I bought a book called Appearances: how to keep them up on a limited income, a reissue of a work first published in 1899. It's about how to look good in society even if you're down to your last servant, and is all posited on a much more labour-intensive world. For example, the book's advice for those in particularly straitened circumstances is that they limit the number of their dinner guests to 35 or so.
"Keeping up appearances" is not a phrase you hear very often these days, which I suppose is accounted for by higher disposable incomes. It implies a white lie: playing a trick on society. A modern instance would be the interest attracted by those blokes in Oxford Street who sell "real" (that is, not real) Louis Vuitton handbags or Chanel perfume at bargain prices. You see policemen trying to disperse the crowds, and I don't know why they don't just give one bold shout of: "It's not real Chanel!" That would do the job in half the time.
I was keeping up appearances the other day at Pizza Express when, in a joyful epiphany, it came to me that a Margherita with extra pepperoni is just the same as "an American" - my son's favourite - but a pound cheaper. I placed the order, and passed the result off to my son as an American. I experienced the twofold pleasure of keeping up appearances: the financial saving and the deception.
Two further examples . . . I once bought some very good olive oil in a porcelain bottle. As everyone knows - well, as everyone in Islington knows - olive oil should always come in an opaque container, since light is bad for it. The temptation, therefore, was to hang on to the porcelain bottle, and decant all of my subsequently purchased, cheap, rubbishy olive oil into it. I've not yet done that, but then again I've never thrown away the porcelain bottle.
If I travel to York on the train in the morning, I buy a second-class ticket but take breakfast in the dining car. The dining car is, in effect, first-class accommodation, yet the cost of the breakfast is only £13. I revel in the thought that none of my fellow passengers knows whether I have a first-class or second-class ticket, but the trouble is that I'm usually chucked out of the dining car at Retford, at which point I must head, faintly embarrassed, in the direction of second class.
The standard method of keeping up appearances was to mend old clothes. I saw a man in the pub the other day who had leather elbow patches on his tweed jacket, and I wanted to go up and shake him by the hand, so rare is the sight these days. I spent the next couple of hours waiting for him to light a pipe, because men with leather patches always smoke pipes. But this one, disturbingly, did not.
When I was a boy my mother owned a sort of great wooden mushroom that she used for darning socks. There was a particularly satisfying mellowness in the house when, with the gas fire blazing on a winter's night, she'd sit there darning and listening to her records of The Seekers.
I wonder whether anybody at all in Britain has darned a sock in the past ten years. Obviously, people do still mend clothes in other ways. My wife, for example, has an overflowing sewing box in our bedroom. Sometimes she mends my clothes, but never when I ask.
Accordingly, I do a bit of sewing myself. I have one needle and one reel of cotton. It's black. Basically, I mend black things only, and most of my needlework has been devoted to one black jacket. I've sewn on new buttons, stitched up the pockets, reattached the lining. Well, partially. But when I took it to the dry cleaner's last month, they refused to clean it unless I signed a form acknowledging that it was likely to fall apart.
In terms of social embarrassment, I was right back there in 1899.