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February 17, 2006

Richard D. North on two very different dream worlds: The House of Chanel and Lefties on BBC4

Posted by Richard D. North

The House of Chanel
BBC4, Wednesdays, 25th January - 22nd February 2006

BBC4, Wednesdays, 8th, 15th, 22nd February 2006

Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of the just published Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - looks at two very different fantasy worlds, that of Chanel and that of the Left.

Two worlds of dreams and fantasies. Two visions of femininity. Two accounts of working by hand and brain. Back to back, The House of Chanel followed by Lefties is a perfect match as well as the largest leap from glitter to grunge you could imagine.

Doubtless, the class relations of Chanel's couture business would make a decent socialist's eyes water. But it would be a cold-hearted leveller who wasn't seduced by the whimsical, razor-sharp Karl Lagerfeld and his cool way of demanding the impossible of the devoted, tough women in the airy attic workshop reached by twisting stairs issuing from his lair. His clunky rings might be the vestiges of knightly armour. It's a fairy-tale world of peasant labour and princess glamour. A fat cobbler with Kosovari dentition scuttled about seeing to the trademark Chanel shoes. This cheery goblin would be played by Jim Broadbent in any Baz Luhrmann movie which was woven out of this fabulous tale. You could as clearly smell the glue in his micro-factory as you could feel every pricked finger amongst the seamstresses. What price a speck of their blood on that costly gear? The ladies were superstitious to a degree as they wolfed down bon-bons and conjured sketches into breathtaking clothes. They positively feared the spells a dropped pair of scissors might bring down.

Do you remember Paul Gallico's Flowers for Mrs Harris (or: Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris, for the US market)? The Fulham char who left her variously dodgy employers to buy just one Dior outfit would have loved this piece.

She would have been amazed when we took a spin out of town to the horse stud where a little old bent lady could not get on to her contract with Chanel until she'd hauled the hay bales in. This was the braid-maker, with her home-made machine and her secrets which no young person could be bothered to learn. To see this hick weave edging and piping in sight of stables and dogs, and to know the reverence with which it would be handled by seamstresses high above fashionable Paris was to have a bizarre essay in how hard it is to judge any human folly provided it is extravagant, luxurious and absurd as wholly ridiculous.

Were the 1970s Lefties half so romantic, inspired or influential? What would they have made of Chanel? As people sceptical of industrial society, they might have liked the absence of the mechanical in Chanel's world. They ought in theory to like the sheer pleasure Chanel brings, and not least to the masses, who can gawk at it all at minimal cost. Feminists might have been delighted that high fashion has never had much to do with pleasing "red-blooded" men.

Vanessa Engle's first film anatomised the people who squatted a Lambeth street in the 1970s and into the 1980s. It seems to have been a narrow world divided into Marxist and Freudian tribes into sloganisers and primal-screamers. Only Pete Cooper now a fiddle player seems to have belonged to both. His lovely singing nearly made one like those nasal whinges of the primordially dissident.

This film was a splendid bit of work, though in a curious way it wasn't about "The Left" but about one unrepresentative and not very common brand of radical, amongst whom anyway there were plenty of sub-divisions. I imagine that the academic and literary left regarded this unwashed Oxbridge brigade with almost the scepticism that the working class socialist must have. Actually, and the programme didn't much bother with this, the Villa Road squatters were only a very small part of what in any case turned out to be at most a marginal movement. They were a model for the later undemocratic Swampy luddites. And all we know so far is that (leave aside the animal rights loonies and perhaps the anti-GM campaigners) the direct action activists have never been a significant force in the complicated war between the progressives and the preservationists.

They may have been fairly red, but squatters were sort of green, sort of anarchist, sort of utopian, revolutionaries. Above all, perhaps, they were a particular form of urban hippie. Which means they were a sub-set of the Bohemian. They were swimming in Bloomsbury sexual waters. They were the latest manifestation of the Romantic desire to throw off convention. They seem to have believed in remaking people, especially by sloughing off the nuclear family.

At the time, I was enraged by people who despised their own parents and class, and their sexual and familial relations. I thought their social inheritances whether aristocratic, bourgeois or working class - and not least the underrated transformations of the 1940s and 50s - were far more important than their self-righteous revolutionism.

This film powerfully reminded me why I felt so strongly about them. They swapped the ordinary complications of family life for a really nasty dysfunctional pack mentality. I thought they were humourless and not harmless. Lefties also recalled how predatorially the strong amongst these people fed on the inadequacy and neediness of the weaker brethren who wandered in for a piece of the revolution. They may have toughened up some of their victims: this was psychic boot-camp. But I bet there were losers, too. I'm all for talking therapies, but moderation and modesty seem to be the golden rules and this lot didn't have either.

As an example of the people who have stuck by their 1970s creeds, we had an old Dutchman who has so far gone back to nature as to live in a Buckminster Fuller geodesic yurt inside his Victorian squat. He denounces lavatories whilst one of the women "a deep, deep green" denounces fridges, and turns them off wherever she goes.

The die-hards seem to be a minority, with the film revealing how many of the squatters now sheepishly half agree that they were barking up the wrong tree. Many of the men have pretty well re-assimilated.

The women seemed to have a higher-percentage of refuseniks. But then women often do seem to take ideological matters more seriously than men, once they take them seriously at all.

Engle's second film, Angry Wimmin, reminded us how amazingly serious the radical feminists were (and some remain). Linda Bellos was amongst the fiercest, but had the redeeming feature of describing herself as "very, very scary". There was the glimmer of amused self-awareness there. The oddest feature of many of these women several of whom have variously re-integrated with the real world and even with mankind was that several are co-habiting with us in disguise. They persist, they said, in being really, really angry. No, one insisted, anger doesn't quite do it: rage was her condition.

It's a good thing that we have largely given up trying to pin down to the nth degree what it is that is wrong with men. Indeed, after half a century of knocking them, it seems quite likely that the next 50 years will see a restoration of adult masculinity retuned a bit, I grant you but liked and admired, where we can find it.

And yet, and yet. In their heyday the Lefties were determined to be unattractive and alienating. The years have added what may not be welcome to many of them: a certain charm. They were and are ardent, and they may even have been public-spirited, by their lights. We owe them very little, but if one can be condescendingly respectful, that seems a decent approach to them.

The squatters' and the feminists' ideas seem to have been rooted in both a political and a personal negativity. Who'd have thunk it? The House of Chanel brings more well-being into the world.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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