Suzi Feay: At the Sharp End

'These days, thrift isn't just virtuous, it's fun – if austerity has you tightening your belt, well, your waist will look smaller'

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:58

Ah, the joys of having an attic! Anything you can't find an immediate use or space for ends up there. Go to fetch a suitcase and you'll be there for hours, browsing your own personal junk shop. Dusty gardening equipment, framed posters, old pots and pans, a heap of records, a box of classical CDs... this is saving me a fortune. I get the same buzz of acquisition from finding something I didn't know I had as from buying something new. (And have you seen the price of old Vogues in vintage-magazine shops?)

These days, thrift is not just virtuous, it's fun. The new austerity enjoins us to bake bread, switch off lights, make do and mend, and enjoy it all in the process. Pull in your belt; it'll make your waist look smaller. But of course, you don't have to go back to the days of food rationing and beyond to note that none of this is new at all. Confirmation came when I discovered, under a heap of old carpet, a stack of the long-defunct style magazine The Face. "Hard Times", screamed one coverline, across a male bottom clad in a pair of raggedy-arse tattered jeans. What did the new austerity look like in 1982?

The cover piece was written by Robert Elms, the Baudrillard of the Beat Route club, never a man to make a flippant comment when the width of a trouser leg or height of a collar was at stake. In these days of the blog and wide media coverage of everything indie, it's almost impossible to get across the huge influence of characters such as Elms, one of the High Kings of youth culture. Every word was scrutinised, so it's unsurprising that commentators elucidated the trends in such serious terms. "Bear with me for a while, this first bit may be hard but it is important," Elms begins, breathlessly. "Read it twice if you have to, because there is something you are going to have to grasp before we can go any further. And that is the notion that Youth Culture now represents not a rebellion but a tradition, or rather a series of traditions that ... continue to grow along a compound continuum of action and reaction."

It's quite hard to see what's going on in the thickets of Elms' mystical prose, but, disappointingly, he turns out to be talking not so much about the depredations of the evil Thatch and the miserable state of Britain as about the necessity for a dramatic new look after the panstick-white faces and lace collars of the New Romantics. (The sub-head, "Whatever became of the Zoot suit?" would take some explaining today. In fact, I'm not even sure I remember what that was about myself.)

"Sweat has replaced cool as the mark of a face ... Leather [dominates] everything ... Leather caps, leather jerkins, big boots or no socks and espadrilles. Trousers are getting tighter, T-shirts ripped and torn," Elms reports from the front line. Sounds awful, doesn't it?

Well, there may not have been any blogs in those days, but there were letters pages, and at a time of genuine deprivation I remember that Elms' final line, "With any luck there's even harder times ahead", caused a brief flurry of outrage. For all his bombast and portentousness, Elms failed to predict that, actually, the Eighties would come to be seen as the Loadsamoney era, all big hair, big shoulderpads and braying Sloanes. Yet it's poignant at this distance to read something so genuinely egalitarian, without a single reference to a celebrity. This is a glimpse into the long-ago world of the Dirtbox, a club above a chemist in Earls Court (£1.50 entry), which will, of course, "almost definitely have ceased to exist by the time you read this". It was probably filled with people whose idea of frugal chic was blacking your scuffed old boots and wearing your 501s until they disintegrated into a cat's cradle, rather than buying a sweatshop dress for a fiver and throwing it away in a fortnight. Passion is a fashion, as they used to say.

I was in Vancouver in September last year, and again a month ago, and I was curious to get a catch-up on one of the most mysterious news stories I've ever come across. "What happened about the feet?" I demanded. "You're not gonna believe this," my brother said. "Another one washed up a couple of weeks ago."

The mystery began last August when, within a week, two severed feet washed up on two separate islands, Jedediah and Gabriola. The obvious conclusion was swiftly discounted when they turned out both to be right feet, each still clad in sock and trainer. The coroner played down the mystery, claiming a boating accident as the likeliest cause, and suggesting that the feet might match bodies already recovered. This conjured images of morgues filled with unidentified bits and bobs, but in a province with serious terrain, where people seem continually to be messing about in boats and bobbing around in float-planes, perhaps that's to be expected.

So, as my brother said, a third right foot washed up on Valdes earlier this year, and now, amazingly, a fourth has washed up on yet another island. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are playing down the weirdness by stating that the four feet do not seem to have been "forcibly removed" – but then, the hilarious "Moanties" took years to work out that a deranged farmer was murdering prostitutes from the Lower East Side and feeding them to his pigs.

"The fact of them all being 'left' on the islands is too much of a coincidence for them to be just random surfacing bodies," says my brother. Too true. I like to think there's some Canadian Sawney Bean or Procrustes operating his grisly trade from a deserted cove. Don't think I'll be going boating on my next visit.

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