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Writing, teeth chattering, in the London Library in St James’s, I gazed enviously at the other women who all seemed to be sporting cardigowns. These baggy, mumsy calf-length garments in shades of grey and navy are obviously all the blue-stocking rage. Some were cable-knit, four ply with a look of quiet luxury, others more bobbly, in the home-made style. (They may even have been intended as regular length knitwear and grew uncannily on the needles with a life of their own.)
“How easy life would be if one allowed oneself such practical apparel,” thought I. Some of these women looked highly distinguished. You could tell they had streams of exam passes as far as the eye could see; doctorates, impressive book contracts, damehoods, glittering literary prizes even. Many of them were actually beautiful, in a Virginia Woolfy way. Why, wouldn’t I, like these fine ladies, permit myself a little personal warmth?
I live in fear of clothes that are droopy. I hate to look eccentric, unkempt, bizarre. My mental health – such as it is – depends on crisp neat hems and ship-shape blouses. If you saw a cardigown on me, it would announce I was deep in despair. Like heaven, I believe in the concept for other people but I can’t quite allow it for myself.
I was brought up to think that you should try not to let external things, such as the weather or how much money you have or other people’s opinions of you, affect your behaviour. It’s a sort of discipline, I suppose. I wear the same clothes all year round and freeze in winter and bake in summer. But snow is on its way, they say, and it’s very hard to stay cheerful when shivering all over. “Staying Cheerful by Susie Boyt” is meant to be my calling card. Why, only the other night someone, in drink admittedly, described me as the father of all puddings!
Almost frozen solid, I hit upon a brainwave. I would nip out to the lingerie department of Fortnum & Mason and buy myself a vest. I don’t much like wearing vests, they make me feel claustrophobic in the same way wearing nail varnish does, or waiting for people, or seatbelts, or Stephen Sondheim (with the exception of Gypsy) or anything involving melted cheese. Buying a vest felt like something of a failure but, as the first snowflake struck my nose, I resolved to do so nonetheless. Willpower and gumption, in life, only take you so far. Sometimes you need Hanro.
As I entered the pistachio-coloured F&M portals I issued a stern command: “No truffles – I have six kilos at home left over from my birthday – and you are on no account to emerge with a canteen of cutlery.” Our current cutlery situation is a disgrace, shameful and embarrassing it must be said, but our plates are good and I have 47 2ft-square, 1940s, double damask linen napkins, so things could be worse.
En route to vests, a diaphanous heaven-blue nightdress with Swiss lace caught my eye and I stopped to examine it. A saleswoman approached: “In a gown like that, one would feel like a goddess,” she said wistfully. I almost bought it for her there and then. I thought of Grace Kelly in High Society, correcting her intended when he labels her a goddess on the very eve of their wedding: “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved,” she says, or near enough, but I thought better of repeating the line. It would have been a mite too friendly.
I bought two fine Portuguese vests in 70 per cent wool and 30 per cent silk jersey. Then I bought one more, in the spirit of “one on, one clean, and one in the wash”. I felt like a mother equipping her daughter for the new school term. “Well done,” I said out loud in the lift going down.
Back in the library, suddenly I was warm and well. My fingers went from blue to their usual sausagey colour. My lips stopped trembling. It was that simple. This was a sort of fable that required my close attention. Why do I always assume that the most complex, difficult solution is the only one of any worth?
I tried to think of other areas in life where I deliberately avoid the obvious course of action because I think it boring or beneath me: the shoes I wear every day that hurt my back, the white chair I don’t dare sit in lest I ruin its good looks; the desk I don’t work at because the pretty chair that stands next to it is completely the wrong height; the friend who hurts my feelings repeatedly yet I never quite object. The list is as long as my arm.
What if I did the obvious thing in all these cases – solved the problem in the most logical, easiest way? Would it spoil God’s vast eternal plan if I caved in and hung up my high horse? Can a leopard change her polka dots? It could be the start of something wonderful …
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt