Off Piste: Oh brother ..

Bar matters sartorial, Peter J. Smith has always been eclipsed by his older sibling - but he stayed by him even as he heard the snap of the policeman's rubber glove

December 4, 2008



I've always been aggrieved by my older brother. As an unplanned child of exhausted loins, I've endured a lifetime - literally - of Skipper being better-looking, more articulate and intelligent, infinitely more thoughtful and sensitive; in short (though he is half a foot taller than me, too), a much nicer man.

Everyone agrees - not just family and friends, but everyone. "Here's my brother," I say to a group of what I stupidly consider to be my chums in the pub. "Oooh!" they coo, and hang obsequiously on his every word while I seem to disappear chameleon-like into the wallpaper, and wonder if it would be less embarrassing to make a quiet exit - as if anyone would notice.

"Wasn't your brother a lovely man?" they purr approvingly the following night. I smile and nod and feel the dagger of sibling rivalry twist in my guts. Could such a charming man have an Achilles heel? Thank Christ, yes. For a furniture designer of international reputation, for an aesthete with the most finely tuned sensibility I have ever encountered, with a knowledge of contemporary art and design that would allow him to run Tate Modern with his eyes shut, he is utterly without sartorial nous.

Now, lest I be accused of being Mr Pot, I confess to being somewhat "sartorially challenged" myself. While they glowed about my teaching and chattiness (mainly my chattiness), my American students during my year on exchange at the University of Massachusetts would frequently note in their end-of-course questionnaires that "Dr Smith needs to smarten himself up".

As Simon Goldhill has demonstrated recently in these pages, one of the very few perks of being an academic in the UK is that we don't have to shave, let alone change clothes, too frequently.

Indeed, in the brave new world of corporate higher education where the students are now "clients" and the senior common room has become a "chill-out zone", anyone in a suit is likely to be a university apparatchik surveying the effective use of "plant" (the clipboard is usually a giveaway). As the first law of new university physics states: the more expensive the suit, the more sinister its occupant.

My wardrobe is replete with Cats Protection League haute couture; although I was disappointed to learn recently that, on health and safety grounds, they no longer sell second-hand underpants. There are also plenty of paternal and avuncular cast-offs, and I have just acquired my first pair of slacks with elasticated waistband - one of the very few privileges of moving into middle age.

It has never crossed my mind not to leave the house, in spite of the assiduous ministrations of my other half, wearing an orange T-shirt with a red jumper, a pair of ridiculously oversized shorts (which came from a thankfully obese friend in Arkansas) and my trusty blue boat-shaped Crocs - such a relief not to bother with socks. Frankly, there is nothing less interesting than clothes. The point of all this is that, in terms of our relative attire, my brother makes me look like George Clooney, groomed to perfection and smiling suavely over his latest Rolex from the back cover of National Geographic.

I remember dropping in on Skipper at the stunning house he designed and restored in Lewes (much to my amazement and outrage, perfectly serviceable white double glazing was being torn out so that his hand-built, oak-framed replacements could be installed in their stead).

I found him on all fours, in torrential rain, moving Italian tiles around the pond to achieve the optimum effect - each handmade tile was uniquely coloured, he assured me. I was staggered not only at the attention to detail - which suggested an incipient case of obsessive-compulsive disorder inasmuch as nobody in his right mind would have the slightest desire to jigsaw their 30ft garden in the pouring rain - but more so by the fact that he resembled Lear's Poor Tom. He was actually wearing rags.

One can reason the need for a set of clothes such as an old T-shirt and a pair of jeans, in which one can paint the ceiling or crawl under the car, but Skipper's garments were mere tatters and actually gave the lie to Shakespeare's comforting excess: "Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous" - not in Skipper's case. Indeed, if one is allowed to make further use of Shakespearean dramatis personae, he could easily have been mistaken for Timon foraging for roots.

At the end of six weeks of backpacking around the north of India, Skipper and I flew home on Lufthansa: Delhi, Frankfurt, London. Because my elder sister worked for the company, we travelled as staff with a 90 per cent discount. In recompense for such a hefty perk, we were impelled to obey a single, supreme caveat: we had to look smart.

As staff tickets were all stand-by and economy filled up first, it was not at all unusual to be upgraded. On one occasion, flying back from Venice, there was only a single seat available, which was the jump seat in the cockpit - unthinkable post 9/11. It was most unlikely that the cosmopolitan business suits would wish to spend a nine-hour flight next to passengers as badly dressed and ill-kempt as we were. All we had to do was to spruce up.

After a month and a half sleeping on overnight coaches and in hovels of various kinds, having travelled across the Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh, we were in poor shape. The daily repast of unspeakable stew and tea, in which bobbed lumps of yellow yak fat, had taken its toll. We were emaciated and in need of a fry-up.

Skipper sported a cummerbund of large red welts as a result of his bed containing a swarm of incensed lice. I had acquired a dangerous dose of amoebic dysentery (and remained, impressively, on the national database of patients with notifiable diseases for the next six months - now there's a laptop you wouldn't want to find on the train). If we were going to be allowed even into a Lufthansa cargo compartment, we were in serious need of a makeover.

The night before our flight to Frankfurt, I unpacked my virgin Bic razor and set out an unworn shirt (complete with all its buttons) and a clean pair of trousers. I travelled with socks in those days, and they, too, had been lovingly carried halfway around the world in pristine condition solely to be worn on the flight home.

As the evening wore on and I successfully sloughed off six week's worth of encrusted filth, I began to resemble a human being, not handsome nor dashing, but at least worthy of a bottle of Chablis in business class. Skipper remonstrated: he had no clean clothes and couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

Changing planes in Frankfurt should have taken 40 minutes. It took the best part of 24 hours. As we strode down the ramp to the transit lounge - David Beckham accompanied by Worzel Gummidge - the police pounced.

Skipper was led away for questioning, and I had an immediate choice to make: keep walking like the character in Midnight Express (with feigned indifference masking a heart beating so fast that I had one eye out for the nearest defibrillator) and board the next shuttle to Heathrow, or volunteer myself for arrest to stay with my flesh and blood.

On the grounds that it would be less painful to face the interrogations of the German drug squad than the wrath of my parents when I told them that I had last seen their dearest son in handcuffs being taken into custody in a foreign country to help the authorities with their inquiries, I announced myself as Spartacus and went straight to jail. This was the wrong choice.

Finding no drugs about our person, we were detained while our shoes were X-rayed, our rucksacks dismantled and our clothes painstakingly unseamed with razor blades: still nothing. We were then joined in custody by a couple of detectives straight from the set of Miami Vice: two strapping plain-clothed policemen in jeans and chunky cardigans sporting Village People moustaches and conspicuously holstered guns.

They offered us coffee and cigarettes. Neither of us smoked. Neither of us took drugs, either, but we couldn't persuade the detectives of that. Most alarming was that they asked us sweetly and in flawless Harvard accents where the drugs were and for whom we were working.

When we responded with the unhelpful truths that we had no drugs, that I was a university student and that my brother was working temporarily in a fish-and-chip shop, they spent the next 20 minutes talking to each other in German. Now, although we were travelling as Lufthansa staff, neither of us spoke German and this was probably their most successfully intimidating tactic.

We were stripped and put in separate cells where we waited eight hours for our urine samples to come back ... clean.

You know what's coming next ... naked and bent over the table in a room with a full-length plate-glass window looking out on to the tarmac at third-storey level, I heard the snap of rubber gloves behind me and the snarled decree, "You vill do zee splitz." As a proud recipient of the British Association of Gymnastics Awards, Level 4 (the one where all you had to do to qualify was an unassisted forward roll) I started moving my ankles unfeasibly apart - more Ronnie Corbett than Olga Korbut.

"Nein, you vill split ze buttucks!" It was precisely the moment I was prising my cheeks apart, praying to the eruptive goddess, Cloaca, that the diarrhoea remain in remission like Henry V on the eve of Agincourt: "Not today, O Lord, oh not today ...", that I looked up to see a fully occupied 747 taxiing at a snail's pace past the window.

It was, of course, at least two wing-lengths away, but I swear I can still see the expressions of the passengers shift from smiles and blowing kisses, as they took leave of their waving folks, to astonishment, outrage and hysteria. Neither they nor I had any idea that proctology could be a spectator sport. I've often reflected since that it would have made the perfect comic climax to a novel by Kingsley Amis.

Needless to say, there was nothing in our shoes, the seams of our T-shirts, our urine or our rucksacks. The Khyber Pass, while it may not have been a pleasant destination, was entirely free of drugs as well. We were, much to the annoyance of Starsky and Hutch, completely clean.

Desultorily, since they had wasted the past 12 hours, they threw what remained of our fragmented garments and the detritus that had been our rucksacks into bin liners and escorted us with petulant indifference down to Lufthansa departures, where the check-in personnel, seeing that our tickets were issued to fellow members of staff, considered us with Teutonic contempt as having let the side down.

Back at the university, I sought an appointment with the dean of law, determined to sue for wrongful arrest, police harassment, criminal damage to my rucksack and, if necessary, cause a diplomatic incident. Needless to say, I was informed that we had not a leg to stand on and was urged to "consider yourself lucky you weren't in Thailand".

Smarting, as much from the dean's ill-concealed amusement as by finding myself at the end of a legal cul-de-sac, I consoled myself with the thought that there were 400 passengers telling their friends over a beer in Stuttgart or Hannover how they had just witnessed their first prostate examination. I vowed on the spot to learn German and to buy a new wardrobe and never again to cross an international border in the company of my brother. I still haven't got round to doing the first two, but the last remains a revered principle.

Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University.

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