Do you remember when fish knives were a sign of gentility, or respectability? Probably not. If you weren’t brought up in the UK, definitely not. They’ve dwindled away into history now, and good job too. I thought about them tonight, when a neighbour gave me some home-made chicken soup (this is a friendly village), and as I was heating it, and getting out a bowl and spoon I noticed, lying at the back of the cutlery tray, and rarely used, soup spoons. I was musing about man’s desire to clutter up life with completely unnecessary stuff when I remembered fish knives and forks, and that thought in turn conjured up my step-mother; Norah Gannon was a convert to Catholicism, and anyone who knows anything at all knows that converts to Rome are the worst (!forgive me, Catholic friends), so Fridays were penitential fish days. That probably sounds ok to you, but she didn’t go for crispy battered cod and a tumble of delicious chips, no – her idea of a fish supper was a mean little fillet of plaice with slimy grey skin, poached in milk for far too long. She had a set of six fish knives and forks and an ornate slice for transferring the pathetic thing from serving dish to dinner plate. Such nonsense.
I hated Fridays, hated the limp skinny fillet oozing milk, the spoonful of mashed potato, the peas and the half tomato ‘to add a splash of colour’. She knew that, as I forced it down, my gorge was rising up, she must have seen how my eyes watered as I tried to somehow neither feel it nor taste it, but righteousness is merciless, and that plate had to be emptied. Fridays were the only evening when I ate with my parents so there was no escaping the ritual and I’d taste it all night, and pee out fish-water in the morning.
If you’ve had the great fortune of never seeing a fish knife, I’ll try to describe it… a strange thing, flat and blunt, with a sort of curl or hook at the end of what should have been the blade. Hang on… I’ll find a picture.
This, Norah said, was designed so that the diner could hook out bones. We didn’t have bones in our fish, but we had the hooks for finding them, and so our credentials as middle class aspirants couldn’t be questioned, at least on a Friday evening.
There were many fish-knife examples in her life, objects that showed she was a cut above, or maybe just that she was determinedly Southern, in the face of her husband’s and her step-children’s equally determined Northernness. Just as she would never stoop to fish and chips, she would never let my dad have his favourite kippers, in case, she said ‘Someone calls and they can smell them.’ Kippers were Northern. No one ever called but she lived in fear of being found out in some small transgression.
I wonder if you had – or maybe have – some tiny prejudices? I do. I loathe net curtains seeing them as bourgoise (yep, Norah loved them) and I dislike house plants (her windowsill were full of the damn things) and I’m a real snob about books (not a boast, a confession) and tabloids and commercial radio and so-called ‘reality’ shows. So, you see, I’m no better than Norah, not really. Just different.
But boy! She gave herself so many problems. She made life so difficult for herself and for others. There were so many unspoken rules, and quite a few very spoken ones too! Even when money was tight I had to have Start-rite shoes, costing probably twice as much as any other shoe, and even Clark’s shoes, which were perfectly good by anyone’s standards, were just not good enough for Norah. She would tell people that I had to have Start-rite to ‘try to undo some of the damage already done’. And yet, as we tried them on in the shop she would turn to the assistant and say ‘They’re wasted on her of course, but we can but try.’ I had, she said, fat flat feet. It wasn’t true. I have always had rather nice feet… long toes, no corns or bumps or bunions, but she knew that I had spent most of my early life either bare footed in the Middle East or casually shod in Woolworth’s daps. It was an unspoken shame that my mother had been working class, the daughter of a miner, and so now my stepmother’s job was to remedy my accent and my manners and to make me into someone else entirely. Why on earth did my dad let her? Weird, eh? He had loved my mum, why did he let Norah make us all somehow ashamed of her? People are strange.
When I look back at her now (she’s been dead ten years) I see what a constant uphill struggle her life was, how she was always striving to impress, to meet some non-existent standard of acceptability and I think she must have been exhausted by it all. But she continued searching for perfection right up to her death, never realising that none of us would find it in this life. And even when I was grown and flown, she still disapproved of me; when I met the Queen and my dad asked me what we said, Norah sort of flinched… as if whatever I had done or said must be somehow a faux-pas. My friends in the hall had heard her laughing and had said to each other “That must be Luce” and it was. But poor Norah could only flinch at the thought of me maybe ‘letting the side down’.
Oh, there’s a thought – maybe that’s why she loved the Catholic Church so much, because it set out exactly what she should do and she could follow it to the letter. Maybe she really believed that ritual would make her acceptable, or that by saying three Hail Mary’s after confession she had earned a place at the high table. Maybe it was only in the Mass that she felt secure, knowing exactly what was to be said, when to stand, when to kneel, when to close one’s eyes….
PRIEST: have mercy on us, O lord.
PEOPLE: For we have sinned against you.
PRIEST: show us, O lord, your mercy.
PEOPLE: And grant us your salvation.
Poor Norah. I have Catholic friends and I know that they don’t think as she thought. I know that she misunderstood the joy and the love of the church, and that’s her tragedy.
How did I get there from talking about fish knives? I suppose I’m still trying to work out why she was who she was, what could have made her like that, and why she loathed her husband’s three children so much. It is still intriguing.
A few months ago, trying to find the answers to those questions, I was thinking about how proud she was of her house. When I was a teenager we lived in Chippenham, in an ordinary comfortable semi-detached three bed. The house was comfortable but life there wasn’t. The lawns were velvet smooth and mown twice a week in the Summer, the flower beds were weed free and symmetrically planted, even the vegetable garden was meticulously neat. Inside, some walls were papered, thin strands of gold on white in the dining room, pale eau de nil ivy in the living room, Wilton carpets (what else?) and curtains lined with sateen. It fed her soul. It reflected her soul.
A few months ago I went on Google Earth and travelled down that road, towards the house that meant so much to her. A shabby car is in the drive, the garden is a comfortable mess, the window frames could do with some attention.
If she could see it now, I wonder what she would make of it?
I hope the people living there have lovely fish and chip suppers, sitting around the telly, their feet up on the coffee table, with their toes poking through the holes in their socks. I hope it’s a happy, messy, noisy, chaotic house with not a fish knife to be seen.