After a fashionably long wait in the searing sunshine, we filed into the Roundhouse's gloomy interior accompanied by the strains of portentous, plinky-plonky music. Lines of gold and red chairs flanked the catwalk, and the front two rows all carried "Reserved" notices. I had no idea who these seats were reserved for. But since this would probably be my first and last chance to sit in the front row of a fashion show, I parked myself in a prime spot, only a couple of seats away from the man whom a proper fashion journalist would immediately have identified as the top designer, John Rocha, but whom at the time, I could only identify as that-fashion- bloke-with-long-hair-whatsisname-could-be-John-something.
And then it began. The first thing that struck me was that although a front row seat at these things is terribly prestigious, it has to be said that what it actually means is that your eyes are roughly at the level of the models' ankles, which hardly makes for an ideal view. I mean, it's not as if you go into a clothes shop and lie on the floor to get a really good view of the clothes, is it?
But back to the show. As I struggled to make notes, it quickly became clear to me that I lacked the specialist fashion vocabulary to describe what I was seeing. Let's face it, "jacket split up back", "massive green trousers" and "horse's tail at back of skirt" are hardly the kind of descriptive phrases you'd expect to find in Vogue. But to be honest quite a lot of what was on show defied description.
There were 24 collections in all, and while some of them were fairly straightforward and safe, most were pretty extreme to say the least. So we had men with flashing lights in their mouths and women with bright green gumshields. On the whole, the menswear appeared to have been designed with a colour-blind pimp in mind, while the womenswear showed a marked tendency towards bondage, with quite a few see-through tops thrown in (an unexpected bonus there).
Most extreme of all was Sean McGowan. "Utterly bizarre" was the first comment I wrote in my notebook. Amongst other things he'd managed to design a dress which looked like a Tudor building and another that looked like a giant red stickleback. I had a word with him afterwards and asked him what it was all about. "It was very experimental," said Sean, a small, sparrowlike fellow. "I'm aware it was very theatrical, but it's the last chance I'm going to get to do it, so why not?"
And he's right. It will be a long time, if ever, before any of these students get another chance to stamp their mark on a catwalk, so who can blame them for seizing the chance to express themselves? A lot of the clothes may have been weird and unwearable, but in its way the show was a celebration of youth and idealism. And imagination. My personal favourite was Nancy Tilbury, who injected a huge dose of fun into the whole affair with her "Roamahome" collection, which featured wacky, troll-like women wearing duvets and sounding klaxons. The idea was that you don't just carry your home around with you, you wear it.
"It's about girls who carry their knickers in a bag," said Nancy, who's 24 and was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. "It's about my generation, really."
Why Eric's no fashion victim
The eminent historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm is 80 tomorrow. "Of course a lot of people reach this age now," he says, "so perhaps it's not so extraordinary. But for each one of us it actually is still somewhat surprising." Tomorrow also sees the publication of his latest book, a collection of essays entitled On History. He's been a historian for 50 years and he still enjoys it as much as ever.
"I think it's the endless curiosity. Old Fernand Braudel, the great French historian, whom I knew, once said to me that historians are always on the job, they are never on holiday. Every time you get into a train, you learn something. And that's perfectly true."
Eric admits that fashion is not something which he has ever taken an interest in. He's never worn jeans, because by the time they came along he felt he was too old. "So to that extent I have a relationship with fashion if you like," he says. "But a negative relationship."
A sperm count poser for Pete
Pete Thompson is having a mid-thirties crisis. He's stressed about his sperm count, he's thinking of cheating on his wife and to add to his troubles the taxman is after him. Pete is the hero of Rancid Aluminium, the funny second novel by James Hawes, who will be 37 this week.
"I think the underlying notion in the book is that if you keep referring back to your twenties when you're in your mid-thirties, then obviously you're on to a big loser," says James, who has a son, is happily married and fills in his tax returns with impeccable honesty. "You have to start to think about what you're going to be doing at 55, not what you were doing at 25. It's something that's quite difficult to do."
A lecturer in German at Swansea University, James wrote his acclaimed first novel, A White Merc with Fins, one summer when he was between jobs. The screen rights have since been sold for what he calls a "very respectable" amount to an Anglo-French company which recently profited from a slice of the Lottery cake. He lives in Cardiff, which he considers "the undiscovered jewel of Britain", and is hard at work on his next book, which is something to do with the price people pay for belonging to comm- unities. Readers of a sensitive disposition should not read the next sentence. In 1981 James Hawes regularly wore stretch jeans and red leg warmers.
Snappy snapper takes a pot shot
"It's all about vanity versus morality. So if a person is vain enough, they'll do anything," says John Stoddart, a photographer renowned for his ability to charm the clothes off aspiring actresses. Liz Hurley was one such aspiring actress who disrobed for Stoddy and came to regret it, but it's all sorted out, now that he's assured her he would never dream of selling the pictures. But if you can't see her in the News of the World, you can still see her in a state of deshabille in his new collection of photographs, It's Nothing Personal, together with other familiar faces (Martin Scorsese, Luciano Pavarotti, Eric Clapton) and the less familiar face of Lady Bienvenida Buck's rear end.
John became a photographer after leaving the Army in the late Seventies. He'd spent six years in the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, during which time he rose to the rank of corporal. However his stripes were removed following an indiscretion with a member of the opposite sex. He wears a suit when he's working, usually a smart pinstripe. "I'm not much of a jeans person," he says.
Pulling the wool over our eyes?
IT'S a short journey from the Roundhouse to Camden Arts Centre, where I discovered four people sitting in a darkened room, knitting. This was an installation created by the 33-year-old Anglo-German artist Oliver Herring, who had flown over from his home in New York for his first exhibition in this country. Whispering in order not to distract his knitters, who had volunteered for this exhausting one-day experience, Oliver explained that it was all to do with recycling, and the survival of the fittest.
Oliver is big on knitting. Round the corner was another room displaying his sculptures, which he knits out of mylar, a polyester tape used in space technology. They're large, striking pieces of work which form a kind of mini-retrospective of Oliver's oeuvre, and they include a silver bed with an empty coat lying on top of it and a seated figure who is knitting a hole in his knee back together again.
Originally a painter, Oliver began knitting in 1992 and has barely stopped since. He let me touch one of the sculptures and I can vouch for the fact that mylar is tough stuff. "It's extremely gruelling," he says. "I really have to watch out for repetitive strain injury. My whole life is structured round this knitting."
Three years ago he sold a sculpture for $8,000. A year ago he sold one for $22,000. So he's becoming saleable, but he just ploughs the money back into his work, and knits on. I wondered if he'd ever knitted himself a pullover. "No, I'm dying to do it," he says. "I still enjoy knitting after all these years. I'd love to wear my own sweater, but I don't have the time to do it."