Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter nine

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chapter nine

Like every woman she had ever met in the business, Claudia had started her career as a secretary. This gave her an advantage over most male colleagues, who could neither do shorthand nor type with ten fingers. She preferred to type her own work on her chipped old Royal, which was just as well as Jenny belonged to that new breed of secretaries who called themselves PAs and could or would not take dictation.

Today, her rattling fingers could not pin down her thoughts. She had a title: ‘Fashion Statement’. Cute. And what was more youth-orientated than fashion? For youth, fashion wasn’t just being stylish, it was a philosophical stance. Jenny could not have exhibited her Damascene conversion from dolly bird to sibyl more dramatically had she decided to become a Sufi and wrap herself in bedsheets. The world had spun on its axis, and Claudia, who should be spinning with it, was bewildered. She realised that at some subliminal level she had been seeing this look here and there for some time. Beginning maybe as early as the Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley exhibitions of a few years ago. Now suddenly the louche, loose style was everywhere. Fashion had flipped like a weather system. Instead of whirling clockwise, into the future, it had wound back the clock.

These days, fashion was made by the young for the young. And Claudia wondered whether she were still young enough to count herself still in the game after this spin of the wheel. A few years ago, when Mary Quant had abolished middle-age, you had the choice of impersonating a school child or giving up and buying a frumpy, nobbly suit from M & S. Claudia had felt young enough and was supple enough to just limbo under the wire. She had vamped in high-tech monochrome with the seventeen-year-old popsies she supervised at photo shoots. White lace stockings, high white pantomime boots, pvc black mackintoshes, the geometric op-art look. Straight black and white shifts hoisted up to show the knees, and each season, as the pound sank on the international markets, they inched perversely higher.

Or, you could mimic a school uniform in a demure pinafore dress or a skinny ribbed sweater and thick black stockings terminating in white Soho streetwalker’s boots — tiny this time, a leering hint of children’s virginal sandals. It was infantile, Belinda had raged. A paedophile’s wet dream. Of course, women were being exploited by the fashion designers; all women liked to dress up. What mattered about clothing was not what other people thought but the emotions it produced in the wearer. Look at Belinda. She wore olive-drab German army engineer’s trousers, with sagging pockets on the thighs for lipstick and grenades, and a U.S. army combat field jacket with a Sixth Army insignia on the left shoulder, plus a single gold inverted chevron on each sleeve, designating — and this was significant — the lowest insignia of rank, private first class, and a faded white cloth strip above the left breast pocket indelibly inked in capital letters bequeathing her a proletarian identity: GALENSKI. Belinda’s boutique was Laurence Corner, the army surplus store on Hampstead Road, her handbag was a khaki cloth gas mask bag and her face was camouflaged in an outdated Beatnik look: deep-shadowed eyes and pale pouting lips frowning from under a shroud of unkempt hair. All women dressed to send a message and Belinda’s was a message of defiance: I’m a decadent and rebellious representative of the common (wo)man and I’ve stepped off the materialistic roundabout.

Claudia’s own message had been one of self-confidence: I am where a woman’s magazine editor belongs — at the cutting edge of female aspirations. Her hair was Vidal Sassoon, of course. The Shape. Geometric, stark and precise, like the high-tech vortex into which British socialism was marching us all. A classic bob, a short, straight structure frozen in place with hairspray lacquer, like a spacecraft glued with Araldite. This helmet hung long at the sides, swinging in a trim line.

She had brushed her eyelids with white powder above the black eye shadow and black eye-liner around the sockets. She had worn long, false eye-lashes, thick with black waterproof mascara. Thin black arches had replaced her plucked eyebrows. All of this gave her a slightly astonished, wide-eyed look, like an ingènue who had just dropped acid for the first time. But she drew the line at Mary Quant’s ‘Starkers’ ghostly foundation cream and pale gloss lipstick that made your face so pallid against the heavy black eye make-up that the teenagers who used it only had to put on a straw hat and a horizontally striped shirt to pass as a mime. In one of her articles Daphne called them kohl minors.

Now the tide was ebbing, and if the shoddy materials in the space-age frocks and coats hadn’t already perished they would resurface in the second-hand shops up North, where the dolly bird fashion would settle down alongside the beehive hairdo, and linger on for another five years or so. Every day she saw fewer mini-skirts on the streets. Mop-tops had dropped out of sight a year or two ago — except for the Monkees on TV (it probably took time for the news to travel to California). And mods were ancient history. British fashion was as stale as a British Rail sandwich, pushed off the shelves and the clothing racks by another notion imported from the USA: Flower Power.

Her thoughts shaped into phrases and her fingers began to stroke the keyboard: the Beatles have transformed themselves from cheeky chappies, mischievous but essentially clean and normal, into hippies. A 1940s word reworked for the sixties. It comes from hep. Like hepcat. Which, somewhere out in California transmuted into hip. As in hipster. A hepcat by a cooler name. Which used to be hot. But is now cool. Now the Beatles are hippies. Into peace and love, meditation and marijuana. Frivolities which in post-imperial, post-dock strike, post-devaluation Britain, only they can afford.

Style has changed. Stark geometry has yielded to art nouveau resurgent. The Germans called it Jugendstil and that’s what it is once again — the young style. All flowing curves and floral patterns and swooping tendrils in sludgy colours. You know it. It was the style of the wallpaper in your grandparents’ house; until now it’s been kept in dusty corners of the V&A.

It’s a complete reversal of Mary Quant’s op-art style, all those clinical, futuristic shapes you could draw with a compass and a straight edge, like lines on a chart. Because then we knew where we were going. Now we are aimless. It’s a symbol of our lost faith in technology. After the Blue Streak slumped into the sea like a faltering erection. After the thalidomide scandal. The Torrey Canyon disaster. And the loss of empire. All the virile young men who used to know where they were going — to India, to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, to Happy Valley, to the Hindu Kush — to administer and defend the empire, now have nowhere to go. They drift in circles. They become more sensitive. More like women.

So what are they wearing now? Cast-off British imperial uniforms! Pop into I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in the Portobello Road. Or, rather, march in. It’s stacked with imperial memorabilia. Racks of military jackets with brass buttons and gold filigree. Everything you would expect to see in a Victorian music hall — on stage or in the audience. Outfitters by appointment to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But this time around, a fundamental law of fashion has been breached. Men have always dressed differently from women. Now, as well as middle age, gender has been abolished. Everyone is growing their hair long and curly — both sexes. Men and women are dressing more and more alike. There seems to be a deliberate intention to conceal a woman’s figure. Hipster trousers, in denim or corduroy, are everyday women’s wear. Maxi-dresses and maxi-coats cloak her body down to the ankles. Fight your way into Granny Takes a Trip on the King’s Road. The slim-waisted, chestless waifs crowding into it are androgynous. Male and female sizes are mixed on the racks. And there’s just one changing room.

Sleeves are stretching by the day. The dolly bird wore them short and tight. Now, they’re gathered in long, sinuous shapes, enveloping the elbows, even the hands. Remember drainpipes? Now trousers bottoms look like skirts and short, straight skirts have sunk to the floor. Men’s shirts are frilled and lacy and their collars are growing longer and rounder, mutating into flaps like a dachsund’s ears.

Today’s hip clothing is as sensuous and excessive as the flock wallpaper in an Indian restaurant. There is a strong eastern influence of sari-type wraps and kimonos, and resolute nostalgia for almost any bygone era as long as the style is fussy and elaborate — beaded and patterned flappers’ dresses from the twenties, society gowns from the thirties, brocade waistcoats, and buttons, beads, bells and blossoms in profusion.

Feminists may see the new unisex fashion as striking a blow for sexual equality, but haven’t we lost something if the result is to turn us all, male and female, into eunuchs?

Claudia paused to reflect and decided that she was, on balance, in favour of the change. Compare Mary Quant to Biba. How credible was that Quantum leap into slick futurism now that everyone knew the white heat of technology was just a soggy pile of ashes? On the tidal wave of the new style Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba had slipped its moorings on Abingdon Road and floated into a huge drydock in Kensington High Street, where it lay, a vast, chaotic jumble like an eastern souk. The perky, clean-limbed dolly birds who used to inhabit it had metamorphosised into apprentice vampires, louche and languorous. It was all still sex-driven, but that was just theatrics. The thing that made it work for her was that, unlike Bazaar, Biba wasn’t exclusively for the daughters of the rich and for working women like herself who could afford it. It was genuinely democratic. Everyone went to Biba, even the girls in her typing pool. You could pick up a dress for two pounds, ten shillings, belts and scarves for a few shillings each, a maxi coat for seven pounds. About half the price of anywhere else. For fifteen pounds, the price of a Mary Quant party dress, you could walk out of Biba in a complete new ensemble: coat, dress, shoes, petticoat and hat.

She returned to the typewriter: For the young working girl, and older women, too, Biba has become a way of life — a brand, a temple, a system of belief. But how long will it last? If fashion reflects the times we live in, how long before all those beads and scarves and shaggy wool coats migrate to the market stalls in the wilderness north of Watford?

Then what? Well, a new shop has opened recently just down the road from Biba. Its shelves are stocked with floral patterns, too, the stuff of Victorian revivalism, the spirit of William Morris. But it’s not into Bohemian outrage. It doesn’t have a political agenda. It’s flowery, but gentle and restrained — Home Counties, if you will — and the shop is full of women, both old and young. It’s a timeless style that you can live with for a long, long time. Does the arrival of Laura Ashley on the scene mean that we’re in for a long-term political shift to conservatism?

Only two people would ever open her door without knocking: Wankler or Daphne. From the rustle of stiff fabric and the wave of Chanel No. 5 released into the tiny office, she presumed it was not Wankler, unless he, too had suffered a Damascene conversion.

Looking up, Claudia decided not to ask Daphne for her input on the latest fashion trends. She was swathed in yards of black taffeta. Stiff parapets and embrasures fortified her bosom and hips, creating the illusion of a waisted hourglass shape. Her legs were sheathed in sheer silk black stockings and a tiny veiled black pillbox perched on her head. Her eye sockets were like dugouts camouflaged with kohl. She fairly bristled with armament. Claudia in her simple, black A-line Jean Muir rip-off — a sort of neutral refuge she had retreated to while trying to sort out her fashion sense — was hopelessly outgunned. Attack was the best form of defence, and so she advanced with her rapier.

“You’ve either got a heavy date with a City gent or you’re going to a funeral”.

 

Daphne had to laugh. Claudia’s intuition, as usual, was spot on. “Both. He’s burying his wife,” she admitted. Her costume had been chosen with care. It was, she felt, the precisely correct balance of respectful sympathy and seductive power for the occasion. She brought Claudia up to date with the latest installment of her long-standing private soap opera, now reaching its climax. For twelve years he had been havering about leaving his wife. Now his wife had left him, and the game was afoot.

“It sounds like the Archers without the livestock,” judged Claudia.

“What about your love life?

Claudia snorted. “More like the Crazy Gang. You wouldn’t believe the two cartoon characters I met over the weekend.”

That was news. Claudia had been virtually a nun since the break-up with Stephen. And now a brace in one weekend? But Claudia dismissed her adventures with a wave of her hand. She kicked off her shoes and put her feet up on her desk. “I’ve got work problems.”

“The Bosch?”

Claudia grunted, and pushed a copy of the American magazine, Yin, across the desk with her stockinged toe. “They want to turn Modern Woman into a sex manual.”

“That’s where the money is since the younger generation found out about sex. We should never have told them.”

“I’m not against sex.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“But why do they have to be so upfront about it?”

“It’s honest.”

“It’s vulgar.”

“Was it better behind the bicycle shed?”

What saved Claudia from being a prude was her sense of humour. “It did have a certain frisson of decadence.” They both laughed. “But my magazine, like your Woman’s Page is about every aspect of being a woman. Not just fashion, home-making, and children, but society and literature . . . Jorge Luis Borges wrote for women’s magazines. He introduced Argentinian women to European literature —”

“When they wanted to meet Alain Delon.”

Claudia ignored her. “— Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Schopenhauer —”

“Dirty old man.”

“Borges?”

“Have you read him?”

“His short stories.”

“No. Schopenhauer. He fancied teeny-boppers. And you don’t want your readers to know what he said about women.”

“What?”

“Woman is by nature meant to obey.”

“Forget literature. Politics.”

Daphne snorted. “I don’t seem to recollect Modern Woman’s editorial stance on the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal.”

“Our advertisers would faint. I mean women’s issues — the Pill, the health service, moral issues —”

“Like? Name one you’ve covered this year.”

Claudia had to think before responding triumphantly, “The topless bathing cossie”.

Daphne flipped through Yin. “This is all about moral issues — like on your first date should you go down on him right away or wait ‘til you’re out of the taxi.”

“My point exactly. It’s a question of good taste. And balance. Why does every activity have to be fraught with sex? I know what the Germans would like to see on my cooking page: ‘Should a hausfrau wear knickers when she’s bending over her husband’s bratwurst, or should she buy an eye-level oven?’“

“How much pressure are they putting on you?

“I’ve got a fortnight to ginger up the magazine.”

“Or?”

“They sack me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What do you think I should do?”

“I think artistic integrity is priceless. You can’t afford it”.

“I am not throwing an artistic pout.” Claudia threw one of her shoes at the wall. It bounced off the image of Stephen in the framed cutting from The Stage. “I cannot write this American-style rubbish. All that crude sex. I don’t have any time for it.”

Daphne smirked. “I manage to free up an afternoon once a week.”

Claudia pouted. “Women want more than a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. They want the thrill of romance, the glorious gamble of an uncommitted heart.”

“These days, that’s called not taking the Pill”.

“How have you managed to preserve your editorial integrity all these years?”

“I keep it in my knickers. They’re elastic. Besides, my editors never read the Woman’s Page.” The second shoe dropped to the floor after bouncing off Stephen. So that was the real agenda. Daphne lit a cigarette before engaging it. “That photograph.”

Claudia’s eyes went to the photo on the wall showing her striking Stephen and she grinned. “It was a smashing bouquet.”

“Not that one. The other one.” Daphne paused to exhale smoke. “I almost didn’t send it to you.”

“You did the right thing.”

“Are you sure you did the right thing?”

“Jilting Stephen? Absolutely. I don’t know what I ever saw in him.”

“Power worship.”

Claudia set her jaw. “Never.”

“Not consciously, perhaps. But it’s inbred. If a girl lives in the savannah, where any male can knock you to the ground, you develop a natural preference for the biggest ape.”

“Join the protective custody of the harem?”

“Exactly. So, nowadays, when we’re feeling faint all we want is for a white knight on a charger to come along and sweep us up before we hit the floor.”

Claudia sighed. “And we call it romance.”

“That’s how they sell it to us. To discourage us from developing our own resources.”

“A world without romance would be rather a bore.”

“Forget Sleeping Beauty. Think Joan of Arc.”

“We don’t have much of a choice, do we? Going through life unconscious or being burned at the stake.” The image of martyrdom brought resolve to her expression. “You can’t go through life acting a lie. Which is why I couldn’t marry Stephen and why I can’t bring myself to corrupt my magazine”.

“Our readers are growing younger and we’re growing older. If you can’t relate to them anymore, get someone in who can. Delegate”.

“Some teenager off the street?”

“Do you know how young the editor they hired for the British edition of Yin magazine is?”

“I know. They’ll be sorry, once she starts menstruating”.

Daphne gathered her things. “I’ve got a hearse to catch.” She paused at the door and wafted Claudia an air kiss. “The trouble with women in business is that we take everything personally”.

“I do not!” The copy of Yin that Claudia aimed at Daphne hit the closing door and fell to the ground.

 

Jenny lifted her eyes from her fingernails to observe Daphne’s stately departure. She looked like the back of a London taxi. How could a woman who dressed like a nineteenth century brothel-keeper get to be an editor in the male preserve of Fleet Street? Maybe she was a dominatrix.

The arrogant buzz of the intercom interrupted her musings. After a delay sufficient to replace her nail file in her handbag and indicate that she was nobody’s skivvy, Jenny lifted the receiver.

“Get me the advertising agency,” it squawked.

“You fired the scumbags last week.”

“Did I? Why?”

“You said they were a pack of adolescents.”

“That’s just what we need now. A pack of adolescent scumbags.”