me ;) - while another friend made a single trip to one of the many showrooms I visited in and around Birmingham, and bought every item in a particular Laura Ashley range of sanitary ware in about five minutes flat. She was admittedly blessed with a big space in which to work, and has a far more business-like attitude to most things in life. And not much disposable time. They both think I am nuts, and may be right at that.

Astor tap hooks, sadly no longer extant!

Measure, measure, and measure again!

But in my case the small space issue was (paradoxically!) huge, and eventually the penny dropped that I could in fact only consider 'cloakroom suites' of sinks and wcs. Given that I had set my heart on a vintage style, my options were actually extremely limited, though it took me forever to bottom all this out.

We have a match!

Not only that, but I was looking for a cloakroom-sized sink with the exact 'footprint' - as in 'basin print' - of the one it was replacing; which could have a recess for soap (but it must on no account be scallop-shaped if so), and must have an upstand (as I wasn't planning on tiling that wall), and a pedestal that was nicely fluted and not overly clumpy or God forbid covered in toile de jouy (trust me, this is a thing!); that in turn had to match the wc, whose cistern could only measure x wide with a projection of y (so as not to block the window frame), along with an overall seat projection of z (to give sufficient clearance from the bath). Oh, not forgetting the all-important nod towards Art Deco styling. And compatibility with a walnut toilet seat that I had my eye on with a particularly nice grain. I know, I know, verily I am the bathroom remodelling equivalent of a 'bridezilla'. 'Bathzilla' - let's give myself a name! And that is just one of many seemingly - and sometimes actually! - impossible constellations of attributes with which I was grappling on a host of fronts, from towel rails to shelving, tiles to lighting, blinds to shower panels and beyond.

Nice, but too dear, and came with bulky if elegant loo!

Now clearly if you don't have such draconian design ideas as me, the measuring imperative is not that critical, but generally speaking it is still the single most important aspect of bathroom planning, I'd say. Otherwise, this sort of thing can happen. ;)

City Club, Augsburg

Leave nothing unspecified that could conceivably come back to haunt you

I realise I may sound a bit like a couples counsellor when I bang on about the importance of communication, and to be honest, this is a point that works really well in hindsight, but is very hard to anticipate at the time.  I will give you one example, but there are others...! When the electrician came to do 'first fix' ie make any necessary adjustments to the wiring to accommodate the new lights, he disconnected the wall mounted light to the right of the basin, after first asking me where the new sink was going. This caught me slightly on the hop, as the plumber and I had yet to have that conversation, but based on the general layout we had agreed, and the fact that the new sink was going to use the existing plumbing, whereas other pipework was going to be majorly reconfigured, I said the sink was going to stay put. So he disconnected the light and promptly went on holiday.

A week later, the plumber was about to install the  new ware at the exact moment that I was due to go to the dentist - the only hour in the entire programme of works where I was not on hand to field questions, never mind one of this magnitude (as it turned out). On my return I noticed that the sink was approximately 5-6 inches further to the right of the spot where the old one had been. The plumber announced cheerily that he had decided to move it closer to the wc, whilst keeping the two items the same distance apart, as the cistern of the new loo was narrower. In this way he had cunningly created extra door clearance and a greater feeling of space overall. All of which was true, and admirable, but the wall light was now three quarters of the way across the sink rather than just to the right of it, such that the plumber had killed any chance of having a mirror above, unless it was derisorily small and silly.

Mocked by a mirror mock up, & directionally conflicted taps

So after his holiday, the electrician had to pop back to chase a sideways channel in the brand new plaster so the wall light could also be moved 5-6 inches to the right and a space created on the wall above the sink for a normal-sized mirror. And the painter and decorator (whom I also fatally left to his own devices, not least because the door was invariably shut when he was working), didn't even ask what this channel was and gaily painted over it, leaving a deep groove that would be visible even when the mirror was up. And more where that came from, even such little things as which way the tap handles should point when in the off position. The plumber inferred pistols at dawn (for ease of operation with your elbow, 'you know, like in hospital toilets'), while I wanted them to be outstretched like wings (the vintage look you see in pictures, and also the way they are styled in the company's own brochure, which I hadn't thought to show him).

The shelf was a head bumper in the making - it went back!

Hold out for what you want (assuming it exists!)

One thing I learnt during this exercise is that to some tradespeople your job is 'just a job', which on one level is fair enough, for that is all it is at the end of the day. Accordingly, if there is any decision left open, they will take the easy option or line of least resistance, in the hope that the customer doesn't know there is another - more complicated, more time consuming, but ultimately potentially more effective or attractive-looking - option. However, when you live alone and are not remotely adept at such things, you really want a tradesperson to care about your house the way you do, and to want the best for it as if it were their own. Now I did have that attitude with the plumber and joiner in spades - they were both really creative and proactive (very occasionally too much so!) - but the same could not be said of the decorator (who painted a hole in the wall, basically), or the tiler.

Or rather the first tiler, as I let him go before he started the work, for muttering darkly about the faff factor of my preferred idea of having a bullnose edge to the tiles - something common enough in the US I gather - from where I got the idea, indeed - but virtually unknown over here, where edging strips in plastic and chrome are favoured. Nothing wrong with those, but I was holding out for a more vintage look here. The second tiler I approached was the polar opposite - wildly enthusiastic about edging tiles or anything the customer wanted to try, and video footage of the work in progress even ended up on his Facebook page. In fairness he seemed to do that with all his jobs(!), but it still felt a bit like the digital equivalent of being featured in Hello magazine. ;)

'Spacers everywhere' (obscure band joke)

And I didn't just come up against brick walls in terms of the fixing of the tiles, but also on the purchasing side. Having set my heart on matching trim tiles, it took a great deal of Internet research and phone calls to suppliers all over the country to identify a source. The local tile shop from whom I had by now bought 9 sq m of field tiles denied there even was a trim tile to go with them. And because tiles are not sold under the various manufacturers' brands, but rather have heir provenance obfuscated by the use of more evocative names like 'rustico craquele gris' or 'Richmond Park' or 'Grey ecru' - or just plain 'Mink' - it takes a good deal of sleuthing to know if you are truly comparing like with like. You can also save an absolute fortune that way. In the end, thanks to a couple of sotto voce tip offs from the trade, the trail led me to a company called Equipe in Spain, who did both field and trim tiles in the style I was after (vintage, glossy, rustic) - snappily named Masia Gris Claro Brillo. Well, it turned out there wasn't even a stockist of these as such in the whole of the country, but I did find a tile shop in Solihull who could order them in at a month's notice. And best of all, I was able to return the tiles I had already bought for a full refund.

I got bullnose! And a different hook. ;)

Plasterers are messy b**gers

That's it really. That's even allowing for the fact that mixing plaster is inherently more messy than stirring paint or fashioning tongue and groove, or daubing big gobs of Plumber's Mait all over the shop. My plasterer was so messy there was a trail of congealed white gunk out the front door, down the drive and all the way onto the road. I half expected a bill off the council for ad hoc street cleaning services, like the time I upended a 5 litre tin of purple paint on the kerb outside my house. They didn't bill me then either, in case you were wondering.

Lighting is a leap in the dark

I learnt a lot about lighting in the course of my research: about incandescent, LED and halogen bulbs, Kelvin ratings, lumens and watts, not forgetting IP ratings for different zones of a bathroom. It's a strangely complex and counter-intuitive subject now, compared with the good old (if somewhat dimmer!) days when you had 60 watt bulbs everywhere and knew exactly where you stood. I just wanted a column-style wall light not unlike the one that was there before, only thinner and with less projection - and settled on this one from Amara.

But even though you can achieve different qualities of light using different bulbs - warm white, cool white, daylight (God also forbid!) etc, insofar as there are alternatives available for your particular fitting, which is by no means certain - it is only when you finally turn the blinking thing on (having long since committed to the fitting being on your wall (in two different places in my case!), that you finally discover what kind / quality of light you have actually got!

For reference, here is my ceiling light. I did try it with a squirrel cage bulb, but you can see right past it to the annoying sticky label. After T K Maxx, light fittings are the world's worst for annoying sticky labels you cannot get off for love nor white spirits.

Compromises are inevitable

Ooh, where to start? There are too many instances to mention, but one that particularly stands out is the emergency sawing job the plumber had to do on the pipe that goes through the wall to make it fit firmly round the waste fitting from the wc. Had the plumber not managed to connect the two securely, even with a ragged edge and on a slight bias, the toilet would currently be floating in the middle of the room - and all my best upfront measuring efforts would have counted for nothing! A wooden batten also had to be inserted in the resulting gap between the wall and the cistern to give the latter extra support. Said batten is now painted white and largely forgotten!

Embrace the disruption (assuming you have another bathroom - of any description!)

I put off doing the bathroom refurb for years, because I was afraid of the upheaval and stress it would cause, but in the end bit the bullet. Omelettes and eggs and all that jazz, and so it jolly well proved. From the day the plumber smashed up the bath outside on the drive with a lump hammer, I knew there was no going back. As did Truffle, who - terrified by the noise - from that day forward switched to using the great outdoors as her bathroom, unless physically confined to the house, as she is when I go away. Which was an unexpected spin off, as I had no idea how I was going to go about that final stage of her toilet training. ;) As for me, I was lucky I had another loo in the utility room - and a shower, as I thought, which I used for months on end before belatedly discovering that every time I did so, the water leaked all over the concrete floor underneath the linoleum, inches away from the trio of fire hazards-in-waiting of washing machine, tumble dryer and freezer. So no sooner had I completed one bathroom refurb when another one popped up, like a hydra's head - or do I mean a hydrant hose? - to take its place.

The time capsule of bathroom floorboards! 

Everything takes longer than you thought

Yes, the whole project took way longer than I would ever have imagined - about five months in all, excluding finding a picture as a finishing touch, the framing of which took four weeks on its own!

Because I was organising the different trades myself - or herding cats, as it sometimes felt, partly in the holiday season to boot - I quickly found out that any delay in the timetables of their other jobs could have knock-on effects on mine. And you could never be sure they hadn't bumped your job to shoehorn in another customer they had just landed with a more pushy 'want it doing yesterday' kind of manner.

Stepping back from everything, my overarching take on the project - of whose associated tribulations this is but a small snapshot! - is that despite the best laid plans, things will still go wrong, and you can only roll with it and accept that nothing is perfect. It will still be worth it in the end to have a room that gives you pleasure to use and that is a 'sanctuary', to use that rather twee Champney-esque expression, rather than one that is depressing to the point of embarrassing.

Also, a friend of a friend has a high end kitchen fitting business, and his rule of thumb is that on any given project three things WILL go wrong. Only three, huh? Well, he is a real pro after all. And he told me that his timetables are always being shunted, domino-style, by problems arising on other jobs his team are involved in.

That all said, having workmen who really own any problems that arise (as with the leaks, that were down to an unfortunate combination of manufacturing flaws, and space issues) makes it so much easier to keep your nerve when the going gets tough.

'What do you mean, there are several kinds of acid toner?'

Finally, as an example of the joiner's creativity, he demolished the old airing cupboard that was fully inside the bathroom, and from it fashioned a shallower one accessed through two small doors from the landing (made from the panels of a reclaimed door). The old airing cupboard door is meanwhile doing sterling service covering up the hole in the garage roof that Truffle fell through. And the extra one the bloke next door inadvertently made. ;) So I guess another lesson could be: don't be too hasty to throw away spare materials, as you never know what might come in useful some day!

Oh, and obviously, don't keep perfume in your bathroom, as I have been saying like a cracked record since the dawn of Bonkers, hehe.

'Go on...!'

Friday 12 May 2017

Insomnia, headaches, and the 'blue light' rescue services: No 1 - Our Modern Lives by 4160 Tuesdays: Blue Screen/Blue Horizon - Perspective review

Visualisation of Blue by Sarah McCartney - even the picture is therapeutic!
For all that people say your fifties are the new forties, I beg to differ. As someone now nearer to the end of this troublesome decade, I would say the fifties are about the body's desertion and malfunction in all its manifestations: knees and hips start to protest or even give way, arthritis raises its ugly bone spur, the collagen has eloped with the muscle tone, moods are all over the place - like the fine fur slowly colonising your face - and to add insult to injury your teeth are yellowing like piano keys, and you appear to have unaccountably developed a need to spit. But worse than all of these intimations of mortality is the fact that despite years of practice you suddenly lose the ability to sleep. And of course I am only speaking for myself in all of the above - your midlife mileage may vary, and I jolly well hope it does.

Hey, even the dry cleaner is having a laugh at my expense!

Going back to the sleep issue, dwindling levels of progesterone are probably the main culprit in women of a certain age, because the problem became acute as soon as I hit 50. That said, I accept that I have only myself to blame for compounding the problem by my 'poor sleep hygiene', as it is properly termed, namely a bedtime regime that is not conducive to a good night's rest. This 'unexhausting' - and by no means exhaustive! - list of offences includes eating late, drinking alcohol, and consuming sugar and caffeine in various guises - all in the run up to bedtime. Then chuck in ruminating aka 'mind wandering', which occasionally escalates into full blown episodes of anxiety - and a compulsion to check my phone last thing at night. You know how it'll have your pyjamas on and be about to get into bed when you suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to google 'how to sew up a knitted leg', 'shrubs for shady walls', or 'cat that looks like Olivia Coleman'. And it simply cannot wait till morning. And of course in our digitally dependent age, phones and tablets are known to give off a blue light, which in turn affects the levels of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. As a concession to this I have now banished my phones from the bedroom when I finally do settle down to not sleep, but I have probably already blown my chances of nodding off by that last minute Internet search or several.

So as a result of hormonal hoo-hah, combined with my bad behaviours, I am no stranger to the completely sleepless night, and have had two in the last week indeed, interspersed with a couple of Night Nurse comas that lasted a mere four hours each.

Our Modern Lives sample pack courtesy of 4160 Tuesdays

And here, quite fortuitously is where Sarah McCartney, founder and nose behind indie house 4160 Tuesdays, hoves into view with her timely new concept collection, Our Modern Lives, which is being backed by a crowdfunding project. The collection neatly unites Sarah's twin loves of making perfume and teaching yoga (on a Wednesday, as I now learn!), yoga being of course the very pursuit I should be taking up in a bid to achieve inner calm and outer bendiness.

Sarah's latest fragrance venture was born out of consumers' requests for two specific styles of perfume: one that contained no synthetic allergens such as linalool (but which would otherwise be 100% made of aromachemicals), and one that was 'all natural'. The latter style caters to those for whom 'natural' has unfortunately become a byword for 'harmless' and 'best' - when it is of course possible to kill yourself by ingesting just 30g of wild foraged death cap mushrooms, and even drinking water can be fatal in sufficient quantities. So while Sarah personally believes that the best perfumes combine a judicious and complementary blend of natural and synthetic ingredients, 'the customer is king' as they say, and she relished the challenge of creating these two sub-collections.

The synthetics

There are two different synthetic blends with (to quote Sarah) a 'quiet sensuality', and which are 'so benign you could bathe in them'. Of these one is stronger (OML a) and more Paul Newman along the sensuality spectrum, while my preferred scent of the two (OML ß) is pitched somewhere between Hugh Grant and Gina McKee, say. Then the seven natural scents are named after 'seven shades, moods and atmospheres' that span the whole rainbow of colours and also go from morning till night in terms of timezones. The naturals and synthetics may be layered (in an 'add your own base' Betty Crocker kind of a way) or enjoyed on their own.

I have to say I liked all seven of the naturals, with the possible exception of Green - Leaf - New, but only because I am not a fan of the vegetable notes involved. I have lots more testing to do, as the permutations are legion - or 'incorrigibly plural', to quote my favourite poem by Louis MacNeice - so I will home in for now on just one scent from the naturals line: Blue Screen/Blue Horizon - Perspective.

The headache remedy

Now I happened to message Sarah around the time of one of my sleep deprivation headaches:

Vanessa: "Currently trying Yellow over OML ß, which is a cheerful combo. Hoping it might help this headache shift."

Sarah: "To remove headache apply Blue to your temples. Not kidding."

Vanessa: "Will do that, thank you! Added a drop between the eyes like a bindi..."

Sarah: "Good. Fingers crossed."

Vanessa: "Yep, that worked. Just feel whacked now. 4head eat your heart out."

I should interject at this point to say that the mentholated cologne, 4head, had previously been my topical weapon of choice for headaches. It was over its application to my forehead in a Starbucks in Covent Garden in 2009 that I first met and bonded with the now legendary Nick Gilbert!, who worked for Boots at the time and recognised a fellow user...;) But now it is a case of 'roll on and roll over 4head'...

I am happy to report that on two further occasions the application of Blue cured a headache within a matter of minutes. There was another instance last weekend - as the cumulative toll of the insomnia really took hold - that it didn't manage to shift, but it was in good company with a whole strip of Solpadeine Plus that couldn't touch it either.

So yes, as a headache remedy I am impressed - and were it not for that serendipitous conversation with Sarah I would never have thought to deploy Blue in that way.

The perfume 

Sarah sets the scene in the accompanying notes to Blue Screen/Blue Horizon - Perspective:

"A sense of balance. We spend too much time looking at screens,not enough at the horizon. This is a scent to help you meditate. Materials include frankincense essential oil, lavender absolute, vetiver absolute, eucalyptus mint essential oil, patchouli essential oil, hyacinth absolute, organic English lavender essential oil."

I have worn Blue a few times - mostly on my forehead, it must be said(!), where it is that little bit more difficult to smell it - but on the occasions I wore it on more conventional body parts, I picked up a fragrance that comprised about 40% frankincense, 40% patchouli and 20% lavender and vetiver in an unspecified ratio that is neither here nor there. I didn't detect any mint - which is good as I am not a mint lover - or the hyacinth particularly - but the blend of incense and rooty, chocolate-y patchouli was nicely grounding. Lavender is of course traditionally supposed to be good for headaches, though it only played a cameo role in the composition. There is no development to mention, as Blue is not a classically structured perfume as such. I did also try it layered over OML ß, but I cannot begin to tell you how that changed it overall, other than possibly giving it the feel of a fuller-bodied fragrance with its bustle on.

NB In a future post I will be featuring another 'blue light' rescue service - a face cream by Dr Sebagh that is actually marketed on that unusually specific premise!

Oh, and in another of life's little ironies, given that 'anxiety is the new cardio', my old Zara jeans fit a treat now. Doh! And some readers may find it another irony that perfume should be able to cure, rather than cause a headache, but it worked for me...;)

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Zara: the funhouse mirror of fast fashion, and a 'low rise', 'no fit' jeans saga with legs...

My Zara jeans from 2012
Topic advisory...this post contains absolutely no perfume content. I toyed with the title: 'Kicking up a stink about Zara...', but decided that might be misleading to readers, given that the fashion chain does have its own range of fragrances, a couple of which I have even tried. Nor is this post about travel, one of the other 'legitimate' themes on Bonkers, although the black jeans at its heart are very well travelled as it happens: they were bought in a branch of Zara in Stuttgart almost exactly five years ago, and christened at a gig that night, where I had my first taste of 'bemanning' the merchandise table. I must say I am not sorry to have later handed over this taxing and tenebrous task to a husband and wife team with more genuine enthusiasm for sales, and an armoury of clippy-on lights. The jeans, however, continued to give sterling service, as my go-to going out trousers - or one of two pairs, certainly.

In December of that year, I spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a city awash with cultural attractions, as I mention in my post about the trip:

'These include broad, tree-lined boulevards such as the famous La Rambla, Parc Güell with its "kimono dragon" standing sentry at the entrance, numerous other quirky and satisfyingly wavy structures by Gaudí, a dazzling palm-lined marina, the spiky, brooding squares of the Gothic quarter, not forgetting the curious Christmas log novelties that reminded me compellingly of Thomas the Tank Engine in a Santa hat. If I am totally honest, you could actually spend an entire weekend in Barcelona just browsing in the many branches of Zara, but I valiantly resisted the urge.'

That said, I did end up spending a good hour or more in one branch, and came out with precisely this jumper, which is at least pictured here in a perfume setting:

Which all goes to show that I have historically been quite a fan of Zara, with its edgy high street takes on the latest fashion trends, combining decent quality and affordable prices. As for my jeans, five years on they have started to feel a bit snug. I swear there is no connection with the fact that I have recently had four Lindt bunnies on the go at 550 calories a pop. It is simply the natural wear and tear - as in shrinkage - that comes with frequent washing down the years. Well okay, I might have put on a few pounds, but I am pretty sure I am still the same dress size, or its bottom half equivalent.

So I had a look on the women's section of the Zara website to see if I could identify something approximating to the jeans I wanted to replace, although I was aware that the ranges would be different now, Zara being a brand particularly noted for the frequent updating of its collections. The first pair I bought were wrong on two counts, for which I only have myself to blame - I accidentally bought 'mid-rise' instead of 'low rise' and 'skinny' instead of 'slim fit'. They were size 10, and black, but there the similarity ended. When they came I could just about get them on, but they were uncomfortable, and the skinny style far from flattering.

To their credit, Zara have a 'no quibble' free returns policy, so I sent that pair back and ordered a slim fit, low rise pair in charcoal grey - also Size 10. They turned out to be a much closer match in colour, style and fabric to my old pair, but I could not get them on. Bizarrely, they were even tighter than the skinny pair! I compared the leg measurements of each and calculated that in the calf area, the new Size 10 was about 5" less in circumference than the old one. Now my weight fluctuates within a range of about 4lb, but there is no way my legs have slimmed down that much since I bought the previous pair. I didn't check the waist, but it was clearly narrower too, and yet the measurements listed on their website for Size 10 (Chest 34" / Waist 26" / Hips 37") were the classic ones that I am.

Slim fit all right, but I am in pain!

So I sent those back as well, and decided to write to - and ring - Zara and ask them what was going on with their sizes. Both over the phone and in an email I received the same bland and nonsensical response:

"In answer to your question the relevant department has said that one item is from 2012 and another is from 2017 therefore both of the items are different styles and as such may fit differently.

We hope this information helps with your query."

I know one item is from 2017 and one item from 2012 - it was me that told you when I bought the blinking things! As for the style being different, it depends on how far-reaching your definition of 'style' is. To me, a pocket detail here and a frayed hem there is a matter of style, but the terms 'low rise' and 'slim fit' - and most crucially, 'Size 10' - should be constants, like the terms 'hatchback' and 'estate' in the case of cars, say. I was incensed that they could pass off the loss of five inches in the calf - and a general contraction of measurements everywhere - as a mere style issue. Oh, and the old ones are not flares or even boot cut - but rather straight leg - though the latest style pictured has a curved cutaway thing going on, where I unfortunately still have leg to accommodate...

Zara Size 14 on top of my old Size 10

So I bit the bullet and ordered the largest size they do - a 14. I think it poor that Zara stop at 14, given that that is the UK average dress size. Though, not, as it turns out, in 'Zara World', where it is the absolute outer limits of acceptability. I could get the size 14 on, but the calves were still tight and uncomfortable and the waistband a little slack. I sent them back.

Coincidentally, somewhere between Pair 1 and 2, I had been cruising 'pre-owned' trousers on eBay, where I spied a pair of black Zara jeans in size 10 that were of an unknown vintage, but looked a decent size in the pictures - and won them for the princely starting price of £1.50 plus postage! And lo and behold, they fitted like a dream...So I am now quids in, and have totally given up on Zara.

Size 10 from eBay - comfort AND fit at last!

Taking a step back from this sorry saga, I don't know what Zara are trying to achieve with their illogical goalpost moving. For one thing, it is going to cost them a fortune in free postage, as disappointed customers return the garments that are nothing like the sizes they purport to be. One possible reason is to ensure that in future, their clothes are only worn by the very slim, so that effectively their entire customer base will be 'catwalk models abroad', albeit of various heights. This in turn would mean that Zara can show off its garments in public to what the brand considers their best advantage.

However, that market must be very small, so by excluding all women bigger than (actual) Size 8 they are surely shooting themselves in the foot commercially? Or the calf, even. And speaking for myself, I don't personally give a hoot whether I am a  10 or a 14 or a 4, and I promise I have nothing against people who are skinnier than me - it is important to make that clear! However, I do want to know how to compare apples with apples, or pears with pears rather, given that that is my body type. Because it is a complete waste of everyone's time and money otherwise, not to mention deeply frustrating, given how delighted I have been with my jeans from five years ago. And arguably it is even socially irresponsible of Zara, as it could give rise to eating disorders - though not in me.

Here they are - good luck guessing the model's size!

The only consolation is that (as you can see in the top photo) my 50/50 ratio of torso to body means I have an identical physique to Tom Cruise apparently, instead of the perfect female ratio (in favour of legs, surprise surprise!) of something like 40/60. Well, as someone who briefly owned a bag of fudge - which had in turn been briefly owned by Tom Cruise (as Portia of APJ is my witness!) - that seems fitting. One of the few things in this post that is...!