I was watching QI the other night, the one on kitsch – and after about five minutes my daughter looked at me and said, ‘We have to be the kitschiest family, like, ever.’
Really? Like, Ever?
‘I’m not in the slightest kitschy, ‘I said haughtily.
‘Tiffany lamp shades,’ she said. ‘We have millions of those.’
‘Yeah, but they’re not real.’
‘Exactly,’ she said witheringly.
Kitsch, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. So I suppose fake is more kitsch. If we had real Tiffany lamps, we wouldn’t have them for very long. I would sell them, so I could afford to loll about on a beach in the Maldives while some hunky bloke was standing ready with a strawbarry daiquiri. And that in itself, I have to admit, is pretty kitsch.
‘Lava lamps,’ she said.
‘Yes, but I’ve put most of them in the back bedroom now. Having them all in the living room made us look as if we were weird religious types with an altar by the telly.’
‘But you haven’t thrown them away,’ she went on inexorably. ‘And what about the nodding cat that gives you wishes?’ And all those blue jugs with place names on them?’
‘They’re collectables,’ I said weakly. ‘And I like having a jug called Stansted Mountfitchet.’
‘Toby jugs?’ she said, quick as a flash, and then starting reeling off lists of stuff I’d never even thought of as kitsch. ‘Your pencil case, that pink clock, your tea cosy, egg cosies, for God’s sake, those biscuit tins…’
I zoned out. The thing is, the person responsible for all this is my mother. Of course. Aren’t mothers to blame for everything? She was the one, when I was a child, who adorned our living room walls with those portraits of green-faced oriental women. She felt they teamed nicely with the carved cedar wood lamp stand (it looks as if it has a dragon twining around it). It was my dad who bought the G plan furniture, though. I’m not sure who started the collection of Bunnikins rabbits and china Disney models from The Lady and the Tramp. By the time I’d got to withering teenage mode I don’t think either of them would admit to buying any of the by-now chipped cutesy figurines, even though they were permanently on display (and religiously dusted).
Back to reality and my daughter was still droning on about my shameless lack of taste. ‘A caravan,’ she said sudddenly. ‘We had a bloody caravan. And you can’t get much more kitsch than that.’
‘We had some good holidays in that,’ I said.
‘It was lined in green brocade,’ she said. ‘With bobble fringes on the pelmets.’
‘Yes, but you cut those off,’ I argued.
‘Because I have good taste,’ she said.
And you can’t really argue with that, she does have good taste. But kitsch is cool right now. The seventies are in. And she has just bought herself a pair of platform sandals in wet-look leather. Cool? Straight out of the fridge, daddio.
When I decided I was going to be a writer I had the same attitude as Snoopy. I didn’t exactly start off with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ but I felt the only way to keep my reader’s attention was to be as dramatic as possible. It was a romantic novel, so I wanted it chock full of all the best stuff I could possibly think of.
I gave my characters dramatic names, Rock and Sian (Rock????? What was I thinking?) (and Sian? How many people outside Wales know how to pronounce Sian?) I put them in a lush place (an island in the Caribbean). I made him a pirate who was a property developer on the side (glamour and wealth, you see) and her a proud but virginal librarian. I even had a dissolute Hollywood film star as the sexy beast who comes between them. How could I possibly fail?
The answer to that one of course, is, how could I not? It was a complete mess. I was so taken up with assembling all these marvellous elements, that I completely forgot about my characters’ feelings. I rode roughshod over them. I made my librarian go windsurfing, when really, all she wanted was a cup of tea and a lie-down. I made my pirate fall for a woman who might know the Dewey Decimal System backwards, but couldn’t even find her way to her own hotel bedroom. In any case it was obvious that he would much rather use his dark brooding charm on the hotel receptionist. And as for old Hollywood sexy boots; why on earth was he waylaying a colourless limey when every woman he met (apart from her) was throwing herself at his feet? Why indeed.
The point of course is that you don’t construct stories by just chucking stuff together. You start with one character, what they look like, how old they are, where they live, what their secrets are – and who they are keeping these secrets from. That way, everything pretty much falls into place.
If I were going to do the decent thing, I would go back to that original manuscript of mine and liberate those characters, stuck helplessly for the last 20 years in a haunted plantation house in the middle of a storm. I would allow Sian to find an old sofa to sleep on for the night, before ringing the police in the morning and getting back in time for her trip home to Bracknell. Rock could stumble about for a bit and then get knocked unconscious by a banging shutter (they always have banging shutters in storm-tossed Caribbean houses) to be awoken by the Hollywood sex god bathing his face. And they could live happily ever after running an interior design service in LA. There. Sorted. Sorry it took so long.
I want to tell you a true story. It’s about a man I once worked with. We were both subs (copyeditors) on a daily newspaper. The work was hard, the shifts were long, but we all had four-day rotas, which meant that the blocks of graft were cemented with decent layers of days off. There was also a pub nearby which we went to at any given opportunity, and we got paid very well, so you needn’t feel too sorry for us.
And then, horror of horrors. A new editor arrived. He was ok, as far as editors go. The only limitation being that, on Thursdays, he would speak only Latin. Nobody knew why. But then that is the way, and the right, of kings and editors. ‘Quintus ubi est argumentum?’ he would demand, of no one in particular, as the newsroom hummed with shouted obscenities from the sweating subs who might have been able to write the Queen’s English, but who generally spoke only Anglo Saxon.
Every afternoon at four a news conference was held in the editor’s office, where he and his assistant editors and department editors would meet to chew the fat over what was going to be the front page splash, and what would be relegated to page two, and so on. You get the picture. It was very soon noticed that, at these meetings, the editor would always drink out of a stripey blue mug, of which he seemed very fond.
And then came the dreadful news. We were to lose our four-day shifts; we were to work longer; and what is more, we would not be getting a pay rise. The editor proclaimed (on a Wednesday, I think) that it all made Perfect Sense, that it was an Efficiency Saving, and that he didn’t see what any of us could possibly complain about.
The next day he arrived at conference looking rather harassed. ‘Vidistis mea hyacintho stripey Mug?’ he asked his assembled henchpersons. The unthinkable had happened. His mug had gone missing. The execs looked at each other rather helplessly. The sports editor, who had taken a first in theology from Oxford, said, ‘Here, have my mug,’ but the editor shook his head and sat down, trembling, at the head of the table.
Over the next few days the change in him was marked. He had a wild look about him, and from our vantage point in the middle of the newsroom, we could see him button-holing various high-up members of staff and asking if they had seen his mug.
One day, not long after that, his secretary took his afternoon mail into his office, and a few seconds later there was a terrible cry. The editor stumbled out of his office, holding a padded envelope in one hand, and in the other, was a blue and white stripey china handle. ‘My mug!’ he wailed. ‘My mug!’ Forgetting that, since this was, after all, a Thursday, he should have said, ‘Mug meum! Mug meum!’ Still, he was in extremis.
Worse was to come. There had been a note in the envelope too. It said, in cut-out newspaper words, ‘Give us our four-day shifts back, or the mug gets it.’
You would think, wouldn’t you, that there would be a happy ending to this story. That the editor would see the error of his ways, and give us our shifts back, and consequently be reunited with his mug. But it was not to be. Despite his love for his mug, the editor stood firm on the new shifts, and dark days arrived for the subs of this particular newspaper.
I said at the start that this story was about a man I once worked with. I have neglected to mention him until now, because I know for a fact that he was the mug-napper, and I cannot describe him for fear the editor, even now, might exact some kind of revenge. One must never underestimate the power of the press. However, the reason I have told this story is that, shortly after this episode, my workmate disappeared. He had a tiff, apparently, with his girlfriend, who was either a baroness or a sculptor, I can’t remember which, and disappeared from our lives after a night out in a tapas bar near Waterloo Station. So if you are the man I mean, and you are reading this, get in touch. I still have the handkerchief you lent me that night, and stuck to it are a couple of cut-out words that you probably mislaid while concocting your message. I couldn’t possibly say what they are, except that they are most definitely Anglo Saxon.