I write this the day after my birthday. No, I am not hungover: the party is this evening, when my children come down from London to play in the beer garden of that most excellent pub, the Battle of Trafalgar. I like to joke that I have a sentimental attachment to the pub because I was conceived during the Trafalgar victory celebrations. But goodness, I am old. Not old enough for a Freedom Pass yet but certainly not the kind of age I imagined reaching as a child. One of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation shows was set in the year 2020, and I remember watching it when it came out and doing a little maths in my head. I realised that in 2020 I would be well into my fifties, and the idea seemed so ludicrous that I think I burst into laughter.
All young people asked to draw people over 40 depict them with walking sticks, or as skeletons, or underneath gravestones. I am not feeling ready for the grave just yet, but today I received a letter which said, on the front, in large letters, “You’ve got eight days.” Something about that full stop made it particularly unnerving, and I like to think that TV Licensing (for it was they) knew they were getting their money’s worth when the copywriter sent them the bill. What could I do in eight days? Some horrible part of me just piped up “Write a novel”, but I’ve checked and not even Georges Simenon could write a novel in eight days. It takes me the best part of a week to write these columns, damn it. Also, the very idea of writing a novel, even had I all the time in the world, gives me the Horrors.
Ah, I grow old, I grow old… I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. Although I won’t, because that’s not in fashion. At the moment, on my lower extremities I am wearing what I call my Brighton Converses, which are regular low-rise Converse All Stars but with dayglo yellow laces and painted in a splash of vivid pink, yellow, orange and blue; the toecaps are a deep lilac. I remember when the girlfriend I nicknamed the Lacanian (“Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it”) gave me an ordinary black and white pair of Converses and – for this was in the days when David Tennant was the Doctor – when I went to pick up my youngest from school all the kids thronged round me. I thought this was great until the following weekend, when I came to collect the offspring for my alternate weekend of parenting, and their mother pointed to my shoes and said, “This is what ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ looks like.” That was 15 years ago; I wonder what she’d say about my footwear now. I have a feeling she would be speechless.
As, I suppose, I would have been had someone said all those years ago that I would one day happily be wearing clobber like that. But I remember when I first moved to Brighton with only one pair of shoes, which needed extensive repairs, and I couldn’t afford a new pair. Then I remembered my friend S—, who is a woman but has the same size feet as me. I borrowed a pair of silver Doc Martens from her and as I walked back home from the Timpson in Hove I felt like I was, finally, in the right place: pretty much anywhere else in the country and those DMs would have sparked unfriendly comment. Here, it is a mild surprise they don’t hand out glittery DMs or dayglo Converses when people get off the train.
My fashion tip is to dress very conventionally from the top down until you reach the feet. I can imagine Jeeves looking approvingly at my beige Aquascutum jacket, my fawn chinos, and then bursting a blood vessel in his brain when he sees the shoes. I speak figuratively, of course, and wish Jeeves no ill, but he can be a little hidebound at times.
Like those more conventional Converses, these, too, were a present – I could never really have bought them myself – but from a friend, not a lover. (The Lacanian was a tireless groomer. “You have to wear a jacket with a T-shirt.” “You have to grow your hair longer,” etc. As it turned out, she was only trying to get me to look like the kind of woman she fancied more than me – ie a bit like her – but that’s another story for another day.) No, these Converses were from my Brighton friend N—, whom I have mentioned before. She is the only person I have allowed into the Hove-l for any extended period of time, having seen more of human depravity than anyone else I know outside of a war zone – although her job is not known for its great life-expectancy and whenever she goes off-radar for more than a month I get rather anxious. But I got an email from her the other day and she’s not dead – she’s in Luton, but hopes to escape one day. She rounded off her message with these lines of Hotspur’s from Henry V: “O gentlemen, the time of life is short… An if we live, we live to tread on kings.”
That’s what I’ll do with my eight days. I’ll write a play.
This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control