Love songs in age: Fabulous Fashionistas

Old age doesn't have to be a case of moving into a care home and "sitting in a circle with one's mouth open."

I can’t remember the last time I saw a documentary as inspiring as Fabulous Fashionistas (17 September, 10pm). Agreed, it had an awful and misleading title. It was also incredibly uneven and disjointed. Its director, Sue Bourne, seemed not to know exactly what to do with her wonderful interviewees and there were about a thousand questions she should have asked but didn’t. In the end, none of this mattered. Her subjects, whose average age was 80, made the film for her: funny, clever, deliciously stubborn and startling to look at, they have given me a blueprint for the future, of which I intend to make full and proper use when the time comes.

In essence, Fabulous Fashionistas – eew, I can hardly bear to write it! – set out to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to be, as Bridget Sojourner put it, a case of moving into a care home and “sitting in a circle with one’s mouth open”. Sojourner was one of six women in the film and, at the age of 75, she looked extraordinary: straight-backed and flat of stomach and with a style that seemed to be channelling (as the fashion people have it) Mary Portas and Diana Vreeland. You could no more imagine her in a pair of zip-up sheepskin booties than playing crown green bowls.

However, as Sojourner’s main source of income is her state pension, her magnificent appearance owes nothing to Bond Street and everything to Oxfam. Socking great cocktail rings, crimson turbans, Grecian-style T-shirt dresses: all of these things had come to her courtesy of charity shops.

Sojourner kept company with Daphne Selfe, an 85-year-old model with cheekbones like geometry and eyes like Parma violets whose face I recognised from the fashion pages of the Guardian; Sue Kreitzman, a 73- year-old cookery writer-turned-artist with a passion for colour, kitsch and Crocs; Gillian Lynne, the ballerina and choreographer who, at the age of 87, has a devoted husband more than 25 years her junior and is still working all over the world; Jean Woods, a 75-year-old fashion boutique assistant with a Sylvia Townsend Warner haircut and a fine collection of sequinned high tops; and the 91-yearold Baroness Trumpington, the working peer extraordinaire and mail-order addict. (“Is this minister aware that I not only knew Lloyd George but I was also his land girl?” she once said in the Lords. Cue much rumbling laughter on the cross benches.)

Everything these women said and everything they did moved and cheered me, whether it was Gillian performing her morning stretches, legs akimbo, or Sue informing us, “Beige is the colour of death,” or Jean explaining how, on being widowed, she walked into Gap and asked for a sales job (she was given one).

Oh, the splendid sight of Trumpers excitedly ripping open her latest parcel, inside which was hidden a mustard-coloured handbag. Bourne asked when she might use it. “Every day!” replied Trumpers, her fingers working, not even bothering to look up. Daphne the fashion star was interviewed in a fluffy Afghan waistcoat with diamanté bits on its shoulders. It suited her and she knew it, which made me smile. How brilliant to be listening to someone talking about the prospect of illness and death – it would all be rather a bore, she thought – and at the same time to be envying their innate style. In front of my computer, I began to feel quite dowdy.

As I watched, I made notes, which is what I usually do when I am reviewing a programme. This time, it was with extra purpose. I found myself writing a list of all that these remarkable women had in common, the better to work out how one might – luck allowing – not just endure old age but enjoy it, too.

First of all, they had been loved, and even though some were now widowed their long marriages were still in the background, a kind of larder of happiness, to be visited in lonely moments. Second, they were all slim and fit and put some effort into staying that way. Jean still goes running. Third – and most important – they had a sense of purpose: work or a hobby that got them out of bed however much their bones ached.

“It has filled my life,” said Sue of her art. As she told us this, her face flushed. Enthusiasm can make a woman seem positively girlish, whatever her age.

Old age needn't be miserable. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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