Resilient Grey Flannel
2020-11-02 • Nottingham, England • Reprinted with the author’s permission.
Last week, I was asked if I’d ever smelled, heard or saw something that reminded me of someone or some place or a time in my life.
I’ve worn the same aftershave for thirty-five years. It’s called Grey Flannel and it’s made by Geoffrey Beene.
When I was a young boy, my mum worked for a man who had a ladies’ fashion shop. He sold off-the-rack wedding dresses and also made them by hand. His shop always smelled of this aftershave, as he’d walk around throwing it all over the carpet every morning. It’s a mixture of violets, roses, cinnamon, and sandalwood, and from the first moment I inhaled its heady aroma I was hooked.
The man’s name was Pip. He was the first openly gay man I had ever met and he had style oozing from every pore of his finely-boned body. He was a little light in his loafers, but he didn’t mince—he filet mignon’ed down the main street, unashamedly, and fabulously camp in a Midlands mining town that didn’t take kindly to people who were different. I adored him. He was my secret role model (and he probably still is).
I got slapped a few times for being effeminate even though I really tried to hide it. I was cornered by prefects along the longest corridor of the comprehensive school I attended and they took turns in punching me in the stomach until I was sick. The bastards then laughed at me and rubbed my face in my vomit. I washed myself down and felt the bruises form. I couldn’t get rid of the stench of sick from my nostrils, even though I washed and rinsed and repeated, until I got home and uncapped the aftershave and took lungfuls of comfort from my very own bottle of Eau de Homo.
Years later, I was set upon by a trio of skinheads when I left a gay bar. The memories of the prefects in that fucking corridor came back, but this time I fought back. I kicked one full in the face, chinned another, and slapped the last one in the neck so hard that he fell to his knees, unable to breathe. I was picked up by the police on my way home, arrested and charged with ABH (actual bodily harm). A court date was set and I sought legal counsel. I’d broken a nose, put a hairline fracture in another’s cheekbone, and the third claimed I had caused long term breathing issues. Though I’d taken a pummeling myself, I didn’t sustain so much as a bruise.
My solicitor told me that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I could use being gay to my advantage. He was going to argue self-defence, that I had been queer-bashed leaving a known gay establishment and was fighting for my life. He advised me to dress a little bit camp and heighten my effete mannerisms in court.
I turned up to the proceedings in high-waisted flares, with a pink Macclesfield silk shirt, matching chiffon scarf, and a handbag. I reeked of Grey Flannel and sashayed so hard I almost threw my back out. It worked. Before we appeared in the open court the trio of degenerates saw me and asked their solicitor to plea bargain with mine for damages rather than have their friends see the nancy boy who had beaten them shitless. I refused to pay a penny and, luckily, they decided to not go through with proceedings. Probably out of embarrassment.
I am now what is known in the gay world as a mother. Younger queens turn to mothers for advice, for support, and sometimes for stories about our history. I have doled out to my children more bottles of Grey Flannel than I can count. I’ve spoken of Pip, of my numerous fights to be my fabulous self, and how self-belief can help one climb mountains that have been put in the way.
I wear that aftershave every day but I’ve become nose blind to it on myself. Every now and again, though, I catch a note of it on the air and I wonder if it’s from the neck of one of my protegés, or from someone else who has fought the battles of life and come out smelling sweeter for it.