Fashion Victim

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Up from The Cape: 1 Mar 2017

If there should come a time when science can identify the biological influences that incline us towards any given profession, my suggestion is we put as much effort as we can into isolating and modifying the fashion designer gene. A casual browse through the pages of history will show it’s something that’s done a lot more harm than good.

Other than when I was a child, I can’t decide what the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever worn has been. Indiscretions in childhood divide broadly into things over which we had no control (i.e. looking idiotic due to the abuse of power by the species known as adults), and the things we have to accept responsibility for, grudgingly, when we see them in photos decades later. In my case there isn’t any photographic evidence I’m aware of regarding my own errors, so I can afford to be light-hearted about it. I’ll touch on that again later.

Anyone who was alive during the 1970s understands it was the decade that style largely forgot. It was, literally, impossible to have been male at that time and not looked like a fool at some point. In the absence of style, something had to fill the void. What stepped into it were ludicrous flares, Daliesque collars, platform shoes, ties reared on steroids, shirts that looked like they’d been cut from vinyl wallpaper, and hairstyles that made a lot of men look like a strange new breed of dog. If ever an era should have been filed under the heading “there’s no excuse for this”, it’s the ‘70s.  As a species we’re witty and inventive, but there’s always some maverick who wants to go against the flow. That was the mindset from which the ‘70s sprang. If you’re too young to have experienced it, consider yourself lucky.

My own worst indiscretion occurred pre-1970s when I was seven years old. I always mention age first because it’s a way of indemnifying myself against responsibility for it. I was below the age of reason. When I was seven I coerced or nagged one of my parents into buying me a Beatle wig. This was one of the madder products born of the hysteria that accompanied Beatlemania at its height. It was not a wig in the orthodox sense. It was a rigid plastic helmet that had been molded into the approximation of a hairpiece, vaguely reminiscent of the hairstyles The Beatles chose early in their careers. On a child it fitted over the head like a diver’s helmet. It covered the eyes so effectively the only way it was possible for a child to see was to tip its head back and try to look downwards. The “wig” had a semi-gloss finish that lent it the appearance of having been burnt or melted.

Exhibit A:

Now there are no witnesses remaining I can reveal to the world that I wore mine all the way home (in the street) from Woolworths. I think at the time I was dressed in a white shirt and light trousers. With a melted black plastic shell over my head I must have looked like a spent match walking along with an adult for guidance.

One of the great lessons of life is that our perception is built on quicksand. What we think looks great today doesn’t look great tomorrow. My perception of myself as I walked home was that I looked really good. It’s self-evident now how badly that perception was awry. I had the idea everyone was looking at me. I was right, but for the wrong reasons. Real life – it was ever thus.

I’ve no recollection of how often I wore my Beatle wig. I remember it being hard to see where I was going when it was on. I also remember that it pinched below my ears like a clam (something it was also reminiscent of because of the way it had to be prised open before it could be worn). Those two factors may have persuaded me to just keep it as a trophy, along with a Thunderbirds hat I treated with reverence and kept on a shelf. I’ve no memory of having worn it in the street again, though it’s equally possible my mind has simply erased all memory of me doing so out of pity. When I put my head inside it, there was a hollow, distant rushing sound akin to what you can hear if you listen at the open end of a length of  pipe. It made conversation difficult, but realistically there weren’t many other children who would have wanted to speak to me……..or be seen in my company. My only comfort in thinking about it now is that there were people who, of their own volition, chose to look more ridiculous than I did. Under the heading of “Lest we forget”, it’s worth touching on a textbook example:

Pajamas in “Bri Nylon”:

If you’ve ever enjoyed using a Van der Graaff generator (a device that makes hair stand on end in an amusing way), then this is the sleepwear for you. The 1931 Universal Pictures version of “Frankenstein” set the standard for electrical discharges in a confined space that everything else has been judged against. Bri Nylon surpasses that standard effortlessly. The electrical discharges that lance out indiscriminately from anyone making the slightest movement while wearing Bri Nylon, is the stuff of legends. It’s also distinctive due to its alien appearance. It is completely artificial, and unmistakably so – again much like a Frankenstein creation. One additional worrying feature was if it caught fire it would melt and stick to anyone still wearing it, thereby doing even more harm. I’d sooner sleep dressed in a hand-grenade.

In case you’ve never seen Bri Nylon in the wild, here’s what you missed:

This, by the way, is what hospital workers will be wearing in the year 2225 if healthcare still exists then. Dr Mentor is on the left. He always knows something about you that you don’t want anyone else to know. Look at his face…..he knows about my Beatle wig – hence the unnerving expression that seems to look right into my soul. Along with an amiable colleague who evidently thinks he’s Robert Redford, he’s presenting their first slightly annoyed-looking inflatable patient to the world. I think the expression on the patient means “I’ve buzzed the nurse three times, and nobody’s come yet.”

Can’t think of a use for inflatable patients? Don’t worry, they said that about lasers, and now we can’t get enough of them – especially for blinding pilots on final approach.

What does it say about an era when it that thinks this is a good look for a man with self-respect and a mirror nearby? Off to bed now sir? First you need to dress up like a court jester. It’s the rules in 2225. Dr Mentor says so, and Dr Mentor is always right.

Timeslip

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Up from the Cape: 15 Feb 2017

 

Decades ago, in the land where television wasn’t quite the ruthlessly preening and professional creature it wants to be today, it was still possible to make a show for next to nothing. There was one about two children who discovered a portal that took them years into either the past or the future, depending on the point they were at in the overall story-line. It was called “Timeslip”, and it aired when UK production standards for children’s TV were modest in comparison with those of today. Productions were assembled using whatever resources could be scraped from the bottom of whatever barrels were available. It showed, but as I was still at school neither I nor any of my schoolmates cared very much. Timeslip was imaginative, and that was what mattered to us. In addition most of us, if we were honest, had what you might call “leanings” towards a young actress in the show called Cheryl Burfield, but that’s not relevant to this piece.

It was normal for a series in this class to barely be able to afford one proper actor. By “proper actor” I mean it in the elastic sense of someone who could be depended on to have at least something approaching a reliable memory for the script, and not leave aching silences as a consequence of forgetting their lines (a terrifying problem for actors on live TV more than on taped shows). If they could also manage to be “in character” from time to time instead of just regurgitating dialogue in a robotic text-to-speech way, that was a welcome bonus. Producers knew it didn’t pay to depend on it though. The remainder of the cast and crew, scrabbling about on the floor for the few coins that had been scattered for them, varied considerably in what we can call loosely talent.

If such a thing as a talent-meter had been invented, the high end stops would be at “Consummate Professional Artist”. Money was so scarce the needle didn’t swing in that direction often in the days when Timeslip was made. At the other end, just above the shallow water marker, was the tag “Nativity Play Standard”. This was a euphemism for “affordable” (cheap) actors who knew in their hearts that their careers had already peaked at about rooftop height. They were now in a slow wobbly descent towards oblivion, like the flight path of an early and badly designed aircraft and its screaming pilot. These were people (it’s a stretch to say “actors”) whose abrupt staccato actions, spasms of sometimes inappropriate word emphasis unconnected with what they were saying, and otherwise monotone wooden delivery, isolated them as if they were lepers under studio lighting. Like the dispossessed around a fire on a winter’s night, they huddled around the “Nativity Play” tag and warmed their frozen hands against it for as long as the fire lasted.

There was an actor in a Timeslip story called John Barron. He was cast as the director of a scientific research station. I don’t know where his dreams lay when he began his long and determined trudge through an acting career. I’m reasonably sure he didn’t imagine dressing up in a baco-foil and plastic “worlds of tomorrow” costume while standing like a fence post driven into the ground, talking like a bolt upright telegram from Foghorn Leghorn. Tragically, this was one of the destinations along his way in the role assigned to him in Timeslip. It lasted for six rib-aching episodes. It’s hard to judge how proud he was of this performance. If he had anything that passed for consciousness or pride, he must have just banked the money and moved on. I know I would have. Just as an aside, why does budget TV science fiction always think that people who work in a scientific establishment “in the future” have to dress like guests at a fancy dress party? It’s like expecting someone who works at Porton Down to be issued with the costume Frank Gorshin used as the Riddler in the 1960s “Batman” series. How many jobs demand that  before you can start work for the day you have to put on a green spandex suit with question marks all over it? The only people I can think of who really have to carry that sort of burden (or something akin to it) are hospital workers. So many of them have to wear such genuinely humiliating clothes I wonder sometimes if a career in cheap science fiction isn’t a viable and attractive option for NHS workers.

Even as an adolescent I used to sit and watch John Barron’s performances in Timeslip with my mouth open, often wheezing like a deflating tyre or quivering like a paint-mixer (me, not him – though he had his moments too). In addition to a ridiculous and humiliating costume, they gave him a brushed-back hairstyle that made his head look like a Pez dispenser. He was supposed to have an American accent, but it was the type of American accent you only ever get when the actor has never tried to do one before and didn’t have time to experiment. Barron’s American accent had a pin-ball randomness to its trajectories as it bounced from “Dixie”, to British, and then on to W C Fields. Some of my classmates at school used to do impressions of him. His character was always honking on about being “on brain-link with the computer”. That became a catch-phrase with us for a while. It was used to describe anyone who had a telegraph pole posture and a faraway look in their eyes. Upon occasion it also meant anyone in class who said or did anything abnormally stupid. “Look at him” someone would say while watching a boy struggling and failing repeatedly to pick up a coin from the ground “He’s been on brain-link with the computer again.” When they’re on-form and not making idiot noises by squashing air out from a cupped hand under the arm-pit, children can have quite a sophisticated sense of humour sometimes.

 

The Big Bang

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Up from The Cape: 12 Feb 2017

 

When I was a boy of a certain age I used to enjoy building polystyrene construction kits. In the main these were aircraft (though occasionally they were the Aurora kits of some of the more famous Universal movie monsters such as the classic Karloff character in Frankenstein…..boys will be boys). Eventually my boredom with something fixed and unchanging led to me let off fireworks inside some of the kits I had no special attachment to. These anointed ones enjoyed a few moments of spectral glory in a series of mini-spectaculars. Like the universe, they flew apart abruptly at tremendous velocity following a big bang. I will just add hastily I did this brisk deconstruction work, outside…..not in my bedroom. I don’t mean to imply the two events – which is to say the building and then the destruction – were adjacent on a timeline in anything other than a vague sense. Normally they were years apart.

 

What’s significant for me about the act of building the kits is because of a fluke or quirk of my nature that unkind people sometimes file under the term “freakish”, it was normal for me to be able to complete the kits without looking at the instructions. Whenever I tell people this there’s usually at least one smart-aleck who says “and how often did the landing gear end up on the tail, with the engines on back-to front?” When anyone says this they’ve no idea how thin the ice is upon which they’re skating. Really.

 

I used to find there was a logic to where everything was supposed to go during construction that was obvious to me once the parts had been spread out (note: this definitely isn’t true once the parts have been spread out by an explosion – when that happens you need to fall back on the skills of air crash investigators). Unfolding the instructions that I’d left deliberately in the bottom of the box felt like a capitulation, though I would do it some of the time just for the purpose of verification if something had been tricky. This lent me the status of legend with one of my friends. He was not in any sense a stupid boy, but model kits just weren’t his thing. It was one of those random blind spots we all have. Anything he built generally did end up with the landing gear on the tail and the engines on back to front. His tragedy was he could never understand why. I hope he didn’t go on into architecture. If he did it would explain some aspects of contemporary work I’ve seen recently that made me look back over my shoulder as I walked on.

 

Because of the innate ability I had to work without guidance during the building phase, my blind-spot friend looked on me as borderline supernatural with none of the drawbacks (i.e. there were no rituals, nudity, or sacrifices etc. connected with me that he knew about). I’m not guessing here, because forty years later I spoke to an elderly relative, and she mentioned in passing once during some nostalgic recollections, how my friend would invoke my name quietly with a sort of reverence whenever peer pressure had cajoled him into attempting to build something challenging like the Apollo Lunar Module. “Over about six months his dad bought him three Lunar Modules” my informant told me. “Every one looked different when he said he’d finished, and none of them looked anything like the picture on the box.” She added that on one of them, perhaps in impulsive desperation, he’d glued the landing gear on upside down. In my mind I saw a spacecraft with a vague similarity to an umbrella that had been blown inside out on the way down to the lunar surface. It was so typical. I’m vain enough to be childishly pleased about this, though a friend’s failure gloated over is hardly an achievement. The fact is, sometimes you just have to grab any success you can and not be ashamed about it. His talent lay in mental arithmetic – something in which he effortlessly and habitually put me in my very distant and floundering place. Nature always finds balance.

 

Destroying models with fireworks made a kind of sense to me as I grew older, but I think it had more to do with the need my mind had for movement in things. This characteristic was to become manifest once again later in my photographic work, almost from the start.

 

Construction kits, once they’re built, are just there. They don’t mature, evolve, or improve with age like good wines. All they do is stand and wait for someone (typically mother) to come along and break off the radio mast from a Mk V Spitfire while “tidying.” There’s never been any point in complaining about this by the way. All mothers know in their hearts – even if aircraft designers don’t – that the radio mast isn’t an important part of a fighter; all that matters are the guns. Interestingly, mothers have a native ability to break those as well, especially if you’ve gone to the trouble to build a B17 Flying Fortress and left it balanced on a stand.  B17s have a lot of guns, which is of course where the nickname comes from. If Fighter Command had known about the frightening ability mothers have to break aircraft guns and radio masts regardless of how the aircraft were stored out of harm’s way, Britain’s air defences might have looked revolutionary during WWII. Propellers are fair game too. I wonder what Hitler would have made of it all.

 

Perhaps it was having my models broken routinely that gave me the idea of pre-empting the damage caused during this typhoon-style “cleaning” by giving some of them an altogether grander send-off myself. Who can say? I’m tempted to pretend the building and later a destruction cycle were followed in order to achieve a sort of yin/yang quality, but it would be a lie. I did it out of boredom and a lust for power. It’s probably how Empire-building starts.

 

Going down

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Up from The Cape: 9 Feb 2017

I’m a casual student of British TV commercials of the 1950s through to the 1980s. From the 1950s until approximately the early 1960s, women portrayed in TV adverts were subservient creatures without character, mirroring the kind of roles they were given in films and TV in general. Their chief function, aside from cooking, cleaning, and being anxious about the opinions of smug men with I.Q.s that were more or less neck-and-neck with a shoe size, was to be unstable or obsessed with their hair. A woman’s main anxiety during this era was often triggered by what the industry called “The Voice of God”. It was normal for this to manifest whenever a woman was doing the washing-up. A disembodied voice (always male, and usually patronising) would break in and ask the woman if she was “happy” or “satisfied” with the cleanliness of the dishes. Her eyes would raise from the sink and look nervously in the direction of a camera point somewhere up beyond the ceiling. Not all men liked this portrayal of women. David Ogilvy (an industry giant at the time) attacked the attitudes behind it and said bluntly “She’s not a moron…she’s your wife. Don’t patronise her.” Just how much things have changed has become clear to me after being unable to avoid watching some contemporary commercials for reasons I won’t burden anyone with.

Minus 1 + minus 1 =

As a general principle I do my ruthless best to avoid adverts these days whether they’re on TV or online. Advertising has travelled a long way from the brief golden age in which mavericks were in charge. Today’s advertising is, for me at least, largely predictable, one-dimensional, mechanistic, and sterile (though one soaraway exception is the M&S Art of Design TV Advert 2015). This may be a consequence of risk-takers (in the Collett Dickenson Pearce sense) having been “put in their place” when the percentage players returned to power. Because percentage players go for a return with the lowest risk, mavericks aren’t welcome. It’s hard for me to know as an outsider if this was the main driver of the way in which men and women are portrayed today. If it isn’t, I’m guessing it was due to the idiotic notion that the best way to address a past injustice is to perpetrate another injustice, this time in favour of those oppressed previously in order to achieve “balance” (also known as “positive discrimination”). Two minuses may make a plus in mathematics, but not in my experience when you’re dealing with people.

Living the Dream

In days of old, men in adverts used to be presented as ludicrously camp figures of extreme masculinity and intelligence (if you think I’m joking, watch any British late 1960s St Bruno commercial). Today they’re incompetent servants, or the intellectual equivalents of a five-year-old – and sometimes both. To be fair, there’s always been a class of men who fitted into that category, but there aren’t appreciably more of them today than there used to be. It just wasn’t a breed of men held aloft as role models years ago. Advertising was, foremost at least, about the dream – not the reality. It really would take a five-year-old to have the dream of actually wanting to appear to be a village idiot, but now that I think about it how else can anyone explain the worst aspects of reality TV or twitter?

Going up/going down

Not surprisingly after a couple of decades of being props and wallpaper in advertising, women lost  their patience with it. Eventually there was a drive towards change that presented them in a more realistic and accomplished manner. This was probably due more to changes in society than changes within the advertising industry itself. The curious and unfathomable thing is that at the same time this was happening, men mutated into the role of a dense counterweight that began a long descent down a regressive evolutionary lift shaft just as women were going up it.

New Man

Men in commercials today have become dozy, amiable pack animals forever chewing the cud. Contemporary man in British TV advertising is a bit tubby; a bit thick; a bit useless; completely non-threatening; and looks like he’s been dressed by his mum (see the sort of character ably portrayed by the gifted actor James Corden for this basic feature set). The variant is a more sleek, cheerful, and emasculated grinning assistant/PA to a woman, often bearded or with tasteful designer stubble (the man of course – women haven’t changed that much). He’s never allowed to appear to be either competent or in control – he’s just there to show how smart the woman is and how pleased he is to have her watching over him.

New Woman

Contemporary women in commercials (and increasingly in films) are portrayed uniformly as flawless, smirking, patient, slightly contemptuous and haughty creatures. They preside effortlessly over useless men who seem to have had a brain-swap with a chair (author’s concession: yes, I know there have always been men like that – I was at school with some of them before they grew into men). When women are employed for voice-overs (not just in commercials), they have a patronising, saccharine, “mummy-will-tell-you-a-lovely-bed-time-story-now” quality. When they aren’t doing that they emote like mad whenever a normal voice would do. It’s a voice women use habitually when they talk to small children. I haven’t been a small child for a very long time, but I don’t want to hear that voice again ever, thanks. It’s a step away from a pat on the head and pocket-money.

Voice in the wilderness

A couple of decades ago Kitty O’Hagan, then deputy chair of the advertising agency GGK, commented on the way in which advertising was starting to portray men as buffoons and idiots. She had a theory this was due to the way in which people working in advertising at the time believed women wanted the men in their lives to be hen-pecked yokels who did as they were told. She said she thought this was wrong, and most normal women didn’t want it that way. The industry had other ideas.