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At a wedding anniversary party (15 years, going strong) the bride was talking about her husband’s good qualities. She listed the ordinary-ish things: his kindness, his sense of humour, his home-making skills. But the word she led with made me bristle slightly: what she loved about him most was the fact that he was cool.
He was always the best dancer, he always lifted any environment he came into through his sheer sense of style, he shone with something that seemed to impress everyone, he was always the person people wanted to stand next to and be close to. She made her husband’s cool sound substantial, admirable, almost moral.
I always thought cool was a false God. I like strong feelings, which will always be its antithesis. I like show tunes. More and more what I like most in other people is warmth. But at school cool was everything. The pressure to be it, to do it, was overwhelming. You would audition a new garment in front of a trusted friend before daring to be seen in it. You’d do the same with a phrase or a quip.
Some girls in my class got up early and came to school in amazing confections – they knew fashion designers and fashion design students – and sometimes they waltzed in straight in from the club of that moment, which was called Taboo. These girls were haughty, hoity and full of disdain, irritable, aloof, dismissive and both named after Shakespearean heroines. Everyone adored them.
Yet, although I have never been cool, these girls quite liked me. I think they found me soothing. Sometimes they tried to make me over in their image, with varying degrees of success.
In a super-cool environment being square can sometimes go over surprisingly well. You’re a tiny bit fascinating. You confuse people. When as a child I did a tap dance routine at a family birthday party, the assorted gathering of high-fashion post-punk students, musicians and artists found me so soft and sincere it was a tiny bit shocking.
This week a trip to a skateboard shop to buy a board for my daughter’s seventh birthday made me think again about cool. Deep down its playground allure still lurks in me.
The discussions relating to the trip to the skate shop had a different tone from any other shopping trip we have ever undertaken. There was a kind of awe and high seriousness, the sense of a small crisis. Both parents were required. There was no room for humour, puns, horse play, irony or high jinks. We would make our little pilgrimage completely straight-faced. Somehow it would be a privilege just to be inside that shop and we mustn’t blow it. Say nothing, I told myself. It was a bit like preparing to meet someone very very famous. God maybe.
I auditioned a few sentences in my mind. My brother skated as a teenager and I knew a good board came in parts and that we had to get a deck and trucks and bearings and wheels. I knew I had to make it clear it was for a little girl. “Are the trucks stable or will they need regular adjusting?” I tried out the words in my head. I had that feeling I sometimes get in Paris when I remember a bit of choice vocabulary such as the word for lighter (le briquet) and then organise my entire evening so that a random smoker asks me for a light and I can say, “Sorry, no, I don’t have one.” (Quite hard to organise, that.)
Skateboarding is complicated. It’s a passion for people who are unenthusiastic about enthusiasm. It’s both soaring and low-key in the extreme. There’s something entirely deadpan about it, yet the practitioners get completely obsessed. My brother worked for 20p an hour in a fish shop on Saturdays to buy his kryptonic wheels, singly.
“People who love skating see the rest of life as something that happens in the margins,” a friend told me. “They’re far more involved in it than any musicians I know. I guess every moment is unrepeatable: each wave, each crack in the pavement. It’s a life of epiphanies.”
In the shop I felt 100 years old. The assistants were laconic but not unhelpful. We did the deed, without disgrace. We drank coffee afterwards, for strength, as though it was brandy, and then I walked through Covent Garden in a dress and heels clutching the skateboard to my person gingerly.
The next day, in Regent’s Park, dodging geese, lake and swans, running in a denim skirt and a sweatshirt printed with the word MADAME, I held my daughter’s hand as she had her first ride, and there was no reason in the world not to smile.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt
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