Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Chippy Run at Downton Abbey

In this day and age it’s very complicated to define where you fit in, with regard to class definitions. Not so long ago, it was quite straightforward. There were the people who lived in Downton Abbey, the people who wanted to live in Downton Abbey and the people who scrubbed the toilets in Downton Abbey.

At the moment, the best that the Office for National Statistics can do is to condense everything down to eight subgroups, hiding behind phrases like ‘mosaic geodemographic’ to paper over the many cracks and subtle distinctions.

I have a simpler method.

If you can talk for at least half an hour about the intricacies of the British chippy, then your apple hasn’t fallen far from its working class tree. Regardless of your tertiary level education or your adoption of accents that you didn’t start out with, if you can speak with great skill and fondness, without hint of condescension or shame, about the protocols and habits surrounding your chippy experiences, then you aren’t middle class. It doesn’t matter how many cheese names you remember or if you buy your wine from the ‘more than five quid’ shelf at the supermarket, if you’re choosy about the curry sauce or gravy at specific chip establishments, there’s hope for you yet.

During a casual conversation last week, it transpired that I was a chippy connoisseur. The horrible phenomenon of ‘chippy shut-out’ was mentioned and expanded upon. This is when, after a hard days work, mutual consensus is reached in a household, that ‘chippy tea’ is on the cards. After the initial euphoria (in our household, the kids dancing around to the chorus of the Abba song ‘Chiquitita’ with that word replaced by ‘chippy tea time’) the elaborate and tantalising process of order taking takes place.The forager is despatched to fetch the meal, only to find that fate has stepped in. A hastily written sign on the inside of the door tells the world that the fryer is bust and nothing is cooking.

This is chippy shut-out and it generates a horrible anticlimax.

With hungry mouths at home, the poorer alternative round the corner is selected. The curry’s gash and the chips are sweaty. The service is rubbish and the pies are dry, but anything’s better than a healthy alternative or returning home empty handed.

You’re a chippy connoisseur if any of these apply to you.

  • You have a strong opinion on whether pies should be packed separately to chips.
  • You feel that the doner meat ‘Elephant’s foot’ has no place in a chip shop.
  • You can’t resist putting your bare hand on the metal surface that says, ‘Hot Surface – Don’t Touch.’
  • You watch closely to ensure the correct amounts of salt and vinegar are dispensed.
  • You can’t cope with being told, ‘Five minutes for fish.’
  • There was a time that you had no idea that scallops were molluscs.

For a while, the ubiquity of the high street omni-takeaway seemed to be a harbinger of doom for the common or garden chippy, but my generation seems to retain enough affection for the simple menu on offer, to ensure their continued survival. Their halcyon days may be over though. During the summer holidays in the 1970s, the lunchtime queue at Kam Sengs on Platt Lane was similar to the one outside the Dixon’s in Moscow in 1986 when they announced they had four Walkmans to sell.

Those were simpler times, when you could be accused of having delusions of grandeur because you opted for a 2p plastic fork instead of the free wooden one which gave you tongue splinters whilst you ate. Those were the days of badly written signs offering rubbish bargains like the ‘CHIP BARM SPESH’ – a chip barm that came with a few more chips for an extra 15p. Those were the days of eagle eyed grannies nipping in with a quick sob story and swiping the last fish, despite being further back in the queue. Those were the days of marvelling at the bi-lingual skills of Kam Seng’s daughter who could take a building site order and give her dad a Mandarin mouthful in the same breath.

Maybe that’s what we’ll see in Downton Abbey as the post war decade arrives in Yorkshire.

Carson (Butler) – “I’m sorry sir, but Mrs Patmore the cook has come down with exhaustion.

Earl Grantham – “Then fuck it, Carson, we shall have chippy tea.”

Carson – “Sir!”

Earl Grantham – “Here is a ten spot. The Countess will have a chip barm, Lady Mary and Lady Edith will share chips, curry and rice. For Lady Sybil, peas, pudding, chips and gravy.”

Lady Sybil – “Pudding separate, Carson, pudding separate!!”

Carson – “Yes m’lady. Will that be all, Sir?”

Earl Grantham – “Yes, that should do, but see if they’ve got any scraps and get a couple of cans of Vimto if there’s any change.”

1 comment:

  1. Some chippys had fish shaped fillets. Some resembled battered coffin lids.