The year is 1988. I’m making a call in a telephone box near the clock tower in my hometown. It’s lunchtime and I’ve made the 10 minute walk from art college to get a couple of hot sausage rolls, which I’ll eat on one of the benches in the old churchyard. I only left school a few months ago and it’s still a novelty to be in the town centre during a weekday. As I lean against the cold glass I notice a magazine in the litter bin outside the phone box. It’s lying on top of all the regular rubbish, but it’s clear it doesn’t belong amongst the flimsy sweet wrappers and greasy chip papers. It’s too glossy, too new, too crisp, and at half an inch thick, it just looks too solidly respectable. I recall fretting that someone might steal the magazine from under my nose before I finish my call. But no one does, they just hurry about their business, unaware of the magazine that is having the same effect on me as Wonka’s Golden Ticket had on Charlie Bucket. I feel myself being drawn in and after what seems like forever I leap out of the phone box as if coming up for air. Finally I have the magazine in my hands. It’s heavier than I expected. The spine is ruler straight and without creases, making me believe its pages have never been turned. In the top left hand corner of the front cover are two bold letters that lightly kiss one another leaving no air between them – GQ. I turn the pages as if handling gold leaf; my eyes linger hungrily over the advertisements for suits, and for shoes, and shirts, and aftershaves. The unfamiliar names of the makers are a foreign language to me. I brush my fingertips lightly across the pages, as if feeling the fabric of the clothes printed on them. Each page seduces me and encourages me deeper inside. By the time I reach the back cover I’m almost breathless. Turning the magazine over I read those two letters again, mouthing them silently, slowly. Right now the G and Q mean nothing tangible to me, but I already have a feeling that in time they will come to mean something special. Between the covers of this magazine I have discovered a different world, a world unrecognisable from the one I live in. It’s a world of style, of suave sophistication, of elegance, of cocktails, far flung destinations, colonial clubs, nightclubs and sex. And I find it in a bin on my way to buy sausage rolls.
Even before I found that copy of GQ I was into clothes. I’ve always liked to put a bit of thought into what I wear. I like details: an unusual collar, or an oddly placed pocket, or a nice lining, an unusual print, fancy buttons, anything a bit different. I’ve never been what you might call a straightforward jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no label snob, I couldn’t tell you what make half my clothes are. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s Oswald Boateng or Oxfam. So as something of a self-confessed dandy, I’m ashamed to admit that in the weeks following surgery I let myself go a bit. Even now I shudder at the memory of going to Sainsbury’s in trackie bottoms. Tracksuit bottoms. The horror. But the scariest thing of all is I didn’t care. Not a jot. I really didn’t give a damn what I looked like. The only thing that concerned me was comfort. And those trackie bottoms were comfortable. They weren’t too tight, there was no belt digging into my swollen abdomen, they were easy to pull on. The perfect post-op pants really. This sartorial slobbery continued for a good few weeks, until one day I was making my usual trip up Walthamstow Market to do some shopping, when I suddenly felt a bit self-conscious. Something didn’t feel right, like I was in the wrong skin. And I realised it was my clothes. I no longer felt comfortable in my comfortable trackies. Looking around me I saw that I was dressed like everyone else. At that moment I realised I was getting better. I was beginning to think about my appearance again. For a while I didn’t have the energy to think about anything other than getting through the day. It was a no frills existence. A trackie bottoms life. As far from the hallowed pages of GQ as you can get. But now I’m back in my old clobber. And that suits me just fine.