PC 166 Mores and Milieu

I somehow managed to pass my English Language examination at school, but probably didn’t understand the complexities of English grammar and some of our rich language’s more unusual words in as much detail as I could have. I’m always slightly in awe of those who use long or strange-sounding words, wondering whether they are simply trying to imply some superiority or are just more intellectual than me! Such a shallow individual, huh!! The Physical Training teacher at boarding school, a Major Tim Wigmore, seemed to struggle with his vocabulary and we his pupils thought he tried to learn a new word every week. How horrible we were to take the mickey when he used a ‘new’ word in the wrong context.

But how is it possible not to know, for instance, what a zeugma is? Read PC 26 about this figure of speech. Since it was highlighted in The Times, I can now recognise a zeugma when I see one, as in: “In front of her lay a cup of coffee and another long day at work” from Jo Nesbo’s latest thriller The Knife.  Then people started asking how you could tell the difference between a zeugma and a syllepsis. Well, having not known of a zeugma for the first 60 years of my life, this was a step too far!

Two other words I have managed to live without for many many years are ‘mores’ and ‘milieu’! The first is nothing to do with Oliver Twist and his ‘more?’. ‘Mores’, pronounced ‘moreiz’, are the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a society or community; they are more formalised versions of ‘norms’, particularly in a social context.

Milieu we borrowed from the French, where its meaning is slightly different; but it’s actually from a Latin base. Pronouncing it with slightly pursed lips, ‘mi:lja’ is a person’s social environment, the culture that the individual was educated and lives in, and the people and institutions with whom they interact. A nice way of understanding it is the ‘milieu is the surroundings that make you you’.

Rod Liddle, writing in his Sunday Times column last month, had a go at people eating smelly food on trains, to the annoyance of those around them. He went on to bemoan the lack of respect for others that is increasingly evident in our society. You remember that rock song from Freddie Mercury and Queen, “I Want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”? It came out in 1989 towards the end of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 year term as Prime Minister and seemed to capture the spirit that she had encouraged. Everything is possible (This I agree with!) and you can have it NOW (No! You have to work hard and earn it!). But the rise of our individualistic culture has been at the expense of the community spirit that we, we British, used to have in abundance. Thatcher famously said she believed there was no such thing as ‘society’, so how do you describe our very necessary interaction with others, the collective spirit that binds individuals into interest groups, giving them something other than their own ego? Liddle summed it up cutely: “The right has encouraged less reliance on others as in a social way, the left has tried to abolish blame and responsibility. And in the minds of the liberal left, we shouldn’t judge others by any ‘bourgeois’ standards as to whether or not they are behaving with dignity.”

Or you leave yourself open to accusations of class snobbery, of social mores that conflict and irritate? But surely they are some real basic standards of manners irrespective of what milieu you naturally swim in? For ‘Manners Maketh Man’ (see note). No one has a monopoly on manners, each ‘class’ demonstrating an abysmal lack of manners at times; the “I want it now …… it’s my right to have it now” sort of attitude with no thought or respect for those around them, who may disagree.

In my 40th postcard, posted in May 2015, I scribbled about habits – saying ‘Good Morning’ to strangers on your street, having the loo seat always down (when not in use, obviously!) and other issues I get excited about. Like “Thank you” notes. I wrote that my own social mores dictate you should always write a note of thanks if you have lifted a knife and fork in someone else’s home. Sometimes things get into your head and go around and around ….. until you write them down. The following was transcribed at 0245 one morning recently:

“I will not accept that the current generation don’t know how to wipe their arses and dispose of the paper. I will not accept that, just because those living in Georgian times imported sugar to Great Britain, over 200 years on everyone blames the Georgian for their own fatness, that they are so fat that they can’t even reach their arse even if they know where to put the paper. As one of the Baby Boomers who grew up with rationing and scarcity, it is no wonder that the 1960s explosion in the use of plastic was heralded as some reflection on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And, no, we didn’t see its use would be so problematic to the planet; but you can’t dis-invent things and you shouldn’t blame the Baby Boomers! And I will not accept that two well-educated professional individuals, who probably swim in the same milieu as me, came to a carefully thought-through home-cooked lunch, seemingly enjoyed themselves, left through the front door ……. and disappeared like those on the Marie Celeste …… without a demonstrative thought to say ‘Thank You’ ……. in whatever form would convey appreciation. At its most basic, WhatsApp or text; maybe even a little email; even a telephone call: at best, a hand written card  …….. simply to signify that if you receive, you should say ‘Thank You’. If your life is SO busy, then don’t bother to ‘take’ in the first place!”

Sorry! In the words of one of my favourite FaceBook contributors Catherine, ‘Rant Over’!

 

Richard 28th November 2019

Note: Recorded by the headmaster of Eton William Horman (around 1500) “Manners are something used every day to make a good impression on others and to feel good about oneself …. Being polite and courteous means considering how others are feeling. If you practise good manners you are showing those around you you are considerate of their feelings and surroundings.”

 

PC 165 Growing up in Bath

I was born in Bath in October 1946 whilst my Royal Naval father worked at the local Admiralty Department, before he went off to join HMS Birmingham in a sea-going engineering role. We lived in the top flat of No 13 Marlborough Buildings; my grandparents lived around the corner, as it were, in the Royal Crescent.

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Outside No 13 in October 2019

 

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Outside No 15 Royal Crescent in 1951

My parents divorced in 1950 and we went to live in what would have been the old servants’ quarters under the roof of my grandparents’ house, No 15 Royal Crescent. The crescent had been built to accommodate the loads of Georgian tourists who came to sample the spa waters down in the City centre; the facades were all the same, the internal design and rear elevations completely different!! With my grandparents and their three dogs on the second floor, us in the attic, complete with goldfish on the shelf by the back stairs and my mother making bespoke hats for the ladies of the City, it was a secure existence.

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The back stairs to the attic flat (2019)

To the east of the Royal Crescent lies Julian Road; to the north was the home of Hermitage House a school for 5-8 year old boys and 5-14 year old girls. It was run by a Miss Bobers and sadly my only memories are of observing an eclipse of the sun and of learning one’s ‘Times’ tables by rote: ‘One four is four, two fours are eight, three fours ….. etc’. It’s a wonder I went on to do A Level Mathematics and an Engineering Degree!

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The home of Hermitage House school in the 1950s

My brother and cousin had attended a nursery school on The Paragon in the city, run by a ‘Captain Olsen’.

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How times change the way we perceive things! Looking at this group from 1951 you could make all sort of judgements, what is now acceptable and what’s not!!

Without doubt, it was a privileged upbringing, but the stigma of divorce cuts across the social class and it can’t have been easy for my mother. My step-grandfather, Thomas Tizzard (‘Uncle Tommy’ to us boys), was a well-known consultant ophthalmic surgeon who had his consulting room on the ground floor of No 15, across the hall from a room which doubled up as a dining room for family and a waiting room for patients. On the first floor was a wonderfully ornate ‘salon’, with parquet flooring, an Adam plastered ceiling and fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It was here that my grandmother Grace (neé Corbett, whose father had been born in Recife, Brazil) staged her quarterly concerts, raising thousands of pounds for local charities. The room was big enough for her two grand pianos and 100 guests!

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She was an extremely accomplished pianist, even if her constant practising of ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ by GF Handel drove a six year old boy mad! Today their house has been incorporated into The Royal Crescent Hotel, whose main entrance is No 16. As a very generous birthday treat last month, we stayed a couple of nights; our room was in the No 15 ‘part’ and was Uncle Tommy’s old Consulting Room!

PC 165 7 Tommy's Consulting Room

Down the hill, at the bottom of Marlborough Buildings, is Victoria Park, with its obelisk in memory of the famous monarch for all to see.

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In the summer months of my childhood, an ice-cream van run by Giovanni, an Italian who had been interned during the war, would do a roaring trade.

I put my hand into the dirty pocket of my grey shorts and am reassured by the touch of my threepenny piece (see note 1), along with a piece of string and my penknife; enough for my favourite ice-cream! I queue. My turn!  I get the coin out of my pocket, reach up on tiptoe as high as I can and put it on the aluminium shelf. “A Vanilla block and wafer please?” He reaches into the ‘fridge, picks up a block, adds two wafers and hands it to me. “Thank you” I mutter hurriedly as I feel myself salivating.

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I turn away, carefully unwrap one side of the block, place one wafer on top of the ice-cream, turn it over and remove the remaining paper, replacing it with the other wafer. At last! Holding my ice-cream carefully between thumb and forefinger, I lift it to my open mouth. I smell it, inhale the dusty wafer crumbs, and take my first bite. Now I am happy.”

On Milsom Street there was a restaurant called Fortes (The site is now occupied by Waterstones!) where my grandmother often went for morning coffee. One of the waiters, a rotund dark-haired chap called Sam, always smiled when he brought the Bath Buns, an essential snack to have with a coffee. As a seven year old I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee (see note 2) but the buns were a real treat.

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They are made from milk-based yeast dough with crushed sugar on top. One variant included enclosing a lump of sugar in the bun, the lump retaining its shape if not its hardness; yum yum!

Discussions about which school and where were not in my compass but I felt dumped and abandoned when, in September 1955 and shortly before my mother remarried, I was placed, aged 8, in St Christopher’s School, up on North Road to the south of the city.

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The old St Christopher’s School, now occupied by King Edward’s

I was allowed out to go to the wedding, but my only concern was to obtain a letter excusing me from eating Macaroni Cheese (disgusting, particularly cold as you had to present an empty plate.)

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At my mother’s wedding, after three weeks at St Christopher’s

Any pleasant memories of my two years at St Christopher’s are completely submerged by an event that runs like a vein of shame through my life; never far from the surface, hidden under the ‘Stiff Upper Lip Caruthers’ code that prevailed, occasionally close enough to pick at. In the ground-floor loo block I was forced to masturbate an adult until they came. Who was he? I’ve blocked this! Did I report it? ‘Stiff Upper Lip Caruthers’. But I can’t get rid of the image! Disgusting!!

I left to go to another boarding school near Wells in Somerset, and then progressed to yet another boarding school; my parents remained 100 miles away, when ‘Exeats’ were twice a term for a half day, and ‘Half Term’ a mere two days. So I felt an affinity to Sandi Toksvig, Anglo-Dane and recently co-presenter on Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off, when she says that her boarding school experience established an ache of loneliness that has never truly left her;  “proper emotional abuse of a child”.  I spent 10 years in boarding schools until, in 1965, I entered another institution, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, for Officer Training; I served Her Majesty for 20 years. But sometimes I wonder, ‘What if …..?”.

Grace died in 1974 aged 83, by which time my life was happening away from Bath. But it still feels like home, wandering around this warm, honey-coloured, gracious city, good memories or bad.

Richard 14th November 2019

Note 1: The Three penny piece (known as threepence, thruppence or thruppenny bit) was a twelve sided coin first minted in 1547. It was worth one 80th of a pound (ie four made a shilling and twenty shillings a pound sterling!!)

Note 2: Coffee in England in the 1950s was coloured, flavoured water, and there was nothing like the huge variety available today. It was probably produced on a Kona machine and allowed to sit, brewing (ie becoming more disgusting) as the pot sat on the hot plate. During our Alaska trip in 2015 I was reminded of the fact that today American coffee is similar to that available in 1950s Britain. When I asked for a double espresso in some café south of Fairbanks, the waitress, with her hand on the Kona handle, said “Oh! You want fancy coffee!”.

PC 164 The City of Bath

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Bath lies just over 110 miles to the west of London

Whether you think of the City of Bath as an ancient Roman one, a flamboyant Georgian one, or one that is finding its place in the C21st, the city has an appeal that spans the generations. There has been a settlement in what was an ancient volcanic crater in Somerset since Celtic times. The Romans built the city of Aquae Sulis in the 1st Century AD, attracted by the springs which produce a daily flow of a quarter of a million gallons of water, at 46°C. It was the health benefits of these waters that drew wealthy Georgians to the city and the need for accommodation created the expansion of some of the most glorious architecture in Britain. John Wood’s Queen Square and The Circus are by any standard fabulous, but they were trumped by his son’s designs for the Assembly Rooms and The Royal Crescent, the latter a semi-ellipse of 30 houses, built using a local oolithic limestone, characterised by its honey colour.

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I was lucky enough to have been born in Bath and consider it my spiritual home, home to so many memories, good and well as bad, for such is life. This postcard is about the city and a second will recount some of those memories.

Parts of Bath are unrecognisable from 50 years ago, such is the extent of the cleaning of the stonework, its public buildings relieved of the grime from coal fires and their facades provide a warm welcoming ambience.

PC 164 3 The Circus

The Circus: (My old dentist, a Mr Sharp, practised at No 13 (see PC 64))

Whilst the Royal Crescent and the Circus sit in an elevated position, walk down the hill, turn left into George Street and right into Milsom Street …….

PC 164 4 Milsom Street

……. and you’re in the beginning of the modern shopping area. Eventually you come to Bath Abbey, The Pump Rooms and the Roman Baths. Today you can actually enjoy the thermal springs in the Thermae Bath Spa and be pampered in the adjoining Gainsborough Bath Spa. The River Avon flows under nearby Great Pulteney Street, a weir slightly downstream regulating water levels.

PC 164 5 Pulteney Bridge

Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon

But it’s the Abbey that dominates here. The current building dates from 1499 although there had been places of worship on the same site from the C9th.

PC 164 6 The Abbey

I was last in the Abbey in 1958, over 60 years ago, when, as a boarding school pupil, we attended the Sunday morning service. We walked in crocodile formation a mile down the hill from the south west, dressed in grey suits, white shirts, and wearing, unimaginably, black ties in memory of Queen Victoria, who had died over 50 years before!

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The inside of Bath Abbey circa 1980

We had sat in the dark wooden pews and choir stalls and recited, by rote, the unchanging words of the service. On my recent trip to Bath I wanted to sit in those stalls, to relive that time, but was confronted with noise, light and space. The Abbey’s management are in the process of repairing its collapsing floor, lifting the countless slabs and the skeletal remains beneath, installing a heat-exchanging system using the natural hot spring waters, and reinstating everything. So the noise came from those working on a third of the floor, the light reflecting off much cleaner stonework and a sense of space created by the light wooden chairs that have replaced the pews. Quite a transformation!  Uplifting one might say?

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In 1956 there were pews here ……. And now they’ve gone!

Like all places of worship, the Abbey contains many hundreds of memorials to the good and the great; most originate from the 1700s and 1800s. In the South Transept lies the tomb of the wife of Sir William Waller. Waller fought for parliament in the English Civil War (1642-1651) and led the Parliamentarians in the nearby Battle of Lansdown. Although he retreated off the hill at the end of the battle, leaving the Royalists under Sir Ralph Hopton victorious, the latter suffered heavier losses and Waller was ‘ready to fight another day’. (Note 1)

Near the Abbey are the Roman Baths and Pump Room. I was last here in 2008 for the wedding reception of a godson. A wonderful occasion and quite a location! Just to the East of The Circus are The Assembly Rooms; completed in 1771, they were at the heart of fashionable Georgian society.

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The Assembly’s Tea Rooms

The noted novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) would have met friends, attended balls and evening parties in The Assembly Rooms, for she lived in the city from 1801 until 1806, and during a visit to the grand rooms it’s easy, if you half shut your eyes, to imagine the noise, glamour and smell of that extravagant period. She set two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in Bath and today you can join numerous tours focused on her fame; start at the Jane Austen Centre, just a few doors down from where she lived in Gay Street. (Note 2)

Like many cities in Britain, Bath suffered from World War Two air raids. A particularly heavy one in 1942 laid waste large sections of the city.

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The bomb that made this crater missed The Royal Crescent by 50ft, but hit St Andrew’s Church immediately behind it!

We are fortunate today for the publication of ‘The Sack of Bath’ by Adam Fergusson in 1973. This book highlighted how the 1960s city council had set about rebuilding the bomb-damaged city in a seemingly unplanned and haphazard way; large sections of Georgian houses were demolished and replaced by modern ‘chic’! This is an example on Julian Road. (yuk!)

PC 164 11 Julian Road

A powerful preservation organisation, the Bath Preservation Trust, came into being, and the results are evident today in some wonderfully restored buildings. And if you want to envelope yourself in how you could have lived in the 1700s, visit the renovated No 1 Royal Crescent, now a living museum.

Richard 1st November 2019

Note 1 The woman with whom my aunt Cynthia shared most of her life, Peggy Bryant, loved Jane Austen novels. But, maybe surprisingly, she admitted to me that she read Northhanger Abbey at least once, every year!!

Note 2 My first military posting was to a regiment in Devizes, Wiltshire. We were stationed in Waller Barracks. A mile down the road another military unit occupied Hopton Barracks!! The modern army shows no bias between Queen and country!