A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in a public debate. It was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of David’s Bookshop in Letchworth garden City, a fine independent business which has always been very supportive of me, and of authors generally. My opponents were the redoubtable Peter Hitchens, and the esteemed historian Andrew Cook.
I’ve been asked by several people if I would publish my winning speech. So here it is, maybe in two or three instalments. You need to know that it is VERY tongue-in-cheek, and that the debate was held in the Spirella ballroom, previously the jewel in the crown of the iconic Spirella Corset Company. And the subject: the most important progress during the last 50 years.
Like every era, every author has his or her leitmotifs; little trademarks which help to identify them. I believe a lot of Peter Hitchens’ work is about the fight against glibly received wisdom, against moral and intellectual irresponsibility. Andrew Cook reveals things; he uncovers historical secrets and so refigures history. What characterises my work? It’s always difficult to be objective about these things, so I did some research and had a look at some of my books. First, I found a Victorian woman traveller recommending Dr Jaeger’s sanitary woollen underwear, as it dries remarkably quickly, she says, and requires ‘so seldom to be washed.’ Another stern and intrepid lady warns that ‘tight stay-lacing and bicycle-riding are deadly foes’. A Memsahib under siege in India during the Mutiny of 1857 passes the time by sewing patches on a ragged pair of her husband’s ‘unmentionables’, or combinations. One of the first students in a women’s college is aghast at a fellow undergraduate who keeps a pet rat called Martin down the front of her dress for the whole of her university career; not because of the rat, but because that means she’s obviously not wearing a corset. Then there’s a photo in my most recent book of a lady in the 1940s with a wistful, faraway look in her eyes, modelling a knitted knickers-and-vest ensemble in tickly Shetland wool. I now realise I appear to have built my entire career as a social historian, one way or another, on underwear.
But maybe that’s not as inconsequential as it might at first sound. This very building is a temple to underwear; it owes all its splendour to corsetry. What were women doing while the Armitage family were busy founding David’s Bookshop? Burning their bras. Even, quite possibly, in Letchworth. And that gives me my banner for this evening: society’s freedom from tyrannical underwear. I’m not talking ideology here, or politics; I’m talking practicalities. Since the 1960s, we’ve all – men and women – been at liberty to cast off the rubbery shackles of knicker-elastic, the impediment of dangly y-fronts with those curious panels of string-vest at the sides, the incarceration of the corset.
We were never unaware of our underwear before; we could feel it all the time, an uncomfortable, constructed barrier between us and full engagement with the world around us. Now, we’re free to concentrate on living our lives. The sixties were pivotal in this, as in so many things. In fact the demise of intimate armour is probably why Philip Larkin felt that sexual intercourse was only invented, like David’s, in 1963. There has been no progress during the last 50 years, like the progress we’ve all experienced, or benefited from, in the design of pants and things.