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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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March 1st, 2007


I think I saw myself on the metro the other Sunday morning.

I was on my way to work, not fully awake yet, and at the stop after mine an old man got on and sat across from me. He was in his late seventies, I would say, and at a first glance seemed quite smartly dressed, in a greenish tweedy jacket and blue silk tie. Further inspection, however, of the type that you have time for on the metro, showed that everything he had on was covered in stains. They looked like old food stains on clothes that had been washed or dry-cleaned several times since the original accidents, so that the stains themselves had faded away and lost the vividness of the original beetroot or ragù — but they had not disappeared completely.

My first reaction, seeing him, was to think, “Poor old dear. He must be losing his sight and has no idea how pathetic he looks.” But then, very little of the staining looked recent. The jacket certainly must have been in that condition for years. His shoes, too, had been quite good once, and there was nothing in particular wrong with them now, except that they looked rather elderly. It was possible that he couldn’t afford to replace things any more, but it was more likely, I began to think, that he wasn’t bothered by the spots. The clothes covered him, kept him warm, didn’t smell, and so why should he worry about a few washed-out memorials to past meals?

I may just be projecting my own attitudes onto this decrepit old wretch, however. I have always tended to throw food over myself quite a bit, and have never managed to present myself to the world completely without stain.

I have inherited a lot of my parents’ tendency to thrift, so that for me as a kid it was unthinkable to throw away an otherwise perfectly good garment just because it had a bit of gravy on it. And if you start young enough going out in clothes that, while freshly washed, still have visible food stains on them, then you never learn to be really embarrassed by them. I am aware that it is the convention to appear in public, at least in big cities, as close to immaculate as you can manage, but I personally can’t or don’t always follow this convention very closely.

I can think of only one occasion when I threw an item of clothing away because it was stained. When I was about thirteen, my mother became worried that I was taking too little exercise and, with my consent, arranged that I should go on Saturday mornings to a local tennis club for lessons. She didn’t however immediately start knitting the white pullover that I needed for these lessons and so for the first couple of months I wore ordinary pullovers. At a certain point I got a message through a classmate whose mother was secretary of the club that I was expected to wear white, please, and could I wear white or stop coming — but this message fortunately came exactly as my mother finished her knitting. I accordingly turned up the next Saturday morning more or less correctly dressed for once, and in celebration, on the way home had an ice cream. The ice cream came with some sort of ersatz raspberry sauce on it. In the course of eating it, I allowed the sauce to drip onto my new white jumper, right in the center of the chest. The dyes in the sauce did their job on the wool, and I never went back to my tennis lessons. I should add, however, that this is not the sad little story that it might seem. Once I’d realized quite how tiresome it was getting up on a Saturday morning just to bash a ball about, and quite how snotty some of the types at the Tennis Club were, the raspberry rippling down the front of my jumper provided just that extra little push I needed to get me to give it all up.

I have been quite lucky I suppose that I have never had jobs that set me the challenge of dressing smartly every day. The only job I have ever had where I was expected to wear a tie, for example, was in Saudi Arabia, and there they made me wear a nasty brown uniform to school, with a company-issue brown tie. These uniforms were washed as often as we wanted in the company laundry and items could be replaced whenever we asked, but the result was never that we looked smart. Most of my colleagues were Brits, and if you put together a lot of English men and make them wear school uniform, inevitably a form of anti-chic naturally emerges, of the sort that you can see in any English school film — and stains were absolutely de rigueur in this environment. One of my more often repeated little jokelets there was that I could boil up my tie at the end of every week for stock, so richly drenched in curry and custard had it got.

Here in Rome I have the excuse that my jobs are dirty in themselves, and so I can wear jeans and a pullover in winter, jeans and a short-sleeved shirt in summer, and they don’t show the stains too badly. Though most of my male colleagues at school, being teachers, wear a jacket and tie, I can claim that up in the library I often have to roll around on the floor, checking the ground level shelves, or carry around piles of dusty old books that we should have discarded years ago. The other day in the school bar, one of the nicer, politer Italian boys came up beside me and whispered that I had chalk all over my back. I thanked him for the warning, of course, and made the gesture of stroking my buttocks in a desultory attempt to get some of the chalk off — I had been sitting outside on the terrace on a chair that had been outside all winter — but I can’t say that I blushed to the roots of my hair to have been caught in public covered in crap. Carlo wouldn’t have understood this, though. He regularly complains to me that, for a variety of reasons, there are no mirrors anywhere in the school, except one tiny one in the library behind the librarians’ desk. In fact, the reason I know Carlo so comparatively well is that he is always coming into the library to check that he isn’t looking an absolute fright.

At home, I haven’t got round to putting in a full-length mirror yet. I have the space for one set aside in the hall, but in practice the only place I can check my clothes before I set off is in the elevator going down to ground level (if I take it) or in one of the smaller mirrors in the flat that don’t show much. Consequently, I often set off from home without bothering to check that everything is as it should be. I even have to remind myself some early mornings to check that there is no blood on my neck, or toothpaste around my mouth, I’m afraid.

The old man on the metro was therefore a timely warning, maybe, not to let a natural tendency to sloppy dress get out of hand. I reckon most people would share my first reaction, that he was out in public looking like that because he was losing his sight, or perhaps his mind. Even if I try not to really care what people think, nevertheless when you are growing old, there are probably practical drawbacks to not being considered totally comme il faut. Where negligence in matters of dress in a young or middle-aged man may seem merely eccentric, in an older man they suggest incompetence, inability to cope, and approaching senility. I’m not sure that that will be the impression I want to create when I am in my seventies, so it is possibly now time to start pulling my socks up and throwing away some of the more worn-out, disreputable-looking ones. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Darrel | Link to this Entry


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