At a lunch last week hosted by – dare I say – a bank, I noted with some astonishment that of the 20 or so people around the table only two were not tackling their main course with both a knife and a fork. The astonishment reflected what seems to me the growing tendency for people to shovel food only with a fork, even when the occasion and the surroundings are quite formal.
A second look around the table helped to explain why this might be. All the men were in jacket and tie, and there was probably no one there under 40. It crossed my mind that we might be the last generation to eat in the traditionally correct way. I had visions of us all labouring mightily to balance peas, if there had been any, on the back of our forks, and delicately tipping the soup plate, if there had been one, away from us.
Now this is not a plea for the unconditional observance of old-fashioned table-manners – though I admit to disliking what seems to me the rather agricultural practice of hooking an arm around the plate and forking the food in head-on rather than from the side. It irks me in Russia and the United States, and it irks me even more here. It is rather a social observation: that practical efficiency – eating with a fork – is fast taking over from old-fashioned table etiquette. And one reason why it has become possible to jettison the knife may be that food itself, however elaborate it might look on the plate, is now less complicated to eat.
Among my greatest eating disappointments was dinner at one of the more affordable establishments in the smart American resort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was early summer, and I ordered trout, reasoning that with the mountain streams bubbling along not a million miles away, there was a sporting chance of being served a real, fresh fish. Having been trained to deal with herring and mackerel at Friday lunch as a child, I was thoroughly prepared for the challenge to come: taking off the head, slitting the fish open and removing the backbone, before starting to eat.
Alas, the oblong fillet that arrived on its plate could have come from a supermarket multi-pack (perhaps it did). In the industrialised world, it is only in France and some other parts of Continental Europe that fish on the menu routinely translates into a whole fish on the plate. Another hard-learnt skill that is fast becoming redundant.
Trees have deep roots; don't move them
As it happened, I was passing Westminster Abbey when they were unloading those trees that lined the nave for the royal wedding. They arrived in two enormous dark-blue lorries labelled Tendercare and looked as tall as they looked small against the vast height of the church. Whether it was the wedding that set the trend, I don't know, but moving whole trees around seems to be quite the thing. Exhibitors at the Chelsea Flower Show, which opens in two weeks' time, are also importing some large trees, as though there were any shortage of them around the Royal Hospital grounds.
I have always delighted in trees. Aged only a few months, according to my mother, I was happiest parked in my pram underneath the laburnum tree in our garden, where I would watch the branches for hours. I've seen a lot of trees since then, and they are extraordinarily different all over the world; Mediterranean oaks and pines are quite unlike ours; trees in countries bordering the north-west Pacific really do look like those in oriental paintings; Australian trees look like trees nowhere else in the world. I understand why the Germans are so exercised when their conifers are browned by disease, and why the fate of the rainforest arouses such passions. In Britain, the gaps left by Dutch elm disease have never completely been filled. Most of all, though, I regret the vanishing larches. Trees belong in their landscape. That's why they should be left where they are.
A tale of two National Health Services
The head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, is just back from extended sick leave, which included treatment for a pre-cancerous tumour and a subsequent fracture to his leg. He's still walking with a stick, but he looks well and, at his first public address last week, he was full of praise for the treatment he received as an NHS patient at Manchester's Royal Infirmary.
The next day, I read about the plight of poor Baroness Sharples. At 88, Lady Sharples was whisked off to Accident & Emergency at St Thomas's in London after "overdoing it" – her words – following a knee replacement operation. The ambulance came at once, but she was left on a trolley for almost five hours before she was found a bed, and she was only examined by a doctor after that. According to the newspaper report, A&E staff were having to deal with a succession of drunks. Lady Sharples, to her immense credit, never once mentioned that she was a member of the House of Lords.
Now I'm glad Sir Paul received such wonderful treatment, but I fear this contrast says something about the health service more generally. Sir Paul did not go through A&E and no one at the MRI could possibly have been unaware of who he was. Not only that, but he is a strapping great man with something serious and interesting wrong with him. This combination tends to bring out the best in our health service. Lady Sharples, on the other hand, seems to have experienced what it was to be just another elderly woman brought into A&E. Enough said – alas.