Monday 31 March 2014

Choose Your Words Carefully 2

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. Wikipedia says they can be called "concrete masonry units, concrete bricks, concrete blocks, cement blocks, besser blocks, breeze blocks and cinder blocks". Or do "we" not notice downmarket architecture created from these brick substitutes?)

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
prior to

They pronounce the T in often.

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 d├ęcor, 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.