Pure White and Deadly was the title of nutritionist Professor John Yudkin’s book about sugar, though with that title, it could just as well have been about cocaine. I shrink from demonising food, being horribly aware that at any one time, whole sections of the human community haven’t got any, let alone enough. But as her sweet tooth famously blackened the teeth of Elizabeth I, and Fast Food Nation (by Eric Schlosser) blamed salt as much as sugar (also white) for the terrible addiction to all the cheap delicious things our culinary nation is heir to, I can see that just because it’s white doesn’t make it right.
In the west we wear white to claim purity or at least the right to magnificent impracticability, while the east features white for another kind of purity, that of all passion spent – death and mourning. There are people who don’t look well in white and the perverse, like me, who prefer winter white and summer dark though, facing up to the present soiled city in which I live, I don’t have much winter white (I once had a white flannel dress) and what I do have is washable ie white corduroy trousers which have been a great success. I dream of white silk, adore white cotton and cherish white wool.
White hair gets me the darndest compliments – by which I mean from unexpected sources – and we all prefer our teeth white though there are as many shades to white teeth as there are to white snow, whose variations include 20 plus words in Inuit to describe it.
There was a famous agent in Hollywood’s heyday who only ate white food – vichysoisse, chicken hash, meringue – whose wife and cook (two different people) liaised to keep him from boredom on his narrow menu. No good to me – there is no such thing as white steak, I don’t like white wine, rarely eat white rice or white bread. I was brought up to yearn for a bit of red, a bit of brown and as much dark green as I could eat.
There is the inference of good and evil (“he’s a white man” – no not a Caucasian, rather, a decent person) or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, blackness inferred. Balletically, there is the White Swan and the Black Swan though in life, they are as differently beautiful as each other – but maybe that’s the point.
For years I preferred white bed linen, white towels and white knickers: now only the last apply. Something to do with not putting dubious dye near those important parts. I loathe white fur, white high heeled shoes, white gloves of any length and we’ll just not talk about white handbags. I like white shirts, white jeans and white sneakers on other people. I dislike white eye makeup, whitened lipstick and white nails – no thank you.
I am not keen on white furniture but I like white walls, white lighting fixtures and white flowers – any white flowers except lilies. I like white paper to write on and brown envelopes to send: my mother used Basildon Bond blue and when using it did not confer on me her best qualities, I struck out on my own.
I understand white as a description of blinding pain or light but nothing prepares me for the softness of snow light or the sound of snow. I am of course over privileged: I don’t raise livestock or crops that might be threatened by snow. I have never passed more than a night without some heat or light or food I needed. I have never been snowed in, body or building. And I love the snow with the unreasoning always new sense of a child.
It is true, it’s only sleet and snow mixed this morning in London but the sky has the soft tousled quality of yellowing tissue paper (which I associate with treasures) and the flakes almost clear the streets of traffic and soften all sounds. Nothing illegal, immoral or fattening about my white stuff: just lovely.