Often it’s the smallest things that catch us off guard, stirring up old memories and reminding us of our former selves. A childhood friend from Manchester – let’s call her Brenda – telephones one evening to arrange a visit. Pleased to hear from her, but reluctant to chat while my food goes cold, I say that I’m about to have dinner and will call her back in half an hour. ‘Speak to you later – enjoy your tea,’ she replies.
A moment of bemusement, followed by a flash of recognition. When we were growing up, tea came out of the freezer and was served at six o’clock. Dry, beige and encrusted in breadcrumbs, it was generally followed by a ‘sweet’ of Angel Delight and Del Monte fruit salad sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Sometimes, on special occasions, there was a ready-made meringue topped with tinned peaches, the casing soggy from the syrup.
Although I look back on my seventies childhood with nostalgia, I’ve moved up in the world. Dinner at my friends’ houses is rarely served before eight and is invariably followed by pudding – even if pudding turns out to be a piece of fruit. It mustn’t be referred to as a meal – meal is for the chickens. The cruet was banished long ago; serviettes have transformed into paper napkins; and at the end of the evening everyone retires to the sitting room (only hotels have lounges) to sip brandy on the sofa (never the settee).
I exaggerate, of course, but I know of people like this. Language is very telling, and it’s no coincidence that these examples all relate to the domestic sphere: the intimate, mundane details of our everyday lives hold the key to our social standing. Coyly asking for directions to the toilet instead of the loo, or sitting out on the patio as opposed to the terrace, instantly locates a person in terms of their background and aspirations, assigning them (for those who care about such distinctions) to the non-U category.
There’s something very British about this need to place a person within a few seconds of meeting them, but Brenda is unusual in that she defies most attempts at categorisation. Unlike the rest of our group of friends, she didn’t head south after her A-levels. She stayed put, went to Manchester University and raised her family a few miles down the road from the modest semi where she grew up. Although her job involves international travel, she retains a fierce loyalty to her home town and a healthy disregard for what she regards as southern pretensions.
It’s all too easy to poke fun at the blunders and faux gentility of those who call their houses ‘homes’ and insist on saying ‘pardon?’ instead of ‘what?’. I’ve long suspected that Brenda chooses her vocabulary carefully to confound expectations and show that she’s immune to such criticism. When she referred to my ‘tea’, was she making a gentle gibe, designed to remind me of where I’m from and what I’ve left behind?
Whatever her intention, I hope Brenda realises that my apparent social mobility is the thinnest of veneers. Substituting ‘dinner’ for ‘tea’ was an early concession to the sensibilities of my smart new friends but ‘supper’ is still a step too far. For me, it will always be a slice of Lancashire cheese on a Jacob’s cream cracker, swilled down with a glass of warm milk just before bedtime.