Category Archives: history

Every day’s a school day

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Now look lively!  Sit up and pay attention, as I may be setting a short test at the end of class today…

I went to look around a prospective school for my daughter on Saturday.  A Mexican friend asked me (via Skype) if it was a public or private school and when I replied that in the UK public school IS private school all I got back from her was “??!?!!?”.

So how can ‘public’ school be an expensive fee-paying school?  Well, as with most of my answers on this blog, it all goes back a long way in history.  A long, long way; the Middle Ages, in fact (the first written reference to a public school was in 1364).  Back then, peasants weren’t educated at all and the landed gentry educated their sons (and occasionally their daughters) at home, usually with a resident clergyman.

So the first schools as we know them today were called ‘public’ schools to denote that they were open to public admission, not behind closed doors in a private house.  In the early days, most public schools were run by monasteries.  A few boys were admitted on scholarships paid for by charities and the rest were the sons of middle or upper class gentlemen who could not afford private tutors at home, but could afford to pay the monastery to educate their sons.   Probably the most famous public school in Britain is Eton College (founded in 1440), where Princes William and Harry received their schooling (as did “House” actor Hugh Laurie and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes).  And Eton still offers a few scholarships to the brightest and most deserving pupils.

Free schooling for all was not available until the Victorian era (19th Century) and even then it was only for children aged between five and ten years.  By that time, the term ‘public school’ was well established as meaning a fee-paying school.  So non-fee-paying schools attended by most children are called “State” schools.

And, for those of you wondering, the school system is different here, too.  My little one will start with a foundation year (optional, mornings only) aged three, reception class at four and ‘proper’ school lessons in Year One from five years of age (exams follow, with GCSE’s at age 16 in Year 11 and A-levels at age 18 before going on to University).

We loved the school we visited.  And it turns out the uniform is a wee kilt in what looks suspiciously like our family tartan!  The same wee kilt that we had unknowingly dressed our daughter in for the visit…spooky!

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Filed under Britishness, history, translation

Oh, fork.

forks

I’ve had several weird experiences eating in the States.  Don’t get me wrong, the food is generally great (and certainly more consistent than in the UK), no it’s not the food.  And it’s certainly not the service, because that’s probably the best in the world.  It’s…the staring.

It happened at a golf-club in Sonoma.  And again at a restaurant overlooking Pittsburgh.  And, actually, countless other times too.  There I am, eating my dinner and the place goes kind of quiet and I realise there are myriad eyes following my cutlery.

The truth is, we eat differently and it’s our fault (good Lord, can I not write a single flippin’ post without apologising on behalf of my country?).

The usual American way is to use the knife in the right hand for cutting food and then transfer the fork to the right hand for eating it.  The European way is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand throughout the meal.  So how did that happen, then?

Well as I said, it’s the Brits’ fault.  We actually kept forks a secret from you!  Anyway, let’s start at the very beginning for, as Julie Andrews once sang, “that’s a very good place to start”.

When the world was young and Henry VIII was busy with all that marrying, divorcing and beheading stuff, we all used to eat with a spoon and dagger.  You’d press down firmly on the meat with the spoon, slice a piece off and then spike it on the end of the dagger to eat it.  Afterwards, you’d transfer the spoon to the right hand to scoop up the gravy and remaining bits and bobs.  It’s worth noting that eating your peas politely was never a problem in this particular culinary setting, as we were all veg-dodgers at the time and peas didn’t become at all fashionable until around 1700.  Anyway, I digress..

Then (around 1600) those clever and sophisticated Italians made forks really fashionable and the French went wild for them.  They reached Britain about the same time The Mayflower was leaving, but British men regarded forks as being foppish and effeminate and refused to use them for decades (although they were declared a pretty present for a bride).  Eventually, they caught on in Britain too, and, having no further need to spike meat, as the fork was now used for that, we rounded off the ends of our knives to become the dinner knives we know and use today.

The problem was, the naughty cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield (who shipped cutlery to the States in the early days, before you made your own) ‘forgot’ to tell our good cousins across the pond about forks.  The first thing most Americans knew was that Sheffield was sending rubbish knives; they were no good for stabbing meat anymore!  So, they cut the meat with the knife but then ate it with the spoon.  About forty years later we finally started sending forks to the US (but they took a good long while to get out to the less populated areas), by which time the method of eating was pretty much ingrained and no-one saw any reason to change, as their current method was perfectly good.  Forks eventually got substituted for spoons because they were more efficient, but other than that the method of eating has stayed the same.

The net result of which is that I seem to bring any restaurant (in a non-tourist area) to a standstill by eating the European way!

Or maybe I just had gravy on my chin?  Yep – it was probably the gravy.  Oh well, I’ve expounded on the whole ‘fork’ theory now, so might as well leave this post up, eh?

Right, got to go and see if I can find anything to write about that doesn’t involve apologising for my ancestors!

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Filed under English Quirks, Englishness, history