Thursday, 21 June 2012

Brighton Shock

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It was the early nineteen-sixties, and the world seemed on some sort of cusp.  In some ways it was still a time of innocence and modesty.  In other ways it was the start of the modern era, the first of the supermarkets just beginning to creep on to the high street, even in the more rural regions of the country.  Perhaps that was it more than anything else, the way the shape of the high street seemed to change overnight, or at least the shape of the shop fronts.  There were modern flat-fronted shop windows appearing everywhere and the papers crowed on about the space-race and 'The Bomb' but there was also still the cry of the rag and bone man and the coal still came on the back of a horse-drawn wagon in huge black sacks.

Man was working towards a quest for the moon, while in the distance on a hot summer's night with the windows open one could still hear the rushing sound of engines letting off steam over on the railway.  There were nuclear power stations and there were gas lamps still visible in the local family-owned department store, strange glass amber and white affaires like upside-down sombreros with a pair of rust-coloured chains dangling, one each side, apparently provided to adjust the light.  There was television in practically every home and telephones in many, even if only on a shared 'party line', but likely a coal fire burning in the grate ignited on the crumpled remains of the previous night's news and a network of sticks.

Jet airliners had begun to roar overhead but still infrequently enough to prompt the inquisitive child to query “what  is wrong with that 'planes engines, mum?” while closer to home smog still ruled the early morning winter streets, the dense smoke-grey mist turned amber by the sodium streetlamps keeping that same child from school lest his asthmatic lungs should pay the price.   The British Motor Corporation' s mini car was already swamping the tarmac but In the shop windows that other 'mini' had yet to grace the manikins, Playtex were only just beginning to promise that '18 hours of comfort' while the hangover from Dior's new look of 1947 could still be seen everywhere young women were employed to serve the public.  Stockings were still de rigueur while in the workplace manmade fibres ruled the roost. Hardy Amies was designing for Sainsburys using nylon for staff dresses, despite the fact that cheese, ham, butter and any other fat-based grocery product of the ilk would 'dissolve' in to the fabric causing permanent staining, and the women and young girls in Marks and Spencer’s wore charmingly sweaty powder blue dresses in 'Bri-Nylon' with dark blue buttons down the front and tight blue plastic belts threaded through the belt loops.  There was even a gold metallic broach that came with the outfit with the letters 'M' and 'S' entwined with the ampersand '&' in a sort of monogram arrangement  which one day - in a dyslexic manner, in a particularly dyslexic brain -  would come to mean something different entirely.  

Or so I wrote recently in the opening section of the new book I'm working on.  You may also recall I'm still hanging around in Brighton on the Angle-land south coast.  And if you're really paying attention you may know I have taken a shine to a certain blue-streaked blond-haired barmaid in the Brighton North Street Wetherspoons (it's a pub chain here in the UK, you non-believers).  Well she's pierced in all sorts of places, a ring through the lip, another through the nose – you get the picture?  It's not my scene, all that piercing malarkey, but the folksy country accent sort of is... Hmmm... what's that all about?  Who knows?

Anyway, I digress (don't I always) the thing is (and I don't expect you to believe this, not the later bit anyway)  is that down here in Brighton a couple of years ago I developed something of a shine for a young thing that could almost be this barmaid's twin – right down to the blue-streaked blond locks, the piercings, everything...  She owned a vintage clothing / bric-a-brac shop and had done since it was a start-up business she'd created on leaving school so she was a smite younger than one would have thought for a young business women.  Oh God, I digress again... I originally went in – as I remember it  - because she had a box of vinyl on the counter and I was looking for a synthesiser thing by one Walter Carlos.

I'm digressing yet again, but that's hardly surprising considering the turn of events (which you'll understand in a moment – but I really don't expect you to believe).   How to put this?   How best to put this across?  Well, remember my recollection outlined above – about the Marks and Spencer’s shop assistant uniforms?   Perhaps that's not the best place to start... Hmmm?  Ok!  Look, I walked in to that same shop this morning, some two years or so on from the last time.  From the outside it looked the same – the same  sort of stuff in the window, bakelite 'phones, old radios, a couple of ferns for decoration, a manikin in a fitted floral dress, that sort of thing, even the seventies-style script flowing across the window in gold paint and repeated on the cornflower-blue board above.  It was on the Inside where the shock was lurking.  Ok, so the shop assistant had changed – the new proprietor as it turned out.  The girl now behind the counter was a tall angular-featured mop-headed  thing in navy blue trousers and a waistcoat and with more than a hint of masculinity to the cut of her jib.  The previous assistant, in addition to all the piercings and blue streaks and stuff, had been little, fluffy and feminine  and perhaps just a little... well, tubby, to be honest.   But she had had this subtly submissive thing going on, and that I guess I had picked up on.

This new one, though, was very different; this one was quite frankly, aggressive, a bit of a dyke, the archetypal Brighton dungaree-wearing lesbo you could say – and you wouldn't be far wrong!  Well, ownership changes and shops change hands – and in this day and age that shouldn't be so much of a surprise; the real surprise these days is actually the enterprise having survived at all, in any form.  So, ok, that was a surprise in itself, that the business was still there and hadn't succumbed to having changed into a charity shop.  But imagine my shock at spotting my petite yet now not so tubby would-be-squeeze out back.  Well, obviously that wasn't the shock since at that moment I had no idea that the business might have changed hands, so why shouldn't she be out back with dustpan and brush cleaning the lino?  

But surely she'd have the employee out there dealing with that sort of menial task?  You'd think so, but as I say, it was the other one who was now the proprietor.  But that still isn't the shock – and you couldn't make it up – as I said, it was a vintage shop and God only knows how they came about gathering half their stock but... they'd got their hands on one of those 1960s Marks and Spencer’s staff uniform dresses... and that was what the girl had on - and through some miracle it fitted to perfection, tight blue plastic belt and all!

But as I said, she had changed, and not just in stature.  The shoulder-length straggly blond hair randomly streaked in light blue had become a neat, short brown side-parted boyish job that was largely covered by a light blue nylon head scarf, clearly chosen to match the dress.  The piercings were gone, or at least the silver rings that had adorned them.  A waist apron had been added – nothing to do with the original Marks and Spencer’s uniform but of the right shade of blue – and what at first sight was the original metal 'M & S' broach was pinned on the breast pocket.  On closer inspection the latter turned out to actually spell out the new proprietor’s name, but in the style of the original company monogram.      The latter detail was clearly intended to put the finishing touch on what was obviously intended to be the spur of the younger girl and ex-proprietor’s humiliation.  The only detail that detracted from being transported straight back to some half-forgotten childhood memory was that the original knee-length skirt (calf-length? I can't remember) had been shortened to some point, which while longer than the mid-thigh of common fantasy, was certainly way above the knee.  The skirt was flared more than I recall also, but I think by the inclusion of a petticoat or slip worn beneath and while I have no idea what footwear M & S employees wore in the 'sixties  my nylon clad shop assistant was teetering around on a pair of powder-blue high heels that were clearly 'difficult' and a perfect match for the dress – so God only knows where they had come from!

I had been trolling through yet another box of old vinyl disks and trying not to look, but obviously not that well for at least two reasons:

One:  The sheer level of detail I managed to pick up on.

Two:  The fact that having plucked out a copy of Walter Carlos' 'Well Tempered Synthesiser'  (an album I have been looking for years, incidentally)  the tall lean masculine-looking one took clear pleasure in summoning her chum from the rear room to serve me, tossing her tousled head and miming some problem she was apparently having with the cash register...  And then... get this – and its no word of a lie... indicating the younger girl in the vintage faux Marks and Spencer’s staff uniform (who incidentally was blushing royally – and God, how much do I love that?) she suddenly said: “...and do you like the staff uniform?”

Perhaps if I hadn't had a beer or two I'd have nodded and said little – perhaps most would!  As it was, though,  I blurted out everything I knew about the origin of the dress – to the very obvious delight of the taller, butch-looking woman and the equally obvious chagrin of the girl wearing the dress.  I also recounted something of my memories of having  been in the shop some years previously and of the girl's appearance at that time and how it had now changed – meaning the hair and the piercings rather than the apron and headscarf and the rest.  Before I knew it I found myself discussing the girl with the woman as if she wasn't there (the girl that is, not the tall butch woman – I'm not loosing my marbles; I hope!).  Angela, as it turned out the previous proprietor was called was despatched to “finish cleaning the stockroom!”  I was treated to the comment, as 'Angela'  scuttled away, regarding the hair and piercings of:  “...of course, I wouldn’t stand for it – I'm not having anyone working in MY shop looking like a freak!”

I mentioned the uniform again and my childhood memories of Marks and Spencer’s  and my surprise at seeing one of those dresses again and in an unnecessarily (I thought) loud voice (Australian, for what it's worth)  she announced that 'Angela'   “...wears what ever I damn well tell her to - and that's her uniform and that's all she wears nowadays!”  Then glancing out the back door to where 'Angela' was busy sweeping in her dress and apron she called out  “...and there's no more pubs and clubs now I'm in charge, is there, hun!”  Then looking back at me she said:  “...but who'd want to go out dressed like that?”  and then laughed.  As I said; you couldn't make it up – and I haven't... honest... but it's the sort of stuff that i would!  And now I don't have to!


Toyntanen said...

Many apologies for the dodgy spelling but the spell check doesn't work on this machine and to do it piecemeal as I go along posting one section at a time as comments would take too long.

And why post as a series of comments? Because Blogger has changed and now doesn't support the browser on my portable machine and insists on trying to publish my words in black - which against a black background ain't too good, visibility wise... init?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating recount, did owner tell you anything else about Angela.

I imagine her wearing as underwear white cotton m s cotton vest, bought sev yers ago size 34 b in girls underwear section m s fit young lady well,navy blue school knickers tucked in, once home work, quick tea then bath, girlish soft cotton pyjamas, bed 7 so owner has night free self

Toyntanen said...

As you may have noticed; the piece is no longer just a series of comments, although it's still not spell-checked. I'm back in London but not yet on the main computer. I have, however, worked out how to use my portable machine to post a main entry, albeit by a painful roundabout route.

At least now a few more folk will see it, for what it's worth! My thanks to Anon for his / her comment; I think more likely (I know!) a vintage Playtex rubberized girdle!

Anonymous said...

As you describe the scene, it seems a delightfully mismatched pair, but that's what D/s relationships are made off. Whatever took place between your two visits to the store, had two fortunate outcomes, nah... one, you found that long sought album!

Madmonkey said...

Wow that was quite a change the shop girl underwent. All she was missing was a nice pair of sensible shoes. Had she had those the transformation from bohemian to frump would have been complete.

Wringer said...

Such a coincidence that we were both in Brighton at the same time! I visit often, it being my home town and I know the area of the north lanes very well. It is stuffed full of shops such as you describe and never fails to get the imagination running wild.All human life is there and it is a glorious perves paradise.
Have you visited the glorious vintage underwear shop there?

Toyntanen said...

Hi Wringer

If you fancy a pint or two I'll email you when I'm next in Brighton -
it's an inspirational place. I might spend a few days down there for my birthday; prob around late July or mid-August.