Like buying wine, using a fish knife correctly or talking to ‘blokes’, I always feel like a little boy in my dad’s shoes, clumping along in adulthood on the verge of being discovered at any moment. So it is with referring to the evening meal as ‘dinner’. The OED has its own view. “Dinner is the main meal, whether taken in the middle of the day or in the evening”. Which smacks of political correctness. But then I wonder why we call an evening meal ‘tea’. I have a theory. And it relates to lino.
High tea is what the well heeled do of an afternoon. Tiny, crustless sandwiches. Scones. (we’ll leave ‘own’ or ‘on’ for another time) Petit four. And it is a statement of breeding if one calls ones children in from the ginnel for ‘tea’. In the same way, once upon a time, in the days before pyjamas on the school run, front steps were scrubbed and the perimeter of the room where the space between carpet and skirting board was occupied by about a foot of lino, this was washed and kept pristine. There may be little to be had in the house, but what little there was, was damn well clean. Freshly laundered antimacassars, doilies for best in the top sideboard drawer. In the cupboard, piles of china and glass. For best. ‘Best’ being the moment when Aunt Miriam and Uncle Andrew, the Vladimir and Estragon of Sunday afternoons, were due. ‘Tea’ was a way of announcing from the backdoor that a certain character dwelled in the house. It might be cooked cheese and bacon during the week instead of the quarter of boiled ham and a halved tomato reserved like the china for special occasions, but the impression that a franchise of Claridges or The Savoy operated beyond the coal bunker and outside facility and just inside the frosted panes of the backdoor was how self respect was maintained.
‘Dinner’ on the other hand, was routinely served by dinner-ladies, or else consisted of cold, cooked cheese sandwiches because there would be no hot food available “if you’re stopping at the pub on your way home”. Dinner speaks of the dinner time pint, of a cold pie and daylight peeping over the art deco ornamentation of the snug window. Or of men in cloth caps, smoking upstairs on the bus clutching a brown paper parcel. The parcel had ‘dinner’ in it. For those of us of a certain age there is still the frisson of sitting upstairs on a bus even if it no longer resounds to the sound of blossoming emphysema in a bright blue haze. A vague sense of the stairs being at the wrong end, a slight sense of wonder at the driver taking the fares. These things resonate.
As does the automated barrage of cold calls solicitous of PPI or green energy. My parents and grandparents didn’t get besieged by these things. But on a Thursday and Friday night the streets would be criss-crossed by milkmen, window cleaners, the coal-man, the man from the co-op, from the Prudential, the pools and the pop-man. A gabardine coat and bowler hat signified the rent man. And their demands for money could be cut short with fiendish psychology lost to us now. Doorstep encounters being drawn to a conclusion and the slate kept running for another week signified by a wearied exclamation of “ have you nothing less than a fiver love ?” Of course the purposely kept five pound note would go back in the drawer with the doilies until the slate crept up. As an emergency measure, empties would be returned to the shop.
Returning the empties to the shop and buying my father’s cigarettes was a childhood chore my children, and theirs, will miss out on. In case you are too young to know, let me explain. In times past, one bought a drink but paid a deposit on the container which could be recouped once the empty bottle was returned. To be washed and re-used. By the way, in these eco-conscious times, ‘money back on the empties’ seems a worthwhile principle to explore in the online market place.
I sometimes wonder how old I actually am. I run the tap for a few seconds. To get the lead out of the pipes. I habitually break the crusts on toast. It was the habit of my grandmothers to accommodate the ill fitting dentures of the elderly family members they cared for. Why I do it, I really don’t know except that’s how I learned. I was born in the sixties, grew up in the seventies. It doesn’t seem that long ago, especially when I’m buying wine, or using a fish-knife correctly or making small talk with ‘blokes’.