Sunday, 13 April 2014

What's in a Name?

Insert name here

Last year, according to the UK Deed Poll Service, an estimated 58,000 people changed their name – an increase of 4,000 on the previous year. A decade ago, only 5,000 people changed their names. (Daily Mail Feb 2012)

Whenever there’s an election, I scan the list of candidates. Those standing for the main parties tend to be called Beacham, Hammond, Davidson or Taylor – names derived from places, ancestors, forebears’ trades.

When I stumble over a name that’s awkward, agricultural, eccentric, unusual or distorted, or that looks misspelled, I nearly always find that its owner is standing for a minority party. They haven’t got round to prettifying it, changing it, or returning its spelling to a more regular form.

If your name’s Ballance, it’ll constantly be changed to Balance by spellcheck. And how many times over a lifetime will you have to say “No, not Rodgers – Odgers”?

But it would be a dull world without people called Drinkall, Spickernell, Sables, Nettleship, Cullip, Jestico, Badrick, Bage, Blench, Fanthom, Gunstock, Hookem, Lightwing, Mallender, Rippeth, Shonk, Turtill, Varnsverry, Wildgust or Wrench. Maybe you voted for them.

It would be a shame to lose them all. But why be Mudd or Smellie when you can be Maude or Smiley? (Of course “smoothing” your name, like smoothing your accent, means “bringing it upmarket”.)

You can just announce publicly "I, Cedric Grubb, wish to be known as Charles Grosvenor" – as long as you don’t use your new name to defraud anybody. But if you want to make the change permanent, here’s how:

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Classy Collecting II

And cultural capital. Or "taste", as an 18th century Stow Crat would have put it.

Upwards and Weybridges were taught at school that Romantic poetry is the best. Contrarian Rowena likes 18th century Dryden and Alexander Pope. Arkana reads 80s feminist poets. Weybridges and Stow Crats like poems that turn up on the “your 100 best poems lists”, because they’re the only ones they remember from school anthologies.

Middle-class Upwards and Weybridges agree that High Gothic architecture is the pinnacle of achievement, building-wise: the more prickly spikes and pointless over-decoration the better. Somebody always makes the crack about “a-spire-ing” to heaven. Bohemian Arkana Nightshade prefers log cabins, and  Rowena has an embarrassing fondness for very plain Romanesque churches that look like corrugated iron barns. (She likes those, too.)

It used to be very cool to display hand-made clay teacups from India (in India they are like paper cups and are thrown away after one use). It showed you had been to India - but these days everybody goes.

Upwards used to collect fishingabilia – cork and green glass fishing-net floats (also known as "witch balls"). They’re delighted when they visit a seaside village and find people still fishing for a living. It’s so authentic. Upward artists circa 1900 were crazy about commercial fishing and produced endless pictures of boats, working beaches and craggy old fishermen. (But not of fish-gutting girls.) But Upwards aren't interested in fly fishing – it’s Howard Weybridge who collects old fishing rods and reels. Harry Stow-Crat collects vintage guns, cars and lawnmowers. They’re called “mantiques”. Upwards who live in the New Forest and collect classic cars are almost Stow Crats.

There was a brief fashion in the 90s for lampshades based on primitive fishing traps (you scored more points if your lampshade really was a primitive fishing trap).

Eileen brashly asks an Upward friend with expertise what her objets are worth – he refuses to tell her, and says patronisingly, “What matters is the pleasure it gives you.”

Jen loves Cash in the Attic and makes quite a bit on her yard sale. Mr Definitely is an expert in something unlikely like Japanese netsuke or samurai swords. Mrs D collects Royal Worcester porcelain – lots of gold and lifelike paintings of fruit. If she lives in a caravan, she collects cut glass and imitation Sèvres.

Upwards still find the word “pewter” hilarious.

More here.

Monday, 7 April 2014

You Are What You Eat V

A thing with a roof is a pie
"Fussy, pretentious, haute cuisine hotel restaurant food." (Angela Carter)

An Aldous Huxley character ticks off his second wife for calling a flan a pie: “Flan, dear – a thing with a roof is a pie.” The distinction has disappeared – a pie can be a flan or a quiche, or even a casserole. Flans have mainly vanished, too.

A suspect describes the murdered woman: “I’ve watched her do the simplest things – like eating an apple. She'd peel it in one piece, round and round till the whole peel fell off. Then she'd cut the apple and dice the quarters, getting it all ready before she ate it… She must have seen how people do things here, but it never occurred to her that she ought to copy them.” John Le Carré, A Murder of Quality (What are posh people supposed to do with apples? Probably cut it in quarters, remove the core, and eat the quarters. In earlier times, it may have been one of the ways they advertised their excellent teeth – they could afford dentists, while working class people often had all their teeth extracted to save the expense, and wore dentures. Thank God for the NHS.)

In a Times piece on what people keep in their fridges, writer Jilly Cooper reveals she has three, stuffed with “Sanglier paté from France, poached salmon, mousses from Waitrose. We also have an animal fridge, purely for the dogs.” (That's wild-boar paté.)

"When will it be socially acceptable for alcohol drinkers not to drink without an excuse? Phil Daoust recommends lying to friends by feigning a headache or hangover. Is it really so inadmissable to abstain? With 1.6m people in England dependent on alcohol, we need a serious change in attitude, starting with our advisers." Elisabeth Johns, Brighton (Guardian June 22 2013)

“Sell-by dates are just a marketing device.” Bill Turnbull, BBC Breakfast 2013-06-09

A “scratch meal” in the 30s-50s was one assembled or cooked in ten minutes, by yourself – ie not one cooked and served by servants.

Shop-bought cakes were considered vulgar.” Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light
Virginia Woolf didn’t want to return to a middle-class life with “overcooked meat”. Upwards are obsessed with underdone meat. They like bloody steak, as well as beef carpaccio, Parma ham and steak tartare - which are actually raw. (Though all three are unfashionable now.)

Posh people eat a huge dinner late at night, so they are not hungry for breakfast, or lunch, or tea… this makes going on holiday with them really hard. Also they are obeying a secret directive that you don’t waste money (sixpence) on eating out. Also anywhere you’d find to have breakfast, lunch or tea on holiday will be common. Also eating because you are hungry and drinking because you are thirsty is really rather vulgar. Dinner is different – dinner isn’t eating and drinking, it’s “having dinner”, an important social ritual at which you show off your knowledge of correct behaviour, good taste in tableware, and expertise in the latest esoteric food and wine – not to mention the latest health-conscious diet, food-exclusion fad and super-berries.

29% of primary school children think cheese is harvested from plants (and fish fingers are made of chicken etc etc). Could they possibly be teasing the researchers? The middle classes are obsessed with the idea that “kids these days don’t know where food comes from”. You try explaining to a four-year-old where cheese comes from. Or lamb. It links to Upward hatred for instant meals and takeaways. They used to despise tinned food, particularly salmon. It also connects to their insistence that kids should eat adult food with a knife and fork (and lamentations that children are turning up at school not knowing how to hold cutlery). At least in Victorian times when children lived in a nursery and saw their parents for half an hour a day (if you were rich enough) they were allowed to eat nice, bland bread and milk dispensed by nurses who wouldn’t have dreamed of explaining where milk came from.

Middle-class Upwards love to explain that Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is not really chocolate, even though it’s what British people think is chocolate. Then they boast of the high chocolate count in their favourite very exclusive brand that can only be bought somewhere unlikely.

They're always whingeing that you can’t get offal any more, and claiming that ox heart was delicious. (It wasn't, but tongue was.) They're also pious about eating fruit and veg in the right seasons, and obsessed with “encouraging their children to try different foods” – very important because you don’t want them turning down piperade in front of your friends. Of course it’s the commonest kids who live on bread and jam (1900) or chips/fried chicken (now).

The latest hipster trend is to open a café and call it “The Haberdashery”. What are they going to call their haberdashery – The Bakery? Trendy ingredients April 2013: fennel pollen and baobab.

No Upward would have a set of coasters in a matching box. They could never eat anything called a “lunchpot”.

Upwards love anything made by peasants, especially peasants in other countries. A "homemade" cake might be a WI Battenberg made by common Brits, but artisanal bread is crusty bread made by foreign peasants. And they adore foraging. Elderflower champagne, summer pudding. It’s seasonal, it’s natural, and it’s free.

And they’re obsessed by checkout dividers, and the way they’re manipulated by others in the queue. They have "queue rage". Apparently Tesco is now naff.

Yoghourt started life as a punitive superfood which Upwards ate without sugar because it was good for you (and new). You can now get hypersweet toffee yoghourt – hurrah!

Upwards and Stow-Crats eat a “baked potato”. Lower-middle Teales eat “potatoes in their jackets”. They loved smorgasbord when it was fashionable. At the local “greasy spoon” café Samantha Upward struggles to remember it’s a “jacket potato” and the Polish waitress won’t understand “baked”. (It’s “jacket” on the menu she’s memorised.) When eating in public, some Teales will only nibble with their front teeth.

Sometimes posh people take a common food such as crisps and make an upmarket version. It’s still sold in corner shops, but it’s twice the price, so that’s all right. Popcorn in different flavours is the latest (or it was – seems to have gone again). I'm not sure how Heinz is doing with its garlic/pepper/honey tomato ketchup.

Americans sensibly call fusilli “corkscrew noodles”. They also have to go on about how nasty fruit cake is. They're right! But it’s the only kind Upwards are allowed to like. Dark fruit cake was the only cake – apart from seed, sand, madeira, poppy seed, drizzle – but never Victoria sponge, and nothing with cream. Upward cakes have yoghourt based fillings that taste of cheese and contain no sugar at all. Children hate them.

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Choose Your Words Carefully

Let them eat cake
Or you'll give away your background. And that can be dangerous...
“Nothing was more likely to get you beaten up in Durham than rhyming ‘grass’ with ‘arse’. But I found it got worse when I left home. I remember hamming it up even more, when I grew fed up of the constant ‘Really? You don’t SOUND like you come from Durham.’” (David Perry in a letter to the London Review of Books, Feb 2014)

And some people say that class has disappeared. Or at least, it's more nuanced now. It's based on income and background, not genetics. (Translation: Class is still with us.)

I used to say “mmmmmm” on a downward inflection for “yes”. Poshos understand that it just means agreement. Others take it as a sneer. Or else they choose to take it that way because they think I ought to despise them. (I’ve been bullied for saying "Mmmm". I've been bullied for saying "Absolutely!" I’ve even been bullied for saying “yes”. Yeah, right, OK, then…)

When taking off posh people, sprinkle your sentences with “darling” and “my dear”. Also mince around as if about to say “La, Sir Percy!” Posh people would not recognise themselves. If you really want to pass for posh, call a swimsuit a "cozzy". Delicious food is "ambrosial". Ask querulously: "“Why does Twitter now subject me to people I don't follow just because someone I do has replied to them?” (Twitter is a bit too democratic for their taste. Robert McCrum wails about "the abuse and impoverishment of English online (notably, in blogs and emails)" and what he perceives as "the overall crassness of English prose in the age of global communications".)

When your holiday accommodation is disapointing, say: “We ended up in a pretty grisly cottage.”
“Squalid” used to be an upper-class term of general disapproval. (There's an overlap with “sordid”.) Lucian Freud thought birth control was “squalid”. Squalid was the opposite of gracious living – the milk bottle on the table versus the Georgian silver cream jug. Writer Penelope Fizgerald was given a council flat after her houseboat sank, on what she ungratefully called a “squalid council estate”.

Another upper-class habit is using the brand names of long-vanished products: instead of "glue", Seccotine, Gripfix, Bostick or Copydex. Posh people insist that you don't call a house or flat a "home", or a stamp a "postage stamp". And they have a strange habit of saying “hokkay” for OK.

The next few rungs down, the upper middle-class Upwards, the middle-middle Weybridges, and the lower-middle Teales, have their own ways of distinguishing themselves.

"Design" is Teale, "pattern" Upward. To Upwards, Design is an airy fairy subject you study at art school. "Jersey fabric" is Teale, "knitted material" Upward. Samantha Upward would never call anything a “utensil” and has trouble with kitchen “units”. On a "warm" day, Jean Teale puts on a "swimsuit" and goes for a "dip". Upwards and Weybridges used to talk about “bathing”, hence bathing-suit, bathing-costume or “bathers”.

What Sam calls a “shop-window dummy” Jen calls a "mannequin". Upwards never say the words “fascia” or “bunny-rabbit”. Teales give "gifts", Upwards give "presents". "Glue" is Upward, "gum" Teale. Jen can refer to “gummed paper” and a “gummed flap” without flinching.

I sometimes make Upwards shudder by using the term "breeze block". (I don't know the posh equivalent.)

Upwards don’t “greet” their friends. That’s what floor-walkers do – those men and girls in polyester suits posted around large shops to show you where to find what you want. Sometimes greeters with name badges and clipboards welcome you when you arrive at an official function. Upward girls could never do such a job, but they can work as door girls for their friends' fringe theatre shows.

What do you call a painting on three panels – a triptych? Upwards are more likely to say triptick because they know it’s Greek. Overcorrecting Teales say tripteesh if they say it at all. Upwards call the fungus on boulders "litchen". "Liken" is a bit downmarket. But Weybridges and Teales probably think litchen is downmarket. "Liken" is gaining ground, and some people even pronounce lichen as if it was German.

The pompous Weybridges love to say “above all”,  “It doesn’t much matter”, or "No matter!". They're also fond of:

gives great pleasure

They pronounce the T in often.

More here, and in my mini ebook How to Talk Posh.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Class in the Novels of Barbara Pym II

Jacobean chintz

Wilmet Forsyth, the narrator of A Glass of Blessings (1958), is about 35, comfortably off, elegant, pretty, married and a bit aimless. She longs for romance, and though she has a sense of the ridiculous, she fails to notice some quite obvious aspects of her acquaintances. She is also a mild snob in a way typical of her background and times. But then so are most of her friends.

This is a very funny book, and Barbara Pym obviously enjoys wearing Wilmet's expensive clothes, colourful silk scarves and antique jewels by proxy. Like many Pym heroines, Wilmet relies on the local Anglo-Catholic church for a social circle. There is a lot of chat about tea. The parishioners drink strong Indian tea with sugar (tut!). Wilmet and her husband place themselves in the pecking order by preferring Earl Grey (though Lapsang is an option), and drinking it correctly without milk.

Wilmet has lunch out with her mother-in-law, Sybil, who stops at a self-service cafeteria. Wilmet thinks this is really rather downmarket. "We... now stopped outside an extremely unappetizing looking cafeteria, where a small queue had formed near the counter." She chooses "a cheese salad with a roll and butter, some stewed apple, and a cup of black coffee", but worries that the lettuce won't be clean, and is distressed by a scattering of chips on the floor.

Her middle-class friend Rowena collects "Chelsea, Dresden and Meissen" china and has photographs of her friends and family in silver frames on the grand piano. She lives in an "Elizabethan-style" house built in the 30s, with a monkey-puzzle tree on the lawn. All just a tiny bit naff.

They meet in London. "Even this restaurant," says Rowena, "in spite of its gay Italian paintings round the walls, has an air of Eastbourne about it. Look at the curtains - cream net and cretonne with a Jacobean design - that brings one down to earth all right!" (Jacobean crewel embroidery had a strange afterlife as a design on wallpaper, curtains and furnishing fabric.)

Wilmet meets her friend Piers, who sometimes behaves as if he is in love with her, in a city restaurant where "sausage toad" is on the menu. (This is toad-in-the-hole, an almost vanished British dish of sausages baked in batter.) What should they have for pudding? "Do you think you would like to eat Devonshire tart, whatever that may be?" asks Piers. "I'll eat whatever you suggest," she replies, "as long as it isn't pink blancmange." (Pink blancmange has probably disappeared for good - thank heavens. It was a sweetened cornflour "mould" – a distant and debased copy of a grand Victorian original probably made of double cream. Devonshire tart contains cream cheese and strawberries.)

Piers turns out to be living with a boyfriend called Keith, who gives them tea. "There was a check tablecloth on a low table, and plates of sandwiches and biscuits and a pink and white gateau arranged on plastic doilies. Each plate had a paper table napkin laid across it." In Keith's room there are few books, but: "A trailing plant of a kind which had lately become fashionable stood on another table, its pot in a white painted metal cover." Plastic doilies! Poor Keith. He even sometimes works as a knitting pattern model.

Her friend Mary (now engaged) confesses: "You see, I've never had any boyfriends." Thinks Wilmet: "What does one say, what word can one use, to describe what she meant? Lovers, admirers, suitors, followers - none seems to be quite right." Middle-class people still won't say "boyfriend".

She and her husband Rodney daringly visit Keith in the coffee bar where he works. Where's Piers? "He's just come in now," said Keith. "Look - in the doorway by that lady in the lemon jumper." Wilmet would never call a garment "lemon" - she only uses colour names, not the names of coloured things. It would have to be "pale yellow". Also to her, it's a "jersey" not a jumper. Oh, and she would never refer to a woman she didn't know as "a lady".

Though homosexuality was still illegal in the 50s, none of Wilmet's family are shocked when they find out about Piers and Keith, and after the initial surprise, neither is she. The reader, but not Wilmet, has already twigged that the local Anglo-Catholic priests and servers are all gay, too. Modern readers may find them a little caricatured.

More here.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

More Decor Crimes


"You can't go wrong with mid-oak-coloured cabinets and a dark grey granite worktop." (

"Net curtains, a trampoline in the garden and mirrored wardrobe doors." (Daily Express)

"Your red wall looks cool and striking, but not everyone will appreciate it." (

“with a show-home feel” (Zoopla)

single-aspect flats and houses: no light or too much, no ventilation

shoebox rooms with a window one end, furnished with a long sofa down the long side, opposite a wall-mounted TV

barrel roof added to brutalist flats (known as a “Blair hat”)

expensive hotel has a refurb and replaces shabby repro tat with new, rather more “richly” coloured repro tat

vertical blinds (Are they 80s retro, or do they make a house look like an office?)

ship’s wheel as decor

pale green onyx (especially a pale green onyx tissue box)

palatial bungalow modelled on an orangery (nice to live in, though, with lots of natural light)

ding-dong doorbell (or one that plays tunes)

stone, brick or wood-effect wallpaper (not seen for decades – but you can now get a very upmarket version imitating distressed or recycled wood)

shoes, coats and bicycles stored in the hallway (is there no room for a coat cupboard, a boot locker and a bike shed?)

“doggy odour” (Anne Maurice)

Garden crimes
a mound of earth and rock with water cascading down it trying to mimic the hanging gardens of Babylon (
weird garden plants (apparently potential buyers think they’re all Japanese knotweed) (Guardian)

60s crimes

not exactly décor, but the 60s policy of removing gravestones and turning graveyard into a lawn or park (Like “church-scraping” in the 1850s. And it went with the fitted carpet in the church - those have all gone now. I wonder why.)

In the 60s, many classical plaster ceilings were either hidden by suspended ceilings or painted in pink and green.

Fireplace crimes
wood burning stove in a “Georgian” fireplace in a 30s house
Tudor fireplace in a 50s bungalow
gas effect fireplace with pine surround (
fake fire in a faux chimney breast (after fireplaces and chimneys have been ripped out)
keeping all the Victorian fireplaces that will never be used again

In a Victorian terrace house
a kitchen diner with yards of granite
ending up "stripped down too far"

More money than sense
Apparently oligarchs now buy huge period houses and enucleate them – they knock down all interior walls and strip out all “features”.

kitchen designed to look slick and never be used in a Central London investment flat (They've had an unfortunate knock-on effect on kitchens people are actually going to cook in.)

huge living room containing nothing but leather sofas and a wall-mounted telly - in a house with a kitchen the size of a football pitch, and a garden that is one huge lawn stretching to the horizon. Apparently these are “light, airy living areas” (Escape to the Country). Yes, light and space and lack of clutter are good, but this is ridiculous. You could get the same effect by buying an old chapel and just removing the altar, the organ and all the pews. (What are they going to do in all that space? Yoga? Ballroom dancing?)

More here.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Class and Elizabeth Jane Howard

From a review in the London Review of Books by Tessa Hadley of All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (and Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles family saga). The unreflecting, self-denying Cazalets are middle class.

[Mrs Cazalet] encourages [her daughter] to think she is clumsy and ugly, because it’s good for her; and, besides, the family ‘did not mention, let alone discuss, people’s appearance’.

No one talks serious politics, and the older generation share an unexamined conservatism.

An aura of art hovers round the family, conferring its high-mindedness… But at their core the Cazalets are fairly philistine and definitely unintellectual.

Howard can give flat utterance to things which were more or less understood between her protagonists, but which they didn’t have a language for.

No doubt there’s something to be said for not making a fuss, doing your duty, getting on with things, not indulging yourself, pouring a stiff drink instead of moping.

[They’re not religious but] there’s a strongly self-sacrificial inflection in their way of thinking and the standards they set themselves. Some of Mrs C’s preferences are fairly frightening: tepid baths – they’re not ‘meant to be pleasant’ – and hard toilet paper; boiled mutton and blancmange.

[The mother and daughter] are a mostly vanished English middle-class type: girlish into old age, unsexual… disciplined, conscientious, narrow… always putting their own interests last.

More here.