Woman About Town

Arsenic and old lace

Autumn arrives and nostalgia descends

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

All of a sudden, autumn arrives, reuniting me with my cold-weather wardrobe. Dear, cosy, arsenic-green cardigan! Beloved Aran jacket! Tweed blazer, which I bought five years ago reasoning that everyone needs a tweed blazer and then found I had absolutely no reason to wear — this will be your year! 

I’m sentimental about clothes. Dates slide out of my head, but ask me what I was wearing at a certain time, and all the particulars flood back. That means I am also superstitious about clothes: the dress that saw me through a depressing party is likely to find itself on the reserves bench long-term, no matter how good it looks on. 

But I rarely get rid of garments, whatever disappointments we might have shared together. I dream of having a huge walk-in closet that would allow me to wander through my memories, plucking my best and worst days off the rail. Ideally, I’d keep everything, right back to my childhood dungarees and the party dress with the butterfly sleeves. 

Even when it’s impossible to squeeze back into something, revisiting old outfits is a way to imagine yourself back into the person you were when you wore them. 

Luckily, not everyone has the same romantic attitude as me and a lot of my wardrobe comes via eBay: if you have to retire your best frock every time you get snubbed in it, buying new can be quite extravagant.

One thing I didn’t keep: my old school shoes. Which is a shame, because the footwear of this season is a chunky black loafer, of exactly the kind I used to wear with my uniform. I’m delighted with the pair I’ve bought — Doc Martens, sturdy and chic — even if they do give me a vague feeling that I ought to be doing maths homework.

Idle moments

I was wearing the loafers when I went to see Professor Brian Cox do his Horizons show at Wembley Arena. Now there’s a solid reminder of how badly I neglected my arithmetic studies. I struggle every time I have to calculate rice-to-stock proportions for a risotto, so trying to keep up as Cox described the equations behind black holes was quite the challenge.

Not that this in any way stopped me having a great time. The strings of letters might be wasted on me, but the weirdness of quantum physics wasn’t. From what I gathered: every black hole contains something called the event horizon, which is really a point in time (the end of it) rather than a place, as well as being a quite bad horror movie from 1997.

Also, time and space are sort of the same thing. And every particle that goes into a black hole is lost forever which isn’t supposed to happen because quantum physics says information can’t be lost, so these particles must be projected somewhere. Which means … everything’s a hologram? I think?

OK so maybe I didn’t ace the theory side either. But I did enjoy it when Eric Idle made a surprise appearance, dressed in a glorious pink tuxedo to sing “Galaxy Song” from The Meaning of Life. At a nimble 79 — and an unexpected 79, given that Idle has survived a usually-unsurvivable diagnosis of pancreatic cancer — he gave the old song-and-dance to the Wembley audience and charmed the socks (and loafers) off everyone. 

To the Theatre Royal Bath for a performance that didn’t require any follow-up research on Wikipedia. Michael Frayn is a playwright whose scripts are, as one friend put it, “director-proof”. I suppose it is possible that someone will find a way to stink one of his scripts up, but they’d have their work cut out. 

The play this time was Noises Off, which is about a theatre troupe attempting a provincial tour of a rickety farce. Things fall gloriously to pieces as the company’s own dramatic incompetence and sexual incontinence turns out to be more than a match for the fiction they’re performing.

I think of Frayn as a modest writer. Not modest in terms of talent or intelligence — he’s got indecent quantities of both — but modest in terms of his willingness to get out of the way of his own work. Run Noises Off through the essay mill, and it becomes a fourth-wall demolishing gambol through the real-vs-unreal, performance-vs-truth. 

All very fascinating, but not nearly as important as the excellent deployment of a gag about an actor’s trousers falling down, or a bit of silent slapstick involving a fire axe. Too often, plays seem to urgently want to impress you with their cleverness, when the real genius always lies in just giving you a good time.

Creative block 

I’ve had a lot of deadlines recently, so I’ve dealt with them in the mature and sensible way I usually do: by playing a lot of Tetris. 

For the uninitiated, this is a videogame where blocks fall from the top of the screen. The player tries to arrange them in rows. Every completed row gets eliminated, and you get points. When you fill the screen, you’ve lost.

I started playing again a few years ago, after some scrawny kids tried to snatch my handbag and a friend pointed me to research showing Tetris could help prevent PTSD. Since then, it’s been my go-to for whenever I would simply rather not think about whatever’s happening, and very effective it’s been too. When you’re stressing about when the next vital T-piece will come, other concerns just drift away.

But then I got into strategy, and started reading about teenagers who’ve worked out a playing style that allows them to max out the game score — and keep going beyond there, to levels unimagined by the game’s designers. 

My mindless distraction has become less mindless now I’m bitterly conscious of my lowly place in the global Tetris hierarchy. Better, after all, to get back to something I’m actually good at and give some attention to those neglected deadlines. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover