Friday, 5 December 2014

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

published 2008








‘So are you going to come tonight or what?’ he said, as I turned to walk to the tube station… ‘11 o’clock, under the arches at Hungerford bridge, I’ll see you there.’

It was very hard in those days to stay up all night in London, you had to know where to look to find the young vampires…

I didn’t know how to behave or dress. You could not grow up here in London without understanding that there was a secret city, a freaky underground that came out like glow-worm after dark, the muscle men, the lipsticked drag boys, the girls with green hair, dyed-blond platinum queens, gold-painted things of no obvious sex.

Looking back over that summer, I remember almost everything I wore. I can recount my whole wardrobe, but this night is a blank. I changed and changed and changed until the bed was piled with discarded clothes, mountains of silks, crepes velvets, belts, scarves, high-heeled shoes, jeans, bell-bottom trousers, bras and knickers. Deep uncertainty about what to put on has wiped clean the memory’s slate and what the final choice was.



observations: A book with this title is a natural for the blog, and Linda Grant is a favourite writer round here anyway – see here for her recent marvellous Upstairs at the Party, and her short memoir, How I Murdered My Library, greatly enjoyed by blog readers. This one – Booker shortlisted in 2008 – tells the story of Vivien Kovacs, a classic Grant heroine: I loved this description of her:
I was planning to apply to study philosophy at university because of all that lonely thinking in my bedroom, but then I started to try on characters in novels for a day or two, to see how they fitted. I’d dress like them, think like them, walk around being Emma Bovary, with no understanding at all of either provincial life or farming, but boredom I knew very well.
Bizarrely, Vivien reminded me of an Anita Brookner woman – a solitary, clever, bookish girl with immigrant parents in a big mansion flat in London - the last person I would associate with Grant, though this is a much more enjoyable book than any by Brookner.

It also takes in the story of a figure of a slum landlord clearly based on Peter Rachman, and draws a great picture of London life in the 1960s and 70s. In particular, the lost and last years before the 1979 election and the start of the Thatcher years: she brought back memories of the years of Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, the Blair Peach demo.

And of course there are great clothes descriptions throughout – buying them, finding them, discovering vintage.
I arrived at university in a crepe de Chine cocktail dress and created an instant, sensational impression. Now life begins, I thought, and yes, it did.
The picture is from a few years later, and is an advert for tea, but the variety of outfits seemed to fit with the book.  

18 comments:

  1. A more interesting book than most of your recent entries - to me at least, but I won't be pursuing it.
    I think the period of the mid to late 70's (around the punk explosion) and the London scene interests me..but hey..... too many books already

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    1. Maybe one day you'll grab it - perhaps it's in a tub somewhere!

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    2. I've set a reminder for when I'm 90 and have cleared the back-log...

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    3. Nah, at age 90 you'll be saying 'just a couple more tubs, and then I can start on the backlog I've been slowly building up since the great embargo breakage of 2014...'

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  2. Moira - This sounds like a really interesting look at a fascinating time in London. So much going on, and Col's right about the impact of punk and other music developments. I sense wit too in the little bits you've shared. And as you say, how could you not be interested in a book with that title?

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    1. It could have been written for me, Margot. And the author and I actually have the same hometown - which is not London. She is someone whose writing I really admire and like.

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  3. Moira, I think I'll settle for "How I Murdered My Library," which I almost bought the other day, and then check out Linda Grant's other books.

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    1. Good call Prashant, you definitely should read that one and I'm sure you'll like it.

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  4. I liked this one, perhaps because of its Brooknerishness (I'm a fan, obviously). Have you read Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser? Lots of (non-fiction) cross-over with this book, and a lovely iteration of something that we know is absolutely true: that an interest in fashion is not trivial.

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    1. Yes, I love that about Grant, that she is unapologetic about treating fashion as important. And of course that she's a serious literary writer, and very funny too, and writes about recognizable things....

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  5. Now this book could be up my alley, too, especially what's period about the pre-Thatcher years and what was going on. I'd probably learn a lot here.
    And Anita Brookner, should try one of her books. Any suggestions?

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    1. I'm not a big fan of hers, so not sure what to recommend.... NOT Hotel du Lac. There's one called Lewis Percy that I quite liked....

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    2. I think 'A Start in Life' (sometimes published as 'The Debut') is excellent, though I also loved Hotel du Lac, so maybe not!

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    3. No that's helpful, and I think I did like that one, was it her first, with the opening line about a life ruined by literature? When I read it Ruth seemed really old, and I just checked and she was 40... hmm. I was in my 20s reading it in my tiny flat and enjoying a glimpse of a very different world. So yes, I second that. It was her later books that started getting me down....

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  6. Maybe someday I will try a book by Linda Grant. She does sound like an interesting writer.

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    1. I think you might like her. You weren't tempted by I Murdered My Library? Short and cheap!

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    2. Yes, I did read that one. A great subject, and Glen loved it too. I just meant one of her novel-length works.

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    3. Oh yes I see, sorry, I thought I'd remembered that....

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