THE BLOG

Signifying Nothing

03/02/2014 15:31 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 10:59 BST

It was when I saw the suggestion in a fashion magazine, late last night, that animal print might be a suitable style statement for a trip to the zoo, that I knew the game was up.

Living your life as if you're playing a part in a drama is nothing new. Shakespeare talked about it, in the comic melancholy of As You Like It and the tragic conclusion of Macbeth. It's nothing new, either, to dress for the occasion, but now it seems as if it's being upgraded to some kind of costume drama. Animal print for the zoo: just to blend into your surroundings, dahling, and let the animals know who's boss. Adopt an animal projects are just so last year... in 2014 we mean business, and that means telling the animals that if they don't entertain us as we stroll around the zoo, we could like, totally wear them.

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And it doesn't stop there. There are jaunty matelot stripes and anchor patterns for a day out at the seaside. Urban camouflage and combat trousers for the pavements of the city. Tweeds, waxed jackets, cashmere and Hunter wellies for those country hotel weekends. What's next, I wonder, in this sartorial cliché bingo? A pashmina fashioned from a string of onions for your long weekend in France, draped somehow like a tiny cardigan for the visual embodiment of a Gallic shrug? Give. Me. Strength. Or rather: give me fashion advice that doesn't make every opportunity to leave the house feel like a fancy dress event...

And yet, maybe I'm being hypocritical. Depressing glimpses in much-avoided workplace mirrors remind me now and then that yes - I'm really starting to dress just like a teacher, during these endless winter months. There are cardigans, knitted dresses, sensible mid-heeled boots, and reading glasses stowed conveniently in deference to age and eye-strain. Off-duty, I dress so much for invisibility that I'm always startled when shop assistants enquire if they can help me. Am I playing and dressing for a type-cast part through the working week, then retreating at other times to the sidelines of narration, not quite certain of grammatical person or physical persona? I've always been someone you probably don't notice, in the quiet corner of the café, half-smiling at something observed or read, sipping the plain Americano, probably a bit pale and probably wearing something dark, but not so much that it might seem like a statement...

When I'm teaching one of my favourite books, The Great Gatsby, I can never resist admitting that I empathise with its narrator, Nick. The discussion grew animated last week. 'But does Nick even exist?' somebody asked, as the January storms battered the classroom windows. 'Is Nick really a person at all, or is he just a narrative device? Would Nick even have a story to tell if he hadn't met Gatsby? Or is Nick's story really Gatsby's story, and if he didn't have that, he'd really have nothing left to say?' I could hear my classroom clock ticking as the thoughts echoed through our minds...

Maybe none of us has a story until we collide with circumstance. Maybe we gain narrative perspective only when we meet people who cause us happiness, despair, anxiety, laughter, tears, and find a part to play only through colliding with someone else's narrative. Yet if nobody has defining tales to tell, how do we find ourselves playing roles in one another's lives? Maybe that's the alchemy which turns the base metals of meaningless encounters into the noble narrative, bringing a universal solvent of meaning to what we say and do. Maybe we really are just walk-on actors on a stage, dressed in the costumes which best befit our parts. Who hasn't had the nightmare about being clothes-free in a boardroom, or had that irrational fear of turning up at work wearing their slippers, or odd shoes? We worry about dress-down days or just how formal a dress code is meant to be. We suffer agonies that we might get it wrong. We might miss a cue, or fluff our lines; think that we're the tragic hero, but turn out merely to be the Fool...

Another week at work is starting. I've polished my sensible, mid-heel boots and prepared teacher-clothing, just like I've prepared my lessons and packed lunch. I'm happy on the sidelines of students' futures, encouraging, cajoling, and making clear that, given that I look quite like a teacher, if they misbehave, I could Iike, totally give them extra work and look at them over my reading glasses in a way they don't enjoy. This week and every week, we have 'our exits and our entrances', our 'sound and fury', our narrative retreats. Be there; do that; wear the costume.

But even so. I still don't think I'd wear animal print to the zoo...