Sunday, June 14, 2009

"When we first became interested in chicken..."

At the Observer, Stephen Bayley has a very funny piece about the new permanent exhibition in Leeds on the history of Marks & Spencer:
Because of Marks & Spencer, the introduction of tights and the nationwide distribution of chilled chicken are, at least in my imagination, interwoven in cultural history. And each was, for rather different reasons, a cause for celebration. The chickens were a product of Macmillan-era futurism: the result of experiments by the government's Low Temperature Research Station mingled with the entrepreneurialism of Britain's chicken revolutionary, Colonel Corbett of Sun Valley Farms, Hereford. New technology refrigerated trucks shipped chickens hither and yon in "the cold chain process", a coinage worthy of Dr Strangelove. The president of the Board of Trade said: "There should be a law against it."

At about the same time, experiments in a "fabric of tomorrow" known as Cantrece allowed American tan tights to go on sale in 1962. The sinister caramel hue of American tan had weird gastronomic associations, just as its name suggested yearnings and frustrations for exotica among pale local women just then beginning to sense the opportunities of turboprop package holidays; a period ad shows immaculately coiffured travellers boarding a British European Airways Vickers Viscount. Meanwhile, at home and in the dark, even as many apprentice Casanovas found tights a manmade obstacle to natural curiosity, as a functional innovation in the area of decorum they made miniskirts possible.

Food and sex are inextricable and, strange for so conservative a company, it is pleasant to record that Marks & Spencer helped modernise both. While freshly chilled chickens motored at 70mph up the new M1, daring combinations of synthetic knickers and bras made functional underwear into a colour-co-ordinated and fetishised commodity. For many with memories of student life in the 70s, with its bizarre privations and opportunities, an alarming juxtaposition on show in Leeds of a packet of Chinese style chicken and cashews against turquoise floral knickers brings a Proustian memory rush of nights of undergraduate passion, at the same time summarising a great deal of the pathos in life's appetites and desires.

1 comment:

  1. This brings to mind a passage in Edmund White's forthcoming memoir "City Boy," where he gives a bit of the reception history of The Joy of Gay Sex, which he co-authored: "Amazingly, no one tried to ban it except in a province of Canada where a lady had thought she was buying The Joy of Cooking and was so horrified by what she found under 'chicken' that she convinced the local bookshops to withdraw it from their shelves..."