What have I got against beige trousers? On the face of it, nothing, since I don’t wear them myself. But I’ve been questioned, so I do need to clarify a little.
It’s just that, in our household, they have become the symbol of that rite of passage from just being someone to being someone who’s middle-aged. They belong with the adjectives of age-appropriate clothing such as “comfy,” “generously cut,” “roomy”, “elasticated” and “broad fitting.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable (I’m partial to a bit of comfort myself), and how you get comfortable is a choice everyone is entitled to make. I’m just choosing a different route to comfort. I’m under no illusion that what I wear is somehow “younger” or “cooler” or more “fashionable.” It’s very clear that all I’ve done is choose a different way to be old-fashioned. But I like it.
However, my choice invites criticism – and even ridicule – from fellow senior citizens who believe that, at my age, I’m making a fool of myself. I guess one of the consequences of any choice is that it’s likely to upset anyone who’s chosen something else. But there’s no need for animosity. You have your roomy beige trousers and I’ll have my bootcut Levi’s (I’ve already admitted old-fashioned), and we can get on perfectly well.
Besides, the woman with whom I share my life (I’ll have to find an expression for this relationship soon: “partner” is too businesslike for me; “significant other” is just silly – but it’s just occurred to me that “the woman who shares her life with me” would be good – Feminism never sleeps)… anyway, whatever we call each other, she would never speak to me again if I ever put on the beige trousers. Jeans suit my figure (think Paul Newman, NOT Jeremy Clarkson – my chest still measures substantially more than my waist), and she thinks it does us both credit to let that show. As she charmingly puts it: “If you’ve still got it…..”
I, and they of the beige trousers, don’t need to judge each other or get tribal. Except that, in some situations, we do. And so do all the people watching. Often it’s no problem, and I do enjoy it when longer contact edges towards a change of attitude. Nobody has ever actually said to me: “I’m so sorry. I took you at first for a frightful oik, but I can see now that I was mistaken….” But I can see it in their eyes.
I can now share a story to illustrate how dress – and in this case, accent – create an instant flurry of mutual judging that can lead to unnecessary unpleasantness:
A little while ago I was involved in a very trivial road traffic accident, when my car, which I was driving at around 10mph (no, I’m not the dithery dodderer whose “careful” driving spoils afternoons in the country, contributes to high blood pressure and causes more accidents than joyriders; this was in town, in traffic)… but I digress. As I was saying… when my car came into gentle sideswipe contact with another car, also doing around that speed, causing mutual displacement of wing mirrors. We pulled over. I got out. The other driver got out. We smiled guardedly at each other, but without any anger or malice.
He was middle aged (about fifteen years younger than me), but had clearly embraced the early adoption of respectable, age-appropriate clothing. He had the roomy beige trousers and the brown pie-crust shoes beloved of men whose media role models are those greying, smiling, gently active, sensible-but-still-capable-of-enjoying-life-as-long-as-it’s-kept-within-reasonable-limits people you see in TV ads for Saga Holidays, walking on the beach or dining in a lovely restaurant. Or the ones who are “unlocking the capital tied up in their home” so they can go on holidays and walk on the beach and dine in a lovely restaurant, and also pay for their daughter’s wedding. Or the ones who have taken out special insurance so that their children can pay for their funeral without being saddled with the escalating costs of “a good send-off.” (I have to digress here for a moment to confess I have difficulty with that expression. I’m well aware that funerals are for the living, not the dead, but when the living congratulate themselves for having “sent off” in style a dead person who, being dead, can have none of the enjoyment of participation, they’re not really accepting it’s a survivor-based ceremony. Where, exactly, do the survivors think they are sending their dead loved one off to? And will they get there any more quickly or more comfortably if it’s cost more? Is there such a thing as tourist class, business class or first class to Eternity? I am able to talk about this with some frankness since I have all but used up my four score and ten, and I’m not, when I die, expecting to go anywhere where the consciousness of a “good send-off” will be of any use to me. It’s absolutely right to make provision so the survivors don’t have to pay the unavoidable costs of disposal. Settle your bill before leaving. But my wish is that, if there’s anyone left who cares, they should spend the money on whatever makes them feel better, and just stuff my mortal remains down a manhole or something. I won’t care. I won’t be there. And, if it’s any comfort, I don’t believe I’ll be anywhere else, watching, either.)
The upper part of his body (sorry, unfortunate association – we’re back to the other driver in the story; you remember the story I began a while back?) was clad in one of those Tattersall Check shirts beloved of the county set, and also of people who think a Tattersall Check shirt might make them look “county”, too. I have to say that the shirt was very much less convincing than the utterly in-tune beige trousers and shoes, and I remember thinking, fleetingly, that a more self-aware man would have known his own limits, and would have seen that, with his general mien, the shirt was a step too far. I was going to say you can’t blame him for trying. But you can. And I did. I know these shirts are extremely versatile as sartorial signallers of decency, right-thinking and Traditional British Values, but only when worn by people who have a natural air of negligent (not to say disdainful) authority, which this man decidedly did not.
As I was making split-second judgments about him, he was doing the same to me. He took in the bootcut Levi’s, the T-shirt, and the Johnny Depp boots (no, not the Pirates of the Caribbean ones, obviously. I’m not a complete fantasist. The calf-length engineer/rock’n’roll ones with the buckles that Mr Depp wore before he was a pirate.) I didn’t buy them as Johnny Depp Boots, incidentally, but just because I liked them. I’m not generally keen on trying to look like a celebrity, or even trying to tell one celebrity from another (it is a matter of pride to me that when I worked as a journalist in the London Bureau of The Hollywood Reporter, I was never able to put a name to any picture of any Hollywood Megastar, male or female.) I only found out my boots were associated with Mr Depp when I was online trying to find ways to describe them for this post. I guess I’m guilty of judgment here, too, by assuming I could make it easier for you by referring to a celebrity. I’m so sorry…. Anyway, just to be clear, I wear them INSIDE the jeans… again, I’m not a complete fantasist.
To get back to the other driver’s judgment of me, his eyes betrayed confusion (“old face, grey hair, but slimmer than people that age are supposed to be, and no age-appropriate clothing… how can this be? Is he an ageing rock star, or a lunatic… or, more alarmingly, both?”) I did try to reassure him by smiling again, and he opened our conversation by saying “what was that all about, then?” Again, I smiled, and shrugged in a non-threatening sort of way. My feeling was that this trivial incident needn’t lead to arguments or unpleasantness. After all, we’re all reasonable people here.
And then his wife got out of the car, and I could see that she was not going to accept that I could ever be anything approaching her idea of “reasonable.” It was my clothes again, you see… She, incidentally, was wearing what I believe are called “slacks,” with a comfortably elasticated waist, and a neat cardigan. So we both saw, instantly, where we stood in relation to each other. I was still willing to take the calm, gentle route, but she was having none of that.
Standing behind her husband, she screwed her face into a grimace as she took in my appearance, and said: “You! You! Look what you’ve done! You shouldn’t be on the road, driving like that. You’re drunk! You’ve been taking drugs! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Her husband, still, like me, willing to keep this amicable, and perhaps slightly frightened of what would happen if we didn’t, smiled at me again, apologetically. “We’ll have to exchange insurance details,” he offered. His wife, her chest heaving under the cardigan and her face contorted into a sneer of contempt and rage, shouted: “Insurance? Insurance? People like that [an intensified sneer] don’t have insurance! It’s not even his car! It’s probably stolen!” Her eyes flicked momentarily to the back of her husband’s head, and I think I detected in her screwed-up face a trace of regret that she hadn’t married someone more able to live up to the promise of the Tattersall Check shirt. Someone who would have a horsewhip about him and would not be afraid to use it on oiks.
A crowd, as crowds will, gathered at the sound of raised voices (strictly speaking, in this case, a raised voice.) It being a weekday afternoon in a quiet, fairly prosperous little town high street, much of the crowd was wearing beige trousers or slacks with elasticated waists. I could sense that, even though I’d neither said nor done anything remotely threatening, and it was I who was being shouted at and abused, the general public opinion was swinging against me. All sorts of people who hadn’t even seen what happened were offering themselves as witnesses who would swear to my erratic and life-threatening irresponsibility behind the wheel. A man in jeans and Johnny Depp boots – even a quiet, gentle, reasonable man – is likely to get the worst of it when surrounded by beige trousers.
Then a policeman arrived on the scene. I say “policeman”, but he looked to me to be around eleven years old, and wearing, possibly for the first time, the policeman’s outfit he’d got for Christmas. I think he’d just been passing and saw an opportunity to practice. Disappointingly, he hadn’t read the instructions in the box about policemen having to say “Allo, allo, what’s all this ’ere then?”, but he did look decisive and authoritative – or as decisive and authoritative as it’s possible for a child in a policeman’s outfit, with coat sleeves slightly too long and trousers slightly too short, to look.
Turns out he actually was a “real” policeman (apparently, not believing real policemen can possibly be real policemen is an age thing) and he did make a fair stab at trying to prove to us grown-ups that he’d taken his Dealing with the General Public training very seriously. He planted his shiny boots commandingly, said “right, Sir,” when addressing either me or the other driver, and “right, Madam,” when addressing the other driver’s wife.
Understandably, he made a rapid visual character assessment – also part of police training, so I’m told – that the other driver and his wife (even while she was screaming at me) were ordinary, trustworthy, law-abiding middle class citizens. And that I, on the strength of the inappropriate clothing alone, would probably tell lies. The Long Arm (or, in this case, the Slightly Short Arm) of the Law would take some convincing that I was not a drug-crazed tearaway unlikely to have motor insurance.
I decided it was time to calm everything down. A few quiet, reasonable words would do it. Before I say how massively mistaken was my belief in the efficacy of quiet reason, you need to know a couple of things:
First, I have a Sarf London accent that has clung to me (or is it I who have clung to it?) through six decades of higher education, jobs requiring erudition and articulacy at “board level”, and long residence in parts far removed from my native environment. I don’t know why this should be. My siblings mostly seem to have left it behind them decades ago. Maybe it’s of a piece with the clothing I’ve also clung to? I am not ashamed of it, but mention it because it’s relevant here.
Second, I assumed, before opening my mouth on this small high street, beset as I was by hostile beige trousers, a facial expression meant to convey bland, gentle, unthreatening reasonableness, but which, looking back, more closely resembled vacant imbecility.
Accent ready, facial expression ready, and then the biggest mistake of all: the words. I don’t know for the life of me why, but I remember saying something like: “Why are you resorting to this distressingly vituperative and entirely unwarranted tirade…..?” It was as if I had blurted an alien language known only to alcoholics and drug fiends on trips that had taken them to places nobody normal could ever imagine. Added together, it was all the proof the woman in the elasticated slacks needed. Behind a viciously jabbing finger, a face screwed even tighter with venomous conviction shouted in triumph: “See! See! Look at him! Listen to Him! What’s he on? He’s on something! Breathalyse him! Test him! Test him! He’s drunk! He’s on drugs! Can’t even speak properly! Test him! Test him now!” Luckily, I had the presence of mind not to suggest that, by any reasonable measure of civilised behaviour, I was already being sorely tested.
The policeman made as if to reach for something from one of the pockets, straps, loops and leather pouches that festoon police uniforms. Was it his telescopic baton? His Mace spray? His breathalyser kit? His emergency armed response backup button? In the end, whatever it was, he hesitated then decided against it. On reflection, he was probably reaching for his notebook to record my words, then realised the perilous spelling minefield he would be wandering into and thought better of it.
Enough is enough. I took advantage of the infant PC’s hesitation to assert a bit of my own authority. I turned my back on the screaming Fury and said: “Look, officer,” [did I see a swelling of the festooned chest and a faint blush on the downy cheek when I called him ‘officer’?] “there’s strictly speaking no need for you to be here. There’s been no personal injury and the drivers are exchanging details, so thank you for helping sort this out….” I then continued to ignore the now breathless Fury, completed the exchange of formalities with Mr Fury, and quelled the muttering locals with the look I should have used in the first place.
The only comfort I can draw from these recollections is the extreme pleasure I took in correcting the spelling, punctuation and even, in a few instances, diction, of Mrs Fury during the exchange of e-mails we had settling the details of the “accident.”
A trivial event, but it’s not the first time, and I guess it won’t be the last, that I’ve been put at a disadvantage by premature judgments based on dress and accent. How can a gentler, more intelligent, better educated, more genial, more articulate and more reasonable person be put consistently at this sort of disadvantage? It didn’t matter this time, but if the split-second decision ever had to be who was the law-abiding citizen, who needed protection, who was lying, who was telling the truth, who was the baddie, who had to be shot, I wouldn’t fancy my chances against anyone in beige trousers.
The solution is clearly elocution lessons and succumbing to beige trousers. But I still value the regard of a discerning woman (as well as fearing the scorn of that same discerning woman) enough to resist. I’d like to think we can turn the tide, but we shall not see it accomplished in my lifetime.
Oh, [as Lt. Columbo always says], just one more thing. I have claimed (or should it be confessed?) that my particular gift is for digression. Nobody who’s got this far can have any doubt that my claim is valid. But as we gifted people often find, our gifts can be a burden and a curse. I know people close to me who say that they suffer with me the burden and the curse of my gift. My own children (children no longer, but grown, beautiful, intelligent and articulate people) have said since their infancy: “Dad, why is it that any story you tell turns into ten stories, and you don’t even ever finish the story you started?”
I would ask you to consider this: Brevity may be the Soul of wit. But digression, the pursuit of the side paths and tributaries of thought, is the wonderful, unpredictable, messy, clumsy, unrefined, inconvenient, intrusively physical, embarrassing but finally more satisfying Body of wit.
It’s occurred to me (as a digression, of course), that I’ve learned something here. Being unable to resist the digressive thought is just like one of the things I listed in my dislikes: using the smartphone to tell the people who are actually here with you now that there are other people who are not here who are more interesting. Digression is just succumbing to the idea that the thing you’re thinking now may be less interesting than the thing you’re not thinking but could be thinking if you follow the siren of the side road. Even old people can learn stuff.
Until next time, au revoir.
PS: Since I looked on the Lululemon website to find out what it was for my previous post, something very funny but quite sinister has happened: every blog I look at, including my own, carries an advertisement for Lululemon. Given what I said about the site, that’s funny. But it also shows just how closely we’re being watched and followed around the internet all the time. Lululemon was particularly keen to sell me a “yoga pant” for the very reasonable price of just under £100. Bargain, I’m sure. I have to thank Lululemon for another digression: When did things that used to come in pairs become singular? We used to have pairs of pants, trousers, shorts, tights. Now, for some reason that I can only put down to a refinement of marketing language beyond my understanding, high-end retailers offer a pant, a trouser, a short and a tight. It makes me uneasy and gives me a feeling of being somehow short-changed. When they arrive, will the pant, trouser, short or tight require me to buy another one to complete the pair before I have something I can actually wear?