After what feels like a rather frenetic January at work – including five days away on business in Gateshead and Newcastle – it's been most theraputic to have some time to myself.
It was back in October when I first committed myself to a trip to Rigby & Pellar to get new bras, but I finally got around to it yesterday, when I gave myself a sort of 'ladies who lunch' day shopping. Well, it wasn't a full day – not least because my visit to R&P was completely successful, but considerably shorter than expected, due to a surprising lack of a queue for fittings.
I'd started the day with the fullest intention of enjoying myself, and had dressed and done my make-up with that in mind. I was going to do the smart, sophisticated shopper routine for once in my life.
With R&P concluded so fast, I headed up to Oxford Street. The eastern half, from Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road, has long been the rather less classy part; shops full of tacky souvenirs and faintly trendy (in a sort of attempted rock 'n' roll way) clothing.
Yesterday, it looked even less enticing – downright sad, really. Record and DVD store Zavvi was one of the first casualties of the recession, and it's flagship store on Oxford Street had previously been the Virgin Megastore – an absolute gem of a shop, not least, from a personal point of view, because it had a wonderful, dedicated classical music section with knowledgeable staff. Now that's gone. Several other shops are empty – even on such a major street. And to cap it all, there are the beginnings of huge new roadworks cutting a zig zag along much of that part of the street.
So apart from the Marks and Spencer just east of Oxford Circus, I usually head down to the other end. And particularly to John Lewis.
Yesterday was no exception. But with the extra time (and money – my bra expenditure at R&P turned out to be massively lower than my previous visit some five years ago), I headed to Ann Harvey first. A few doors down from John Lewis, it's shop was revamped last year – and the clothes seem to have been given a makeover too. Although it's aimed at the 'larger lady', I'd tended to avoid it, at it seemed rather frumpy.
Either I have since headed into frumpydom myself or things have improved. The end of the January sales are still dragging on and I picked up a quality pair of smart trousers for £15, before lashing out considerably more on a new jacket – soft black leather, fully lined and styled in biker fashion, with a diagonal zip closure.
It was like a reminder of myself. Only that morning, I'd been struggling to know what jacket or coat to wear, and testing a black, leather jacket I'd been reminded just how shabby that staple of my wardrobe had become.
It's around 10 years old: the first leather jacket – or any other piece of leather clothing – that I'd ever owned, and was bought at a shop around Petticoat Lane market one Sunday afternoon. It was just after the start of my 'adolescent' development; an emerging from a sort of shell. Late – 40 was only just over the horizon – but better late than never.
Part of what followed was a realisation that I didn't have a clue how to dress. I had to start pretty much from scratch and try to learn. And that leather jacket – with collar turned up as a friend suggested – was the first piece of statement clothing I bought. You could dress it down or up. You could wear it anywhere – I did. And looking back, it was probably the first piece of clothing that I bought then that has survived that process of learning. It was my first 'right' piece.
You never forget your first leather jacket. I'm not about to throw it out just yet – although it's so battered that I've been wearing it less and less in the last couple of years. It's been re-lined twice, but the pockets have gone again and the leather itself is worn in a number of places, plus there are a number of little snicks where I left it hung over an armchair once, only for one of the cats to walk all over it with claws out.
This new jacket will be hung up carefully in the wardrobe when it's not being worn. There will be no repeat of that feline episode.
I am not ready for 'frumpy'. And I need to give myself a slap to stop falling into the temptation of being conventional. Decades of silent tears, spilt first because I longed to be 'normal' and then because I'd lost whoever the real me was by trying to be something I wasn't, should have taught me that happiness doesn't lie down that route.
But there seems to be a huge appetite for approbation from the more naturally conventionally inclined; from society and The Establishment even.
Look at actors. Once upon a time, considered far from respectable, but now regularly hobnobbing with royalty and picking up honours. The same goes for rock stars and writers and even journalists.
Journalists, for goodness sake! Why don't we want to be outlaws and reprobates any more? What happened to the spirit of rebellion and non-conformity? What great art or music or literature has ever been made from conformity?
It's such an irony that my parents are, in religious terms, non-conformists. My mother, in her determined effort to make me a poster girl for conformity, stuck me in handed-down tweed twin sets and (imitation) pearls in my teens. If such a thing had been possible, I imagine she'd have had me joining the WI (junior section) and making jam to sell at jumble sales.
So I have to fight regularly against this deep-seated compulsion to conform. Never was it revealing itself more than in my panic about what clothing to wear on our forthcoming trip on the Orient Express. Given the stuff I'd been browsing on the web recently, I was in mortal danger of inventing whole new levels of twee.
The leather jacket has pulled me back from the brink. Now even if I wear the smart new trousers (a dark, tweedy check) and a plain blouse, if I top it all off with the jacket, with collar turned insouciantly up, then even such an ensemble gains an edge. And there are, of course, plenty of other things that I could do with it: wearing the bowler hat that I bought in Berlin last year, for instance: it might not quite make me Sally Bowles, but it'll be a million miles from Hyacinth Bucket.