I’ve just done something few people do: been on a visit to Peterborough, entirely of my own free will. Two young railway employees were checking the tickets of those leaving the station.
‘Sir?’ Click. ‘A pleasure!’
‘Madam?’ Click. ‘Pleasure!’
‘Sir?’ Click. ‘A pleasure!’
‘Oh, stop eating shit, you little twerp.’
I didn’t say that, just thought it. After all, the poor buggers are probably required by some management pillock to lay on this smarm, and this same pillock might well have been kibitzing nearby to make sure no boot went unlicked. I hope he was, and that otherwise these young lads would not thus have abased themselves. What sort of batty ‘personal touch’ will they think up next? Will they check that our shoe laces are tied, do up our coats, burp babies? (In Marks and Sparks lately, after the inevitable ‘thank you for waiting’, the check-out staff bid us farewell with the exhortation ‘enjoy your goods’. Oh, please.)
My purpose was to buy a jacket, and I went into Gap. Now, Gap are always very concerned with the customer’s ‘shopping experience’, and the kids who work there will not leave you alone to browse unless you make it quite clear from the off that you do not wish to be pestered. Even then, as you are leaving, a manageress will pounce on you.
‘Were our staff helpful today for you today, at all for you?’ she will ask.
‘Yes, they were.’
‘Anyone in particular at all today was there, who was most helpful for you today?’
‘Oh, I reckon the lad with the shaved scrotum.’
Leave her guessing. I hope I am not depriving kids of commission or anything by being so unhelpful. It’s just that this sort of manipulation makes my gorge rise.
I used to like buying clothes. Shoes are just boring affairs that I replace when they disintegrate, but shirts and trousers were always important to me. I’ve never been wholly comfortable with the body I inhabit, though, and after the age of about forty-five I found that I really could not stand the sight of the middle-aged grump who confronted me in fitting room mirrors. Fitting rooms are rarely adequately lit; one here in Stamford has just a little yellowish strip-light above the mirror and it makes you look as you probably will a couple of days after you are dead. The pleasure of shopping for new duds is much diminished as a result of all this, and self-confidence severely dented. I suppose I could get some therapy for this, but I fear the diagnosis would be ‘in fact, it isn’t body dysmorphic disorder. You are genuinely misshapen.’
(Incidentally, I wonder what they say to all the unsuccessful applicants for ‘Ten Years Younger’ and ‘How to Look Good Naked’? ‘Sorry love, but you really are a dog. Live with it.’)
I looked in Marks and Sparks and felt old. I was the youngest man there by quite a wide margin, and Blue Harbour stuff looks OK on plastic mannequins and the tanned and husky blokes whose enlarged photographs are all over the walls, but I’m not such a bloke, or a somatometrically perfect plastic doll, and everything I tried on looked wrong. I inhabit the No Man’s Land between medium and large, neither one nor the other, and you have to be tall and slim to wear all this stuff, not short, stocky and barrel-chested. This is a source of much repining to me, but no surgery will correct it, so there you go. I am not overweight, and that's official, but the way clothes hang on me, the casual observer would probably think I was. Actually, the casual observer, by definition, probably wouldn’t give me a second thought, but years of self-consciousness create the delusion that everyone is thinking, oh, Christ, look at that bugger, you couldn't bend wire that shape.
Well, after much debate internal I ended up with a Tommy Hilfiger winter jacket from John Lewis for £140, more because I was fed up of looking than for any more positive reason. It is sober navy blue and quite unadorned, not Ali G yellow. Mooching around other shops afterwards I saw jackets indistinguishable from my new purchase at half the price, but sod it, it will serve.
What I wear tends to be loose-fitting and voluminous, as I hide behind clothes rather than use them to draw attention, having nothing to draw attention to. I’m reminded of my grandma. Roominess was her main criterion, both in selecting garments and in appreciating those of others. ‘You look to have plenty o’ room in it’ she’d say approvingly, if one of us kids had some new item of clothing. If we could do a twirl while the garment in question remained stationary, she would commend it the more. I still feel strangled and self-conscious in anything labelled ‘slim-fit’, and I long for the day when it might become fashionable for men to wear black kimonos.