Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

The house is suddenly looking quite bare. I have finally taken down the notices. Just before Christmas I was at a small conference held in a stately home. That is, in the summer it's a stately home open to the public, a museum of sorts. In the winter it takes a few guests for conferences, a hotel of sorts. This means it has to keep the guests discreetly off the very valuable fumiture and paintings. It does this by a judicious use of ropes and notices. I returned determined that we, at No. 17, should have notices in our house too. They have been a great success with the last lot of guests over Christmas. Next time people come to stay, we shall have ropes as well. The use of the notices is slightly different from that in the stately home. There was one each on my and Mrs A's armchair saying, `Reserved for permanent residents'. You may tut, but a friend's mother-in-law recently scorned 28 to steal his; `We have 29 chairs, Digby, 29, I counted, and which one did she sit in?' There was a large, stern notice on the kitchen door forbidding access, and one on the bathroom, `Frequent washing is injurious to health and character'. One of the most effective was slipped into the books we were reading which, when not being read, lay on various tables: `Someone else has already started reading this book. If you wish to choose a book, find one for yourself from the bookcase'. But the one with 100 per cent success was on the mantelshelf: `Do not poke, or otherwise rearrange the fire'. It is sad that society has come to this, that these notices are necessary. But I was impressed by how respected they were. The old codes are still there. They just need activating. No doubt readers will be able to improve on my efforts. I intend to do so myself. But a warning. With the notices you also need a general book of instructions announcing times of meals, with warnings to guests not to talk about their ailments or the traffic problems they encountered on their way. This I had. What I forgot was to make a map of where all the notices were. Some were obvious, but many had been left to be uncovered and come as a surprise. You need the map to find them to take down.

I doubt that Miss Polly Toynbee has notices in her house. And if she has, she has not thought much of the informal social codes they activate. I have just heard her on the wireless. She was 'trailing' a programme she was to do in one of those irritating self-advertisements the BBC is always doing when you are waiting for another quite different programme you have chosen to listen to. I didn't catch the exact words, but it was something along the lines of, `Is our society really an equal/meritocratic/democratic' one? Politicians and people like Miss Toynbee obviously think that this matters. I'm not sure anyone else much cares, at least in the important things of life such as who sits on which armchair. When I started to think about the codes governing behaviour in the home, they had more or less nothing to do with such ideas and everything to do with who the various people were, their relationships to the property and to each other.

This is true in the swimming pool too. I've taken up swimming again as part of a general attempt to take up a whole list of things I used to do and enjoy, but dropped, decades ago in teenage years. …

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