Saoirse Ronan, how could you? I almost fell off the couch

Donald Clarke: Few noticed her ‘Chesil Beach’ faux pas. Which is good. Isn’t it?

Reviewing the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, I remarked on a minute breach of middle-class etiquette. Saoirse Ronan is reliably excellent as the daughter of a snobbish upper-class academic. Look closely, however, and you will see her doing something that simply wouldn't happen. I felt like a Harry Potter fan noticing that the Fourth Spell of Craptimus was being read above an incorrectly decorated amphora. While dining with her new husband, Ronan's character holds her knife like a pen.

No person raised in such a snobbish environment would consider such an outrage. Disciplined by a mother drilled in the conventions of middle-class English dining, a young woman in 1962 would be as likely to empty her food on the floor and, like a farmyard pig, eat it snortingly on all fours. Or put elbows on the table. Or tip her soup bowl towards rather than away from herself.

The news that nobody noticed the error on set may confirm that the sillier dictates of table manners are fading. This must be a good thing. Enough stubborn re-enforcements of class structures remain without our retaining the arcane rules so enamoured of creative snoots such as Nancy Mitford.

Any German or Swede reading John Betjeman's poem How to Get on in Society would be baffled as to the point

If you can't be bothered to plough through that writer's Noblesse Oblige, a guide to U – or upper-class – and non-U behaviour, then you can get a sense of the regulations in John Betjeman's poem How to Get on in Society. Any German or Swede reading the piece in translation would be baffled as to the point. Beginning "Phone for the fish knives, Norman", it rattles through a series of supposedly non-U errors common among the nouveau riche.


There are three in that first line alone. One does not say “phone”. Fish knives are a relatively modern invention, popular with American arrivistes. Simply nobody is called Norman, darling. Betjeman goes on to mouth such horrors as “couch” rather than “sofa”, “lounge” rather than “sitting room” and “serviette” rather than “napkin”. The killer gag in the last verse hangs around a carefully positioned rhyme. “I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones / Beg pardon, I’m soiling the doileys / With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.” If you rhyme “scone” with anything other than “gone” then you should feel truly chastened.

Not every upper-middle snob was quite so strict as Betjeman or Mitford, but a bewildering array of unnecessary conventions spread across the 20th century and into our own. When spaghetti became popular in the 1970s new rules had to be invented for a dish that not even Lord Rumpetty of Bumpetty could comfortably eat with knife and fork. Somebody in some castle decided that a spoon should be held in the left hand and that every bite should be spiralled in that implement’s bowl before being raised to the mouth.

Using a spoon to eat spaghetti is for children, amateurs and people with bad table manners in general, according to Italian restaurateurs

It was a spectacularly tedious business, but, for those in thrall to this gibberish, the notion of eating with fork alone was as foreign as dining with a trowel. Back in 1982 the New York Times asked some of the city's leading Italian restaurateurs about the practice. "All those at the table were adamant," the Times reported. "Spoons are for children, amateurs and people with bad table manners in general."

Defined in these terms, "good table manners" are a tool for social division. It may be charming for Debrett's Handbook to argue that "a true gentleman was a man who used a butter knife when dining alone", but the dictum implies that any fellow who dares to move Kerrygold directly from packet to toast is some sort of oik. The rules are also invariably arbitrary.

The key distinction is between manners and courtesy. Nobody likes to see masticated food. It is, thus, courteous to avoid opening the mouth when chewing your sausages. It demonstrates an uncomplicated politeness to wait for guests to be seated before diving into your own food. But your grip is not important. There is no sane reason to worry about how to angle the cutlery after clearing your plate. Why the heck am I expected to use a dessert fork when eating trifle?

And yet. These conventions get as ground into the psyche as do religious dicta. Just as a lapsed Christian may, even in the privacy of their own home, feel uncomfortable about standing on a copy of the Bible, somebody raised to obey conventional table manners will feel forever awkward about using their fork as a scoop or clearing scraps at the table.

We are a profoundly irrational species. Pretending these conventions have intrinsic worth is one way of scaring away that horrible realisation.

Enjoy your scones. However you pronounce them.

Read Donald Clarke's review of On Chesil Beach here