Monday, 19 May 2008

I Love the… 20th Century

Give me any television documentary about how we used to live, and I am there, on the settee, fascinated. I have recently stared agog at tales from ‘1976 – the long hot summer’, anything on the World Wars, ‘1960’s – The Beatles decade’, and ‘The Wartime Kitchen’ (translating as ‘if it moved with the breeze, eat it’). It turns out I am starting a late love affair with modern history…

At school, history was the Bog Man preserved in peat, and the Tudors. It was peasants in smocks, Kings on horses and faded photographs of soldiers. It was just so old and dusty that none of it came alive for me. Or perhaps that best described the teacher. Nothing was related with passion, and nothing related to me – it was no wonder I left it behind.

But cut to the present day and I’m surrounded with the past. One of my favourite books at the moment is ‘The Perfect Hostess’ - a lesson in manners from 1931. It describes exactly what you should do and serve on any social occasion you may be called upon to either hold or attend, and my favourite piece of advice is below...

The Flying Ace Comes to Lunch Before the Big Race…

Give him something really substantial, such as a beef-steak pudding – something, in fact, that will ‘stay put’ in case of bumpy weather.

After the Race

Caviare Sandwiches
Champagne: Schneider Cup (inevitably)

Song to Sing

Give him the moon to play with;
And the stars as well.

Isn’t it fab? I like the way flying aces are obviously blokes. And the writer lives in a world where they do just pop in for lunch. But the book covers all possible social situations…

Your Poor Relation comes up from the Country for the Day

Send a car to the station, and tell her she can have the use of it all morning for shopping, unaccompanied by yourself.


Provide her with a cocktail, but for goodness sake make it very weak.

Arrange the table decoration in the newest way you know – such as imitation witch-balls in a black bowl – or sea-shells floating in a green bowl. (Make it something she can copy inexpensively when she gets home).


Crayfish a l'Americaine
Hazel Hen with Grapefruit Salad
Banana en Flamme

Take her to a really charming play at the Haymarket, and send her back to the station with the car.

I love it.

I think it is so important for a writer to collect things like this - especially as patterns of speech change, words fall in and out of favour, and to write authentically about another decade you really need to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. At least, that is my excuse when J sees yet another pile of books from the second hand book shop…


musicobsessive said...

This is fabulous. Like you, I hated history at school, but of late I have become very interested in the last 100 years or so especially the wars and the culture/social aspects. The inter-war period is particularly fascinating. I think it's called growing old!

Btw - I was doing my 2nd year uni exams during 1976 and it was dreadful. It didn't rain from May until September and temperatures were far too high for me. I remember going for walks at 4.00 am, unable to sleep, in just a pair of shorts, my bare feet burning on the pavement!

Jayne Ferst said...

Oh that documentry sounds like one for you then!

The Perfect Hostess is such a funny book - mind you, I think it was written very much in keeping with humour of the time as well. It also goes on to say how every home must have at least 'a dozen' ashtrays - how times have changed!