Clive James: ‘At 16, my dress sense was in the first full flower of its baroque glory’

It took me 50 years to learn that I should dress as plainly as possible

The paper has asked me for a photograph of myself at 16. I cant find one: it is as if my chaotic archives had been cleaned out to eliminate all records of myself at an age when my adult dress sense was in the first full flower of its baroque glory.

In particular, shopping for myself, I had obtained a pair of oxblood shoes with quilt tops and foam rubber soles. Before I left the shoe shop I had already discovered that these rubber soles made a squelching noise. But I bought the shoes anyway, liking the look of them.

As I completed the walk to church the following Sunday, I noticed that everybody around the building was facing in my direction. It was because they had heard my shoes from half a mile off. That was the day when I finally abandoned my ambitions to attract the attention of Shirley Atwood, a petite beauty whose tiny round silk hat was always decorated with a fresh sprig of frangipani every Sunday. She had perfect taste.

Here, alas, was conclusive evidence that I had no taste at all. As I squelched towards her out of the distance, I could see her face: usually an enticing sight, but not when it looked as if she was watching a car-crash in slow motion.

My mother insisted that I went on wearing the squelching shoes until they wore out. I got away with them at school because the playground sounded like a war zone anyway, so a mere pair of squeaky shoes attracted no more attention than a couple of mice at the battle of Stalingrad.

There was also the matter of my flat-top haircut, which provided a distraction from the shoes. In that era, everybody at school had some variety of crew-cut except the headmaster, so ones coiffure did not stand out even if it looked like an aircraft carrier for flies. But when I first turned up at church with that flat-top haircut, people doubled up and howled. Shirley Atwood was one of them. Already small, she vanished.

Bad taste is a destiny. It took me about 50 years to learn that I should dress as plainly as possible, and even then I had a tendency towards lime-green shirts.

Nowadays, as doom closes in, I already look as if I am dressed for my funeral. I have at last mastered the art of darkness. But somewhere in the background of my ebbing life those quilt-top shoes are probably still glowing. I never did succeed in wearing them out. They just went quiet. In my mind, though, their image lingers, like the unattainable flowers on Shirley Atwoods little round hat, that shimmering disc from a distant galaxy of grace and judgment.

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