I often think of Oscar Wilde at Oxford, finding it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue and white china. If he found it difficult, with his miraculous quips and spry, flamboyant abandon, what hope is there for the rest of us? And what kind of mean-spirited, ruthless taskmasters were his plates and teacups anyway?
Are beautiful things actually unflattering? Do they merely serve to illuminate our flaws? I hope with all my heart this isn’t true. I like to think they somehow raise us, as playing tennis with a better partner can improve our game.
I have china on the brain. I have china on the wall on the brain. In the insomniac small hours I keep imagining covering the largest wall in my house with plates – or perhaps every wall. There is an immaculate 19th-century hand-painted flowery dinner service running to several hundred pieces in a shop in Kensington Church Street, and I visit it occasionally and imagine it as a backdrop to my life. It used to belong to the Gladstone family, they say, but they would, wouldn’t they?
It is only the enormous cost and the fact that my littlest daughter would use it as a coconut shy that stops me from going through with the purchase (that, and the latent fear that the whole thing might look a little too decorator-y).
Yet it wasn’t living up to something I have had trouble with this week; it was living it down. I was betrayed not by a person – I don’t think that has ever happened to me – but by my cutlery. In short, my own knives were out for me.
It was at dinner. A guest, politeness himself in the ordinary run of things, whose standards he would be the first to admit aren’t sky high, said to me, quietly, “I am sorry, I don’t think I can eat with this,” and handed me back his knife. It was a pitiful specimen, its bone handle cracked and split, the blade itself turning on some kind of darkened metal pin, threatening to come away in the hand, or even bite the hand that was feeding with it.
Disgrace! And at my own table! What good is a handsome repast if it can’t comfortably be eaten? What use fine wines, shelled and undressed broad beans, racks of lamb as pink as roses, 19th-century linen, hydrangeas just five minutes past their best, as is the current fashion in floristry, if the flatware is not just unhygienic but dangerous?
The reason I have no decent cutlery is that none exists that I like.
The cutlery of my dreams somehow has a flavour of the Bertolt Brecht poem that begins: “And I always thought: the very simplest words / Must be enough / When I say what things are like / Everyone’s hearts must be torn to shreds.” Where do they sell that?
For the next few days, post-knife-crime, I was a woman obsessed. I went to a breakfast meeting of a charity I support at the House of Lords and, despite the expert speakers, it was the Arthur Price silver-plated bead design spoon that held my eye. Not bad! I showed a picture to other members of the household. “We fear it makes a statement we do not wholly wish to make,” was the consensus. To be accused of social climbing in my own kitchen!
I took a sister to a birthday lunch at the Ritz, and dandled the cutlery in my hands affectionately. It was heavy, it was regal. I ordered samples from four different companies, but back they went.
I scoured websites and junk shops. The last cutlery I bought was purchased 13 years ago in an indoor antiques market in the small town of Wallingford, while visiting someone in the hospital there. It’s a place I’ve not been to before or since. Should I go back? I think it was in Oxfordshire somewhere.
I went to Harrods and viewed all the ranges, which took hours. The only thing I fell in love with there was an empty baby blue leather canteen in which to put cutlery. It was one of the best things I have ever seen, and big enough for a large baby to sleep in, but you cannot eat your dinner with what is essentially a suitcase, can you?
How can it be that there is not a single spoon in this world that tickles my fancy? Am I searching for something in cutlery that cutlery can never ever provide? I do go in for such nonsense.
“What kind of things do I like again?” I asked myself. “Oh, me, I like the lavish and informal,” I answered. “The luxurious and the comforting, the heart-breakingly simple, chorus girls, the alluring and dismissive – oh no, actually, that’s part of the definition of a femme fatale I once read in a magazine as a schoolgirl ...”
There is only one thing for it: finger food.
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