Am I losing my puissance or has something gone disastrously awry with the nation’s young women? It used to be at this time of year — just as the sun started to shine and the first green blob of plum showed itself upon the twig — that they put away their shapeless cold-weather clothes in preference for a lighter, better fitting and more colourful summer garb. For that reason, how happy this time of year always used to be. But alas, no longer — not in the West Country at any rate. Down here the new fashion is to look as sickly and repulsive as possible. The teenage girls of Taunton have taken to dyeing their hair black at the edges with a heavy matt-white crest on top. This they call (for no reason I can divine) a ‘chevy’ and on top of their ‘chevies’ they spray some sort of fruit-flavoured dust. We have all noticed the pink protruding band of blubber at the midriff and the exposed plastic harness or ‘thong’ that barges its way down the buttock cleft. These peculiar and disconcerting sights are common to the whole nation, but in the West of England things have got far worse.
One particularly worrying fashion among the teen-girls (or ‘Bevs’) of Wiveliscombe is for mutilating their thighs and arms with razor blades to create a slashed criss-cross effect of scars that is supposed to look both trendy and redolent of inner angst. To their mouths these same women apply a vicious, stinging gloss that distorts their lips; their necks and jaws are covered in shiny puce love-bites, so that they gad about town looking like plague victims of the 14th century. ‘If you think I’m a bitch, you should meet my mother,’ declares one of their tops. ‘I’m a virgin (but this is an old T-shirt),’ proclaims another. On my way to Taunton market I was confronted by three of them, each bearing the same legend: ‘von bitch’. Now what is that supposed to mean? Their tongues, belly-buttons and upper ears are studded with metal nuts and they lope around town moulting, flobbing, shrieking, punching each other in the stomach and burping in the faces of passers-by.
I shan’t go on with this hideous racontage as my point is surely made — it’s a freak show out there — but what I cannot understand is how these waddling Calibans continue to ‘score’, ‘shag’ or ‘get laid’ as they choose to put it. You would have thought it quite impossible, but the alarming rise in pregnancy among them tells to the contrary. I wonder if the US regulators’ recent health scare about a link between Viagra and blindness has anything to do with it. In my grandfather’s day, gentlemen occasionally found it necessary to place a paper bag over their lady’s head — at least that is what I was told used to happen — but now, after a new and surprising surge in Viagra sales, one can only assume that the scrofulous youth of today has abandoned this time-honoured method in favour of something more drastic. And who can blame them? ‘If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,’ said Jesus. At least we can all now claim to live in a more equitable age.
Two years ago I was sideways approached by a shy, shuffling London agent with the suggestion that I might like to write the official biography of Basil Hume. I told him that, though grateful for the offer, I would have to decline as my inclination to unseriousness would almost certainly get the better of me and lead to friction with the late Cardinal’s estate. I suppose I was as surprised as anyone to learn that the job was eventually given to the non-Catholic Anthony Howard, who, over a long and distinguished career as a political journalist, has succeeded in rising as much by his gravity as I have been surely sunk by my levity. The book is just out and I haven’t yet had time to read all his ruminations on the half-French, half-Scotch cardinal’s ecumenical leanings, on his enthusiasm for ‘People’s Meals’ and ‘Quiet Moments’ or his penchant for playing squash in a cassock. I am looking forward to all that very much but, in the meantime, have been arrested in my tracks by the opening paragraph of Mr Howard’s introduction. ‘Anyone reading a biography of this kind has the right to know something of the author’s attitude towards religion,’ he says. ‘The British are notoriously reticent in such matters, but, if I had to define my own position, it would have to be that of “wistful agnostic”.’ By which he must mean that he wishes he had sufficient evidence to believe in God but doesn’t and therefore can’t. How is this important disclosure going to affect my interpretation of the rest of the book? This I can’t wait to find out. Is ‘wistfulness’ a sin, I wonder?
Shuttling, as most authors do at this time of year, between one literary festival and the next, I am greeted everywhere by audiences that are urbane, intelligent, generous of praise and prodigal of laughter. But only up to the point where I politely suggest that a few of them might care to buy a copy of one of my books. Suddenly the mood changes. A sea of faces turns bloodless before me and I am assaulted by a clamour of heartless scoffing. This might be due to some fault in that which our long-serving, lop-eyed Prime Minister calls ‘Respect’ — in which case it is something for politicians to deal with — but I doubt it. The cause is surely of a social origin. Why is such a large proportion of this country’s educated bourgoisie still afraid to talk about money? In my youth the subject was a permanent taboo — one whispered mention of cash, or an audible jingle in the pocket, and accusations of greed, prurience or vulgarity were rained upon my head. For that reason I have never been able to understand money and have lost all control over both my earnings and my expenditure. So yesterday I couldn’t get a single bean out of the cash-machine in Hay on Wye. Sacré nom de nom! I blame my parents for this great disaster of my middle age.
My sister, who teaches English at a middle school in Taunton, had her class interrupted yesterday by a paragon specimen. ‘Trish,’ she asked politely, ‘why are you so late to class?’ ‘Derr!!’ yelled the offended student. ‘Cos Oi’ve been in Anger f***ing Management, Miss!’