Wednesday 9 December 2020

Boarding Schools 6: More about the Convent

In my first few weeks at the Convent (I was 10), a much older girl told me to tell another girl (Pippa Leonard) that there was a phone call for her. I couldn't speak to older girls. I couldn’t say “No”, or “I don’t know who she is”, so I just didn't do the task. Later the first girl found me and said "I told you to give her the message and you didn't, did you!" She was furious. She said, “Ooh, I could crown you!”

In that first term, one of the younger nuns got us to choose and prepare a piece from a book, and read it into a tape recorder. I chose a little Victorian girl talking about her lovely new outfit and “merino fan”, and read it in a squeaky affected voice. Afterwards, older girls were cruel to me about my performance, claiming they couldn’t hear a word I’d said. (I was at the back of the room and the nun didn’t think to bring us up to the microphone.) Of course they were trying to test our reading skills without our being aware, or humiliating anybody. The older girls were still at the “thee – cat – sat – on – thee – mat” stage.

When we were about 14, we were made to memorise 25 lines of poetry once a week, and recite them one after another in class. Our teacher, Miss Kirby, endured 20 children reciting in a monotone without any expression or understanding. One week we were given “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Independently, Antonia and I decided to learn the whole speech, not just the 25 lines ripped from the middle. Separately, we stood up and delivered the oration as if we were Marc Antony, with great emotion (“You blocks, you stones, you worse than useless things!”). No reaction. At the end of the class Miss Kirby said “Thank you everybody, and” (sneering) “a special thanks to Lucy and Antonia”. No smile. Exit. Soon after that, we were told to write out the lines instead of reciting them. After several decades, I put two and two together: we had raised the bar too high.

Our marks for the week were averaged. I couldn’t do maths at all, or physics or chemistry. I was OK with the sciences to start with, they were even interesting, but then one day they became maths. I must have got low, or no, marks for these three subjects every week, so my average looked terrible. I was taken aside one day by an elderly nun who drew me a map on which to record my progress week by week, and told me I must “try harder”. I never filled in the map – I didn’t care what my marks were. And wasn’t it rather dense of the nuns not to see what the problem was?

When I first went to school, we had “tests” at the end of every term. Other girls would “revise” for these. I didn’t know what the word meant. I thought they were testing us on what we remembered. Eventually I began to grasp the concept of revising, so I decided I would do it too, to be like other people and join in the conversation. A friend saw me in the corridor carrying an exercise book. I felt very pleased to be able to show off this badge of normality. But she looked at it and said, “Why are you revising that? We didn’t do that this term.” At the end of one term the art teacher, Miss Walker, told us to “write about a picture”.  I picked Moroni’s The Tailor. She sneered at me and said “But we haven’t studied it this term.” But she’d said “a picture”, not “a picture we’ve studied this term”?

I arrived back at school one September, and we were eating lunch when an older girl (she was supervising our table) asked me: “You must be doing O Levels now?” I replied: “What’s an O Level?” The nuns decided which subjects we’d do. Thankfully I was no longer in the Physics and Chemistry class, but I had to do Maths for two years. The lights came back on when we did geometry, and once a term the maths teacher would set us logic puzzles. Otherwise I just had no idea what was going on. The nuns also had the bright idea of putting us in for exams a year early, so we didn’t do as well as we might have. You'd think my parents might have mentioned O Levels?

Nobody told me that when answering an exam question, you should plan what you're going to say and write a structure. Nobody told me to read over what I’d written. When I’d answered the question, I used to stop, and be terribly bored and play word games because you couldn’t leave the room. Another ex-pupil adds that they barely mentioned external exams to anybody. You just did the curriculum, then sat the exam.

The school didn’t, deep down, really care about our academic progress. Very few of us went on to any kind of higher education. We were all supposed to marry young and have lots of Catholic children. Apart from me, of course – I was never going to get married. That was something everybody just knew, my family included.

I dropped out of doing two of my A levels. Did the nuns ever discuss that with my parents? Did they ever discuss it with me? No. You’d think they would. You’d think they’d ask me what subjects I wanted to do instead. I had a year in hand: I could have moved down a year and done history and French.

Aged about 11, I was leaving the refectory after tea and the nun in charge – let’s call her Sister Mary – told me to stand in the corner. Sister Mary was terrifying. She had a pale face and glittering specs, and shouted at us and pinched our arms as we processed into chapel. She stood in the refectory while we ate, oversaw our behaviour and clicked a fearsome castanet to signal “Stop talking. Clear the tables. Stand up. Say the Angelus”. I stood in the corner by the window and the fruit stands sobbing until my handkerchief was soaked – at least I had one. Pippa Leonard came and asked me if I was all right, but I couldn’t speak. Sister Mary didn’t release me, and eventually I just walked out of the room, and the incident was never spoken of again.

“Exemptions” was a ceremony that took up most of Saturday morning. We sat in the hall with our knees and feet together – no crossing legs or even ankles. The three head nuns sat at a desk with a little box of coloured cards. A fairly high-up nun would read out our names in threes, together with a judgement of our behaviour for the week. (How did they compile the reports? Did the prefects report back? Was there some kind of surveillance network?)

The judgements were printed on the coloured cards: Very Good (dark blue), Good (pale blue), Fair (beige) and Unsatisfactory (I don't think these cards existed). We went up in threes, curtsied, then approached the desk individually to get our card. We curtsied again and went back to our places. Getting “Fair” was a bit like being sent to Purgatory. Unsatisfactory or “no note” were the equivalent of Hell. I can’t remember what I got “no note” for.

Why did Sister Mary put me in the corner? Probably for being "uncontrolled". (A frequent judgement during Exemptions was "Good, for being uncontrolled in the cloister".) It meant "running and shouting", or "raising your voice and dancing about". We were supposed to be "controlled" at all times: walk calmly, keep our elbows in and our voices low.

In the winter, I never went outside, because it was too cold. I dropped out of sport, and hid. They must have known, but they never did or said anything about it. What did my report say? Why weren’t there activities for people who just couldn’t do sport? We could even have done sport with people our own age, instead of a year or two older. Now another ex-pupil tells me that if you didn’t want to do sport you were allowed to go for a walk. Well, for heaven’s sake.

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 4 October 2020

Boarding Schools 5: Why I Was Expelled

A school, organisation or religion has a few completely pointless rules. But they are markers: if the children, flock, workers obey the pointless rules, they will obey all the others. Because “a school must have rules”, and “to break one is to break them all”. And “if you doubt one item of Catholic doctrine you are not a Catholic any more and will go to hell and burn for all eternity”. Some of the flock adore the pointless rules and really enjoy forcing the others to follow them “because it’s the way we do it”. Result: most people follow the rules in public, break them if they can avoid being found out, impose them on others, tell everybody how important they are; while accepting the “hell” element as “metaphorical” – ie “imaginary”. But I didn’t know all that at the time (the mid-60s).

I was told not to think about what other people were thinking about me, so I didn’t – until recently. It’s like suddenly acquiring a sixth sense. I never wondered what the nuns were thinking about me, but they must have added up all my odd, or “bad”, behaviour, and I acquired a reputation. I had to be rigidly controlled. When I was told to get out of the swimming pool, and swam to the opposite ladder instead of taking the nearest, I was banned from swimming for the two hottest weeks of the year.

There were hockey, netball and tennis matches against other schools. I never watched them. Winners were announced at an interminable ceremony, with a lot of cheering, at which the whole school were present. I used to bunk off. During one of these farragos, I went for a walk up to the hockey pitches, and came home through a rainstorm, singing at the top of my voice. I was happy. But then I was hauled in to see the Head Nun again, and underwent more hand-patting as she smilingly explained I couldn’t just “follow my bent” but must fit in with society. That was after she’d told me off for getting my clothes soaking wet and making the laundry room nun dry them. I wasn't aware this had happened – I probably changed into my never-worn games clothes.

We had a rather ineffective drama teacher who never managed to put on a play. We read a historical drama which she wanted us to act. She thought it would be a big joke to cast me as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I thought this would be utterly humiliating and begged not to have to do it but she giggled a lot and insisted. I went alone to our classroom and lay face-down on the rug and sobbed. Eventually the school nurse came in (an elderly nun devoid of bedside manner). She made me get up and go to bed, and gave me a sleeping pill. The incident wasn’t mentioned again, and the play was never put on. I was rather too old for toddler tantrums – but it was the only way I knew of getting out of doing anything I simply couldn’t face.

So, how did I get expelled? Let me explain the layout. The school was housed in a Victorian Gothic stately home, with much oak panelling and carving. There was a large room with a fake Tudor fireplace, a minstrels’ gallery, mullioned windows with seats, a TV and a grand piano. Three doors led off it: one to another Gothic hall with a magnificent staircase (pictured), one to the new-built “cloisters” and one to a classroom. It was 9pm in the summer term, and still light. I was in the large room when the Head Nun appeared like a vision in the minstrels' gallery and told me to go to bed. Instead of going through the door into the cloisters (that led to my bedroom), I went into the classroom, which had no other exit. Some younger girls (who’d been playing in the big room) came in and told me that the Head Nun had ordered them to tell me to go to bed immediately. I sent them back to tell her that I wouldn’t. This happened several times.

Eventually I climbed out of the window, and walked round to the building that housed my dormitory. You have to understand that we weren’t allowed outside after a certain time and what I did was simply unthinkable. No more was said about the incident.

Then my mother rang the Head Nun to ask if she could take me out at the weekend. The Head Nun replied: “Take her away and I don’t care if you never bring her back!” My mother, again, was mortified. So I had to leave school, and have my education – academic and social – severely disrupted.

And what had I done? I suppose over the years I’d clocked up a record of “difficult” behaviour. These days wouldn’t somebody send me to a psychologist? Wouldn’t my parents appeal – or ask for reasons? All they knew about our school lives was a report at the end of term. My maths report always read “Must try harder”. I sat in the O Level class with an entirely blank mind for two years, and then was quietly withdrawn from the exam. Nothing was said about it. My ability to do maths (completely absent) was never tested.

And people think I’ve been taught how to do everything – the “proper” way – and don’t need to be told what to do or how to do it. But we had all the advantages and privileges.

From the Head Nun's obituary in the school magazine: Things of which she disapproved were stamped on immediately, but on those which she either thought unimportant or harmless fun, a blind eye was turned, provided of course one was not actually caught – a most valuable lesson for life of the importance of observing the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.

More here, and links to the rest.

When Sister April O'Leary contacted me for a contribution to the history of the school she was compiling, I wrote back that the most important lesson the school taught was hypocrisy. She used everybody's offerings without editing or much editorialising. It's a brilliant book. Did I learn the lesson? You decide.

On reflection, I'd obeyed the Head Nun while appearing to disobey her, so she could do nothing about it.

Convents, digested.

Friday 2 October 2020

Decor Crimes: Get the Look

country kitchen:
wood units

Shaker kitchen: wood-effect units with fake tongue-and-groove panelling (Genuine Shaker furniture is pictured.)

It’s really, really dated. The kitchen’s from the 80s! (Your House Made Perfect)

I’d like to contemporize this kitchen. Those tiles aren’t really me.
(Escape to the Country)

We want a contemporary country kitchen. (My Dream Derelict Home. It’s the same old island plus bright white units.)

I think what we’re looking for is "period modern", if that makes any sense. (Man on Escape to the Country. Alastair Appleton translated it as “period property with open-plan kitchen”.)

Modernish but not too modern, because this 60s bungalow has got a bit of a cottagey feel.
(Homes under the Hammer)

I’m all about colour. (Contestant on The Great Interior Design Challenge. She painted everything grey.)

Martin Roberts: What are your plans for this house?
Buyer: To put back as many original features as possible.
(He probably means “Put in an inappropriate wooden regency-style fire surround and a wood-burning stove”. Does nobody know what the word "original" means? Homes under the Hammer)

Another Homes under the Hammer buyer thinks he’s “restored” his terraced house by stripping all the woodwork. The Girls’ Own Annual 1920 moans that if you buy an olde-worlde cottage the beams will be covered in layers of whitewash. And all the doors, window-sills etc will be painted cream. GOA advises you to strip it all.

“Victorian” restoration with fitted carpet, walls and wood painted navy, and a faux-Tudor fireplace.

So many people buy period homes and ‘love the character’, and then run scared and find it easier to buy everything new from a shop and decide period features are not ‘practical for modern life.’
(Via FB)

Why do so many people make a grand house look like a cottage? (Via FB)

Apparently big renovation projects get you lots of followers on Instagram. And I suppose a "restoration show" would not sell the furniture, fabric, wallpaper and paint colours that are currently on the market.

More here, and links to the rest.

Decor Crimes of 2020

Metro tiles – enough already!
White UPVC windows
– they come in other colours, and you can paint them.
Chair cosies for your high-backed dining chairs.
An inglenook – in a bedroom. In a terraced house.
An inglenook with a faux chimney – for your Aga.

Olde oake beames
that don’t support anything – above the fireplace, above windows, across the ceiling.
Flagstone floor in a Victorian house – on the first floor.
Every single piece of furniture, panelling or fitted cupboard made of “distressed” wood.
Exposed stone wall
as an “original feature” in a Victorian farmhouse.
Sticking a repro Phoenix fire insurance plaque on your wall.

Multicoloured plastic cocktail sticks in the shape of sabres.
Carpet on any vertical surface.
Whole wall stick-on murals of autumnal woods. (Actually these are rather lovely.)
"Marriages" combining an old speaker and a spotlight.
Panelled door with fanlight on a 60s council flat.

“Library shelves” wallpaper.
Plug-in heated pot-pourri pot.
UPVC Greek portico on your ex-council house.
"Louis" furniture
in a Cotswold cottage.
Faux hanging box balls.

A house that looks like a hotel.
Unusable fireplace with logs that are never lit.
Sliding doors.

Painting of a sad clown playing the violin.
Dyed quartz of the type found in beach gift shops.
Colourful postmodern buildings painted dark grey.

An Irish cottage has been “metamorphosized” as follows:

Black Impala Polished Granite counter tops
Limestone finish to boundary walls and sills
Polished stainless steel staircase with Impala polished granite treads
Italian Carrara marble flooring to main area
Italian Creme Marfic Marble Bathroom finish
Timber double glazed Sash Windows
New Spanish Slate Roof
Wood burning stove
Limestone Feature wall
Original Oak Flooring

Shabby non-chic: dog hairs, grimy cushion covers, grimy loose covers that are always out of place and  adorned with biscuit crumbs.

Carol Midgley in the Times June 2018 reacts to a recent list. Crimes include "beaded curtains, living-room bars, TV cupboards, avocado bathrooms, Artex walls, toilet rugs, wicker furniture indoors and water beds. Have these judges stepped from a time machine?” She adds that the only up-to-date crimes were tribal carvings and inspirational quotations.

The Times has a long list, August 2018: Whatever the oldies have in their kitchens will be snubbed and dismissed. Young people like open-plan kitchens and one-room living. Get rid of the wine rack and pan stand. In the bathroom, Opt for metro-style tiling over mosaic to appeal to the Instagram generation.  Mottled terracotta wallpaper, any form of border, rag-rolling and nautical themes don’t impress the under-50s. “Modernised” houses with every original feature ripped out don’t appeal, but don’t try to put back the character with cheap imitations and mock fireplaces. In the garden, get rid of “water features, ponds and garden gnomes. Anything fussy, dangerous or easy to break is a turn-off.” Decks, too, are now terribly “noughties”, and tend to be slippery when wet. Rip them out!

On home makeover shows, there’s nothing more damning than “It reminds me of my nana”. Bone china mugs are a “nan thing”, as is eating dinner at 6pm.

Old house surrounded by a sea of tarmac or gravel with parking for 30 cars, separated from paddocks by Kentucky wooden palings.

Efforts in the 60s to modernise anything classical, with suspended ceilings, or mint/taupe colour schemes.

Helterskelters, minigolf, giant moons, kitsch sculptures, flights of paper birds cluttering up cathedrals – and the jargon-ridden justifications that go with them.

Wallpaper with a large bright pattern makes a room look smaller. (From a Victorian book of household tips)

Carving up a stately home into small flats and creating absurdly tall, narrow rooms with a kitchen stuck in a dark corner, or making a pokey layout even more cramped and dark by lowering the ceiling to hide chopped-up mouldings.

“Playful” buildings – usually plain shapes covered in brightly coloured graffiti-inspired murals. @CheapoCrappy calls them “bizarre and ugly”.

Street art consisting of trompe l’oeil paintings that take up the entire wall.

Building houses without coat cupboards. Hanging coats in a tiny hall. (It took the Brits years to get utility rooms.)

It’s quite dark because of the wraparound conservatory. (Escape to the Country)

All that's missing is an Audrey Hepburn stencil and some union jack cushions. (SC on a house with grey walls and floor, a mural of London, and tiger-print sofas in a knocked-through lounge.)

A custom-made blonde wood unit for your flat-screen TV on the end wall of your sitting room, with slots for ornaments, photos and books. The TV has at last become the wall-mounted “visiscreen” of George Orwell's 1984.

To Americans, the epitome of naff taste is not wall-mounted flying china ducks, but a goose with a ribbon round its neck on a blue background. Known as “Ribbon Geese”, the pattern was all over Walmart in the 80s on oven gloves and toasters, and “popular with people who liked country décor”, say American correspondents.

A buyer on Homes under the Hammer spends three weeks scraping woodchip wallpaper off the ceiling. The presenters always say “And there’s woodchip on all the walls! Of course you’d have to get rid of that!” Woodchip was standard in refurbishments of the 70s and 80s, and went with dull blue carpeting throughout. It's not so bad, really.

Open plan: turning the interior of a 30s semi into a huge white cave. Solution: Put back the walls separating the living/dining room, and between living/dining rooms and hall. Reinstall oak panelling. Paint the smaller rooms pale green with a dado rail under the ceiling, or a shelf for your china plates.

“Knocking through” while leaving parts of supporting walls, so that the ground floor resembles a maze with arches leading to other arches and you can just about work out where the hall/passage/dining room/sitting room once were.

Instagram has had a tremendous influence on interior design, creating a landscape of minimalist nowhere spaces. ( Sometimes these interiors are dressed up with anonymous "touches": a plant in an ethnic pot, a modern oak sideboard, colourful cushions.)

The upmarket beach hut look – all faded navy canvas, white tongue-and-groove, shells and pebbles everywhere – is hugely fashionable on social media as “cottagecore”. You create a still life of seersucker tablecloth, tasteful picnic-ware and food, in a picturesque orchard, snap it and put it on Instagram. Boden-wearers have dropped the style (and the bunting) – of course they have now it has clearly slid down the class ladder.

A common mistake people make with an open concept space is thinking that all the furniture should be against the walls.
(Alyssa Kapito, Alyssa Kapito Interiors) suggests turning an entrance hall back into an entrance hall with different lighting and wall colours and a contrasting rug, plus a table as a “barrier”.

Create intimate nooks, like a reading corner or small workspace. (Anjie Cho)

More here, and links to the rest.

Decor Crimes in Quotes


Why do all regenerated harbourside spaces, anywhere in the world, feel and look exactly the same? Same paving, same glass office blocks, same bit of street art... same preserved crane, same selection of chain bars. (Guy Moore via Facebook)

Architects and planners the world over have bought the same "regenerated harbourside spaces" kit.
(Tom Bourgeois)

My wife has painted a "feature wall" in our kitchen, using a cheery bright orange. My older son says that he now feels as if he's in a children's home, waiting to be fostered. (@Lord_Steerforth)

Victorian furniture, grave and heavy, appeared at variance with rose-coloured Axminster on the floor and rose-coloured damask at the windows... There was some kind of flowered paper on the walls, but almost every inch of it was covered by innumerable sketches, photographs, and engravings of famous pictures... the furniture vied with the walls in supporting photographs of every relation and friend she had ever had. (Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl, 1941)

If ‘St Just’ had been pebble-dashed, with a circular recess for the door and an enormous gable... ‘St Anthony’ must be purple brick, with a portico supported on pillars like Tudor chimneys. (Mary Renault The Friendly Young Ladies)

The sort of man whose taste might run to a cocktail bar in the living-room. (Judge at the trial of a nightclub owner and fruit machine salesman)

Urban motorway philosophy. Knock down half the city to be able to drive in quicker but then have no city worth visiting. See Birmingham. (Martin Battle via Facebook)

McMansions... are thrown together from a mishmash of signifier features (ie “Palladian” windows, “impressive” facades, fake stone, fake brick, fake stucco, columns, multi-storey foyers, at least two garage bays, multiple surface materials, “cook’s” kitchens - read as oversized, master suites - read as oversized, master baths as part of master suites - read as oversized, etc.) (Zach Woods on FB)

The Art Journal in the mid-19th century deprecated “landscapes and pictures” on pottery, 3D naturalistic patterns on 2D surfaces (especially cabbage roses on your carpet), and they loathed the imitation of ribbons on fabrics. They moaned about a “perspective representation of a railway station” as a repeating pattern on wallpaper. They were not keen on cut-glass tableware. They were horrified by a popular blue jug in the form of a tree trunk. There was a special Chamber of Horrors at the nascent V&A to display these solecisms. Dickens wrote about an unhappy Mr Crumpet who realises he is living among these “horrors”. “The paper in my parlour contains four kinds of bird of paradise, besides bridges and pagodas.” So what were we supposed to have on our walls? “Sober, conventional treatments of foliage, exhibiting considerable skill in design and arrangement,” wrote The Builder in 1855.

Candid snaps ... show how the couple have transformed the crumbling period property into a polished country pile complete with marble floors, indoor pool and a walk-in wardrobe to house the designer clothing collection... Personal touches - including an antique chandelier that once hung in a Northampton theatre, and a giant family portrait hung in the bathroom - lend the home a classical feel... The boys' bedrooms are decked out like a castle and an airport. (Daily Mail. The ground floor is marble-tiled throughout, with waist-height panelling in a dark colour and “metro tile” shaped panels. There's a fireplace with logs but no fire irons, and stone surround so narrow that you could never safely light a fire in it.

Usually what happens is that buildings usually get a wildly unsuccessful makeover as they go out of fashion and are then left in such a bastardised state that they aren't worth preserving. You used to see a lot of weak attempts to postmodernise modernist buildings in the 80s. Now we see attempts to modernise postmodern buildings. (Austen Redman via FB)

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Class is Dead, Long Live Class: Definitions

To some, "posh" people went to a private school, however cheap and obscure. Their parents were teachers and business-people, rather than cleaners and lorry-drivers. But really posh people are aristocrats, who have old money, inherited land and stately homes. The category includes rich families who have always been friends of aristocrats.

In the US, it means well-off people who run the country. In the UK, it means people with a hereditary title who own large houses on country estates. (The Antiques Road Trip recently used “aristocracy” to mean “haute bourgeoisie” – the kind of people who went to the opera in the 19th century.)

Upper class: To tabloid (red-top) readers in the UK, it means upper middle class. They lump us with aristos, not caring about the vast disparity of wealth, power and land ownership.

Middle class:
In the US, it means working people who are doing OK at blue-collar jobs. In the UK, it means a snobbish elite obsessed with "clean eating" and being "woke".

George Orwell called himself a “striving exam-passer” – he was middle-middle-class, and had to pass exams because he couldn’t rely on powerful friends pulling strings to get him a job.

According to the National Readership Survey, the upper middles (Social Class A) are vastly outnumbered by the middle (Bs) and lower middles (C2s), and the aristos don’t even feature (despite owning half of Yorkshire). And the As, Bs and C1s are outnumbered almost two-to-one by the C2s, Ds and Es (skilled workers, unskilled workers and workless). No wonder the chaterati were so upset by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: huge crowds appeared from nowhere, took over London, cried openly, tied teddy bears to trees, applauded Earl Spencer's address, laid a carpet of flowers in front of Kensington Palace, and then quietly disappeared again. The upper middles are still trying to forget that all these other people share the country with them. (What to say about Diana's funeral: "Of course I was sad, but I wasn't hysterical.")

I see the "exactly what is middle class" discussion is spreading! The Americans are right of course. The old British definition is silly. (@grodaeu)

I think the confusion is that in recent years we've accepted the American definition of middle class, i.e. everyone who isn't dirt poor, whereas the Telegraph still uses the traditional English definition, which is basically anyone who is rich but not traditional aristocracy. (@AndrejNkv)

In the early 90s, Louise Mensch claimed to be “upper-class, not middle”. Her father was a lawyer and her mother the headmistress of a prep school. Upper middle, I think, Louise.

It's confusing that the Guardian, among other publications, uses “middle class” to mean “upper middle class”. No wonder people think that anyone who “talks posh” must be enormously rich and privileged.

@mckellogs in the US wonders what working class people think of as “middle class”? She lists:

Gets desserts at restaurants
Has a specific hairdresser
Real butter
Fresh picked flowers
Lots of bed pillows

Dad’s parents were Scouse/Welsh/Irish – a miner and a former housemaid. Mum’s parents, on the other hand, were teachers, from Cambridge – and, therefore, posh: Gran had been to Egypt on holiday and wore berets. (Caitlin Moran, Times 2015)

In the past 50 years, the upper-middles have been forced to copy the lower-middles, and pass exams to get into university, get a job – though patronage and the Old Boy network still operates in the UK. An old schoolfriend agreed that when we were young nobody talked about careers, and besides there was a boom and any fool could get a job. If you were sacked there was always another job you could walk into. But then times changed swiftly – probably with the oil crisis and the end of the Summer of Love.

The Times in 2015 wrote a piece headlined: "Sloanes lose their place in society to the polite new Middleton class". The magazine Town and County started the rumour. Called after the family of the Duchess of Cambridge, the "Upper Middletons" have "neither vast wealth nor lineage". Instead they they value "close family relationships, loyalty, reliability and niceness". They send their children to co-ed boarding secondary schools like "Bradfield, Millfield or Marlborough". Says Town and Country: “Their children are perfectly turned out, polite and, dare we say it, slightly boring. They have nice manners, are popular, attend school parties with perfectly wrapped gifts and get decent grades.” The Upper Middletons live "in Battersea, Putney and Richmond" or “underwhelming” counties like Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire. They run "small businesses that can keep them close to home". "They prefer skiing and tennis to riding and hunting... they disdain bling and anything nouveau riche."  You can recognise them by their "high-street taste", white jeans and "nude" coloured shoes. Meow!

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Boarding Schools 4

At my single-sex, convent boarding school we had an English teacher - let's call her Miss Watson. She was very good on the English language, and liked us to understand every word, phrase and metaphor of a Shakespeare passage.

But she managed to teach A Level English Literature without ever using an abstract noun. No hint that King Lear is “about hubris” or Howard’s End “about class”. And your essay couldn’t have a theme – it was about either language or character development. We were supposed to write – at great length – about the characters, and how their development was shown in the language, with copious quotes. Her only other topic was "atmosphere". ("How does Forster convey atmosphere in Chapter 9?")

We were forbidden to read around the subject, or read what critics had written, or research the historical background. One girl quoted from a book in an essay and was told off for "cheating". We might have found out that there are different points of view about everything, and that people can debate questions without the sky falling in. Plus, these commentators might have discussed "adult themes".

An ex-pupil agreed that we had to just pull those 40-page essays out of ourselves. "And what did we know?" Another Old Girl relates that the class were disappointed they did so badly in A Levels – for which they had not really been prepared. You can't write at that length in an exam.

In the Sixth Form, we had to write an essay on a general topic once a week. The best were read out at a ceremony known as "Thursday Morning Essay", that combined the Upper and Lower Sixth. We chose our own subjects, and I can't remember any of those essays – apart from one. I had been to the theatre to see a JB Priestley play. Its theme was the way the younger generation criticised the old, and then made the same mistakes and faced their own critical children. It was the late 60s and youth rebellion was in the air. I wasn't very sure what we were protesting about – perhaps we were rebelling against living in a closed society where we had no voice.

My essays tended to be short – I didn't waste words. At one point in my review of the play I said something like: "And so the younger generation rebels against the older, then becomes the older generation and its children rebel in their turn." I didn't think it was a particularly good piece of work, and my essays were never usually read out.

So I was surprised when I was called to the front. I read out my piece, and went back to my desk. When I'd sat down, Miss Watson laid into the essay, shouting at me for about ten minutes, and quoting the above sentence. I think she called it "glib" – something she was particularly against. But it was the theme of the play, and what's more it happens in real life. She had clearly planned this rant in advance.

I sobbed for the rest of the session. An older girl at the next desk lent me a handkerchief. (Thank you, Pippa.) Afterwards, everyone was sympathetic, even the older girls who normally never spoke to me, and said that Miss W shouldn't have attacked me like that, however bad the essay.

I can see now that the school – old-fashioned, hierarchical, authoritarian, snobbish – felt threatened by the Youthquake. Miss Watson hated anybody to be critical of anything. We feared her sarcastic tongue, but she didn't like competition. In the end, I became a journalist. I'm sure a critical attitude – and an in-depth knowledge of the English language – helped. Miss Watson would have been furious!

Times were changing. The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council shook up the nuns. In a few years, they had shed their robes, and brought in more "lay" teachers. Many of the sisters went "out into the world" to work on social projects. Gradually the nuns ceased to run the place, and it became a regular school. I don't think Ofsted inspectors would approve of teachers who failed to prepare students for public exams.

I wanted to do Biology and Geography at A Level. They said we could do Zoology, but not Biology. They did not provide a teacher, but gave us a textbook and some old exam papers and told us we were on our own. I gave up after a few weeks. The Geography teacher was so inept that I think we all gave up. But why didn't the school suggest other subjects? I had a year in hand – I'd been fast-tracked aged ten. I'd been doing four A Levels, now I was doing two. Nobody said a word to me about it. We had a "Mistress of Studies". Where was she?

And for the rest of my life, people assumed I was "privileged", and hesitated to talk to me about their own education.

The school's history can be found here.

More here, and links to the rest.

Friday 11 September 2020

Boarding Schools 3

I went to a fee-paying convent school. I'm privileged. Thanks to the Old Girl network, doors opened for me throughout my life – or so people like to think.

We had a dinner monitor I didn't get on with – let's call her Deirdre – who struggled to keep us in line. One day we were playing up and she told me to take my elbow off the table, so I put it on my plate. She must have reported me to higher authority, because I was told my punishment was to eat with the older girls at the top table, for the rest of the term. They were much bigger than me and I was terrified of them. So I didn't turn up to meals - not even tea, where you could sit anywhere. I don't remember even drinking a glass of water. After 24 hours of this I was summoned by the Head Nun.

She turned on the charm and held my hand and persuaded me that I had to sit at the top table - I couldn't go on not eating. It was as horrible as I'd foreseen, and none of the top-tablers spoke a single word to me. (They might have been kind, don't you think? Especially after all that propaganda about the most important virtue being Charity.)

My mother met the parents of some schoolfriends and their immediate response was: "Lucy! Hunger strike!" It was the first she'd heard of it and she was mortified. She was still telling the story in her 80s – but it was always a story about her being embarrassed.

The school hadn't told my parents. And nobody ever said, "Actually, what was she being punished for?" She put her elbow on her plate.

To the nuns, this was disobedience, and nobody in the Catholic Church disobeyed. There was a chain of command right down from the Pope. And so I got a reputation, and eventually was expelled aged 16, mainly for making the Head Nun look a fool. That's another story. It wasn't difficult.

When I didn't turn up to lunch or dinner, nobody came after me. Nobody was sent to find me. One friend smuggled me some food, but I wouldn't eat it. I couldn't explain why. I wish I'd kept it up for longer - they'd have had to do something! Ring my parents, call the doctor, put me in the infirmary.

How did my behaviour appear to them? Just as a direct refusal to obey an order. It didn't matter what they were telling me to do, or why. And they never asked me my reasons or said another word about it. And it wasn't just that I defied them - it was so public. They couldn't be seen to lose, or to give ground.

In the end I ceased to believe in the concept of authority. As Falstaff said, it's just a word.
I rebelled in other ways – after a couple of years I never went to "games". But nobody said anything to me about it. We sometimes used to take off for whole days and our absence must have been noticed. Again, no reaction. And they were supposed to be looking after us.

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 6 August 2020

How to Make a Proper British Cup of Tea

Traditional method
Open a packet of Indian leaf tea – PG Tips or Yorkshire.

Fill a kettle with fresh water. Put it on the hob.

Warm the teapot by running in some hot water, swilling it around and tipping it out. Use a Brown Betty earthenware pot, or a metal catering ditto.

Spoon leaf tea into into the pot – “one for each person, one for the pot”.

When the water is boiling fast, pour straight onto the leaves.

Let the brew “mash” for a couple of minutes.

Pour into bone china teacups through a strainer and add milk as required. Some people put the milk in the cup first. There are many fanciful explanations for the difference. White earthenware mugs may be preferred.

Add sugar if desired.

Leaf tea is now finer than formerly, and doesn't take so long to "mash".

Modern method
Select PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea bags. “English Breakfast” is not strong enough.

Place teabag in earthenware mug. (For best results, add two.)

Pour boiling water onto the bag(s) and agitate with a spoon.

Add a good dollop of whole milk.

Stir the bags around some more, but don’t squash them against the sides.

Carry on stirring until the tea assumes a deep orange shade (see picture).

Remove the bag and drink.

Lemon tea
Pour weaker than usual tea into a tall glass with a handle.

Add a slice of lemon and a couple of spoons of sugar.

Use a long spoon to stir, and squash the lemon slice and release the juice into the tea.

When ordering lemon tea in a café, make sure the wait staff don't bring you a lemon-and-ginger herbal bag. I taught a local coffee shop how to make proper lemon tea – they had to pop round the corner to buy a lemon – but the venue changed hands shortly afterwards.

(Apparently some people make tea in a microwave. We shall draw a veil over such tragic scenes.)

Please note: If a friend or colleague asks for a "strong cup of tea", follow the instructions above. Strong tea is not your usual weak brew with half the quantity of milk. Don't squash the bag against the mug because "I know you like it strong". Weak tea was traditionally known as "dishwater", or "water bewitched".

You used to be able to get a proper cuppa at a "caff", but they're nearly all coffee shops now and make tea with warm water and an English Breakfast bag.

Friday 1 May 2020

Euphemisms about Class in Quotes 2

I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. (George Orwell)

Stefan Zweig was born into the comfortably overstuffed world of the Viennese bourgeoisie in 1881. (Guardian 2010)

It’s worth considering the use of euphemisms like “up-and-coming” to describe gentrification, displacement, unequal distribution of resources, increased policing, and so on. (

Our home is not your “rural idyll” or “bolthole” right now. (Councillor Julia McKenzie March 2020)

Old money=rich or comfortable. New money=affluent or wealthy. Also, I've met some seriously rich people who claimed they were "middle class". (@Steenshorne)

One minister ... told me a while ago how much Johnson rated Sunak in cabinet meetings: how Sunak speaks "pithily and eloquently" while Javid takes a while to get to his point. (@elashton)

This is an interesting perspective. Sunak was educated at Winchester, Javid ... was not. I wonder if, in some circles, speaking "pithily and eloquently" translates in part as, "speaks in the sort of tone and style I'm used to". (@peterwalker99)

Yes, also watch for “authoritative”. (@janemartinson)

"Culture fit" in tech hiring literally means "fits in with white people."

It's not just that, they're also verifying that you're of the right social class, in case they couldn't get enough class cues from your resume.

For my company culture fit means you like to do stuff outside and recycle.

Boris Johnson’s father Stanley tells  @BBCr4today that the PM now needs to rest and that becoming ill has "served an amazing purpose in that it's got the whole country to realise this is a serious event". (@bbcnickrobinson)

When Stanley says 'the whole country' he of course means himself. It's the classic thing of assuming everyone thinks the same as you do. (@garius)
See also that MP who said “we only just now realise how important all those ‘unskilled’ workers are”. (@orhunt)

Alastair Sooke says the Elgin marbles “belong to everyone”. Meaning “us”. (@kieran_hurley)

That's why I always challenged any teacher, professor or anyone who used the phrase "for the greater good" when speaking of %'s in demographics. They literally committed and continue genocidal tactics so that Native numbers are low. (@redhaircrow)

More here, and links to the rest.

More euphemisms and political rhetoric here.

Friday 24 April 2020

Zoom Etiquette

How not to Zoom

Technology enters our lives, and etiquette lags behind. We're all Zooming now, and we need to observe certain conventions.

"I don't want to Zoom – I just can't be bothered." This translates as "I think the technology will be too daunting. In fact I don't even know how to start."

You can download Zoom from the internet – Google "Zoom download" and follow the instructions. It takes a few minutes.

If someone has emailed you a Zoom link, click on it and Zoom will install itself and take you to the meeting (if you don't already have Zoom installed).

You can use Zoom on a computer (PC or Mac), laptop, tablet or phone. You can even join meetings through a landline, though you won't be able to see anybody.


Look at the edges of the screen for controls. Video and audio bottom left, gallery view top right, Leave Meeting bottom right. Chat and Share Screen bottom centre. If you can't see the controls, pass your mouse over the borders.

You can increase or reduce the volume through the controls on the top row of your keyboard. Look for the megaphone symbol.

You can increase your own volume by clicking on audio (bottom left) and following instructions. You'll be asked to test your own microphone – it may be turned down very low. Or too high! (Shouting seems to cause "crackle".)

Look for your own image – is it flattering? Is it showing your best profile? Is it showing only the top of your head? While looking at your image, adjust the angle of your laptop screen accordingly. It helps to rest your laptop on a pile of books or monitor stand so that you are looking directly at the screen. It also helps to prop up your tablet rather than resting it on the table. If you put the tablet on a horizontal surface, you can still see everybody's face, but they can only see your ceiling. And if you're looking down at us, we're looking up at you – or more usually a close-up of your double-chin or earlobe.

If you're holding your phone in your hand, it's hard not to wave it around – which means that your image wobbles around distractingly.

Make sure the light is falling on your face – don't sit with your back to a window.

Remember that you can be seen!

"I'm tired of Zoom meetings where everybody talks at once and interrupts each other." Translation: "My group hasn't discovered the mute function."

If two people talk at once on Zoom, the technology can't decide which is the "main speaker", so you just get bits of both and can't hear either person.

Once you've all said hi and introduced yourselves, the Admin needs to MUTE YOU ALL. If you want to speak, wave and the admin will unmute you. (You can also mute and unmute yourself. Look at the microphone symbol — does it have a red line through it? You're muted. Click on the three dots on your image and you'll see options to mute or unmute.)

You can always type side-conversations in Chat (see the bottom of the screen).

If you're unmuted, remember that the rest of the group can hear EVERY SOUND YOU MAKE. Sounds near the mike are amplified: it can pick up chewing or even breathing.

If you decide to adjust the position of your laptop or tablet, please mute yourself. Again, you may not hear much but we can hear loud crashing sounds as you place your device. Position your device before the meeting starts.

If you're wearing headphones and a microphone, please keep still (or mute yourself when not speaking). Your movements can make loud sounds at our end. If you're using phone earbuds with a tiny microphone attached to the wire, make sure the mike isn't muffled against your clothes. Keep the "live" side facing outwards.

Please don't leave your mike on and wander off and have a conversation with someone else at home - we can hear you mumbling.

And conversations in the background are much louder to us than they are to you. You may be able to filter out the chat - we can't.

Remember that you can be heard!

A group singing or speaking together on Zoom can result in cacophony – this is because some people are on a slight delay, due to internet speeds. If you're the leader, don't slow down, just keep going.

Zoom seems to pick out the loudest person and decide they are the leader. It then fades down the actual leader, making it harder to follow them – and they stay quiet for a few seconds afterwards. One solution is to select Original Sound in Audio Settings.

The better the device and broadband, the better the sound.

If people complain they can't hear you, adjust your volume or get an external microphone – they don't cost much. You might as well make life easier for your colleagues – this is the new normal, and it will be with us for some time.

Q I can’t see the zoom screen and my email.

A Top right of the Zoom screen click on the word View and Exit Full Screen.

As with all manners, it's about consideration for others!

When we started doing religious services via Zoom, we spent some time discussing how we would communicate with each other. How to replace real-life whispering, looks, nods etc? In the end we concluded we just had to talk to each other. Even so, I spent a whole service with my volume turned up too high.

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Class is Dead, Long Live Class 5

Friends tell me that class has entirely disappeared. That's after they redefine it as "barons, villeins, serfs", and "knowing which knife and fork to use when you meet the Queen".

Brits suffer from:
A sense that they are not posh but others are.
A fear that “the posh” know what to do and how to do it right and this knowledge is denied them.
A fear that their speech and manners will betray their inferiority.

Petite bourgeoisie: Semi-autonomous peasantry and small-scale merchants whose politico-economic ideological stance in times of socioeconomic stability [reflects] that of a haute bourgeoisie with which the petite bourgeoisie seeks to identify itself and whose morality it strives to imitate. (Wikipedia)

Attacks on “crap” towns are a long-standing internet genre. What makes them crap? They’re full of chavs, you see.

I belonged to a Facebook group called Architectural Crimes. It usually discussed UPVC windows on Tudor pubs, or the ill-conceived classical upgrade of a Georgian rectory. But given a plastic Greek doorway on an ex-council house and there was an outbreak of sneering. One member said it was a matter of taste, not class, which is a “vulgar preoccupation”. In other groups, “I’d like to shoot anybody who says ‘Can I get a latte’” is never far away, and everyone piles in when Diana’s funeral is mentioned. Moaning about Halloween swiftly segues to an attack on everything American. A Twitter discussion of the far right post-Brexit quickly became an attack on people who drink lager in Wetherspoons.

Lady Glenconner has written her autobiography The Times relates: At 16 she was sent to Powderham Castle, where Lady Devon ran a finishing school at which girls with good marital prospects were taught how to run large country houses. Her second finishing school, the House of Citizenship, taught the art of polite conversation. (So much for the idea that you can only pick up social skills "by osmosis".)

About 75 years ago, it was very damning to say of any woman “She’s not quite a lady”. A lady was “known by her gloves and her shoes”. Both should be expensive, and leather. Shoes should be clean and polished, but need not be new – just good, lasting quality. Patent leather, and shoes that clacked or squeaked, were out. According to Miss Marple, a lady doesn’t show emotion in public “however much she may break down in private”. And Katharine Whitehorn once said: "You can't afford to buy cheap shoes".

Some Americans honestly believe all English people live in Downton Abbey and obsess about napkins and teaspoons. They are always looking for the “real” English lady or gentleman.

In the 60s, if you complained about snobbery, you were told you were “just an inverted snob”.

The veganism I understand has its roots in the 1970s hippie version, where people grew their own vegetables, sprouted seeds, bulked it all up with then-obscure grains and were the only non-Asian people in the country who knew what tofu was. They did this out of a passionate concern for both the environment and animal welfare, even though everyone made fun of them, with their facial hair, Birkenstocks and love of houseplants and meditation (I do find it pleasing that the hippies have basically won). There was often a political angle – a contempt for, and rejection of, the capitalist economic system that, among other things, delivers food and staples. Yes, the hippies have won, but they’ve been ground up and reprocessed to make them safe for capitalism. (JP)

People are impressed by Boris and Rees-Mogg because they talk posh and wear suits. Someone on Facebook opined that Rees-Mogg is "well-spoken" and it would be a good thing if we all talked properly like him. I suspect that some people vote Tory to ally themselves with the upper classes.

We look back in horror at middle-class attitudes to servants in the 30s or the 50s. Women used to talk about “the servant problem” and, earlier, a lot of their conversation consisted of grumbling about servants. Virginia Woolf did the washing up once in her life, and her response was: “Now I know why servants take to drink.” (See Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants.)

Campaigner Jessica Eaton points out that “social mobility” is very hard work. To make it from the working class to university to a professional job and owning your own home, without inherited money, the right voice or the right contacts is next to impossible. And if you do make it, the middle classes will close ranks and mock your accent. in the States ran a quiz that would tell you whether or not you lived in an “elite bubble”. One of the questions was “Have you ever bought Avon products?” (Others were “Have you ever worn a uniform at work” or “bought a pickup truck”. Somehow I don’t think elite bubblers do any of these things.)

I did nine years of retail. The worst, absolute worst, thing about it: customers who thought they were better people than the staff. (@WhenIsBirths)

The middle-middles and nouveau riches think they can buy into the aristocracy by sending their sons to a prep school in a converted stately home – with “grounds”. The Spectator thinks that the monks of Ampleforth and Downside took on aristocratic protective colouring from their Gothic (revival) surroundings. The school’s “old grey stones” were a feature of the fictional Greyfriars school, wrote George Orwell. (Now that we’re safely all Protestant, we can think of the Catholic past as somehow noble.) 

Caro Stow Crat’s grandmother raised cash by sponsoring debutantes and getting them invited to the right parties (so that they could marry someone with a title). She offered the same kind of service, discreetly, to newcomers to London, providing the personnel for big parties with lots of delicious food. (I once went to such a party in a marquee. It was the first time I’d ever seen a decorative cabbage in a flower arrangement, and I was so nervous I couldn’t eat anything. It may have been at this do that a friend addressed a French-speaking hostess as “Madame” and got the reply “Pas Madame! Princesse!”)

The middle classes have to work with their personalities, even if they lack one. They have to pretend to understand management’s poorly defined expectations and be friendly, outgoing, resourceful and passionate. (Rich Hall, paraphrase, Times 2018. By contrast, the upper classes don’t need to be ingratiating so they can be darned rude and get away with it. And remember that “passionate” in this context means “enthusiastic”, probably for other people’s schemes.)

More here, and links to the rest.