Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wot's Posh!

As the Princess formerly known as Kate honeymooned in the Seychelles with her new husband, the London newspapers continue to ruminate on whether her family is acceptably posh or "yew", a reference to trees grown on ancestral estates.

The Middletons 
One source sniffed of the "middle class" Middletons: "For goodness sakes, they have a tarmac driveway!" And I heard a rumour in London that - quelle horreur! - Kate keeps her tomatoes in the fridge. (See below if confused about tarmac and tomatoes).

Last week in London I decided to embark on an anthropological study. Does the complex and tricky class system still exist? Skip to the end: yes.

I asked all my Brit friends: "Wot's Posh?" On the last night we saw Clare who lives with her family in a tiny Herfordshire village of Whitwell which is complete with knobbly church, scary one-car lanes, high hedgerows and Vicar of Dibley-like town characters. (All pictures below are of Clare's house.)

Clare cooking on her Aga

Clare's home, a 15th century "Meeting House"
Their home is a 15th Century former "Meeting House" set in eight acres of wild pastures where their three children roam free with the neighbours' broods. Some would call their home properly "Yew". Old, natural, never overwrought and with a deep old well and statues that have been there forever. A smidge of scandal never goes astray too. In the Sixties, this house was part of the Profumo Affair involving  MP's, judges and call girls.

Of course the origins of most etiquette and customs are based in practicality and politeness. Eat: oysters from their shells, asparagus with your fingers, your soup immediately and all courses immediately if you are seated at a table of more than eight. But sometimes those rules get subverted by snobbery. Alan Clark MP once said of someone they "bought their own furniture", the implication being they didn't possess family heirlooms.

One recent article in the London Evening Standard : "The process of social acceptance is, it seems, glacially slow as research by economic historians confirms. Professor Greg Clark demonstrated last month that although Britain is socially mobile, it takes 350 years for a rich family to return to average income, or for a poor one to rise to it. Families whose ancestors were wealthy in 1858 are still four times richer than those whose ancestors were poor at the same date."

"Codes of behaviour are how the privileged defend themselves against the competitive intrusion of newcomers."

While she cooked steaks on her Aga, I asked Clare, a former barrister and the least pretentious person you will meet, if she could list a few more "yew" things. Clare laughed: "In truth, I don't have the right credentials to advise you on what's posh and what's not. "

Arthur and Clare
Walking through their house though, we had a great laugh musing on what you're "supposed" to say. Sofa (never a settee) in the drawing room or sitting room (not a living room!)

Clare says "I also heard once that the word "den" conjures up different images depending on one's social standing. "

"To the average person (the exception being crack addicts) the image involves a tarpaulin, a few sticks, logs and that kind of thing but to posh people the "den" is the cosy room that one retires to after dinner with a glass of brandy. " She continues tongue firmly in cheek: "It will be filled with comfy armchairs upholstered in faded fabrics, books, the odd tartan throw and a open fire of course! Unfortunately, we haven't climbed the ladder beyond the logs and sticks variety yet! "

Clare added: "For a better authority on the subject, you should consult Debrett's (books of etiquette).......a family connection I assume?"

Milly's harp
To which I replied: "Clare, one would assume so, but they keep refusing to acknowledge the connection, jolly tiresome of them."

Of course Debretts has again become part of the Zeitgeist with pronouncements on man management including flirting, one night stands and breaking up as well as the ins and outs of using private jets, Blackberrys and petiqutte. But I still get a kick out of the old school ones.

Making You Yew:

1. Pea gravel on the driveway rather than tarmac. In the olden days your gatekeeper or butler would hear the scrunch on the gravel, signaling an approaching carriage. In contrast the silence of tarmac necessitates installing nasty new plinths with video cameras. (If this blog post pushes up the price of pea gravel then so be it. I just want a cut.)

2. Keep tomatoes on the counter and cheese in the pantry. Infestation of mice ensues? As I found on my Skinny Minnie Mouse Diet - at least you'll lose weight.

3. Sofa, sitting room or drawing room. Never settee and living room.

4. Ask for the lavatory. Lav or loo if you are better acquainted with your host, never the toilet.

5. Eat asparagus with your fingers and oysters from the shell. (Tricky this: like knowing to pronounce the "t" on Moet. You look like a chump is noone else knows).

6. Toilet paper, towels and sheets are always plain, soft, white. As are Christmas fairy lights.

Please add to the list. Or, even better,  just make something up!


  1. I have plain white Christmas lights but spoil the effect with artificial tree - non yew!

    I do have a gravel drive: rather than being useful for hearing carriages arrive, I find it is useful for hearing when Hubby has come on so I can come off the computer and look busy.

    I keep tomatoes in the fridge (tut, non yew) but bring them out in advance of eating to warm up.

    My loo paper is always white, darling. Couldn't have anything else near my botty.

  2. only unscented white candles.

    letters with ink pens.

    scarves from Barcelona.

    & last but not least, your lovely blog (love the new design... totally posh). =)

  3. Oh, I wish folks would leave the Middleton family alone. I think it's unfair how they've been labeled at climbers. She's a breath of fresh air, although easy for me to say living far across the pond. It's funny, because I've heard similar things about what one should call items, in regard to old/new U.S. money. It's a sofa, not a couch. It's a rug, not carpet. Since "parlor" tends to be an outdated term here, you more often hear "living room," or for larger homes, "great room." Although, I much prefer "loo" to bathroom, restroom or powder room. ;)

  4. never heard of the term 'yew'!

    Have you read 'Watching the English', think you'd enjoy it.

  5. This is so funny...reminds me of my landlord in London who was a Lord Something or Other. Being a college student, many of my behaviors and decorating skills were called into question with quite an upturned nose! ;)

  6. Very interesting....haha...its funny thinking about the different classes and how people still think that way
    (I love your friends house by the way!)

  7. Well Kate seems posh to ME, darling! :) Tomatoes in the fridge or no! Hell I keep MY tomatoes in the fridge, so it CANNOT be wrong.

    What's posh? The pinky thing when drinking? Pronouncing things all fancy? Instead of "yes!" saying "Rather!"? Calling things "Frightfully" something or other? Getting out of the shower to take a pee? Who knows? :)

  8. Ok, so I have a sofa in the living room (?!), we do have a den and I do have tomatoes on the window sill (but that's only because English tomatoes are always so unripe when we buy them!). We also wait for everyone to sit before eating. And we live in an old converted pub, and we're about to put pea gravel on our drive. I guess we're a complete mix. But we're definitely not posh or yew!

    And wow about your friend's house, it is beautiful and really, really interesting.

    Have you read Nancy Mitford's book Noblesse Oblige? I think you'd enjoy it!

    I was amused to read this after writing my post today, good timing!!

  9. scene: Cambridge Polytechnic, UK in 1992

    lecturer: who can give an example of cognitive learning?

    my 'yew' friend: you aren't ever told that port should always be passed to the left, you just grow up knowing it should

  10. Beautiful house. There is an ingrained breeding and manner of the upper classes that the rest of us just don't have! It must be a range rover not a hummer?! One does not wait for table (do you know who I am darling)'

  11. Great post - the Brits (I'm one) seem obsessed with all this recently. I was going to refer to the Mitford's U and Non-U categories, but my friend Michelloui beat me to it. And I'm going to go one worse than my (real) cuz Trish and say that not only do I keep my toms in the Fridge, I actually love them really cold in a salad. What? They're so devoid of flavour in the States that only the temp can add any interest to them!

  12. I would also add that the more posh people insist they're not posh, the more they probably are but they're the nice sort!!!

  13. Posh is a stay-at-home-mom wearing jewelry to the playground when she takes her kids. (That tells you how posh (and lazy) I am!) ;)

  14. Great post dear, i like it so much!!!


  15. Hilarious! I'm still laughing about the crack addict definition of 'den'. Heaven knows how gauche I'd be considered with my tarmac drive and Prius (makes
    no approaching sound and is hazardous to the blind).

    xo Mary Jo

  16. Hilarious, thankyou you made me laugh so much. It is so true, it is completly ingrained in British culture. Your friends house is lovely, I'm feeling quite homesick now!!

  17. I love your posts! Your friends home is so beautiful. We used to live in the city and now we've moved to the burbs and you can tell how people here care about how they dress, what car they drive, and what school their kids go to and how much money you have.

    As long as you carry yourself with class, then people will think you have it! :)

  18. Linen Napkins...not necessarily white, but soft and clean.
    also, Tricky this, as you say: how to pronounce "empire" as in "empire waist". I Say "ahm-peer" but i might sound snobby, if others pronounce it "em-pire". hmm.
    And finally, "DOB kit" as opposed to "toiletry bag".
    But maybe that's the masculine version.
    too much Diet Coke. xo

  19. Here's one:
    - No food containers on the table.
    You know, like butter in a plastic tub, or mustard in a squeeze bottle, etc.

  20. what an interesting post! I always have to laugh at the phrase "drawing room" - it just seems so old school :)

  21. I had to laugh because as i am reading all of the posh comments I box comes up that you have just left a comment on my blog.

  22. Being 'Yew' (new term for me too!) sounds like a lot of hard work. Frankly, I'd rather not be posh if that's okay!! And how sad is it that in this day and age people still need such silliness to make themselves feel better than others. I laugh at those posh people, I really do.

    Great post! x

    PS - 'Hi!' x

  23. Interesting! Lovely house! We had gravel for a while at our tahoe place driveway, but it was impractical in the snow and mud, so we tarmaced it, how gauche.

    I wonder how many of those "wealthy in 1858 are still four times richer than those whose ancestors were poor at the same date." here in the US? I would bet good money that they are probably 10 to 20x wealthier here. US has such a huge divide now between wealth and poverty. Class, that's a whole different ballgame!

  24. Hi Jody - just stopped by from Gidday from the UK for some Kiwi Food For Thought :-)

    What about the 'b-ah-th' (rhyming with path) vs bath ('flat-sounding 'a' like in 'bat') debate? What's the deal with Yew pronunciation here?

  25. beautiful photos
    i want to learn how to play harp :)

  26. Napkin not serviette is another one if you want to be posh. Never, ever use 'lounge' either.

    Presumably if you are really posh you pick the tomatoes straight from the vine in your Tuscan farmhouse in Chiantishire.

  27. Fabulous post!! love the pics and the way of the post!


    Have a nice weekend :)

  28. I have no interest in the Royal Family whatsoever, but I will admit that I like Kate Middleton because she was born into the middle-class. It gives her a degree of relatability and shows young girls that you don't have to be born a princess in order to receive your princess fairy tale ending.
    Twitter: @GlamKitten88

  29. I keep my tomatoes in a tin. Does that make me posh or as common as muck?

  30. Here's an email from my friend Anne in London:

    "One is never washing fruit or veg, definitely all fruit in a fruit bowl, not in the fridge (per your tomato comment!). Dirt never hurt anybody. A posh English home will be grimy. She also eats asparagus with her fingers. One should never cut salad, only fold the large lettuce leaves with your fork and knife. Never cut the nose (pointy end) off the cheese! Sandwiches are never for breakfast, only acceptable at lunch or tea (bacon butties are too working class, darling!) I could go on and on, do you want more?

  31. An email from my friend Cameron B. in LA:

    Among his many talents and virtues, Leonardo DaVinci was a vegetarian, gourmet chef, bon vivant, and event planner. He wrote up a list of how guests should behave at his parties and here it is.

    My boys would have much preferred DaVinci's table manners over mine!


    Table Manners
    Recommended by Leonardo DaVinci
    In 1482

    "No guest shall wipe his knife on the garments of the table (tablecloth).
    Do not use your knife to make drawings on the table
    Do not clean your armor at the table.
    No guest shall take food from the table, put it in his pocket to eat later.
    No guest shall bite into fruit and then return it to the serving platter.
    A guest shall not spit frontally or sideways.
    A guest shall not make snorting noises or elbow/prod his neighbor.
    A guest shall neither don a blank look or ugly expression while
    No guest shall put his finger in his nose or in his ear while conversing.
    No guest shall model figures, set fires, or make knots in tablecloth unless
    requested by my Lord.
    No guest shall let loose any birds, snakes or beetles at table.
    No guest shall play the lute which will disrupt table conversation unless
    by my Lord.
    There shall be no conspiracies at table unless done so with my Lord.
    No guest shall set fire to his neighbor while seated at the table.
    If you throw up you must leave the table."


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