Monday, 5 December 2011

Losing your shirt

Mankind loves its metaphors.

If the Euro collapses, economies will fall like dominoes. Our economies are in the hands of financial institutions playing in the last chance saloon. The leading figures in finance are heartless incompetents incapable of raising their eyes above the shortest possible term and the satisfaction of their own greed. 

Sorry, that last bit wasn’t a metaphor, merely a statement of fact, but you get the picture.

It strikes me that even quite trivial matters can be made to stand as metaphors for much more fundamental ideas. I find, for instance, that my progress through life can be traced by a humble article of clothing. It may not have the same ring as Shakespeares original words, but I might say ‘all the world’s a stage, and one man in his time wears many shirts.’

As a child, my shirts were chosen by my parents which, I suppose, meant by my mother. Little stripy T-shirts, for example, all the more comfortable for their familiarity. 

Then I went to a conventional English school with smart white shirts and ties. For reasons that are now obscure to me, I used to bite the cuffs which must have limited the smartness, but no-one ever complained.

As a young man I chose my own shirts but I was lousy at it, so I took refuge in the principle that I would never compromise so far with bourgeois society as to wear clothes that complied with its demands for conformity. I wore ghastly worn out things that didn’t coordinate with the rest of my clothes. Fortunately, the only people I was keen to impress were young women and they seemed able to cope with the idea that it was what was inside the shirt that mattered more than the outside.

I never learned the trick the son of a friend of mine later perfected, of popping down to his local charity shop and buying a string of shirts at a pound each, then wearing them until they really couldn’t go any further without washing, at which point he’d give them to the same shop and pick up some replacements. A pound apiece, he felt, was a reasonable price for laundered shirts.

Then I started work. That principle of non-conformity had to go. I realised that I could after all compromise so far as to wear a suit, a ‘smart’ shirt, even a tie. I who had sworn I would never be a businessman, and therefore certainly never look like one, quietly slipped into the part with no sense of committing perjury.

Of course, I was a British businessman, so I dressed with exactly the casual elegance and eye-catching charm for which British businessmen have won a worldwide reputation.

And then time moved on again. A friend of mine pointed out to me how amused he was, at Parent-Teacher meetings, to see the men in casual trousers and office shirts – as though they had only had the time for a minimal change of clothes before heading out again, or at least wanted to give the impression that they were that busy. That was a sufficient spur to get me to change my shirt as well as my trousers when I got home in the evenings.

As for the ties – these days I only wear one to certain meetings and I put it on in the car park outside, taking it off the moment I’m back behind the wheel, before driving away.

So where does that take me? The Bard assigned seven parts to his view of man – the baby (‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ ’ what a way with words), the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice, the slippered pantaloon, and finally second childishness. And I’ve listed five shirts in my life – the child’s, the schoolboy’s, the young man’s, the businessman’s, the father’s.

The other day I discovered I’d reached my sixth. I got home and decided to slip into a shirt less formal, of thicker and warmer cloth. But when I reached for it, hanging in our bedroom, a room we never heat, I noticed it felt horribly cold. I decided that I was now at a stage in life when I could indulge yet another desire for creature comfort and hung the shirt on a radiator in another room for a few minutes.

Just how completely I had reached the next stage of life became clear when a little later I decided to put the shirt on. Back in the bedroom, I was shocked to discover that it was no longer there.

‘But I’m sure I had it just then,’ I said to myself. ‘Danielle must have tidied it away’ (terrible how much easier it is to blame one’s partner than to accept responsibility for one’s own idiosyncrasies, isn't it?) (OK, OK, inanities not idiosyncrasies). 

It took me a while before memory returned. By then the shirt was beautifully warm. But it certainly brought home to me how clearly my use of shirts mirrored my ageing.

The experience also rather suggested that I might be closer than I’d like to the seventh and final shirt. Which would presumably be some kind of bib.

Totally unrelated postscript

You can say what you like about Luton, but when it comes to the Christmas spirit, we know what it takes.

The Christmas spirit takes off in Luton
Not so much when it comes to taste, decorum or understatement. But revelry  for that we defer to none.  


Anonymous said...

I had to smile when I read that you never heat your bedroom.


David Beeson said...

Brilliant - the post was there in the hope of provoking smiles and even if it wasn't with that remark that I expected to do it, it's great to have achieved my aim