We used to laugh about the affectation – the Beano-like, Victoria-Wood-ish joke of a family in possession of such finely-packaged airs and graces. Fish knives and fish forks. As if we’d ever sail further out than brought-in battered haddock or Saturday’s tin of salmon. Mum, in spite of her ambitions, did enjoy the joke.
A wedding present, 1961, to my parents from my paternal grandmother (not known for domestic flamboyance). An interesting canteen, velvet-lined inside in a frankly luxurious blue, and the lid with its pretty little ornate corner-clasps a spotted and organic riot of late-jazz design – which in close-crop could be mistaken for the folksy joyfulness of a Lisa Congdon watercolour. (Look her up, really.) Our growing-up surroundings were occasionally brightened by such lovely remnants as this; the last smoking wheezes of an age that had its visual shit together – before the cocksure mass-neutralities of our decades to come.
I can count on the prongs of a fish fork how many times the blue canteen graced our G-Plan table and its retired-curtains tablecloth. But over the years the box is checked and visited just for fun – until last week when it’s discovered in a cupboard lousy with mould. The cutlery itself (the irons in Yorkshire) is fine – gleaming, black-handled as always – but the case is ugly with greens and blue-greens at the edges; dusty spores and some corner-curling dampness. I wash it as best I can and rush it outside into the sunshine to dry. Mum washes the knives and forks and re-houses them in a plastic bag, and seems, though I try, to have forgotten their funniness, the comedy of their improving poshness.
There’s a Betjeman self-spoofing verse goes by the title How To Get On In Society; begins:
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.
Which is all the thumping better for hearing this read by our own Alan Bennett, as I have in a cassette collection Mum gave me in the 90s. (The circular la-di-dah irony reference is not lost.) If you’re able and so-minded, return to the verse and read it aloud in your best Alan Bennett attempt. It will brighten your day.
Whilst it’s outside and drying, Dad sets about the box. His poorly mind regards it as a thing to be prepared for the recycling, like the pile of junk mail by the kitchen door. He strips away the blue velvet lining and claws up the cardboard and tape underneath. I help make a breezy joke of this – how we might discover a long-hidden letter, a secreted Holbein sketch, or bank notes stitched into the lining. Anything to turn the events away from anything that matters. After a few minutes he gives up and returns to some weeds which are very probably flowers.
And I bring the old box home with me; loving what it was and what it now is – and crazily even, what happened. Empty of fish knives and full of our family. Its mad blue patterns ready to be made into something new.