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...!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Holly oak nymphs and suntanned satyrs: Papillon Artisan Perfumes Dryad review

Source: Wikipedia
There are many things I like that are not 'me': black leather jackets, Converse trainers, full length low backed Grecian gowns in red or white, and the concept of taking someone a present of muffins in a cloth-lined basket. I am not too sure how I look drinking Vermouth, but I enjoy that too, and persevere. And so without further ado I can announce that as with Salome before it, the next, soon-to-be-released scent from Papillon Artisan Perfumes, a green chypre-oriental called Dryad, is technically not me either. And I like it!

When I sat down to write this post I was fully expecting it to remind me of a magical, Narnia-like forest behind the caravan park outside Killarney where we holidayed every Easter as children...It had mysterious mossy mounds and earthworks at every turn, from which shot up exuberant bushes of curly-tipped ferns. The air was cool and pure and eerily still, save for the occasional call of a hoopoe (the absolute jackpot in I-Spy points!). Dryad might equally have reminded me of some trees much closer to home, namely the 600 sessile oaks in Brocton Coppice, with their distinctive gnarled, skyward-sprawling arms and lichen tattoos. Some are 1000 years old, and there is speculation that they may have inspired Tolkien, who was stationed in a training camp on Cannock Chase during WW1. Or for that matter, Dryad could have taken me back to the sun-dappled forest of tall pines surrounding Liz Moores' house, where Tara of A Bottled Rose (whose own exquisite review of Dryad is up today!) and I were privileged to sniff the first mod of the scent last May.

But a strange thing happened: for when I sprayed Dryad yesterday, my nose headed down a different avenue, and didn't come back. The wood nymphs which inspired Liz's creation were still very much present and corrrect, only they live in a sunnier climate. But before getting into my impressions of the scent proper, a bit of a preamble on the thorny business of dryad nomenclature may be in order.

Brocton Coppice ~ Source: Geograph

A 'potted' dryad digest

My goodness, there are a lot of different kinds of dryad! I haven't managed to find a complete consensus on definitions, but it seems that a 'regular' dryad is a low level goddess aka the entity or spirit of either a specific type of tree (ash, laurel etc) OR a location or area of trees (grove, glen, vale) etc.

"The 'dry-' part of dryad comes from the Greek word for 'oak' and used to refer to only oak tree nymphs, but now it has become the overarching term for all wood nymphs." - Enclave Publishing

Which leads us to a key cohort of tree nymphs called hamadryads - eight in all, the daughters of Oxylus and Hamadryas:

Karya (walnut or hazelnut), Balanos (oak), Kraneia (dogwood), Morea (mulberry), Aigeiros (black poplar), Ptelea (elm), Ampelos (vines), and Syke (fig).

Hamadryad tam ~ Source: Etsy

These hamadryads are born 'bonded to a certain tree', which they inhabit. Some sources have the hamadryads as physically part of their trees. In either case, unlike regular dryads, who are immortal, if a hamadryad's assigned tree dies, they die as well. So poor old Ptelea above must have lived in constant fear of Dutch elm disease, for example. Then I am thinking that it is the Balanos hamadryad that is the particular focus of Dryad the fragrance, for as Liz Moores explains: "the pefume is centred very much around oakmoss".

    Also worthy of mention are the Oreiades, a 'branch' of nymphs associated with mountain conifers, and reputedly 'tougher and tetchier' than your average dryad. They play a cameo role in the composition, when I finally get to it!

    Oh, and I was especially taken with another dryad 'offshoot': the Maliades - nymphs of fruit trees, and also - in a surprise twist - the protectors of sheep.

    And while we are on the subject of random links...the mother's name above, Hamadryas, is also a genus of arboreal butterfly, that camouflages itself on trees and and - unusually for butterflies - lives on sap, rotten fruit and animal dung, as well as making a 'cracking' noise with its wings.  Well, the males, anyway. How apt for a butterfly-themed perfume house like Papillon! Though the Hamadryas hails from the Americas, while the more soberly patterned Dryad butterfly is native to Southern Europe and further east.

    Dryad butterfly ~ Source: Wikimedia Commons (Zeynel Cebeci)

    And at the opposite end of the scale, Hamadryas is also a baboon described as 'one of the least arboreal monkeys', so they are not much use to us and our tree-dwelling preoccupations. And even more bizarrely, in view of my recent review of Vero Profumo Naja, and Liz Moores' well documented set up for in-home snake husbandry, Hamadryas is another term for a king cobra! I did not see that coming. The exegesis of this perfume is getting deeper and deeper, and I haven't even mentioned how it smells yet...

    So on at last to my impressions. To my nose Dryad is the scent of woodland - woodland involving oaks indeed - but it instantly transports me 1100 miles from home to the hardy scrubland of the garrigue in the Languedoc Roussillon area of southern France. I am mindful, however, that Your Forest Mileage May Vary.

    The garrigue ~ Source: Wikipedia

    The garrigue

    Wikipedia describes the garrigue as an ecoregion - and even more amusingly as "discontinuous bushy associations of the Mediterranean calcareous plateaus". On closer inspection, these discontinuous bushy associations turn out to be dense thickets of kermes / holm / holly oak. We are clearly in the habitat of a splinter group of Provencal hamadryads...

    "You don’t just visit the garrigue. You absorb it and you feel it with every sense that you possess. You feel the Tramontane or the Mistral winds in your hair, the crunchy gravel and stones of the paths under your feet and the hot, Mediterranean sun on your face. You smell and taste the myriad of sweet and spicy flavours as you brush through the undergrowth: lemon, oak, thyme, pine, rosemary, lavender, aniseed and fennels, peppers and juniper, even wild asparagus and the tree strawberry grow here." - The Good Life France magazine

    Source: Pinterest

    Dryad the perfume

    Notes: narcissus, oakmoss, jonquil, clary sage, galbanum, costus, tarragon, apricot, benzoin, Peru balsam, cedrat, bigaradier Orange, bergamot, deer tongue, lavender, orris, vetiver, thyme, styrax and orange blossom

    On first sniffing Dryad, I got a bracing burst of a citrus-inflected herbal bouquet. There is oakmoss to the fore and it remains pretty pronounced throughout the scent's development. The opening reminded me a lot of Guerlain Sous le Vent, the (relatively short) note list for which has some crossover:

    Notes: lavender, tarragon, bergamot, green notes, jasmine, carnation, iris, woodsy notes

    I think it was that association between the two scents that tipped me immediately into my garrigue scentscape. On my skin Dryad is a warm, but not arid scent, rather than one that speaks of damp forest floors with their more rooty, earthy odours, although I know that oakmoss can also smell of that. I haven't tested Sous le Vent in many years, though I do remember describing its texture as 'granular', which may have been something to do with the particular blend of herbs and the petitgrain of my hazy memory - and quite possibly invention! Dryad is not 'granular' and it does have a deeper green dimension as it wears on - a mix of the resinous grassiness of vetiver and the 'Dolby Surround green' of galbanum. If this forest could sing, it would be a soprano, veering to a mezzo soprano, but never descending into the deepest register of a contralto.

    Echo ~ Source: hexapolis

    Then here and there I catch fleeting hints of recalcitrant flowers, like the dryads themselves (who are noted for their shyness), as they dart in and out of their trees dodging satyrs - and generally darting, as they do. This is where Echo, the mountain nymph, comes into the story, as Liz explains:

    "I included narcissus absolute because Echo was a Dryad who fell in love with Narcissus and I liked the full circle with myth and materials. It felt more complete."

    And even though the narcissus and jonquil are playing hide and seek with me, it is undoubtedly their presence, together with that of the orange notes and iris, that ensure that Dryad never feels masculine, not even in its more markedly herbal opening phase. Nor is it at all dark, witchy, and ineffably singular like Ormonde Jayne Woman (though I like that one too - also not me!), or angry and acerbic like some of those retro green chypres whose names escape me but I may be thinking of one by Givenchy or Sisley - or certainly Niki de Saint Phalle, which is definitely too sharp for my taste. As she did with Salome and the 'animalic chypre', Liz Moores has come up with a softer, more modern and accessible interpretation of the 'take no prisoners' green divas of yore. Which is not to say that Dryad is a mere slip of a girl of a chypre - not at all - it sits squarely between wispish and waspish, and that's fine by me.

    Holly oak ~ Source: Gerbeaud

    Towards the far drydown, Dryad sometimes come overs a little bit all unnecessary - though not on every wearing. This may be due to the costus getting its furry thing on - but we are talking fairly sedate and demure intimations of intimacy. Overall (and please forgive this crude schema) if you were to compare Dryad the perfume to the structure of an oak tree, the bright, citrus and herbal opening would be its canopy of leaves, its trunk the oakmoss, and its undulating branches the floral and other green and slight animalic facets that weave in and out of the composition.

    The girl

    To return to the theme of something not being me...during my year in the South of France I lived with two other girls, who rejoiced in the names of Dick and Knuckles. Here is the relevant snippet from my 2013 review of Dita Van Teese:

    "They were both extremely body-conscious as it happens, with matching eating disorders. One of the duo existed entirely off Granny Smith apples, which she sat munching while devouring the complete works of Emile Zola, I never did figure out why. I once thought of writing my memoirs from that year and calling it 'The Three Thin Women of Antibes' in a homage to Somerset Maugham.

    Now my villa-mates may have been thin, but they punched above their weight when it came to relationships - I use the word loosely because they were. Yes, the year was punctuated by a steady procession of hot tempered, arm-windmilling Frenchmen coming and going at our villa, while I stood meekly by, occasionally emptying waste paper baskets full of apple cores."

    Source: Chief River Nursery

    Speaking of 'holly oaks', it truly was like living in a soap opera, with suntanned satyrs circling round my housemates. Of the two girls, it is the apple muncher whom I would most closely associate with Dryad. I will call her 'L', though she remains completely ungoogle-able even under her full name. L was tall and willowy, with a sleek, jet black Eton crop, that had a dark green Lois Lane sheen to it whenever her hair caught the light. A raven-haired 'Twiggy', if you will, to stay with our woody theme. She was poised and elegant, shy and fey, with a softly spoken Edinburgh accent and a penetrating stare. L also had a knowing glint in her eye that belied her diffident manner. Dryad would have made a perfect signature scent for her, capturing the aromatic pot pourri of the garrigue and teaming it with L's unique blend of inscrutability, vulnerability, and a soupcon of danger. I would never have met someone like 'L' had we not been thrown together by chance, and I was not her usual kind of friend either, but - you've guessed it - we liked each other too.

    Hmm, now if Liz Moores would just do a scent inspired by the hamadryad of the Granny Smith tree, that would be an even closer fit for L.  Though I can't recall where she stood on sheep.

    A mouton from the garrigue!

    I know where Liz Moores stands on sheep, mind. She is the protector of every creature, and her house a veritable mini-Longleat crossed with Noah's Ark. And so the ethical dimension to her creation of Dryad is entirely in keeping with her nurturing, all-inclusive, and cheerfully chaotic menagerie:

    "For me, there's a moral tale here also because maybe if we looked at everything and everyone as being intrinsically holding its own spirit, we would care for nature (and each other) a little more."

    It's a fine sentiment for these uncertain times. I don't know how we can navigate the creeping approach of another Cold War, if that is what lies ahead, but putting your best foot forward and spritzing the sensuous, warm woodland in a bottle that is Dryad, has got to be a good way to go.

    Liz with her latest rescue owl, Ghost

    Wednesday, 19 April 2017

    Dreams are made of this: Annick Goutal Songes review

    Songes having a nice little lie down
    I spent large tracts of the Easter Weekend asleep. There were no family gatherings featuring rack of lamb, Simnel cake, or egg hunts in the garden; no invigorating walks in bluebell woods, pub meals, or even chocolate binges - though I had a full complement of Lindt bunnies in the house, so goodness knows the opportunity was there. I did demolish a tottering heap of ironing, finally read papers from as far back as last Tuesday week, and appeal a parking ticket on behalf of an elderly friend, so the holiday was not wholly without accomplishment. But mostly I slept - and dreamt - and felt a curious yet languorous sense of disconnection from the world, which I sense is an inevitable part of the 'single household condition' (to come over all Camusian for a moment).

    Token Easter concession of hot cross bun, plus mini-tsunduko of Ian McEwans

    In one of the dreams, The Monochrome Set (my recent travels with whom were evidently still fresh in my mind!) were supposed to be playing a late night gig outside a ruined castle on top of a mountain. The craggy topography was positively Transylvanian in appearance, belying the Tewkesbury postcode on the band's itinerary sheet. The 'get in' - or 'get up', rather, in view of the vertiginous terrain - was hard going, on slippery ground and along unlit paths. I am not sure the band ever made it to the summit - I was onto the next dream by then anyway, about a defective glide rail in the cupboard under my cooker.

    Val in the garden of the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis

    I have waited till this post to mention it, but along with Naja, there is one other scent that is inextricably bound up with meeting Val and Chris in Augsburg. For on the Sunday I wore a sample of Songes edt - the conscious creation of happy associations with perfumes being a thing I increasingly do, rather than noticing after the fact that random fragrance X (not to be confused with the online retailer of the same name ;) ) happens to remind you of good time Y. In my book, deliberately orchestrating scent memories is just a logical extension of outfit planning, and it worked like a charm with Songes.

    So much so that on my return to England, I felt I had to own it, notwithstanding my repeated protestations on the blog about not buying full bottles anymore, which must now be downgraded to 'trying not to buy'. In truth the last one was Tauer Perfumes PHI Rose de Kandahar a few years back, so I have been pretty restrained on the purchasing front. And in further mitigation, I managed to catch a fleeting offer on All Beauty, so my 100ml bottle cost just £47.95 including postage. That is less than £24 per 50ml! Why, you couldn't buy the latest 'same old' fruitchouli dross in Boots for that price, never mind a five star behemoth on the Bois de Jasmin rating system - with whose judgement I find myself once again fortuitously aligned. In further further mitigation, Val is copping for a big decant.

    Notes: frangipani, tiare, jasmine, incense, vanilla, copahu balm, pepper, ylang-ylang, vetiver, sandalwood, amber, styrax

    I have been wearing Songes a lot in the last two weeks. During a recent visit, my brother asked me what my favourite perfume was, which I obviously batted off as a preposterous question to put to a diehard fumehead. ;)  Yet the more thought I have given it since, the more I have come round to the possibility of only having TWO perfumes, and of Songes being one of them...! For while there is amber and styrax in the base, which one could consider 'winter perfume' notes, the composition overall sits squarely in the 'sultry tropical floral' category, which is not exactly the genre for which one reaches on a dreich and drizzling day in February. That said, I would not restrict Songes to high summer and exotic holiday locations, and I don't say that just because we don't really have a summer here and I don't go anywhere remotely exotic. Okay, not the beachy, Bounty bar kind of exotic, say. Some might say a residential container park in Stuttgart is a bit 'outside the box' as destinations go. Or 'inside the box', even. Sorry, I digress...but yes, I reckon Songes also works nicely in spring: like a cuckoo pint it is buttressed by a curling sheath of greenery - a compelling blend of vetiver and what I can best describe as 'a jasmine note in tuberose's clothing', most notably in the opening. For I detect a dewy, faintly medicinal** otherworldliness that reminds me of Carnal Flower, which I also see as having wider seasonal currency than its name might suggest.

    **(or more exactly, a scent that is somewhere between grass, Germolene, menthol, and bubblegum, and I really do mean that in the best possible way)

    Oops, we are tired again!

    As Songes wears on, the narcotic and sensual bouquet of frangipani, tiare and ylang-ylang starts to bloom on a pneumatic bed of vanilla spiked with just enough pepper and incense to keep things from ever drifting into apocalyptic Loulou territory. Rather, this is a sort of 'sexed - and slightly weirded - up' La Chasse aux Papillons crossed with Ormonde Jayne Frangipani, featuring echoes of Amaranthine's creamily indolic milk pudding. There is an air of innocence about Songes, but if you were to tear away the soft focus veil like a tangle of so much diaphanous clothing, you would eventually uncover its carnal core. You might well have got fed up with the tangle wrangling long before, mind! If Songes were a film it would perhaps be a more grown up version of Bilitis, that stylish and moody 'coming of age' flick, of which my memory, like the cinematography, is hazy, but as a geeky and thoroughly unracy teenager I do remember it as an aspirationally risque cult classic. Even the theme tune is seductively soporific, in a slightly annoying synthesised Vangelis kind of a way! ;)

    The most respectable still I could find! Source: Abe Books

    Actually, park Bilitis with its youthful lesbian overtones - seductively soporific is really where it's at in a nutshell. Songes could be the signature scent of the Lotos-Eaters (aka the gloriously named 'lotophagi' or 'lotophages') as they munched on their lotus fruits and flowers, causing them to 'sleep in peaceful apathy'. Here is an extract from the eponymous poem by Tennyson:

    "Eating the Lotos day by day,
    To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
    And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
    To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
    To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
    To muse and brood and live again in memory"

    Source: Wikipedia

    And that brings me back to another aspect of my association with Songes: if Bilitis is its gawky and not quite suitable film equivalent, 'On My Balcony' from the band's Platinum Coils album, would be Songes in a song to a 't' - or an 's'! The track takes as its theme singer Bid's stay in hospital, recovering from surgery following a brain aneurysm:

    "Through the perfume of sweet velvet sleep
    I glide into the afternoon"

    As I mention in this early tour post, when quizzed about the lyric, Bid explained that his choice of the word 'perfume' was quite arbitrary, and he probably just liked the way the word sounded. Even so, the woozy cadence of the lines nicely evokes a state of dreamy torpor, scented or otherwise. There is about a 30 second clip here, which gives you an idea of the track's languid charm - not unlike early Genesis indeed.

    And here are a couple of reviews, which serve to confirm me in my linkage of Songes to song!

    "The tempo slows in 'On My Balcony', a ballad that feels like drifting down a tributary of oblivion." - From a High Horse

    "One is lifted up to the gentle heights of On My Balcony, where, weightless, surrounded by a golden luminous haze, the concerns of the world float far below." - God is in the TV

    And as it happens, at that eclectic asylum seekers' hostel-cum-hotel that was our base in Augsburg, my room had its own balcony! As did most of them to be fair, haha. Okay, and not strictly my own balcony - more like my own section of a communal balcony that ran the whole width of the building. But the decor of all the rooms - which were individually designed by an assortment of avant-garde artists - was very Lotos-Eaterish, come to think of it, in the sense of minimalist and surreal, and conducive to a state of peaceful apathy! Good job I managed to stir myself in time to meet Val on the Saturday night - you could easily sleep your stay away, which would be rather a waste of a visit to such a picturesque spot, though you would feel jolly rested at the end of it.

    I will close this free association 'spacy review oddity' with some photos of the other rooms I find most Songes-like at the Grand Hotel Cosmopolis, starting with the one I was meant to have, Grande Dame. (All photos sourced from the hotel website.)

    Things start to get more diaphanous with Innen / Aussen:

    My own room, 4 null 5, also gives good gauze:

    Before taking a fluffy turn with Zauberwald (note also fluffy bedknob):

    And here is Maskerade des Lebens - complete with balcony and trippy mural:

    So there you have it - Songes edt, the scent of an asylum seekers hostel / hotel, a fabulous fumehead meet up, a hospital in Tooting, a dodgy 70s film, and those legendary lolling sybarites, the Lotos-Eaters:

    "To muse and brood and live again in memory"

    Are you asleep yet...? ;)