Tag Archives: john martin

In which I have a difficult decision to make.

31 Aug

Life has been fairly quiet since I came back from leave. After five wonderful weeks in the UK and Romania (about which I may write more at some future stage) I returned to a country still in the grips of one of the wettest rainy seasons on record, grappling with a cholera outbreak and gearing up for elections which have caused companies seeking to take on new international staff to delay their arrival for a few months. All this has meant that there has been rather less going on than in usual in Freetown, for which I am rather grateful; not only is going outside when it’s absolutely pouring with rain not that much fun, I have also enjoyed the time to rest and recoup after a busy and rather hectic few weeks away.

This weekend, however, I have committed myself to taking part in an activity that has caused (and is continuing to cause me) considerable angst… I am going to a beauty salon. This activity may not inspire fear and conscience-wrestling in the vast majority of the population but I have three distinct grounds for concern:

Firstly, this is my first visit to a ‘beauty salon’. (I can practically feel the editors of women’s magazines running whole gamut from Vogue to Closer emitting a sigh of disbelief and falling lifeless to the floor). Yes, that’s right, I have never had a manicure, pedicure or facial. I have always been vaguely aware that these are all important monthly or biannual milestones for most women, but I’ve never really questioned my inherited belief that natural is best, or my personal conviction that if you’re six foot, wearing a yellow and orange fish print dress and spouting almost continuous nonsense then no-one is likely to be critically inspecting your toenails. This, apparently, is naïve. I have periodically been told that my feet are a disgrace (which they are – I’ve always cultivated hard skin so that I can walk around barefooted al summer), that my nails would look much better shaped and polished (I’m not so sure about this; wouldn’t that just draw attention to the fact that they’re rather stubby and square after 23 years of being bitten?) and that I will wake up at 50 wrinklier than a bassett hound unless I develop a skin-care regime a little more sophisticated than ‘occasionally splashing my face with cold water’. Last night my lovely friend Katie, who would never be so crass as to comment on any of the above, asked last night if I’d like to go to Freetown’s one beauty parlour I was taken rather by surprise. But now that I am at, at 25, Real Adult with a fairly decent Disposable Income (until I change jobs next month, that is, but I may as well make the most of it till then…) perhaps the time has come to make this (expensive) leap into (cough) ‘true womanhood’.

Secondly, whilst it seems that most other women have a detailed and thought out explanation and justification for why they spread gold dust and algae over their face every thirteen and a quarter hours, I do not have any sort of ‘beauty philosophy’. All I currently possess is a decent(ish) grasp of personal hygiene. So I’ve been giving the matter considerable thought today (again it’s important to make the most of down time in my current job to practice self-indulgent introspection; it’s highly likely I won’t have this luxury at the next one). And what I have come up with is serious cause for concern. I have noted a definite trend in my attitude towards the purchasing of services: I like to get my money’s worth. So far, so normal, but I define ‘getting my money’s worth’ in a very particular way; I like to leave the person who has performed the service a shadow of their former self. This is true in many situations, but I want to demonstrate my point using two particular examples:

(1) Massages: Again, I’m no connoisseur, but sometimes when I’ve been to parts of the world which have considerably cheaper labour costs than my own (Thailand, Syria) I have succumbed to one of the hundreds of badly spelt signs offering a body pummelling. In Thailand I had two. The first was one of the most painful experiences of my life; a deceptively tiny thai lady walked up and down my spine, cracked joints I did not know I had (and possibly did not have before she got involved) and left me with several friction burns. It was wonderful. The second played beautifully relaxing tinkly music, covered me with jasmine petals and then waltzed out of the room. I left feeling as if I’d be robbed; if I am paying someone to massage me then I want them to be exhausted and gasping for breath when they finish. Yes, I may also be experiencing considerable discomfort, but at least I have to peace of knowing that I’ve purchased their sweat and toil – that I have purchased their exertion. (Syria was also very satisfactory in this respect – my sister and I were in a communal bath and, on agreeing to the full treatment, were grabbed by a naked elderly lady, stripped and scrubbed until we were devoid of every single cell of non-essential skin.)

(2) Art Exhibitions: Although there is superficially little in common between purchasing a massage and a ticket to an exhibition I think the same thing applies. I recently went to the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate, and found it hugely disappointing. Sure, the shark and cut-in-half-cow were cool, but in general it seemed to be a horribly laissez-faire approach to art. And what was with all the dot paintings (which must have taken about 20 seconds each), or all the times he’d just taken all his spare toiletries and just arranged them in no particular order in medical cabinets? This is not all consuming, soul-sucking art creation. You could ‘create’ any of these things whilst eating a mars bar and listening to the sports news on the BBC World Service (which, incidentally, I’m doing a lot of at the moment – even hours of droning on about the transfer window are preferable to the monotonous sound of another foot of rain falling). As I left I deeply begrudged the £15.50 I’d be charged to get in. (The butterfly room was cool though. I’d heartily recommend that. But FYI the one at London Zoo is much bigger.) For contrast, I’d like to draw your attention to the works of John Martin. The Tate Britain recently hosted an exhibition of his work, titled ‘Apocalypse’, which was basically a staggering number of enormous and minutely rendered ‘epic’ canvasses spanning the past (and future), and the rainbow. His attention to architectural and historical detail is startling, and his two most famous paintings (depictions of the end of the world that have inspired generations of science fiction writers) took him several years to create, and caused several bouts of depression. Now I am, of course, sad to hear of his trials and tribulations, and I would not wish mental illness on anyone, but as a result of what he had suffered for his art I in no way begrudged the entry fee. (In the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that someone else might have paid for me, but this is strictly irrelevant.)

So my philosophy on paying for services is ‘the greater the exertion, the more satisfied the customer’. And I do like to be consistent. But I’m just not sure that I can apply this same precept to someone giving me a facial… it’s well known that the skin on our face is very delicate, and it’s highly likely that rigorous pummelling would leave me bearing a closer resemblance to something from by Picasso than something by Titian. (And, to add insult to injury, Picasso definitely features on my Damien-Hirst-led black list of artists.). Something to think about…

Finally, I mentioned ‘nonchalantly’ to a friend (ie in an attempt to demonstrate how sophisticated I am) that I am going to be popping down to the Chinese Beauty Parlour (yes, I pronounced the capital letters) on Sunday, and did not get at all the reaction I suspected. He (Imran) looked aghast, and said he assumed I did not know that ‘concerned citizens’ were boycotting that institution, on account of the fact that they are keeping a chimpanzee as a pet. Tacugama, the wonderful local chimpanzee sanctuary, has apparently been to visit them to ask them to give it up both for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the chimp, but they have refused. Apparently said chimp is taken to restaurants, and generally treated like a favourite child. I was entirely split. On the one hand, I know chimps are generally unhappy in captivity, can become aggressive to humans and are seriously endangered. On the other hand, I have something of a hankering to see a chimp wearing a nappy and clothes. And yes I KNOW that the latter is unworthy, but I’m finding my curiosity hard to stifle. I have even today found myself considering whether or not the chimp might be involved in giving me my pedicure.

Who knew that deciding to visit a beauty parlour could be so fraught with difficulties?