Sunday, December 24, 2006

Women I used to meet at the nursery school gates 10 years ago are on their second marriages now: new homes, new living arrangements, children in the role of step-children, some with new siblings by blood or by arrangement. I meet them at Christmas parties, invigorated and glossy with news. We find different common ground: work and the demands of teenage sons or daughters. We swap solutions on dealing with drinking, sleepovers and the imposition of rules. We attempt to remember how we behaved and move on, not really wanting to admit to our own pasts and the many, imaginative ways we sidestepped parental authority.

Then we slide into comfortable nostalgia. How easy it seemed, despite the terrible tantrums our children threw as they began to articulate themselves into this seaside city, always offset by the wonderful dreams they shared with us, the eccentricities they displayed on the bus or in cafes.

At the Tarnerland nursery Christmas party, parents and children were welcomed by Cherry, the head, in a tutu, wings and roller skates. Cherry was one of the most inspiring and instinctive teachers I have ever met. She allowed my son to live in a lion suit for an entire term, understanding his need to roar. She allowed my daughter to slip into the nursery kitchen with Margaret, the cook, to bake biscuits. The nursery garden epitomised summer. I wonder if there is a nursery that adults could go to when they need to rediscover that freedom?

More nostalgia at another Christmas party that I went to with Fred where Alan was sat in a chair in the front room, suited and smart as usual, opening the inside pocket of his jacket to show us his embroidered name. So we talk of the seventies and early eighties, the pubs and the gigs, the people we were, the people we've lost track of. Becoming more sentimental as mulled wine worked its spicy way through the blood.

The year's turned. Yesterday I saw another woman from those old days (so many of us moved to Brighton), walking along Lewes Road. I recognised her amazing hair, long, thick and blond, and in town saw a red net skirt in a shop that reminded me of parties in Guildford, the skirt that I made in net with lace on top. How it's now in a case on top of my wardrobe, together with a maroon tafetta cocktail dress, a leather mini-skirt, polka dot trousers that I used to wear for Sunday afternoons at Dingwalls in Camden Lock and a linen trouser suit I wore to Jane's wedding.

To Be Worn Again is a shop in Brighton selling retro clothes. I browse the rails, touch fabric just like the dress I wore to my first school disco, psychedelic angles and swirls, a front zip with big gold ring. That print like a balldress my mother had, my inadequate memory of it, but an impression of enormous, full petalled blooms, its gathered skirt, scoop neck.

It's interesting, too, trying some of these clothes on, to notice how many of them are home-made. Tailored to fit, the hems, poppers, hooks and eyes, hand stitched, the skirts lined. There are darts for the busts, no scratchy labels to irritate your neck, the seams are finished properly.

I used to make clothes. I learned from watching my mother, then properly at school with Sister Short, who called me Smiler and allowed us to make skirts not much wider than belts only after we'd mastered the skills of darning and mending sheets, sewing nightdresses and french seams.

I've made shirts for two men I've lived with, hats too, for both of them. I've made dressing gowns for my children and dressing up costumes from action figure to Elizabethan lady. It's a while since I've made anything for myself but I remember the pleasure of working in a fabric shop, having every Saturday to run my hands over the rolls, to appreciate the quality of Liberty varuna wool or the best quality fine cotton print. During that job, in 1973, the three day week meant the shop was lit by candles. Amazingly we stayed open and sometimes even sold stuff.

For a few moments of aided nostalgia there's a retro website:
which also briefly reminded me of driving to Winchester with my parents, Mungo Jerry on the radio, the summer of 1970, and the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations in Portsmouth in 1977. I left home in 1974 to do my degree at Portsmouth poly and spent 1975-1976 in Caen at the university there, coming back to drought. My student years ended in 1978 - the winter of discontent, Patti Smith's amazing Because the Night, Talking Heads' Psycho Killer and the raucous long-lived party tune YMCA.

All that and the year's not even officially over yet. But long nights, parties and resurrecting the past, must follow as inevitably as hangovers follow red wine.

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