Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1981: I guess it's just what I must do

I was very pleased with my new pixie boots. Bear with me.

They'd been all the rage in the autumn of '81, a proper New Romantic look. I was into all this but while I liked the tunes I was wary of the clothes.

Just before Christmas mum came home and could see new clothes were long overdue.  So she took me shopping. Well, she didn't as such. She dumped me at the entrance to Top Man and for the first time ever I was allowed to go in and choose my own clothes. A miracle had occurred.

Previously, if I'd wanted or needed clothes she'd always come too. They were heavily vetted and obviously because I had no money of my own except for my paper round small change I was reliant on her and, despite my protestations, she always had the last word.

But I'd been away from the family for a whole term, was now over 16 and while I still didn't have any money of own, my interest in fashion had been properly sparked. Though I had flirted with the whole Mod revival thing I was never really full-fledged, much as I'd wanted to be. I had the odd thing, but never went the whole hog. Really, unless one had the freedom to choose, the money available, or rich parents willing to lavish their young with every trendy garment their heart desired, it simply wasn't an option.

But that had all changed. So I picked out a pile of clothes and then mum arrived to pay for them. A Haircut 100-inspired ski jumper, some burgundy trousers, a multi-coloured cardigan that Mike Smith would have baulked at were among the treasures I recall. The embarrassment factor was minimal, and I had a whole new wardrobe. Now I just needed the shoes.

Those Duran Duran-style pixie boots were a brave step for a teenage boy. I've seen a picture of me wearing them and I looked like Bernie Nolan as a gay Peter Pan. Not a good look, but at the time I thought it was ace.

So it was with some unsurprising curiosity that Uncle Bob, who we called in to see on the way home at his new house, eyed them.

A confirmed bachelor, and by that time over 80, he lived a life of genteel luxury, surrounded by Chinese rugs, grand pianos, works of art and fresh flowers, with diminutive and incredibly plain housekeeper Barbara hovering in the kitchen on hand with the coffee.

My granny, Uncle Bob's sister, didn't like Barbara. She didn't like it that when she stayed with them Barbara was allowed to sit and watch television of an evening rather than be banished to her box room with a Jean Plaidy. After Uncle Bob died, she didn't acknowledge her letters. She retired to a flatlet in on the edge of the New Forest. I don't know what became of her, but I always imagined she lived a life of utter isolation and crippling loneliness. I think my granny's main problem was that a) she had a moustache; and b) she was probably a lesbian, something granny was in a whirl with.

So we never did know what she made of that telltale picture of Uncle Bob's late 'friend' Steve which hung to the side of his bed.

'Is that Uncle Bob's boyfriend?' my brother asked loudly, as he was showing us around this new house. Pinched by dad he shut up as we nervously shuffled out to see the smoked mirror bathroom tiles and new bidet.

Uncle Bob was clearly gay, though this was never confirmed, and though mum and dad alluded to it was rarely spoken about. My granny was devoted to him but she never, ever mentioned anything remotely approaching the thorny subject of his sexuality. She would go for fun weekends with him and Steve when he lived in Brighton in the Forties and Fifties at which Steve would drag up and do a few numbers. They all went for family holidays when my dad was a lad and had a high old time. But even then I don't think the conversation got around to anything that might be considered a bit unsuitable in polite company.

She might have known they were perhaps more than friends, but she honestly had no idea about what homosexuality actually entailed until my other granny explained it to her, which only arose because they watched The Naked Civil Servant while babysitting us one evening and she wanted to know why John Hurt was asked to bend over by the sergeant major. 

He was a kind sort, jolly, quite amusing, a huge Call My Bluff fan and very fond of my dad and vice versa, and when he died in 1989 he left my brother and I a little bit of money which we were able to buy our flat with. And we had the pick of his wonderful, tasteful home furnishings. 

The pixie boots were swiftly ditched after Christmas, but the same can't be said of Uncle Bob's homewares. His Swedish fondue set, though practically a collector's item, is still in use today, and though the Chinese rug did have an unfortunate moth infestation and smelt of his dog Prince (sidebar: he always had a dog, either a black or a golden labrador. The golden ones were always called Prince, the black ones always called after the dog in The Dambusters. Thankfully no black dogs were seen in my lifetime), it's beautiful quality.

We thank him almost daily for the useful things we got - everything from a long-handled brass boothorn to a miniature viking cruet set. I tell you, he had it all. And a lot of it.

Sometimes when I glance at something I wonder what the story is behind it. Where did it come from? A lot of stuff was from Sweden as he worked for years for a Swedish company in the City. But what of his personal life? What would his life have been like in the Twenties, in the war or when he was in business in the Fifties? Was it like The Hour? I doubt his Sixties swung. He would have been 60 in 1960, I think Steve was dead and he was living in Worthing with housekeeper number one Miss Browning, who I met just once. She was the jolliest of jolly hockey sticks and was approved of by my granny as 'she knew her place'. And may not have been a lesbian.

I guess we'll never know how it was for him. 

So whenever I hear Don't You Want Me, the number one of the time, I remember that day for all these reasons. I bought Dare in town that day too. Dare: quite appropriate really.


  1. Oh gosh, that's a very touching story. I rather hope Uncle Bob at least got to enjoy a few clandestine evenings, foxtrotting with Norwegian sailors on shore leave in one of those tiny little Fifties subterranean Soho clubs. Though it sounds like he found the love of his life relatively early, which is fortunate too. You're lucky to have known such an interesting man. Dogs' names notwithstanding.

    I dare say he cast a wistful eye over your pixie boots, and envied the relative freedom of your youth.

  2. Social acceptance was very different back then. How many labs did Uncle Bob have?

  3. Yes, very true, which is what fascinates me Michael. I think he had all in all about seven dogs over the years.

  4. Tukka boots weren't they - I think I got mine around December that year. They were frightful on the ice and I was constantly on the tumble with both legs in the air... I like the sound of Uncle Bob, he'd have had a book in him. And sounds slightly like Arthur Marshall

  5. That's them, Tukka boots. Fashion disaster of the Eighties.

    He was very Arthur Marshall-eque, actually Mondo. That's a good comparison.

  6. More Uncle Marshall than Uncle Monty, then? Phew.