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Serviettes in those days were called napkins (this is out of date).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

15 comments:

  1. Tongue in cheek funny. Thank you for your wonderful blog!

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  2. I'm sorry but your commentary is wrong in several places - for example - you fail to mention that "lounge" and "toilet" are both utterly unacceptable. So is "serviette" - always say napkin. Please don't tell me you actually think having a cruet on the table is acceptable?!

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  3. Think what fun Betjeman would have had with "open-plan living areas" and "loos"!

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  4. Very well done.

    I agree with MatthewDUB saying serviette, toilet, phone, cruet and lounge would still be totally out of place for upper classes or even the English upper middle class.

    For those who care about these things, even in 2012 a serviette is a napkin, toilet is lavatory or loo, phone is telephone, cruet is salt and pepper. Lounge is the drawing room, unless you have two similar rooms, the first being the drawing room (originally called withdrawing room because you withdrew from the dining room to the it) and the second room is the sitting room.

    It's non U (non upper class) to use the word preserve instead of jam.


    High Tea (the actual meal) usually served around 5pm is non-U as is the pudding known as trifle. Tea (afternoon tea) is served around 4pm and pastries, originally considered a morning food, wouldn't be served. Crumpets, bread and butter and a cake such as seed cake or fruit cake, would be more usual for an old traditional(afternoon) tea. Having hotels who specialise in serving tea has blurred the lines somewhat and all manner of delicious continental pastries are often included in teas served in hotels.

    The evening meal (dinner to many people) is called supper, unless it is a formal dinner. The daytime meal is luncheon.

    Nancy Mitford wrote an excellent essay in the 1950s on how you can tell the difference from the upper classes and the middle classes. Here's a list of some of the other words that marks someone out as U or non-U. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U_and_non-U_English

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  6. Yes fish-knives are arriviste - those with old money, who would inherit cutlery, along with everything else, would not have them. (Compare Alan Clarke looking down on Michael Heseltine as a man who had bought his own furniture)

    Is 'napkin' really out-of-date - I always use it for proper cloth ones, and reserve 'serviette' for paper ones - what does that say about me?

    Lovely to re-visit this - thanks.

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    1. Napkin (cloth) paper napkin (never serviette).

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  7. Very funny, thank you. Er, you missed a couple...one would never refer to a butler by his Christian name. And "girl" is much commoner than "maid". (though her name should be used, here). "Ever so" is definitely not classy. Ah, such trivial amusement...

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  8. Oh, it's ever so close in the lounge dear - of course! I always thought Norman was her husband, not the butler. I don't think she's grand enough to have one of those.

    "Serviette, toilet, phone, cruet and lounge would still be totally out of place for upper classes or even the English upper middle class." Yes, avoid these words if mingling with the icing and marzipan layer - they are probably still snobbish enough to notice.

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  10. The jury is not out on whether milk in tea should come first or second. Decades ago Loughborough (is there such a place?) University did research that shows the enzimes in the milk break down differently in the two option. Milk first for a smoother rounder drink, second for a sharper more bitter taste. I am for the first option despite its allegedly Non-U associations.

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    1. milk in first was for those without thin china cups - prevented the scalding tea from cracking them. Thus Milk in first was what the rich did. Then this got turned about - milk in second meant you were so rich you didn't care if the odd cup got cracked. I was brought up to definitely consider milk in first as non-u. My mother reckoned to know!!

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  11. The Russians had a related fish-and-knives shibboleth. There were no purpose-made knives because it was infra dig to use any sort of knife when eating fish. You used a fork and a piece of bread. Nothing else was accepted. To teach children the rule, there was a little rhyme which started with the scolding French Fie donc!, equivalent to 'Shame on you!' Then came the rhyming Russian Ribu nozhom 'fish with a knife'.

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  12. That let me to the Wikipedia talk page on Nancy Mitford's U and Non-U - it's full of hilarious misunderstandings!

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  13. The dessert course comes after the cheese course and consists of sweetmeats or fruit. It should never replace the pudding course in name. Also, don't get me started on "Starter"!!

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