Apparently, the great Helen Mirren has just said something like: ‘I’m not gorgeous, I never was, but I was always OK-looking.’
In some ways she is absolutely right. She is not classically beautiful. Her nose is a long and interesting shape and she does not quite fit into the current size nothing diktat. Probably, on an objective measure, she is indeed ‘OK-looking’. What she has though is something that makes her more ravishing than correctly obvious beauties. She is comfortable in her skin. And that shines out and makes her radiant.
I have seen three women in life who are not classical beauties but who have that same beaming radiance. They are: Dawn French, Judi Dench, and the Queen. Admittedly, I was quite a long way away from the Queen, since there were sixty thousand other people there at the time, but you could see the amazing beam even then. She is much, much more beautiful in life than she is in pictures, on account of a sort of internal light which streams out of her.
I’ve always thought beauty in women has been mis-sold. It’s almost a category error. Instead of seeing beauty for what it is - aesthetically pleasing, rare, and a pleasure for the observer rather than the holder – people often see it as the key to something else. It is regarded as the secret to love, the route to happiness, the path to fame, even a consolation against the hard realities of the world. I think: when poor Gwyneth Paltrow split up from the father of her children, did she look at her perfect cheekbones and think well, that’s all right then? I doubt it.
I brushed up on Saturday night and went for a rare evening out. In the old days, I would try for a simulacrum of beauty. I would do the face packs and primp the hair and try three different kinds of lipstick. Even though it is accepted in my family that it always was my sister and my mother who were the beauties whilst I was the girly swot, I did try and chase some kind of magazine face. Sometimes, if the hair fates were kind and the light was coming from the right direction, I could almost get a glimpse of it, just for a second.
Now, I am old and realistic. I dress up just enough so that I don’t have to care what I look like. I reach a level of acceptable polish so that I don’t frighten the horses, but can concentrate on good conversation and laughter and meeting interesting new people. It is for this reason that I never wear high heels. I can’t be amusing if my feet are hurting.
The evening was a blast. I found at least two fellow politics geeks, and we had a fine time ranging over everything from the aftermath of the Scottish referendum to the origins of the European dream to Reagan and supply side economics. There was one gentleman I had not talked with before, and as we delved into the thickets of the terrifying Spanish unemployment figures, I could see him giving me a little look of surprise. I think the look said: I was not necessarily expecting this subject from a female in a frock and a jewel. (This may be unfair of me. I have been burned before by the expectation that somehow the serious subjects belong to the big old males, whilst we pink and fluffy ladies discuss domestic matters and shoes and the price of fish. But I must not be paranoid about it.)
I am absolutely buggery bollocks at small talk and polite conversation. I can only really do the meaty subjects. Give me the human condition or the Scandinavian social contract or mortality or tribalism, and I’m off to the races. I admit this makes me an entirely acquired taste, and I do sometimes catch a flashing look of terror on people’s faces as I clamber onto one of my hobby horses and gallop off in all directions. I can do this sort of conversation at social gatherings when I’ve made enough effort to look OK, and then I can forget about my lipstick and get on to the good stuff.
So I love Helen Mirren for saying what she said. There is such pressure on women to look a certain way, mostly young and thin, that it feels like a day in the country to hear a famous female talk about herself in such a way.
I think beauty is a gift, but it is a gift more for the beholder than the possessor. I adore looking at pictures of Audrey Hepburn or Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly, as I love looking at pictures of blue Scottish hills or a fine thoroughbred. It’s just that I don’t think their beauty necessarily brought them all that much joy. They generously gave it to the world, which could regard it with delight. It was not the solution to anything. It was what it was, a thing lovely in itself.
Are some sweet shots from the archive. I keep trying to organise my own photographs, and I keep failing. What these ones make me realise is that there really are only three wild beauties in my life – the little Paint filly, the red mare, and Stanley the Dog. No matter how many face packs I put on, I shall never get close to their raging pulchritude. That realisation not only puts me in my very human place, but also, quite frankly, is rather a relief. I can stick to my muddy boots and the straw in my hair and leave the gorgeousness to the experts.
Here they are, the absolutely lovelies: