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Comfortably off?

In my youth people were either very rich, comfortably off, or poor. My family was in the second category, and it is extraordinary, when you look back on those days, how uncomfortable comfortably off was. My chief recollection is of the intense cold. Admittedly the water in the bedside glass was not actually frozen solid, but with the window compulsorily opened wide and not a thought of a heater in sight, it was a near thing. Dressing was one long shudder. In the living rooms there were lovely blazing fires, of course, the heat from which went straight up the chimney, but from under every door in the place there came a whistling draught.

I used to marvel at drawings by Charles Dana Gibson of a previous generation of beautiful ladies sitting at large dinner tables in off-the-shoulder dresses. They must have been half-paralyzed with cold, poor things, and, with their waists nipped in to 18 inches, half fainting as well. And they were certainly "comfortably off."

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I also went, but with a little stole, to freezing dinner parties and country house parties where there was assuredly a lot to eat and drink but which, on reflection, were in the nature of an endurance test. I remember thinking once, as I tried to get to sleep in an extremely lumpy bed, my suitcase on a chair to form a screen against a penetrating draught coming from an empty grate, that any member of the Red Brigade who happened to be around would be welcome to the luxury of this particular home as far as I was concerned. In another place where I stayed, a genuine castle of great antiquity, the fires had to be put out when the wind blew in a certain direction, otherwise the whole edifice became completely full of smoke and the party deteriorated into an assembly of groping, coughing guests. Often, when stopping off with a hostess to call on "dear old Nanny" or "poor old Mrs. Jarvis" in their cottages on the estate, I would envy the warmth and snugness of their little homes and wish to heaven I was staying with them and not "up at the Hall."

The comfortably off are much more comfortable now, of course, although draughts are so much in the English tradition we shall never altogether dispense with them . . . as I write this, in a centrally heated flat, there is a piercing little wind deep-freezing my left ankle . . . but even in these cushioned times it is noticeable how difficult we make things for ourselves. For instance, our cousins overseas supply little tongs with which to eat asparagus, but here we insist on doing the operation by hand. We scorn lifting each branch from its buttery bed with anything but fingers, and however comfortably off we are we prefer to have the butter running off our elbows onto the carpet. This can be circumvented with a lot of dedicated practice and a lot of skill, and perhaps it is our innate desire to meet and master problems that keep us away from those helpful tongs, or indeed from cutting the asparagus up with a knife and fork and forget tradition!

Of course, the Chinese are similarly wedded to gastronomic discomfort, manipulating allm their food with two sticks.m One cannot imagine who invented such a scheme or why nobody said, "But my dear Mr. Wang, you are insane! Let me introduce you to the spoon."

Why do we like life to be so complicated? Bureaucracy with its thousands of forms, which very few people can understand, is an excellent example of our love for the difficult. And all the elaborate dressing-up we do for our civic and religious occasions. Jerusalem is the perfect place to see a diversity of discomfort in the religious field, an infinite variety of holy hat, cope, cowl, cassock, all encumbering, alongside the Jewish and Muhammedan sartorial paraphernalia which looks equally uncomfortable. I would not in the world tamper with the "full dress" worn by the armed forces on state occasions; neither would I take the wigs off judges' heads or the ermine off peers' atrociously heavy robes. But that these cause suffering cannot be denied. Discomfort in the clothes line nearly always looks splendid, but how did all the nonsense start,m one wonders?

Another uncomfortable thing we seem to be addicted to is the ground. I know there are people who picnic by the roadside sitting on chairs and eating off collapsible tables, for I see them frequently. But mym comfortably off friends take me and crates of tomato sandwiches into woods and fields and put us firmly on the ground. Sometimes there is a rug to sit on, more usually a mackintosh and, however delightful the venue, in a very short time I wish I were somewhere else, preferably on a very pretty Sheraton chair in an elegant dining room eating strawberries and cream off Spode plates. Ground is terribly hard stuff, unyielding, prickly with thistles or pine needles, harbouring spiders and ants, exceedingly damp. It does not mould itself to human contours, it numbs the nether portions, dyes clothes green, and is altogether, as far as I am concerned , unlovable.

And yet people love it. You have only to walk across Hyde Park on a warm Sunday afternoon to see what I mean. There are plenty of deck chairs around, and all those people reading the Observer, or War and Peacem could easily afford to hire one. But no, they are sitting on the ground. They prefer to suffer. Meredith wrote, "There is nothing the body suffers the soul may not profit by," and I like to think our clinging to the uncomfortable in so many aspects of our life is an act of self-discipline. Will it one day be rewarded?

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