The First Poet in the Gewgaws

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Two weeks ago (in ‘A Confederacy of Poets in the Gewgaws’ – here) I threatened to do this.  Well now I’ve done it…

It came as no great surprise – certainly to me – that W.H. Auden and I did not get on.  I approached the slim anthology with all due reverence and read slowly and carefully, at times using my finger to trace the words in the hope that, like my six year old grandson, it would help me make sense of it all.  It did not.

I started with the foreword, written by John Fuller, of whom I knew nothing other than what is written on the jacket.  (I have since discovered that he is himself, a published poet and founder of a publishing house that was responsible for publishing some of Auden’s work.  If he was a politician, he would have to lie to some committee or another to explain it.)  He clearly loves Auden, but if I’m honest, it is unsurprising as they seem to have much in common: I found his introduction almost as impenetrable as the poetry that followed it.  I know very little about Auden and most of what I do know, probably wrong.  I believe that he was born in Britain and that he travelled to Spain in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, but he did not immerse himself in the unpleasantness quite as fully as his compatriot George Orwell, returning to the UK after seven weeks (six of them spent some distance away from the unpleasantness) before moving to the US, where he remained at a comfortable arm’s length throughout the Second World War.  I am sure that he led a rich and colourful life, but that is the extent of my knowledge and I deliberately refrained from learning more, hoping that the poetry itself would tell me all that I needed to know.  Well then…

As I always do with poetry, I read each poem twice: once to let the words in, once to let the meaning follow.  On this occasion, the latter seldom occurred.  The poems veer wildly between incomprehensible and infantile, with just a little bit of banal thrown in for good measure: Then I pulled on the hairy breeches / Smelling of peat from skua-breeding Harris / Caught round the waist with a calf-leather belt*.  On occasions I was struck by Auden’s use of words – particularly words with which I am unfamiliar – and tried to understand why he used them, particularly as, more often than not, they seemed to clunk into place like a discordant voice in the Kremlin.  Mostly they disrupted whatever ‘flow’ I could muster and I couldn’t help but think that they had not been used because they were apposite, but just because he knew them: See how clever I am, I bet you’ve had to look that word up.  I would love to share some examples with you, but as I did not have the foresight to mark them during my first two readings and had no desire to spend precious time researching them, I would have to go searching for them again and, to be honest, I would probably sooner chew my own socks.  I was most struck by this overt show of ‘cleverness’** in England to me is My Own Language which chugs along quite nicely, if unmemorably, rhyming and for the most part scanning quite nicely, until German words, then phrases and eventually whole sentences begin to arrive on the hidden whim of a crowbar and it all falls to pieces, toppling down on a cry of ‘But see how clever I am.’  Too late for me I’m afraid.  I was bored on the first reading and irritated before the second.

Mostly, even when I have little or no idea of what the greater intellect is banging on about, I can enjoy the flow of the words.  Not with Auden, unfortunately.  I found that the deliberately (I presume) jarring nature of some of his lines – random words dropped into a line like hand-grenades – completely off-putting, particularly when allayed with a couplet that could have been written by a two year old cat and a rhyming dictionary.  An example of an unsurpassed versatility?  It appears to me, more like a man desperate to prove that he can get away with just about anything.  Many of his poems appeared to be cut-outs (Bowie used this method to great effect with many of his lyrics) which is a great way of writing, but Auden seemed to miss one vital point – it is still intended to make some kind of sense, or at least to paint some kind of picture when it’s done.  To me, these poems – particularly the prose-poem ‘Argument, part iii’ (I have no idea what happened to parts i and ii and, frankly, I’m not at all sure that I care) would have been best served by being left alone in the first place.  Wherever it came from, it didn’t deserve it. 

One thing that did strike me quite forcibly about some of Auden’s work is that it reads just as well if you do so from bottom to top.  Try it with his poem ‘August 1968’.  It is remarkable; it makes just as much sense backwards.  If that was deliberate***, I take it all back.  The man was some kind of genius.

I was always aware of the fact that I was reading an anthology which carried with it the possibility that I was missing out on the ‘good stuff’ – this one contains none of his ‘long poems’ thankfully – and that, therefore, I was not getting the full picture, but if this was Auden’s ‘Match of the Day’, I certainly had no desire to watch the full game.  Maybe I do him a grave injustice.   Will I read more to find out?  Almost certainly not: I am sixty-two years of age and the world is full of chocolate, wine and peanuts…

*Getting Dressed – which is about getting dressed.  I have searched for a deeper meaning but to no avail.  If it exists, it must be down one of the lead mines that he apparently loved so much. I looked up Skua hoping for some insight.  It is a seabird renowned for its prolific production of guano.
**Definitely not intelligence.
***It wasn’t

The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem

“‘…Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.  If that is granted, all else follows…’”  Deidre paused, took a quiet breath, and gathered herself together before preparing to launch forth into her next chapter.  Frankie Collins scratched his chin, uncertain.  He’d heard that line before.  He knew he’d heard that line before.  He half-raised his hand to speak, but he just wasn’t certain, and he diverted his hand to smooth down the unruly mop of hair that swamped his forehead instead.  He knew that line, he was sure, but from where?  It could be a book, but it could just as easily be a toilet cleaner advert.  He just could not bring the source to mind.  It was no good, he would have to hold his tongue until he knew for sure.  No chance to consult his phone until the meeting was over and by then it would be too late.  If he called her out, she would just change it.  She would deny ever having said it.  Claim that he had misheard her.  He knew that nobody would back him up; Deidre Desmond was, of course, the Writing Club star.  A published author.  Four full novels under the Mills & Boon banner and a partial review in The Times.  You do not become a published Romance novelist by plagiarising the work of George Orwell…  George Orwell!  Of course!  That’s it, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’!  Deidre opened her mouth to recommence the reading from what she was certain would be her new best-seller, ‘The Heart Full of Stars’, as Frankie leapt to his feet.  “Excuse me,” he stuttered, still uncertain that he had got it right.  Fourteen eyes turned towards him.  “I denounce you as a plagiarist,” he intended to say, but he had barely stammered through “I” before the door clattered open and Phil Fontaine burst in, late as ever, clearly not on the outside of just his first drink of the evening and conspicuously manuscript-less.  Deidre stared severely and Frankie slumped, deflated by the moment, back into his chair.  His time had passed.

Phil made his way around the circle, muttering soft apologies each time he stood on toe or handbag, until finally arriving at his appointed place next to shrinking violet Penny who studiously avoided eye contact, aware that she would blush horribly.  He looked around the circle, to the sheaves of paper nestled on knees, and appeared to notice for the first time, that he held nothing.  “Ah,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I… I think I must have left my book at home.  I… I was supposed to be reading tonight, wasn’t I?”  He sighed melodramatically.  “And I was really pleased with what I’d written this week.”
“Yes, well…” Deidre smiled the smile of a cat stalking a three-legged mouse.  “I have filled in with a little reading from my own new work so far.  If you are happy, I can continue.”
Phil nodded sadly, although his eyes were smiling.
“Now, where was I?”  Deidre continued.
“You had just quoted the line from Orwell,” yelled Frankie, half leaping to his feet.
Rictus gripped Deidre’s face.  Her teeth cleaved to her lips.  “Ah yes,” she lisped, taking a long, slow drink from her water bottle.  “The quote.  I’m unsure about the quote.  Maybe I will remove that…”

Phil Fontaine and Frankie Collins stood together at the bar, Phil cradling a large tumbler of Scotch whilst Frankie, who was driving, slowly spun a half pint of shandy between his palms.  “I know that she wouldn’t have dared to send that line to the publishers,” he said.  “It would have been picked up straight away.  She was just trying to impress, but just be careful what you read to her, that’s all I’m saying.  Unless you want it to end up in a ninety page pot-boiler.”
“She’s all bluster.  Have you ever seen a single word of what she has written in a bookshop?  Those books go out of print faster than the algorithms that write most of them.  She just regurgitates nineteenth Century bodice-rippers and good luck to her, I say.  She wants us all to believe that what she writes is much more worthy than it is, but let’s face it, she is the only one of us with a publisher at the moment.”
“I suppose so.”  Frankie drained his glass.  “Come on, we ought to go back upstairs.  Everybody else has gone.”
Phil looked deep into the heart of the amber fluid, feeling its pain, before swallowing it down and following Frankie towards the stairs.  “What have we got now?”
“I think that our little wallflower is going to read us one of her new poems.”
“Ah, is it about a bird by any chance?”
Frankie smiled broadly, but did not reply.
“It’s amazing how many rhymes she can find for tit,” said Phil, feeling just the slightest pang of shame.

The two men bundled into the room together, giggling loudly.  The chairs in the neatly laid circle were all occupied, with the exception of the two awaiting the late-comers.  All eyes, except for those of Penny, who was fidgeting nervously with her papers, turned on them.  They found their way towards the empty chairs as noiselessly as they could and took their places.  Penny had her eyes cast to the floor, breathing quietly and deliberately; looking for all the world as though she was waiting to address an audience of thousands.  Phil touched her hand lightly as he sat, and smiled apologetically.  Penny smiled back weakly and took a long deep breath as Deidre rose to her feet.  “And now,” she said, with a grin that played with the features of her face which released it to the world as a grimace, “Before Francis reads us the latest chapter from his new book” – she knew how much he hated being called Francis – “Penny is going to read us her latest little poem called…” she consulted a scribbled note on the back of her hand, “…‘Morning Chorus’.  It is, she tells me, another entry into her delightful little collection ‘The Book of Birds’ with which she hopes to approach a publisher very soon.  I’m sure I speak for us all when I wish her the very best of luck.”

After a sparse round of applause, led by Deidre, had died away, timid little shrew Penny rose to her feet, winking broadly at Phil as she did so.  Shyly, she coughed and began, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”

You can find ‘The Writer’s Circle #2 – The New Man’ here.

A Footnote to Faust*

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on

Perhaps the most vital of assets, one of the key markers in social aspiration, is to be well-read – or at least to be perceived as such. But this is the age of rush. This is the age of little opportunity to pause in the forward thrust of life, let alone time to read – what are they called again? – books. So, here’s my plan. I intend to publish at regular intervals (this will probably turn out to be irregular, bordering on the never again) some easily digestible précis of great works of fiction that will allow you to exude an air of education and erudition during conversation in almost all possible social contexts. (I think it only fair to point out that I almost certainly won’t have had the opportunity to read the originals myself, so don’t be drawn into detail!)

Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll – the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who really should have known better.)

A girl, Alice (believed by many to be Alice Liddel, an eleven year-old acquaintance to whom Dodgson proposed marriage, although he denied this, but then he would, wouldn’t he?), for reasons best known to herself, follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and, against all advice, drinks a potion given to her by the author that shrinks her, meets a March hare (mad as a box of frogs), a Mad Hatter (plain mad), a dormouse (slightly peeved) and the Queen of Hearts (apoplectic and psychopathic). They have a tea party and then do stuff with Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle Dee and the Cheshire Cat who, now I come to think of it, might just have been in the other book about chess. At some point, judging by Dodgson’s photographs, Alice’s clothes appear to fall off. The book is full of hidden number puzzles (which remain hidden to me), acrostics (which are clear when pointed out) and symbolism (which is just a little too blatant for my liking). After a number of adventures that I can’t quite recall just now, the author sobers up and returns to his position behind the net curtains.

Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)

A boy is born an orphan and, after nine years in an orphanage, is sent to a workhouse to eat gruel. The workhouse is run by a Welsh man who sings very loudly and sells Oliver to an undertaker, from whom he runs away because – well, because he’s an undertaker. He is befriended by The Artful Dodger who, despite being English, has the worst mockney accent since Dick Van Dyke, and learns to pickpocket. When he is caught, he is given a home by his prospective victim, and he realises that he wouldn’t have had to go through all those years of gruel if only he’d thought about stealing handkerchiefs sooner. He is then recaptured and taken back to Fagin, a reprobate who hides his money behind the wall in the hope of becoming a Labour Party donor. Fagin sends Oliver to burgle his benefactor’s home, but he is caught. It then emerges that there are more cases of mistaken identity at play than in the average Shakespearian comedy, leaving Oliver a rich man and, if I am not wrong, his own second cousin. Fagin is sentenced to death, but blames everything on Bill Sykes who went on to co-write The Goons.

Nineteen Eighty Four (George Orwell)

In a world completely unlike our own, where the three global superpowers are constantly at violent odds, Winston Smith realises that the government is not necessarily telling the truth – an easy conclusion to reach, as he is actually employed by them to tell lies. He keeps a diary, which is illegal, although he constantly forgets to fill it in and, like everyone I have ever known outside of Adrian Mole, gives up completely before the end of March. He meets Julia, who is a member of the junior Anti-Sex League, and they have an affair. I am not sure how. Eventually, Winston is captured by the Thought Police (who I suppose are a bit like the ordinary police, but with ‘O’ levels) and, having had rats strapped to his face, betrays Julia (which is what tends to happen to girlfriends who join the Anti-Sex league) and is released because he now realises that he loves his older sibling.

Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stephenson – who I think invented the steam engine in his spare time)

Jim Ladd (son of Alan) nicks a dead man’s treasure map and sets off to find the treasure, unaware that pretty much everyone on the ship, except for himself and the ship’s captain Smollett, was a member of the original crew of the pirate who buried the treasure, Captain Flint, who is now a parrot. Despite the preponderance of eye-patches, hooks, peg-legs and ‘ooh-aahs, the captain is unaware of the nature of his crew until he is told by Jim, who has heard them plotting from his place in the apple barrel. The chief plotter is Long John Silver, whose son sang Let the Heartaches Begin in the 1960’s. Eventually Jim finds himself on an island with Michael Palin, who has been marooned by the rest of the Pythons. When Silver and his men eventually find the treasure chest, it has already been emptied by Palin, so they nick it from him instead and set off towards Bristol. Silver casts himself adrift with a bag of gold and some nuts for the parrot, whilst Jim sails home in the certain knowledge that crime does pay. Michael Palin spends his share of the loot on a ticket around the world.

Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy, before he became Robert and learned to insert his arm up a cow)

Nothing Happens. Often…

*All literature is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that. Woody Allen

A classic is a book that everybody is assumed to have read and often think they have. Alan Bennett

If ever there was a writer who proved that humour is timeless, that writer is probably Stephen Leacock. (I recommend ‘Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy’, which was first published in 1915, should you wish to give him a try.) Though securely set in its own time, the humour continues to crackle brightly from every page. It is of a date, but definitely not dated. It is to Leacock’s article ‘Our Literary Bureau’ (contained in the abovementioned collection) that this post owes a huge debt of gratitude.

Newspeak – The Curse of the Smartphone



George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, describes a society in which the ruling autocrats control the population by restricting the scope of the vocabulary they are able to use. Negative words are removed from the language so that they cannot be applied either to the government or the actions they take. The word ‘bad’ is excised from the dictionary, but the word ‘good’ remains. To articulate the concept of ‘bad’ the suffix ‘un’ is added to ‘good’: thus ‘bad’ becomes ‘ungood’, awful becomes ‘plus-ungood’ and cataclysmic becomes ‘double-plus-ungood’. But it’s not ‘bad’. Get the drift? Good. Given sufficient time, the very concept of bad disappears, even in unconscious thought. Big Brother may be ungood, but he is never bad. An idiot is unclever, a bloody idiot plus-unclever and a blithering moron is in the White House.

‘So, what,’ I hear you ask, ‘is your point? What are you going to witter on about today?’’ I’ll tell you. The point is this. For Orwell the diminution of language was a tool of the oppressor, secateurs to rational thought, but in truth it is one of the few things that he didn’t get quite right. We do not need the government to denude and impoverish our beautiful language, we are doing it all by ourselves. Or, more correctly, we are doing it all by our smart phones. When we text, we abbreviate words into a vowel-less cluster of letters and numbers, sentences are truncated into a string of meaningless acronyms, the language of Shakespeare has become a kind of guttural Esperanto. Messages are so condensed that meaning is hard to ascertain and connotation is lost to such an extent that the only way you can let someone know that you are joking is by sticking a grinning face at the end of it. Who could possibly guess what emotion the staccato missive of random symbols is meant to convey unless it has an emoji at the end?

And Textspeak has spread beyond the world of texts into the language of the everyday. Who doesn’t say ‘LOL’ every now and then? I have heard people actually articulating emojis in normal speech: ‘So I said to him, don’t worry, you’ll be great, smiley face…’ And I know, I understand, that language evolves. It always has. Imagine trying to get by today, speaking as Shakespeare would have you speaking. I imagine that the attempt to get a half bottle of cheap vodka at 2am in the local mini-mart from a surly sleep-starved Latvian for whom English is the fourth language would not be particularly well received, particularly if it started with ‘Forsooth’. You would be perceived, initially, as quaintly eccentric, but very shortly afterwards as a PITA and within no time at all you would find yourself in secure accommodation sharing a room with Russell Brand.

Anyone who has read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t, please allow me to recommend it to you) will understand how baffling a language can be when it is just a sidewise step away from our own, until, quite suddenly, you start to hear the new words in your head where you would have heard the old words. Understanding comes in a wave through which the submerged brain suddenly bobs to the surface with the realisation that two words that sound roughly similar and are used in the same way, probably mean the same thing – or similar – and, pausing only to pop on a pair of water wings, works the rest out for you. But, and here’s my real problem, that doesn’t really help me when a word I am familiar with, a word I have grown up with, suddenly, and without warning, has its meaning totally and irrevocably changed. When a good word, a friendly word, suddenly becomes a bad word and the bad word becomes the accepted term. Words that are in common usage become unacceptable; words that are acceptable sink into disuse. Suddenly I am marooned at sea again. Innocently dropping the wrong word into a sentence is as fraught as dropping a three year old into a swimming pool: it can go one of two ways, and neither of them the way that you predicted.

It is so easy to offend people when so many are so willing to be offended. It’s the keeping up that’s the problem. Have you any idea, for instance, how confused it makes a man of my age to hear that someone is being trolled? To my memory a troll is part of the family that lives under the rickety rackety bridge: if you don’t want to be trolled, use a different bridge. I remember when mobile technology was a new caravan. I remember when ‘f*ck’ was the rudest word imaginable, before it became what it is today: a uni-purpose verb, noun, adjective, pronoun and adverb used by all. The world’s first, and possibly only, truly egalitarian word. Does anybody else still go for a widdle? Does anybody else still wear a pully? I didn’t realise how regional our language was until somebody I was speaking to did not understand the word mardy. I thought that everybody dackered down now and then. A strange country is this when so much can be read into the way you pronounce the word scone. It says much about us as a race, that we have as many words to describe a bread bun as the Eskimos have for snow. (I wrote that, and now I’m not even certain that Eskimo is any longer an acceptable word.)

When I was younger, a pension was something that was paid by the government to a person from the date of their retirement until the date of their death – the two being separated by about twelve months on average. Now it is something you start to worry about at birth, contribute to from age 18, pay all your life and draw at eighty if you live that long. A prostate was an almost mythical organ that gave endless trouble to the elderly. Now it seems to trouble people who are really quite young. Come on, play the game, please give me back the patriotism that was the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s. Please give me back the time when short-term memory was the ability to recall names, faces and events from the recent past and not…

… Oh bugger!

Coming Up For Air


So, whilst on holiday and happily reading George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air I, like Orwell’s anti-hero George Bowling, happened to catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror; a horrifying experience that I will not repeat lightly…

…I am grateful that, unlike Bowling, such teeth as I have, are my own and my waist size remains what it was forty years ago. It is what is going on above the waistline that worries me. I appear to have something inflatable (and inflated) inside my belly and someone has seen fit to give me tits. Why? What the hell am I supposed to do with them? And my head is too big for my body. When did that happen? I don’t remember ever noticing it before, but having seen it now, I cannot unsee it. It is an inescapable fact and, I suppose, must always have been so. (Skulls do not continue to grow in adulthood, do they?) I cannot believe that somebody stole into my middle aged sleep and swapped my normal size head for this bloody great thing. It is a sad revelation that I have gone right through adult life, blithely unaware of the fact that I have an oversized head. People must hate sitting behind me in the cinema.

Unlike Bowling, I do not have a rosy-glowed yearning to return to where I grew up: in truth I have barely moved more than five miles away from it. In my youth, the estate on which I was raised seemed vast, but in the scheme of things it is really quite small. I have no idea how many houses there are, but it does not come close to some of the massive sprawling estates that feature in so many documentaries highlighting the problems of urban deprivation and lawlessness. As I child I saw no deprivation. I saw hardship, but that was just normal. I saw lawlessness, but most of that involved climbing over the off-licence gate and ‘liberating’ empty bottles in order that they could be re-returned for the deposit. Leaving school I would often go with my friend to his house. We were given the choice of two fillings for our teatime sandwiches: salt or sugar. I realise now that that was because there was nothing else available, but it never occurred to me then. What did occur to me then, was that sugar sandwiches were the greatest thing ever.

The estate was built between the wars. A council estate of sturdy, red brick houses, each with a front and a back garden and each with its very own front gate. We had a pond with goldfish and a shed with mice. My dad used to grow chrysanthemums. In the late summer the garden was a swaying ocean of brown paper bags, which he fixed with rubber bands over the flower heads in order to keep the earwigs out. I have no idea why it was so important to keep the earwigs out of the chrysanthemums, but I do remember that my grandma would still not have them in the house in case they harboured any of the weaponised little blighters.

The streets were narrow – there were no cars – and made ideal cricket pitches in the summer. For the rest of year we played football across them, each having our goal on opposite grass verges, each meticulously cleared of the white dog-dirt which no dog ever seems to produce now. In my memory the street was always full of kids playing (except when The Monkees were on) on bikes and scooters, on strap-on roller skates and handmade carts and, failing all else, somebody’s dad’s wheelbarrow. Everything was close by: school, shops, church and pub were all on the estate. Only a trip to the doctors or the dentist involved anything approaching a walk.  Night times were filled with the constant roar of the ever-airborne Vulcan bombers with their nuclear cargos. And I remember the air-raid sirens being tested once a month. The time and date was always published in the local newspaper to prevent those who remembered when they were last used in earnest from locking themselves in the coal bunker with a flask of lukewarm tea, two slices of mucky bread and last week’s Titbits.

One thing I am always struck by when looking back, is how close to the war it all was. Fourteen years until I was born, but as a country we were still recovering: both my grandfathers were still suffering. Harold Macmillan had said that we had never had it so good. I suppose that having lived through two World Wars, a General Strike and the Great Depression, it was natural that expectations were not that high.  Somehow the rest of the world moved on whilst we lived as if rationing continued. Our way of reminding ourselves what we had given up in order to defeat tyranny, or our bloody-minded way of reminding the rest of the world?

Try as I might, I can remember little of what went on in my life from Monday to Friday; my memories are all of weekends. Saturday morning was The ABC Minors – I can still sing you the theme tune if you wish to hear it. A tanner to get in: cartoons, a long film, a short film and a serial. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry, and Flash Gordon. Every now and then they played a newsreel and the air was thick with thrown sandwiches and lemonade. It was impossible to sit through the boring bits without feeling the sting of a pipe-blown dried pea thwacking into the back of your head. (Is it still possible to buy pea-shooters? Is it still possible to buy dried peas?) On your birthday you could go on stage before the show began and collect your ABC minors badge, free entry for the following week and a packet of crisps that, had sell-by dates then existed, would probably have expired during the war. My favourite bits were the old silent comedy shorts and the flickering black and white cartoons. I liked Felix the cat the best, and I can still sing that theme tune too.  Saturday teatime was pig’s fry and gravy whilst watching the football results on the black and white Rentaset TV,which had a huge magnifying glass affixed to the front so that the picture was big enough to see all the way from the settee.

Sunday breakfast was always a full fried affair, whilst lunch was always a roast. Teatime was salad with ham hock, little cubes of cheese, tinned pink salmon and one of those pork pies with a boiled egg running through the middle. Sunday teatime was also the only pudding of the week: tinned fruit salad with tinned sterilised cream. Occasionally we got the more expensive tinned fruit cocktail. This contained a handful of flaccid pale green grapes and usually meant that we were having evaporated milk instead of cream. I realise now that I do not so much remember the past as smell and taste it. I am like a nostalgia snake, catching the past on my flickering tongue…

And then I look back into the bathroom mirror and I am once again the freshly-showered creature that, whichever way you choose to dress it up, looks uncannily like a bald orang utan.

I am of an age when everything – bowel, bladder, balance, judgement – becomes less reliable. Ensuring the cleanliness of underwear ceases to be in anticipation of luck being in, and becomes a manifestation of the fear that it might be well and truly out. Fortunately I am not like George Bowling: I am not breaking in a new set of false teeth for a start; I am not a raging misogynist; I am not living my life on the threshold of a global nightmare, desperate to find comfort in the unattainable once-upon-a-time. Although it’s good to remember it sometimes, I do not want to relive yesterday. There is no going back. I’m quite happy with today thank you very much. What I’d really like is for my tomorrows to be the kind of yesterdays that my children and grandchildren look back on with joy. And I’d like them all to remember that I was not too bad really. In my own strangely-shaped kind of a way…




London Fashion Week Men 05-07 January 2019

Clothes, they say, maketh the man, but what, exactly, they maketh of him no-one seems prepared to explain. By and large, what clothes maketh of me is a mess. Naked, I look like most men of my age – absurd: a mal-formed inflatable doll with pronounced over-expansion to the midriff and nowhere to tuck the nozzle. One glance in the mirror serves only to confirm that nature almost certainly did not intend the likes of me to wander about as nature intended. What was once beefcake, if indeed it ever was, is now suet pudding. Time plays wicked games with the ageing body. My one consolation, and it is a scant one, is that when I am naked, things remain – mostly – where I left them. Granted, bits and bobs of me do tend to wobble around a little more that they used to, but, in truth, it is little more than a minor series of tremors, nothing actually physically relocates. Skin, once taut as a drum-head, now sags like last year’s pant gusset and has given up all pretence of attempting to control what lies within. My naked body, having been in movement, can now take several minutes before it is truly still. Having undertaken any form of physical exercise I resemble a jelly on a washing machine. I am still, but the molecules that form me are bouncing around like a packet of dried peas on a trampoline. I am solid, but I ripple like a slapped water bed. In the main these – let us call them ‘involuntary subcutaneous gelatinous oscillations’ – do not move stuff around though. Unclothed, although things may vacillate a little, there is little potential for things to actually get out of place. What was hanging there yesterday, will still be hanging there tomorrow. Clothes, however, present myriad possibilities: shirt collars turn up; ties migrate to the left ear; flies fall open as if by the hand of some malevolent crotch-hellion. I am the mummy, wrapped up in bandages by the only Brownie in the pack to have failed her First Aid badge. I am the unmade bed in the wrong sized sheets. I am the Regency Dandy in a world of Beanos. Put me in designer clothes and I become a designer wretch. I could have Stella McCartney committed to Bedlam merely by turning up at her door.

Unlike women, men are not made neatly. When God nicked Adam’s rib it wasn’t because he thought that he needed a companion, but because he’d just come up with a much better design: rounded off corners; clipped off non-aerodynamic attachments; moved the brain up by approximately three feet… Yet, despite the basic design flaws observable in the intrinsic construction of the standard naked male anatomy, some of us still manage to look even more clown-like in clothes than out of them. Consider, for instance, the humble singlet. Put an athlete in a vest and they look, well… athletic. Put Dwayne Johnson in one and he is The Rock. Put Bruce Willis in one and he can defeat an entire terrorist army single handedly. Put me in one, even a good one – cotton, 35% polyester at most, no nylon – and I still look like the ‘before’ picture in a health club advertisement. The armholes reach my waist; the neckhole shows my navel; the bottom tucks in my socks.

Very few of us can claim to wear clothes purely as a means of keeping warm. Most of us are keen to keep our less-than-perfect bodies under wraps in public but, none-the-less, we all want to look attractive and clothes can help (at least they can help some, not me: even a well-tailored jacket can leave me looking like Quasimodo). But are we too easily misled by a person’s outward appearance? It is true that we all make snap judgements based entirely on the evidence offered by a person’s apparel. ‘Judging a book by its cover’ is still frowned upon and yet there must be something in it: consider how easy it is to spot a plain-clothes policeman in a roomful of plain-clothes villains.

Through the years, women have suffered great pain in order to be considered fashionable. When tiny waists were ‘la mode’ girdles were laced so tightly that eyes bulged, bosoms rose to prop up the chin and the sight of a woman being seated was accompanied by a sound resembling a rifle shot. By the time sanity was restored, stomach muscles had become so accustomed to this shoring-up that when released they were often stood on. I read that Catherine de Medici insisted that the ladies in her court were to have a waist measurement of no more that thirteen inches. That’s less than my neck. How did they even stand? Any woman with a bust of any kind must have spent her life doubled-over like a hairgrip. And how, exactly, did breasts even become a fashion accessory? Small breasts are ‘in’ then large breasts are ‘in’. Small busted women have great lumps of plastic pushed into them whilst large busted women have equally large lumps of perfectly healthy tissue removed. Sometimes reality belongs in a parallel universe. In what sane world would otherwise perfectly rational women be prepared to face the agony of cosmetic surgery in order to have an arse like Beyoncé?

There is a strange, twisted logic to the whole concept of fashion. In the 70’s I sported platform shoes, flared trousers, flared collars, flared nostrils, tanks tops… Many have become fashionable again, but with a subtle difference. Flares are flares, but they’re not the same flares; platform soles are similar, indistinguishably so, but just not identical. I cannot return to my clothes of yesterday when they become the clothes of today because I am a man of yesterday (and also they won’t fit me). Everyone wants to look good, but why does this have to be in a way that somebody else thinks that you would look good? Make up your own mind. Treat fashion with the contempt it deserves. Have strength. If you like paisley loons (anyone under the age of 40 will have to ask a parent) then wear them. If you prefer your jeans not to be full of holes then just rock them like that. In George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother stifles independent thought by tailoring the language. In 2018 the nation’s fashionista stifle independence of thought by tailoring what we wear; dressing us in a uniform of their own design. To choose not to wear their uniform is to choose to be an outsider: a beacon of sartorial inelegance. The man who lowered the bar for haute couture. The Hound’s Tooth Check at the Captain’s Dinner.  The revolving bow-tie at the Mayoral Ball.

It is a strange fascism that derides or bullies those who do not choose to dress as others do. A fascism we should all resist. Go to your wardrobe now and find something that you never wear, but that you couldn’t bear to throw away. Slip it on and walk the High Street with your head held high. Make like Adam Ant if you fancy it. Make like Mr Benn if you don’t. Go on; strike a blow for independence and tolerance today. Thumb your nose at fashion and cock a snook at style. If you want to wear stripes and checks, just go for it and be happy to pose for selfies with all the people who assume you are either somebody famous, someone from the circus or simply mad. Become consciously anti-fashion: it’s all the rage.

It’s impossible for me to write about the fashionista without thinking about Ab Fab and even harder for me to think about that without thinking about the absolutely fabulous June Whitfield.  R.I.P June Whitfield 1925-2018