Sunday 26 December 2010

Classy Cards and Gifts

Posh Caro Stow-Crat and middle-class Sam Upward say “Happy Christmas” and never write it Xmas, or use the word Yuletide. Eileen Weybridge and lower-middle-class Jen Teale write it Xmas and may say “Merry Christmas”. Howard Weybridge says “Compliments of the season!” Christian Teales carefully explain that it’s really Christ – Mass. (Upwards strike back with the info that X stands for Christ.

Sam and Caro give presents, Eileen and Jen give gifts. Harry Stow-Crat asks Caro what she wants: “Slosh, dosh or nosh?” (scent, money or food?). Sam gives everyone vouchers to build toilets in Ghana.

Sam wonders how long she should keep the jokey teapot from Eileen and Howard before giving it to the hospice shop. And she’s trying to hide the pungently scented candle decorated with pressed flowers that Jen’s given her. Jen can’t eat the misshapen fudge made by Sam’s children, delivered in a hand-made cardboard box, and feeds it to the pigeons.

Who was it who said that listening to Julie Andrews was like being hit over the head with a greetings card? Samantha sends cards with Gothic illuminations or nuns playing ice hockey—or else she puts an ad in the Times explaining she’ll be donating the money to help save the planet this year. But she writes “Season’s Greetings” inside the cards because she’s also sending them to her Muslim doctor, the Sikh couple in the corner shop, and some Jewish friends.

Sam listens to medieval Christmas music performed by Early Music groups. Gideon loves a good sing-song once a year and enjoys belting out Good King Wenceslas. Teales watch Songs of Praise and know all the words to Winter Wonderland and Let It Snow. The working-class Definitelies either ignore the whole thing and listen to Hip Hop, or join a Gospel choir.

Saturday 25 December 2010

How Do You Do Christmas?

Every year, Upwards wail about how horrible and commercial (i.e. expensive) Christmas is, while Teales witter about “the magic of”. (“Simplifying Christmas” means doing it for less.)
Everybody divides the holiday into “good Christmas” and “bad Christmas”. The bad is crowds in Oxford Street, people making money, people spending money, overindulgence generally. The good is carols from Kings College, twinkling from candles and decorations, and the living room theatre of Santa Claus’ visit (the mince pie with the bite out of it).

When the Upwards, Weybridges and Teales get together over sherry and nibbles, they almost come to blows over the Santa Claus question. Sam and Gideon won’t lie to their kids, while the others wax sentimental over the glowing faces of the little ones. Howard blusters over the council’s attempts to call Christmas “Winterval” (an urban myth, like Baa Baa Green Sheep). Bryan Teale, who works in the public sector, grumbles that his department weren’t allowed to sing carols.

Sam announces to anyone who will listen that they are having a goose, not a turkey, this year. When Country Living was fashionable, Sam used to make her own wreaths out of twigs and holly, and vast arrangements of autumn leaves. She hasn’t quite caught up with white ironic cutout Christmas trees, black tinsel etc. Now she decorates with holly and evergreens she’s picked in a real wood, explaining that it’s a symbol of everlasting life. She may have a few decorations, but they’ll be angels she made herself out of salt dough, or gingham stars. (Mrs Definitely crochets snowflakes to hang on her tree, and may even crochet a “tree skirt” for it.)

The Teales and Weybridges (and the Weybridges’ Australian au pair) go on a winter minibreak to a Christmas market in Prague and love all the glitter, choirs and wooden toys.

The Stow-Crats (plus the Stow Crats and Stowcrats who are trying to move with the times and live down their background) have a huge house party and play charades.

The Weybridges have a traditional Christmas dinner down to the last mince pie, cake and flaming pudding. They have a lot of cocktail parties for neighbours with traditional Japanese rice crackers and cheese footballs, which they call “cocktail snacks”. But they’ve learned to laugh at cubes of cheese on cocktail sticks stuck into half an orange.

The Definitelies get their party food from Iceland, including Thai prawn parcels with chilli dip, and veal roll (with a short O). They give vast cards with a lot of glitter, and decorate the outside of their house with glowing deer, Santas and elves and a huge MERRY CHRISTMAS.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

What Your Name Says About You

Weybridges are very fussy about people shortening their children’s names. “It’s Anthony - if we wanted to call him Tony we’d have named him Tony.” They search carefully for names you can’t shorten, and then brag about how clever they’ve been. The Stow-Crats call each other Johnny, Bobby, Timmy, Vicky, Mummy and Daddy. Everybody else shortens to: Bob, Tim, Mum, Dad. To the Definitelies, Lawrences are Lol, Garys are Gaz or Gazza.

Weybridges may call their children names that are one letter off a well-used name: Isopel, or Gillian with a hard G. Thalia Upward picks a unique, individual, cool name for her daughter that will knock all the other mothers’ eyes out - and then she discovers there are five other Helianthes in the playgroup.

Upwards call their daughters: Lily, Daisy, Rosa, Poppy, Flora, Iris, Ruby
Teales: Primrose, Fern, Jonquil, Pansy, Laurel
Stow Crats: Lavender, Viola, Linden, Primrose
Weybridges: Marigold, Holly, Heather, Erica, Cherry, Olive, Rosemary, Marguerite, Hazel, Beryl
Definitelies: Bryony, Violet, Ivy, Jasmine, Jade, Rowan, Saffron, Willow, Pearl

The Definitelies are notorious for calling their children two-syllable names so that they can wail the second syllable when calling them in or telling them off (“Oh, DarrEN!”). Upwards carefully avoid these.

Upwards are never, ever called Lowri. Or Ashlyn. Or Lorne. Formerly, their names never ended in “...ine” but this rule has been relaxed.

Stow-Crats pronounce Ralph as “Rafe”; for Upwards and Weybridges it’s “Rarlph”; everyone else rhymes it with Alf. Eve-lyns are Upward, Ev-lyns are Weybridge.

In Weybridge, Lindsey is for girls, Lindsay for boys. Teales are Linsey, Definitelies Linzi.
Sharon Definitely calls her girls Brooke, Madison and Tayla. Christine Teale’s children are Cullum and Bryony. Trevor, Kenneth and Kevin are Teales. Irish/Scots names are still fashionable, but different ones: Conan, Ronan, Cullum, Callum. Craig and Darren are now dads.

Older Weybridges are Arnold, Gordon, Norman, or names borrowed from grand families: Howard, Neville. Loz, Caz, Gaz, Suz, Jez are 80s throwbacks trying to be working class. The 80s were a gift to the upwardly or downwardly mobile because you could adopt the lefty vocabulary, uniform and lifestyle wholesale and no-one had a clue where you came from.

Upwards have neutral surnames because their families massaged or changed them in the 19th century (Mudds became Maudes, Smellies became Smileys). Stow-Crats can get away with being called Panter-Downes, Bodham-Wetton, Bigg-Wither or Page-Turner. Teales and Definitelies may have strange mutated surnames like Mook, Bivvins or Custage. Teales live with names like Iball because they don’t know you can change them. Nouveau-Richards change or make up their names but don’t get it quite right, like Miss Snevellicci and Miss Ledrook in Nicholas Nickleby.

A hyphenated surname looks posh. Some bearers have removed the hyphen (Martha Lane Fox) or run the names together (Lanefox). What was the idea? Sometimes a man married into a posher family and added its name to his own. Sometimes people were left legacies on condition they added (or adopted) a name. But you may end up Fearnley-Whittingstall. Or Hall-Hall. Or Digby-Vane-Trumpington. A double surname may indicate a mother who refused to drop her own surname, but the resulting combo may not be euphonious (Sneed-Sharpley).

Forms of Address

Sir John, the Right Reverend, Your Majesties...
Caroline Stow-Crat gives us the benefit of her experience:

Fans of Downton Abbey on the gogglebox faulted Maggie Smith for addressing a Duke as "Duke" - but that is how you address a Duke. It's only servants who call him "Your Grace".

To start from the top, when you first meet the Queen you call her "Your Majesty" - subsequently you call her "Ma'am", to rhyme with spam. For Prince Charles it's "Your Royal Highness" and "Sir".

Whatever you do, don't ask the titled person how you should address them. If you're not sure, discreetly ask someone else, or follow their lead. Admittedly, it doesn't help if the titled person is known to their intimates as "Bobo". In any walk of life, it doesn't do to call someone by a nickname if you aren't of their inner circle.

Anyone called Lord John Jones is the younger son of a Duke or Earl. Life peers are Lord Jones, or John Jones, not Lord John Jones.

A Knight is called Sir John Jones and is addressed as "Sir John"; his wife is "Lady Jones".

If you're going abroad, read one of those "Going to Syldavia on Business" type books, which should tell you if the Germans still call each other Fraulein Schmidt and Herr Braun when they've known each other for years.

If you're introduced from someone from the Far East, try and work out which is the family and which is the personal name. The Chinese put family names first, but they may switch to make it easier for you.

My friends Jen and Mrs Definitely talk about “grandfather” and “mother-in-law”, whereas I'd say “my grandfather” or “grandpa”. I call my mother-in-law by her first name, and refer to her as "Harry's mother".

have the full story – also in book form.

Quotes about Names

Your name says such a lot about you...

David Figlio of the University of Florida showed that girls given more feminine names are less likely to study maths or science, and that parents could set female twins on to opposing career paths by giving them names at either end of what he calls the femininity spectrum. He also showed that by giving children names which teachers perceive as being lower-status you may lower their likely academic achievement in comparison with children with more traditional names.

Our hero of the week is Alistair McLean, boss of the upmarket travel company Activities Abroad, who delivered an un-PC broadside against Britain’s chavs in a letter to customers. He simply identified the names of people you wouldn’t find on an Activities Abroad holiday: Dazza, Britney, Chardonnay, Shannon, Candice and the like. The names you would hear will be ones like John, Henry and Anne, he said.

My dad is adamant no one should ever shorten our names because “they're not the names he gave us” - no one calls me Rach or Andrew Andy in front of my dad. Guardian Mar 8 08

At my school, no one was called Jonathan and it was considered posh, but my family wouldn't let me shorten it. People would phone up and ask for John or Johnny and my parents would say "Nope, no one here called that." Guardian ditto

More here, and links to the rest.

Saturday 11 December 2010

When Do You Eat?

When Princess Marina was visiting a friend with a stately home open to the public, she looked out of the window in the middle of the afternoon and saw visitors picnicking on the lawn. Deeply puzzled, she asked: “What meal can they possibly be having?”

The later you eat, the grander you are. In Jane Austen’s books, “dinner” was a meal you had at three in the afternoon, followed by “tea” at seven and supper before you went to bed. Dinner slipped, first to five, then to about eight in the mid 19th century. Austen’s descendants felt they had to apologise for her characters eating at the "wrong" times of day.

Afternoon tea is eaten 4-5.30 and consists of tea, cake, biscuits, dainty sandwiches and scones; high tea is eaten from 5.30-7 and consists of tea, cake, sandwiches, salad, boiled eggs, beans on toast, cornish pasties etc, or else what the Upwards would class as “supper” dishes: spaghetti bolognese, cold meat and salad, thick soup, pizza.

A letter to the Guardian (July 08) twitted David Cameron for being the last person in Britain to use the word “supper”. This was a snide dig at his status: as an Upward he’d say “dinner” for a meal eaten with friends at about 8.30, or a meal out, but “supper” for a meal eaten with the children in the kitchen at around seven, though informally he’d say “Do you want to come round and eat?” Jen would say “come round for a meal”.

Or did the writer just want to sneer at him for being posh and had to pick on something? Looks like it. Use of the word “supper” attracts a volley of sneers. “It seems to me that only posh people (like Nigella Lawson) have supper. What exactly IS it and why is it only people who are or are trying to be posh use it?” Digital Spy Forum This jibe is fairly recent. The Last, and “sing for your” don’t seem to bother anybody.

If you accept the Upwards’ dinner invite, they make you wait around four hours, fainting from hunger. They then eat a huge meal at about 9 pm, meaning that they don’t need to eat breakfast, and don’t eat lunch till about 2pm (leaving you fainting once more, or feeling like a peasant for wanting to eat at 12).

Nancy Mitford (whose father was a Lord) ruled that it was common to say "cooked breakfast". This is because to her, the norm was a breakfast buffet laid out in the dining room of your stately home (with bacon, haddock, kidneys, scrambled egg etc on a hot plate).

Heat-Saving Tips

We, the Stow-Crats, live in a big house that was passed down through Harry's family. It's an old manor house, and bits of it used to be a monastery. It sleeps 16, and as you can imagine it's pretty draughty.

If you live in a converted Georgian rectory, you probably have some of the same problems. So here are my tips for keeping warm without breaking the bank. You might even help to save the planet too!

1. Live in (and heat) two or three rooms. Pick small ones, close together. Think of them as a flat!

2. Live in your kitchen. The Aga is a good source of heat. (If you don't have an Aga, install one.) Move in the telly, your laptop, a sofa, and some armchairs. Of course you already have a kitchen table and chairs. Think of it as a café!

3. Fit floor-length, lined curtains to all your windows (which are probably original wooden sashes and rather draughty). If you aren't using a room during the day, keep the curtains closed. Weight the bottom of the curtains with lead weights. (Shut the curtains and blinds in the parts of the house you aren't using, too. If you have Georgian shutters, shut them. If your house is post-1900, you can fit Swiss-style external shutters, and close those. Oh - and don't forget to insulate your loft.)

4. If your curtains aren't floor-length, close them and tuck the ends into the window sill, or behind the radiator. You don't want all that lovely paid-for heat to go out through the glass, do you?

5. Keep the curtains or blinds drawn in the bathroom.

6. Open fires are lovely, but a lot of the heat goes up the chimney - drawing a draught from the cracks round the door, and the keyhole. Sellotape up the keyhole, and make a thick curtain to hang in front of the door. Also a draught excluder to put along the bottom (you can put them under the windows too).

7. Another trick for large rooms with open fires is to put up a screen around the back of your chair.

8. Wear knee socks, thermal vests, long johns and thick jerseys. Quilted body warmers are also pretty effective. (The Victorians called them "hug-me-tights".)

9. If you live in a smaller house and you've knocked down all the partition walls to create an open-plan live/work/eat/sleep/cook/work area, rebuild them and create small, easily heated cells. Just remember to make the kitchen big enough to eat in.

10. The Victorians, who lived in big, draughty houses, knew all these tricks. How did we forget them? They also wore wrist warmers and shawls, and tucked their feet into foot muffs.

11. And insulate your bath! Tape loft insulation round the outside. And I believe you can buy insulated baths.

12. Stick baco foil behind your radiators to reflect the heat, and fit a shelf above them. Or you can get special sticky-backed foil.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Proper Table Manners

Caroline Stow-Crat explains modern table manners.

People like us – that’s me and Harry, and our friends Gideon and Samantha – used to lay traps for the unwary eater. If you didn’t know how to eat oysters or snails or asparagus you’d be shown up. Oysters have rather gone out, and if you’re served snails you’ll be given a kind of forceps arrangement – you use it to hold the shell while you remove the snail with a fork. Asparagus? Pick up a spear by the blunt end, dip the pointy end in the melted butter and eat it. (Discard the blunt end.)

Globe artichokes: they’re not very fashionable now, but if offered one here’s the drill. Pick off the “petals”, dip the fat end in the melted butter or vinaigrette and scrape the edible bit off with your teeth. It’s not as crude as it sounds! Pile up the discarded petals on the plate provided. When you get to the middle, watch out for the spiky bit. Remove it with a knife and fork, and use these to cut up and eat the delicious “heart”.

If you do get invited to a very grand home, or the Lord Mayor’s banquet, use the cutlery (pronounced cutler-y not cuttle-ry) from the outside in. (Your soup spoon will be on the far right, and so on.) If in doubt, follow what your neighbours do.

In my mother’s day, at formal dinners you ate the fruit course with a silver knife and fork. But now when it’s just Harry and me and the children, we get something out of the deep freeze and eat in the kitchen. It’s so convenient having a 20-foot kitchen table. (I still call it a deep freeze because I'm conservative with a small c! "Freezer" sounds so American.)

Mummy also used to say that if you want the salt, you have to say “Would you like the salt?” and the party of the second part has to say “No, but would you like it?” and get someone to pass it to you. It may not apply to salt any more, but bear this code in mind if you want to survive life in England. Debrett’s says: “Top and tail requests with pleasantries.

You should never sprinkle salt over your food but put a pile on the side of your plate. Actually this is quite old fashioned – it would never work with a salt grinder. And Samantha never puts salt in anything, and doesn’t let you add it. She’s always on some kind of cranky health kick!

Mummy used to say that you shouldn't cut your lettuce or roll (and don’t call it a bread roll, because what else would it be made of?). We always eat lettuce with a knife and fork and nobody seems to mind.

When not using your knife and fork, lay them on your plate (don’t hold them in your fists pointing at your dinner companion). And don't spear the last few peas with the tines of your fork - just leave them there "for Mr Manners".

Samantha and Eileen both have strange family rules: don’t drink while you eat, no peas after 2pm, no mustard at breakfast, don’t cut the nose off the cheese. I don't know where they get them from! Eileen’s very keen on her children learning “proper table manners” so that they’ll know what to do on “formal occasions”. Samantha thinks every occasion should be INformal!

But really manners are easy. Keep your mouth shut while you eat, try not to talk at the same time, don’t chew noisily. Just try not to revolt other people!

Saturday 4 December 2010

The Demon Drink

“What’s particularly interesting ... is the sense something previously thought of as a working class problem, actually has resonance across a broader social spectrum.” Frank Sooden of Alcohol Concern, Evening Standard April 4, 2008

“Few things mark where we stand in society more clearly than our attitude towards instant coffee.” cookery writer Nigel Slater

Upwards, Weybridges and Teales unite in condemning binge drinking, and youths (read chavs) taking over town centres at night. They are furious when statistics show that the worst soaks are the middle class heavy drinkers of the Home Counties.

Chavs are more numerous, and like living in public. And as Teales, Upwards and Weybridges age they go out a lot less and forget what other people are like. Chavs form crowds, which the middle classes find threatening. They like to go out in a crowd and raise their voices in public - one of the many ways they resemble the upper classes. At the same time Upwards moan that the British have lost the art of street life (they do it so much better on the continent), and that we should revive the spirit of carnival. They’re the ones who put on patronising local street festivals and wheel out the same old stilt-walking fire-eaters year after year.

Upwards got very into wine snobbery in the 70s. Now they just crack open any old bottle around 5pm. They used to look very askance if one of their number wanted to buy a takeaway coffee on a train journey (it would be the wrong kind of coffee from a common outlet and it would cost). You were just supposed to dehydrate for the entire journey. In the past 20 years, thanks to Starbucks, they’ve changed their minds and spend far too much on overpriced lattes.

The middle classes drink weak tea and strong coffee. Teales and Definitelies drink strong tea and weak coffee. Do you put the milk in your tea first or second? Samantha and Caroline put milk in tea last or not at all. Teales used to drink milky coffee with food - now they drink Snapple, or Innocent smoothies (Sam makes her own in an expensive retro Osterizer).

Mrs Definitely puts a PG Tips tea bag in a mug, pours in boiling water, mixes it around, pours in a lot of full-fat milk and mixes the bag around until the whole goes the colour of an old stocking. Sam forces her guests to drink Earl Grey tasting of sun-tan oil and adds milk so that it looks like dishwater. The strongest tea in her cupboard is English Breakfast. Her idea of a strong cup of tea is a cup of weak English Breakfast with not much milk in it. Caro offers Earl Grey without milk, or Darjeeling with. Arkana has a collection of herb teas which have passed their sell-by date. None of them would refer to “a tea” or “a coffee”, or “a drink” meaning tea or coffee. They’d say “a cup of tea”, and a “drink” is alcohol. Definitelies say “Time for a cuppa”.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Phone for the Fish-Knives

Any discussion of social class in England will come down to the question of cutlery at some point. Doesn't the way you use your knife and fork reveal your social standing? English people have always been very worried about fish knives. Is it posh to have them, or common? And why? In John Betjeman's poem everything mentioned was thought vulgar or common by the Stow Crats and Upwards of the 1920s. There's a key to the solecisms below the poem.

How To Get On In Society by John Betjeman
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;

You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?

The frills round the cutlets can wait

Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,

But the vestibule's comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me.

Now here is a fork for your pastries

And do use the couch for your feet;
I know what I wanted to ask you-
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;
Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
She should have said telephone, not phone, but this is old fashioned. What to say now? How about: “Call them up.”

It’s a mystery why fish knives are common. One legend says that fish turned steel black (before it was stainless), so people ate fish with two silver forks (because all their forks were silver). People who bought special silver fish knives were looked down on, which is odd because they were just being practical. Perhaps it branded them as arrivistes who were buying their first set of silver cutlery? This was circa 1820, by the way.

Calling your child Norman is trying too hard to sound classy by association with those aristocratic Norman conquerors.

As Cook is a little unnerved;
People with cooks didn’t call them “Cook”, but Mrs Smith or whatever their name was.
Unnerved is a genteel euphemism for whatever ails the cook.

You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
You call your children “children”. “You children” is also taboo, and rather rude.

Serviettes in those days were called napkins (this is out of date).

And I must have things daintily served.
Upwards don’t try to be dainty. They’d probably call it “fussy” or “twee”. (They have their own kind of insufferable tweeness but that’s another story.) And you don't "serve" food in your own home.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
Presumably she means “Is there enough loopaper?” Requisite is a euphemism used by purveyors of what might now be called “toiletries”. But we can’t use the words chosen by someone who’s trying to sell us the stuff. Posh people now call a toilet a "loo" (it used to be "lav").

The frills round the cutlets can wait
A paper frill around a cutlet is something you might find in a restaurant, not at home. (They used to put them on the ends of legs of lamb, too.)

Till the girl has replenished the cruets
You didn’t call your housemaid “the girl”, but used her first, or second, name. Cruet is a would-be grand name for salt, pepper and mustard. (And she should have said "until", not "till".)

And switched on the logs in the grate. The logs should be real, not electric.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,
Upwards say “stuffy” and “sitting room” and don’t call each other “dear” unless they’re trying to be rude. Only airports and hotels have lounges. And it's "very" or "awfully", not "ever so".

But the vestibule's comfy for tea
There’s something risible about any word ending in “ule”. Perhaps the speaker means the entrance hall, which would be “comfy for tea” if it was large enough and had its own fireplace. If she lives in Haslemere it’s wood-panelled and vast, to show that she’s rich enough to waste space. But if you’re never invited further than the entrance hall you know you haven’t quite made the grade. So she’s being both show-offy and rude. (And she shouldn't have shortened "comfortable".)

And Howard is out riding on horseback
is another name claiming grand associations (Castle Howard). Upwards and Stow Crats just “ride” – what else would you ride on?

So do come and take some with me
Upwards “have” tea, they don’t “take” it. The don’t take classes, or offence, either.

Now here is a fork for your pastries
Upwards are supposed to eat tea food in their fingers, or in a paper serviette, instead of sensibly using a fork. And "pastries" sounds like something you'd be served in a teashop, not a private house.

And do use the couch for your feet;
The thing you sit on is a sofa. If it’s a chaise longue, you can put your feet up on it. Otherwise you rest them on a footstool.

I know what I wanted to ask you- Is trifle sufficient for sweet?
Sufficient” is genteel for “enough”. What you eat after your main course is called “pudding” even if it’s a lemon sorbet or fruit salad, but “dessert” is making progress.

Milk first and then just as it comes, dear?
Milk first or milk second in tea divides people as much as whether they tell their children Santa Claus is real. The jury is still out.

I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;

That’s “jam”.

Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys
“Sorry” not “beg pardon” or “pardon”. You “dirty” things, you don’t “soil” them (say what you mean, don’t use a euphemism). And you don’t rest your cakes on a lacy paper doiley.

With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.
Tea in the afternoon is just “tea”. You don’t want people to think you are distinguishing it from “high tea”, which the Upwards would call “supper”. Scone is pronounced with a short O.

Best Loved Poems of John Betjeman