Turning up the heat in most English houses, or to be more precise, turning it on, simply isn’t done. (Florence King, Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting?)
You don’t open your window on a January night until you are ready to dive into bed and pull the clothes about you. (Anna Where Are You, Patricia Wentworth When did Upwards stop sleeping in a room with an open window in January????)
Other people’s houses are so cold. (Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence)
British homes are kept far warmer than they were 30 years ago, says somebody who suggests shivering keeps you slim (Jan 2014). You try it.
Brits really are supposed to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend that they don’t feel heat or cold or pain or tiredness or hunger or thirst or calls of nature, and they mustn’t do anything to make themselves more comfortable, even if the solution is easy, simply and obvious – like fanning yourself, or sitting on the grass, or moving nearer to a fire. (According to 19th century novels, entitled middle-aged middle-class men stood in front of an open fire warming themselves and blocking the heat from everybody else.)
In the 30s, you couldn’t wear a fur coat, or any coat, indoors, but you were allowed to wear a fur stole over your sleeveless, backless evening dress which you wore (over an “opera-top” woollen vest and knickers) in frigid English drawing rooms. That was when “everybody” dressed for dinner, but didn’t have the blazing fires that made the thin evening dresses possible. (You were also allowed to wear something called a “coatee” or a “matinee jacket”.)
I remember going to a cocktail party in a vicarage in the 60s and standing around chatting in a room that felt like an industrial fridge. Why were Upward houses so cold in the 50s, 60s, 70s? They hadn’t installed central heating because it was “American” (ie too expensive). If they did install it, it was always off because it was too expensive to run.
Victorian houses were heated only by open fires, but the Victorians managed to be quite cosy because they wore so many clothes. In the 30s Upwards cast off restricting Victorian spencers and combinations – and shivered. They wore nylon stockings and thin shoes in the winter. It would have been sensible to wear huge ski jerseys, thick stockings, hats and fingerless gloves indoors, but as always, they were afraid of looking different. (While thinking they were wacky individualists and exhorting everyone to “Be yourself!”)
During WWII Upwards were forced to become more practical, and were encouraged to knit woollen vests and knickers. (Was baby wool unrationed?) Strangely, lace-trimmed long knickers in jazzy colours trended in the short-skirted 60s and were seized on with joy by chilly Upwards. That was just before tights took over from nylons.
In the 50s and 60s, if you said “I’m cold”, someone would say loudly: “Well, put on a thick jersey!” Because they couldn’t possibly say “I’m not turning on any form of heating because it costs money”.
French writer Agnès Poirier is appalled that the English set their central heating to go off for several hours a day. At one lunch party I went to, it got very cold at about 3pm and we all asked if we could have some heat. The host said “The central heating will come on again at 4pm.” We said “Well, can you turn it on now?” And he said rather crossly “It will come on again at 4!” Of course, he didn’t know how to override the timer, but couldn’t admit it. And didn’t have any other form of heating.
When do you turn on your heating? How long do you “hold out” and “resist the temptation” before you finally “succumb”? Oil is expensive! October 1 seems to be the official date. Upwards with oil-fired central heating and a wood-burning stove in the sitting room are like people who had an open fire in one room and no heating anywhere else (back in the Good Old Days).
The trouble with central heating – it’s either OFF or ON. In the slightly more recent days you could turn on individual radiators. Perhaps Upwards should reinvent this useful feature. Or uncover the fireplace, sweep the chimney, and build a fire. They might find themselves sitting round it and, who knows, they might even talk to each other. Humans have lived around fires since Prometheus gave us the secret – a room without even a fake fireplace seems disorganised and unfocused.
Lady Dedlock’s fireplace was “closed in by night with broad screens, and illumined only in that part”. (Dickens, Bleak House) Lady D managed to turn her huge, formal drawing room back into a cave.
Jen Teale has a wall-mounted electric fire with Optiflame log effect. Or a free-standing fire with a slate effect hearth pad and chrome effect surround. Or else she stuffs an antique-style electric fire into a Victorian fireplace. Bohemian Arkana keeps warm by a bonfire in the back garden.
When it pours, Jen and Eileen wear packaway plastic capes with hoods. Jen stores her “tote” collapsible umbrella in the fabric cover it came in. (Everybody else throws them away.) Very Bohemian Rowena wears an umbrella hat. Her husband wears giant glasses with windscreen wipers.
The heat, the flies...English people still look askance if you fan yourself in public. Fanning yourself with a programme or magazine is just about OK – but an actual fan, made for the purpose? You can collect fans, you can display them on your walls, but you can’t fan yourself with one. And if you fan yourself with a programme, others may tolerate it for a while, but eventually they will tell you it’s distracting or noisy. Really, of course, you are doing something that isn’t “done” by middle-class English people, and hence you are drawing attention to yourself. And your companions are going to be damned by association.
When the sun shines, Rowena wears a pink coolie hat from a seaside pound shop. Arkana wears a coolie hat from Kalimantan made of natural materials – she bought it on the spot. But these days you can get almost anything on the internet – it has put those old Stoke Newington travellers out of business. And next year Rowena goes to Kalimantan and buys a native hat made of instant coffee packaging. They’re more rainproof! She also has a lot of colourful baskets woven by Africans out of telephone cables.
More here, and links to the rest.