It’s quaint, the shop in Broughty Ferry, the one neighbouring the gastro pub. Its dusty shelves littered with trinkets. Some imported from the Maldives, some not. Fireplace displays, fridge magnets, decorated boxes for loose buttons. Down the bay, by the train tracks, catch a glimmer from the soft-cornered ScotRail window. Retired towers of plundering waiting to be scrapped. The parent company of the parent company which runs the local exports subdivision steals the shell for its name. Clam made two-dimensional, curved body made flat.

She sells seashells, and so does he.

In New York, the shell is stolen once again; stylish accoutrement detailed with thin knitted bows. Sandy Liang joining the troops of oil companies, adopting the form. She does it for girlhood, rejoiceful and of a popular nostalgic fashion. Dresses reminiscent of prom queens and princesses, little girls stealing their rich auntie’s fur coats. Pink eyeshadow and mascara, ballet flats and plaited hair.1 Shark’s eye adorned earrings; seashell resonance as toddler memory. Echoes of influencers tweeting Liang in compliment, and she sweetly replies to their call.

In older New York, before the Statue of Liberty is born, a man stops in parts to gather audiences to watch a ritual act: the burning of his own flesh with an open flame.2 No worry, as he carries an invention in his briefcase, a byproduct of oil manufacturing. A travelling show for the mysterious powers of the petroleum jelly he has branded Vaseline, Wasser and Elaion, German for water, Greek for olive oil, the ointment made of neither. His barely formed blisters muffled after he spreads the jelly over his torched skin.

Another fire, Miss Mabel Williams collects charcoal, no, lamp black, from a candle flame with a cork at her vanity, mixes the dust with Vaseline, paints her eyelashes dark and rich for a date with a suitor with no name. Her brother Thomas watches. Later, his debut mascara cake product is re-christened, from The Lash Brow to Maybelline, in honour of his sister, who remains single for another decade.3

Don’t be unaware of the plotting behind the propagation of such facts as the ones shared here, a hope that customers enjoy a twee story, a fable of familial invention. Like Vaseline, it blurs the lens. Take Mr Graham, and his devoted clam shell, constant in Royal Dutch Shell since their conception when The ‘Shell’ Transport and Trading Company joined Royal Dutch Petroleum, and maybe it truly was taken from the family shield of Mr Graham, a friend of the company’s founder Marcus Samuel, or maybe it was taken from Samuel’s family’s earlier imports and exports, that Victorian fashion for shell-covered jewellery boxes.4 These are decorated stories that are bent repeatedly overtime, eventually creating a glowing visage in block red and yellow, hovering above at the petrol station.

A history most charming, they hope. I believe.

The deep sea is seen by some as a shared area of the shelf, with their countries’ borders being drawn into the ocean outstretched, equidistant from the nearest points of the baselines of the territorial sea, an unattractive idea for countries whose coast is concave and unruly in form, like the Netherlands. But a story can be bent, a trade made international, and a coast extended. The shell is a trinket is a multi-billion company. Dutch Oil is of the Netherlands as is it of Britain as it is to become of America.

Miracle wax and wane.
Sun glistened jelly.
Detonation follows.

Vaseline was not the first byproduct Robert Chesebrough sold as holy, previously finding fortune in clarifying kerosene from the blubber of sperm whales.

Beached bodies.

(like thunder cutting into sacred land)                     

The boom in American oil made this refinery obsolete, why bother with fishes when there is black wine to harvest. He left Brooklyn for Titusville.5 Because he was lucky. Knowledge is transferable, as is grease.

Plunge the depths
Ruin them
and I’ll call treacle sweet

A soft bodied mollusc grows out of its shell, like a blooming wallflower, or an old lady destined for the retirement home. The shell tornadoes through waves, eventually landing, weathered smooth, on a plane of dust made of her ancestor’s bodies. Glorious byproduct, just waiting for the child in flipflops to slip her inside his beach short pockets.

If not children, then artists.

Alexander McQueen amid his flash of fire. Finding a moment to breathe salt air. Walking on the sand, the edges of his shoes bumping up against razor-clam shells, materials laid out at his feet. He doesn’t think they’re useful on the beach anymore, nobody could find home in a razor edge, so why not stitch them to a dress. Send it down the catwalk, make a cruel comment at the model’s expense, like she could ever invert her knees and pointy elbows to stop the clatter of fragile beachcomb. A shattering of seashells on the white runway, their usefulness obliterated once again.

‘Kind of like fashion, really.’6

If not artists, then businessmen.

Not dead yet Tony Curtis in a sailor’s hat and a pair of black circle lens glasses, sitting on a too short wicker chair planted in the sand. He is a liar, a cheat, a fraud. Also, a saxophone player named Joe.7 Norma Jean wrapped in a towel beach robe, cream legs falling at his feet. She is black and white, technicolour, divorced, dead-dead, and immortal. Also, Sugar sweet, Marilyn Monroe.

Joe, also credited as Shell Oil Junior, takes two clam shells from a basket sitting handily nearby. She flirts, he raises the shells up high. She is tricked, Shell Oil succeeds once again. A girl with plaited hair watches on from red velvet seats, snake charmed into chanting.

In the trailer, behind the scenes, she hates him. She confides in a makeup artist, who paints her face in Vaseline, moisture winning against tears. With a grooved rod, he separates and covers her lashes. Elizabeth Arden and her many friends. After, he dusts a thin line of grey underneath, a pretend shadow for sultry allusion.

But she also fucks Tony, behind those scenes. But that history is midnight-seaweed-red-yellow bruise coloured conspiracy, not nearly as fun to fantasise as first imagined. Instead, choose lipstick. Choose mascara.

Out on the sometimes-flooded planes—Alaska, Arkansas, Aberdeen, Angola—a grooved rod strikes.

Raise the shell. You don’t hear it anymore.

There used to be pirates. There used to be sailors, blips on the horizon disappearing into mist, if lucky, returning with a valentine for a loved one. An octagon of cowries and conches.

Horizontal catwalks seizing the bed
Red-yellow afterbirth
visible through the black-
blue sea.

And just outside Dundee, down the bay, fingers trace over an eight-edged shape.

It’s all so quaint.


  1. Jake Silbert, ‘Sandy Liang SS24 Used to Call Me on My Shell Phone’, Highsnobiety, September 2023.
  2. E. Pender, ‘H07: Mr Chesebrough’s Wonder Jelly! A history of petrolatum and the skin’, British Journal of Dermatology, 185:1 (2021), pp.163–164.
  3. Sharrie Williams, and Bettie B. Youngs, The Maybelline Story: And the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It (Bettie Youngs Books, 2010), p. 36.
  4. Shell Global, ‘Our Company history: Shell from 1833 to 1945’, Shell, n.d.
  5. Kishore L. Jayakumar, and Robert G. Micheletti, ‘Robert Chesebrough and the Dermatologic Wonder of Petroleum Jelly’, JAMA Dermatology, 153:11 (2017), p.1157.
  6. Alexander McQueen, ‘The McQueen Chronicles’ (interviewed by James Fallon for Women’s Wear Daily, 28 September 2000).
  7. Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot, 1959, (United Artists)