...and Other Issues of Modern Etiquette is the proposed title of my latest ‘Her Ladyship’ book for the National Trust, which I delivered yesterday. The editor says she particularly likes the bit about cold calling, which tells a true story of a short-tempered friend of mine who was so rude to a cold caller that when she had hung up the supervisor rang back to ask how dare she talk to one of her operatives in that way? You can imagine the short shrift that that second woman got.
It all raised a question about hanging up on people, however. Now that ‘hanging up’ involves pressing a button, you just can’t slam down the phone in the satisfying way you used to. Not all technology is progress.
I’ve suddenly become a favourite on Talk Radio Europe. I was invited on to talk about my latest book, As Right As Rain, when it came out a month or so ago. It’s about idioms and the presenter, Selina Mackenzie, had looked on this site and seen I’d done other vaguely similar things. So she asked me back to talk about proverbs - An Apple a Day - which I did yesterday. Next month we’re going to talk about business jargon - Pushing the Envelope. That’s Wednesday 6 November, 12.30 p.m. UK time. The station broadcasts to English-speaking ex-pats in the south of Spain, but I dare say you can listen on line if the fancy takes you.
I’m hoping that in the spring Selina will let me talk about cake.
Whilom. It means former. It was originally the dative plural of the Old English word for ‘time’. Who knew? I didn’t.
I read it in The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published by the wonderful Persephone Books. Persephone specialise in rediscovering and republishing largely forgotten works, mostly by women and mostly from the early 20th century. This one was first published in 1901 and, although charming and delightful, it is certainly no more than middle-brow. And the word isn’t used in a fancy context: the heroine, about to marry a Marquis and become fabulously wealthy, expresses her surprise and delight to the lady who made the introduction - ‘her whilom patroness’.
So presumably the none-too-intellectual novel reader at the turn of the century would have taken in this word without a blink. Odd that it should have disappeared so completely from day-to-day use. I might start a campaign to revive it.
My cake book - or, as I should now learn to call it, A Slice of Britain: round the country by cake - is being edited, but two of the recipes are still to be checked. A friend has promised to make Scotch Black Bun over the weekend, but someone else reported near failure on the recipe I’d supplied for Chelsea Buns. So I’ve said I’ll try that one myself. Yesterday’s attempt was far too yeasty - what’s the betting that if I reduce the amount of yeast for tomorrow’s go the dough won’t rise at all?
At the same time, I am getting stuck into my new book for the National Trust, Her Ladyship’s Guide to Modern Etiquette. It feels very strange, because it isn’t about cake and over the last few months all I have thought about is cake. Can I work a chapter (or perhaps just a box) about cake into a book on etiquette? I don’t know - I ransacked my kitchen this morning and discovered I don’t even possess cake forks.
It may seem odd to post something about Christmas at this time of year, but I’m still immersed in cake research and I came across this in a book of Kitchen Essays:
Year by year the propaganda of the shops grows increasingly active; and their suggestions for the keeping of that high feast, including such secular items as dozens of brandy, whisky, and champagne, appear annually more elaborate and incongruous than ever before. Experience leads us, however, to believe that their lavish wares will all be sold and bought, given and received, cherished or passed on, as in the long tale of bygone years.
Agnes Jekyll (sister-in-law of the more famous Gertrude), writing in the early 1920s. I imagine she turns in her grave regularly every December.
In case you haven't heard (and don't listen to Terry Wogan on Radio 2, who seems to have espoused the cause) the Dorset Knob is a small, rounded, crunchy, savoury biscuit perfect with Dorset Blue Vinny cheese. It’s made exclusively by Moores in Bridport and every year for the last six the little village of Cattistock has hosted the Frome Valley Food Fest and Dorset Knob Throwing - see the website for more.
There were stalls selling Dorset Apple Cake - my real excuse for being there, though the Dorset Knob is going to find its way into my cake book now - and local chutneys, venison sausages and Badger beer. In addition to the official Knob Throwing you could try your hand at the Knob Pyramid or Knob Darts. And there was the most fantastic sense of community. By the time I left (well before lunch time) the volunteers were directing people to the overflow carpark - goodness knows what it must have been like by 3 o’clock. I normally hate great days out for all the family, but this was the best fun I have had in ages. Put it in your diaries for next year.
I'm writing a book about idioms, currently entitled As Right As Rain, to be published in the autumn. One of the entries is ‘a bridge too far’, which - if you're old enough - you will remember is the title of a film starring almost everyone you had ever heard of at the time: Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine to name but a few. The screenplay is by William Goldman, who also has - among others - Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man and The Stepford Wives to his credit.
In A Bridge Too Far, there is a scene in which a corporal offers a mug of tea to Major-General Urquhart, played by Sean Connery.
‘Hancock,’ splutters Sean. ‘I've got lunatics laughing at me from the woods. My original plan has been scuppered now that the jeeps haven't arrived. My communications are completely broken down. Do you really believe any of that can be helped by a cup of tea?’
‘Can’t hurt, sir,’ comes the reply and Sean accepts his tea.
Not immediately relevant to the idiom, but the joy of writing not-quite-reference books like mine is that you can slip this sort of thing in anyway. I've also got in mentions of Spike Milligan and of Flanders and Swann, and I'm only up to the Ds.
Starting the New Year with a real treat - a P G Wodehouse novel I haven't read before, The Small Bachelor. How’s this for a description of a large woman:
No theatre… could be said to be ‘sparsely filled’ if Mrs Waddington had dropped in to look at the show. Public speakers, when Mrs Waddington was present, had the illusion that they were addressing most of the population of the United States. And when she went to Carlsbad or Aix-les-Bains to take the waters, the authorities huddled together nervously and wondered if there would be enough to go round.
Thank you, P G, as so often.
Well, I went to Bath and met the managers of the Bath Bun and the Sally Lunn Teashop, both of whom were charming and helpful and encouraged me to eat buns. The Sally Lunn with Welsh Rarebit on top is, I have to say, excellent.
More recent adventures were to Brighton, where I can highly recommend the Mock Turtle tea shop - it doesn’t do anything specific to Brighton but it does a LOT else, laid out invitingly on a table as you go in the door. I've since baked (orangey) Brighton Buttons and (almondy) Brighton Buns for myself, but can't find anyone who does either commercially.
I’ve been to Banbury and eaten Banbury Cakes and to St Paul's Cathedral and eaten Eccles Cakes. I realise I should be going to Eccles in order to eat Eccles Cakes, and I shall, in the new year, but I was in St Paul’s and they had Eccles Cakes and what is a girl to do? The waistline is holding out OK so far, but the sugar highs are getting a bit alarming.
How’s this for an assignment: I've been signed up by AA Publishing to travel round the UK and write a book about cakes associated with places - Bakewell pudding (as the locals call it), Banbury cakes, Dorset apple cake and the like. I might even throw in the occasional Devon/Cornish cream tea, and it will give me the chance to visit Grantham (to eat their gingerbread) and Eccles, two places I can't imagine I would ever go to otherwise.
Won't that be fun? I have a burgeoning list of generous friends who have volunteered to come and help with the research.
‘A highbrow is the sort of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.’
From A P Herbert’s Uncommon Law, a collection of pieces shown on TV in the 1960s under the title of Misleading Cases and starring the wondrous Alastair Sim and Roy Dotrice. Herbert was a barrister and an MP, and it is largely thanks to him that many nonsenses of the English legal system - notably having to hire young ladies called Prudence and take them to Brighton for the weekend in order to obtain a divorce - were changed.
In another piece, about whether or not marriage, being a lottery, should be subject to the same laws as other games of chance, Herbert writes:
Women complain, in moments of dissatisfaction, that all men are alike, but men complain with equal indignation that no two women are the same, and that no woman is the same for many days or even minutes together. It follows that no experience, however extensive, is a certain guide, and no man’s judgment, however profound, is in this department valuable. In all matrimonial transactions, therefore, the element of skill is negligible and the element of chance predominates.
I wish I’d written that, too.
Although laws have changed (thank goodness), Uncommon Law remains as funny and as incisive as it was when it was first written, in the 1920s and ’30s. My copy is published by Capuchin Press and has on the back the shout line ‘Books to keep alive’. This one certainly deserves it.
From Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You, referring to a character who is remarkably casual about crossing busy roads:
A walk with Gus was a definition of a mixed blessing - his company was to die for, and there was always the possibility that one might.
Lovely book, by the way - quite heart-rending. Don’t read it in your local café if you are as prone to weeping as I am.