Somewhere in the files is the record of a retired Yorkshire miner, celebrating his 100th birthday, being asked to name the most startling change in his lifetime. One of the wars? The rise of the motor car or the supermarket?
“Men wearing scent,” he said.
My dad was part of the Old Spice generation – tried it once and got it for Christmas for ever more, at least – and passed on a tolerance for a bit of splash. But I’ve heard enough heat on the subject to understand that we got over a significant watershed, one way or another, when it was eventually allowed to be not necessarily gay, hippy or French, to smell of anything but sweat and tobacco.
I was reminded of the old miner when I read a piece by John McCarthy saying what struck him when he got home, after five years as a hostage in the Lebanon, was people drinking from bottles in the pub.
And then I was reminded of them both when I read Yorkshire Post columnist Sarah Todd, a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife, remembering when the men in her family would regard any sort of a scarf as sissy.
That struck me because I’ve had a few scarf issues myself. In particular, men wearing long ones, coiled around their necks, which they peek out of like a meerkat being finished off by an anaconda – or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. It makes me come over all Town v. Gown.
It is hard to listen to whatever Jeremy Guscott is saying about rugby because of the rush of blood caused by his scarf, tied into a confection which bursts out of the neckline of his coat like a turkey’s wattle. French fans are inclined to do it similarly, but then, they are French. For an Englishman, the only way to wear a scarf at all is in winter, at a match, half-hitched and firmly tucked in. An end flung over one shoulder, or blowing in the wind, is too girlie or too Enid Blyton or too varsity, depending which you think is worst.
White men in keffiyehs give me what Dennis Healey once called “dark Tory urges”. So do jumpers not worn, but draped over the shoulders like a lover, like the Big Nigels from the sailing club wear them.
I still can’t help sniggering when I come across a men’s fashion item on “summer scarves”, even though my best younger friend sometimes wears one and I have had older friends, who grew up when Cary Grant and David Niven were cool, who wore cravats with panache. Actually, I wish I could too. But I just can’t.
In theory, I am with celebrity tranny RuPaul, who is quoted saying: “Honey, we are born naked. The rest is drag.”
But I have also nodded in sympathy with sci-fi writer Douglas Adams, observing: “Anything in the world when you are born is normal; anything invented before you are 35 is revolutionary; anything invented after you are 35 is unnatural and wrong.”
That about sums it up although a lot depends on the company you have kept, of course, which is why class and geography come into it, as well as age.
We cannot do much about the big changes. But we all have our lists of little ones which kiss us off proper, don’t we? And somewhere in there, I think, is part of the explanation for the massive success of Come Dine With Me. We do not watch it for recipe tips. We watch it for the sociological warfare which is so regularly kicked off by little things like scarves, or skirt lengths, or men wearing scent.
If you have relaxed into metrosexuality at all, it is quite startling to watch the instinctive hostility of the true working class to anything they regard as pretence – a grown man faffing with a meat thermometer, say, or saying Sancerre with a French accent.
Their intolerance is matched, however, by the blind snobbery of some of the middle classes. I felt for the former army officer with the meat thermometer until I heard him sneering about the likely brain power of the bright young lad with spiky hair who was one of his guests.
The occasional genuine nob seems to go down better all round. But there are not many programmes less nobby, let’s face it. In fact, it has been said that it is because of Come Dine With Me that the upper classes have switched to “kitchen suppers”. They feel the whole idea of Dinner has been devalued.
For them that always dined, that may be so. For the rest of us, it has been a revelation how much is revealed about human natures by the simple expedient of getting four people sat around a table and filling them up with onion and goat’s cheese tart, lamb shank, cheesecake and, of course, plenty of wine. Almost everybody is mad, it emerges, but some more than others.
If the formula ever runs out of steam as reality tv, it surely has a future as a selection process for would-be politicians. They can say what they like about the national debt. What we really need to know is, can they say Sancerre without making us want to strangle them.