Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Politics of Cutlery

Cutlery.  Do all middle class Western households, those stable enough and affluent enough to own cutlery, that is, do they all have rules?  It is a subject that has always hovered beneath comment or active consideration, but lately staying in my parents’ house, and reading Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I started to think – no – write about it. 

In the Diary section, for 8 January 2001, Mr Bennett muses about domestic accoutrements in a way that reminded me of the unspoken force-fields in my own life:
Note how personalised and peopled the material world is at a level almost beneath scrutiny.  I’m thinking of the cutlery in the drawer or the crockery I every morning empty from the dishwasher.  Some wooden spoons, for instance, I like, think of as friendly; others are impersonal or without character.  Some bowls are favourites, others I have no feeling for at all.  There is a friendly fork, a bad knife and a blue and white plate that is thicker than all the others which I think of as taking the kick if I discriminate against it by using it less often.
Set down this seems close to insanity but it goes back to childhood when the entire household was populated with friends and non-friends and few objects were altogether inanimate, particularly knives and forks.  ... Sixty years later more traces of this animistic world persist than I would like, making a mockery of reason and sense.
Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, Faber and Faber, 2005, p 284

When I first copied that passage into my notebook, I amused myself by drinking tea from my favourite and friendly Winnie the Pooh mug, the one that reads ‘Eeyore, a friend of mine, has lost his tail.’ and which depicts Pooh sitting by Owl’s fireside in a cosy, pink-upholstered armchair.  Owl is perched severely on a wooden chair which is very similar to the Windsor one my father uses in his dining room.  The mantle carries a clock, a candlestick and a green plate.  Beneath the edge of the mantle is a fabric border (surely at risk of sparks?) in the same pink fabric with hints of cabbage roses that is on the arm chair where Pooh sits rather dejectedly.  (I am getting carried away.)  It might be the stiffness of a stuffed bear pose, but I feel that Pooh should look more animated and hopeful: his quest may be daunting but we know he was successful (or will have been successful) because beneath the text on the reverse of the mug is a drawing of Eeyore cavorting in his restored tail.

This mug is the subject of silent, discrete bickering because I think ‘him indoors’ favours it too.  There is always a bit of a rush to see who will get to use it.  The least favoured ones in the series are the one where Pooh is packing for a picnic – I think the overtones of house-moving are to blame – and the one where Pooh is stuck in Rabbit’s front door and he piteously asks ‘How long does getting thin take?’  The answer, Mr Pooh, is forever, I’m afraid.  Of course none of this may be true at all, and I may be projecting my childish pre-occupations on the innocent, pace Mr Bennett.

Perhaps it was being back at home with my parents and not very well and thus rather dependent and child-like that brought out the politics of cutlery to me.  There is an array of styles and qualities of knives and forks and spoons that has divisions and complex, unstated but closely observed regulations. 

There is a many place-settings, extensive ‘good’ set with scalloped edges to the handles which nobody particularly likes.  The handles are quite slim and I find they cut into the palms when eating;  that may be the reason the set is not in favour.  My place at the dining table (does every family have fixed seating?) is always set with them, exclusively.  There are also four place settings of ‘Haddon Hall’ stainless in a modernist-deco austere pattern.  These are quite heavy and robust.  I think they were given to the family by an old friend at least 40 years ago, and probably date from the 1930s.  There are four knives and dinner forks, three dessert spoons, three or four coffee spoons and a couple of cake forks.  My parents’ places are always set with these.  It is not chance or randomness, I never get the Haddon Hall cutlery.  Father uses the dessert spoon for his porridge every morning, but he spurns the coffee spoons as too small and short-handled.  The cake forks are less subject to the rules unless we are having salad.

The rest of the cutlery consists of various ages and qualities of stainless steel.  Some I recognise from my earliest childhood – the ones with a double line around the perimeters.  And there is an older ‘best set’ with a scroll at the end of the handles, from years before Haddon Hall entered our lives.  These are now jumbled in with an assortment of orphans and strays.  Even now, after hundreds of years of marriage, there are spoons still identified as ‘my mother’s’ and ones from ‘my father’s student days’.  There is a definite hierarchy of choice, use and favour.

Even amongst the teaspoons – which are segregated into proper ‘teaspoon size’ and smaller ‘coffee spoon size’ compartments in the cutlery drawer – there is one lone spoon that is slightly bigger and a different pattern, than the rest.  It has a bigger bowl and a longer handle than your average teaspoon.  Whenever there is ice cream or yogurt or fruit salad, this spoon is designated as my father’s.  He doesn’t like it if someone else has used it when he is looking for it, and harrumphs in displeasure.

Do other families have these hierarchies and restrictions?  We have mugs that never get used and ones that are chipped or cracked that always get used, and plates from the 1940s and 1950s, some no doubt antediluvian, that are faded, crazed, chipped and stained.  Nothing matches but they are all treasured as if resurrected from some otherwise catastrophic shipwreck.

Reading this piece today it seems the ultimate luxury and somehow unfeeling to be writing of domestic treasures that have survived decades of hard service and quite a few international moves themselves, when so many people have recently lost their homes and in some cases their lives, due to real disasters, whether natural or man-made.

And remember, not everything you read is true ...


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and so true, I think, of all families.

Isabel Doyle said...

Perhaps the secret obsession is not so rare as another reader recounted a similar tale about sibling rivalry concerned with domestic equipment.
Glad you enjoyed the essay.