Time to Catch Up
“Is that you Mrs Travers? You can clear now.”
Very good m’lady and by the way thank you for the glass clown.”
“My pleasure Mrs T I knew its innate gaudiness would have an appeal, it should have been a fruit bowl but there was an accident with that and it ended up in a canal.”
“Just to tell you the mattress has come back from Stoddarts, remade as spring from hair and they have recovered the quilt in corded taffeta, which comes in at £5 9s 6d.”
“It’s a tough life Mrs T; any messages?”
“Yes Mr Wylie says he has gone to the St Andrews’ Halls for tickets for the Strauss and two for me to see Frankie Vaughan at The Pavilion and the Russians have won the space race.”
“Yes I knew about that.”
“What. Frankie Vaughan being in Glasgow?”
“No; the Russians being the first to put a rocket in space.”
“How did you know that?”
“Let’s just say I had it on good authority from a gondolier repair man.”
A Request from Inverness
“Oh yes the editor of the Inverness Courier said if you could do a piece for tomorrow’s edition he would be grateful – the usual woman’s page contributor has gone to sing at the Gaelic Mod and left him high and dry.”
“Yes; he said lots of agitated ladies have been in touch saying they have been invited to stay in the Highlands in October as their husbands are shooting and could you please give them some guidance about Suppa.”
“Yes of course; that old chestnut that keeps rearing its head – people do get rather worked up, they must be nouveau-riche like Mrs Macaulay.”
“Well for us humble working classes with feelings for innately gaudy and vulgar ornaments and unacquainted with Nancy Mitford, supper is usually a wee spam sandwich, or toasted cheese and a cup of tea before bedtime.”
“I take your point. Bring my old royal please. I might as well sit in front of the fire if I am to toil at a keyboard and then if you wouldn’t mind, the stairs could do with damp dusting?”
Mrs T mutters “Tote that barge, lift that bale.”
“I feel I am going over old ground, but I suppose revision is sometimes necessary and perhaps indeed there are some to whom I can fulfil the role of missionary bringing the message of gracious living.”
Unexpected Invitations from the Locals
If one moves into the Scottish countryside for an extended stay or even perhaps relocates from our busy cities, sooner or later your arrival will come to the attention of those who inhabit the more substantial homes tucked away in our glens and straths. Change and “the new” unnerve them, they like what they know. So at the village shop, at church or drinks’ parties they will anxiously say to one another of your arrival “Do we know them?” This is of course a code conveying a number of hidden anxieties such as “Are they our sort?” A test will come in the form of an invitation to suppa. Now this is the rural equivalent of the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examination and therefore requires tuition.
Accidentally Meeting on Purpose in the Post Office
The invitation will come in the form of a pre-warning, perhaps an ‘accidental’ meeting at the Post Office, “you must come to suppa and meet some people”. Some days later this will be followed by the arrival of a correspondence card in the post in the name of the hostess which is printed or embossed at the top and in fountain pen it will say. “Do come to Suppa on the 14th, 7.30pm R.S.V.P..” The expected reply, sooner rather than later given that the date you are invited for is less than a week, away is by telephone. This confirms two things – you are the sort of people the Postmaster General considers suitable to have a telephone and from the way you speak they will be able to make some preliminary judgements.
Keep it short – everyone is too busy for idle gossip or chit-chat, after all if it is a sunny day one has to get outside to work with one’s gardener or ‘dash orff’ to a country dancing class while the splendid woman from the village, who only comes once a week now, does the brasses.
It’s All About the Meaning in the Message
The next hurdle is what exactly is meant by suppa. Now this and let us be very clear is not dinner. That is a formal meal with a distinct protocol around dress etc., often for a specific occasion or event such as fund raising, an anniversary or a regimental reunion. Suppa is the more usual and is a less formal and apparently, at least on the surface, more relaxed affair.
It is not a bowl of cereal or a sausage roll with a hot drink – it is a full scale meal so do not eat beforehand even although you are used to what Mrs Travers calls “wur tea” at 5.30.
The problem is there are two types of suppa – kitchen suppa or suppa which is taken in the dining room and you have to work out to which you have been invited. If they are not sure of your social status, or perceive it as lesser, you will be invited firstly to kitchen suppa and then if you cut the mustard, future invitations will be to dining room suppa. Of course you may never make the leap.
If they are certain of your social status you will be fast tracked to suppa proper, but you really need to be on your metal here as there is no going back. The clue as to which of these events you have been invited to is on the card, for at the bottom it will say casually, “come to the back door, (kitchen suppa) or “front door, mind the moss” (dining room suppa). All rather nerve wracking I know, but get this right and you will ensure your entrée into Scottish rural society. Of course I am always fast tracked myself.
To Gift or Not to Gift?
“Should one take a gift?”, I am often asked – well yes. No wine they have cellars and might think you think they do not. Flowers certainly for the hostess, if you live locally something fragrant from your garden, preferably a rare surviving old fashioned rose planted by Flora MacDonald but certainly nothing flashy and never begonias.
Something purchased at a sale of work is ideal. This suggests you have a charitable nature and care about “the village and the cottagers”, “they do marvellous things with damsons”. So jars of homemade marmalade, lemon curd, jam or some tablet which will be “nice with coffee”. Take them in a basket. Baskets are a key country accessory. For your information, basket management is available in my advanced programme.
Do not be too early – this is unfair on your hostess who is exhausted having judged the local horse show or some such affair all afternoon. As she and her husband share the bathwater, what with the back boiler playing up, you are quite likely to find them in the buff especially if it is a warm evening. So if you are early, don’t look up as the sills are low and you might see more than you bargained for. It is not unknown to find them setting the table as God intended and this may colour your evening in a negative way.
Walking to suppa is good but so is arriving in an elderly car. Flash new cars are not part of country living. Ladies make sure you know how to enter and exit a car correctly especially as he will be watching from the window.
The bells won’t work and the door will be ajar, the dogs will alert them to your arrival. He will greet you and if he is ex-military will remove your coat with an exaggerated flourish. Make sure you are ready to move forward quickly as his hand will follow your spine, remember he is a sheep farmer and used to checking the size of gigot chops.
Whether you are shown into the drawing room or kitchen, she will arrive moments later, well groomed but with flour in her hair for dramatic effect. She will enter the room perfectly never turning her back, after all she was a model before the last Unpleasantness. You will be shown where to sit; this is not about comfort, just imagine you are on a horse at Waterloo.
Kitchen suppa as the name suggests is at the kitchen table, near the Aga or Rayburn for warmth and the conceit is that you are having just what the family is having (not true that is usually sardines on toast) that night perhaps a shepherd’s pie or if they have been in the military a sausage casserole as this “brought me closer to the men in the desert you know”. As many are hill farmers they like lamb but always say “of course we never eat our own”.
Do not be surprised if the kitchen looks, well to put it bluntly, like a tip. These are people who, while they no longer have them, were brought up with servants which they allude to from time to time and they have no experience of cleaning or tidying up. You may even find your shoes are convenient hurdles for the odd frog or toad to jump over (they live behind the dresser) and they will not even be aware of the bats that fly around the single 40 watt light bulb in the summer. Do not expect to see any Formica or modern appliances.
Dining Room Suppa
Dining room supper will involve foregathering in the drawing room for sherry and a few nibbles. Spirits are not offered as one never mixes the grape with the grain and gin is something one drinks in the morning while pottering in the shed or outbuildings. In any case they never have ice or lemon. There will be a blazing fire in the grate sufficient to worry any local fire brigade. One has of course cut the wood oneself from the five acres that came with the house.
The furniture will not be modern – having to buy one’s own furniture is seen as evidence that one is an arriviste or at the very least is morally questionable! Everything is old, worn and has a story. It is quite acceptable to say “what a lovely room” or admire a chest, (they always contain a moth eaten tiger skin) but do not go overboard, that would be vulgar. One does not notice what other people have. However a polite acknowledgement of an obvious historic piece, allows one’s host to talk about ancestors in China or India.
A Laughing Matter
If it is dining room suppa, they will eat quite late so it may well be 8.30 or 9.00pm by the time you go through to the dining room. The hostess will seat you saying “oh gosh I have no seating plan”, but of course she does, that is what she does best. For you will not be alone. There will be, rest assured, other guests, perhaps other new arrivals into the community and most certainly another couple of old trusted friends with whom you can be discussed later in the week.
You will sit at a Georgian table with good silver often monogrammed although needing a clean. Copper saucepans are often plonked on the table, with “honestly who can be bothered with casserole dishes”. The Spode “came from Hugh’s side” and is “a bit chipped, like Hugh’s side”. This is followed by snorts and shrieks of laughter from the hostess, to which you join in – but not too much.
As to food – just as in kitchen suppa – there will be no starter. To be frank the food in country houses is often pretty terrible. If you are lucky it will be a hearty stew or casserole, often of locally shot game. Fish pie is popular. Do not be surprised if this is served with two forks, fish knives and forks are considered a middleclass affectation. There will be no choice, you eat what is put in front of you. Stoicism even in matters culinary is part of the game.
Now I understand some of you may be vegetarians. Under no circumstances mention this as they are likely to summon what they still call the Lunacy Board and one of them is likely to be chairman anyway. Some enlightened households might offer an “onion tart”, but you will be considered more trouble than you are worth or even perhaps a socialist!
One thing they are very fond of are war time recipes and a corned beef pie is very popular. When you compliment this they will say “oh it’s a family favourite it is Granny’s.” Now what they actually mean by that is it was her cook’s, although Granny will have it in her recipe book, which was largely a work of fiction. By the way, they pronounce recipes as receipts as in the piece of paper you are given when buying your shopping.
There may not be a first course, but there is usually pudding, never sweet or desert, such terms will be a life sentence for kitchen suppa. These will be stodgy and will be to placate the host who didn’t want you to come in the first place, especially if your husband has a beard or suede shoes. Favourites are rice pudding with skin to which the host will add jam and cream and allude to more unpleasant substances, jam sponge pudding, syrup pudding, railway pudding and so forth. They are designed to remind him of happy days in the nursery of nanny or one of the least unbearable parts of boarding school. All are served with lashings of custard, Birds is fine, “who makes their own these days darling?”
If the food can be indifferent then rest assured the wine will be of the highest quality and will come from the cellar. Again every bottle has a story and there is inevitably a son called Toby who is working in a château in France.
What to Say and How to Say It
Conversation can be a worry, firstly because how you speak and what you say is a minefield that may soon have you in a crater. They like short clipped sentences, after all it is very windy on those moors and too many consonants make them wince. Never ask to go to the toilet, it is the loo or lavatory.
They don’t like things disguised as something else. It is writing paper not notepaper, a chimneypiece not a mantelpiece and frock not dress. Suitable subjects are country matters, firewood (cherry is best) dogs, drainage and the new minister (providing he is not a guest) who will not be a patch on the old one, “they say he plays the guitar”. Of course one never talks about religion that is something one does on a Sunday morning and it is taken for granted that you are a member of the Church of Scotland or preferably an Episcopalian for real class or you come from Edinburgh. Politics is a definite no-no. You must be a Conservative or why would Rosemary have invited you in the first place.
Never talk about illness or infirmity, one just puts up with all that is thrown at one. Never talk about one’s children, you don’t see much of them anyway. It is acceptable to allude to which school they go to and to suggest you hate sending them to boarding school and blame your husband, “it was Hugh’s Idea, St Beatings was where he went and his father and grandfather and I suppose Hugh is right, they must learn to be men”. Do not talk overmuch about yourself and your family, although it is quite all right to allude to ancestors who were executed within the confines of The Tower of London, this absolutely screams class and suggests romantic Jacobites are one’s ancestors.
Do Not Overdo It
What should you wear? Understatement and careless abandon are the name of the game, but in a controlled sort of way after all we wouldn’t want to appear hysterical. Kitchen suppas are, as I have said, informal affairs. If you arrive in a dinner jacket or white tie and medals, you will be thought a fool especially if you are a lady. No only joking, but the same thing goes for the ladies – a ball gown or evening dress would be totally out of place.
Ladies country tweeds are fine or a nice smart frock, tartan is always acceptable. A cardigan worn on the shoulders gives you a relaxed look as does a slightly worn but very good bag. Never handbag, what else would it be, a foot bag?
It would be totally inappropriate to wear jewellery that made one look like a Christmas tree. Pearls at the neck are always good, never bought by your husband for that is unlucky, you know what they say “pearls for tears, but a 21st birthday gift from your father or godfather, a brooch or bracelet that belonged to your grandmother (you must come from good stock), a good watch, an engagement ring with a stone brought back from the Empire is ideal. Leave the tiara in the bank.
Men – What Can One Say?
“The men” as they are always referred to are expected to look much as they have through the day except it’s a good idea if they have a bath – never a shower (“so plebeian, Mummy”). Their outfit is a variation of cords or twill trousers, tweed jacket or blazer, cravat or regimental tie, gold cufflinks, signet ring (never a wedding ring) and often a stained v-necked jumper or waistcoat straining at the buttons; good brogues of course for footwear. In both cases, it is wise to wear warm underwear as despite the blazing fires there is no background heating and the cold is bone chilling.
Time to Say Goodbye
Finally how does one know when it is time to leave?
Simple – in summer the lights are never put on, for these people are as mean as anything and you leave once you can no longer see your hosts. In winter if you are in the dining room supper you will have repaired to the drawing room where the hostess will signal the end of the evening by saying “delicious coffee before you go”. You can be assured it will not be delicious. The ladies will say “yes” and the men will decline expecting the next question, “whisky for the road gentlemen” (never scotch). That is the one exception to the grape and grain rule. The final indication that you must rise and leave is that the blazing fire will die down and no fresh logs are put on.
For those in the kitchen, the end of suppa is indicated when the host jumps up and says “time to let those damned dogs out, walk you to the path”.
There are extra brownie points for walking the three miles home especially in the snow and bringing your own gum boots and torch. You might even hear them say as they close the door, “Why Hugh, I think they may be our sort, I almost feel we know them.”
P.S. Repay the invitation as soon as possible or you may as well emigrate