Moulting, sloughing, shedding: all words that reel in revulsion from the thing they
describe. They define a process that is both unpleasant and disturbing: unpleasant because it involves creatures carelessly leaving desiccated hollow versions of themselves around the place; disturbing because they emerge from their dead skin bigger than they were, which defies common sense.
It is easy to assume we are above such primitive processes. But in fact the physical
reality of the human body is far more revolting. We too shed our skin, carelessly, untidily,
all of the time. We are constantly surrounded by a veritable blizzard of dead skin cells – a
million a day I’m told. Household dust is mainly us.
Wouldn’t it be so much better if we just peeled off our epidermis every few months?
We could just fold it up and chuck it in the bin or, with a bit of clever needlework, we could
make it into something useful: a modish handbag or a decorative lampshade, or we could
just stuff it with newspaper and use it as a scarecrow on the allotment. And it would mean
only having to vacuum the house once a month (once a year in my case).
We do though; in a very real way, we do the reptile thing. We shed our skins. I recall
my first skin. it covered my whole body apart from my face. Nowadays it would be called a
babygrow. It was called something else then, I wouldn’t have know what, as I was
pre-verbal. I remember it tightening as I grew and I remember my mother deciding that I
would no longer wear it. It was hard leaving it behind, almost like a second birth. I know
how those lizards feel.
My next skin I suppose was short trousers, not the same pair of course, but a
succession of them, tolerated at first and eventually loathed, first enforced by my mum then more rigidly enforced by the school, in all weathers. Gleefully shedding them and adopting long trousers at school and jeans at home was a milestone in my journey towards maturity.
Next, well probably not something to brag about. I suppose it was my first stab at
fashion. Just remember: this was a grey-brown world full of duffel coats and plastic macs.
The anorak was modern, exotic, practical and warm. Since then it has fallen a long way in
the hierarchy of clothing. Nowadays I still have a great fondness for practical, padded
jackets with strong zips, useful pockets and hoods but I never call them anoraks unless I am aiming for extreme self-deprecation or irony.
We come to another skin now. I suppose plumage would be more accurate. Shirt
Kings sold fashionable shirts, jeans, trousers and various other items to the youth of
Portsmouth, cheapish but seldom within my budget. But this was January. The sales were on and I still had my paper-round tips plus some more cash from relatives who had finally
realised I no longer needed toys. This time I was buying not looking and I was going to be
adventurous. Fashion was going through a foppish phase: King Charles hair, shirts with lots of ruffles, trousers tight at the top and ludicrously flared down from the knees. I bought a lavender and a tangerine shirt (no ruffles – this was Portsmouth not the Kings Road). I was looking at the jeans, and then I saw it, only twelve pounds in the sale – a black Regency jacket in jumbo cord and it fitted perfectly. I had to have it. I would be trendy at last.
I wore it a lot, and only slowly began to realise that it probably didn’t have quite the
effect I was hoping for. A girl at a party said I looked camp. That was it. I was driven into
my black tee shirt and army surplus phase. But I did wear it once more when I dressed as a vampire for a Halloween ball. I remember it well for I won a knobbly knees contest. I recall the prize was a Christmas pudding.
My first suit was bought by my mum – she insisted. So why did she spend two
weeks of her widow’s pension on buying it? I suppose she may have been embarrassed
when I had to wear my school uniform to my cousin’s wedding. Or perhaps it was just what you did for your kids – a coming-of-age thing. Most likely, my mum thought it was
necessary in order to have any chance at my coming interview for art college. At the time
fashion dictated that suits should be double-breasted gangster type with slightly flared
trousers tailored to accommodate platform shoes. I had become a bit anti-fashion so I would have been happy with anything colourful and outrageous. But this was not to be. My mum stubbornly steered me towards the dullest colour and the most sedate style. It would have been dull in the 1940s but this was the end of the sixties, the Swinging Sixties. It was very well made, a perfect fit. I think I wore it two or three times. It was a skin I shed very
Yes, I did wear it to the interview and the only two questions I remember being asked had
nothing to do with art. They went something like this:
Them: And what do you think about Vietnam?
Me: Oh, I er, don’t know.
Them: Well, you realise it’s wrong, don’t you?
Me: Of course.
Them: Why are you wearing a suit?
Me: To keep my mum happy.
They seemed happy with both answers. I got in.
The next was definitely a skin. The cohort of old ladies called to meet their maker in
the bitter winter of 73 were of that generation for whom a fur coat was essential for any
social gathering. So a herd of well mothballed fur coats thundered into the secondhand
markets ensuring the students or Portsmouth could weather the bitter winter of 74 in
comfort and elegance.
I remember acquiring sought-after bar seats in a very busy pub. We drank and
chatted, and chatted and drank, until closing time and the curry house beckoned. As the
crowd filtered out we finished our drinks and rose to go. I listed like a stricken boat. I
realised I was about a stone heavier on one side. My elbow leaning on the bar had allowed
my fur coat to wick up several quarts of beer from the perennial puddle on the counter. The stale beer smell never truly went and It probably helped entice the moths that finished it off.
It was eventually put to rest feeding the roots of a fruit bush.
Finally we come to an ordinary tweed jacket, sort of purply brown, deserving a
mention not just because it was my wedding trousseau; it also became my teaching jacket
when I qualified. It amounted to almost half the cost of the whole wedding and reception.
The expenses went something like this:
My wedding jacket £40
Bride’s dress £5
Registry office fee £20
Hire of church hall £10
Potatoes to bake, salad and fillings £10
Home brew beer kits £10
We had a great time. Nowadays it is universally accepted that you spend an average of £17,000 to dress up in pantomime costumes, eat bland food, drink expensive beer, then put up with seedy entertainment and fist fights between inlaws. Divide 17000 by 100. Think about it; are those people in their over-the-top, glitzy extravaganzas really having 170 times more fun than we did? How many of them will reach their silver wedding anniversary?
What is my current skin? I don’t know. I haven’t grown it yet. I suppose it should be
pretentious enough to match my pretensions. What should a writer wear? I envisage an
artistically-crumpled, off-white linen suit, a wide brimmed fedora and a long silk scarf
draped carelessly and loosely around my neck. And when will I shed this skin? Well, to
misquote Charlton Heston ‘They will tear it from my cold dead body.’