Many years ago as a newly arrived student I got asked to a lot of parties. Back in the 80s, it was as much a part of student life as it is now. I remember one party in particular because of how it started.
The Lark Lane area of Liverpool used to be quite an artsy sort of area and it was considered the coolest place to get digs when you moved out of hall. Needless to say, I ended up with a flat in Wavertree, miles away. Cool I have never managed to be, unless you count those summer days when the wind is too fresh to be comfortable. The party was being hosted by some medical students I knew vaguely through either the Christian Union or the Chaplaincy. I don’t even remember who invited me; I may have tagged along on a general invite. That fits the memory now.
My little group arrived before things had warmed up, both literally and metaphorically. The house was a total ice box with damp running down the walls. Heating was minimal and in mid November, I think there was already a heavy frost outside, so getting in out of the cold was only a relative thing. Nothing much was going on yet so we sat down and waited. Even the music was quite subdued at this stage. I also wasn’t drinking at this point; that went quite soon.
Soon more students arrived and it began to slowly get going. I got singled out by a new arrival who made a very pointed attempt to chat me up. He made a very, very bad move early on in the conversation which is why I have no memory now of his name: he complimented me on my clothes and remarked(quite insane now I think of it) that my father must be very rich for me to dress the way I did. I looked him in the eye to see if he was taking the Mickey and he was dead serious: not a twinkle of humour or sarcasm or even a gentle jest.
I wanted to ask, “Do I look like a fool?” but instead I escaped to the kitchen and avoided him for the rest of the evening. I was a bit timid about hurting people’s feelings back then.
You see, first of all, I am the sort of person who could put on a Gucci dress and make it look like I dragged it off the bargain rail at Oxfam. I’m naturally scruffy. In this case, I hadn’t made any sort of effort because I’d only been told about the party ten or so minutes before I was called for by my friends. So I was in old jeans and sweatshirt with pen on it. At the best of times, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to clothes; as long as they’re clean and in good repair and the colour doesn’t make me look too much like a zombie flesheater, that’s OK. And no, my father isn’t rich either.
It was so obviously a ploy to try and get something going. There’s a rumour that plain girls are more grateful. It isn’t true. We like to be liked for our sense of humour, our personality or our witty repartee: clothes are simply not part of the equation. It’s like saying you liked the dreadfully ugly present because the wrapping paper was pretty.
I also dislike quite intensely being taken for a fool. I have a good radar for insincere compliments. I can tell the difference between a true compliment and a faked one, whether it’s addressed to me or not. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything, but she’d also say, as long as it’s actually true. She once peered into the pram being pushed by a former school mate of mine and faced with possibly the ugliest(not to mention heavily jaundiced) baby she’d ever seen, she blurted out, “What a nice yellow blanket!” Thankfully the girl was aware and unconcerned that others might not consider her baby Best in Show and put my mum as ease by agreeing how nicely the baby matched her covers!
Generally speaking, I’m not vain about my looks, because as I said, I am a natural scruff and a plain girl, so when people do compliment me(and they do) it’s all relative. “You look nice today!” is actually a good thing to hear, though I do usually think afterwards, “And I didn’t last time you saw me?” When it comes to what I write, I can also tell how sincere someone is. I know I am not Viriginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway or (God forbid!) Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling but I do know I write well. I’m not the greatest writer of them all and nor am I more than an intermittantly good poet. I know where I stand. I have a realistic view of where that is: somewhere at the top end of the middle of writers who might one day be considered great. It is all subjective after all.
In my book a sincere compliment is worth a hell of a lot more than one that is intended to play some sort of mind games(like the guy at uni) even if it is clumsily phrased. A compliment that is heartfelt but without agenda is something to be treasured and accepted with the same spirit of kindness and generosity that it is given.
But believe me, I know the difference between fools’ gold and the real thing….