Thursday, July 13, 2006

Black is the old black

Home Front, Catholic Herald, 14 July 2006

“Mum, you’re dressed like a stagehand again,” said my older daughter reprovingly. She’s right: black teeshirt, black jeans…I look as though I am auditioning at the Black Theatre of Prague.

Despite the fact that modern dye techniques offer us every colour in the rainbow and many that the rainbow hasn’t thought of, such as taupe, moss and Barbie pink, it is terribly easy to end up wearing nothing but black. And there certain kinds of people who wear almost nothing but black as a point of principle.

“When you said there would be lots of unmarried men who look good in black,” a single woman friend said wryly, surveying my last book launch party, “you were being rather economical with the truth.”

For indeed, priests are only one group of people who wear black all the time: others include old Greek and Italian ladies, puppeteers, roadies, Goths and now, I discover, Emos.

I am learning about Emos from my Rock Star nephew, who is 17 and staying with us at the moment, along with three guitars and an amplifier. “Emos have hair down over their eyes and they wear black,” he said.

“Isn’t that what Goths do?”

“Yes, but Goths wear different sorts of black, and different sorts of hair. Most importantly, Emos are more open with their emotions. That’s why they are called Emos.”

I was not aware that teenagers were ever particularly hot on hiding their emotions. On the contrary, living with teenagers is like living on the set of East Enders: every half hour someone is telling someone else that the other someone has ruined the first someone’s life, and a door is slammed. Diddle-diddle-dee-dee-dee…

Now this idea of being defined by the colour you wear, especially when it is a colour so widely available as black, is one not to be undertaken lightly. Do Emos ever worry about being mistaken for elderly Greek ladies? Do Greek widows ever get mistaken for Goths? What if circumstances force you to adopt another colour, temporarily? What do Goths and Emos wear when, for example, playing tennis? Are you still a Goth if you are wearing a school regulation pleated blue skirt?

Which reminds me - the best advice I’ve come across on living with tribalised teens is to make sure they hang onto one part of their life which is ordinary and bourgeois. Don’t ditch the cello lessons. Hang onto that sensible white tennis skirt. Always write thank you letters, even if these days you only write in your own blood.

G. K. Chesterton would have understood what Goths and Emos are saying about clothing. He felt that the meaningless formality of late 19th century clothing was a symptom of society’s alienation and loss of spiritual and national rootedness, and compared his contemporaries unfavourably with a less ironic, medieval attitude.

In The Napoleon of Notting Hill he envisaged London’s boroughs becoming a cluster of warring city states, led by latter-day knights dressed in brilliant liveries. Though absurd, Chesterton’s intention was to show how even this way of carrying on was less absurd than the fashions of his day. Surveying the real London full of men dressed in indistinguishable black frock coats, he reasoned: “What is inherently more absurd – the tailored trousers or the gracefully falling medieval robe?”

The answer, were Chesterton alive today to provide it, would be that something even more absurd than either the tailored trousers or the robe has to be that universal male garment, the three-quarter-length shorts, adorned with guy-ropes and pockets that were originally intended for use by mountain climbers or soldiers on exercise.

The eight year old came home from a “learning about Islam” school trip, clutching that hoary old standby of religious education – a colouring book.

What is it with RE and colouring-in? Colouring-in is the most tedious task of childhood, yet it seems impossible to advance through religious education without it. Why do the catechists of all religions firmly believe that spirituality is inextricably linked with a youth spent in the wrist-aching job of crayoning acres of blue sky? Are religious education teachers all sponsored by Crayola?

How many six to eight year olds, in any religion, experience their first taste of heresy when it occurs to them that if they got their paints out they could have the whole job done in a couple of minutes, and with a more striking result? Given the choice, any child would always prefer to draw the picture from their own imaginations and add colours as they see fit.

Possibly, colouring-in is seen as a way of forcing a child to remain looking at a particular image for a relatively long time, burning it onto the subconscious. It might equally result in a child becoming so heartily sick of working on a flat, bland image that he or she resolves never to have anything to do with it again.

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