John Walsh: A pre-Christmas party in Dulwich – how judgemental could it be?

Tales of the City

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My neighbour Andy bought himself a hat some time ago, a leather trilby that had seen better days. It looked good – it reminded him of someone in the movies – and the more battered it became, the more characterful it seemed. Finally, the penny dropped. Andy started looking on eBay for a bullwhip, jungle trousers, a long-strap briefcase and a huge revolver. In a month, he'd transformed himself into Indiana Jones. But how could he show it off to his friends and neighbours?

The answer was to hold a fancy-dress party, and insist that everyone come as a Hollywood figure. Which is why I found myself, at 3.30pm on Saturday, cursing Andy and his bloody fancy-dress requirements, and cursing myself for having no ideas about which film star to impersonate.

Ronald Colman? I'd have to get hold of a very thin moustache. John Wayne? I didn't have the chaps, the bandanna or the huge arse. Groucho Marx? Where could I find a cigar, a tailcoat and granny glasses, and black paint for the moustache?

The hell with it. An hour later, I was at a party shop in Fulham, asking the lady proprietors for advice. "There's the Clint Eastwood look," said one, offering me a Peruvian poncho in garish primary colours, "or the Captain Jack Sparrow's very popular." I thought they seemed childish – a fancy-dress party is, obviously, very grown-up – and looked through the costumes: Frankenstein, Darth Vader, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. The last held my eye. The metallic sheen, the figure-hugging tunic, the chimneypiece headgear, the silver face paint: it was a look of which David Bowie would have approved in his "Ashes to Ashes" period. It was cool. "Have you got a large size?" I asked. "One size fits all," the ladies sang. I paid up and fled.

In the bedroom mirror, things didn't look promising. It was a one-piece body tunic with separate headgear. The trousers were so tight, it was impossible to bend over to lace your shoes. And when you pulled up the tunic to put your arms into the sleeves, the crotch seam rode up under one's intimate areas and shoved them firmly over in a painful bulge of silver-polyester-viscose. It was suicidally tight. I walked like a chap who'd undergone colonic irrigation. I feared I might die of static electricity. A balaclava-like hat pulled over the face and surmounted by an oil can completed the ensemble.

The children tried to be nice, and failed. "You look like a giant tin baby," said one. "You could still dig out your peach raincoat and go for the Bogart option," said another. I decided to butch it out. A pre-Christmas party in Dulwich – how judgemental could it be?

Extremely, is the answer. The other guests had clearly thought hard about how not to look a wally. Jedi stormtroopers and Airplane! captains rubbed shoulders with Audrey Hepburns and Marge Simpsons. They looked pityingly at my BacoFoil outfit, my toddler hat and my traumatised groin, then looked away. One couple came as Wednesday and Pugsley Addams, and looked coolly Gothic. Another came as Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. One sensible fellow, far too suave for a costume, wore a black suit, white shirt, black tie and weeping gunshot wound, effortlessly becoming Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. Andy/Indiana, the host, exchanged masculine banter with a brace of Yodas, while I lurked in a corner with his wife, complaining about the curse of an over-emphatic gusset. I'd learnt three lessons: never buy a party costume; never assume silver will make you look thinner; and never believe that "One size fits all"...



There's an interesting series of weekly talks on at London's Courtauld Gallery, arranged by its writer-in-residence, Ruth Padel, who has asked public figures to dilate on famous paintings. I went to hear Julia Neuberger discuss Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich by Camille Pissarro, who lived in London during the Franco-Prussian War. According to the Baroness, it displays the painter's dislike of the bourgeoisie, and the development of their ghastly homes through the green spaces outside London. This is, I believe, the only occasion on which the French Impressionists expressed any opinion at all about my home suburb of London SE21.

Next talk is the novelist Colm Toibin on Cézanne's Route Tournante tomorrow at 5.15pm.

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