Lisa looks back on transformation she saw in stories growing up and the life-changing magic of underwear


Far and few

Far and few are the lands where the Jumblies live

Their heads are green and their hands are blue

And they went to sea in a sieve.

Boys had Keegan, girls had Cassidy. I had the Jumblies. In our family’s possession was a battered old copy of Edward Lear’s poems. Not as battered, mark you, as the family Bible, whose cover had been ripped off in some forgotten theological dispute and began with a terrifying frontispiece in which my Scottish ancestors scarcely had time to be born at the top of the page before they died near the bottom. But the Lear was more comforting to a small boy with secret inclinations that were so secret, even he didn’t know about them. There were the limericks, naturally, and the grotesque, grinning figures dancing around in strange attitudes. They were all quite mad. Better were the long poems with their plaintive title characters – equally grotesque but somehow more sympathetic: The Pobble who has no toes; The Owl And The Pussycat; and The Dong, The Dong, The Dong… The Dong with a luminous nose.

I sank slowly, like the Jumblies’ sieve, into their world, accepting its distorted, Alice-like inversions as I accepted gravity in my own. In their world and others I found a peace, of sorts. Things were weird, but weird made sense.
When the stories ended, my family began, or, more accurately, argued. They were a turbulent tribe, continually wracked by insurrection, rebellion, religious foment, revolution, counter-revolution, and sometimes all of them at once. I would retire to my bedroom with a book, or, if that wasn’t possible, to my parents’ bedroom where I would ponder mysteries such as mum’s suede jacket with the fringed arms that she disappointingly never wore. And the drawer that contained the first bra I ever saw (and indeed, later, wore).

In the stories I loved, transformations into things rich and strange were common – hair to feathers, arms to wings, human to non-human; even a tree or donkey on a temporary basis. I wouldn’t have minded being a donkey, temporarily. It would have been fun; I could have eaten carrots and kicked people I didn’t like without social disgrace. These were states to look forward to; a sense of progress. 

Puberty, sadly, turned out differently. When it came, it was more like Doctor Who, where transformations were equally common, but always into something horrible. Characters turned into killer robots, marauding cabbages, ants with personality disorders or, most horrifying of all, Conservative MPs (sadly, that episode was banned as being too scary ever to be shown on British television). I sprouted, I smelled, I stretched, my skin exploded into a constellation of spots. I used to like singing, but suddenly my voice plunged, like a guy stepping through elevator doors without the lift being there and going “Aaaaaaaahhhh” in descant as he proceeded down the shaft.

Worst of all was the Thing. It was as if I woke up one morning and there it was – lying insolently between my legs as if it owned the place. I couldn’t get rid of it and I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s not as if the Thing knew what it was doing either, but whenever it did, unpleasantness or embarrassment usually followed. So it was I found myself inhabiting a body comprising a ragbag of unwelcome and awkward characteristics – a realisation that was to govern most of my life as a dog.

In part one, I wrote about the importance of fabrics in my early life. As I grew older, these feelings coalesced from impressions into specific items. In short, I discovered underwear. The moment I first put on any item of women’s clothing is etched in my brain like a creation myth. I was in the bathroom, aged about 11, I suppose, and put my pyjamas in the laundry box. Inside at the top was a pair of my big sister’s knickers – pale turquoise (a colour I loathe), elasticated, with a lace-like pattern. They were probably from Marks in those days. On impulse, I put them on and something happened: I was electrified. All the lights went on. If my life until then had been endlessly tuning the dial on an old-fashioned radio, trying to pick up a signal amidst the white noise, this was London. Dum-dum-dum-DUM.

The other epiphany also came in association with a textile – the shaggy petrol green carpet we kids used to roll around in, or lie fixed for hours watching the telly. One evening – a long time ago in a provincial town far, far away – a pair of red lips on a black background appeared on the screen. I watched transfixed as Patricia Quinn (owner of the said lips) synched through the first song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Flash Gordon was there, in silver underwear, and suddenly, so was I. 

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