Archive for the ‘Random thoughts’ Category

The chiffon prom dress was diaphanous and pretty like this one

The chiffon prom dress was diaphanous and pretty like this

IN a charity shop the other day I noticed a woman making a close inspection of the rail of long dresses. Most of them were swiftly passed over as she pushed the hangers along in a decisive way, but then she paused as one caught her eye. She unhooked the hanger from the rail to give the dress a closer inspection.

This gave me my chance, too, to glance across and notice it was a strappy, low-cut, peach chiffon number, quite pretty if you like that sort of insubstantial thing. I can only ever think of goose bumps when I see anything so diaphanous, but this woman obviously felt it could be just right.

I left her to it and concentrated on my quarry. When I reached the counter to pay for my let’s-be-realistic-about-our-climate-and-cover-everything-up denim shirt by Gap, a snip at £5.99, the chiffon-dress woman was in front of me, in conversation with the assistant.

“It’ll only be out of the shop for an hour,” she was saying. “It’s just so my daughter can try it on. It’s for her prom night. I’ll be back in before you close.”

Ah, prom night. The annual tyranny when Getting the Right Look achieves greater importance at schools up and down the land than Getting the Right Grade.

Whenever I see, hear or read anything about this now-annual parental torment I thank whoever is responsible for having made me so old that my daughter had left school before prom nights became a fixture.

And yet I did endure a sort of torment, albeit one that didn’t require me to help dream up a brilliantly original mode of transport to get my little darling to her date with destiny.

It was her end-of-school ball. Nothing as prosaic as a prom – this was a ball, no less.

Yes, of course you shall go to the ball, Cinders. Never mind that it is unlikely to be any different from what we called a dance in the dark ages, and never mind at all that you have nothing to wear. We can have enormous fun together as we seek something that meets the approval of you and your fashion-conscious, judgmental friends, not to mention your impossibly dowdy mother and father, when we only have enough money in the bank to pay for tonight’s supper.

Cinders and I drag into the nearest large town and ‘do’ the shops, enduring hot changing rooms and heartless mirrors. Of course my daughter looks lovely in everything she tries on – it happens like that when you’re 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair – and of course she thinks she is simply hideous and absolutely nothing is ‘right’. “Can’t you see that, Mum? It’s rubbish and I look awful.”

No, actually, I can’t, but whatever I say has no effect or, more often, the wrong effect.

We spend the day engaged in this soul-destroying activity, and by the end we have stopped speaking to each other. It happens like that when one of you is, as we know, 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair and the other is, as we also know, not any of those things, feels at least 100 and would happily settle for being Coco the Clown if it meant getting out of this hellhole of a shopping centre.

We do, at 5.29pm, with happy-at-last Cinders clutching a bag containing a plum-coloured piece of velvet that she insists is a skirt. “That cannot be a skirt,” I say, in my weary-mother voice. “That’s a pelmet. And anyway, who wears a pelmet, sorry, I mean a skirt, that short to a ball?” I splutter those last few words, which puts an end to all communication, even the raising of contemptuous eyebrows, for at least six days.

Cinders' ball gown - or velvet pelmet - was tighter than this but you get the idea of its complete unsuitability

Cinders’ ball gown – or velvet pelmet – was tighter than this but you get the idea of its complete unsuitability

The following Saturday we devote the day to finding a top to go with the skirt, and the Saturday after that it’s the shoes.

Over the ensuing year we manage to repair our mother-daughter relationship and the velvet pelmet makes a number of further appearances that have nothing to do with me, I’m happy to say, being well out of my sight at university. I believe it graduated with a low-grade degree in Politics, Philosophy and Extreme Shortness.

Now Cinders and I look back on that testing experience as a learning curve that took us both way off the scale – and back again.

Nobody warns you about the agonies of shopping with your teenage daughter. They just bang on about the other rites of passage: the tightrope-walk you take to achieve the potty-training miracle, the letting-go of the hand on the first day at school and the shoulder you provide through the heart-sinking ups and downs of friendships.

It isn’t easy being a mother, but I take solace from knowing it must be hell on earth being a girl preparing for a prom night, or a ball, in the company of a desperate woman who feels at least 100 and has aspirations to be Coco the Clown.



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Trigiani rev road Lost for Words The PO Girl Troubles

LIKE many keen readers, I belong to a book group. I’ve been with the same crowd of friends for many years, enjoying not just their company but their choice of books, too.

Or that’s my story if asked. But since you are asking, and no doubt expecting a truthful response, I don’t always enjoy the books.

I know one of the reasons for reading a book that someone else has picked for you to read is to have your eyes opened and your mind expanded by a different experience, being forced off straight lines and into new territory. That’s the theory.

In practice, my book group almost always plays it safe. Nothing too experimental or cutting-edge. No modern black writing, no exploration of feminist issues, nothing likely to challenge us too much. It’s comfortable stuff, in the main, so we get plenty of Margaret Forster (no complaints, she’s great, but do let’s move on a bit, please) and recently were tasked with grinding through to the end of a overly-long historical romance by Andrea Trigiani. I didn’t manage it, I’m afraid. In fact I didn’t even bother to get hold of a copy to start the heart-sinking task.

Before the groupies’ meeting where we were due to discuss the book, I conducted a brief debate with myself on what would be the best thing to do. Should I check out the reviews on Amazon and cobble together my own response from that research, or admit I couldn’t face it and risk being regarded as a book-snob?

I chose the latter, and wasn’t drummed out. In fact, I don’t think anyone really cared, which just goes to show how little notice they must take of me when I do express an opinion on a book.

My groupie mate Liz and I seem to be the only members who ever choose books written by male authors. A couple of my favourites, which thankfully everyone enjoyed when I chose them, were Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (I could read it 100 times and never tire of its clever, chilling and penetrating spotlight on suburban mid–1950s America) and J.G Farrell’s Troubles, winner of the so-called Lost Booker Prize 40 years after it was written in 1970.

Liz introduced us to Stefan Schweig in his wonderful The Post Office Girl, and we recently read one of her choices, Lost for Words, a satire of the literary world, by Edward St Aubyn, which is an absolute little masterpiece of exquisite writing and memorably dotty characters. These books will, I know, linger with me for a long time, which is the best result one could wish for as a reader – especially a reader of someone else’s choices.

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The minute I learnt that Maya Angelou had died I texted my daughter to break the news. “She was our best, our Phenomenal Woman, wasn’t she?”

“Oh, how sad,” my daughter texted back. “Do you remember we used to invite her to our tea parties?”

We did indeed. Through my daughter’s teenage years we would make mental lists of who we’d like to invite to tea. Our guests had to be bookish and interesting, but if they could muster neither of those qualities, they could qualify by being handsome so we would have the pleasure of just looking at them.

Thus it was that the fabulous, irrepressible and utterly brilliant Maya Angelou was a permanent fixture on our list. We would ask her to recite ‘And Still I Rise’ before giving her a generous slice of luscious lemon cake or possibly a piece of Dorset apple cake.

We’d also give her a second cup of tea if she would give us ‘Phenomenal Woman’ in return. A poor exchange, a cuppa for those incredible lines, but we were the hosts so she might oblige.

We were well prepared for our great guest’s acceptance of our invitation: we avidly read her books and could quote chunks of her poetry, so we would never be found wanting should she suddenly appear on our doorstep.

Below her, way below her in our virtual list of guess who’s coming to tea, was a ridiculously good-looking man we encountered selling scarves on a stall in Camden Market. Not so much eye candy as tea candy.

Dear Maya Angelou, we owe you a great debt for the legacy of all your wonderful words. We loved how your beautifully expressed emotions so deeply touched ours, and we know how privileged we were to have you, a beacon of wisdom, at our virtual tea parties.




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