Vivienne Westwood keynote at The Royal Festival Hall. Reading as 'freedom fighting', slow fashion and how to choose a husband.
Gorgeous and glittering inside and out, Vivienne Westwood descended onto the stage at The Royal Festival Hall to talk about reading and how it has inspired her creativity.
Her mind is a butterfly, alighting brightly on anything and everything from Taoist poetry to Trade Unions. This author followed slug-like in her wake, trying to connect her tapestry of ideas with my own silvery, slightly sticky trail of plodding thoughts.
But stick some of her words did.
Reading as ‘freedom fighting’ was one. That reading is essentially a subversive act, whereby we ‘get a life’ – by hijacking another person’s life we gain perspectives that can challenge our own. And she did. In reading aloud the Chinese poetry that she loved, she was at one with the text, feeling the descriptions with such keenness you could see the moonlight glimmering on the water. She was a live example of how ‘reading’ can transport us. As a highly visual person, it is no surprise that these Chinese imagist poems hold such power for her. But it’s fascinating that this poetry can whisper across ten thousand years, to speak to all of us so directly. They are ‘shockingly sparse’ and have a decidedly modern resonance. Here’s one of the poems she read, translated by American poet and scholar, David Hinton.
In the Wilds There’s a Dead Deer
(The Book of Songs: 15th-6th c. B.C.E.)
In the wilds there’s a dead deer
all wrapped in bleached reeds,
and there’s a girl feeling spring
as her fair love brings her on.
In the woods there’s thicket oak,
in the wilds there’s a dead deer
tangled tight in bleached reeds,
and there’s a girl, skin like jade.
Slowly— oh yes, slip it off slowly,
my skirt, oh yes, don’t muss it,
and don’t start that dog barking.
(David Hinton: Classical Chinese Poetry www.davidhinton.net)
In fact, maybe it’s even more accessible to our culture today because we live at a juncture where the written word is often being read through the prism of our highly ‘image based’ world. It begs the question: that for our writing to be visible, to connect, do we have to engage with the visual culture that surrounds us?
Mind you, the shimmering of the Taoist moonlight was definitely enhanced by the extraordinary mermaid-like outfit this septuagenarian pulled off with a grace of person that would challenge most of us at half her age. And this was my second take away. Be visible by sticking to your own voice. Do not don other people’s clothes. In her de-constructed sari, a t-shirt that said: ‘Buy Less’, cross-hatched Kandinsky-like tights and glorious platform shoes; she was an unapologetic exponent of staying true to your voice. That in practicing one’s art, finding one’s deep passion, we too are ‘getting a life’ by forgetting our own. Seizing the thing that makes your heart clock tick, and winding and winding it so tightly that it keeps existence pumping through you. She was a lesson in creativity as a life-giving force. You could feel it in her butterfly-winging mind.
I also took away feathers and hats. I had to, after all, my wannabe young adult book, Make Me Beautiful, is about the forwardness and backwardness of the fashion and beauty industry. The outfit Vivienne Westwood wore was a visual critique of that industry. She is a champion of slow fashion: that we should ‘buy less’ and ‘choose well’. Plus I’ve never been in a room with so many men wearing feathers. This probably says a lot about my sheltered upbringing. And hats. Top hats and bowler hats at 7pm on a Sunday. Gorgeous.
What about husbands I hear you cry? As a throw-away remark, she mentioned her criteria for choosing friends and partners: brain-stimulation. Not bad advice. Not bad
advice at all.
(For a recording of the evening visit https://soundcloud.com/southbankcentre/vivienne-westwood-get-a-life)