A Thank You from Muriel
All I can say on behalf of Jasper and myself is thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kind words regarding the untimely death (or “passing” if you are an American or spiritualist and over fond of euphemisms) of my dearest friend Winnie and her “friend”, Mr Chan.
So Many Tributes
There have been many letters and floral tributes the length and breadth of Perthshire as well as from the Foreign Office, the French Government and the managing director of a leading manufacturer of boucle knitting wools. For dear Winnie combined a life fighting fascism in the last Unpleasantness with a mastery of novelty knitting that was the envy of the world. As the editor said in the late edition of last week’s trade journal Cast Off “the world will never forget her family of dinosaurs made from old school pullovers, or the unique designs for the Edinburgh Festival Production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in Fair Isle Knit, which was written by the well known Shakespearean writer, William Shakespeare”. There are many unanswered questions about the murder of Winnie and Mr Chan, mainly who did it and how was it done, but these will take time and for the sake of world peace may never be fully answered.
Life Must Go On
Life, however, has to go on and I for one cannot sit around weeping all day long and imagining I can hear the squeak of her bicycle chain, which always needed to be oiled, as she pushed it up my back passage. There is also much to attend to in the way of spring cleaning and gardening not to mention all that needs to be done as our clubs and societies wind down for the summer recess.
For we Scots must prepare ourselves for the light nights and the possibility of sunshine, something we have not seen for six months. Membership at our evening and weekend events begins to dwindle as cobwebbed garden tools are brought out from sheds and there is a desperate search for one paintbrush that was actually washed before it was put away. In preparation for spring cleaning I have put Mrs Travers on an exercise programme with Jasper and as we speak they are currently running around the play park under the guidance of former Sergeant Major Redoubt formerly of the Queen’s Own Prancing Highlanders. I have told Mrs Travers and Jasper that they can expect fierce fighting with the assaults on “oose and stour”.
Introducing “the Bite”
Perhaps as we approach the end of the winter season of meetings and soirées it might be timely for me to talk to you, as promised, about a form of hospitality we have barely touched upon in any of my famous marvellous masterclasses. Now we have often spoken about “First Breakfast”, “Second Breakfast”, “10 o’clocks”, “lunch verses dinner” , “afternoon tea”, “high tea” and the difference between dinner and suppa. As many of you are now in what I consider my advanced class it is time for you to come to grips with the much feared “Bite”. This comes is in three forms – the sweet bite, the savoury bite and the bite proper. We shall deal with the sweet bite and bite proper as they are the ones you are most likely to encounter. I cover the savoury bite in my advanced masterclass, “Beyond Gracious Living”.
The Sweet Bite – a Recruitment Tool
Now you may well have come across the “sweet bite”, and I feel sure we have mentioned it, but just in case, as I would not want you to look anymore foolish than you already may do, let us recap. As you advance in Scottish Society (and I know it seems like a dream, but trust me under my watchful eye you will, even if at this stage it seems like reaching for the stars) you will inevitably have morning coffee or afternoon tea with your betters such as Lady Rannoch-Moor (rhymes with dour – this is not Devon). This may well take place in a Department Store, where having ordered coffee, or tea, you will be asked “Are you going to partake of a piece of fruit cake or do you fancy a fancy?”
Of course you do, but having allowed for a pregnant pause and an opportunity for you to demonstrate your greed, her Ladyship, “my dear call me Rapunzel, all my friends do. Believe it or not” pointing to her hair “this was once golden”, will say, “You go ahead if you must I cannot afford the weight and I am having lunch with the Lord Lieutenant of the County, he and Mipsie do wonders for the arts, you will know them of course.”
It Is All A Game
You will follow this with, “Of course, dear Mipsie what a magical woman, (even although you have not the foggiest idea who she is) followed by “well, nor me really; let’s just have some delicious coffee.” “Are you sure?” will be her Ladyship’s earnest and concerned reply, coupled with a look, suggesting she strongly believes you to be a gannet.
After you have said, “Positive Rapunzel”, she will administer the coup de grace with, a smile and a wink and summoning the waitress will say conspiratorially. “Why don’t we just be utterly naughty and share a sweet bite? Can I suggest the millionaire’s shortbread or paradise slice?”
On arrival the dissection of the sweet bite will be undertaken with great ceremony, as well as a gloved hand and an indication that being of a lower social standing and therefore, a glutton, you will have “the largest half”. Rest assured you will find yourself being invited to join a committee and, naturellement, you will pay the bill.
Transactional in Nature
In short then the “sweet bite”, is a transactional and often chocolate item of a ritual nature facilitating a passage to a higher level. We can see how this develops as we examine “the bite proper.”
All is Clear to Committee Members (pronounced Membahs, so reminiscent of the Empire)
“The bite proper” will only become apparent to you once you are a committee membah. An invitation to “a wee bite” usually concerns an organisation where there are speakers such as Jasper’s Hysterical or a music or an arts society. If a speaker is coming a distance, particularly in the winter months, it is customary for one of the committee to offer “a bed for the night” and another to suggest that they “come for a wee bite at 5.30”. This might be the Chair or the Secretary or indeed the committee member who has put forward the name of the speaker. It suggests generosity especially given that the rate of remuneration is usually low or indeed non-existent and for goodness sake one does not want to deplete the funds with hotel accommodation.
Invitations to a Bite – a Study in Studied Informality
It is not necessary for the hostess to invite all the committee especially if it is large – only those particularly involved in the night in question and to provide someone interesting for the guest to talk to while the hostess is in the kitchen. No invitations are sent either in writing or by telephone. This invitation to a bite is done in passing when leaving a committee meeting or even at the fishmonger’s.
It also has to appear casual but have a slight air of desperation about it such as, “Oh Muriel, could you and Jasper come for a bite next Wednesday before the meeting, Charles is in London and Jasper is so good with musical types”, and this will be interrupted once one moves along in the queue with “Yes Madame”, “Do you have any haddock today? Then I will have two fillets please and a boiling fowl for soup. Oh do please say yes Muriel I know nothing about Fauré.” “Of course Marjorie”, for it would be churlish to say no, and then you add, “Can I do anything, or bring anything – a pudding perhaps? I know Wednesday is your daily woman’s day to visit the prison.” The hostess will add, “No Muriel thank you, much appreciated, everything is under control it is just going to be no fuss – a one pot affair, cheese and coffee. Perhaps if you have time you might make some of your delicious Helensburgh tablet to go with the coffee?”
Quality Not Quantity
Of course I do not have time and will have to buy some and repackage it as Mrs T will be busy with damp dusting on Wednesday. Now the one pot affair is pretty standard and necessary as all the committee have to leave at 6.45pm to get to the hall, make sure the heating is on, greet guests, take the money and make sure the piano has been moved correctly. It never has been so Jasper usually is employed as a shover.
Do not, dear readers, however, be fooled into thinking the whole affair of the one pot bite is one of a casual nature. This, like most things, is highly competitive and anyway casual flair is only acquired after years of training.
Food should be warming and sustaining, but not too plentiful – no second helpings or the artiste will feel too sleepy. We once had a soprano who dozed off between Lehar numbers after a particularly good stroganoff. A bloated Merry Widow can be a disaster. It is important to serve good quality wine, but limit the quantity as there is nothing worse for the members than to arrive at the village hall, stone cold sober to find an over jolly and flushed committee and an inebriated pianist. I can recall one very bad evening with Rachmaninoff, a wobbly piano stool, a bottle of claret too many and a page turner unable to focus on anything.
Frosty Relations and Candles on the Buffet Table
All of which reminds me that last week we had our members night at The South Western Reel and Strathspey Society by way of rounding off the season. Our speaker Lt Col. ‘Mad Mickey’ MacDonald, who was speaking about “The Role of Country Dance in Combat,” came to us for “a bite”, along with the chairman and his wife, the Minister and his wife and Lady Pentland-Firth and some old soldier she had found en route.
Relations between myself and the Minister are still somewhat cold after the Mulligatawny incident. I of course am of a most forgiving nature and my one pot beef and venison casserole with jacket potato followed by camembert and oatcakes with grapes somewhat helped to begin a defrost. The talk was excellent and the story of the Reel of the 51st written in a P.O.W. camp after capture at Dunkirk was most poignant. We went on to dance the reel with its clever interpretation of the cross of St Andrew, our patron saint, which sent out a note of defiance to the men’s’ captors.
The only tricky part of the evening was when a rather chilly Lady Pentland-Firth, (who had gone outside the hall with her friend to look at his pas-de-bas more closely) entered the side room where refreshments were laid out still wearing her coat and keeping her hands warm in her muff – lent forward for a sausage roll. She failed to see that as she removed one hand from the fur in order to reach said sausage roll in puff pastry that the other still contained in the muff was held over a candle.
A Terrible Smell and a Bucket of Sand
It all happened so quickly and the smell of a burning muff is a terrible thingl it was rather like a Hudson’s Bay Company ship going up in flames. Jasper threw a bucket of sand at her which largely did the trick although she said afterwards it was rather like being hit by a Saharan storm. Jasper said he couldn’t miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
As the part time fire brigade is based close by they were on site in no time and soon put out the inferno. Only the hall curtains were badly damaged and most of the buffet was destroyed. Lady P-F was remarkably unscathed apart from a few sand scratches. Her muff is a write-off but she seemed unperturbed more interested to converse with the firemen and flatter them with remarks about the effectiveness of their hoses and suggesting that they might like to do some emergency drill at her country house, just in case they were called out to another muff fire.
That sounds like Jasper and Mrs T back from the park, if the out of breath sounds are anything to go by.
Never Run in Corsets
“Jasper you need a bath off you go.”
“Why Mrs T you look exhausted you must really be out of condition, we cannot expect Grace from the Caribbean to do all the heavy work of the spring cleaning can we? Perhaps if you took that corset off you might not perspire so much, it really is not good for you to run and not wear the appropriate clothes; here let me unhook you.
“No thank you Madame; I am fine. I must go I have a crumble to make for suppa.”
“That can wait Mrs T; come over here. Jasper call Grace I need some help.”
“No really; I am fine Mrs Wylie.”
A Secret Underneath the Corset
“Thank you Grace; now don’t struggle Mrs T, or it will be worse as you are nearly fainting. Well Mrs T, no wonder you are so hot there is so much extra padding, rolled up underneath all this. It looks as if you are concealing some sort of art work. Grace unroll it. What is it?”
“It looks like a knitted map Mrs Wylie.”
Goodness! It is the missing map from the Conference. Mrs Travers explain yourself – where did you get this from? You must realise your life is in danger.”