Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Although socks do not maketh the man, they are not insignificant. As I knelt at the altar on my wedding day, bridal eyes lowered in holy repose, I caught sight of a startling patch of lemon yellow and sky blue. I no longer remember if I had pledged my troth before or after this distraction, but the blessings of matrimony went hazy as I realised the blaze of colour was argyle socks emerging from the groom’s elegant and somber morning suit. In that most solemn moment, I vowed that, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, I would be the sock controller.

And, if I may say so, I’ve taken on this role with the dedication of a poet. Before I unpacked my trousseau, I rushed off to Peter Jones for 12 pairs of calf-length, navy blue wool socks. I also bought sober thicker socks to cushion the wellie clad foot on frozen farm walks and long days digging. Although I’m no domestic goddess, I tenderly guarded these socks, protecting them from the brutality of puppy mouth and tumble drier. And, every few months, I did inventory, renouncing the stray and forlorn, replenishing, up-grading.

Then, in a reckless moment, I decided that the navy era was over. Overnight, I converted to red. Revolutionary red, cherry red, flame red, pillar box red. I abandoned SW1 and took to making sock pilgrimages to O&C Butcher (gents outfitters) on the Aldeburgh High Street where courteous staff allowed me to browse at length among the wool, cotton, wide top and long socks.

The pursuit of red socks has been a secret pleasure, intimate but useful. Then Sir Christopher Meyer burst onto the scene with his memoirs DC Confidential, taking centre stage in the red sock world. Suddenly, red socks became a moral embarrassment, the heel of disloyalty, the hosiery of bad judgement. My husband began wearing the discreet black Wolsey socks reserved for funerals. ‘Look,’ I said, defending our former ambassador to Washington, ‘Robin Cook and Clare Short both wrote books spilling the beans. Alastair Campbell is itching to publish his diary.’ ‘Not a defence for disgraceful behaviour,’ came the reply.

Still, long suffering Father Christmas left DC Confidential in my stocking. I devoured it in 48 hours. The (soft) core of the book is that Tony Blair could have changed history if he hadn’t been so star-struck by America and by George W. Bush. The Prime Minister had huge leverage after 9/11. For Americans, his eloquence was like water to men lost in the desert. Blair could have slowed the US’s headlong rush to war. The hard core is: if he had only listened to his ambassador.

Friends in Washington say that Meyer and his French-Russian wife Catherine known in the capital as ‘Fred and Ginger’ were hugely popular, liked for their stylishness and genuine love of America. Lady Meyer was admired for her courage in fighting the nightmare battle for her children. Americans were mystified that her ex-husband, a German doctor, could kidnap his children and keep them from their mother for years. (Her sons, 21 and 18, now visit, but their childhood was lost to her in a maze of Germanic legal cruelty.)

I would have preferred sharper whacks at the neo-con plot that pushed Mr Bush into the White House, and America and Britain into war, but Sir Christopher is a diplomat; tactful to his hosts. Meanwhile, the time is right to give the red socks a rest. Fortunately, Father Christmas left a stocking stuffed with socks in shades as subtle as a Farrow and Ball paint chart.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on January 12, 2006.