Departmental dangers and delights
Last night I fulfilled a long-held ambition: I watched the film In Fabric – which just goes to show how reduced our ambitions have had to become.
It’s one of those films that I read a review of and thought ‘I just have to see this,’ but it didn’t get a wide release in 2019 and then failed to show up on Netflix or BFI Player. I was thrilled when it was shown on BBC4 and then ended up on iPlayer.
What’s it like? Well, think David Lynch meets Are You Being Served? It starts out normal enough, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sheila, choosing a dress to wear on dates she is arranging through a lonely hearts column. The department store she buys it from seems a bit odd and old-fashioned, but not that far removed from Morley’s of Brixton. Eventually, though, you can’t ignore the weirdness seeping in. The shop assistants at Dently & Soper may not sport lilac-coloured beehives like Mrs Slocombe, but the black lacquered confections on their heads are serious contenders. Sheila’s bosses at the bank where she works spout the usual business balls, but why is their office decorated with thick swags of gold-tasselled velvet drapes?
When I read up about the film afterwards, it turned out that the inspiration for it had been director Peter Strickland’s fear of department stores. I couldn’t believe this – why would you be afraid of a department store? Yet Mr Verity understood. As a small boy he had got lost in John Barnes in Finchley Road and been obliged to approach a kind lady and say ‘I’m lost, madam, will you take me home?’ (I’m tempted to say that this is a trick he has been pulling ever since, but that would be a lie.) Then I remembered one of the funniest episodes of Father Ted, in which Ted, Dougal and a band of priests have to find their way out of the lacy jungle of a lingerie department.
So it’s a male/female thing, which I guess is not surprising, since the department store was the first safe public space that ‘respectable’ women could go to on their own. Within its hallowed walls you would not be importuned by threatening men. Better still, as the one with the purchasing power, you even elicited respect. For a woman there could be no more congenial space and, bloke though he was, John Betjeman grasped this: he said that when the end of the world came, he wanted to be in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones, because ‘nothing unpleasant could ever happen there.’
I totally agree. I have to admit that, pre-Covid, John Lewis was my favourite place for meeting up with one particular friend. The first thing we’d do was go for tea and a scone – in summer on the balcony round the café, looking down on the bustle of Oxford Street, but with the roar somewhat distant up at fifth-floor level. We’d follow this with a leisurely trundle down to the ground floor, idly touching stuff along the way. Why, sometimes we’d even buy something! We’d emerge an hour or so later, ready for a drink and perfectly positioned to segue into a play or a film. Happy days!
We never thought about how the gradual disappearance of West End department stores was a harbinger of things to come. How their names resonate across the decades: Marshall and Snelgrove, Bourne and Hollingsworth, Swan and Edgar… And now it seems that that beacon of elegance and gentility, Jenners of Edinburgh, is to close. This will be not so much a hole in the high street, more a gaping chasm in our way of life. For a fitting tribute to the whole department store experience, I refer you to Victoria Wood’s ‘Keep On Shopping’.
But do give In Fabric a whirl, too. It’s funny and horrific, and you’ll learn more about washing machines than you ever thought possible. That’s all I’m saying.