This set of beautiful blue handled, Firth Brearley Sheffield stainless steel butter knives, with one missing, belonged to Auntie. I remember them at Churt, when they would sometimes come out with the afternoon tea, or the breakfast toast and marmalade. In fine weather, tea would be served on the lawn, and consisted of: plain butter sandwiches, jam sandwiches, and home-made cake. All of which had to be eaten strictly in that order – you couldn’t have a jam sandwich until you’d eaten your plain butter ones, and no cake until all the sandwiches were gone. I always loved the deep blue of these knife handles, and I still do (everything in my flat is blue); they transport me so vividly to that very special place and time in my childhood. I rarely use them, however, not being the kind of person who has people round for tea and cake on a regular basis. And when I do throw parties or have friends round for dinner, we eat off our knees; no-one cares if the plates don’t match, or if they’re eating soup with a dessertspoon. For Auntie’s generation and class, of course, these things were of critical importance. And my Mum was also brought up with these standards of etiquette, since her father, being Auntie’s cousin, was cut of the same aristocratic cloth.
By the time she married my Dad and was raising us children, Mum had been through various changes of fortune. She had experienced near destitution, and become a Communist. She was a fervent believer in the equality of all humanity, and in the ultimate destruction of the class system, and with it, all wealth and privilege. However, certain trappings of her upbringing persisted, especially when it came to entertaining.
I have previously described myself as coming from a “mixed class background,” something I only became aware of – and put a name to – quite late in life. I genuinely wasn’t aware of class as a child; people were just people, there were always so many of them in our house from all over the world, and you don’t know anyone is “different” unless an adult forces their own prejudices onto you. This didn’t happen much in our family, beyond Dad’s “Pat & Mick” jokes (and even then I was blissfully unaware that Pat & Mick were supposed to be Irish, I just thought they were those 2 hapless blokes who kept getting into scrapes in Dad’s funny stories). It’s only with hindsight that I can see why I was such a misfit at school, too posh for the council estate kids and too common for the middle class kids. (Having parents who were a generation older than those of my peers, and who were Communists, probably didn’t help in the popularity stakes). Half of my family were working class Glaswegians raised in 8-to-a-room poverty, whilst the other half was all tea on the lawn and 4 different types of table knives. But when you’re a kid, what’s around you is normal until you learn otherwise.
Secondary school and teenage years brought the inevitable realisation that we were different, and therefore suspect. I am ashamed to say that in my attempts to fit in and be accepted, I even rejected my parents’ politics (I was never a Tory though and did, of course, become a proper leftie by my 20s!) And as I did make friends and brought them home, I became excruciatingly embarrassed by my Mum’s kindly meant hospitality. To Mum, she was not being a proper host unless the best china and cutlery and linen table napkins were produced for guests. My friends, not having been brought up with what I now realised were such “posh” dining habits, were almost as embarrassed as I was, not knowing which knife to use first. It was worse for boyfriends, already nervous about meeting my parents and making a good impression. I squirmed with embarrassment on these occasions, and did my best to avoid them.
Poor Mum, she only meant to give her guests the best possible hospitality, as she had been raised to do. She loved to entertain, especially visitors from abroad, who were many and frequent. But it was an English family who stand out in my mind as struggling the most with her gracious efforts. My parents, being Communists, actively supported the miners during the 1984-85 strike, going out collecting funds and attending rallies. They also took part in a scheme to host strikers’ families, giving them the holidays their meagre strike pay wouldn’t provide. So a young miner from Nottingham came down to London with his wife and small child, to stay with my parents.
I was living away from home by then but came to dinner with them one evening. My Mum had pulled out all the stops, cooked a fine 3 course meal and served it on her best dinner service with all the right cutlery and crystal wine glasses. She was in her element and I was on a knife edge, cringing inwardly, for all of them. For Mum, who had only done her best but couldn’t see what I could: that the couple from Nottingham were intimidated by her beautifully set dinner table. And for the couple themselves, trying desperately not to show their discomfort, their confusion about which spoon to use for soup, which knife for bread. Wanting to be polite, afraid of causing offence or embarrassing themselves. They can’t have enjoyed that meal the way my Mum intended them to.
My parents must have done something right, though. The miner’s family sent them a Christmas card every year after that, and the wife continued to do this even after she and her husband were divorced, for the rest of my parents’ lives. I don’t know whether or not they offered to reciprocate their intimidating hospitality, though!