Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Sea bass

I was in Waitrose at Witney today. Witney is a small town in south Oxfordshire, but with a surprisingly good set of shops - I suppose that's for all the people who can't face the trek into traffic-choked Oxford, and collect their glittering prizes there. Anyway, Witney has an upmarket feel, where neat, tidy, middle-class values rule OK. I'm a neat, tidy middle-class person, so this ought to be my nirvana. It isn't quite, because I'm a square-peg-in-a-round hole kind of person too. I'm also at war with humdrum convention and taken-for-granted opinions and attitudes. I have great credentials as a closet rebel. I certainly don't do the things many other people do. That includes comic TV ads or sketches that everybody else seems to have seen.

That's why I didn't at first 'get it' when a woman standing next to me at the fresh fish counter exploded into animated conversation with me. I'd just said to the young man there, 'I'd like some sea bass, please.'

'It's just like on TV,' she said. 'You know, where the little boy is eager to show off his growing vocabulary, and says to his mummy at the fish counter, 'Look, Mummy! Fish!' And she corrects him, saying 'It isn't fish, darling, it's sea bass.' By then I had realised what she was referring to - it could have been a real-life Waitrose ad on TV, or a parody of one in a TV comedy show. Perhaps it had been a Mrs Merton comedy sketch. Anyway, it was a funny picture, the posh (and possibly snobbish) mother instilling into her naïve little son that one never spoke of mere 'fish', but called it 'sea bass' or 'trout' or whatever. And I must have asked for 'two fillets of sea bass' in an archetypically posh mum voice.

Well, did we laugh! We shrieked with mirth! Other customers looked at us. We didn't care. We very nearly bonded for life. Sea-bass-eating birds-of-a-feather know each other instantly when they meet. It was a wonderful experience. I was sorry when it was all over.

Only in Waitrose. Only in the affluent Cotswolds.

What the poor lad behind the counter had been thinking, I do not know. He seemed a bit out of it. Waitrose only employ higher-end local staff, but not all of them have attended a Swiss finishing school followed by a spell at RADA to have their accents and savoir-faire perfected. He hadn't been able to chip in with some perfectly-timed witty remark that could have had us all in stitches, and half the other customers too. He looked like a drab sparrow badly outshone by two chattering goldfinches. I was sorry to see that. I made a big thing of choosing something else, a nice fillet of haddock, asking his advice, bringing him into it. My manner said, or was intended to say, 'I may be a middle-class goldfinch, but I'm also a closet drab sparrow as well, and I want you to know that.' I hope it helped.

What does all this say about my public persona? Am I really so ineffably middle-class? Believe me, I meet posh people all the time, not because I seek them out, they just seem to be wherever I want to go. I bump into them casually, and they talk to me. People with money and position, usually very educated.

I'll give you two very recent examples. The first from three days back. I was on the north Norfolk coast and wanted some lunch. I settled on The Ship Hotel in Brancaster. I ordered a sour-dough roast beef baguette with horseradish. I asked them to go light on the horseradish. While I was waiting, sipping my Hendrick's gin-and-tonic, a couple came in and sat just next to me. They were in their fifties, say ten years younger than me. They had a moneyed air about them. This part of Norfolk attracts Home Counties people wanting to have a week off. She gave me a smile. He wore a pink shirt, an expensive make no doubt, but despite that looked as if he rarely smiled: as if, indeed, nothing ever amused or satisfied him. That's what education and a big income and being used to only the best can do for you. You acquire certain standards. And then nothing is ever good enough. And making do with less than you expect becomes very irritating. When you can't appreciate the simple things any longer, life must be terrible. Even if you have one hell of a good job. And a chic pied à terre in Nelson Country.

My baguette came. It looked very nice. I saw with relief that they had listened to my request about the horseradish. I smiled at the young man, and said, 'I'm so glad there's only a hint of horseradish. It overwhelms the flavour of the beef if there's too much.' Thereupon the Home Counties couple next to me introduced themselves. Clearly, they had thought a woman on her own (like me) might be suspect; but not if she spoke well, appreciated subtle flavours, and had not only sent commands to the kitchen staff but had had them obeyed. She was therefore OK to chat with. I can't see any other reasons why they should have decided I was a suitable person to speak to! They didn't say exactly where they came from, but admitted it was 'north of London.' Home Counties, then. I'm assuming Hertfordshire. We seemed to converse with ease, but I kept off Brexit. They left just before me. I saw him backing his black Range Rover out of the hotel car park. He looked thunderous. It was not an easy manoeuvre. I decided not to wave to them.

And then yesterday. At Charlbury station, waiting for the train to Oxford. My objective: the Pitt-Rivers Museum. But first lunch somewhere nice. This was two days before my birthday, but I had decided to blow the cash set aside for a slap-up evening meal two nights ahead on lunch now at The Randolph. (A post on that will follow)

I was in good time for the train. I sat down next to an older woman who looked very fit and very intelligent. We immediately began to talk. It emerged that she was on her way to Heathrow Airport to meet a friend from Pakistan. Her background was in education, anthropology and religious reform, and she spent a lot of time - even though now in her later sixties - travelling around the world, speaking on women's rights and fair treatment to sometimes very bigoted audiences. 'But,' she said, mentioning how one speech in Bangladesh had been angrily received, 'They never harm me, even though they hate what I say, and will beat their own women.' She believed her white hairs guaranteed respect and safety. I was impressed by her manner, her bravery, and her commitment. I thought it must be more than just her white hairs that made these men listen. She must surely be eminent. I asked her. 'Am I in fact speaking with Professor So-and-So?' She denied it. So be it.

The train came, and we parted. I wondered why she had chatted with me at all. It had included some light-hearted stuff. We had contemplated the strange pink-plum paint that had been used for the walkways to the new platform they had built after doubling the tracks. Pink-plum combined with pale yellow. She thought these might have been the original Great Western Railway colours. 'No,' I said, 'The Great Western painted everything Blood and Custard - a deep red wine gravy colour, and a rich yellow - not these insipid colours.' Then she said, 'Ah, I think the German car makers have a name for the funny pink-plum colour we are looking at: they call it Nipple Red.' 'Well, It's not the colour of my nipples!' I replied. I liked her. If nipples were on the menu for conversation, she must be a lively lady!

But I didn't want her to think me too frivolous. I wasn't too sad when the train came and our conversation came to an end. I had nothing sensible to say about her work or its difficulties. If we had travelled into Oxford together, she might have seen that I was just an air-head.

It's a fine life, being a chattering goldfinch. But I always have to keep moving on, before my flimsiness (and oddness) is exposed.

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