Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Demise of the Dining Room

This week there was a short and interesting discussion on Radio 4 about the fact that people don't have dining rooms any more, or rather they don't use them and they are not advertised by estate agents.They had two people discussing why it was and inevitably a discussion of  table manners.
I am reading one of Jennifer Worth's books which led to the television series, Call the Midwife. This book is Shadows of the Workhouse. It made me want to cry. There are photographs in the middle of what the workhouses were like, of people without hope, children in despair. A lot of them are sitting at tables in regimented rows. The children are ragged, shoeless and miserable.
The workhouse as she says was the first stab at welfare and stab is the right word. Such places were run by bullies and sadists.
I read a lot of history for my work and I know that a hundred and fifty years ago - and let's face it that's only two lifetimes ago, many people in big cities like London didn't even have a fire. Their houses had no fireplaces.
Tables at that time were saved for those were rich and perhaps that is why we baulk against such things.
Does the woman who has just done a stint on the checkout at Sainbury's come home at nine, cook pork parcels  and gather her family around the table at ten?
My daughter and son in law work in retail. Yesterday he was at home in the evening. She was working until ten. This happens almost every day. People's lives don't fit around dining tables.They never did.
On the programme we had this myth about how people's table manners were getting worse and how one should stop one's children coming to the table with mobile phones. When I was a little girl I would watch men pour their tea into their saucers and drink it like that because they didn't want to wait for it to cool. You don't see it any more but that's not to say it wasn't good manners at the time.
In fact manners are really how you treat and consider other people, not about whether you spoon your soup away from you.  I can remember my mother once going to stay in a good hotel and one of the woman with her dropped the silver salt cellar into her tomato soup. The waiter apologized and then fished it out with a snowy napkin. Mother was appalled. But really it was a matter of common sense. A fresh dish of soup was the point.
Food has become such a contentious issue. I wish that for a month nobody would preach at me about how much or what I should eat. The best meal I have had lately was to celebrate my daughter's birthday.  We went to the coast, bought fish and chips and sat in our car ( it was freezing outside with a howling gale behind it) and ate them from the paper and she had brought glasses and a bottle of pink champagne. Now that's what I call a meal. As for good manners, the lady in the fish and chip shop was all smiles and that's the best kind of good manners of all.

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