Saturday, 12 September 2009
Parties, gardens, libraries, red toe nails, and other delights
It's a beautiful day in September, and summer doesn't seem quite gone (the picture above was taken in Scotland last month, where I was writing the Henry James-goes-to-Tillypronie blog). As it happens, my toe nails were red in that picture, and they're red again today; well, they've been red all week, in honour of the London Library. Yes, I know that sounds unlikely -- the London Library is the most literary of places, where nail varnish should never be discussed; but it turned up, along with me, at a party there a couple of days ago; because I've just contributed an essay about the joys of red toenails to Modern Delight, an anthology of essays published by Faber and Waterstones, in aid of the London Library and Dyslexia Action. The book was inspired by J.B Priestley's original collection of essays, 'Delight', published in 1949; the author, a self-confessed 'grumbler', wrote about the little things in life that made him happy: a gin-and-tonic, detective stories in bed, smoking in a hot bath, meeting a friend, charades, the sound of a football, buying books, having his fortune told, coming home... I'm sure you'll be able to come up with your own lists. (Please do, and tell me about them -- we all need to be reminded of small delights on a daily basis, don't you think?)
Anyway, Priestley's book has been reprinted in a 60th anniversary edition, and is delightful; and the new anthology has lots of good things in it, too: Beryl Bainbridge on growing older; India Knight on twitter; Sebastian Faulks on a certain girl band... and many, many more.
Anyway, this is my contribution, along with some pictures of the London Library (including a room full of good cheer); it's a place that brings me great delight, as does the garden in Tillypronie.
Oh, and by the way, the red nail varnish I refer to in the following piece is by Essie (and no, I didn't know the name until after I chose the colour).
If you believe what you read in fairytales, then wearing red is perilous, presaging doom and disaster. Would Little Red Riding Hood have encountered the wolf if she wore a more modest blue? And could Briar Rose have avoided her long imprisonment as Sleeping Beauty, if she had not stained herself with her own blood after pricking her finger? Worst of all is the dreadful fate summoned up by Hans Christian Andersen for a little girl named Karen after she acquires a new pair of immodest red shoes, for she is cursed to dance until her feet are bleeding, and then her feet are chopped off. As it happens, Andersen’s father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was 11, which is perhaps a clue as to why soles are inextricably linked with souls in his stories (hence the sufferings of the Little Mermaid, who wishes for feet in her pursuit of love, but discovers that they bring her nothing but pain.)
Yet despite these dire warnings of childhood reading, in fairytales where no one lives happily ever after, I have grown up to discover the cheering effects of shoes the colour of rubies, and the delight to be had in painting my toe nails red. Indeed, when disaster strikes – as it does from time to time, when men turn into wolves, and love is gobbled up – then the small pleasures of cherry-red varnish loom large in my life.
One cannot wear red shoes on a daily basis – that would detract from their potency; from the magic they bring to an evening of bold celebration – but scarlet toenails are a secret that can be enjoyed throughout the year. On the coldest nights in winter, they peek out of the scented bubbles of a warm bath; and in the darkest nights of the soul, they point to a way forward, a glowing reminder that the future may not be quite as gloomy as feared.
As I write this on a rainy morning in an English spring, my crimson toenails are hidden in sheepskin slippers, but I know that when the sun emerges, so will my feet. By the way, the varnish comes out of a small bottle marked Well Red… an antidote to the grimmest of fairytales