Monday, March 31, 2008

Dedicated follower of ...

The year: 1978. Or thereabouts.

The cast: me and Miss Scunthorpe (that was her name, she was no beauty queen).

The political context: Seven and eight year olds are doing string painting* in small town Lancashire. This was pre-Thatcher: milk was free, paint and paper were plentiful. We seven and eight year olds didn't know we were born.

The personal context: I wasn't a big fan of string painting. All string paintings look the same. How is this a valid form of self-expression?

What happened: I did my string painting, being essentially a rule-follower. We'd been told that our string paintings would be put up on the wall for parents' evening. I wondered how on earth my parents would know which string painting was mine, without having to read all the names. I couldn't imagine them being interested in anyone else's string painting or even, really, mine. They really are pretty boring. So to help them out, and ease the tedium a bit, I put three orange splodges on the bottom of mine with a paintbrush.

Miss Scunthorpe came round to look at our string paintings. When she got to mine, she stopped. She glared (and she had a right old glare on her). "Joella," she said, "I hate children who have to be different."

My string painting didn't make it onto the wall. But while, with hindsight, I can see that this wasn't a very kind thing to say to a child, and I can also see that if you only like children who want to be like everybody else perhaps you shouldn't be a primary school teacher, at the time I wasn't particularly crushed.

Thing is, I knew Miss Scunthorpe was right. I am a born, or possibly bred, non-conformist. Even as an eight year old I could see I didn't have much choice about that, so if she didn't like it it was her issue.

I don't want to over-simplify it -- there have been times when I've desperately wanted to have the right aspirations, the right clothes, the right life. It can be lonely being a bit of a freak.

But I've taken a lot more, a *lot* more, pleasure in not having these things, and not wanting them.

At this juncture my imaginary reader points out that I have a monogamous long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex; a nurse and a lawyer who still love each other for parents; a big mortgage; a good degree; a shit pension; a proper job. I read the Guardian, I get a veg box delivered, I'm going on holiday for 2 weeks in the summer, and I've just bought the new Elbow album. Exactly how non-conformist, he says (my imaginary reader is a man) is *that*?

Yeah, and he's right on the nail. It really annoys me when I find out that I'm excruciatingly normal. On-trend, even. That annoys me especially. I thought I'd discovered wasabi peas, then I read about them in the frigging Observer. Sambuca? Everyone's drinking it.

So it was difficult for me to say yes to round-the-corner S when he asked me if I'd be interested in sharing an allotment with him. Yes! I want to grow my own sweetcorn! I have the time and the inclination, why didn't I think of this years ago when they couldn't give allotments away? Now you have to wait longer for an allotment than for a hip replacement, and there's a column about it every week in the frigging Observer. (I did say yes though, in fact I said yes please and thank you for asking. So watch this space for predictable middle class allotment-related ramblings).

So I am left musing on the nature of fashion. Clearly some things move into fashion for good reasons -- eg Fairtrade, biodegradable sanpro, er, allotments -- whereas others are just keeping fashion and by extension marketing people busy -- eg enormous handbags, cholesterol-reducing yoghurt-style drinks, wallpaper with patterns bigger than a baby's head.

I can't work out where the line is between what's fashionable and what's zeitgeist and what's idiosyncratically cool. I don't care about fashion and I don't want to, I think being up with the zeitgeist is probably sensible as it generally moves in the right direction, I do want to be idiosyncratically cool but I know this is vain.


Still, I guess there are worse dilemmas.


*I genuinely do not know whether string painting is generation- or culture-specific. But if you're wondering, it basically works like this: you have an A3 sheet of paper which you fold in half, then open out again. You have pots of poster paint in three or four colours, into which you dip foot-long lengths of string. You arrange your lengths of string around half your A3 sheet of paper, leaving the bits that weren't dipped in the paint trailing across the edge, then you fold the empty half of the paper over the stringy half and pull the string out. Open the paper out and you have the sort of painting that to my seven or eight year old mind, would impress no one worth impressing.


Blogger nuttycow said...

You have an allotment? Soooo envious!

9:37 am  
Blogger Jo said...

Technically, I have half of a quarter of an allotment. If I "get on all right" with it, I might graduate to a quarter of my own one day. First job: clearance. Second job: digging. Third job: planting. Fourth job: lie on blanket reading novel surrounded by burgeoning vegetation.

10:52 am  
Blogger Charlie said...

I have an allotment in my back garden now, but I've stalled at (or indeed just before) the planting stage. I had been warned to expect this: preparing the ground is unfussy work and the results are visible immediately. Whereas now I keep shuffling 'buy chitted main crop seed potatoes' down my to do list, partly until I work out what it means.

5:08 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

I suggest burying a bag of potatoes in the garden around July-time and then scrabbling round for them when people drop by to leave things at your house. We won't know the difference.
You can get away with this because weatherbeaten old timers will not be leaning on their hoes, watching your every move.

5:28 pm  
OpenID crinklebee said...

Oh I recognise the non-conformist behind all that mortgage-etc-related baggage Joella, but then, as I have previously said here, so many of your stories and recollections strike a chord with me. For instance, for string painting and Miss Scunthorpe, read embroidery and Miss Mallander.

It was 1975, and while the rest of our class of seven year olds produced depictions of their houses, cats etc I had the bright idea of getting my friends to add doodles of their own choosing to my square of cotton, and then to 'sign' the emerging collaborative work. I considered the finished article to be a thing of beauty, so was really distraught when Miss Mallander pronounced- 'Jonathan, this is a complete waste of thread'.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

Ouch! She probably went to the same teacher training college as Miss Scunthorpe. It's amazing how those lines get seared into your mind. My games teacher once told me that I was 'like a dead body'. Which was nice.

1:24 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home