Never let a guru mess with your style

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The Independent Online

I had a style guru once. Quite a number of us did. Only in those days we had a different name for them - we called them wives.

But the principle was the same. We were busy, forever travelling, high-profiled, and personally gauche. It bothered us that our hair was never as it should be, that our clothes were dowdy and always wrong for the climate, and that we looked creased getting out of cars. For some of us a little tweaking when it came to exercise, diet and deportment was all that was necessary; but many more, lacking all aesthetic in the matter of appearance, were in need of an entire bodily and spiritual makeover. Crystals, enlightenment, lip gloss - the lot.

"Where to start, where to start?" were the first words my wife addressed to me, and sad to say we parted long before she believed she'd finished. Whether this is how it will turn out with Carole Caplin and Cherie Blair only history will tell. But there seems to be agreement between the two of them that the road to perfection is long. In the meantime, whenever I see photographs of the Prime Minister's wife proffering her face submissively to Sylvia Caplin's daughter, eyes closed, lips parted, like a baby bird waiting for its morning feed, I am reminded of how it was for me.

Cherie Blair should be grateful that she doesn't have any height issues. Or at least that she doesn't have any height issues in relation to her husband, for height is only how tall your partner makes you look. Take me as an example. Though I am six foot when I am relaxed and single, tense and married I can appear considerably shorter than that. And when the style guru who happens to be your wife is already tall on her own behalf, you can encounter serious obstacles to compatibility.

"Why won't you ever look me in the eye?" mine used to ask me. "Because it's too far up," was the only honest answer. I thought she should have worn flatter shoes or learnt to bend her knees when we were in company. But you only have to look at some of the things Carole Caplin wears - I'm talking of expressions as well as clothes - to see that a style guru is more interested in how her client is turned out than how she is. And so it was with mine. The fault, as far as she was concerned, was in me, not her. So she put me into cowboy boots, tooled leather Cuban heels with a six-inch elevation and pointed toes, and a fortnight later had to hand me over to a neurofunctional rehabiltation centre in Redditch to be taught how to walk again.

This is why some of us who have had experience with style gurus are worrying about the effect of Carole Caplin on Cherie Blair. They often end up creating more problems than they solve. Sure, the lips look better, but what about the damage to the first thoracic vertebra caused by all that waiting for the morning feed?

And so it can be even with something as apparently innocuous as a wardrobe. Have someone change the cut of what you wear, have someone mess around with your innate design sense, even if you haven't got an innate design sense, and you can quickly not only lose your own moral bearings but be the cause that those around you are losing theirs.

Again, take me as an example. Like Cherie Blair, I had trouble matching colours. To compensate for this I wore black suits for all occasions, with a black shirt under a black waistcoat, and a black tie. I was teaching Black Comedy in the Black Country at the time, and though my critical judgements were not always popular with my students, my appearance was. I knew this partly from the number of black suits with black waistcoats many of them had started to wear - the boys anyway; girls I have never been able to influence - and also from the comments passed when my style guru first put me into coloureds. Keith from Hull, who happened to be a personal friend of Philip Larkin, was probably the most distressed of all. "She's making a monkey out of you," he told me. "She's taken away your dignity."

'That's my wife you're talking about, Keith," I reminded him.

"Which is the very point I'm making," he said. "We liked you more when you were a bachelor."

"But I was lonely and unhappy, Keith," I told him.

He shook his head. "So what? You had style!"

I didn't actually. I looked like a dog's dinner. I wore my hair parted in the middle like a thirties crooner, sported Zapata moustaches which kept getting into my teeth and made me speak with a lisp, and doused myself in old fashioned after-shave, not wanting to give up on the stocks of Old Spice which every member of the family had bought me when I passed my 11-plus. But I understand what Keith was getting at. Whatever style I had, at least it was my own.

They were faithful to me, my students. They too started to get about in Cuban heels and purple and yellow cardigans knitted in the Hebrides from peat and spinach. But their work deteriorated. They got bad marks for their essays, resorted to plagiarism, lost their girlfriends, and ultimately quitted my courses altogether. Many years later I ran into Keith in a library in Hull. He was back in a black suit, was sitting laughing with a beautiful woman, and ignored me.

I have nothing against Carole Caplin personally. I met her at a party once and she offered to put me in touch with her mother. That some people find her attractive I do not doubt. But there is a touch of the circus about her. A sort of glittering vacuity, half trapeze artist's, half clown's. And it's a question why the wife of a Prime Minister, however aesthetically challenged herself, would want to aspire to that.