Sunday, 1 November 2009

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town. . .

I sashayed into my local city centre this week. It was an unwelcome necessity. I needed some M&S food and socks. I do try to avoid this shopping centre. It is rather grim and wintry Eastern-block dour (even in June).

The first thing that's apparent about this city is that it has the highest Greggs ratio per capita in the land. It is only a small city, with one grey, drafty and drab shopping mall. There are 3 Greggs shops in this mall. One at each entrance, and one in the middle. All nestling within a scant 100 metres of each other. The mouth-watering aroma of baking puff pastry hovers over the town like an atomic mushroom cloud. A steak and mushroom cloud! I sometimes wonder if there is a historic, local bylaw that compels visitors to this mall to carry a pasty at all times. Everyone always has one. In fact, sleazy Jimmy Carr (who I dislike intensely, I am certain that underneath that moon-shaped, baby face is a nasty, nasty soul) came to play a gig here once. He apparently joked on stage about the complete absence of Starbucks and the insidious prevalence of pasty shops.

Don't get me wrong, I do love the city in which I live. It has some lovely Victorian buildings, shady, tree-lined streets, wonderful parks, a great coastline and wry, down-to-earth and warm people. But the thing is, lately, the lack of style is getting me down. On my recent jaunt I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, a wooly cardigan and scarf. Not exactly Marlena Dietrich, I admit. But, I couldn't help but feel madly overdressed. The shopping centre was crammed with be-shell-suited scuzzhounds. Young men in this city feel compelled to tuck their tracky bottoms into their socks (the last sighting of an actual pair of trousers on a man here was in 2003). The baseball caps lads wear have the unfortunate affect of emphasising their Wallace (from Wallace and Grommit) ears. For some reason lots of the women here think it is acceptable to venture out for a day's shopping in pink, heart-covered, flannel pyjamas and Primark 'Uggs' (accesorised with lots of pirate style creole earrings). A day in pyjamas is a truly magical thing, but I won't even put the bin out in mine!

I don't wish to appear sneering, but my beloved city was not always this way. I grew up in a small County Durham mining village 10 miles away. In the mid 80s I longed to move to this city. The bus journey here every Saturday afternoon was the highlight of my week. It was the perfect antidote to colliery drabness and the misery of the miners' stroke. This city represented glamour to me then. As I approached outskirts of the city I would longingly gaze at the wide tree-lined streets of elegantly shabby Victorian terraces. I would tell myself that one day I'd live in a house like that, with rattling bay windows, creaking floorboards, groaning bookshelves and grand, marble fireplaces. Another much loved part of the journey was passing the huge, leafy old cemetery, full of crumbling stone angels and ivy-smothered monuments. Yes, in the years between 14-17 I was a total goth. And the city was my spiritual home. It had a slightly mysterious, edgy and alternative vibe.

My Saturday jaunt was just an excuse to people-watch. And to check out the clothes in Miss Selfridge and Oxfam. I had dyed my hair black. Saturday morning would be spent madly crimping and backcombing. My 'do' would be held in place with an eye-watering spray of Insette hairspray (or mace, as it is called now). I favoured ghostly pale skin, red lipstick, lots of black eyeliner and, rather a demure Tea Rose perfume from The Body Shop. I would be dressed in black of course, my long black skirts sweeping the ground behind me like a vampire bride's train. My style icons were Vampira and the romantic, ethereal heroines of Hammer Horror films. It is odd for me to think that I never, ever wore trousers or jeans in those days.

My city was full of odd, eccentric characters back then. We would check out each other's costumes whilst walking round and round the dreary town centre. I remember a rake-thin girl who had wild, blood-red hair that hung down her back. You could spot her scarlet red lipstick from half a mile away. I always envied her hair. She wore diaphanous, white nighties and Doctor Martin books. I recall an early secret crush I had on a guy who dressed like James Dean. (I saw him again this year when I took my class on a day out. He was wearing a fluorescent council tabbard and emptying the dog-poo bins in the local park.) There were several people who went around entirely in Victorian dress: frock coats, canes, top hats. There was a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like who, like me, followed The Smiths around on all their tours. Oh, and of course, every costume was adorned with a few badges: 'Coal Not Dole' and CND were favourites. This was a heady and exotic place to a girl from a tiny colliery village.

My point is this. In those days individuality was important. We pieced together looks from charity shops, raided elderly aunty's closets for old lace, costume jewellery and fake fur coats. We'd may have mixed in a little Miss Selfridge or Top Shop when we could afford it (rarely). But the way we dressed was part of our creativity. It was a joy. I didn't see much joy on display this week. The city was a desolate sea of Primark. That saddened me.

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