There were two pupils at my junior school who were significantly poorer than the rest. One of these, a strange, wild kid with an adult-looking head on a tiny body, would sometimes call on me, but instead of knocking on our door he would just clamber up to the latch and walk right in.
This whey-faced urchin, like many of the poorer children at school, always looked unhealthy. Rickets would have suited him, in a way. In particular, he always had a cold, but never had a handkerchief. This may seem like a grotesque invention, but in those days many of my classmates would have long, brittle, sparkling snail-trails of snot on their sleeves throughout the winter months.
As I write, I have a heavy cold, and for much of last week I didn't have a handkerchief. My own sleeve was therefore becoming imperilled, not least because someone, long ago, told me that there's nothing naffer than having a box of tissues at your elbow. Instead, I bought a packet of pocket tissues. Now, I was taught as a kid that it was virtuous to give my nose "a good blow" when I had a cold, but a good blow is not rewarded if you're using pocket tissues. On the contrary, you'll end up with sticky fingers. I then remembered that I did have a handkerchief: a big cotton one covered with a complicated blue-and-red paisley pattern. I plucked this long-forgotten Christmas present out of my sock drawer and swirled it around for a while as if a white dove might appear from it. I then went to my wardrobe and put on what the late Duke of Devonshire would have called a coat - in other words, a jacket - and thrust the handkerchief into the top pocket.
This pocket on a suit is called the handkerchief pocket, and until about 30 years ago, most men would have used it for that purpose. I used to think there was something fate-tempting about this: if you always had a handkerchief, perhaps you'd always have a cold.
I first let the thing flow upwards and outwards from the pocket, like a bunch of flowers, in a sort of Peter O'Toole look. I then tried to fold it so that it protruded in the form of three triangles of different sizes, like a mini-mountain range. Aspirational men from the lower orders used to buy pieces of white card cut into this approved shape for insertion into the handkerchief pocket. Apparently they're still available, but I can't imagine any surviving shops maintaining such innocent gentility.
Next, I tried an intermediate arrangement, where the handkerchief just swelled loosely a couple of inches above the top of the pocket. I thought this one looked best, and I wore the jacket with the handkerchief so placed for the whole of a day spent working at the British Library. Occasionally, I would pluck out the handkerchief and blow my nose, replacing it as best I could, often going to the lavatory to verify the arrangement in the mirror.
That same evening, I was talking on the phone to my friend Steve, who is always subtly well dressed. I told him I'd taken to wearing a handkerchief in my handkerchief pocket. "You have another one in your trouser pocket, right?" he asked. "No," I said, "why would I?" Steve then explained that you didn't blow your nose on the hanky you kept in your handkerchief pocket. That was for show only. "If I'd seen you do it," he said, "I'd have been sick . . . I mean, you just put it back in your pocket covered in snot?" I retorted: "Obviously, you try not to let the snotty bit show. I'm not that coarse."
"Edward VII," Steve went on with a sigh, "and any other well-dressed man, would have had the second handkerchief up his sleeve. That's why men's jackets have buttons there. You used to undo those to put the handkerchief in place."
"Oh," I replied.