Friday, June 25, 2010

Finishing school for three-year-olds

In the news this week was a story that children as young as three are to get lessons in etiquette because their teachers are so fed up with bad manners.

I like the image of a tiny toddler holding a door open for his mother, learning not to speak over others, writing a thank you letter and getting out of a car decorously – all the while trying not to draw attention to a nappy that needs changing.

The lessons are in fact for all pupils up to the age of 18, which perhaps makes a little more sense (even if it is rather saddening that schools are increasingly expected to teach children how to live their lives, not just read and write). "We want to drive home the message that manners maketh man or or woman," says Ian Hunt, head of Llandovery College in Carmathenshire, where the lessons will be held. "From holding doors open for fellow students to understanding the importance of an RSVP, we hope that our programme puts old-fashioned manners into a modern context."

The story has also reported the college's directive of marketing and admissions, Lyn Jones (who apparently went to a finishing school herself) admitting that some forms of etiquette were sexist and out of date.

What does she mean?

Is a man who gives up his seat on the tube for a woman ipso facto a sexist? I heard an upsetting story about a man who offered his seat to a young woman being told to "F*** off, grand-dad." Who's the one with the bad manners there?

There are some houses where, after a dinner, the women retire to the drawing room while the men stay and drink some port. It is rude, I think, for the men to stay there for more than half an hour or so. But I don't think it a sexist tradition. In fact, I think the women who protest rather do themselves down by assuming the intelligent conversation is carrying on in the dining room. Why is it not amongst themselves? I always ask for a glass of port and take it through with me, as I like to drink it. But I also welcome the opportunity for a quick gossip (particularly if it's been a large party and there's some flirty intrigue going on).

Lyn Jones, it must be admitted, has the last word: "Learning how to get out of a car with your legs together is something you learn in finishing school and probably is something that many celebrities would benefit from today."

Take that Paris/Britney/LiLo and stuff your shirt with it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cheese first or pudding?

This questions is brilliantly answered by Tim Hayward in today's Guardian: click here

Is etiquette relevant?

I'm writing an article about the relevance of etiquette. I'd love some thoughts on this. I'm particularly interested in which points you do want to know and which you don't - eg. how to hold a knife vs what to wear at Ascot. How to address a duke vs when to hold a door open for someone.

I can't do a spoiler here on conclusions drawn before the piece comes out but I will be looking back at past postings and responses. So that's a clue. And of course I'll put the article on here and probably elaborate on it when it's done.

If anyone has any good etiquette questions.....please send them in! Either on the comment boxes here or go to

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Posh parking

I got a bloomin' parking ticket this morning because I couldn't properly operate the fangled Westminster system (no coins, just texting endless details to the parking shop and blahblahblah). Which reminded me of a story I was told about a rich, rather eccentric, uncle of a friend of mine who lived in the country.

Taking a friend into London one day he parked the car, got out and strode off. 'Er,' said the friend, 'hadn't you better put some coins in the parking meter?' 'Oh no,' replied the rich man. 'They have the most marvellous system here. You simply leave the car and they put an invoice on it for you to pay later.'

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Royal protocol

On Sunday, dear readers, I was asked to lunch with the Princesss Royal.

Well. Of a sort. A few select journos were invited to see the course she's designed at her home estate for horse trials, and then join her for lunch afterwards. To read more about this, you'll have to see my article for The Lady when it comes out.

But in advance, I thought – I think I know what to do (I am PB, after all) but I'd better just check the protocol. Being the lazy 21st century fact finder that I am, rather than check my Debrett's Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, I tried to google 'princess royal etiquette greeting' but yielded nada of any use. Luckily, I was able to dredge up from dim memories past, the correct instruction.

The right answer, is, of course, to say 'Your Royal Highness' on introduction and then call her 'ma'am' thereafter (rhyming with jam not smarm). One should also curtsey. I was taught that the grander one is, the lower the curtsey. The grandest person I know could give the floor a quick polish with her elegant derriere, when saying hello to the Queen.

In the event, HRH Princess Royal was completely ungrand (and really rather delightfully amusing). On introduction, I simply said 'Your Royal Highness' and thought I caught a sharp glint of approval in her eyes but you would not have detected any less when the woman next to me said 'Pleased to meet you'. Still, I'm afraid I rather let the PB side down: I just couldn't bring myself to be the only one to curtsey when all around me remained as upright as ironing boards.

One more thing. I've always suspected the Royals of being less than truly posh (they send Christmas cards with family photos on the front, for heaven's sake) but this was only confirmed when I saw HRH eat her pud. She used a spoon! SHOCKER.

And on that bombshell....

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Posh Bird is now married

Apologies to readers.......I got married last week and what with the distractions of finding the right shoes, buying the flowers, taking delivery of champagne and then being on honeymoon.......there hasn't been a blog for a while. I hereby solemnly promise to love, honour and obey my readers from hereon in. Well, from Monday.

Hold out til then. Please.

Mrs Posh Geezer x

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The death of aristocracy?

The Duke of Devonshire, one of the poshest dukes around still living in the ancient family estate (the gorgeous – and ginormous – Chatsworth) has declared: "The aristocracy is not dying. It is dead. Coffin's nailed down, it's in the ground. It doesn't exist."

This was made in response to Labour's plans to axe the remaining 90 hereditary peers before the General Election. If they manage to do this in the next few weeks, the Duke has pledged to drop his title. "Because then it would be clear-cut what the people wanted, and it would be confusing to maintain hereditary titles. So, finish that, go back to being called Cavendish."

Of course, this remark shows just how out of touch the Duke is - it's been a long time since any of Labour's plans represented "what the people wanted". But I do see his point. From the Duke's point of view, the 'aristocracy' means - or meant - power, prestige, wealth. All of these things have long since vanished from any association with titles and once you strip away the very last element of an aristocrat's ability to run the country - then yes, of course, you may as well drop the whole thing. Dropping the title would also get rid of the general view that aristocratic means titled and eliminate any presumptions on any side that being a Duke entitles one to privileges.

But of course, even locking out all the hereditary peers, scratching out all the titles and burning the Debrett's Guide to Etiquette and Burke's Peerage on the pyre would not signal the end of class. Each individual British psyche is too deeply ingrained with a sense of natural pride/injustice (delete as appropriate) in its own class to be able to simply forget it.

This has reminded me of a holiday I took in France when I was 17 years old. It was a week with a family, to brush up on my French before taking my A'levels. They were an old family and before the Revolution had titles and land. All this had now gone but their society still mimicked the rules of Les Liasons Dangereuses, only with slightly fewer curtains worn as dresses. The daughter of the family was permitted to mix only with other boys and girls of her class. I joined them halfway through their debutante season. Each night there would be a party in a different house - the parents would sit upstairs, hoping their watered down punch didn't cause any riots. Meanwhile, in a cold, large room, the girls would stand on one side, the boys on the other and to the rhythm of terrible pop songs (Sinitta's "Boys, Boys, Boys" was a hit that year) we would dance formal waltzes. I tried to break out once, dancing on my own in red crushed velvet trousers and three girls looked as if they might faint. Three hundred years of republicanism - you call that progress?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The perfect posh response to a lightbulb in your handbag

I was reminded last night of a good story about perfect posh manners...

A few years ago I took part in a vintage car rally from London to Paris via Reims, where we drank vast amounts of Ruinart champagne. The journey home was on the Orient Express, which would have been wonderful had we not all been suffering hangovers on a scale not seen since the days of Court of Versailles. Well, all of us bar one person. Lady Shawcross, the widow of Lord Shawcross, the chief prosecutor of Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials, was one of the drivers. She was a surprising entry (everyone else came from the City, on the whole) but a very welcome one for the spectacle she created. She was small and slightly stout but always beautifully, immaculately dressed, with gloves and a hat and a well-pressed suit. She was accompanied everywhere by a rather quiet paid companion, who sat mutely in the passenger seat while Lady Shawcross drove her ancient Mini at speed.

Most of us were simply content to observe her in awe and amusement but one wag on the trip home thought it would be a good wheeze – and a distraction from the pain of our thick heads and sandpaper tongues – to steal a lightbulb from the train and put it in her handbag when she wasn't looking. This duly done, everyone in the carriage watched her for what felt like the length of long courtroom session until she needed to delve into her bag. At last, she lifted it from the floor to the table. We watched agog. Her hand went in and pulled out the offending and, surely, mysterious, glass object.

"A lightbulb," she said, in Lady Bracknell tones. "How useful." And replaced it into her bag.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Posh Bird speaks!

I'll be giving a short talk this week about the pleasures and pains of wearing stilettos in the country, navigating muddy paths and how to overtake a tractor (take the train) at a Literary Salon organised by the truly brilliant Damian Barr  (of Shoreditch Salon fame). It's at Aubin & Wills on Westbourne Grove on Thurs 18 Feb. Free but there are limited places so go to the Facebook page if you want to be on the guestlist.

You can buy Mud & the City: Dos & Don'ts of Townies in the Country on Amazon for a bargainous £6.49.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Recollections of a naughty grandmother

An old friend of mine came round for supper last week and was reminding me of stories about my very naughty maternal grandmother. Far from baking cakes, Kate used to give me whisky and cigarettes when I was a small child and my bed time stories would be about antics in nightclubs where waiters were bitten by pet tigers, or lovers that tried to double cross her and failed. She was tall and glamorous, never with a snag in her tights or safety pin for a button. Even at 80 years old, her legs would be the best in the room and she'd sit in the corner while people flocked to talk to her.

In her earlier years, for almost two decades, she had an affair with an Earl in Scotland. They wrote to each other daily and he gave her an owl. He promised he would wait for her to divorce so they could marry but then suddenly he met someone else and arranged to marry her within three months. She said later she was demented with heartbreak – which means that perhaps we may forgive her the next part of the story. But perhaps not.

On the eve of the wedding, she wrote two letters. One, to her former lover, said: "Darling R–, I am so sorry that you have been forced into marriage with this terribly plain girl...How awful it will be for you to be forced to look upon her plain face when you wake in the morning...What terrible circumstances have brought you to this. My poor love. Etc." The second said: "Dear M–, What simply wonderful news of your marriage. How happy you will be. With very best wishes, Kate."

And then she put them in the wrong envelopes.

Deliberately? But, of course.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U and Non-U: some things never change

With reference to blogs passim about how hard it is to find distinguishing marks of the posh, I'd like to draw your attention to this little snippet I found:

", a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class. Nor, in general, is he likely to play a greater part in public affairs, be supported by other trades or professions, or engage in other pursuits or pastimes than his fellow of another class. There are, it is true, still a few minor points of life which may serve to demarcate the upper class, but they are only minor ones."

Oddly enough, this was not written last week but in 1956 by Alan S.C.Ross in his academic paper for the University of Birmingham: 'U and Non-U – An Essay in Sociological Linguistics.'

It was from this that Nancy Mitford wrote her own article on 'The English Aristocracy', for which she was revered and reviled in equal measure. (So, in fact, it wasn't Mitford who coined U - meaning upper class speaker, and Non-U, meaning not. I'd be pretty cross if I was Ross. But then again, he nearly was.)

Lots of the U and Non-U markers still hold today, although some of the "minor marks" of the upper classes, which include things such as the wearing of braces for tennis, use of the word wireless and how they hold their drink (gentlemen would, apparently, vomit in public but never be truculent when drunk) are no longer noticeable, shall we say.

Ross focuses on the addressing of envelopes (hah!), Mitford is more concerned with the definition of aristocracy (which she boils down almost entirely simply to having a title) and those linguistic things which mark out a Non-U. Those which still exist include:
Sweet: non-U for U pudding
Dinner: non-U for U luncheon (although hardly anyone says luncheon, they do say lunch)
Wealthy: non-U for U rich

Some I always used but didn't know I was being U in saying them:
Britain: non-U for U England (although I do know when to be sensitive about this. One has to move with the times. As you might have thought Liz Hurley would when she recently wrote an article headlined 'A Guide to Mumbai' and insisted on calling it 'Bombay' throughout.)
Home: non-U – 'they have a lovely home'; U - 'they've a very nice house'

But some I didn't know (and henceforth of course will pretend that that was what I always said):
Greens is non-U for U vegetables
Mental: non-U for U mad
Glasses: non U for U spectacles
Dentures: non-U for U false teeth 
Ill: non-U against U sick

To confuse things further, Mitford admits that some U-speakers will deliberately employ non-U phrases in an ironic manner (or perhaps in memory of their darling Nanny. It is a truism that the upper classes of the past were entirely brought up by the working classes, which is why they share so many characteristics even now). Also, of course, U and non-U markers change over the years.

Is it time for a 21st century version? Posh Bird throws her hat into the ring...

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Harriet Harman: I dropped my cut-glass accent for Labour"

This was the shocker of a headline in the Evening Standard yesterday. Inside was an interview with HH, public-school educated, niece of Lord Longford, who agreed that she had lost her accent along the way because "I sounded like Lady Diana". (Of course, everyone thinks this is fine. Imagine the furore if George Osborne was revealed to have had diction like an extra on Eastenders as a teenager.)

Posh family links, a public school education etc should not preclude you from voting Labour, being left-wing or even becoming a Labour MP. But what I object to is the continuing belief that poshness equals snobbery, rather than it simply being a tribal description. The accent I have in no way prescribes my ethics, political beliefs or moral values. Those things are shaped by my social environment, my own intellectual curiosity, the people I talk to, the work I do.....there's a myriad of influences.

And yet, those who could be effective in striving for a meritocratic society - ie Labour MPs in power - do nothing to help the cause.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to address an envelope

A good friend called me up the other day and she said: "Thank you for your Christmas card. I was so pleased because you're the only person I know who knows how to address envelopes properly. I'm always trying to explain and no one understands." I was thrilled, of course – always good to know that Posh Bird's reputation remains intact – but also surprised as this friend is not at all posh. But she is, however, another generation. Born before 1950, this perhaps explains her knowledge of envelope addressing. Although why her generation chose not to tell their children how to do it is another story. (Largely, I suspect, because throughout the 1960s and 1970s they thought that things like titles, or 'handles', would cease to exist, so why should anyone know how to use them properly?)

In fact, I didn't know how to address an envelope correctly until I was 19 years old. I knew the basics but wouldn't have written to a duchess with confidence. It was only when my grandfather called me up one day, shouting "I am NOT an American!" that the error of my ways was rectified. He resented being addressed as 'Mr', feeling that years of good breeding and Britishness entitled him to be an 'Esq.'. So I was tutored in the ways of envelope etiquette and once learned, it can never be forgotten or relaxed.

For those who want to know - these are the basic rules.

1. To a man, you write: Rupert Fotherington-Smythe, Esq.
(Strictly speaking, you write this to all men except Americans and tradesmen, whom you address as 'Mr' but I don't make that distinction.)
2. To a single woman you write: Miss Arabella Toffington-Love
3. To a married (and widowed) woman, you write: Mrs Rupert Fotherington-Smythe.
4. To a divorced woman, you write: Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe.
5. To a Baronet or knight, you write: Sir Giles Poppy.
6. To an Earl, you write: Lord Poppy.
7. To the wife of a knight, baronet or earl, you write: Lady Poppy.
8. To the daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Poppy.
9. To the married daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Fowler.
10. That's it for now. There are further complicated permutations (the daughter of a daughter of an earl or duke is The Hon. An MP is The Rt. Hon. Plus all the Royal stuff) but I'll save those for a rainy day.

The only other thing to note is that even when writing to a couple (eg, Christmas card, invitation or thank you note), the envelope is addressed to the wife only. This is because traditionally the wife organised the husband's diary, and if you stayed with a couple for the weekend she is the one who would have done all the work. As to the question of whether one should stick with the format although the tradition has changed: the answer is yes. After all, I still say please to the bus conductor when asking for my ticket, even though he has long dropped the tradition of saying thank you.

The only problem I find is with rule no.3 as so many women now prefer not to take their husbands names on marriage. Does this mean that they have to be addressed as 'Miss' - when that is ridiculous, surely? And to write Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe makes them look divorced. The only solution, I think, is to drop the prefixes of Miss or Mrs altogether. Although, of course, doing that makes Posh Bird start hyperventilating and there isn't always a brown paper bag handy when doing one's Christmas cards.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Harriet Harman to announce that class is the decisive factor in social immobility

Harriet Harman is expected to announce today that class is the decisive factor in social immobility.

“Persistent inequality of socio-economic status — of class — overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability,” the deputy Labour leader will say.

HH makes two mistakes here: first, she confuses 'socio-economic status' with class. (What class you are has borne little relation to – certainly not some kind of inevitable consequence of – the money you have for at least two generations now.) Secondly, she seeks to accuse our society (institutional?) racism, sexism and prejudice against the disabled.

While I don't seek to deny that there are still strides to be made before we reach a true balance of power between the genders, races and the disabled and able-bodied, what really makes my blood boil is that she is deliberately using this incendiary argument to gloss over the true inequalities that her government has brought about.

Her speech does one good thing: it shows that Labour are at last acknowledging that under their government, social mobility is the worst its ever been. Those born disadvantaged have a steeper mountain to climb if they wish to escape than ever before: poor diets, high crime rates, depressed morale, poor education and a severe lack of positive role models all contribute. Low-income areas and their residents have become ever more segregated as the middle classes have barricaded themselves apart with gated communities and enormous SUVs with blacked out windows. Money spent by the high earners has been channelled straight back into their own communities with few government incentives offered (as in America) for charitable giving. Not to mention that Labour encouraged vast amounts of non-doms to reside here - bringing their cash to spend on Bond Street but with no sense of community responsibility.

But to suggest that all this is the fault of class is the kind of blinkered, inverted-snobbery response that makes me want to perform acupuncture with toothpicks on Harriet Hardup. In fact, you could argue that in the last century, where class divisions were strictly observed and very obvious, social mobility was not only easier but actively encouraged. It was, then, after all, that the welfare state was introduced, the practice of better education for all for longer was brought in and meritocracy was the buzzword.

Any capitalist society will contain, sadly, the indolent poor and the indifferent rich as well as the self-obsessed middle classes. And in Britain, hundreds of years of dialect and a class structure has left its imprint - we notice the way a knife is held, the h's that are dropped. But these things do not in themselves lead to ghettos, a crippling stealth tax, the reward of greedy, thick bankers and a fearful population afraid to cross over to the 'wrong' side of the street. No, Harriet, those things are the fault of the government - your government. When will you say sorry?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Royals in Oz

When even Australia starts feting the royals, you can't help but think that not so much a tide has been turned as a tsunami. Before Prince William's storming visit in New South Wales this week, the idea of a British Royal getting a warm welcome was about as likely as the Democrats losing their safe seat in Massachussets......Oh, whoops. Mind you, the feeling was probably mutual - what with the Queen and Prince Phillip having suffered an alleged assassination attempt down under in 1970. But ol' Prince William's ("call me charming") ability to not only shoot impeccably on a rifle range but shoot the breeze about rap with a 'disadvantaged youngster' (one of those phrases never used in real life but only in the papers, like 'searingly honest' or 'achingly hip') has apparently won the hearts of Sheilas and Bruces everywhere.

And so say all of us. But I still can't help feeling that this young man, nice though he is, has got an awfully long way to go before he can take over the Palace. While Charlie boy may be fed up of his long wait to be King it's better that the more recent public memory has images of him growing organic biscuits and than of cavorting (yes, another of those words again) on the beach with a model. William needs to do some hard work to put some distance between him and the nightclubs before the country feels he has earned his natural right to prime acreage in London. Better get chatting rap down in Deptford next, eh?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A good retort to a posh remark

 I was reading in the bath this morning (Posh Bird and the ilk always have baths in the morning, preferably with lemon verbena scented soap, rose oils and a toga clad youth to hand over the queen-sized fluffy white towel*), and just about the time I was trying to turn the hot tap with my big toe to warm up a bit, I came across this in Rachel Cusk's novel, 'The Country Life'. It quite put me off my stroke. In this scene, Stella Benson, a paranoid and tricksy 29 year old has moved to the country to work as an au-pair for a disabled, bright, teenager.

   'There you are.' Martin folded his arms with satisfaction. 'That's why things are better off in our hands. We know how these things ought to be done.'
   'Who is "we"?' I enquired. 
   'The upper classes,' said Martin, his face crumpled and white, like something botched and screwed into a ball. I caught a glimpse of the cavity of his mouth, dark and moist. 
   'I do apologize,' I said sarcastically. 'I didn't realize that was who you were.'
   'Our family,' intoned Martin, 'has lived in this house since the seventeenth century, and in this area since long before that.'
   'Does that make you upper class?' I was becoming quite irritated, in a desultory fashion. 'I'd have thought it just makes you local.'

* (No. Really posh baths mean brown water out of the tap, the hot water running out after half an inch and small, scratchy towels that are frequently mistaken for the dog bed lining.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A spot of pro-posh marketing, 'Posh Brother' and a play called 'Posh'

So, how posh is 2010? With a tv show, a marketing campaign and a play - I'd say, very.

First up is a picture released by Royal Ascot (posh people never call it 'Royal Ascot' by the way, just 'Ascot', and it is pronounced Asket, never never As-cot) which has the Daily Mail frothing. Allegedly due to be sent out with invitations to members of the Royal Enclosure, the snap, taken at Cliveden, has the Duke of Devonshire at the centre, flanked by Bruce Forsyth, Ronnie Corbett, Lisa Snowden, model Lady Martha Sitwell, BBC presenter Claire Balding and socialist, I mean, socialite, Jake Warren (son of the Queen's racing manager). In other words - where's the poshos? Are celebrities allowed in the Enclosure these days? Well, yes. It's not been hard for some years now to find a way to finagle yourself in there and the fun of it is all about the hats and mixing up slebs and Dukes. I'm rather encouraged that modern posh, 2010 poshness, is not about old-fashioned posh rules but about everyone enjoying a posh event. It's just an excuse to dress up, pretend that all one really cares about is the filly at 2.10 and how simply marvellous and practically ordinary it is to be hobnobbing and drinking champagne on a Tuesday. Anyway - more of that in the summer.

Next up is what will come to be known as 'Posh Brother' - Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, have started advertising in Country Life magazine for families "with historic links" to stately homes in need of restoration for a new programme commissioned by the BBC. Francis Fulford and his wife Kishanda, who had a moment in the spotlight with 'The F-ing Fulfords' on Channel 4 a few years ago are already allegedly "champing at the bit" to take part, hoping that the fee might get them a new roof. This would be highly desirable for a lot of families with stately homes but to anyone I know living in one my advice would be - don't do it. Invariably, those who are unable to pay for roofs because they haven't had the nous to work for a bank, open it up to the public, sell it off to the National Trust, are going to be in some way quite mad - as if posh people in vast houses weren't mad at some level anyway - and will in no way come out of a programme made by Endemol without wanting to smash everyone's television sets before transmission.

Lastly, the Royal Court is staging a play from 2 April called, simply, 'Posh'. It's written by Laura Wade, who is probably not unduly unposh herself - she went to a fairly posh sounding school (Lady Manners in Bakewell), did drama at Bristol Uni (pretty posh) and lives with actor Samuel West, son of Prunella Scales ("BASIL!!") and Timothy West, who are quite posh. So Laura probably knows what she's talking about. I'll get more details in due course.

Right. Now Posh Bird needs to battle through the snow. In my poshest snow outfit - big furry hat, fur-trimmed (fake, guys, FAKE) coat and er, Nike trainers. Red Hunter wellies look so much better but have no grip. Be safe out there.