A trip to the Bristol Fashion Week Show (Autumn/Winter), staged at our nearest out-of-town shopping mall, The (imaginatively named) Mall, at Cribbs Causeway near Bristol, has become a twice-yearly treat for my sister, my daughter and one of her friends. But the contents of the goody bag we brought home this time has set me wondering whether they organisers are trying to send a secret message to audience members about their own appearance and demeanour…
(This post was written for the December 2014 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)
With the shortest day fast approaching, I’m already thinking about Spring. That’s because I’m starting to plan a collection of short stories due to be released at Easter.
As in the world of fashion, if you’re planning to write topical fiction, you have to think at least one season ahead. I therefore started writing my festive short story collection, Stocking Fillers, while soaking up the Greek sun back in August. At first, it seemed seem strange to be writing about Christmas while wearing a swimsuit. It got easier a couple of weeks later, when I spent a fortnight in Scotland. Although it was still only August, the weather was more like November. But as my daughter always likes to say, “We don’t go to Scotland for the weather”.
Available to buy as an ebook or in paperback from the start of December, Stocking Fillers consists of twelve short stories, all humorous, as various characters prepare for the big day. My favourites include a grumpy middle-aged dad penning his first Round Robin Christmas letter, a little boy wise beyond his years offering Santa time management advice, and a busy mum wondering how on earth she’ll fit in all of her chores before Christmas Eve. Not every character is loveable, and the stories aren’t all sugar-plum sweet, but I hope you’ll find them fun. If you’d like signed copies to give as gifts, just give me a shout and I’ll be happy to add a special message by hand.
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas!
If the weather turns wintry tomorrow, blame me. Because this afternoon, I dragged out from under my bed the big plastic storage box in which my summer clothes have been hibernating since October (cue for a snowstorm).
As I spread flimsy dresses and crisp cotton shifts across the bed, images of last summer flitted across my brain like the apocryphal flashbacks of a drowning man. All of these images featured me in these clothes.
There I was on the Avignon tourist trail in a floaty, floral Cath Kidston number. This cool cotton lawn frock was the only thing keeping me on the right side of sanity in the sticky, seething streets. And it was the perfect outfit to “danser sur le Pont” (as you do).
And then there was the cappuccino sleeveless linen shift, short skirt sticking to my legs as we cycled across the cobbles of Senlis to reach the open-air municipal pool. Splashy French shrieks of excitement and distant foreign children’s laughter lured us in the right direction, even though we couldn’t see the pool till the very last minute. It was raised on a balcony above street level – an upstairs open-air swimming pool! Who’d have thought it?
The tiered navy sleeveless Gap drill dress didn’t show the dirt on a hot, dusty day spent giving my daughter her first taste of Paris. Laura didn’t like Paris. “It’s too city-ish.”
It obligingly withstood another day’s wear at Disneyland Paris – a twelve-hour shift to get our money’s worth. Now that Laura did approve of.
And then there was the blue and white stripey jersey shift, too short and shabby to be worn beyond our back garden really, but perfect for the long haul south in our camper van, my feet on the dashboard as we ambled down the valleys of the Loire and the Rhone to Provence. (Don’t worry, my husband was driving.)
For a second, I allow myself to believe that the act of trying on my favourite summer clothes will magically transport me back to the south of France, far from the woolly jumpers of home. I gaze at my favourite cotton lawn sundress with the wistful longing that as a child I’d project on an old wooden chair, hoping it would sprout the wings of Enid Blyton‘s famous Wishing Chair and whisk me away. (How those magical children’s stories stay with you forever!)
But this year we won’t be heading south, whatever we wear. We’re spending this summer is Scotland – and as my daughter likes to say, “You don’t go to Scotland for the weather”. I’ll still be taking my beloved summer clothes. But I expect I’ll have to wear them all at once.
Listening to BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz (always my preferred source of news), I make a mental note of Jeremy Hardy’s comment that in French swimming pools, men are not allowed to wear loose-fitting swimming trunks. I advise my husband well in advance of our first venture into a piscine that his usual Bermuda shorts will not do.
He looks sceptical and stuffs them defiantly into his swimming bag. A little later, we park by the small municipal pool in Montdidier, a sleepy town on the way from Montreuil to Paris. It’s a hot, sunny day, and we’re all looking forward to a dip.
Manning the admissions booth are not the usual athletic student types that find weekend work in British sports centres, but a brace of elderly ladies in black dresses. They would both look at home knitting in front of the guillotine. Gordon offers up to them his red swimming shorts.
“Mesdames, je peut?”
They laugh and shake their heads in unison.
“Slip de bain! Slip de bain!” they cry together.
Gordon looks crestfallen. He hates it when I’m right.
“Est-ce qu’on peut les acheter ici?” I enquire.
“Can he buy some?” I translate for Gordon’s sake.
They shake their heads.
“Non, madame, mais on peut les emporter.”
“They’ve got some you can borrow,” I tell him.
They open a cupboard and wheel out a large plastic crate, clearly prepared for such eventualities.
In the cart is a large selection of men’s swimming costumes, all of the diminutive kind that conform to the picture on the wall. The old ladies rummage around and pull out a red pair that would just about fit a three year old.
“Mais non!” they shriek, falling about laughing.
Another rummage and they triumphantly hold aloft a vast blue pair that would go twice round Gordon.
“Ah, non!” they giggle, exchanging conspiratorial glances.
Finally, just before their mirth can rob them of the strength to help us, they fish out a discreet black costume that looks exactly right. Gordon looks mightily relieved.
“Merci beaucoup, mesdames!” he says gratefully and scurries off to the safety of the vestiare des hommes.
During the course of our French holiday, we swim every two or three days, either in municipal pools – always outdoors, once we’re south of Paris – or in rivers. At every pool, we seek out an explanation of exactly why a British men’s swimsuit is not allowed.
“C’est plus hygienique?” is the best suggestion that the helpful lady in Senlis can come up with. But we’re none of us exactly sure why.
But interdit it certainly is, and Gordon has to invest in a suitable maillot.
When I was 11, I had no idea how glad I’d be one day that a chapter of my school French book was entirely dedicated to the swimming pool. Though I still have to find an outlet for the knowledge I acquired about Nikki le singe making an omelette, my schoolgirl French continues to rise miraculously to the top of my mind on this holiday.
I mourn the fact that learning a foreign language is no longer compulsory in English schools. It may not always have been well taught, and it may sometimes have been predictable. (My friend Gary sailed through his French O level purely by dint of memorising, letter by letter, an essay on a day at “La Plage”, confident that it would be one of the essay questions. It did and he passed.) But at least I know enough to avert an international swimming pool fashion crisis.
Packing the ideal holiday capsule wardrobe for a 28 day tour of France in our camper van, I am torn between taking old clothes that I can jettison en route after wearing and aspiring to the well-groomed appearance of the average French woman.
I don’t want to clutter up the van with dirty laundry as space is at such a premium, nor do I want to use precious time and water (our tank is a small one) washing clothes. This is a holiday, after all.
I compromise and take smart casual dresses and separates, but ageing underwear that I can bin with a clear conscience. I’m gratified to discover that I have sufficient for the whole month and am bemused by the notion of leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of discarded knickers across the country.
I’ve bought three dresses expressly for the holiday, floaty linen and cotton frocks that are easily rinsed and dried overnight in Provencal sun. I abate any feelings of extravagance by remembering the experiences of a former colleague on her very first holiday abroad.
Margaret was about 22 and had never travelled far from her native Bristol. In anticipation of a week-long package trip to Spain, she invested in seven outfits from her catalogue, so that she’d have something new and special to wear every single day. The whole office was regaled with a detailed description of each outfit as the catalogue delivered it, and after waving her goodbye on the Friday, we looked forward all the following week to an account of her adventures on her return.
Sadly her investment did not pay great dividends. Pressed for a description, she just shook her head.
“I think abroad’s very over-rated,” she said sadly and would not be drawn any further.
I have higher hopes for my holiday in France.
My packing strategy for my small daughter Laura is similar to my own and I look forward to a month without laundry. Until Day 5 of our trip, when my husband announces, to my surprise, “Oh no, I’m down to my last t-shirt.”
Terse questioning reveals that he has brought with him just 5 t-shirts, 5 pairs of pants and 5 pairs of socks. Considering he has approximately 40 t-shirts in his wardrobe at home and more underwear than Laura and I combined, I am not sympathetic.
The situation is partly remedied by persuading him to throw caution to the winds and wear his sandals without socks. But I cannot extend the same philosophy to the other items of clothing in question.
And so for the rest of the holiday, the interior of the camper van is adorned at every stop with a varying array of his drying laundry, like a Tibetan prayer flag offered up to the god of hygiene.
So at least he can be considered hygienic. Not so, it seems, his swimming trunks – but that’s another story…
The next post will reveal all – well, nearly all.