A balmy night in Southwold last week and the Boden crew were on parade. Outside the Lord Nelson inn, a few yards up from the soft susurration of the surf, the men sported chinos or cargo shorts, the women pastel prints or polo tops.
Accents of the catalogue classes mingled with the lingo of old-time locals. There was not a grey business suit in sight, let alone a pale lightweight jacket over black trousers.
Like Gordon Brown, who is holidaying in the area, Southwold is all tightly bundled contradictions. Though a speck of Victoriana marooned on the Suffolk coast, it also displays undeniable metro-chic. The tiny town centre enjoys three modern art galleries, a cluster of designer boutiques and a parking problem: if you are not driving a Land Rover Discovery (3 series, of course) or a Volvo XC90, you’re nowhere.
In the Nelson at closing time, so the joke goes, they call out: “Drink up, gentlemen, please. Haven’t you all got second homes to go to?”
More by accident than intent, choosing such a milieu for his holiday offered Brown a bold opportunity and a daunting test. If he could cut it here, amid the slim blonde yummies as well as the great white blobs that also populate the beaches, then he could reconnect with “Middle England”, he could be a prime minister in tune with the times. But if he failed, it would just emphasise his isolation, his exile in his own land.
For an important key to politics in Noughties Britain is not the blue collar or the white tie; it is the floral board short, the pique sweat and the scoop-neck lace-trim top. This is the uniform, first epitomised by the Boden mail order catalogue, of the aspirational middle classes who have moved beyond the traditional Tory/Labour divide.
Like it or not, their influence is pervasive and may determine the fate of Brown and the Tory leader David Cameron. Can Brown hack it (let alone Hackett) among such a crowd? Or is Cameron their natural leader? IN the mid1990s Johnnie Boden was one of the first to divine the changing nature of middle-class fashions. After Eton and Oxford – an education he shares with Cameron – he went into the City, found it too oppressive and started his own business.
He realised that the post-loadsa-money professionals wanted both to forge careers and to enjoy their freedom (without ruining the planet): they were smart-casual, creative but traditional, family-centred but outward-looking. They were linen-trousered philanthropists, and Boden set about supplying the linen and much else.
Three years ago, pondering the unremitting disaster that was the Conservative party, Charles Moore, the Tory journalist, had a brain-wave. “The Conservatives could learn a great deal from the Boden story,” he wrote. “An individualistic, nonhierarchical, girly, aspirational, southern, 40% internet-based, middle-class business, laid back but hardheaded. Yet, at the same time, it is quite traditional.
“Johnnie Boden is a soldier’s son, a freedom-loving patriot who adores rural life but feels at home in town . . . The way of life he is promoting is instinctively Conservative, not new Labour – a world in which good careers matter, but family and friends and holidays and jokes matter more, a good-natured place where you prefer liberty to regimentation and honesty to spin.”
And, lo, out of the Boden catalogue skipped Cameron and his wife Samantha, he in swimshorts (Bright Blue Flower, was it?) and she in Multi Sketchy Floral Crinkle Cotton Dress. Tory fortunes were transformed.
Though other brands have since cut new edges, Boden encapsulates the broad trend, which is one that Cameron inhabits with ease. Last week the Conservative leader decamped to Cornwall for a bucket and spade week with his family. He was pictured in polo shirt and shorts, barefoot on the sand with his wife, who was wearing a flowing skirt and black vest top. They looked happy, relaxed and optimistic, uber-Boden.
Interviewed in Newquay by Radio 1’s Newsbeat, Cameron was asked about the shorts with floral motif that he wore while playing frisbee. “I think my wife bought them; I think they’re quite nice,” he said, confirming: “They’re Boden, that catalogue company.”
He added, with the casually smart good humour typical of Bodenistas: “She said you need some shorts and she makes the major decisions, of course. They’re all right, aren’t they? What, a bit flowery? I’ve had them for years.”
On Wednesday he popped into the Padstow Angling Centre and bought a £3.95 spinner for use with the rod and tackle he already had at his holiday cottage. The next day he was spotted walking along the beach alone.
“He seemed like a nice bloke,” said one holidaymaker who passed him. “I told him if I saw his bike I’d send it back to him.” (Cameron’s bike, stolen in London, had in fact already been returned.)
Which all goes to show that the fashion/social commentator Nick Foulkes was right when he said of Boden man: “He once voted Labour (never again). He is getting concerned about the environment. He worries about the world his children will grow up in . . . Cameron is what Boden man wants to be; he feels as if he knows him.”
Could Brown compete? At the start of his holiday, he had gone walk-about with his wife Sarah, but had looked ill at ease in a formal lightweight jacket (definitely not Linen Throw-On), nonmatching dark trousers and black shoes, despite the heat. As Moore put it: “He appeared pale and confused, like a postoperative patient having his first constitutional outdoors.”
After this gaffe, he proved elusive, and when the first sighting of him occurred in Southwold’s main street, it was startling. He was wearing sunglasses, dubious swimming trunks, a large sunburnt stomach and not much else. He was carrying a mobile phone and one of those red boxes that hold official papers. He was also a 4ft tall papier-mâché model standing in the window of the Observatory optician’s shop.
“A man in Muswell Hill made him. He’s rather good, don’t you think?” said the optician. “He’s come down here on holiday.” Any sign of the real Brown? “No, we haven’t seen him.”
Maybe the prime minister, dogged by dismal polls, had sought solace in Southwold’s famous Adnams brewery. “Well, I wrote to him and said if he had time on his holiday we would be delighted to see him,” said Jonathan Adnams, head of the family firm and a Boden kinda guy. “He wrote back and said he didn’t have time. So no, we haven’t seen him.”
No sign of Brown at the Nelson either. And no desire for him at one of the fashionable boutiques where assistant Michele Chapman said: “I shouldn’t think he’d be popular round here, what with the shutting of the middle school. I should think he’d get a right mouthful.”
Then the trail suddenly hotted up. A veteran resident of Southwold, Irene Harris, let slip she’d spotted the prime minister on the beach. “He was walking near the pier,” she said. “I was with two friends and we saw him in the distance.”
Perhaps Brown had donned Three-Quarter Length Summer Trousers and gone for a paddle. Next to the pier, Joe Annis, the chief life-guard, was surveying the beach from outside his hut. Any sign of Brown?
“Sshh,” he warned, putting a finger to his lips and gesturing towards the hut. Surely the prime minister was not inside, changing into Brown Hibiscus Board Shorts? Annis paused. “No, you’re right. He’s not. We haven’t seen him.”
It was time to head straight for the prime minister’s lair. A few miles outside Southwold lies a seven-bedroom mansion owned and recently refurbished by a paparazzo photographer. This is Brown’s holiday retreat.
The approach is a long unmarked dirt track, and about 300 yards down it his security team had installed a hefty metal barrier. “This is as far as you go,” said a cop armed with a semi-automatic rifle, complete with night sight but no floral print. WHILE Brown hunkered in his distant bunker, another pretender began to surf the media waves.
David Miliband, the young foreign secretary, declared that Labour should “change the way we do politics” and “find the confidence to make our case afresh” in a newspaper article that was swiftly recognised as a coded bid for power.
Was this Labour’s Boden man? Not necessarily. You can easily picture him in board shorts – but the Mekon, as John (Italian Stallion Linen Shirt) Prescott once unkindly called him – has a whiff of sartorial danger about him. Abercrombie & Fitch, perhaps? Jack Wills? Or Joules? There’s a branch in Southwold.
For, at the moment that the Tories have got round to branding themselves Boden, other catalogue upstarts are seeking to loosen Johnnie’s grip on Middle England. Teenagers brought up in Mini Boden are turning to anything but. If Miliband can catch the postBoden zeitgeist (Summer Garden Swim Shorts from Joules?) he may find he has the keys to No 10 in his grasp after all.
There’s nothing more dated than yesterday’s holiday wear, particularly on a real or would-be prime minister. Harold Macmillan sported hairy tweeds on the August grouse moors and no good it did him. Nor did Harold Wilson’s Scilly Islands shorts earn anything but ridicule. Jeremy Thorpe’s bizarre beachwear – a three-piece suit and trilby with hovercraft accessory – were the first hint that he was not as other men. And John Major’s scorched moobies confirmed him as a right plonker.
So perhaps Brown is simply trapped in a Downing Street time-warp. A witness finally surfaced reporting a clear sighting of him at Covehithe, a secluded beach not far from his rented mansion. The spot can be reached by a lane that, thanks to coastal erosion, ends in mid-air: suitable perhaps for a man running out of road.
Was Brown relaxed, dressed for the beach and exuding the Boden factor? Not exactly.
“He was lying on the sand,” said the source. “And he still had his jacket on.”
© Times Newspapers Ltd