Essays: Carving a career in style: Robert Elms |
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Carving a career in style: Robert Elms

by Jonathan Meades

There is, of course, nothing more conventional than youthful non-conformism. Rebecca West noted this of Zelda Fitzgerald more than half a century ago. Youth culture has become institutionalized, and, however much the protagonists of one wave may abhor their immediate predecessors, they're all pretty much the same if you're on the outside: sartorial waywardness; impatience with the 'straight' world of parents, businessmen, authority; untutored hedonism on a budget. These movements, though they may promiscuously pretend to the idea of community, are rigorously hierarchical. There is always an élite whose mores, clothes, catch-phrases are the models for an army of acolytes. There is always a laureate, an instant 'historian'-cum-proselytizer, the one with the words and a talent for promoting himself as the embodiment of an ideal.

The spivs had James Curtis (whose novels, like The Gilt Kid, Eric Partridge praised as fine repositories of slang). The Teds had no one because they couldn't read and write; the proto-Mods had Colin MacInnes, who was old enough to be their father but wasn't interested in generation or generation gaps; the beats over there had Kerouac and the beats over here had Royston Ellis; the Chelsea wide boys had Robin Cook who could really write (and whose novel, The Crust On Its Uppers, Eric Partridge praised as the finest repository of slang since The Gilt Kid); hippiedom had Richard Neville; punk had Julie Burchill, who is still the right side of 25. The New Romantics, or whatever they're called this month, have Robert Elms.

'You're Robert Elms. Aren't you? You're Robert Elms.' This is a girl in a windowpane check sack and dinky leather cap. This is in a pub at Cambridge Circus where Robert Elms is drinking Grolsch lager (he likes the bottles) with brandy chasers. He has already told me he gets recognized, 'even in New York'. Dinky Leather Cap and her chums want to start a magazine. Robert Elms has a chair fetched for him; if he isn't a king in the hermetic, self-referential world of 'style magazines' he is certainly a godfather, and a pretty prolix one. He doesn't try to faze these kids (schmuttered-up foot soldiers in the army of acolytes), but he does so nonetheless. Ozalids, point sizes, separations, the technical griff — stuff they don't know about, stuff they've not even thought about, don't want to think about. What they want to know about is clothes, records, his really famous mates in Spandau Ballet (he invented the name). He obliges: they learn about the 'mystique' of disc jockeys, about how anyone can do anything, about the wallies who run television, about the spuriousness of the notion of originality. A girl with a shadow of a lisp asks him solemnly about 'subjectivity' and he tells her, 'I'm an entertainer.' Then another girl, smothered in diamanté and gold threads, with the air of a soon-to-be-aged art tart, gets on to what she wants to know about, which happens to be what Robert Elms is happy to tell her about: Robert Elms, His Life and Times.

When you are 24, three years ago seems a long time back. The nuances of style within your group seem important. The flat-top haircuts and zoot suits of 1981 seem manifestations of a distant age. A spear-point collar that was just dandy then seems hopelessly vieux jeu now. Robert Elms subscribes to all this, and he knows it. He has a sense of his own history and he has pulled off the trick of making his own history appear to be the history of his generation up to now: the socio-pop history of youth cults is that of their leaders, not the acolytes.

Robert Elms was born on the Burnt Oak council estate in Hendon in 1959, the youngest of three brothers, one of whom is a milkman. The other is a company director but Robert Elms is not quite certain what the company is. His father, who died when he was six, was a steel erector, a good union man. The son is too (National Union of Journalists), and he doesn't confuse socialism with puritanism. His mother used to serve in Woolworth's, now she works for a mail order firm. He is a North London chauvinist, tells a story of the ignominy a friend's family suffered when the son married south of the river, can't understand why his company director brother migrated south, still lives north himself. 'I live in sin with a black girl in Tottenham.'

He was apprised of the existence of teen tribes early on: 'My big brother was a Mod, the other was a skinhead, first time round that was, '69.' In the last year of the eleven-plus he won a place at Orange Hill Grammar School which was situated in the middle of his estate. 'Politically and morally it was wrong. Not grammar schools - but the fact that they only expected to send one kid from my primary school. That coloured my thinking. It's inequality of expectation that's so bad, much worse than inequality of opportunity.' The few other working-class boys at this school set in a ghetto ('lots of them never leave the place in their whole life') did what was expected of them: they became cab drivers, market traders and commissars of the black economy. 'Not real villains, mind. I hate those bastards. I hate the way the middle class patronizes them.'

Synchronicity being what it is, the iron-pumped figure of John McVicar brawns out from the silent telly in Robert Elms's sitting room (exposed plaster, exploding horse-hair). 'What a poser. What a way to be a celebrity. Pimping off having been banged up.' Sound up. Mr McVicar tells us how to dispose of bullion, should we have any. Robert Elms mutters: 'They might have a code but you just want to ask Jimmy Boyle how far it stretches. They'll cut anyone.' Robert Elms believes in self help, not in helping yourself.

He did his tertiary education at the London School of Economics and did gruelling night school at the 'portable' clubs that began to spring up in the late Seventies. 'I was always a soul boy. When Otis Redding was killed my brother wore a black arm-band. But when I was at school there were no clubs in London. We went right out to the suburbs. To Canvey, where I dressed like Bryan Ferry in his GI outfit. Tie tucked in my shirt. You could really pull if you looked like that.' He despised most of his schoolmates. 'They wanted to look dirty. Greatcoats with progressive albums stuck under their arms. Long hair.' This year's model Robert Elms has long hair. 'Yeh, but that's different. They had long hair for the wrong reasons.' So there. 'I got sick of my flat-top so I said to Ollie [coif architect to the New Romantics] that I wanted to get rid of it. But I wanted to stay Germanic. So he said General Custer.'

Before we go out Robert Elms sprays his mane with reeking lacquer and inspects himself in a full-length mirror on the landing of the converted fire station where his flat is. 'Every home should have one,' he says of the mirror. His vanity is winsome, because overt. He and his peers are narcissists without shame, dandies without artifice. We're talking here not about High Dandyism, the stuff of exquisites who are sui generis and laws unto themselves, but merely about an overriding preoccupation to be ahead of the fashion game. This is what Robert Elms is strong on. This is why he is a sort of arbiter of taste (you might think he's a victim of taste, but he's too fly). This is why the tabloid 'music' press mocks him and dumps on him. The factionalism of this world is laughable, pathetic. Someone or other described rock journalism as 'people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read'.

The Face is the allegedly 'important' magazine in which Elms launched himself. It calls itself 'The World's Best Dressed Magazine' and every month analyses in fascinated detail that small corner of youth culture where art college, pop and design meet. I'm not sure if the 60,000 people who buy it can read and I'm not sure if all of its contributors can write. But both groups have a talent for wearing Rayban sunshades and for understanding that frivolity is a serious business. Robert Elms can write, he can make phrases, he can be very funny: these are rare attributes in his milieu though whether they are actually recognized within that milieu is moot. Nick Logan, who edits The Face, says things like: 'More than anything he's got good taste... He's there in the firing line... His taste is good... It's been proved he's got good taste.' And Peter York, who is inevitably part of the cast in an article like this, the Sam Kydd of 'style', says: 'I like him. He has the same views on many things as me... I think he's on the right track, given that he's on my wavelength.'

Well, maybe, but Robert Elms is not among the disciples of Tom Wolfe (he's hardly read him, and isn't keen). He believes that he belongs to a predominantly oral, pub tradition of anecdote and one liners: 'I'm a poor representative of the guy who stands in a pub and talks. They're much better than me. They're blinding storytellers. It's just that I've had an education.' His self-alignment with this tradition is, as he must know, his escape route from his present small world into another world, one of lurid local colour and lowish life: this is the stuff that the novel he's working on is thick with. It's called In Search of The Crack — 'crack' is London Irish for a good time, preferably one spent with mates in a Kilburn pub on Friday night. Espousal of this pub tradition also gives him access to the mainstream. Just now he is, by his own admission, taken up as 'the token youth', but he has the nous and the talent to get the far side of that. Quite what will happen to the army of acolytes he leaves behind is anybody's guess — anybody's that is apart from Robert Elms's, for his prescription for and analysis of his generation is as goofily, wildly optimistic as those of the hippies he so despises.

He is way off the mark about the technologically fecund and sybaritic life his dole-prone generation is going to lead: there just aren't enough videos and frilly shirts to go round, it's as simple as that. While he preaches 'creative' laziness, he actually works hard. While he properly scorns both the fly-blown nihilism of the punks and the squalid communal guilt of the denimed protest people, he offers little more than a materially acquisitive version of the grossly indulgent do-your-own-thing 'philosophy'. Awkward questions about the creation of wealth are ducked or fudged with unconvincing pronouncements about 'Britain leading the world into post-industrialism where no one works'.

Things are not going to be that easy for the army of acolytes. Pace Robert Elms — who, it need hardly be further emphasized, is atypical of his coevals — they don’t all have the talent to compose apothegmatic half-truths — (‘Prejudice is a short cut to wisdom. The right society is founded on the right prejudices’, and ‘I believe in original goodness — well tainted. Sin is like sauces. It’s what makes people interesting’) — and build a career on them.