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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of 'Fearful Morsels' and Downton Abbey Manners

I admit it. I love Downton Abbey, even if it really is just a high-class soap opera.

I imagine a lot of you watch it. No doubt you giggle at the Dowager Countess and the extremity of household protocol. Surely people were never so silly!

Or were they?

I am a history nut. When digging around in musty book shops, sometimes a treasure is unearthed... like a book of etiquette from times past. One such tome is a prized possession of mine by one Emily Holt, and bears the rather florid title:

[Augmented by Eight Half-Tone Illustrations]

(*Whew* I feel under scrutiny even before I crack open the cover, don't you?)

This is not an English book, but Canadian! Brought to you by the good people at Toronto's Musson Book Company Ltd., it lays it on the line for the more uppity colonials precisely how to behave in a civilized society. I cannot find a date, but I would guess it must be just about pre-WWI, due to some references to proper motorcar etiquette.

It is packed full of gems. I will share my favourite here today-- as the holidays are drawing close, and you wouldn't want to make a fatal social blunder at a dinner party, now would you?

[Tip: it is best read aloud in your most convincing Maggie Smith impersonation.]


'MISHAPS will overtake the best regulated diner, who, however, when anything flies from the plate or lap to the floor, should allow the servant to pick it up. Should grease or jelly drop from the fork to one's person, then to remove the deposit with the napkin corner is the only remedy.

How often, oh how often! does the apparently well-conducted man or woman, when such an accident befalls, gravely wipe his or her knife on a bit of bread or the plate's edge and heedfully scrape away at the the offending morsel. This is decidedly the wrong way to do it, just as it is an egregious error thoughtfully to scrape up a bit of butter or fragment of fowl from the tablecloth where it has fallen beside the plate. At the family board this is well enough, but to do so at a restaurant or a friend's table is wholly unnecessary.

If an ill-starred individual overturns a full wine or water glass at a dinner table, profuse apologies are out of place. To give the hostess an appealing glance and say: Pray forgive me, I am very awkward, or, I must apologize for my stupidity, this is quite unforgivable, I fear, is enough.

Should a cup, glass or dish be broken through carelessness, then a quick, quiet apology can be made and within a few days sincere repentance indicated by forwarding the hostess, if possible, a duplicate of the broken article and a contrite little note.

A serious and unpleasant accident is that of taking into the mouth half done, burning hot, or tainted foods and the one course to pursue is quickly and quietly to eject the fearful morsel on the fork or spoon, whence it can be quietly laid on the plate, or into a corner of the napkin. This can be so deftly accomplished that none need suspect the state of affairs and the napkin folded over and held in the lap throughout the meal.'

(I would be tempted to add, 'Whilst the juices of the of the fearful morsel may then stealthily seep in the fabric of one's dinner jacket or evening dress, this unfortunate side-effect of one's masochistic politeness must be borne without complaint. If one has a close family relationship with the hostess, a discreet bill for the cleaning may be sent in due course with a polite request for recompense, but, in the case of business partnerships or nobility, a stiff upper lip and a greasy lap is the only remedy'.'

Until my next post, dear Reader, I remain faithfully yours,

Ms. Ruth Anne Barrett

Saturday, October 13, 2012

That Way Madness Lies

Calm on the outside...

I remember as a young teen researching a class presentation for a science fair. We could choose any topic, and I took it upon myself to explore the connection between creativity and madness.

What kind of a topic is that for a fourteen year old? Ambitious! One might even say... crazy. But it's not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination: so many painters, writers, musicians, actors and creatives of all sorts are remembered just as much-- or more-- for their despair, manias, or erratic behaviour than they are for their artistic contributions to the world. As a prime example, I recall being particularly fascinated by the tragic figures of visual artists, and that they played a central role in this odd academic exercise: after all, they literally illustrated my point. I had glossy books of whirling, tormented paintings by the likes of Van Gogh and Hieronymus Bosch propped up beside my carefully assembled Bristol board musings to share with my classmates. I had sunk my teeth into my serious research with gusto, and I knew my stuff.


When I stood up before a room of my contemporaries and introduced my topic, I suddenly was struck hard by the absurdity of it all. Don't get me wrong-- mental illness is no joke: I didn't think it then, and I don't think it now. But there-- in that moment-- I found it hilarious, and was possessed by a fit of the giggles. As I choked back my inappropriate hilarity and forced myself to continue, I became aware of my classmates' faces: some looked amused, but there were expressions ranging anywhere from bafflement and boredom to contempt and open dislike. "They must think I'm nuts!" I thought. That revelation did not exactly help me recapture my self-control. I stumbled through the rest of presentation, and returned-- still giggling-- to my desk.

To this day, that thought bubble is never really out of my head: "They must think I'm crazy" has been a sort of underscore to my life's journey.

This morning, I was slowly getting into my day-- I'll be working on a ghost story this afternoon-- and as  I often do, I found something interesting to watch on-line as I downed a pot of black coffee. I tend to gravitate toward history and documentaries... always in search of new story and character ideas. I found this post on Open Culture dedicated to Stephen Fry:

Perfect Saturday morning brain fodder. I love Stephen Fry. And of all the video options on this page, I chose his 'Secret Life of the Manic Depressive' that he shot for the BBC in 2006.

And it is extraordinary. And it's had me thinking.

How much madness is in any artist's 'method'? I have stacks of notebooks filled with scribbled ideas for stories. If I actually followed through on every thread I conceive, I'd never leave my desk. My dreams are epic and filled with vivid imagery and complex themes. I've always been drawn to music, acting, visual art, opera, writing, dance, comedy and film... the richness of the worlds created from pure imagination washes over me like the warmth of the sun, and I simply cannot get enough.

I've always been on the outside, observing, taking it all in. Storing it up. I hoard.

I'm weird.

I'm not saying I'm on the same level of genius as those I admire, or suffer some real form of manic depression (I don't think I do-- there seem to be such wild variations and levels that it's not impossible.) But I do wonder. What is the nature behind of all this inspiration-- this literal 'breathing in' of concepts and images, words and music? It can become overwhelming. There are times I avoid my own creativity. Sometimes I go months without 'really' writing. It's almost like I'm afraid of the obsessive quality of the process. When I let it take charge, the false world I'm inventing seems almost more vibrant and 'real' than the literal world around me.

I can contain it and function, but it sometimes makes for a difficult dance. Repression of creativity is doubly dangerous: too many times in my life, I have found myself a frustrated artistic soul. Only other creatives have any clue what inner torture it is when you are working in an office, or a bank, or retail or what have you in order to merely survive. It sucks the soul out of you. People who don't 'get it' judge you by the fact that you aren't a bestseller or starring on Broadway, and assume it's because you're a talentless hack with delusions of grandeur, and not due to the innumerable vagaries of pursuing any artistic profession. This causes the frustration to take on an even darker edge. Like the faces of the kids in my classroom, I feel aware of 'them' looking at me askance.

"They must think I'm nuts."

So-- are all creative types off-kilter? Is artistic output a coping mechanism, or is creativity itself the sort of madness that can become something wonderful when it finds its proper conduit?

I haven't found any answers yet. Maybe all humans are a bit crazy. It's the degree and the manifestation that makes all the difference.