Friday, 8 December 2017

Modern Manners

Caro Stow-Crat here. People are always saying that there's no such thing as etiquette these days, but we need modern manners for the modern world. I couldn't agree more. Personally, I won’t have people looking at their phones during meals. If you have to take an urgent call, excuse yourself and leave the room. And correcting your family’s Facebook posts is hardly good manners. It’s like interrupting them mid-anecdote to say: “It was 1985 – and we were in Boulogne.” Both are off-limits.
Oh, and never, ever tell a writer what to write about.

According to the owner of Ragley Hall, the height of rudeness is to send a postcard written in pencil. These days the equivalent is breaking off a relationship via fax. Or is that terribly old-fashioned? It would be text these days, or WhatsApp. You could even Instagram a picture of yourself and your new partner. Unless your wife does it first. Now there's an idea...

Rattling jewellery and squeaking shoes have been condemned since the days of Queen Victoria, but what about the clip-clop of high heels? Is it my imagination, or do cheap shoes make more of a noise?

When you eat, try not to make clanking sounds with your cutlery on your plate. To some people, a knife squeaking on a plate is as bad as fingernails down a blackboard.

I loved Howard's End, didn't you? But did Tracey Ullman really commit a gaffe by spooning jam directly onto her toast? I'm afraid so. She should have used the jam spoon to transfer some confiture to her plate. She should then apply the jam to her toast with her knife. And she should not have applied jam to toast in mid-air – butter and jam are spread while the toast is on your plate. The fact that the plate is small, and not flat, makes this awkward, but that’s middle-class manners for you. Everything is more difficult than it needs to be. (My friends the Teales would say “than it need be”. They love the subjunctive.)

Napkins may all be paper these days ("serviette" if you must), but the rules haven't changed. Unfold it and put it on your knee immediately you sit down. Arrange it carelessly rather than folding it neatly.

Puddings should be eaten with a fork if possible.

If you still smoke (we send guests out on the terrace), put the cigarette in the corner of your mouth, not the centre, and hold it between two fingers, not your finger and thumb. But do take it out of your mouth when you're talking. I still don't know quite what to do when somebody smokes one of those "vape" things. And they smell like boiled sweets.

British people sometimes say, “You must drop by if you’re passing,” or “We must meet for coffee”, or “We must have lunch some time”. Ignore them. British people never just “drop in”. They like to be prepared for guests by tidying the rooms they will welcome you into and hiding all the clutter. And they have to be mentally prepared. They need time to put on their clean clothes and their social persona. Unfortunately Britain lacks places where people can meet spontaneously. Of course, they may be giving you a hint that they want you to do all the hard work and make the social arrangements. It can all degenerate into a game of "After you, Claude".

If your date takes you to his favourite restaurant and flirts with his favourite waitress in front of you, break it off. Actually, just get up and walk out.

It is extremely rude and pedantic, when engaged in general conversation, to make quotations in a foreign language. (Gent's Etiquette, 1860)

Well-bred people never intrude where they are not wanted. (Marie Corelli)

Once upon a time it was considered the height of indelicacy and low breeding to mention the ‘liver’ or any other portion of one’s internal machinery. (Marie Corelli)

An ambassador explains: “there is really only one downside to having been an ambassador. Every person who comes to my house for dinner or a party brings me Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Each one thinks they have been incredibly funny and original.” He added that he doesn’t even like Ferrero Rocher. (Times, 2017)

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday, 27 November 2017

You Are What You Eat 12

Thirty or forty years ago, holidaying Upwards loved French pavement cafés and Italian piazzas, but back at home they led their lives behind closed doors. They didn’t eat out often, because they could only go to expensive French restaurants, or Italian restaurants in Soho. They couldn’t go to cafés (all working class), or chains like Wimpy and the Golden Egg (lower middle class, full of tourists). They didn’t go to pubs much (noisy, smoky, full of the wrong people). They spent as little time as possible in public places (crowded with the “hoi polloi”). They hated to see and be seen. We went to endless “bring a bottle” parties in each other’s homes. But then we began to go to community festivals and fringe theatre and comedy gigs and salsa classes and gyms... Some American research concludes that people meet in public places more now than they did 30 years ago.

According to the broadsheets, burger chains have “transformed the British dining experience” in the last ten years. They mean upmarket burger chains in central London (Byron, Five Guys), not Wimpy, Wendy, McDonalds, Burger King and Star which have been with us for decades. You’ll find a McDonalds everywhere, but the others are more often seen in working-class areas, are much cheaper, have no gourmet touches and don’t qualify as a “dining experience”. You can get a decent burger in some pubs, too, with proper chips.

Oh, no, it’s not burgers, it’s the sandwich: The world-beating British sandwich industry is worth £8bn a year. It transformed the way we eat lunch, then did the same for breakfast – and now it’s coming for dinner. Guardian Nov 2017 (Food can only “transform British lunching” if someone is making billions out of it.)

The papers also say the young are discovering low-alcohol wine (and Tesco has a new range). Not like the old paint-stripper versions of the past! (We had perfectly decent low-alc wine and beer in the 80s, thanks. Always wondered where it went.)

Old St pop-up breakfast snack: Brazilian cheese bread with cassava flour. (@HamishMThompson)

Have been underfed stupid arty food: going for pizza now. (Friend writes from biz conf in Milan)

Now that all hipster cafés are tricked out in recycled wood and distressed school chairs and Edison lightbulbs, caffs are catching on to the trend. They provide decent coffee (and distressed wood), but menus can be slightly strange. There's one in Broadway market that offers English breakfast, chips and gozleme, but can’t get its head round the sandwich. You get very thick bread (two slices) with far too much filling, and a lot of shredded iceberg lettuce that falls out when you try and bite it. Which you can’t, because it’s about the size of the complete works of Shakespeare in one volume. And you don’t get a knife and fork.

But to Upwards, the thinner the sandwich, the more common it is. Like a fish-paste sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off. Damp, bland and easy to eat (cut in triangles with a sprinkling of cress, please). Sandwiches like this come with a handful of potato crisps, in a half-timbered café somewhere like Marlborough. It’s decorated with oak beams, copper pans and Victorian china, and it's called the Polly Tea-Rooms. (It is, really.)

Central London is now full of noodle bars, sushi bars and burrito bars – for the visitors. An American ex-colleague once told me: "It’s OK to go to Dublin now – there are Thai restaurants!"

Apparently Wetherspoons are “cheap and tacky” and “chav central”. (Thankyou, internet. Update: the boss of Wetherpoons is printing pro-Brexit messages on beer mats.)

Wine-tasting and wine snobbery were popular with the middle classes in the 70s, epecially among young couples who had just bought their first house. It was like announcing that you were now an adult and had bought into the bourgeoisie. See also weddings in picturesque country churches.

Mary Berry has announced the death of the dining room. In her new house, she’s repurposed the room and is extending her kitchen so that she can eat in it. 

At Prince George’s school, “the canteen serves such dishes as lamb ragout with garlic and herbs, pork stroganoff with red peppers and smoked mackerel on a bed of puy lentils”. When the news got out, there was a run on Puy lentils. Upwards like these because they are a tasteful shade of dark brown and don’t go mushy when cooked, unlike the bright orange lentils you can get in the corner shop. I’m so glad I’m not going to Prince George’s school aged four. Someone should airlift his class some chicken nuggets and chips.

More here, and links to the rest.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

World of Interiors 11

We’re buying wallpaper again, apparently.

This ladder will make a perfect towel rail in a big farmhouse kitchen.
(Philip Serrell) Perhaps this is what they mean by “Modern Victorian”.

Only the Nouveau-Richards have the courage to set the TV IN the fireplace.

Even-more-bohemian Rowena Upward has moved again – she’s found a big Victorian house that was turned into government offices in the 50s. She’s keeping all the original features: cream paint, frosted glass partitions, steel filing cabinets and green baize noticeboards.

It’s said that when people got colour TVs, they drew their net curtains back to display them to the street. In North London, the absence of net curtains shows off your front room with its piano, bookcases, antique globe and restored rocking horse. The last two serve no function apart from expressing your status. (There’s a company somewhere re-distressing over-restored rocking horses.)

"Get the industrial loft look!" says Vinterior. With “rustic club chairs”, ie very distressed leather armchairs. What are they doing in an “industrial” loft? Worry not, you can also get vintage industrial stools that look like the real thing.

Samantha Cameron, wife of the ex-prime minister, who has a clothes line to promote, invites us into her lovely home in the Cotswolds. (Lucy Halfhead in Harpers Bazaar, Aug 2017, paraphrase)

She has an antique red lacquer cabinet – but it's shoved in a corner with a row of straw hats arranged jokily on the top. There's a lot of stripped, reclaimed wood (mirror, table, boxes). Walls, ceiling and floor are shades of beige. In the living room there are beige sofas and, as someone cattily pointed out, a “faux-fur throw”. Fairy lights are draped above the mantelpiece, but she should move that nice painting of roses before it gets smoke-damaged. Anyone who thinks they have a touch of class themselves is mortified that Sam Cam could splash her interiors over the pages of an American magazine that calls the place where she lives a “home”. And didn’t she get that wicker log basket and throw from her mother’s tat shop? Mrs Cameron has a poster in the kitchen reading “Calm down dear, it’s only a recession”. As somebody said recently, words should never be used as décor. Unless it’s a neon by Tracey Emin reading Every Part of Me Is Bleeding.

More here, and links to the rest.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Decor Crimes Again

Giant sculptures of human body parts in public places.
Dangling replica antique light bulbs.
Garish carpets in public spaces.
“Restoring” Victorian ghost signs.
Frosted glass partitions.
Restored floorboards that are too orange and shiny.
Wood-panelled interiors in a modern office block.
Sticking recycled planks to the walls.
A large black-and-white photograph of pebbles.
Buildings in the shape of a giant human head.
Sentimental garden sculptures, “sculpture park” sculpture, memorial sculpture...
Driftwood sculpture.
Chainsaw sculpture.

Everything too new, apart from one ye olde artefact in the wrong place (the potato weighing scales in the living room).

Knocking through and extending until there are meaningless bits of wall sticking into spaces (holding the roof up). The same dull fitted carpet “flows” through the entire ground floor. Adding a “glass box” extension to a standard semi. Removing all downstairs dividing walls and building a huge glass-roofed extension into the garden. Stripping all character from the interior of a period house because you really want to live in an airport lounge. And you need all that space to... do what exactly?

In a Victorian house
A fireplace with a copper hood.
Stripped wood throughout. (The Victorians would have painted it dark brown, or later in the century, cream.)
Exposed brick in your living room. (The Victorians would have had a fit. It's hardly "rustic", either.)
A stable door – to your bedroom.

The “abandoned houses of the Hebrides” aesthetic.
The "servants’ quarters of derelict Irish country house” look.
Fake shuttered concrete internal cladding.

The bamboo table in the hall upstairs was only a small side shoot of the original bamboo forest that sprouted in the basement. Everything down here was of mottled, banana‐coloured bamboo. There was a bamboo wardrobe… washstand…easy chair. And there was a bamboo‐and‐shell overmantel. (London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins)

From Elle Decoration
Don’t be afraid of colour “Some of my favourite rooms have been oxblood or grass green since before I was born.”
“Trends are not your friend. Decorating should be personal.” (I think they mean “Replace those 80s curtains.”)
Hang your art at eye level, where we can see it.
Avoid tiny “floating” rugs. (Also, have some rugs, like the Victorians and Georgians who installed those lovely floors you’ve just restored.)
Avoid open shelves in the kitchen – do you want everyone to see your naff mugs? Actually, why not throw them out?
Avoid stainless steel. “Don’t build a diner in your kitchen.”
Declutter, but keep out a few personal items. Avoid the hotel suite look.
Avoid matching everything, and furnishing a room from a single source.
Curtains should reach the floor.
An upmarket room needs classy light-switches. And how about brass finger-plates for the doors?

From The TimesCarpet in bathrooms.
Armchairs ditto.
TV in every room.
Roman blind in kitchen.
Pedestal mats in the loo.
Cat litter in kitchen (and cat food).
Utensil rack above hob.
Victorian pulley clothes drier (maiden).
Aga in the city "They’re used mainly for heating country houses.”

The entrance hall, which was big enough to contain a large fireplace, had probably been designed to be used as a breakfast-room. The first thing seen on coming in was... a wood carving of a helmeted guardsman with a shield and spear standing on a pediment carved with animal heads. (The Great Indoors by Ben Highmore on a Jacobethan castle – from the 30s.)
More here, and links to the rest.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Gentrification 7

Trying to rename New York neighbourhoods in order to gentrify them has a long history.

Wake up Nimbys, the option is either Tory housebuilding or Marxist social engineering (Daily Telegraph 7 June 2017) Can they possibly mean “Look out, they’re going to plonk poor people next door to YOU?” Of course they can. “Planning would soon be completely centralised, with bureaucrats in Whitehall dictating everything to the smallest detail… Mass council-house building, including in leafy areas, run by Marxist ideologues, a giant social engineering programme directly aimed at growing the Labour base and killing off the home-ownership dream?” The Tory alternative is new garden cities and suburbs, where poor people can be segregated and “home-ownership culture” preserved. Because of course, apart from the annoyance of having poor people living next door, it would bring down the price of your house. Oh I see – the whole point of Tory “garden cities”, ie new towns, is to keep house prices up, and keep people who need to be housed away from Tory voters. (And note the weasel “leafy areas” for “rich areas”.)

I grew up in the Yorkshire equivalent of what posh people who live in Essex claim is Hertfordshire. (John Avocado ‏@SuperCroup)

Increasingly clear my mum has been slyly upgrading my London location to Greenwich for the benefit of the neighbours. (via Twitter)

The British obsession with class has left writers inventing their own, fictional settings, in order to escape judgments about their characters' background and social standing... Sophie Hannah, the bestselling crime author, said she had created a new county for her novels after finding homegrown readers could not avoid thinking about the stereotypes of the British regions. Saying people are now "obsessed with attaching ideas about what kind of people live in a certain place", she claimed she had struggled to escape judgments about storylines. (Guardian. “Now”? They always did it!)

“Islington dinner-party”
is now code for “dangerously left-wing, not nearly racist enough”. (Islington may have a few million-pound houses, but it also has a lot of social housing and deprivation.)

Complaining about the "easy condemnation" of gentrification is the most tiresome form of fake contrarianism there is. (@davidjmadden)

A vandal in Fresno explained his actions: “If you truly love downtown try embracing the folks who’ve been here for decades instead of just running them out and replacing them with snobby little hipsters looking down their noses at everyone else.” He complained that rich white people from North Fresno didn't want to mix with the more diverse people of South Fresno.

Let's rip down anonymous big blocks & spend millions replacing them with anonymous big blocks. (@createstreets on 21st century architecture and planning)

Upwards like to say of a place “It’s very atmospheric”, meaning that it's close to the stereotype they have of a (Polish restaurant, Greek island, Russian housing estate). East London is so atmospheric - like something out of Dickens!

Gentrification used to be called “tarting up”. Workers’ cottages got brightly painted front doors flanked by little trees in pots. Now, when your area is rechristened “something quarter” you can consider yourself gentrified. But it usually includes knocking down something decent and building tin-can flats.

In the 80s, Upwards used to say hopefully that their area was “coming up”, meaning that middle-class people were moving in, so the pavements would surely become cleaner, the street lights brighter and the shops less grimy. And you might even be able to buy lemons, rocket and tarragon vinegar. They waited years while everything stayed the same apart from one Marxist bookshop. What they really wanted to “come up” was of course the value of their house.

It happened in Hackney – the street lights are brighter, enabling “night life” for young people, but we’re too old for that now. We were thinking more of reclaiming beautiful old Georgian houses which were too good for the garment factories and working-class families that inhabited them.

The South Bank... entirely full of pop-up fish restaurants and jugglers on unicycles. (‏@IanMartin Juggling unicyclists haven't been seen since the 80s, but there are too many street food stalls, and over-amplified singer-songwriters given busking licences by a tin-eared committee.)

Central London used to be quite seedy and downmarket and there were few tourists. It was full of chorus girls and motor salesmen, according to a friend – also market traders, tarts and film companies. The area around Centre Point was all guitar, sheet music and drumstick shops. Now it's getting more and more crowded with restaurants, especially noodle bars and burrito bars for the Japanese and American visitors. And everywhere is rather expensive. When I was young and a student we couldn’t afford to eat out all the time! I suppose now young people get decent salaries, and affluent middle-class people send their children to university in greater numbers.

Someone makes the point that hipsters can’t afford a flat or get a regular job – but they can have locally sourced sausages and 50 different types of coffee. (Perhaps because they only job they can get is to open a café.) Surely the market can’t sustain ALL those coffee shops? Except they don’t just sell coffee, they are shared offices as more and more people “work from home”. And middle-class people live in public more than they used to, and they have laptops, and it’s easier to work surrounded by other people, and they don’t have tables at home because there isn’t room.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Choose Your Words Carefully 7

Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, was interviewed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this week. She said afterwards that online trolls watching the programme had been “attacking my accent again saying I am thick etc. I will reiterate I am proud of my accent and will not change!” Ms Rayner comes from Stockport in Greater Manchester.
 (Oliver Kamm Times July 2017)

I've had that sort of nonsense all my life. Regional = thick. Try dialect on top of accent & watch them do the Python Northerners sketch. (Maggie Atkinson‏ @matkinson956)

I was ushered over to some lecturers with the handful of fellow scholarship kids to meet some senior members of faculty. One asked me a few questions about my background, then said “A word of advice – lose the accent, it’ll only hold you back.” (

Binky Felstead is too posh to be able to say words like “most” and “going” (“meeohst”, “gaying”). Her husband answers the phone with “Bon soir!” because he doesn’t know what it means. Posh voices are amazing, aren’t they? I mean the proper ones, where every noise sounds a bit like “waah” or “falafel”. (Hugo Rifkind on the TV programme Binky and JP’s Baby, Times July 2017)

Caroline Stow-Crat is donating to the relief effort, but she can't help flinching slightly when newscasters talk about "hurry-canes": "It's like calling porcelain 'porcellayne'. 'Hurricane' rhymes with 'Milligan'. Almost."

Samantha Upward has been trying for years to shorten the A in Glastonbury. Should she apply this theory to plasticene as well? And Elastoplast? And does sloth rhyme with cloth or growth? But she can’t bring herself to call a biro a “ball-point”, or simply a “pen”. Pens are fountain pens.

Whichever way you pronounce "scone", the other way sounds posh. (GH)

She had the slightly common vowel sounds of the truly upper class. (Falling, Elizabeth Jane Howard)

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

You Are What You Eat 11

In the 50s, Upwards despised those who put paper doilies under cakes. Sugar tongs and butter curls showed your status – a distinction swept away with the demise of the tea party. They took place in drawing rooms, and you pushed in a trolley tinkling with cups, plates, teapot, hot water jug, cakes, biscuits, and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off, which you then laid on a tea table. Conversation was polite, and guests might get a tour of the garden (“It’s not looking its best!”).

In British noirs of the 50s and 60s, there are scenes in posh restaurants. Diners click their fingers for the waiter, who is repellently obsequious. “What a pleasure to see you again, sir! The trout is very good tonight.” Thank goodness all that has passed.

In the 60s and 70s, it was very difficult to say you didn’t like melons, peppers or hot curry. People used to force you try them, and tell you it was an “acquired taste” (which you obviously hadn’t tried hard enough to obtain). Why did they care so much? Was it because these foods were class markers, and they couldn’t be associated with someone who wouldn’t try anything new or foreign, and preferred the bland and familiar? You had to try the new foods, and brag that you had eaten them.

Nicky Haslam remembers “someone coming from London cradling two avocado pears as if they were the Holy Grail.” (Redeeming Features)

The dining room becomes a place for dragooning young ones, policing their behaviour, instilling adequate cutlery skills. (The Great Indoors, Ben Highmore)

In the 50s, our parents tried to do gracious living on too small a budget: bread and butter were provided at lunch and dinner even though nobody ate it. Side plates were put out, but never used. And then they had to be washed up. (When did that stop?)

In the 80s, a friend sneered a flatmate who "cooks with tuna!"

Street food is fashionable, but it means that there are people in the street and on the bus eating whole meals with meat, veg and spices, out of a little box. Hamburgers were bad enough. What happened to “one does not eat in the street”? (Somehow hot dogs off a cart are not "street food".)

The Times rules on barbecues: You don’t want “your garden party to be a case of burnt chicken breasts and tubs of shop-bought hummus... Yet they seem to think that they are still coming to a party in 1987 and turn up with a pack of Wall’s sausages and a bottle of lurid pink rosé.”

Brioches are fashionable, but Sam can’t eat them. In fact she has to sneer about them because they are too sweet.

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodor’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican. (David Brooks, How We Are Ruining America, New York Times, 7/11/17)

Sandwiches have gone upmarket. If they're not full of shredded lettuce that falls out when you take a bite, they're made with bread so thick you have to take the sandwich apart and eat it with a knife and fork.

Definitelies slosh Bird’s custard on their puddings (tinned steamed sponge). Teales pour Devon custard from a carton. Samantha Upward makes “crème anglaise”, stirring an egg yolk into a pint of milk over a very low heat and adding a smidgeon of sugar. “No flour, please!”, she shudders. But it’s such hard work that she doesn’t do it very often. Rowena wonders where you can get crème patissière.

Upwards won't eat tinned carrots, baked beans and sausages, potatoes, mushy peas, stewed steak or chicken in white sauce, but red kidney beans, chickpeas and Baxter’s consommé are OK.

Italian waiters don’t understand “fizzy water” – you have to ask for “sparkling”. This is excruciating for Upwards, who think “sparkling” is a marketing term, like “packaging”. If the waiter looks blank, Sam switches to “frizzante”.

You can get black ice cream. End of days.

Shopping involves technology these days, and other people are using it wrong:

In a supermarket, whose responsibility is it at the checkout to put the ‘divider’ in place between their own and the next customer’s shopping?
(Yougov survey question)

“Women take for ever finding their money” has become “I was stuck at the checkout behind someone with a wallet full of credit cards. I had to stand there while they tried them all until they found one that wasn’t rejected.” And now people are using contactless cards for amounts less than £10!

More here, and links to the rest.