Does it matter how one looks when one is being interviewed for a position of responsibility? Should a woman wear a smart suit in a sombre colour – trousers or skirt immaterial – or what one liked and felt comfortable in? A Labour Party leader in the past was criticised for wearing a duffle coat when he laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in London. It was judged disrespectful to the memory of the soldiers who had lost their lives. All duffle coats were fawn or some shade of brown and on the short side and were considered informal wear. Respect, it was deemed, is shown by a simple clean cut, a dark colour and a suitable length normally covering the knees.
In the past, fashion for women was made by the hemline and its relationship to knees and silhouette and the flaunting of an impossibly slender waist. Colour came into it too. I recall at some point the promotion of orange as the colour of the year. Orange coats and particularly raincoats paced the streets luminously tiring the eyes that couldn’t somehow avoid looking at them. Was it after that when the dictatorship of the season’s fashionable colour and hemlines faded away, probably to silent applause?
When I slipped out to buy some vegetables as night fell yesterday, I noted that the street decorations of ornamental snowflakes in front of shops and banners with moving drops descending through the glitter – quite ingenious – were still strung across the main shopping street, and the huge artificial Christmas tree was still standing like a ghost of times past devoid of lights or decorations. Once upon a time it was said that all seasonal decorations should be down and stowed away on Twelfth Night, or 6 January, or mischief would follow. Pure superstition?
I recall some time last year discussing the eating, or not, of pork at a food festival in Rome. Some scoffed at religious traditions affecting eating habits as outdated, ridiculous even, but how long has there been effective refrigeration? When next visiting a British country house, go into the stables where now they will probably be serving lunches and teas to ask where the ice house is. Some have been neglected and can hardly be detected under overgrown bushes and trees. Others are preserved as an historical curiosity and can even be visited.
T.S. Eliot in his poem about the three Magi,
‘The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.’
Where did the ice for the sherbet come from? A glacier in the distant mountains, the chunks of ice preserved in deep caverns under salt? How did the Italian street vendors of ice cream in the 1920s and 1930s prevent their ices liquefying?
Back in the north, when the grass stopped growing in the autumn, only milking cows and a bull or two were fed hay while the rest were slaughtered for winter meat and preserved in ice houses when the frosty weather came and ice formed on the shallow pond near the ice house. It was skimmed off and packed tightly around the meat. Now where are the icicles from the eaves and the intricately beautiful frost patterns on windowpanes? Central heating and climate change have banished them even from most of the traditional Christmas cards as the memory of snow fades. Except in the mountains, though ski slopes are suffering from higher temperatures.
So ice houses with crumble into history together with castles, irrelevance irrevocably undermining their foundations. But that’s progress, isn’t it? History begins fifty years ago, they say, and then goes backwards.